So I decided to ask at the Bishop Ranger station. The Inyo National Forest ranger called Sequoia National Park, in whose jurisdiction the southwest-slope route lay, and the answer came back over the phone: "The route is closed only from July 1 to December 15 and not year-round as formerly was the case." Those of you who have taken guilty pleasure in breaking the law in the past will have to come to terms with the fact that the route is now legal.
So I decided to take the easy route. At least that was my intent; It turned out to be anything but easy. Richard Stover and I started after supper that very evening. The Baxter Pass trail begins in a lovely grove of native black oaks. I was buoyed by discovering a new-to-me giant chia in full bloom by the trailhead outhouse. But we had experienced the first of a series of unpleasant events on the trip. Richard cut his finger on the primitive can opener used to liberate the organic spaghetti-Os that served as dinner. Was it an omen?
We hustled to make the first two creek crossings before dark. Although the water was up, the first crossing was not difficult. We pack neoprene surf shoes in the spring and simply walk across toting our boots. The second crossing was far more challenging.
Whitewater is an understatement. The noisy creek was pushing rocks the size of baseballs downstream, making unsettling clunking noises as they rolled about. There are two rules of thumb when crossing fast water. Unfasten your pack waist belt and don't tie your boots together and wear them around your neck (they could end up strangling you). For this crossing I also put my helmet on. At a spot with minimal (a relative term) whitewater, I tried a test crossing without my pack. Unfortunately it terminated in a patch of stinging nettle, which I discovered with my leg rather than my eyes. Richard found the crossing unsettling.
Just before dark we located a relatively level patch of ground above the creek and set up our tent. We had gained 700 feet.
The next day we proceeded to base camp at 10,300 feet. We chose an "island" in the snow which had been continuous from about 9000 feet. There was bare ground for the tent and flowing water nearby. The trail to that point, where it was not covered with snow, was poorly maintained and often overgrown by brush. Richard had drawn blood from another finger snapping branches that blocked the way. There had been another difficult creek crossing.
Before 6 a.m. the next morning we were on our way over Baxter Pass. We had 10 miles round trip and 4000 feet of elevation gain to the summit of Baxter, not counting the additional 1000-foot gain on the way back. The going was slow. Baxter Pass is a jumble of metamorphic rocks. In places the snow was melted, in others the snow made the going easier. There were no trees to buffer the very high winds that made the trek feel like a winter ascent of Mt. Shasta. The temperature dropped during the day.
Much of the snow had melted from the south-facing Baxter/Acrodectes saddle making the final ascent a really unstable slagheap in the high winds. We couldn't even glissade most of the way down to Baxter Lake after achieving the summit. We were the first entry of 2005 in the register.
At 6 p.m. back at Baxter Lake we were at a decision point. If we started over the pass, we would be benighted at 12,000 feet in a treeless, windy, waterless place. We found a tree well, complete with illegal fireplace, and decided to hunker down until morning.
It was cold. Our water bottles froze during the night. We got little or no sleep. We kept a fire burning all night after a few tense moments when our lighters failed, and it was only with great difficulty that we managed to get a candle lighted. That candle provided the heat needed to ignite the wood. We found that by spreading our reflective space blankets behind us, we could reflect enough heat to warm ourselves. We heated rocks in the fire, buried them and lay on top. We insulated ourselves from the ground with our packs and various pieces of equipment. We stood on heated rocks to warm our numbing feet.
Even so, we had moments of extreme cold.
Indeed, the mild hypothermia must have affected our minds. The next morning as we started up the pass, both Richard and I discovered that our crampons were not on properly, and we had not noticed it right away! At the top of the pass still in high winds, Richard tried to clean a dirty hand first with snow and then with water. The resulting pain from the cold brought tears to his eyes. A week later, his fingertips are still tingling.
Trudging along, we cheered our chilly bodies with visions of being warm when we finally reached camp. I imagined curling up in my down sleeping bag and catching up on missed sleep. I entertained thoughts of steaming cups of hot tea and soup. We lacked energy since we had missed three meals.
As we approached our camp with visions of sleep and warmth, we stared dumbly at where the tent should be. There was only the ground cloth flapping in the wind. The high winds had been at work here as well as on the pass.
Downwind, some thankfully-placed trees had trapped our tent still full of gear. It had only minor rips.
On the drive home when I asked Richard what the best part was for him, he replied without hesitation, "Opening the tailgate on the truck when we got back."