Barf Canyon: in Search of the Bighorn
October 13-15, 2001
random trip report
A couple of months ago I was interviewed for an educational video series. They sent a camera crew over from S.F., and I chatted with the videographer, Frank Green. Frank's main passion is making eco/political documentaries: he did one about the Pacific Lumber redwood travesty, and another about a misguided dam project in Thailand. Both of these involved personal risk: his car was smashed by lumber-company goons, and he was shot at in Thailand.
About ten years ago Frank began working on a documentary about the Sierra Bighorn Sheep, an animal of magical beauty and athleticism that lives in the highest parts of the Sierra Nevada. They've been pushed to the brink of extinction (about 100 individuals exist) by disease from domestic sheep and by predation from the recently-protected Mountain Lion.
Getting video footage of bighorn sheep, says Frank, is extremely difficult; they live in high, desolate areas and retreat to even more remote places when they sense danger.
Frank said he wanted to finish the project, and was planning one final trip, hoping to get footage of the male head-butting that occurs during rutting season in October/November. I immediately volunteered to assist in any way, and he took me up on it: he needed porters to carry food and water to Barf Canyon, a high, remote valley frequented by Bighorn. Frank was planning to spend a month there, staying still and silent and hoping that the Bighorn would approach within telephoto range.
I told Mark Liebmann about this; he signed on immediately.
Mark and I are on the road at 10 AM. Smooth sailing over Tioga Pass. We pass Tom's Place around 4 PM and, with two hours to kill, drive onwards to Bishop. We stop at Schat's Bakery, which is impressive. Mark buys something best described as a ring of sticky pecan buns.
We visit the Mountain Light photo gallery in Bishop, run by Galen and Barbara Rowell, the world-famous nature photographers. They have another gallery in Emeryville, and Mark (who has a high-end digital photo printing business) has done work for them. Today, unfortunately, they have just left for a sunset shoot in the White Mountains.
We drive back to Tom's Place, a bar/motel/restaurant whose clientele is local and fishing-oriented. Some suspiciously intelligent-looking people arrive in a Prius, a Vanagon, and other Berkeley-type vehicles. Introductions are made. Beside Mark, Frank and me, the group consists of:
We drive to the nearby Rock Creek campground. We have a logistics meeting around Frank's van. Frank has 100 lbs of dry food, numerous empty water jugs, and seven 5-gallon plastic cans with screw-on lids from catalog that specializes in accessories for such cans. Mike calculates that we need to carry 600 lbs of water into Barf Canyon.
Frank's original plan was to reach Barf Canyon in one day, and camp there. Instead, we decide to drop our tents at Tamarack Lake, make a water run, and return to camp.
Frank plans to bring two baseball bats which, when hit together, sound like male Bighorns butting heads; he hopes that this will attract males. People have brought 4 candidate bats, and we spend some time testing them.
We get up at 7 AM, drive several miles to Rock Creek Lake, and divide up the food. I carry about 12 lbs.
The trail rises moderately steeply from Rock Creek lake (9,698'), then levels off and goes past some marshy alpine meadows. At our first hourly break, Mark breaks out and passes around the pecan-roll thing, which everyone greatly enjoys.
The trail turns right and goes up into a valley
typical of the eastern Sierra: steep,
with huge rock walls on all sides.
The lake is bisected by a huge rock wall about 200' high.
To get to Barf Canyon we must climb the left headwall.
From below this looks impossibly steep.
We go the lake and fill water containers. I add 3 gallons of water to my load - 36 lbs, which feels like a lot. We start up the left headwall. The rocks are mostly stable. Mike leads, setting up cairns frequently to mark our descent. We reach a steep section with loose rocks; Mike spaces us to minimize rockfall danger.
Some moves require complete attention and have some exposure.
We reach the top OK, leading to a narrow plateau at 12,100'.
There are some Bighorn droppings.
The plateau steepens.
At its top is a saddle (12,480') looking down into Barf Canyon.
The vista is sudden and spectacular.
Barf Canyon is a south-facing canyon
whose bare rock walls are immense and precipitous.
The Bighorn sheep cavort on these slopes.
Across the canyon is Mt. Tom (13,652'), a pyramid of maroon rock.
We scan the canyon, looking for Bighorn. We can't see any. There may be some - their color blends in with the rock. Per Frank's instructions, we speak in whispers, so as to not scare off any sheep.
We're running out of daylight and energy - going into the canyon is out of the question. We leave our loads at the saddle and descend the plateau and headwall, which is fairly easy with no loads. Andrew and Dennis descend via a long scree gully.
A spectacular sunset is in progress as we reach camp. I've tried to pack light, and dinner for Mark and me consists of a meager packet of freeze-dried 'beef stroganoff'. We take our cups and visit the other tents, begging for food. Liz shares her curried lentils.
Dennis returns from the lake with three golden trout, which he cooks and shares.
It's been an extremely long and tiring day. Mike polls us, and there's a clear consensus: we can make one descent into Barf Canyon tomorrow, but not two. This means that some water will have to be left at the saddle.
By 8 PM it's pitch black and there's nothing to do but turn in. I set a record for most time spent noisily thrashing in a 1-man tent - about 30 minutes. Mark snores restfully; I fashion toilet-paper earplugs. I'm comfortable but can't sleep. At 10 PM I take a half Ambien - that's all I have - and sleep for an hour. The temperature is in the upper 20s.
I awake from half-sleep at 7 AM. Mark boils water and we split 5 packets of instant oatmeal. There's no coffee - mea culpa - so we beg some instant from Mike.
We all head to the lake, fill more bottles, and load our packs with water. This time I take 5.25 gallons (42 lbs). At 9 AM Mike, Mark, Buff, Andrew and I start up the headwall. We rest briefly at the top of the cliff, walk to the saddle, and augment our loads with some of the items cached there. I'm feeling maxed out, and just add two baseball bats. Others, like Buff, strap on 5-gallon plastic food buckets to their already heavy packs.
We head down the steep slope into Barf Canyon. The top part is large unstable rocks. I step on a large rock that tilts under me. I fall onto my right wrist, which bends back sharply. For a moment I fear a fracture but it's only a slight sprain and some lost skin. I retrieve my poles, which have skittered down the slope.
The slope changes to sections of sandy dirt and medium rocks.
The dirt is OK,
but the rocks are hell: when you stop on them they might hold,
or they might slide 6 feet.
The slope has numerous 'sheep beds', where bighorn have leveled off some dirt and slept. These are all marked with droppings, and Mark reports seeing still-wet urine.
After we've descended about 1000', Mark points to a dry lakebed (11,148') which has become visible; this is our destination, not the flat part I've been heading for, which is 500' lower. Whew! That would have been a disaster.
We reach the lakebed and, with immense relief, drop our packs.
Everyone reports a lighter-than-air feeling.
We drop stuff at a large rock in the middle of the lakebed.
Andrew points out that, should it rain,
this will in fact become a lake,
so we relocate things to the south shore of the lake.
The lakebed is covered with hoofprints, and from the number of scrape-marks it seems likely that many ram head-butting contests have taken place. It's like the stage of a colossal stone arena. Hopefully Frank can set up his camera and let the action come to him.
Mike arrives and rousts us from our torpor,
pointing out that daylight may become an issue - it's nearly 1 PM.
He suggests a route for the ascent:
just to the right of the middle of three bands of trees,
where there is a strip of solid rocks.
Word arrives via radio that Frank, Liz and Matt ran out of time on their descent and have cached their loads halfway. Matt, I learn later, was carrying two five-gallon boxes of water - over 80 pounds. How he got up the headwall I have no idea.
Mark L., young Mark and I don our packs and head for the tree band. Near the trees, the rocks are solid but too large to climb easily; to the right is a gully filled with slippery dirt. I try to stay in the boundary between these two. It's easier than the descent - the absence of load helps - but still requires total concentration to avoid slipping. The altitude is a factor. The rocks become bigger and more difficult. Big moves, high steps, are needed; each one leaves me gasping for air. Above us, the slope looks vast, and my progress infinitesimal. I struggle with feelings of doom and disaster. I barely have the strength to make it up this slope, much less the miles of trail after that. But I try to keep moving, and not let 5-second rests become 60 seconds.
I pass the cache left by Frank, Liz and Matt. A bit more, and I've reached the level of the saddle. I traverse across the gully, and across a few hundred more yards to the saddle. Mike and Dennis are there. Young Mark arrives, then Mark L.; we are all totally drained by the effort of the ascent. But the clock is ticking, so we get up and amble down the mercifully easy plateau, then down the headwall which is tricky but doesn't require strength.
We pause at the lake to pump water for the trip back. We break camp (always tiring, especially stuffing sacks) and head down the trail at 4:10. Everyone hikes extra fast, and we cover the 5 miles in about 2 hours. I recite Robert Service in my mind; in my state, the maudlin poems seem powerful and poignant. Talking politics with Buff makes the last couple of miles go by quickly.
Everyone gets back to the cars safely. We stand around, pass around some beers, revel in our group accomplishment, say last goodbyes, and agree to exchange emails.
Mark and I drive out from Rock Creek lake back to 395: Dusk deepens. A few stands of yellow aspen glow as if internally lit. The White mountains loom like a ghostly cloud in the east.
Mark has an acute sense of smell. He has to crack a car window because of the alcohol from the deodorant I have slathered on; a rankness wafts from my hiking socks in the back seat.
We had planned to camp at Mono Lake and climb another mountain, but instead decide to drive back to the Bay Area. We stop for dinner at the Lee Vining Mobil station, and it's shockingly good: buffalo meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and spaghetti squash. A drunk in the corner tells a fishing story (54 trout in an hour) over and over. On TV a tragedy unfolds: Yankees in five.
The drive back through Tuolomne Meadows and the Central Valley is blissful. I teach Mark the game of Boticelli, but mostly we just chat; mercifully, Mark is too tired to make any bad puns.
Miraculously, none! No knee problems. Slightly stiff back and sore wrist. Mark has sore calves and feet.
I was extremely impressed by everyone in the group. Some of us had little hiking experience, yet we managed to put in 12-hours days, carrying a lot of weight, at high altitude. We didn't move all of the planned supplies down into Barf Canyon, but we got them pretty close; hopefully things will go smoothly for Frank on his shoot. He's going to spend a week filming mountain lions, then will hike into Barf Canyon and remain there for about a month. I can hardly wait to see the video results!