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Roof of the Pacific: The Eastern Sierras

I’ve always found driving to be a cathartic experience. As a filmmaker, I often find myself living in my own head, trying to tidy up a story arc as I eat breakfast, discovering character motivations while I’m in the shower, or dreaming up scenarios in the deep of night. But I’ve found that it’s long drives that help me most; the ones where the physical journey matches in scope and size to the people and places in my mind.

Heading up Highway 395 from Los Angeles towards the Eastern Sierras on a Friday afternoon is such a drive. Sometimes I imagine what the LA basin looks like from a plane as I drive through it…a giant, meandering techno-tumor made up of right-angled buildings, the cars stuck in traffic akin to individual blood cells clotted around the central thoroughfares. Benign or malignant, I’ll let you be the judge of that… But for now, I’m escaping to ‘greener pastures’.

Slowly grinding my way out of the densely populated landscape of the LA Basin, Jane and I are rewarded by rolling hills of golden grass. Our car radio can only latch onto a station or two of static-laden country music now. No more frenzied pledge drives flanking the occasional news segment, or pop music that never seems to match my mood. We’re awakened to a driving experience far more rare… silence. No more noise; only a sense of profound freedom.

The cool air of the Pacific is quickly forgotten; a memory ushered away by gusts of warm wind pushed in from the sun-baked Central California Valley. Lone yucca trees dotting the Mojave whizz by. The child in me wonders how lonely it is to exist, as they do…standing in wordless vigil on the side of the freeway, watching sunset after sunset to no end. Ghost towns, shacks, abandoned gas stations and railroad tracks–all physical markers of dreams and hopes, communities, and families gained and lost, become gatekeepers to a West that is, at the moment of experience, still wild.

Then, at once, out of the golden plains rises an ominous range of jagged, towering blue peaks, shrouded in cloud and mist: The Eastern Sierras. It’s raining in the valley, and the peaks are under heavy cloud cover, which can only mean one thing; if we climb high enough, we just might be awarded with a rare snowfall. In this drought-stricken state, that means something. As we drive up to the trailhead, night falls. The stars shine bright, like city lights…or is it the other way around? Our friends Corey and Hong are already at the campsite, I hope, awaiting us with a warm fire and hot food. God knows we’ll need it; the next few days, there will only the mountain in front of, behind, and around us.

We were right. Several hours on the trail the next morning, we were greeted with our first snowfall. Coming from the single-season climate of LA, it’s always a welcome change to be caught in snowfall–that is until that snow turns into oversized beads of ice hailing down on you.

The Sierras are notorious for frequent and extreme weather changes.
As we set up camp, we watched as dark stormclouds formed over Cirque Peak. Forced to hunker down early for the evening, we awoke to the sun shining down on a layer of fresh powder.

The pathway to the pass. A group of hikers who had just descended from the other side informed us it was hailing pretty fiercely at the top. See if you can spot the hikers…they’re the tiny black dots at the base of the snow-covered spine of Mount Langley.

Hong, Corey’s climbing buddy, battled hypoglycemia and altitude sickness the entire time. Altitude sickness can take many forms…for Hong, it was nausea-inducing vertigo.

But we all pushed on. The solution: plenty of water, Clif Bars and the promise of a pizza in Lone Pine.

It was late in the afternoon–we were running out of daylight fast, and the fog was closing in as we searched for the snow-covered trail. With the rock cairns enveloped by fog, we could only keep going the only sure direction…up.

Having finally found our way to the top, we looked down towards the basin and were rewarded with a panoramic view. For a little perspective, look for the two hikers and the red tent to the right of the lake in the lower right of the image.

From the top, we could see that the snow had completely encrusted the switchbacks leading down the 1500 foot cliffside. The only way down: Get on your rear, slide, and enjoy the ride.

After a grueling day, there’s no better feeling than putting down your home for the night. No monthly payments, no deciding between countertops, no upkeep; just your intuition, and the place you spend your most vulnerable hours. We chose the edge of Long Lake, and were greeted in the morning to a reflection of the granite walls we scrambled down the night before.

 

Packed up and ready to go on another adventure. But first things first… Pizza.

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