I was excited by the prospect of my first autumn foray into the High Sierra. I was not to be disappointed. When the weather is as good it was this trip the Sierra is the place to be in the Fall. Amazing colors, a deserted wilderness, no bugs, and comfortable hiking weather more than made up for the cooler nights and shorter days.
Our plan was to hike in to Rae Lakes Saturday, climb Clarence King from Sixty-Lake Basin on Sunday, and hike out Monday. The hike in and out of Rae Lakes requires hiking approximately 12 arduous trail miles over two passes: Kearsarge out of Onion Valley and Glen Pass on the JMT. Tony and I both chose to carry our boots and hike the trail in tennis shoes. However, I chose to hike the icy north side of Glen pass in my boots, Tony did not (our earlier trip to Boundry must have made him cocky). Once over Glen pass on Saturday we did not see a soul the rest of the weekend until descending Kearsarge pass on our way out Monday afternoon..
We awoke Sunday morning to find our leader John had been sick all night. Tony, spotting the contents of a little baggie quickly pointed out that it probably had something to do with the cigar that had been smoked the night before. John thought his cooking had more to do with it. With our fearless leader humbled our plans to do Clarence King that day disintegrated. As we relaxed in camp drinking coffee and making alternate plans John began to feel better. With Fin Dome looming enticingly nearby and a description of a class 3 route in hand we set-off for Sixty-Lake Basin and Fin Dome's west face.
Gazing upon the west face of Fin Dome a class 3 route looked as improbable as our ability to find it. John, feeling much better at this point, decided he wanted to do Cotter. We all agreed to change plans once again and make the attempt, although I think Tony would have preferred to have given Fin Dome a try.
A fine cross-country scramble across Sixty-Lake Basin from Fin Dome brought John and I to a tarn at the base of the southeastern slope of Cotter. Unfortunately, we left Tony to follow us at his own pace and he was never able to regain sight of us so he chose to return to camp rather than make the summit attempt. John and I didn't even consider a direct ascent up the sandy southeast slope. It did make a great descent route though. We chose instead to swing south and ascend talus up to the south ridge. Dropping just below the west side of the ridge we continued to hop talus all the way to the summit. A short class 3 crack put us on the summit block. From the summit great views can be found of the of the surrounding lake filled basins and nearby mountains including Gardiner, Fin Dome, Dragon, Rixford, Gould, and of course Clarence King.
The summit register indicated very few ascents this year. I had but to turn back one page to find David Harris' and Steve Eckert's separate entries from August of '97. John found Eddie Sudol's entry from 1996. Also of note was an entry from the members of a researcher team taking a break from studying a species of frogs found only at Rae lakes.
On our return hike to Rae Lakes coming down the pass from Sixty Lakes Basin we came suddenly upon a group of four bighorn sheep who quickly ascended a nearby slope. John and I were ecstatic at our good fortune in sighting these rare animals. We continued down the trail discussing the nice class 5 moves of the sheep when to our utter disbelief we encountered two more groups of 5-6 bighorn sheep on each side of the trail. We just sat down and enjoyed the moment.
Back at camp we found our wayward partner relaxed, enjoying a cup of soup and soaking up the ambience of Rae Lakes. Painted Lady in the light of the setting sun proved her namesake. Although Tony had already come to terms with not bagging a peak this weekend we were able to further torment him with our tales of the bighorn sheep.
As I lay all bundled up and cozy in my sleeping bag I counted the distant thuds of sheep butting heads, four I think, before I finally drifted off to sleep.