TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

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jlweinberger
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TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by jlweinberger » Tue Sep 08, 2020 9:50 am

When I got the permit to hike the Pine Creek trail 6 months ago, I knew the trip would be a challenge. But, in typical 2020 fashion, the things I thought would be challenging really weren't that hard, while the things I hadn't given much thought to proved far more threatening. This trip has me rethinking some of what I thought I knew about safety during back-country hiking, particularly as it pertains to fire safety and risk assessment.

The Basics: 4 day 3 night lollipop loop from Pine Creek Trailhead to Royce Lakes and back.
Mosquitoes: 0
Air Quality: Day 1 and 2 clean and clear, Day 3 hazardous.

Day 0:
We drove up to the trail head Thursday night, arriving around 9 pm, to find all of the dispersed campsites along Pine Creek already full of people enjoying an extra day or two of the long weekend. So we pulled across the road into the giant dirt area, set up our tent and crashed for the night just happy to be able to sleep at elevation before we hit the trail in the morning.

Day 1:
Knowing that the heat was going to chase us up the mountain as we hiked, we got a relatively early start and were on the trail by 7:30. The morning air was cool and hiking through the aspens in the morning light with a slight breeze was breathtaking (or at least that's my claim for why I was already out of breath). We climbed slowly but steadily through the switchbacks, as we were motivated to get from the sunny spots on the trail back into the shadow of the cliff to the south.

Soon enough we found ourselves leaving the sounds of the machinery working the tungsten mine and looking up at the Brownstone Mine shafts in the cliff above the trail. We wondered about the miners who worked those shafts as we took a snack break and then resumed our up-hill climb towards Pine Lake.
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Our goal was to get to Pine Lake for lunch and a break, before heading just a short way further up the trail to camp at Upper Pine Lake.
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This was the most elevation gain our kids (9 and 11) had done in a single day before, and we weren't sure how it would go. It turns out, it was no problem. Everyone was tired, but happy, as we pulled into camp at around 2 pm. We've found that our kids like having the afternoon to play around, watch the wildlife, scramble on boulders, and otherwise not be constrained by the weight of a pack, so we generally try to get off the trail each day by 3. Upper Pine Lake was a great spot for us to stop, and since most of the hikers were heading up to Honeymoon Lake, we had the place to ourselves. We whiled away the afternoon enjoying the fresh air, ate dinner, and tumbled into the tent for a quick game of cards before falling asleep to the distant sound of running water.

Day 2:
The morning dawned cool and clear. The surface of Upper Pine Lake was glassy, with the only disturbance coming from the jumping fish.
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We hit the trail again after breakfast, heading toward the largest Royce Lake (11725). The creek crossing above Upper Pine Lake was fun, but a bit challenging for those of us with shorter legs.
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At the junction with the Honeymoon Lake trail, we turned left and stayed on the Pine Creek Pass trail for another tenth of a mile or so, to the point where a granite ridge comes down to meet the trail. At that point we got off the trail and headed south, up the ridge, to the unnamed lake east of Golden Lake. The climb was steep, but the footing was good and we all enjoyed turning around to look down on Honeymoon Lake, and at our campsite from the night before.
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We reached the unnamed lake in time for a mid-morning snack and a reconnaissance of the route we wanted to take to the west, toward Golden Lake.
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We decided to stay high, and stuck to the ridge on the east side of the unnamed lake, continuing to head south and rounded the south end of the unnamed lake before turning west, toward Golden Lake. The idea was to traverse over toward Treasure Benchmark and the route up to Royce Lake, staying as high as we could without getting into the talus and boulder fields. This idea proved better in theory than in practice. We found ourselves having to cross a small boulder field south of Golden Lake before realizing we would get choked out by vegetation if we stayed high, so we lost a lot of our elevation as we headed back closer to Golden Lake and picked a route over granite, rather than through brush.

Once we worked our way back up the ridge from Golden Lake, we traversed along to the west, beneath Treasure Benchmark until turning south for the final push up to Royce.
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That climb was brutal but the kids pushed through it like champs, and we found ourselves up at the top in the early afternoon, ready to set up camp and enjoy the scenery.
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As we were down by the lake filtering water, we noticed a large cumulonimbus cloud to the west of Feather Peak. I thought it was strange looking at the time and, having checked the weather several times before we left, knew that we weren't expecting thunderstorms, but figured we were prepared if it did rain and fell into describing the shapes we saw in the cloud with the kids as it continued to build. What I didn't realize until later was that this was the massive pyrocumulus cloud towering over the Creek Fire 25 miles west of us.

As the afternoon wore on, the light changed to orange, in the way that far too many Californians recognize from the fires we have experienced over the last many years.
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We still didn't understand the magnitude of what was to come as the air stayed relatively clear. The wind picked up that evening as we went to bed, which drove everyone into the tent for more cards and some sleep.

Day 3:
In the early morning, the air was clear, but the smoke was just waiting to be carried east as the land heated up and the prevailing winds kicked in. We enjoyed a quick breakfast, watched the pikas running back and forth stocking their nests, and watched a coyote lope along the rocks before we packed up camp and started toward the next two Royce Lakes to the south.
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Our plan was to hike south, to Royce Lake 11,656 before heading east and meeting up with the Pine Creek Pass Trail more or less at the pass. We had been looking forward to this hike so we could show the kids the views off toward Mt Humphreys and the Humphreys Basin, where we had gone earlier this year. Those views were not to be as the smoke thickened and the air quality rapidly deteriorated. I took a few pictures to show how bad it was. By the time we were at the northern end of the middle Royce Lake, visibility was down to less than a mile.
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I didn't have the heart to take many pictures, but we did enjoy coming across a few marmots and a group of white tailed ptarmigan hanging out above Pine Creek Pass.
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After eating lunch at the pass, we quickly walked down the trail and made it back to Upper Pine Lake by 1:30. At that point the air quality was still bad, but not nearly as bad as it had been up at Royce. We debated whether to keep going down the trail, or stay one more night, knowing by this point that the fire was to the west of us and our primary danger was from the smoke. Our long drive time, and a predicted slowing pace down the trail into the afternoon made us think the better option was to stay at Upper Pine that night, which is ultimately what we decided to do. Right at dinner time, however the smoke thickened again and we really wondered if we had made the right choice.

Day 4:
We managed to get some sleep the last night in the back country and the air quality improved again by morning, but we woke up to a light layer of ash covering everything. We quickly packed up and headed down the trail meeting several people heading in for multi-day trips. We warned them of the deteriorating air quality but wished them well on their hikes. I now wish I had told them not to go, but at the time we still didn't understand the magnitude of what was happening to the west, since we had been out since Friday. I hope they are all well, and are deciding to pack out early, as hard as that decision is.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am now rethinking my assessment of risk in the back country. While always being aware of weather and fire danger, and always checking the relevant sites for information on both before heading out, my primary focus was on injury. Kids, like all of us, can misjudge their surroundings and injure themselves, so we always go prepared with a hearty first-aid kit and contingency plans for assisting an injured person back to the trailhead. While I will still go prepared to treat injuries, I will now also be thinking a lot more about the threat of fire, and contingency plans for leaving the back country safely in the event of fire.
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sekihiker
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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by sekihiker » Tue Sep 08, 2020 10:05 am

Sorry to see your trip cut short. I had a similar experience with smoke last month. Let's hope that this does not become the standard.

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by kpeter » Tue Sep 08, 2020 3:46 pm

Great that you got a trip in, especially for your kids, who must have thought it was quite an adventure. Great job getting them cross country and up to Royce Lakes! That is impressive.

I am afraid that more and more seasons will be like this, and we will more or less permanently lose a month off the end of backpacking season. There will be years of heavy snow and cooler summers which will be more like "normal" if by "normal" we mean a generation or two ago. But who among us dreamed in the 1980s that we would live to see the majority of backpacking seasons heavily impacted by smoke?

I worked on a fire crew to put myself through college, and more recently have the added advantage of packing with my brother, who works for the Forest Service and has a doctorate in fire ecology. Everywhere we go I get a running analysis of fire danger as well as the relationship of fire to the land, "good" fires vs dangerous fires, etc. After a while, I have gotten used to seeing the landscape differently.

You are right to be concerned about smoke. That was always your worst and only fear on the trip you took. At an alpine destination like Royce lakes, you are always above treeline and thus safe from the effects of fire itself. On the other hand, the most dangerous places are frequently around the trailheads and the the drives to get to the trailheads.

East side backpacking tends to be fairly safe from fire. The drives to trailheads are usually short, the trailheads themselves are often not heavily forested (Cottonwood is an exception I can think of,) and the trail gets you above treeline pretty quickly. Much of the landscape is above treeline, or it has trees that are separated by long stretches of talus or granite. Fire does not spread easily, if at all, in such country.

West side backpacking is where the risk is higher. There are often long drives through dense forest to get to trailheads that more often that not are at forested reservoirs. And you may hike for miles through dense forest to get up to alpine country. You are in a vulnerable place for many hours or even days.

For example, one of the most dangerous places (for fire) I have hiked was coming out of Redwood Meadows in SEKI (appx 6500.) After leaving the Sequoias behind, I entered miles of dense forest with piles of jackstraw, nothing green growing in the understory, and 1/3 of the trees dead. As I walked I actually said a silent prayer to myself that I would make it through before the next fire made that place into an inferno.

But most of the time I feel very safe in the high country. The seasonal flow also helps. I like to go to lower elevation destinations early, since the snow has not yet melted high. And it is those lower elevation destinations that are most forested and have the biggest fire potential--so one visits them out of fire season. Then later in the season I like to go high, where there is little fire danger. This results in an early season = westside while late season = east side strategy.

But there is a difference between being safe and having a pleasant trip. The only thing smoke is good for is making spectacular sunsets.
Last edited by kpeter on Tue Sep 08, 2020 7:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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levi
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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by levi » Tue Sep 08, 2020 4:10 pm

Glad you and your family are all safe, and that you were able to enjoy two days out there! Appreciate your report.

My wife and I had planned on being roughly in the same area over the same days as you and your family. We pulled the plug both due to chance of smoke drifting in from SQF and Slink Fires, and changing work obligations. It was shocking following the growth of the Creek Fire, realizing we could've been <30 miles east of it. Looks like the worst air settled in Owens Valley and your high elevation spared you, as it should, and gave you a reasonable exit even after a night of smoke.

I keep having minor regrets from cutting trips short, or canceling, due to risk of smoke. Seeing reports of people just dealing with a night of smoke has me wondering if I'm just more paranoid about air quality than average (and perhaps less paranoid about other aspect of backpacking). Lots of grumbling in my circles about the forests closing, the stove ban. But seeing backpackers getting evac'd from VVR is really tempering my FOMO. Time to buy an ice axe and learn how to safely explore the range of light in early season, I guess.

Would you have bailed on day 3, getting to your car in the dark, had you known you'd experience thicker smoke that evening?

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by jlweinberger » Tue Sep 08, 2020 9:44 pm

sekihiker wrote:
Tue Sep 08, 2020 10:05 am
Sorry to see your trip cut short. I had a similar experience with smoke last month. Let's hope that this does not become the standard.
Thanks Sekihiker. We actually didn't cut our trip short (other than getting an earlier start to the trailhead on Monday), but I wonder if we should have. I'm sorry to hear you had a similar experience. There are far too many people with similar experiences these days, and too many more with worse experiences. We are happy to be home and safe.
kpeter wrote:
Tue Sep 08, 2020 3:46 pm
Great that you got a trip in, especially for your kids, who must have thought it was quite an adventure. Great job getting them cross country and up to Royce Lakes! That is impressive.

I am afraid that more and more seasons will be like this, and we will more or less permanently lose a month off the end of backpacking season.
Thanks Kpeter. I wish I could take credit for anything the kids do, but the credit all belongs to them on this trip. We learned early on to make sure we have flexible plans (which is not at all natural for me). If they're up for a hike, great. If not that's ok too and we can all just hang out and enjoy our time outside. That strategy has worked well for us so far. This trip was the most ambitious we've planned with them, and they blew it away like it was no big thing. They had more energy when we got to Royce Lakes than my husband and I did!

Thanks also for the reflections on fire safety. I share your fear that we will lose a month off the end of the backpacking season - generally my favorite time to be out.
levi wrote:
Tue Sep 08, 2020 4:10 pm
Glad you and your family are all safe, and that you were able to enjoy two days out there! Appreciate your report.

Seeing reports of people just dealing with a night of smoke has me wondering if I'm just more paranoid about air quality than average (and perhaps less paranoid about other aspect of backpacking).

Would you have bailed on day 3, getting to your car in the dark, had you known you'd experience thicker smoke that evening?
Thanks Levi. You ask the $64,000 question. The short answer is yes. I would have left if I knew how much smoke would descend on us Sunday evening. While I'm willing to be dumb and take risks with my own health, having the kids with me really impacts my willingness to take risk. At the time we made the decision to stay we thought that was the least risky option. In hindsight, I'm not so sure. My husband, on the other hand, still stands by our decision and thinks our final night probably wasn't any worse than breathing the air at the campsites in Yosemite Valley.

As for buying an ice axe, I'll leave that to you :) It's all I can do to safely put one foot in front of the other on dirt and granite.

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by wildhiker » Tue Sep 08, 2020 10:54 pm

Thanks for the informative report. And I'm impressed that your kids could make it up that Pine Creek Pass trail. I've been too daunted by that elevation gain to even try myself!

I'm happy that my family backpacking trips with the kids were in the 1980s and 1990s. There were occasional big fires then, but nothing like the regular smoke-outs that we have been having for the last ten years or so. We only had to abort a trip once due to smoke. We were in 20 Lakes Basin (east of Yosemite Park) when a big fire broke out in the foothills to the west that ended up burning about 100,000 acres in the Tuolumne River canyon and foothills. The smoke eventually made it over the crest to our location, turning the sun dull red and raining ash. We left.

-Phil

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by jlweinberger » Wed Sep 09, 2020 8:57 pm

wildhiker wrote:
Tue Sep 08, 2020 10:54 pm
I've been too daunted by that elevation gain to even try myself!
To be completely honest, Pine Creek was not my first choice of trails. I logged in too late to be able to reserve an easier trail for Labor Day weekend 6 months ago and Pine Creek was what was left! I probably wouldn't have ever done that trail otherwise :)

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by KingMouth » Thu Sep 10, 2020 1:13 pm

jlweinberger wrote:
Wed Sep 09, 2020 8:57 pm
wildhiker wrote:
Tue Sep 08, 2020 10:54 pm
I've been too daunted by that elevation gain to even try myself!
To be completely honest, Pine Creek was not my first choice of trails. I logged in too late to be able to reserve an easier trail for Labor Day weekend 6 months ago and Pine Creek was what was left! I probably wouldn't have ever done that trail otherwise :)
I think you were the guys hiking up Royce Pass on Saturday morning when I was hiking down. I tried to share my opinion that the center path was best, but I don't think you could hear me. I took the cutoff over the dried out ridge tarn on my way to Granite Park.

I hiked out on Sunday. The smoke was really bad when I woke up on Sunday morning. Glad I got lots of good photos through Saturday night.

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by jhfowler » Thu Sep 10, 2020 5:17 pm

Thanks for the great report! My wife and I just fled California to hike in Great Basin and Bryce National Parkss while you were in the Sierra. And yet, we had two days of reduced visibility there, as well, due to the California Fires!

May we all live in interesting times.....

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Re: TR: Pine Creek to Royce Lakes 9/4-9/7/20

Post by jlweinberger » Thu Sep 10, 2020 9:21 pm

KingMouth wrote:
Thu Sep 10, 2020 1:13 pm

I think you were the guys hiking up Royce Pass on Saturday morning when I was hiking down. I tried to share my opinion that the center path was best, but I don't think you could hear me. I took the cutoff over the dried out ridge tarn on my way to Granite Park.

I hiked out on Sunday. The smoke was really bad when I woke up on Sunday morning. Glad I got lots of good photos through Saturday night.
That's certainly possible, although I don't remember seeing anyone else while we were hiking up there. I'm not exactly sure of the time, but I don't think we started to head up Royce Pass until around noon. We came over to the pass from the east, near Golden Lake, rather than through Granite Park. Glad you got out ok on Sunday and have photos to remember the non smoky parts of your trip.

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