Monday, May 28, 2007

desolation wilderness

desolation wilderness
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo.
Hiked up to Horsetail Falls in California's Desolation Wilderness the day before last -- or almost. The trailhead is just before Twin Bridges off HWY 50 headed out of the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, and the first part follows the effluence of the falls, where it scatters broad and bright across granite stairsteps and churns up full of light and air.

The hike itself is mostly a hard rock scramble across broad granite slabs, interspersed with a few brief dirt trails. Wayfinding changes all together when you're climbing right on rock -- there are no footprints from the folks who went before to reassure you that you've found the right way, no worn tracks to indicate direction.

On this trail there was a periodic marker on the occasional tree, but mostly the way was marked by cairns: those stumpy little piles of rock that signal human intent and seem so generous and kind when there's nothing else to show you the way.

At the top of the loop, about an hour in to our hike, the good folks from the Park Service have posted a second box, like the one at the first trailhead. But this one asks you to fill out a wilderness permit, and sign to indicate that you realize you're about to enter an area where the trails are not maintained, where the risks are higher and where extra caution is required.

Having planned for only a day hike we were entirely unprepared to forge into the wilderness, and being reckless and (relatively) young we thought "sure: why not" and filled out the form and headed up the trail.

Okay, here's why not: because it's frickin' wilderness.

In a terrain where what few markers you had have fallen away and you're left with only rock and rivers and the rare dirt path you need a topographical map to get you through something like that. And a better compass than the one we had.

We had the Falls in our sights and used that where we could to stay in line with our destination, but it did us no good when suddenly the rock would fall away where it had been cleaved centuries before by some strong freeze cycle or glacial action. We'd double back, and double back again when we encountered the next big drop off. By this time others were hunting and pecking their way up the same trail, using pretty close to the same methods we were.

At one point we spotted a party who were being led by a fairly confident looking fellow, so we started up after them -- only to have them circle back on us when they hit the next steep drop-off.

If we'd had 1) all day 2) a topographical map and 3) provisions enough to get lost on, we might have stayed at it a little while longer. But we had a wedding to get to before too long, and our whole lives ahead of us, so after 30 minutes or so of scrambling through the wilderness and progressing only a few feet we called it a day and headed out again, picking our way through the cairns.

The moral of this story: It's good to get lost in the wilderness sometimes, but it's better if you give yourself plenty of time and pack some snacks.

Posting by cameraphone from the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.


MGL said...

Cairns! I'd forgotten they were called that. They're wonderful little objects. In Norwegian, they're called varder, and come in all shapes and sizes (the biggest are fifteen feet tall, the smallest are indistinguishable from a couple of pebbles). I always thought they embodied the idea of doing hard work for no conceivable reward, for the benefit only of the very very few, just because you can.

They also embody the idea of creating a pathway through smooth terrain. Theoretically, there are 10.000 possible ways of crossing any given piece of land, but eventually over time, people will gravitate to some routes more than others, and create footpaths. It's very web 2.0-the wisdom-of-crowds-how many-jellybeans-are in-that-jar-there?

The Norwegians totally think they invented the cairn.

anniemcq said...

You can always tell a Norwegian.

But you can't tell him much.

ba dum bump

suttonhoo said...

re cairns: read something in passing about how the Greeks believed that Mercury rested/resided in cairns along the roadside -- god of both the journey and inspiration. but don't tell the Norwegians. (although I suspect they'll argue that they pre-date the Greeks.)

re 10K ways: very cool. Rem Koolhaas preserved the footpaths that traced the open lot where he built his IIT student center -- there's a map in the entryway that describes plot. very cool appropriation.

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