Adrift: Savoring and Suffering in the High Sierras

Photos by Ian Buckley

The Hike In  

Starting the hike in at 10 pm may not have been my first mistake. At least that was what I was thinking by midnight. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there, I didn’t even know if we were on the right trail. Sage and mules ear flashed in and out of my headlamp’s bright beam. Imagining what lurked beyond helped to keep me moving; I was not slow enough to quit, but not fast enough to catch up. I lagged painfully in the back of the pack, wondering if I even belonged on this trip. Twelve miles over Mule Pass didn’t sound so bad in Culley’s kitchen. But now it was hard to picture. We packed for seven days. I’m not sure what my Jefe Grande weighed, but it was way too much. I flagged, stopped, and fell way behind. At some point Ian slowed down to let me catch up, and he provided the last push of encouragement I needed to make it to camp.

The plan was to run Paiute Creek, a remote tributary of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite via an Eastern Sierra approach. We would ascend Mule Pass to 11,000 feet and paddle down Paiute into Yosemite National Park. Our group consisted of Cully Thomas, Macy Burnham, Chris Tully, Nathan Hunkapiller, Cody Howard and myself. We brought a ground support team (Amanda Marusich-Burnham and Ian Buckley) as well. They would traverse the drainage to assist in negotiating the landscape. Cully hatched the mission over a few years of staring at gazetteers on truck hoods and in his kitchen after other Sierra paddling trips.

I did not sleep much the first night. I don’t know that anyone else did either.  I was not sure I was cut out to be there, mid-thirties and new parenthood looming. It seemed like a stretch, self-doubt bubbled through each choice. All that plus the anticipation and planning piled onto my mind like a psychedelic sandbag, turning sleep into a fractured kaleidoscope of worry and exhaustion.

Regardless I woke up feeling fantastic. The previous nights trepidation had worn off, and the optimism of a pre-mission morning had taken over. The majesty of the terrain above us was breathtaking. We started the morning on the shore of a series of picturesque alpine lakes, like emerald stones inlaid in granite. We traversed the lakes, ascended above them, then quickly ran into snow. Patches at first, then as it got heavier, we realized we had a lot of elevation yet to gain. The winter of 2010-11 had been a big one, and even in June snow remained in the high country.

Somewhere around 10,000 feet it became clear we were going to have to do something we dreaded. What appeared to be the final chute leading to our summit at the shoulder of the Sawtooths, was 800 feet of steep snow. It required kicking steps with 100 pound sleds on our backs. A few of us brought bamboo sticks for trekking poles but some of us had opted out, myself included. I untied my paddle to use as a walking stick and we set off.

Our fear was that a slip would result in an 800 foot high speed slide for life into the sub-alpine boulder field below the pass. The nine foot plastic toboggans strapped to our backs were the issue. Loaded with seven days of gear, they felt like brightly colored rockets pointed for the bottom. After negotiating an inevitable false summit or two, we gained the pass. Looking into the headwaters of Paiute, a 3000 foot descent would be necessary to reach the river in the couple hours before night fall.

The descent to the creek was on a 30 degree slope, lightly treed, of light talus and dirt. And in the beginning, the going was easy. Digging heels in, it was easy to ski and walk down the hill. But after a few hundred vertical feet, the quad burning began. By the time we were near the river my IT bands on were on fire, and my posture had deteriorated to a horrible Quasimodo like state. After we had spent so many hours ascending the pass, a fever set in to descend as quickly as possible and get to camp. We located a nice camp on the creek about an hour before dark. The mood was celebratory, and everyone was excited to get in the boats the next day.

The last couple of years these trips had taken on a different tone. I found it  harder to disconnect from life and focus on paddling. I could focus on the water, but the planning and traveling, the coordination and family logistics added a new dimension. This was new-I never felt any guilt or remorse before, happily blowing off work and social obligations for extended paddling trips. But leaving the family was becoming more bittersweet. A trip’s end was more readily anticipated. Cully and I had sons roughly the same age. At the time, we were the only ones in the group who did, and our conversations often turned to them. We fielded the occasional question from our friends, but mostly we talked together about the struggles and questions around having a family and a paddling life. The change in feeling came into focus upon waking up in the western shadow of the high ridge, perched at the headwaters of our objective.

Anticipation was high on day three. We got a late start cooking breakfast and organizing gear. The first order of the day was to negotiate a landslide of epic scale where the entire north rim of the drainage had crumbled. Car and house sized boulders choked out the valley and rushed up the other side for over half a mile. The scale of the thing was hard to take in. We worked our way around the south side of the Slide and cut back to the river where it subsided. My lower back had been rubbed raw by the boat the day before. I was using a commercial pack system that put the bottom of my boat against my back. It was fairly comfortable for shorter hikes, but for anything over five miles most systems become problematic. Putting the yoke back on was excruciating, aggravating the open sores on my hip bones rubbed raw from the preceding days.

After a couple hours of negotiating the thick trees on the margins of the Slide, we hit green meadows and the small stream that would be our passage west.

The River

Paiute creek drains the west slope of the Sawtooth Mountains, a prominent ridge seen from the town of Bridgeport in the eastern Sierra. The crown jewel of the Sawthooths is the Matterhorn, a peak of some note in the climbing world.

Paiute creek begins in the slide meadow as a tiny creek, full of golden trout. It meanders through woods and meadows, occasionally rushing through a small gorge here and there, but all that ends abruptly as it enters the granite.

Yosemite is a special place. The granite walls and slabs are world renowned for holding so much of the history, and the future, of technical climbing lore. The geological wonder that attracts climbers and tourists the world over also facilitates the formation of fine river drainages. The southern Sierra rivers tend towards long approaches to multi-day runs, requiring paddlers to carry food and shelter on their backs and in their boats. Expsoure is high on these runs, but the rewards are equally appealing. Some of my fondest memories involve Huck Finn early summer multi-days in the picturesque backcountry with just a few friends, no one else around, nights spent eating freshly caught trout on moonscape granite slabs, the sky lit near daytime brightness by moon and stars.

The gradient picked up, and the riverbed went slabby. The first big drop was a no go, wild, steep, and shallow. It was all impact and no glide. The steep portage felt worse than it should have, with a body battered from two days of tough hiking. My knees were shot. I took it slow, and soon enough we were into steeper whitewater. We ran a few short sections of creek that were decent in quality, but quickly the river gorged up. The gradient tipped past reasonable, and the stream became choked with large boulders and no eddies. Lines existed but there was no hope for safety or control. We portaged a long section and found ourselves at a crossroads. A short pool facilitated a crossing to scout a long deep gorge. A few of us hiked high on river right, while Macy and Cody stayed at river level on the left. I could see Benson Lake, our objective for the night, a mile and hundreds of vertical feet below us.  Evening was coming on. From my vantage travel at river level appeared impossible, a tight “butt-crack” type gorge with many unrunnable drops. The boys at river level had found a portage option, and were trying to communicate that to us. We were concerned they couldn’t see the whole picture, and a hasty drop into the gorge would require running some drops we couldn’t see and weren’t comfortable with. Meanwhile they wondered what was taking us so long. A small standoff ensued, my conservatism deteriorating to doubt. We descended back to river level to talk it out and after trusting their judgement we followed them into the gorge. Our trepidation was unfounded. A narrow ramp against the left wall lead us to a clear portage path on river left.


The river was class 2 for a mile or so, meandering through the bottom of a stunning valley. It eventually emptied into Benson Lake, a midsize hanging loch in Yosemite’s backcountry. We were concerned with keeping a low profile at the lake, and paddled to the far end to find a nice nook where our fire would be hidden.

We found a camp with amazing little lichen encrusted ledges, perfectly flat sand filled pockets. We sparked a fire and ate dinner. The next morning I was up early. I brought a spinning rod and I walked downstream to the inlet of a trickling creek and began casting. I experienced some of the most sensational trout fishing of my life. They were uneducated and aggressive, swimming at high speeds from many feet away to thrash small lures. I began by releasing a few, until Nathan joined me. He had his rod as well, and quickly we had enough fish for a nice breakfast. As people started to rise we returned with the catch. We probably lingered in camp too long, but the food was good and the setting too beautiful to rush.

We paddled a few hundred yards down to the outlet from the lake and the creeks character was markedly different. The volume was higher, the terrain more open, granite slab land with pockets of manzanita, chinquapin, cedar and pines filled the cracks in the huge slabs. The creek flowed out of the lake and into a short series of great rapids, ledges and ramps in the easy class V realm. Things were looking up.

We scouted an amazing low angle slide with a big pine tree growing out of the middle of it, and after running through, we approached one of the longest and largest chaotic slides I’ve ever seen. It was so big, it was difficult to get a read, difficult to predict where a particular route might take you, difficult to judge where you might end up. Macy ended up running a nice line through the rapid, and the rest of us opted for the scenic route.

 

 

 

 

 

As we approached another horizon line the river became more channelized and gorged up. The first of the gorges would have been exceptional, but there was more water than we wanted. The holes were sticky, the eddies surging. Many of the gorges were inescapable. We walked a couple, and ran one amazing series of slides. We worked our way downstream; lots of scouting, portaging, a bit of shit running into the late afternoon. At a major trail crossing we came upon a camp of backpackers. We saw the smoke from their fire first, heard their voices. We decided to portage around them, trying to hide. As we worked our way away from the bank Cody took the lead. His marine experience in Iraq took control, and we all felt like the stakes were a bit higher than they really were. But it was fun to pretend, and we made it around them and past the crossing to another fine camp, perched on the edge of the next big loss of elevation.

Talk in camp was heavy. We were in the midst of it, deep in Yosemite, negotiating marginally runnable whitewater, portaging a lot, and facing the steepest section of the creek the next day. Considering the water level it did not seem likely that much of what we would find downstream would be runnable. Talk turned to home. Cody expressed his disbelief that Culley and I would do this as some kind of vacation. I was baffled by it as well. My body was worn down. I had come to this trip with no training, straight off the couch into one of the biggest trans-Sierra approaches in the state. The river wasn’t the concern, it was all the hiking with a heavy boat. The trail was one thing. Bushwhacking in the western sierra hell fuck was wearing me thin. Fatherhood hadn’t done anything productive for my fitness level.

Macy and Cody where in their element, seemingly inexhaustible and fired up in their own ways. Macy was always positive, quick to do something to lighten the mood and get everyone going. Cody was more stoic, the marine in him coming out. He was very fit, often way out in front on the hikes, quick to give someone shit for falling so far behind or taking breaks. He provided strong motivation in his own fashion.

Nathan discussed his desire to hike out to Hetch Hetchy. The trail crossing where we were camped led back 20 miles to the lake where we had multiple vehicles. None of us liked the idea of him doing it alone. Ian agreed to go with him. I couldn’t imagine 20 miles of hiking being better than moving downstream. But I also was not looking forward to the inevitable portaging we faced the next day. I didn’t know the half of it.

In the morning the hikers departed, leaving only Amanda as ground support. As it turned out, we didn’t paddle a bit that day. Right out of camp we started working our way on river left around a huge cascading waterfall, walking down until a steep cliff blocked safe passage. We set up an anchor off of a small pine at the cliffs edge. Cody rappelled down into the trees below, and we lowered boats to him. When all gear was down, we rapped one by one down the ledge. The hiking that ensued after will forever be burned in my muscle memory.

After rapping into the tributary drainage, we had to climb back out through 400 vertical of awful manzanita. Everyone reverted to throwing out lines from Vietnam movies of our childhood, we were reduced to grunts humping out the days miles.

The rest of the day continued like that, up and down through some of the roughest country out there. One hundred pound packs, mosquitos, heat, and the thick bush beat us down. By the time the sun began to flag, I had had it. I broke down 400 yards from camp. I still believe it was the hardest physical day of my life.

Camp was set next to a set of unbelievable slides, beautiful slabs tilting towards the Yosemite valley. We were getting close, the anticipation of what we would find weighed heavy. When we hit the Tuolumne, we would have a decision to make. If the river wasn’t too high, we would continue down to Hetch Hetchy reservoir, if it was we would leave the boats and hike out the White Wolf trail, many miles up to rally point B. Neither of these plans was particularly exciting to me. But I wasn’t sure I could handle the hike. Conversely, the river was no joke. The bottom section of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne had a reputation as a stout run, and we’d been grinding relentlessly for the last four days.

In the morning, we packed camp and some of the group hiked up and ran the camp slides. Afterwards our path crossed a major trail, and we used it to get us down to the floor of the valley, and to the river. Once at the bridge, we had a decision to make. The river looked high. There were a lot of people on the trail. We were stuck for a while deliberating about what to do. After some time, we elected to run the river. We found a quiet spot and suited up.

The river was high, and after our days in the mountains hiking and running short sections of small creek, it felt like the ocean. Cody took the lead, and we bombed into big Sierra rapids. After a half hour or so I settled into the rhythm and size of the drops. The Grand Canyon is a Sierra gem of the highest order. Big holes and waves, fun, big boat scout moves and a few portages around outlandish looking drops. It’s a fantastic section that is not seen by many paddlers.

We dropped into the foothill zone, punctuated by oaks and poison oak, high heat and dry grass. The rapids picked up in intensity, until we reached the zenith of the lower reach, a huge ledge drop, something that needs a name like Land of the Giants, something out of your dreams. It has a line, but a hero line to be sure. It is a line that exists only in your head, a rapid that makes me recall Bodie from the movie Point Break paddling out into the biggest swell of the century and never returning.

We worked our way downstream until we hit the lake. Hetch Hetchy sits in a stunning gorge surrounded by high walls. The valley was flooded in the early 20th century to supply drinking water for San Francisco, and boating of any kind is strictly prohibited. Our plan was to wait out the remainder of the day at the inlet, and paddle the two miles of lake at night to avoid detection. We would camp at the far end campground, and Ian would drive in in the morning to pick us up. Then, we would simply drive out. Sounded simple in Cully’s kitchen. Sounded like we were getting tickets at lake level. We found a great spot, fished, laid in the shade, swam, and made a half-hearted attempt to hide from a tour boat that came by late in the afternoon. As evening came on we cooked the last of our meals and packed up.

The Paddle Out

The paddle out was nerve wracking. I tried to stay quiet. We paddled in single file, latched to the tail of the one in front, afraid of falling behind. There was no moon to speak of, and it was a deep pitch black. The only sound the water slipping past boat hulls. After an hour or more, we spotted the lights illuminating the walkway on the dam. We stayed to the north, and made land on river right, away from the campground and dam station. We made our way through a tunnel in the wall, across the well lit walkway, and up the long hill to the campground. We stashed the boats between the back of a pit toilet house and some brush, and racked out. I slept well, like a guilty man who knows he’s been caught, tired from a very long day, and we hoped, the final leg of our trip.

In the morning I could not see how we were getting out of there. People milled about everywhere. Rangers drove around, hikers departed. We brewed coffee and acted like everything was normal, like there weren’t a bunch of bright plastic boats sitting back behind the shitter.

Ian showed up in Macy’s truck around noon. We stacked boats in the back and piled in. We had to clear the gate at the head of the campground and talk with the ranger stationed there. As we pulled up I had that feeling like I had stolen something, and wished to just get it over with. As we pulled up, a female ranger eyed us with a stern gaze. She leaned out the window, gave us a nod, and said, “Have a nice day.” and looked away, back to her paperwork. I was in shock as we drove away, I couldn’t believe we had made it.

I recall thinking on the long drive out of the park and back over to the east side of the park, that the run would probably be a first and last for a long time, the work to run ratio was bad enough that it wouldn’t see another descent for a very long time. The Heart of Darkness vibe and the regulation in the park was enough to keep groups out. But a crew went in the next week, hiked up from the bottom via the White Wolf Trail in the park, and no doubt paddled more than our group did. However they had a run in with a ranger at the dam and were ticketed.

The next generation will look at photos of Paiute and wonder. As a child I dreamt of boldly forging into the mountains of California to pioneer the next classic, and basks in the glory that would inevitably follow. The video would inspire awe and stories passed around and embellished for the next generation. The reality was much more humbling and personally meaningful. In the face of all the unknowns, route finding, group dynamics, and forced improvisation, a different kind of glory was achieved. Though the water level was too high to run most of the whitewater, we were there as comrades. Better yet the experience added to our own collection of stories. I don’t know what possessed us to go, but I’m sure glad we did. 

Returning to these memories of sought after hardship and adventure is all we are left with after a life punctuated by moments of clarity has mostly passed us by. We can not stop the inevitable grind of time, though we may try. We are left with these stories to share with our friends and hopefully be remembered by.