The Rae Lakes and the Soggy Night From Hell

The Rae Lakes Loop, Day 3

The weather forecast we got from the bulletin board outside the backcountry center at Road’s End on the first day proved to be entirely accurate. It had predicted rain on the morning of the third day of the trip lasting all day. In fact, even before the sun set on the evening of the second day, it was already raining. It would continue to do so, off and on, for the next 24 hours.

So much for sunny California. But any mountain range, even the relatively mild Sierra Nevada, is prone to unpredictable weather. The rain was a stark reminder that nothing could be taken for granted here.

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Much of the morning was merely overcast as we climbed out of the valley of the King River toward the high country of the Rae Lakes Basin. The grades are moderate at first as the trail crosses a series of ridges, with sometimes boggy ravines and valleys in between. Some of the tougher creek crossings can be found here, but again we hiked so late in the season that none was any challenge at all. We literally walked right though the worst of them, only getting a bit wet because rain started to fall.

Note that in the left hand photo I have my pack cover on, a sure sign that rain is in the offing.

Eventually the trail ascends to a rocky rise and leaves the King River behind entirely, climbing into an ever narrowing, boulder strewn valley where we spotted some marmots. This is one of the steeper sections exception Glen Pass, but at least we had cloud cover to shield us from the sun. But every hiker that passed us in the downhill direction was geared up for inclement weather, a sign that things were a bit worse above.

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At length we passed a sign announcing that we had arrived at the high country of the Sierra Crest – 10,000 feet. Here, altitude sickness is a possibility, so we slowed our pace. But the hard work of the day was done…from this point on it was a mostly level, sometimes rolling hike through the very fine scenic country of the Rae Lakes Basin.

Normally, this place is a photographers dream. But we had a rare day of inclement weather. It was a photographers dream gone just a bit sour.

First of these lakes was Dollar Lake, with its enigmatic view of Fin Dome. This can be a dazzlingly picturesque place in good weather…but in the cloudy, drizzly conditions at hand, it looked somewhat forbidding. It was a sign, perhaps, of what was to come.

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A  Mordor-ish Fin Dome rises ominously across a somber looking Dollar Lake

We walked along the sides of the lakes for a good hour, planning to stop at the last possible campsite before the pass. Though this is the most scenic area of the hike, moiling clouds often interfered with the view, and the combination of heat and on again-off again rain was annoying, forcing us to continually dig out our rain gear, then stuff it back into our packs again.

(In his guide to the Tour du Mont Blanc the esteemed hiking author Kev Reynolds states that he always hikes with a small collapsible umbrella in case of brief showers, to prevent just this sort of layer-up layer-down fiasco. Though I once would have scoffed at the idea myself, the Rae Lakes experience made me think.)

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Note the weird changes in light over the next few photos, which were taken within the space of an hour.

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We soon passed the first of the Rae Lakes where we saw many campsites and a few more bear boxes. These we passed by, looking to get as close to the pass as we could. Near the Rae Lakes backcountry Ranger Station we not surprisingly met a ranger, who assured us that very few bears had been seen in the area recently. Also, he gave us some advice on some campsites that could be had just past the peninsula of land between the final two lakes.

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Another shot of a gloomy Fin Dome.

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Despite the Ranger’s advice we ended up walking right by this area and had to backtrack as we realized the trail was beginning to turn upward. Eventually we found our way back to the lakes; our first attempt at a campsite had a great lakeside location but was a bit close to the trail and seemed too exposed to the wind. We thought the better of it, and moved back down the trail a couple hundred yards, finding a raised area that had both a nice view and some cover behind a rock escarpment.

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Near the last of the Rae Lakes…note the wall of rock partially obscured by fog in the background, which is actually the foot of the Glen Pass headwall.

None too soon. The rain began the pelt down, this time in earnest, and we retreated inside our shelters. Here’s where the fun began.

A few weeks prior to hiking I had discovered that the rain fly of my MSR Hubba solo tent had badly deteriorated. This was a serious flaw of lightweight tents of that time period…even if properly cleaned, dried and stored in ideal conditions, the rain proof coating on the seals of these tents would turn into a sort of lumpy, sticky substance that looked and felt like the sugar coating on glazed donuts. Once this happened it was effectively ruined. Improper storage of the tent – in too high temperatures or by failing to dry it out thoroughly – would accelerate this decay process.

Mine was a few years old by this point. But still, the deplorable condition I found it in, despite my careful attempts to store it in favorable conditions, shocked me greatly. After some vain attempts to repair it, I phoned MSR who very graciously offered to send a new fly free of charge. (By this point, news of the faulty tent designs was pretty widespread. The ones they make now are more resistant to this decay process if you store them correctly.)

I was relieved when this new fly showed up just days before my departure. Close one. But while I had solved one problem, I had overlooked another. I had forgotten to check the tent itself.

I pitched my tent at the bottom of a slight slope, right beside John and Val’s. Just in the nick of time…The rain began to fall even as I finished setting up. I crawled inside, thinking, safe and dry. Now, all I had to do was to ride out the storm.

Unless of course the storm were to make it’s way indoors. The rain began to pelt, and then the pelting increased to a tumult, with the telltale clatter of sleet mixed in; and it was soon accompanied by thunder and lightning. John and Val’s tent, upslope of mine;, proved resistant to the downpour. The deluge of water merely poured past and under their well-sealed shelter.

I had  dug out some hastily improvised rain gutters in the dirt with a stick, but this had been to little avail. The water began to pool under me, soon turning into a sort of miniature Rae Lake. With great shock I realized that the inside of the tent was wet. My shelter was shipping water in alarming quantities…right through the bottom, through the faulty seals I had failed to notice.

Mt first reaction was near panic. Everything I had – all my dry things – – were in the tent with me, and there was no-place else to go. The temperature had already begun to fall dangerously, and the wind to blow. Night was coming on, and I knew that before it was all over the temps would bottom out around freezing. This was more than just a soggy situation. Being cold is bad but being wet AND cold is a prescription for disaster. This was just the kind of mistake that had proven fatal to many a would-be mountaineer.

And to top it off, there was no escape. The nearest road was two days walk away, and leaving now with darkness coming on would be pure foolishness. There was a small ranger station maybe a mile down the trail…and I had seen a Ranger. But was it still manned? Could I find it in the dark? Was there shelter to be had there?

I explained the situation to John and Val but they were helpless to assist. There was no room in their tent for another 200 pound man.

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The view from the rise above of campsite, taken minutes before the rain started to come down by the bucket.

I had to act quickly. Gathering up my sleeping bag, and every piece of dry clothes and gear I had, I moved it all atop my sleeping pad and assumed a fetal position, holding it all close to me. I had to keep myself and my warm layers dry at all costs.

The inflated pad stayed just barely above the flood, giving me a small slice of dry land barely as wide and long as my body. Picture drawing a chalk outline of yourself on the ground and then being forced to stay right in that spot for hours. That’s what I had to do as the rain pelted down around me.

During the next hour the storm ebbed and surged in cycles, but the flood receded a bit, and finally, it ended. By then I had already concocted a plan born of a past experience.

Some years back, I had been caught in an unexpected winter snow squall in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with the shelter of a tent but no sleeping pad. With sub-freezing temps outside this was a dangerous situation because the cold will come right up through the ground and into a sleepers body…a prescription for hypothermia. At the very least, it would mean a frigid, sleepless night.

Desperation had forced me to craft a makeshift sleeping pad from a thin mylar space blanket folded several times over. Surprisingly, it was effective. It wasn’t comfortable by any means, but it had given me just enough insulation so that I could stay relatively warm and catch some sleep.

The idea came back to me now. I dug out my space blanket – I always carry one with me when I hike. Then I soaked up as much of the water as I could using my dish-rag sized camp towel as a sponge. Finally, I laid the space blanket down over the damp tent floor.

It was a bit like being a tollhouse cookie lying on a baking sheet, but it worked. The space blanket served to keep me and my things dry. It would rain no  more that night; the emergency was over.

I got into my sleeping bag and coughed and sneezed myself to sleep. (I was still nursing my head cold, and the conditions were not doing anything to improve it. But there was no bowl of chicken soup to be had.)

Today had been a tough day with a rough ending. But the crux of the whole trip lay ahead. We had seen it, looming in the distance, just before the clouds had closed in.

Glen Pass. We would cross it tomorrow. There was no way to avoid it.

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I believe this is Middle Rae Lake, taken just feet from our camp.

***
Later that night, answering the call of nature, I emerged from my tent and into another world.

It was midnight, perhaps, or maybe after. I had shut off my phone to conserve power, as there was no signal here, and felt a strange disconnection from time. I had the sense that I had entered a singular, self-contained moment, apart from all others. Apart from the entire rest of my life.

The clouds were gone, the storm and all signs of it blown away with the wind, which had itself stopped. It was still, and quiet, and bitter cold. A bright, full white moon had risen over the mountains. It was so bright I could see no stars.

Everything around outside the tent…the rocks, the trees, the clumps of grass and brush, the sides of the mountains…was perfectly visible in the moonlight. The larger objects cast long shadows. I could even see the plume of frosty vapor when I exhaled, very clearly.

I stepped away from my tent and walked to the top of the rise. A glaze of brittle ice covered the ground, and the frozen pebbles crunched softly beneath my shoes. There at the top of the rise I stopped, stood and looked out across the still, silent lake. There was no sound…no breeze, no human voice, no animal that cried out. Nothing, Just the lake, flat calm and reflecting the moon like an upturned mirror.

I stood as long as I could, cold air filling my lungs, thinking…I must remember this. My camera could never take a picture in such unearthly light, and even if I had one that would…something told me it would not have sufficed. I remember thinking to myself, I probably will never stand here in this spot again. And even if I do, it won’t be the same. This singular moment would not be again. I was alone, far from anything I knew, and I was happy to be alive.

I needed to remember this. I needed to remember for as long as I lived.

After a while, I turned and went back to my tent, and slept.

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Next Up: Alto Sierra

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