June 2, 2012

Alta-Toquima Wilderness

Alta-Toquima Wilderness in central Nevada has been on our bucket list for a good while. I guess it was on the list for a bunch of reasons; it's remote as hell, it's high altitude, there's some cool archeology, it's a designated wilderness, the aspen trees are always a plus, and it just looks cool on the map, and from the big valleys below.
Besides it's in the middle of the Great Basin; my favorite geologic phenomenon. We also wanted to do something special to celebrate two years together.
Last winter the mountains accumulated a pretty pathetic snow cover, which usually makes for extremely dry conditions during summer, but it also made access possible to the high mountains about a month earlier than normal years. With a look at the NOAA Snow Data remote sensor sites we got a pretty good idea how much snow was still around. We set out for the Monitor Valley and Pine Creek trailhead on the east slope of the Toquima Range. We drove all day and finally called it a night on the side of the road, out in the middle of the wide Monitor Valley, where we slept on the bare ground under the stars.

The next day we loaded up and continued about another hour to the trailhead at Pine Creek Campground.

Way before we left home to do this hike I knew it'd be a total ass kicker. The elevation was about 4,000 vertical in about 3 miles. We planned on camping at 11,600 feet in dramatic exposure, in the middle of a plateau 8 miles long by 2 miles wide. There wasn't a stick of vegetation taller than my shoe in any direction. I knew that if there was any problem with weather it was clear that we'd be in trouble so we packed heavy packs with extra food, fuel, and extra beefy shelter. We were ready for every potential trouble we could think of, but little did we know that our outdoor skills would be tested in a scary way when Lisa had a brush with Acute Mountain Sickness
It took about 4 hours of intense work to reach the summit plateau with our heavy packs. We'd stop periodically to amuse ourselves with the feeling of the altitude draining the energy despite the Clif-bar snacks. We have both been at altitudes way higher than our destination on other occasions, but the extra heavy pack made this hike one of the best ass-whoopin's I've ever had. The country on the approach was very diverse as we passed through the pinion and juniper below, then the aspens, then the rubble-field terrain above tree line, and finally the stark plateau on top. From on top we beheld a view that only the Great Basin could provide of yet more tremendous mountains of wild Nevada to the west.

We arrived on top a little later than we expected and I could tell that Lisa wasn't feeling good and not being her usual self. I thought it was the result of the severe ass kicking we received over the course of the afternoon ascent. She complained of a head ache that would go away when we stopped for a break.  During our break we shared some snacks and sat on the edge quietly looking into the Monitor Valley far below. I thought to myself and re-capped what I knew from my Wilderness First Responder experience about Acute Mountain Sickness, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema. I knew that head ache and puking were sure signs that we needed to go down. I also knew that the only fix for AMS and HACE was to go down. I hoped that Lisa's head ache would go away with rest and food, but decided to draw our evacuation line in the sand at a puke. We were done with the steep ascent and were now at 11,500 feet. After our break we planned to cross the plateau a couple miles to where we thought there'd be water and camping. From near the Middle Summit of Mt. Jefferson we could see a mile or so into a shallow depression where we planned to camp west of the North Summit. Lisa was now out of water and feeling really crappy so we found a suitable place nearby to camp. It was now about 6pm. We changed clothes, and I set about melting snow to filter water, Lisa laid down for a rest. I was setting up some rocks to use as a wind screen for the stove when Lisa stood up, walked a few paces away and puked. Watching her puke at 11,500 feet in remote Nevada scared the crap outta me. I knew we now had a race with dehydration and AMS on our hands. I told Lisa that I thought it was important for us to go down and that I thought it'd make her feel dramatically better. She was exhausted and really just wanted to lay down, but she laced her boots with that "bucket of nails" toughness that always impresses me.
My mind raced with what I remembered from our route up the mountain; campsites, water availability, parts of the trail that would be difficult in the dark, where the moon was and when it would provide useful light to navigate by. I was tired, but very focused. Every fifteen minutes we'd stop so Lisa could drink from my water supply. I would ask her what the nausea level was on a 1-10 scale, which probably drove her nuts, but I was impatient and wanted to see some results from descent. We got down to 10,700 feet where we filtered water out of a melting snowfield. We both drank the lovely cold water, and Lisa puked again. We continued down to 10,400 feet to a nice little campsite, just inside the tree line. Lisa thought she may have been feeling better so we stopped to eat some dinner. She ate a few crackers, drank some water, and puked again. With each passing quarter hour I could see the energy seeping out of Lisa. The puking was quickly dehydrating her after a physically exhausting day. I knew that with her declining strength we were also becoming vulnerable by exasperating the situation and stumbling under a heavy pack in the dark. We packed for the 3rd time that day and set out from 10,400 feet. Lisa set the pace and we traveled through the aspen glades during an enchanting time of night. The moon shadows in the aspens were just becoming visible when we walked into a camp at 9,400 feet. We dropped our heavy packs for a break and I noticed Lisa was way more chatty and more like herself. We  set to filtering water again. I asked Lisa to force herself to eat something while we filtered. She ate and drank and didn't puke. We finished filtering along the bubbling moonlit stream, then unpacked for the 3rd time that day at about 11pm. Lisa set the tent in the beautiful aspens. I made a smoky fire then heated water for a cup of sugary cocoa, then made salty indian curry with rice for our dinner. While we ate Lisa commented how amazing it was that she felt so much better just by going down 2,000 feet. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief I can remember! We went to bed after midnight. That was the end of the day marking our two years together.

We didn't get into the archeology of the Alta-Toquima, but that's ok....

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