Ansel Adams Wilderness Base Camp ◆ 6 Days
Well, it turns out that 2011 is the 25th year of backpacking the great California Wildernesses with my buddy George. What started out just the two of us, ended up being a party of 5 with 3 short-stay add-ons. It was to be memorable, including some firsts for the two of us.
Logistics was a challenge with multiple parties and variable arrival times at Agnew Meadows. This itinerary had us departing from the Eastern side of the Sierra via Mammoth Mountain and having our gear packed in to Banner Lake with the majority of the party hiking in about 6 miles. Pretty simple, but if you have followed any of our prior escapades, you know there is always a twist. Starting off with the good news. My cousin Rob from the U.K., who joined us on our 20th year trip, arranged to join us again and then the dominos started to fall. George's dad jumped into the fray, my photographer friend and mentor John was another welcomed addition and then George's climbing buddies chimed in as Banner Peak was the big target for the week. Amazingly we all arrived to greet each other on Saturday morning. Some slept in their cars, others arrived just before dawn and the sensible ones found a campsite close to the stables. Now, normally I handle all the food and gear distribution, however with this large group it was decided that everyone bring their own lunch/snack stuff and I would take care of breakfast and dinner. Remember this, as it was a critical mistake on my part! Our thanks to Reds Meadows Pack Station for all their help, especially in getting through the red tape for permits. If you decide to explore in that part of the Sierra, I highly recommend their services.
Garnet Lake & Banner Peak
Garnet Lake was originally named 'Badger Lake'. How the name 'badger' became associated with this iconic destination is unknown. In any case, this is a true 'jewel' of a lake with a view that explodes in all directions as you crest the rise at the outflow of the lake by the route we came. Banner Peak looms as if guarding the lake, with Mount Ritter side-by-side ready to defend against any unwanted invaders. The PCT is home to a treasure trove of mind altering scenery, but this stretch is in the top 5 from my travels up and down this spectacular trail.
We set up camp on a promontory with a dead-on view of Banner Peak and the Ritter Range, which was a perfect access point for the surrounding area. We settled in and had a scrumptious dinner while waiting for the sun to set. As we were in a no-campfire area the evening came quick, besides we had to get up early the next day to attempt Banner Peak that was the subject of some spirited negotiations to set the time!
Thousand Island Lake & Around Camp
As this was a base camp trip, we took advantage of that flexibility by relaxing, exploring the area and fishing the cool blue waters, with some nice success! Sit back and enjoy some candid shots and imagine yourself wrapped in mountain peaks, breathing in an explosion of fresh cool air and soaking in the sounds of nature. That will give you a good idea why backpackers cherish time in the outdoors
Wildflowers Along the Way & Dawn to Dusk
Even though it was late August, with the late rains and snowmelt the flowers were out and about and I was able to add to my collection. And a final look at the many moods of Garnett Lake & Banner Peak
And now for something unexpected
Well, it was bound to happen. A bear that is and here is a tale !!!
Where do I start !!!
We pride ourselves on keeping a clean camp and following LNT (leave no trace). However, this trip presented some unique challenges. First, a good plan that was not followed by all participants, secondly, the inability to coordinate the total load and lastly, not enough bear canisters (see first and second challenges).
As we met @ Garnet Lake and started to divvy up foodstuffs to pack away the first night, it became apparent we had exceeded canister capacity. The culprit, more food brought along than had been planned and to add insult to injury, still in store bought packaging. With no other option, we consolidated as much as possible and hung several bear bags (one for excess food, the other for food scented packaging), as we were above the allowable elevation for a campfire. That worked for the first night.
The next day was the Banner Peak climb and the team was late returning for dinner. Fresh trout with saffron rice and onion all ready to go, however, the crew was exhausted and little was consumed. That left us with a pot of food, darkness descending and no time to find a spot to bury it way from the site. Only option was back up the hang tree and out on the tip of a tall branch. After securing the hang, I felt confident we would be fine. It took only a few minutes for that to change.
As I was crawling into my tent, George called me over to look at something. The wind was breezing and as we both looked up into the trees, one branch seemed to be swaying more than the others. All of a sudden it started to move up and down, not wind driven, but bruin driven. A quick run of my flashlight up the tree was met with a large black mass and two glaring eyes. "Bear in the camp" were our first words as everyone scrambled out of their tents.
With seven of us there was plenty of noise (pots, whistles, air horn, walking sticks, rocks) and our visitor quickly departed the tree and headed slowly out of camp, but not very far. Turning around to look at us, our big bear was holding ground. So we pushed a bit further, brought the noise level up, tossed a few rocks that met their target and up the trail the bear went. But once again, went so far, turned around and looked us over. This went on for over an hour and we were a good quarter of a mile away from the campsite at this point. It was going to be a long nite. However, 15 minutes went by and we had not seen our new friend, so half of the crew went back to camp and the rest remained for guard duty. We chatted away, still with no sign of the intruder, and decided to make a last sweep of the area and lo and behold, our buddy was up trail about 50 feet away. Time for a new plan!
A slow retreat to camp walking backwards and keeping up the noise brought us to within 30 feet of the camp. We updated the rest as they tightened up the camp and started a fire for both protection and to burn down the remaining food packaging. As we stood on the perimeter keeping an eye on our bear friend, it attempted to test our defense by circling to our left and right. Each time that we repelled the invader it would move away, but continued to push towards our camp, at least that's what we thought. At one point, the bear appeared on a rock ledge above us, outlined by the rising moon and started to huff while pounding down it's front legs on the rock. That is was now serious.
We called everyone together to huddle up on our next moves. Fortunately, we had a good base of outdoor knowledge to collaborate with and decided that we needed to get the fire going and stay together. Our reasoning was since we had engaged with this bear for now going on 3 hours, if it was aggressive we would have been attacked by now. So it was an experienced food stealer and was working the patience game. As we all set out to our assignments, bear two decided to show up on our flank, which we quickly dispatched with a minimum of noise. Now we turned our attention to our first bear, where was it ?
A look back and we saw a black streak crash thru the brush and back up into the tree where it all started. That was strange, as the camp team had pulled down the bear sacks and placed them close to the fire. It was at this point we heard some grumbling backpackers on the other side of the lake offering us the advise of "just give the damm bear what it wants, we want to go to sleep!" Not a chance the not-so-smart-brave side of my brain registered, while the practical-let's-not-get-eaten side said, might be an option. But more importantly, where was the bear?
A few sweeps of my flashlight from a good vantage point found this 350 lb. black bear up the tree higher the hang branch, sitting on a larger branch and just staring down at us. Another thought of “this is a bit strange” crossed my mind. However, it all came into focus as I heard scrambling higher up the tree and two sets of small eyes peering out at us and looking for mom! Yikes! A shout out to everyone alerted all to our predicament and time started to slow down. As I looked back at mama bear I sensed she was not in stress, under control and was telling me, "just let me down with my cubs and I will be on my way." We all backed away from the tree not knowing what to expect as mama and cubs descended to the base of the tree. The cubs skedaddled quickly up trail and mama turned and gave us a look I will never forget. "Do not follow and count yourself lucky." We took the advice.
The rest of the night and trip went without any further encounters, a story that ends well for both bear and backpacker. We kept our bodies intact and hopefully taught some cubs that stealing food is not that easy. We were lucky that it was an experienced mother bear, as it could have had a very unfavorable outcome. In retrospect, after 25 years this was out first in-camp event so we must have been doing things the right way for all those years.
Lesson learned. Never underestimate your opponent, consider all the options and always check up the tree for cubs!
May our paths & errands meet