Pilgrimage to Conness
Aug 12-14 2020
random trip report
Another summer - my 64th (or technically 65th) - is nearly over, with little in the way of outdoor adventure. So I arranged to do a Sierra trip with my friends S and M. Normally I'd take Noah but he's had asthma and is out of shape.
Because of COVID, Yosemite is admitting only a limited number of people, and you have to reserve a month in advance. Actually they hold 20% of the quota for 2 days in advance, and M tries to do this exactly at 7:00:00, with no luck. I'm fairly certain their system is broken (like many governmental systems these days, but don't get me started).
But this isn't a huge deal, because the places we want to go - Mono Lake, the Dana plateau and Mt. Conness - are outside of Yosemite, and we can get there by going over Sonora Pass rather than through Yosemite on Hwy 120.
We head out at 10. Arriving in Sonora around lunchtime, we see a sign for the 1897 Railroad Historic Park, and have a bread-and-cheese lunch on their picnic table. It looks like a great train museum - S and I plan to return.
We continue up Hwy 108 to Sonora Pass, and stop there to do a short hike on the south side of the pass, a trail Noah and I discovered last summer. S is excited by the number of flowering alpine plants, and he identifies all of them using various books and apps.
S: "This is Alpine Gold or Hulsea algida. A plant only seen by alpinists since it occupies an elevational range of 9,500 to 14,500 ft. Very striking to see such a large showy plant in a sea of rock and when most alpine plants take a "cushion" growth form meaning they are growing close to the ground."
S: " Here is the other plant botanists get really excited about - it's called sky pilot or Polemonium eximium. It's in the phlox family. This individual in the photo is past its prime, but when at it's best is covered in large spheres of purple flowers. It occurs even higher beginning at 10,500 ft and extending to 14,000 ft."
During the hike I have a sort of epiphany. The gist of it: I love nature in general, and specifically the nature of the Sierra Nevada. When I look at a patch of ground, the arrangement of rocks and plants has a beauty and perfection that exceeds that of any Japanese rock garden, or indeed any human creation. I love whatever created this, whether it's a vengeful Judeo-Christian God or (more likely) a vast web of differential equations and evolutionary explorations. Everything that John Muir said about the Sierra, in his florid style, I see and raise.
But I find myself unexpectedly saddened. Why? Because in my life so far, I've been in nature - real nature, Sierra Nevada nature, the thing I love the most - only a tiny fraction of the time. A few days a year, tops. How can this be? Where have I gone wrong? What can I do differently?
I also think about my upcoming attempt to climb Mt. Conness. Clearly it's very significant to me, but what is the significance? I've been thinking about it in a self-focused way: as an athletic feat that will test and prove something about me. But that's all wrong. It's a pilgrimage. I'm visiting a shrine, to pay homage. The nature of my journey is irrelevant. I'm an ant. I walk, that's all. What matters is not my journay, but the object of worship, and my worship of it.
End of epiphany.
We continue to Lee Vining and check into the Lake View Lodge. We drive to the Panum Crater by Mono Lake, and watch the sunset from there. I narrowly avoid getting stuck driving through some deep sand on the dirt road.
Dinner: tortellini and broccoli.
I have a mostly-sleepless night, one of many recently :-(, so I'm dragging my ass. We drive up to Tioga Pass and get on the trail to Dana Glacier Canyon and the Dana Plateau.
I have my new Garmin GPS watch, and use it to monitor my heart rate. Surprisingly, it doesn't go much above 100 even when I'm going uphill. I guess all my recent cardio (mostly bike riding on hills) has paid off.
In the canyon there are lots of wild onions; we harvest bunch and use them in omelets the next day.
We cross the Dana Plateau to the top of the legendary Third Pillar of Dana rock-climbing route, which S and D did a couple of years ago. I timidly peer over the edge. It's vertical, and a long way down. It's hard imagine lead climbing it.
We descend. I go a bit off-trail to get a view of the Glacier Canyon and lakes, where I once did a memorable climb with Mike O'Brien.
We drive to the South Tufa at Mono Lake and do the loop there. The flies put on their usual show. We're surprised to read that 80% of CA's seagulls visit Mono Lake each year.
We visit the Mobil Station. It's still open; restaurant ordering is at an outside window. M buys a hiking hat with a chin strap.
We visit the historical exhibit at the park in Lee Vining.
I sleep reasonably well - Hallelujah! We get up early and are on the road before 8, and on the trail to Conness by 8:30.
It's a beautiful day, and I'm feeling about as good as I ever have. Recent nagging injuries - hip muscle strain, achilles soreness - are absent. We get to the first uphill part, and I start up. I find a groove where I'm flowing up the hill with little effort and low heart rate, enjoying filling my lungs with air. It's sort of a trance. I could do it all day. But after what seems like 5 minutes I'm at the top of slope. I wait for S and M, who take a route more to the left.
At this point we're at the base of the somewhat daunting cliffs. M is tired, and decides to wait there while S and I summit. I estimate 3 hours, but it turns out to be 4.
S and I go up the gully. A young woman zooms past us.
We cross the plateau and go up the grass/rock slope, finding a near-perfect route that keeps us mostly on the grass.
We stop briefly at House Rock, when proceed to the ridge about the glacier, skirting some snow.
We rest briefly, then go up the sandy cliff. Again, it seems easy. I'm not breathing hard. It just feels good.
We come up to the plateau and I enjoy the thrilling moment of first seeing the summit block. We clamber up to the summit as the speedy woman is descending. We run into a two other pairs of climbers.
There's a plastic water bottle on the ledge below the arete. I toy with the idea of climbing down to get it, but don't. I probably should have.
The descent is hard as always. I slip and fall a couple of times, and on one of them I somehow bang my right thumb, like a hammer blow. But it's not serious.
We rendezvous with M, who's had a good time resting and wandering around. We descend to the main trail. We examine the barn at the Carnegie research station, which is falling down and seems to be beyond repair. We meet a pair of climbers who are curiously evasive - kind of rude, actually - about where they're going.
At the end of the hike we soak our feet in Sawmill Creek.
On the drive back we stop for one last view of Mono Lake.
The drive home is mellow. We stop at a convenience store and experience culture shock on seeing out-of-shape middle Americans.
What to make of all this? There was the epiphany. Clearly I need to figure out a way to spend more time in the Sierra.
As far as the Conness hike: it felt easier than it ever has. The next day I have very slight achilles soreness, otherwise normal. So reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.
What's next? Hopefully climb some other Sierra peaks by 3rd-class routes with S.