Climbers may not think this odd. A “duck” is a pile of rocks, a route marker, a waypoint. Hikers set them up for each other when the path forward is unclear, perhaps across a wide open granite expanse, through a tricky boulder field, or where the trail is overgrown, one duck after the other in a waddling connect-the-dots fashion, the message being, “Follow these. This is the best way to go.”
It wasn’t strange that there was a duck here. It was strange that there was only one. And, this was the first duck I’d seen for six miles, since I'd left the trail yesterday morning, 4,500 feet lower, at the base of Brewer Creek. I’d climbed for hours, through pine forest and rocky talus slopes, to a serene lake that inverted the mountain horizon in calm waters. I’d camped there. This morning, before the sun rose, I continued over more talus and then smooth granite slabs. Miles of hiking without the benefit of a single duck. Now, on the upper reaches of the final, steep summit push, surrounded by boulders and scattered rocks, talus and scree, with the summit block outlined against the sky above me, here sat one lone duck. I smiled with sarcastic relief. Phew. I'm on the right route.
Was this duck a waypoint? My son and husband joined me for the first 5 miles of this backpacking trip. Now that was a waypoint I cherished. A real duck. Wild winds the first night howled like a train off of Glacier Pass and the Sawtooth Crest, flattening my tent, so that I had to take it down to keep it from ripping and breaking, and curl myself up for the rest of the night in the lee of a thick copse of lodgepole. That was another real waypoint, something to remember if, hopefully, never to repeat. Visiting the granite monoliths of Valhalla for the first time, seeing wild sequoia (no signs, no tourists), getting over the sky-touching Pants Pass, the golden sunset painting whitebark branches and setting aglow the mountain horizon… these were the ducks of my trip so far. Connect those dots and follow them for a real adventure. But a single duck on the slopes of Mt. Brewer as a waypoint for my trip? Nah.
Did this lone duck symbolize ‘hope’? Hope, as in… it’s audacious to think that you’d even see me in the middle of all this rubble, but you did! I'm here to encourage you and point you in the right direction.
Ahhh. This kind of duck I know. Like the one family friend that pointed me towards the National Outdoor Leadership School, which became a lifelong love of mountaineering and wilderness exploration. Like my climbing buddy, who invited me on a mountaineering trip to Ecuador with his friend, a man who would become my husband, and with whom I began the family that saw me off with support and smiles on this journey six days ago. So similar to this single duck, they were moments that changed my life from one path to an entirely different one. When I get mired in uncertainty and don't know which way to go, as I hop across boulder fields, or traverse difficult terrain, and wonder which route to take, I chant to myself: Many ways go. It’s a mantra I've embraced to take the pressure off each moment's decision. It took my 13-year-old son to point out, in his teasingly cynical teenager way, that Sure, Mom... many ways go, but some ways go better than others. So, too, may be the message of this duck.
It’s possible that this duck is the unwanted advice, the patronizing hand on my shoulder and the I-know-better lean-in by a pompous egoist. I may have made it this far on my own without guidance, without ducks, but this one lone duck feels obliged to tell me how to move forward from here.
Or… a final consideration. Perhaps there were more ducks here, but the others fell over, or were knocked down by someone who valued pristine wilderness experiences and the importance of independent decision-making. Mountaineer, Steve Roper, wrote in his 1976 "Climbers Guide to the High Sierra":
Small piles of rocks -- called ducks, cairns, or stonemen -- have become an eyesore all over the high country... I genuinely shudder each time I see those little piles of stones which someone has so kindly placed to help me on my way. What arrogance the duck-builder has! Does he really believe that he has found the only possible route? Does he believe that he has checked out all alternate routes? Does he think we can't find our own way? ... I maintain unequivocally that ducks in the High Sierra should be destroyed. They are not only unnecessary and misleading, but they ruin the sense of adventure for those who believe, however falsely, that they are explorers treading over new ground.
There were so many ways to consider my lone duck... Waypoint? Hope? Unwanted advice? An eyesore? No right or wrong answers, just a moment to pause, consider and choose a vantage point.
I left my lone duck standing. I chose hope.
Trip Report: Pinning down the ends of the Great Western Divide, Sawtooth to Brewer
Day 1. They’d hugged and left me at Monarch Lakes, in Mineral King. Sweet of them to hike the 4.5 miles. Sweeter yet to help carry some of my load. After we parted, I continued up to Glacier Pass, cached inessentials, and traversed over to climb Sawtooth Peak (12,343’). I'd thought that was the salve for a hollow heart. Little did I know what the weather gods had in store for me that night. I dropped over Glacier Pass (11,080’) and patted myself on the back for bringing the crampons and ice axe. I needed them. I set up my tent with a spectacular view of Spring Lake and the Sawtooth crest on...er...a very exposed granite shelf. At midnight, cringing with every roar that slammed the tent on top of me, I finally gave up and deconstructed it, stuffed everything into my pack, and crawled into the lee of a copse of lodgepole as the wind continued to rage around me. Don’t tell the rangers I cowered on top of plants all night...
Day 2. By morning, the wind hadn’t abated much. Even at 10,000 ft elevation I was being blown off my feet. Black Rock Pass, very exposed and another 1,600 feet above me, was being blasted. I had intended to get to Nine Lakes Basin that way. There was another way: Valhalla. I’d always wanted to see Valhalla. Decision made. The Redwood Meadow Grove of wild sequoia along the way was magical. I camped at Bearpaw Meadow, with bear lockers and faucets. Surreal in the wilderness.
Day 3. I’m a complete sucker for beautifully engineered trails that cling improbably to the side of soaring, granite cliffs. And who doesn’t love sweeping monoliths in the Sierra morning light? Valhalla was heaven, everything I’d heard about and then some. Full to bursting with aesthetic from Valhalla, I topped a rise to see Precipice Lake and the exact vision of the Ansel Adams print: snow-covered lake, striped rocks, all in black and white. A complete surprise. Campers complained of the powerful winds and rain overnight. I commiserated, glad I’d camped low. Kaweah Gap (10,689’) opened onto Nine Lakes Basin, I was back on route. From here there is a direct view of Pants Pass (11,960’) across the Basin, my gateway to the upper Kern headwaters. It took me a few minutes to scrape my jaw up off the granite. I was going over THAT? Had I gotten it right? A nearby hiker asserted knowingly, “It doesn’t look that bad.” Really?
Well...angles and distance foreshorten, I reasoned. Hitching in my sphincter, I sped across the basin. Sure enough, it wasn’t as steep close up, but I was tired and breathing hard by the time I reached the huge cairn in the northern notch. 12,000-ish feet is still oxygen-deprived. A little down-climbing was in order on the eastern side, before I could slide on scree and snow down to the lake below. I followed a line through the barren highlands that I’d found online, past lakes, and down to pine forest.
Day 4. The Colby Pass trail is not shy about gaining elevation from the Kern Kaweah River into a beautiful meadowed hanging valley and higher. Colby Pass (12,000’) is the border between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The views north from here surprised me. The trail-less high country to the east, where I intended to hike, was so stark: gray, barren, lifeless. Slopes were entirely talus-covered, seemingly impenetrable. My heart sank. Please tell me I’m wrong, that I made a mistake not to climb to Talus Lake and traverse to Brewer from there as I had planned. But I didn’t think the three days I had left would be enough time for me to hike endless talus slopes. And I might just use of my entire lifetime quota of talus-patience. Instead, I stayed on the trail, dropping past Colby Lake and Big Wet Meadow, reveling in beautiful flowers and stunning views into Cloud Canyon, until I found the most aesthetic campsite I’ve ever enjoyed, on a granite slab with the creek pouring in a giant bend around one side, and spilling over a graceful waterfall. UTM 11 S 0361424, 4061126.
Day 5. Still aiming for Brewer, I climbed up Brewer Creek to Brewer Lake. By staying south of the creek, I found easy hiking up a small ridge. At 9,600’, at an enormous flat shelf, I contoured north to the stream side, and easy pine forest walking. The creek is gorgeous. When the vegetation got thick, I was able to hike up dry streambeds, like granite escalators. At 10,300’, I crossed to the north side. It took about 3h from the Colby Lake trail to gain Brewer Lake. The lake is stunning, in a cirque surrounded by mountains, and a shore dotted with whitebark, penstemon and aster. That night temperatures dropped below freezing for the first time, but it was calm.
Day 6. An early start. I hiked up past icicles, frosted heather, and slick, frozen seeps to the lake below Sphinx Creek Col, where I cached most of my gear. The traverse and climb to the base of Brewer was remarkably easy, on granite slab and grassy talus. Had I underrated the beauty of this high country and overrated the challenge of traversing it? Finally, the real work began, the talus loomed large, and a snowfield intervened. The upper slopes of Brewer seemed endless, but pulling myself up giant blocks near the top was exhilarating and required my full attention. I finally reached the summit (13,570’) and reveled in remarkable views. North Guard, further along the ridge, soared grandly against the horizon. It was beyond my ability as a conservative solo climber, so I just enjoyed looking at it. Finally, full of gorgeous views and banana chips, I descended back to my cache. Sphinx Creek Col was easy, and I dropped off the north side, glissading on snow and talus-hopping right of the lakes. I stayed well above and east of lake 10,962. Granite ridgelines brought me easily to the Sphinx Lakes, two lakes created by a massive glacial terminal moraine. Whoa, a reminder of the massive forces that carved the landscape.
Day 7. Again, gently dropping granite ridgelines to the east of Sphinx Creek were the ticket for navigating through willow, talus and slab out of the drainage. When the creek veered east, I crossed and hugged the drier western slope. Soon enough I was on the Sphinx Creek Trail, and dropping to Bubbs Creek on a trail guarded by ramparts of stone, engineering marvels that would make any castle proud, with 360o views of granite cliffs, and to Road’s End.
Click here for animation of route.