Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 7

Mount Williamson - Bairs Creek Cirque

Sage Camp

At six forty-eight p.m. my pack hits the ground. I've made it to the sage-choked flats at the bottom of the Bairs Creek Cirque. After climbing over 4000 total vertical feet, I've reached camp.

I'm guessing—more like hoping—my current elevation is around 9500', meaning I'm only 5000 vertical feet below the summit. You know...thinking about numbers like that isn't going to do me one bit of good. While climbing solo generally agrees with me, camping solo is another matter. The loneliness of this place instantly presses against me.

Independence & Owens Valley Andy at Bivy The Lights of Independence

It's cold. A stiff breeze is blowing. I hold off putting on additional layers so my clothes can dry. To stay warm, I stagger about on wasted legs, surveying the area for a good place to camp.

The tiny town of Independence is clearly visible a vertical mile or so below in Owens Valley.

I'm too tired to do much walking, so I pick a small hollow near a boulder, flatten the ground a bit, and call it home. Since I'm out of water and dehydrated, the first priority is melting snow. Luckily, there's a nice patch of snow right near camp. I set up the stove and soon have a pot of water going.

It will be dark soon.

I brew a quick salty cup o' chicken soup and keep melting snow. For a full hour I just melt snow, drink water, melt more snow. I want to start the night with both my liter bottles and my belly full of water.

Dinner is a Mountain House Pro Pack meal, which I've found to be the tastiest, saltiest, and most nutritious of the freeze-dried fare. After I've eaten I feel better, and it's time to hit the sack—literally.

To save weight, I'm traveling very light. I don't have a change of clothes, and what I've got is barely enough to keep me warm while I'm moving.

I've left behind my shovel and probe, and I'm not carrying a tent. Instead of my usual winter sleeping bag and tent, I've got a 40° Marmot Atom (weight: one pound even) plus a bivy sack. That may sound Spartan, but I don't intend to do much sleeping tonight. My ambitious plan is to rise at 2 a.m. and start skinning up the cirque.

Wrapped up in my bivy and sleeping bags, I'm surprisingly warm and comfortable. It's been a while since I've slept beneath the stars. Doing so now awakens fond memories of camping in Arizona's canyons with family and friends. With a bright, cheery moon above and the constant tang of sage wafting about, I reflect on how lucky I am to have had such fine experiences in wilderness.

And so, now there is little to do but wait, try to grab as much sleep as possible in the thin mountain air. The breeze remains cold and gusty. I cinch my sleeping bag a little tighter, watching the stars for meteors. The lights of Independence glow in the distance, a comforting human presence for the weary solo traveler. I close my eyes.

Time passes slowly in the mountains, especially at night. I shift fitfully. The moon creeps across the sky. Occasionally, I check my clock, wondering if it's time to get up and resume the climb. I startle awake again, this time to darkness. I'd been hoping the moon would stay high enough to enable me to see during my night climb, but now the moon has gone behind the walls of the cirque.

In contrast to my earlier optimism, my mood has darkened as well. My body isn't doing much better. My back hurts. One of my feet is going numb. And half my face is tingling. My heart rate seems too high. I consider abandoning the climb, sleeping till dawn, and then getting the hell out of here. Do I really want to climb any higher on this merciless mountain?

I remind myself that I knew this was going to be hard. I knew I would have to battle dark moments. I knew I would be tested, pushed to my limits. And somehow, against every impulse commanding otherwise, when 2 a.m. rolls around I unzip my sleeping bag and crawl out into the night.

next: Skinning in the Dark

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.