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Lightning, Poison Oak, 105 Degrees One Day, Snowstorm The Next
‘Crazy’ Eastern Sierra Hikes
Kearsarge pix
Looking west into Kings Canyon National Park as you start the descent from Kearsarge Pass at 11,760 feet in the Eastern Sierra west of Independence. DENNIS WYATT/209 Living

It was a spur of the moment “warm up” hike.

My then 15-year-old nephew Garrison had accompanied me on a trip to the Eastern Sierra in 2015. It was for five days of hiking.

But before departing Manteca I noticed on a map a short hike of two miles round-trip to a small lake near a pack station we were going to hike out of midweek. Garrison was game for what I referred to as a “quick” hike we could add before we checked into the Big Pine motel that would serve as our base for six days.

As Eastern Sierra hikes go, it was a so-so climb along a trail squeezed by an abundance of flora and shrubs. The reward at the end of the hike was a small lake at just over 10,000 feet.

Garrison went off to explore the other side of the lake.

I decided to stretch out on a large boulder jutting into the lake to take a short nap.

I had perhaps dozed off for 10 minutes when one of the loudest thunder claps I’ve ever heard pierced my ears.

I jolted upright just in time to see a lightning bolt zoom parallel across the lake perhaps 10 feet above the water and crash into a towering mountainside guarding the southern edge of the lake.

Within a second Garrison was literally running and hollering at the same time as hail the size of marbles started pelting the earth.

It goes without saying, we did not dilly dally.

We reached the trail at the same time. I implored Garrison to slow down but he wasn’t about to do so. We semi-stumbled ran down the trail slamming into branches as if we were mad men running through a corn field ready for harvesting.

The hail turned to snow and then rain. By the time we reached the trailhead it had stopped.

I asked Garrison if he was OK and he said it was no big deal adding he simply wanted to get out of harm’s way in case the skies unleashed a second bolt.

I did not find out for several years later that he called his mom that night and told my sister Mary repeatedly, “Uncle Denny is crazy.”

It was a reoccurring theme apparently in conversations with his mom he had that summer — and the next two summers — after the end of hikes I took him on in Inyo and Mono counties.

Granted, I worked at earning the right to be called crazy.


A trip down the

Owens River Gorge

Three summers later during another Eastern Sierra hiking trip, the forecast for the day I planned a hike to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet west of Bishop called for heavy showers and severe lighting.

It was the perfect excuse to switch plans and pencil in a hike through the Owens River Gorge.

It was something I always wanted to do but hiking the gorge during my mid-July excursions was certifiable. The reason the recommended hiking period is from October to May is because of the oppressive heat of hiking through a gorge in the Owens Valley in the summer where the 100s are the norm.

The elevation gain and mileage — 1,527 feet and 6.6 miles round trip — came across as a piece of cake compared to Piute Pass. Plus there was an added bonus of being able to see how well the Owens River restoration was going.

The hike was straightforward. For the first half it involved hiking along the river guarded by gorge walls of several hundred feet while occasionally crossing over the river. The second half was cross country back to the car.

We were about two-thirds of the way through the gorge and about to cross the river a third time via a fallen log when Garrison warned me of a large patch of poison oak just ahead.

Did I say a large patch of poison oak?

It covered an area larger than the footprint of a good-sized garden shed. It started just as you stepped on the end of the log that went through a semi-marsh before crossing the river.

Long story short, I had walked about three feet on the log when it shifted ever so slightly. I lost my balance and headed toward the poison oak face first. I used my hiking poles to try and avoid doing a hardcore face plant. It was a success — to a degree. But my legs — exposed by my hiking shorts — along with parts of my arm and both sides of my face brushed against poison oak leaves on the way down.

Thanks to a pack on my back having a decent amount of water in the bladder, getting back on my two feet required me to literally roll in the poison oak.

In retrospect, I should have taken a semi-dip in the Owens River — it was pretty shallow at the time — to get as much of the oil off that I could even though I had no soap. But all I could think was to resist the urge to scratch it.

Once we crossed the river we decided it might be wise to shorten the hike. That meant finding a spot on the western wall of the gorge that is popular with climbers using modern versions of rock pins to scale the mostly vertical walls.

We came across an area that started out at 35 degrees before coming dangerously close to 50 degrees as it neared the rim.

There was enough soft dirt that we could collapse our hiking poles to help pull ourselves up when needed. It is not as dangerous as it sounds. That said more than once parts of my body brushed against dirt, rocks, and vegetation. It’s not something I’d recommend doing if you’re literally covered with the oily resin from poison oak leaves.

Once out of the gorge we had a two-mile plus cross country hike across barren terrain being baked in 90-degree heat to get back to the Escape.

Garrison reminded me occasionally not to scratch. Most of the time when people say that you have the urge to do it. That day was no different.

As we walked along and worked our way under the Los Angeles Aqueduct that was an elevated pipe at that point, all I could think was about getting to Bishop and hitting the Rite-Aid to find some relief from the urge to scratch at least a fourth of my body.

The worst part was yet to come. After getting in the Escape and driving about a quarter of a mile, Garrison got cell service.

He immediately did what any self-respecting 21st century American teen would do. He started Googling poison oak.

Soon I was being told everything I didn’t want to know about poison oak.

Garrison read out loud every tidbit of information he could find. Such gems included that it typically lasted three to seven days, itched like hell, and in severe cases can last for a month causing blisters with the potential to lead to permanent scarring.

It was 15 miles back to town. I had yet to scratch any part of my body even though I was going insane as I was driving.

A pharmacist at Rite-Aid directed me to a product known as Tecnu that was designed to remove the poison oak oil from my skin.

When I mumbled something about $19.99 being outrageous for a five-ounce bottle, Garrison reminded me that I’d likely be scarred for life if I didn’t buy it.

I had a hideous night of sleeping but it was worth it.

The next morning when I woke up all traces of the poison oak was gone and I no longer itched.

Garrison actually looked disappointed.


Going from 105 degrees one day

to a freezing snowstorm the next

Wanting to give Garrison a chance to savor the low point in North America and the highest point in the continental United States on back-to-back days cemented his belief that I am crazy to this day.

We checked into Stovepipe Wells for three summer hikes in Death Valley. The temperature was 120 degrees when we arrived.

The first two hikes were in the Panamint Range — Wildrose Peak at 9,064 feet and Telescope Peak known as the roof of Death Valley at 11,043 feet — and away from the searing summer heat on the floor of Death Valley.

It was my fifth hike up Wildrose and uneventful. The worst thing to happen previously was to have huge crows dive bombing me as I walked across the saddle below the summit on one hike.

Telescope was a different story. I had tried once before in late November to reach the summit via a 12.7-mile round trip. But I turned around after almost turning into an Otter Pop crossing completely exposed ridges with below freezing temperatures and snow flurries.

I had never wanted to reach a summit as badly as Telescope Peak.

When we reached the top I was surprised to find the actual summit didn’t even cover 100 square feet. As we took off our backpacks and prepared to enjoy the view all of a sudden hundreds — strike that; thousands of butterflies — were pushed up by the wind on all four sides of the peak.

Being pelted non-stop by butterflies was far from fun. We ended up spending three minutes — if that — on the summit after hiking three hours.

The final day in the national park was actually a hike that started at 2 a.m.

We were heading to the isolated Panamint Sand Dunes reached by slowly driving a primitive road for nine miles and then walking more than four miles cross country.

Besides being dead tired from having hiked Telescope Peak just 10 hours earlier, Garrison wasn’t a happy camper in the heat.

It was 98 degrees when we left Stovepipe Wells at 1 a.m. to drive to the starting point.

By the time we got back to the Escape at 10 a.m. after spending several hours enjoying the sand dune field, the air temperature was 105 degrees and the ground temperature was easily 20 degrees higher as we hiked across blistering classic “desert pavement”.

We drove from there directly to Lone Pine where we checked into a motel to get some shut eye before driving to the trailhead to start a hike at 2 a.m. that would require covering 21 miles round-trip with some 6,000 feet of vertical gain to reach the 14,494-foot summit of Mt. Whitney.

It was there after we passed the high camp at 12,000 feet and 22 hours after getting back to the Escape in Death Valley where the temperature reached 105 degrees we were hiking through a light snowfall.


Crazy things, close calls come

along with a natural Sierra high

While I can add some other relatively crazy incidents as well as a few close calls, that list pales to the euphoria that hiking in the Eastern Sierra offers.

It is a rugged landscape teeming with inspiration in the abundance of endless lakes, plenty of vertical gains, expansive views from passes, tumbling creek water, and lofty peaks.

It is tailor-made for day hiking from Bridgeport south to Bishop.

It fits well into what I’m looking for — eight- to 12-mile day hikes with 2,000 to 3,500 feet of gain with destinations worth the effort.

And by that I mean the ability to soak in the beauty and power molded over tens of thousands of years while getting a workout that allows you to reset.

Day hiking using a base — for the last five years I’ve stayed at June Lake Motel in June Lake — and driving to trailheads throughout Inyo and Mono counties is ideal to spend a “HERS” week.

That’s “HERS” as in Hike, Eat, Read, and Sleep.

It doesn’t get any better.

If that makes me crazy, so be it.

trail pix
A hiker approaches Kearsarge Pass at 11,760 feet. DENNIS WYATT/209 Living