Elizabeth and I took advantage of the long Labor Day weekend by climbing Red Slate Mountain as a 2-night backpacking trip. It would be our first backpacking trip since our nearly distastrous trip to Jennie Lake, and our first backpacking trip alone.
On Friday night we drove 40 hungry miles on Route 395 before we found a restaurant that was open after 8. We stopped at the first one we found: Rhino’s Bar and Grille in Bridgeport. It was more fun than anything we could have hoped for, with a local crowd at the bar wearing cowboy hats and tight blue jeans, guys in camouflage playing pool, and a cheeseburger-eating patron wearing a red “DEAR LEADER CHAIRMAN MAOBAMA” t-shirt. A jukebox playing Metallica completed the scene. It was the first night of the holiday weekend and everyone was having a great time. The food was good, and we’d definitely come back.
After dinner we spent the night at the Sportsmen’s Inn across the street, an 1880 hotel that could have passed for a haunted house. Our room was out in front, so we could hear the traffic on 395 all night and were illuminated by the motel sign outside our window. We probably could have gotten a better night’s sleep on the ground at Deadman Summit, as I did on the trip to University Peak a few weeks ago.
At 8:30 on Saturday morning Elizabeth and I arrived at the McGee Creek trailhead under a clear blue sky.Whereas Elizabeth was excited about the coming weekend, I felt uneasy. I felt as if I’d forced myself to come. There were only a few weeks of clear weather left in the Sierra Nevada, and I felt compelled to take advantage of them—to fit in as much time in the mountains as possible, whether I liked it or not, since I would regret not going enough, not accomplishing enough, not pushing myself enough, once the season was over. And I knew these were all the wrong reasons to go, which made me feel even crappier.
But I put those thoughts away as we started up the trail, confident that John Muir would be proved right about receiving the mountains’ good tidings . The valley floor was filled with a gold and copper-tarnish mix of sagebrush, bitterbrush, and blooming rabbitbrush. It was split by a line of vibrant green trees tracing the course of McGee Creek and bordered by 11,000-foot ridges. At its far end a line of peaks rose past 12,000 feet.
The only trees next to the trail were a few aspen, juniper, and birch. We’d both brought our Chrome Domes, silver lightweight backpacking umbrellas, and they were perfect for the nearly treeless landscape. Almost everyone we met on the trail asked us about them.
The chutes on both sides of the valley were filled with aspens that were starting to show their fall colors. A few of the aspens had been felled by beavers and were used to build an impressive dam across McGee Creek, creating a great pond in the valley.
We would camp at Big McGee Lake for two nights. At 10,500 feet, it was just 8 miles from the trailhead, and with plenty of time to cover the distance, Elizabeth and I walked slowly and stopped whenever we felt the urge. No use hurrying to the lake and then sitting around until it got dark. Better to spend our time taking in the fantastic scenery. I could feel my mood improving as we walked farther into the wilderness and the mountains worked their influence.
As we climbed, the sagebrush and aspen gave way to a forest of lodgepole pines, hemlocks, and western white pines. It was cool and shady and McGee Creek, now a white-water cascade, roared through a rocky ravine.
We emerged from the lodgepole pine forest into subalpine meadows framed by spectacular mountains. The meadows were losing their green and turning auburn and the only conspicuous wildflowers left were ranger’s buttons. The trees—lodgepole and whitebark pines—were widely separated.
We arrived at brilliant, cobalt Big McGee Lake at 2 in the afternoon. This gave us an average pace of less than 1.5 miles per hour from the trailhead—not as slow as we had hoped, but slow enough.
Big McGee was set in a granite cirque topped by Red and White Mountain. A stiff wind was blowing down the cirque, so we picked a campsite sheltered by a grove of whitebark pines. Elizabeth took a nap in the tent while I walked around to admire the scenery.
At dinner Elizabeth and I introduced ourselves to Sam, another backpacker staying at the lake. He’d come up from San Diego on Friday and was planning on dayhiking to McGee Pass Sunday. This happened to be the same route we were taking to Red Slate Mountain, and we considered hiking to the pass together. We all cooked and ate dinner as the sun set, then went to our tents to sleep.
The wind blew all night long, roaring down the cirque, over the lake, through the pines, and across our tent, flapping its sides and blowing dust on our faces. But the wind quieted down often enough that we slept much better than we had at the frightening Sportmen’s Inn the night before. We were also blessed by a full moon that made walking outside the tent a phenomenal experience. We did not need our headlamps: everything—the stark peaks, the lake, the pines, and the boulders near our tent—glowed in its cold white light.
The next morning, Elizabeth and I saw Sam again as we packed our bags to hike up to Red Slate Mountain. We’d hike to McGee Pass together, then Sam would decide whether to continue to the summit or go back to camp.
We left camp at 8:30. After spending so much time staring at the lake on Friday, I was excited to see it from a new perspective. We hiked away and soon enough we were a few hundred feet above our campsite, with excellent views of the lake, the cirque, and the mountains around it.
We walked past timberline through a fantastic landscape of meadows, streams, and waterfalls. The only trees here were whitebark pines, and even they became isolated and gnarled as we gained elevation, eventually disappearing completely in the alpine tundra.
We stopped at a seep, green and dripping with water, that was a jackpot for wildflowers. From it grew bog orchids with their lovely white flowers, elephant’s heads with their tiny pink flowers, and grass of Parnassus, whose white, five-petaled flowers Elizabeth said looked like a miracle. Next to the ranger’s buttons, rose-colored mountain onion, scarlet paintbrush, and some kind of yellow monkeyflower added color to the scene.
In the canyon east of McGee Pass, we were flanked by steep ridges of layered red and white rock and walked amid their colorful rubble. At its end stood an imposing peak with two snow-filled cuoloirs. I’d read about the route up Red Slate Mountain and by all accounts it sounded like a walk-up. But the mountain in front of us looked more difficult than that, I thought, so it couldn’t be Red Slate.
On top of McGee Pass we got our first view of the landscape to the west: meadows split by lazy rivers and bordered by pine forests and granite mountains. Backpackers heading in the opposite direction congratulated us on making it to the pass, but we didn’t mention that we were going to the top of Red Slate Mountain and that getting to the pass was the easy part. Sam found the hike to McGee Pass quicker than he expected and decided to come with us to the summit.
By now I had confirmed that the imposing peak was in fact Red Slate Mountain. Its slope looked less steep from the pass, but it still looked more difficult than I’d imagined. In particular, a steep band of gray rock below the summit looked as if it might give us some difficulty, and I was eager to see what it would be like once we were on it.
The wind hadn’t let up since the night before and it whipped us as we climbed. We found an intermittent use trail but didn’t bother to stay on it at first since the slope was so mild. The mountain’s rocks were indeed like plates of red slate, and they sounded like wind chimes as we walked on them.
We took a break halfway up, then continued over slightly steeper terrain with bigger rocks. Getting off trail now meant scrambling with hands, so we tried harder to stay on it.
When we got to the band of gray rock I’d been concerned about, the terrain got steeper and more slippery, but we were able to get through it in a few minutes, using our hands for balance and scrambling most of the way.
Above the gray rock, the slope got mellow and we cruised to the summit, arriving at 12:30. On top, we were over a half mile higher than our campsite; the ridges around it and even Red and White Mountain were well below us.
Sam was quite happy to have made the climb, and he surprised me when he said that this was his first Sierra peak and that he’d never hiked this high before. The view from pass, he said, just didn’t compare with the view from the summit. Indeed! Being on a peak spoils one to the more modest joys of valleys, lakes, and passes. We snacked and rested on the summit, then took photos and signed the register.
Elizabeth and Sam were a little worried about the descent, but we were able to follow the use trail through the steep sections without any trouble. I thought we’d be home-free once we got to milder slopes lower on the mountain, but Elizabeth didn’t like how the rocks shifted under her feet and her progress was slow. The wind was incessant, and when we got down to the pass we took a break behind some rocks that gave us shelter.
At 3:30, back at camp, Sam packed his bag and left for a spot closer to the trailhead so that he could make an early departure the next morning. We then exchanged e-mail addresses and wished each other well.
Elizabeth and I were both weary from being out in the sun and wind all day, so we lay down on our sleeping pads under the pines. I had a headache and spent half an hour just staring at the branches of a whitebark pine swaying in the wind against the blue sky. Elizabeth was a little exhausted and joked that she didn’t like backpacking, or even like hiking, anymore.
With Sam gone, we had the campsite to ourselves—no one else in sight. We rinsed our hands and faces in the cold lake, then stuck our feet in until they got numb. We ate dinner at sunset, then watched the sky grow dark and the stars come out. Cleaned, rested, and with full stomachs, our moods improved considerably. Elizabeth no longer hated hiking and I’d finally gotten rid of my misgivings from the start of the trip. The wind had settled down. We went to bed at 8:30 and slept soundly all night.
This morning, we got up at 6 and packed up our gear. We left at sunrise, saying our goodbyes to Big McGee Lake and to the trees and critters that call it home. As we walked away, the top of Red and White Mountain blazed in the sunrise light while the moon, almost too bright to look at, hung over it in a deep blue sky.
We made good time on the way to the trailhead, getting back to our car in less than 4 hours. I particularly enjoyed traveling through the many life zones of the eastern Sierra Nevada, from subalpine meadows and woodlands to lodgepole forests to aspen groves to sagebrush flats, in so short an amount of time. We had both enjoyed ourselves tremendously on the backpacking trip and we were sad to leave. But a stop at the Whoa Nellie Deli for lunch lifted our spirits and prepared us for the return to civilization.
 ‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.’ – John Muir, Our National Parks