Over Labor Day weekend, I took Wiley and Lara backpacking into the High Sierras, crossing a 12,000-foot pass and camping in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks.
One of the biggest things I've been looking forward to with Wiley is taking him on adventures. There's no way to be exactly sure of his birth date since he's a rescue, but the vet seems to think it's within a week or so of January 1st. So his de facto eight month birthday on Sunday seemed like a decent excuse for his first challenging trip.
Wiley's been car camping a few times already, on day hikes in the mountains around LA every couple of weeks and I take him up Runyon Canyon pretty much every day. But a multi-day hike with serious elevation, at altitude, in unpredictable weather, around wild animals like bears, coyotes and rattlesnakes? I wanted to make sure he was capable of reliably coming when called, no matter the distraction, and wanted to be confident he wouldn't run off. Seemed like the time was finally right.
Plus, wrapped up in the final throes of launching a new business, I needed some time away from the daily stress and it was time to take Lara, the new girlfriend, on a trip without a bunch of other people around.
Hearing my requirements for real outdoors that was a little bit challenging, pretty lonesome and very scenic, Steve from Wilderness Collective suggested Lake Sabrina, west of Bishop, CA. Right distance, right scenery, but with wildfires in Yosemite to the North and the Golden Trout Wilderness to the south, I was worried that area would be a little too popular over a holiday weekend. My buddy Ty was over one night and suggested the trail from South Lake to Dusey Basin, just to the south of Sabrina. A little longer and a lot tougher, it promised fewer people and less authority. Well, at least until we crossed Bishop Pass into Kings Canyon National Park, where they don't like things like dogs and campfires and responsible people just enjoying the outdoors they pay to protect in a responsible manner. We decided to risk it anyways.
Steve loaned us a two-man tent, two Boreas 55L packs and I probably mentioned that I wasn't used to carrying this much gear too many times for Lara's comfort. That was inconsiderate of me, especially considering she showed up at my house the night before we planned on leaving with a lighter loadout than my own. Since I don't have a car, she was also nice enough to drive us up to Bishop in her Jetta and didn't even complain when Wiley proceeded to cover her entire back seat with fur and puppy slobber or when, the next day, I made her wake up at 3:45am, then make a four-hour drive followed by an eight hours of hiking. It's hard to shake the feeling that she's trying hard to be a good sport, but you can't be mad at someone willing to put up with altitude headaches for you.
When doing active stuff above 10,000 feet, you're supposed to spend an easy night at elevation to acclimatize yourself or, as Lara suggested, taking chlorophyl supplements for a while before you go. Instead, I opted for the three of us just to hit the trail and suffer some mild nausea. You want to date me right now, don't lie.
So far, so good. Once we'd fished Wiley out from under the bed, he didn't pee or poop in the car and only whined about half the time the whole way up. Once we'd turned onto South Lake Road and parked at around 9,750 feet, he seemed to realize what was up and was the picture of a happy puppy from there on out. Can't tell you how good it felt to let him off the leash at the trailhead and know I wasn't going to have to put him back on it for three whole days.
All that practice back home paid off too. We've been off-leash in Runyon for about a month and been practicing in the mountains since that first trip to Big Sur. Now, Wiley knows to follow the trail without much departure, stay in sight and not to go further than about 50 yards to the front or rear as we hike. He still gets distracted by other dogs and wants to go play, but calling his name or nudging him in the right direction is enough to bring his focus back to walking along the trail.
It was steady elevation gain the whole way along, past pretty alpine lakes, right the way up to Bishop Pass, when the steady trail gave way to a climb straight up around hairpin curves only three or four feet wide. By this point, I was more worried about us humans than I was Wiley. Lara (who's as tall as I am) was carrying about 40lbs and I had about 50. Add that to the altitude and man did going get rough. We were stopping at each of the hairpins to catch our breath, walking 10 yards further and taking another break. My shirt was drenched, Lara was still being a good sport and Wiley couldn't figure out why we were taking so long.
The original plan had been to hike to the southernmost lake in Dusey Basin, a couple miles off trail. That far, there'd be no sign of people and no possibility or rangers and their rules. But, by the time we'd reached the top of the pass, we were just totally beat. A side trail took us to the first lake and we stumbled upon the picture of a perfect campsite, sheltered behind some stunted pine trees beside the lake. Turns out Ty had found the same spot and camped there when he was up here. You should too, it's the best spot going. We left it clean for you.
I'd packed a rod and some Powerbait, but despite a lake swarming with trout, didn't manage a single nibble the entire trip. So, we settled in to watch the evening show with a bottle of Trader Joe's awesome $9.99 blended scotch and a couple Mountain House Pro-Pak Beef Stews, which turned out to be surprisingly good. It was actually my first time eating backpacking food while backpacking (I usually take a steak and a can of beans), and was pleasantly surprised that the stuff was actually palatable. I cooked it over a little stove I made out of a cat food can. Expensive camping stuff is for suckers.
Up this high (the site's around 11,500 feet), the sunset and stars are just incredible, with the setting sun lighting up the western-facing peaks bright red in an effect known as "Alpinglow." This alone would have made the trip worthwhile.
That first night didn't start off relaxing though. Wiley takes up a lot more space now that he's over 70lbs. Gonna have to figure him into the tent space equation and start taking a three-man, when I take a tent and Lara. He struggled to decide which of us to sleep on top of, then went into full-on guard dog freak out mode at every little sound outside. Above the tree line, we didn't really have anywhere good to hang a bear bag, so I was a little worried about one nabbing our food. The first few times that Wiley growled, I climbed out of the tent to look for said bears, then chalked it up to puppy nerves and tried to go to sleep.
That's when the lightning started on top of the aptly-named Thunderbolt peak, freaking Wiley out and keeping him up all night.
We got into the swing of things by the morning though. He'd calmed down and we decided to relax, explore the mountains a bit and just have some adult fun time. Wiley wandered around the lake on his own, scaring off anyone who strayed too near.
It's funny because, to me, he's still my cute little baby that sleeps with his head on the pillow next to mine and cries in my arms when he's scared, but other people just see 70lbs of half wild animal and get freaked out. Wait till he's 100lbs or more!
The hike out took less than half the time, since it's pretty much all down hill. Wiley brought his guard dog antics all the way down the mountains with him, intimidating all the other hikers, but had forgotten them completely by the time we got home to Hollywood. That night, I laid in bed listening to a bum going through my garbage while he stayed fast asleep under my bed. It's nice to have an animal that's as at home in the real outdoors as he is, well, at home.