I went ahead and made dinner for the few people we had left in camp. We washed dishes. After I burned the garbage, Moose took me off to the side.
“Do you know the route Anne and the others were going to take?”
“Yep. They were going to go over the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peak to Nelson Lake tonight.”
“Do you think you could catch up to them before dark?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. CCC policy was that we needed a minimum of two Corpsmembers in a party to leave camp on a trail, and at least three in a party for any cross country hiking. Peter Lewis had been most emphatic about this at orientation. Moose noticed my hesitation.
“I wouldn’t offer this to just anybody. I think you kinda got hosed on your KP, and I trust you enough not to do anything stupid. Do you think you could get to Nelson Lake before dark?”
“Maybe. I could sure try!”
“What would you do if you can’t find them?”
“I think the most likely reason not to catch them would be if I couldn’t get over the ridge before dark. If that happened, I’d spend the night on the ridge and come back to camp in the morning.”
“OK, go ahead and try it. Be careful!”
It didn’t take long to throw together the gear I’d need and hit the trail. I hiked fast past the High Sierra camp and back down Rafferty. When I got toward the north end of Rafferty Peak, I got out the topo map to look at my options for getting around the mountain. If I kept hiking down the canyon to a creek and went up the drainage, the ground leveled out on the top of the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peaks. It looked like it might be a fairly easy route. Following a creek uphill can be tricky, though. You don’t know how thick the riparian vegetation will be. You don’t know if you will run into any cataracts that you would have to climb over. Sundown was going to be here sooner than later. I looked up the draw I was in front of and decided that my best shot of getting over by sundown was to go up right here.
When I used to think of mountains, I used to think they were humungous slabs of solid rock. Yosemite taught me different. Sure, there are big slabs of solid rock like El Capitan and Half Dome. But most of the other majestic peaks you are seeing from far away are actually jumbled piles of smaller granite blocks. Remember, though—‘smaller’ is a relative term. Some of them are as big as a bus, or a house. A lot of them are as big as cars. Millions of them are as big as you. So most of the time you are climbing in the Sierras, you are actually scrambling up and over and around boulders.
That’s what my attempt to find a route around the right side of Rafferty Peak was—a boulder scramble. You stand at the bottom and look up at the jumble of boulders. You can’t see the top, so you have to guess which route might be the most likely to get you where you need to go. You start crawling over and walking around the boulders as you make your way up. You aren’t hiking anymore like you were on the trail below. You aren’t really climbing, either. You keep working your way up, up, up. Before long, you look back and are amazed at how much height you’ve gained over the canyon floor. Every once in a while, you run into a dead end, either a wall you can’t get around or a chasm you can’t get across. Then you have to back track. You hate having to give up any elevation that you’ve sweated so much to gain, but you have no choice. Eventually you make your way around and up.
I spent about an hour bouldering up the lee side of Rafferty Peak. Every time I would top a bench or a large boulder, there would be more up ahead. The sky was still light, but shadows grew darker on the east side of the ridge where I climbed. Finally I topped a bench and did not see another one above. I saw nothing but sky up ahead. My heart thumped as I dared to believe I was at the top of the ridge by now. As I worked my way across the last few boulders I thought, “It’s only gonna be downhill from here!”
As I crested the ridge, the setting sun’s rays blazed with glory. I paused and soaked in the beauty and contemplated the sheer drop off at my feet.
The granite sure looked pretty bathed in the setting sun’s rays. The sun was almost down to the next range to the west. The west side of the ridge on this spot was one of those big slabs of rock, about three hundred feet straight down. (I know it was about three hundred feet because it crossed about eight contour lines on the topo with 40 foot contours. At least I think it crossed eight lines. It was kinda hard to tell because they were all running together.) There was no way anybody was getting down here without ropes. I took my pack off and laid it down as I broke out the topo map again. I compared what I could see of the ridge to the north with the map. I had definitely crested too far south. There is an inherent hazard in the bouldering type of climbing that I had been doing. Your visibility is usually limited to the rocks right around yourself. Following the easiest way up might take you significantly off course…like it had just done to me!
The sun was getting lower as each minute passed. Whatever I was going to do, I had better do it fast. I swung my pack back on and headed back down. I needed to find a way to crest about 200 yards further north. That doesn’t sound very far, does it? Two football fields. About two city blocks. However, 200 yards on a mountainside are not nearly the same thing as a level and smooth football field. I had to pick a route down without spraining an ankle. Then I had to find a route through the boulders in roughly the direction that I needed to go. Then I was going to have to climb back up to the crest. And then climb down the west side of the ridge and make it to Reymann Lake!
The light got dimmer and dimmer. Shadows in the boulders got darker and darker. The stars started coming out. I still hadn’t found a way back up the ridge. I came across a relatively flat spot big enough for a sleeping bag. The cool thing about this spot was the large, thin, knifelike piece of granite sticking vertically out of the ground right on the edge of the flat spot. It would prevent someone from falling off the edge if they happened to roll over in the night. It sure did not look like a natural rock formation to me. It looked like it had been placed there by somebody who had been caught there before.
“Well, I guess this is as far as I go tonight.”
By now I needed the headlamp to see into my pack. I rolled out my closed cell foam pad and laid my sleeping bag over the top of that. I drank some water and ate a granola bar. Then I leaned back and looked up, enjoying my own private star show on a mountaintop in Yosemite.
Life was good.