Mountain awe

I’m back from vacation–had a great time in our mountains! Here’s the first of my impressions:

Highway 395, running parallel to the east face of the Sierra Nevada, reaches 7,000 feet at Tom’s Place before plunging 3,000 feet into the Owens Valley. Leaving the highway at Tom’s Place, we turned up the canyon of Rock Creek. The floor rose steadily between high rocky walls before widening to become spacious Little Lakes Valley. We passed above Rock Creek Lake, reflecting the blue of the sky. Finally the road ended at 10,200 foot Mosquito Flat and the backpackers’ campground.

The next morning, shouldering our packs, we followed the trail up the side canyon draining Ruby Lake. At 11,100 feet the lake spread serenely below cliffs and ridges that rose to Bear Creek Spire and Mt. Abbott on the crest, both at over 13,700 feet. From our location, Mt. Abbott itself towered beyond a hanging basin, itself far above the lake.

On a rocky bench above the lake we made our camp, then descended to the shore to soak our feet in the cool water. As we sat we observed our surroundings. Everything was vertical, near-vertical or steeply sloping. It seemed that this was the way things were meant to be, the normal nature of things. Only the flat, calm surface of the lake seemed to have been granted an exception.

The next morning two of us began the climb up the trail to 12,000 foot Mono Pass, an ancient trade route for Native Americans. As we rose, the sharp peak of Bear Creek Spire came into view, as well as more of the massive wall of Mt. Abbott, both at the heads of hanging basins far above treeline.

At the pass we left the trail and headed up the long slope to the ridgecrest on the west. Finally, at 12,700 feet we came to its edge, looked over, and caught our breath. Below a rocky drop-off was thin air above a lake far below in Fourth Recess. Beyond, tall peaks and lake-filled basins rose above the deep canyon of Mono Creek.

We worked our way southward to the point where our ridge became a knife-edge, dipping and rising again to a higher divide with cliffs plunging on both sides. Beyond, the crest continued to the high points of Mt. Mills, Mt. Abbott and Bear Creek Spire. Far below, Ruby Lake rested in its bowl, with Little Lakes Valley beyond. The rocky peak that had loomed so large to the south over our camp  looked small from our perch, surrounded by much larger walls and basins. When we descended to camp, it would seem huge again. We stood more than a vertical mile above our turnoff from Highway 395, 8,700 feet above the floor of the Owens Valley to to the southeast.

We could feel the latent energy and power of these peaks and cliffs all about us, enveloping us.

Here we were, two fragile humans alone among the mighty summits theselves, sharing in their reality, power and drama. We felt exhalted in our high position among these giants; at the same time we were humbled by the realization that we were but specks in these huge surroundings.

Looking back now, I remember that, far from being lost among the size and scale of this country, we were in truth part of it and of the wonder of the whole earth itself, as we always have been. Being in such a powerful place simply makes it more real.


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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One Response to Mountain awe

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Dave, a beautiful description.

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