It all started when I got an email from my friend Su:

Hey Eileen,
If you’re free on August 13-14 and can cook a gourmet meal in the wilderness, you might want to apply for a spot in this trip I’m going to with the Sierra Club…

My mind started spinning as she described dishes done on past trips. I also noted that the trip started off in an area just off Tioga Pass Road, just below the entrance to Tuolumne National Park, and included a summit of North Peak (Elevation 12,242 feet) via a 3rd class route in which the trip leader wanted everyone to bring a climbing helmet. I shot off my application email with some recipe ideas and, at my friend’s suggestion, an outdoor resume of sorts. I was hoping my climbing and photography abilities would make up for any lack in my proposed menu.

It must’ve worked because I got in. It was explained in my acceptance email that the 3rd class ascent was to be scrapped for an easier one and thus helmets were not going to be required. After a flurry of emails in which I saw the list of fellow group members, Su and I met the group for the first time in person early Saturday morning. As we walked up to a group of women and introduced ourselves one said, “Great, we’re all here, we can go, all the guys bailed.” I thought it was a joke at first. There was still at least 10 minutes left before the official departure time, and surely not all the guys had bailed? But no, it was true, of the 12 originally going on the trip, all four of the guys (including the trip leader who unfortunately had a family emergency) had not been able to make it, so it was to be an all female group, with another experienced Sierra Club backpacker taking on the lead role, with another gal as her second.

Hiking around Saddlebag Lake

Two of the group went off taking the water taxi through Saddlebag Lake (I later realized why they had opted to do this, they were carrying monster packs and more food than we were supposed to bring as well as surprise goodies), the rest of us hiked on the trail around the lake. The going was easy though it unexpectedly included a few areas where we had to cross snow fields. There was a lot of snow on the ground for August, the past snow season had been a heavy one and I guess made for a late spring, pushing everything back a few months, including the melting conditions. The result was a gorgeous, snowy and green hike along a full lake.

Once we were around Saddlebag Lake we were greeted with green meadows with wandering streamlets. The temperature was great, though I started to realize just why we had all been told to bring mosquito head nets. The first wrinkle of the day was in finding the two folks who had gone across on the water taxi. Apparently there was some vagueness on where base camp was to be set up.

We hiked on to Greenstone Lake and ended up going even farther and then searching for quite a while. The scenery was gorgeous, and while personally I had thought the hike in was a little short, I soon found we were adding in extra mileage looking around while still wearing our packs. Eventually a gal who was with us just for the day was the one to find the missing women, and camp was set.

North Peak soon beckoned so as a group we set out again. There was some concern about the amount of snow on the slopes, but we thought we might be able to find a clear way to the summit. It seemed while everyone had hiking poles no one had ice axes or crampons (these were not supposed to be necessary).

Unfortunately we had another setback, one person had forgotten something in camp, gone back to get it, but then… didn’t show up again. We were all confused, though we were not on a trail and on uneven terrain, we had only been yards away from camp. This turned into a search. Eventually the person was found, actually ahead of the group, closer to North Peak. After some discussion it was decided we’d leave North Peak for the next day and we had a little snack break of beet cupcakes instead. The beet cupcakes tasted like a cross between chocolate and red velvet cake. Delicious! After more hiking, most folks went back to camp and took a short nap. Su and I had driven late into the night on Friday, and others had done the same. The official name of the trip was Decadent Wilderness Weekend IX, so a decadent nap was right in line with that in my way of thinking.

Our camp was set up overlooking a small lake (our water source) and we could also see Greenstone Lake, which we had passed hiking in. After nap time, many of us pumped water and then it was time to start cooking.

Modeling mosquito nets during the Beet Cupcakes break, that's me in the bottom left corner. North Peak is behind us on the left.

The menu for the trip had been kept secret, per the original leader’s instructions. Only he had known in general what things folks were bringing. The requirements had also changed a week leading up to the trip. We were to bring an appetizer, an entree, and a beverage to feed two people, three if you were making a breakfast item. I had a breakfast item so was not cooking that evening. I did break out my beverage offering… hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Cream, but the late afternoon temperature was still too hot for it, and folks mentioned it’d be better at the end of the evening. So I mainly assisted, took photos, and tried to stay away from the many mosquitoes. I was glad for my mosquito net. I seem to be very attractive to mosquitoes, one gal noticed I had about 50 of them on my shirt sleeves trying to get at me, she even took a picture of it. My shirt weave was tight enough that the mosquitoes couldn’t bite through, I had long pants on, and a mosquito net, however I had been reluctant to put too much repellent on my hands so I was getting bit on them. Luckily I had picked up a sample while at the OR Show of a bug repellent called Bug Band based on Geraniums, it was effective, though it didn’t last long, and it was natural enough that I didn’t feel so squeamish about having it on the back of my hands while I ate. Fortunately for one of the other hikers, who was allergic to Deet and other repellents, I had an extra sample to give her. She was very happy with it. In regards to my hands, you might ask, why didn’t I just go without anything? Well, I mentioned the 50 bugs on my shirt, but I can tell you that it was worse than that. I think there’s only ever been one other time I’d seen so many mosquitoes, and that other time was also on a Sierra backpack trip. I will say a mosquito net works wonders, and hey, maybe we’ll start a fashion trend?

Cooking in camp

As the cooking went on, the smells around our chosen cooking area were exquisite. For appetizers we had Alaskan Smoked Salmon in Pasta Shells, Kale Pasta Salad with Greens (a vegan raw recipe by the way), Cherry Soup (it may sound a little odd but it was wonderful!), and Bruschetta with homegrown tomatoes and basil, the bread toasted to perfection. We even had a palette cleanser, a drink of honeydew melon and mint. I was full before the main dishes came out. We had: Korean Savory Pancakes with imitation crab meat, green onions and other vegetables with a pickled salad side, Beef Stroganoff, Red Potato salad with vegetables, Jalapeno Quesadillas, and Seared Ahi Tuna. After that we suspected that maybe one of the missing guys was supposed to bring dessert, but we still had Lavender Cake (and had eaten the Beet Cupcakes earlier in the day). Beverages included wines, a Guava and Limeade mixed juice drink, San Pelligrino sparkling water, my hot chocolate and Bailey’s offering and a mystery drink which turned out to be homemade honey mead! The cooking had started with the sun still up in the sky but the eating went on well after sunset. Even with a short break, I thought I was going to burst. I know many folks had brought more than enough to serve just two people,  and everything tasted so good, it was a shame for any to go to waste! Plus, everyone wanted to make room in their bear canisters 😉

The conversations at dinner were also satisfying, we had women from Southern and Northern California attending. One lady was also a long time climber so we talked about climbing for a while. Another gal was a self proclaimed peak bagger, having bagged 35 peaks prior to this trip as I found out later. She was currently living in Independence, after realizing her accounting business could be operated from there with only a little bit more difficulty than from the LA area. Mainly though the conversations were just about having some fun. At one point, realizing we had so much extra food, the group leader, wearing a chef’s hat by the way, decided to try and find a fellow camper to surprise them with quesadillas, we thought we had seen a tent earlier in our roaming. So we set out to find them. They must’ve moved on though, as we didn’t see anyone near by, even when we went up to a lookout point to look around us. Their loss though. Can you imagine the look on their faces if someone in a chef’s hat had came out of the woods and delivered, still hot, gourmet cheese and jalapeno quesadillas? I had my camera on video mode in case we found them.

I went to sleep that night, wondering if I was going to wake up to bears roaming near the cooking area.

After a bear free and fairly pleasant night’s sleep [on a sleeping pad I’m testing out by the way, review to come], I woke up early because I wanted to climb North Peak. It had been decided that I should make my breakfast item as a brunch item instead so we could get going to North Peak as early as possible. I think this decision was also made because everyone was so full that night, and we had so much left overs, that no one wanted to think about an early breakfast!  Some girls were still asleep but the leader was up as well as Stephanie, the lady who lived in Independence. We decided it would be best if those going to the peak officially sign out of the Sierra Club trip to tackle the summit on our own so that the Sierra Club would not be liable for us and thus an official leader would not have to go with us as they were needed to hike out with the rest of the group. In the end Stephanie, Su (who had woken up by the time we had decided all this), and I were the only ones going. We had an official errand to run though, add a new peak registry to the summit.

With Stephanie in the lead we went off quickly. She had not done this peak before but had the topo map of the area and had also been close to bagging nearby Mt. Conness so knew the general area at least. We were off trail and soon found there were quite a few little lakes between our campsite and the base of the North Peak. We made our way around these and around or through a few snow patches before finally starting our ascent.

At times we found part of use trails heading our way, however large snow patches on increasing inclines made us hesitate. We chose to traverse some of them carefully, but hiked completely around others. This added quite a bit of mileage to our approach. Our earlier estimate of two hours to the summit was more than fairly optimistic. There was so much snow that we found ourselves heading more towards Mt. Conness than North Peak, as a direct line up would’ve been straight into snow fields [which, for you ice climbers out there, I only just found out today apparently is an ice climb in the right conditions!]. As the going got steeper, looser, and included more bouldering moves, our pace slowed. At one point we came upon some guys on their way down wearing harnesses. They had been planning on going up to Mt. Conness but decided to turn back due to weather.

We had noticed more numerous, and darker clouds coming from the direction we were heading. To our right the sky still contained blue though. We decided to make for the saddle and see what we could see. The guys wished us well and we continued on. The saddle itself was a bit of a chimera, I thought I had seen the ridge from where we had talked to the guys, but we passed another duo of guys and yet another snow field before we actually got to it. Thankfully though, once there, we saw that blue sky was once again on the horizon. We pushed on. Finally we were at the actual ridge, we could see the broad saddle and ridge line. And unfortunately it seemed like a large bit of snow was on this ridge. We took a break and then Stephanie went up to investigate. She said it was doable to a small rock formation and then we could take the base of that on to drier ground and a clear, snowless last ascent to the peak. We carefully made our way across the sun cupped snow pack, at times following crampon tracks. After we all made it over, we discovered strong winds on the dry part. We huddled, sitting against a boulder, taking a drink of water, before the last push to the top, which, after we discovered a little trail, was looking to be the easiest part of the whole day’s worth of hiking. Stephanie was ahead of Su and I after we had made one additional stop so Su and I were the only ones to greet a lone guy descending from the trail, he had been the one with the crampons. He said he’d thought about doing the traverse to Mt. Conness but didn’t feel right with the winds and being solo. He wished us well though, and we were on our way again. We saw one more pair of guys before the top, but it was windy enough that Su and I just waved at them, not really stopping in our boulder hopping ascent.

At the top we found Stephanie, smiling but huddled near some rocks, the wind was not as fierce as below but still strong and cold enough that one didn’t really want to stay standing for long. Stephanie had added the registry to the tube on top and already signed it so Su and I added our names to the new registry as well. This is when I learned that Stephanie had done 35 other peaks, since she had written the number 36 under a mountain symbol next to her name in the registry and Su asked her what it meant. I also learned, after I named a few peaks I have been on, that I have done at least 4 qualifying peaks, so I put a 4 down next to my name as well.

Me with summit chocolate! Don't mind my hat, I had to squash it on to keep it from blowing away!

It was Su who reminded Stephanie about her summit chocolate. Stephanie had told us about it the other day, saying she kept special chocolate to eat as a reward for summiting. She gave us each a piece of course. It was an excellent and appropriate way to celebrate a peak summited during the Gourmet Backpack trip!

After some quick photos (I mentioned it was windy and cold up there, right?). We were really feeling the time crunch, as Su and I still had a long drive home. We had hoped that we could come down a more direct way from the summit, but Stephanie had talked to the two guys Su and I had just waved at and it turns out they were guides and did not suggest going down a more direct way, due to the snow. We ended up going back the way we had come, traversing the snow again on the ridgeline. We did end up traveling a bit on one plateau area following a use trail for a little while but soon realized it was heading towards a water fall which we had seen from a distance… which we knew to be surrounded by snow and cliffs on either side. So, we still had to go the long, round about way we had come in. Only towards the very end did we try to go more directly to our camp, sometimes down-climbing random stuff, which I double checked to make sure the others could come down as well (I was leading some of this part).

We finally made it to camp and hurriedly packed up, hoping against hope that we could still make the water taxi. But it was past five o’clock which seemed like the logical time for it to stop running. We saw the dock on the way out, no one was on or by it. Since we had come back a slightly different way, we had a bit of stream crossing to do, and sadly, we were not able to do it with dry shoes. So the last bit of the trip was a soggy hike back around the lake again.

The trip description originally mentioned stopping at Woah Nelly Deli on the way home (a natural for a gourmet trip right?), but it was really just too late for that for Su and I who faced a 7 hour drive, plus we weren’t really that hungry yet. We told Stephanie were just going to drive straight for Southern California, so said our goodbyes in the parking lot. It had certainly been a harder peak than we had thought it would be – and I’m sure is much easier (and shorter!) in warmer weather with less snow – but we had done it, and we had tasted the sweet chocolate victory of success.

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