I thought about that statement over and over as I gritted my teeth, wiped the sweat from my eyes, and kept climbing up some of the steepest "trail" I've ever seen. Sure, a couple days prior I had been climbing up the side of a mountain without the benefit of trail, backsliding a foot for every 3 gained, but this was actual trail. In fact, it was a disused mine access road. Cars supposedly could drive on this. Well, jeeps and the like, but still...
Despite uttering that phrase early in the morning, Pineapple had added that we had 2,600ish feet to climb to get up to Cerro Gordo, a ghost town nestled into the mountainside on the west side of the Inyo Range which we were about to climb up and over. So, after breakfast (and a frantic tent/sleeping bag/clothing chase-the-sunlight drying session with the first rays slithering through the trees), we hustled up the mountain, stopping to snap photos of the numerous abandoned mines and to make use of some cell phone coverage to a) let loved ones know that we weren't dead, and b) to hopefully get a camera battery delivered to Lone Pine for my Nikon. The battery had died on me the night before and I stupidly hadn't brought an alternate. Thankfully, Pineapple was kind enough to provide me with a few photos to liven up this post, otherwise it would have been a rather dull page and a half of black text on a white background. But I digress...
The first couple thousand feet of elevation are always the easiest. We crushed those 8 miles and 2,600 ft gain without breaking a sweat. Around noon we were crossing a saddle, moving towards a couple of radio/cell towers. Once we rounded the peak that it sat on, we found ourselves perched above the ghost town with the Sierra Nevadas poised across the valley to the west, marching away in what seemed a perfect line. When we finally stopped gawking at the view, we descended into Cerro Gordo. We tiptoed into the center of "town" looking for the groundskeeper and, more importantly, our cache. Pineapple had bribed the groundskeeper, Robert, to stash water and a small bear cannister of food. The latter, it turns out, would not be needed. In less than 24 hours time we would be in Lone Pine, a town with everything our little hearts desired, but we all still had plenty of food in our packs. So what's a hiker to do but have a small feast of Tapatio Doritos, miscellaneous candy and packaged tuna? Two of those things I was excited about. Care to venture a guess?
The cache was wedged between two large propane tanks, and, after freeing it, we wasted no time cracking into it. Not ones to be shy, we popped a squat right there in the gravel and dove into our food. There didn't seem to be anyone around at first, but, after a while, a couple of trucks pulled up and behind them a four-wheeler. The man on the ATV pointed at the peaks behind us and gave instructions to the men in the trucks, and, noticing us finally, all looked slightly perplexed at seeing us sat there. After the trucks pulled away, the ATV rider came over and we introduced ourselves as the group who begged his assistance over the phone.
Robert was a strange little man bearing an even stranger torch. Receiving no pay, and Cerro Gordo itself receiving no recognition as a historical site, Robert maintained this ghost town out of a sense of duty to the former owners and to history. Smaller than I had imagined it, Robert explained its slow march to the grave. In the past there had been a smelting furnace on site that ran 24 hours a day, and lightning strikes to the buildings were frequent given the lack of outstanding features on the surrounding hills. Much of this once booming mining town had burned to the ground and blown away. Robert spent all his days maintaining what's left. Truly a thankless job. After talking to us for a while about the history and the various buildings, he turned us loose to wander as we pleased. Pity we were pressed to do more miles for the day, the few minutes we spent on the "hotel" porch were quite the relaxing respite. Also, I couldn't resist putting in a quick shift behind the bar of the saloon. Gotta keep my skills sharp, you know? Besides, Abram was thirsty.
Back on trail, we started the long "downhill" into Owens Valley. For a while we just clung to the side of the mountain, contouring around at a somewhat steady level. Eventually, we dropped sharply, losing more than 1,000 feet in less than a mile, then climbed up 1,800 in a mile and a half with nary a switchback along the old mine access road. Cursing under my breath, I left Pineapple and Abram behind and took out my aggression on the mountain, pushing myself hard and stopping only to catch my breath and let the pounding in my skull subside. Once it started "flattening out" again I took a break and waited for the others. Reunited, we ambled up the road a bit and came upon an old cabin and dilapidated tram that was built to move salt down the mountain; part of the history that Robert had related to us earlier that afternoon.
All this while we were pressing to make it down and out of Long John Canyon to Owens Valley, and, with a little luck, all the way to Lone Pine for cheeseburgers and beer. As we breaked on the porch of this abandoned cabin, however, we realized the hoping was futile. Abram, breaking his code of silence concerning what was to come, warned us against attempting to go down the canyon in the dark. We did think it prudent to get a little lower in altitude, though. The peaks nearby were dusted with snow, and the clouds, though not terribly ominous, still constituted a threat of possible precipitation. Not something we wanted to deal with at 9,000 feet.
As our views to the west broadened, the sun slid behind the Sierras which were now in full view across Owens Valley. All the land between us and the 14,000 foot wall to the west deepened to rich violet and a heavily textured greys, and the setting sun lit the crown of clouds above the mountains on fire and illuminated the water filling the valley; a valley that hadn't seen standing water in years. Few people got to experience this view as we were just then. I cursed my camera and took some utterly disappointing shots with my GoPro. Pineapple, again saved the day, giving me a few she photos she snapped with her phone. The worst part of this camera drama... the battery I thought was dead was only "hibernating" due to the cold of the previous few days. I likely could have been using it this whole time. But I wouldn't discover this until we were in Lone Pine. Stupid.
One good thing about me not having a proper camera was that I was less inspired to stand there on the side of the mountain and more motivated to get down in elevation to avoid freezing my ass off that night. We left the road right as twilight approached and got on a very faint trail marked with cairns. We all donned our headlamps to prepare for the inevitable walk in the dim/dark. Fortunately, the trail got more obvious as the grade steepened; there was only one way to go. I got a sudden spurt of energy and shot off down the mountain. All but running, I led the crew, failing to realize Pineapple didn't get that same spurt of energy. After a few minutes of trying to follow my mad sprint, she told me she was hitting her wall and would need to stop soon. This was unfortunate because flat land wasn't abundant at this very moment. But it put us all on campsite alert, and just as Pineapple flatlined we came upon a spot that was just big enough
The space wasn't totally exposed, but the wispy little trees weren't enough to protect us from the substantial wind that had picked up at dusk. Still, we got our shelters set and stakes secured with the heaviest rocks in the vicinity. We may have squashed a plant in the process, but the tents were laying on mostly flat ground and taking the strongest gusts solidly. I'd call that a win on the side of the mountain.
Dawn broke and I woke refreshed. We took our time breaking camp, knowing we had an easy day ahead of us. Today was truly going to be a downhill day. The trail became a free for all shortly below where we'd slept. It wasn't that the cairns had vanished. Au contraire, there were just too many! The route was following a wash down into Long John Canyon, and it didn't really matter where you walked, it funnelled you down to the valley floor. Many people cairned out their way down, but opinions varied on whether to walk along the steep embankment of the wash, or in the wash itself, so the only thing to do was pick a strategy and stick with it. I amused myself by busting out the GoPro and stomping straight down the wash, leaping obstacles like some easily amused woodland creature. Don't you judge me!
Long John Canyon itself proved to be a tad tricky, though. As Abram had warned, it would have been a little on the dangerous/not fun side to have navigated it in the dark. We were following animal use trail along the steep sided canyon for a bit, but eventually we had to go straight down to the floor through loose scree on what must have been a minimum of a 60° slope. The "trail" seemed less like trail and more like places where people just slid down the canyon wall. T'was great fun.
Down at the bottom I shook the rocks from my shoes and admired the little cluster of trees and shrubs suggesting that a spring was nearby. Fortunately, Pineapple and Abram had caches just a few miles ahead, so I didn't need to use the MSR filter to suck water out of a puddle. The flora was cause for only minor irritation as we pushed our way through the ubiquitous thorny bushes and razor sharp reeds. It had been a few days since I'd bled, I was long overdue.
From there it was smooth sailing. We zigzagged our way down another wash at the mouth of the canyon until it became, first, an ATV path, then a jeep road. Down on the valley floor Pineapple sent me in search of the water she'd cached, giving me a few clues as to its whereabouts. I forgot the clues by the time I reached the pile of rocks it was near, but I found it with no trouble. Abram's cache was about 80 yards away. Again, strange, but not. There really are only a handful of locations for water caches unless you have some heavy duty off-road vehicle.
The service road soon turned into a paved road and houses started appearing. It took us no time at all to get to town from there, and we were all fantasizing about all you can eat Chinese food. We did the people of Lone Pine the favor of showering up first at the hostel in town, With that out of the way we descended on that poor little restaurant and got waaaay more than our money's worth. The food was awful, but I had four plates regardless. Beats the pants off tuna packets.