This trip to Hellhole Reservoir in the Granite Chief Wilderness won’t qualify for the worst trip in the annals of backpacking because no one was seriously or mortally injured, but in our combined history, this was the worst trip ever for my husband and me. A combination of minor mishaps, lost trails, illness and topography came together to make this trip memorable for all the wrong reasons. Were there lessons to be learned? Most certainly.
We were excited to have four days off, so my husband, Steve, planned an ambitious route, spending hours with the topographic software program, inserting waypoints and printing maps. Distracted by other things I didn’t get too involved with planning, neglecting to do a web search on the route. We were planning a 30-mile route from Barker Pass in Tahoe to Hellhole Reservoir, up to McKinstry Lake and on to a path that intersected with the Rubicon Trail, a popular jeep route. The reservoir and jeep route were likely to be populated so it didn’t even seem like we were going into backcountry that was that remote.
From Barker Pass we walked to Diamond Crossing on the Powderhorn Trail, a beautiful section of the hike we had done many times before. After a very brief, though steep ascent the trail gradually descended into the Granite Chief Wilderness through a rare section of old growth forest. We gazed up at the postpiles as we always do, admiring the precise vertical formations of columnar basalt towering overhead. Spring comes late to Tahoe, so even in July the wildflowers were out in profusion, including mules ears, corn lilies, shooting stars, Indian paintbrush, columbine, pussypaws and checker mallows. The air was heavy with the scent of pine and wild oregano, and the hiking was effortless. After about two hours, we arrived at the Diamond Crossing intersection of trails, marked with a wooden sign. Instead of heading to the creek to camp, or to the Whiskey Creek Trail as we have in the past, we turned left and headed toward Hellhole, well known as a place lost skiers can end up if they ski off the backside of Alpine Meadows or Squaw Valley ski areas.
We arrived at the banks of Five Lakes Creek at a flat, low spot. We were able to cross a side channel by rock hopping but had to remove our boots to cross the main channel as it was a bit deep. The cool water was refreshing as we gingerly stepped across the creek on slippery rocks. From there we found the trail easily and began our long descent to Hellhole. For the first few hours, the trail was easy to follow though there was quite a bit a deadfall to clamber over. This trail is not maintained but was visible by a depression on the ground and by blazes in the trees. The cedar forest was a bit scraggly but kept us cool in the afternoon sun. Sometime in the afternoon the trail became more difficult to follow and Steve began the first of many episodes coordinating GPS, topo map and compass. We were comfortable that we were heading in the correct direction, at least near the trail, scrambling over increasing amounts of deadfall as we traversed a large hill. We noted that the trees had changed from the pines and cedars to oak, signifying our loss of elevation. Eventually, we spotted Hellhole Reservoir, glittering blue in the distance. Having completely lost the trail, we crossed a fairly wide streambed containing only a trickle of water. On the other side, we stood looking at the lake and the steep hillside dropping down dramatically, wondering where the trail was when we spotted one stone cairn, then another. We had found the trail by happenstance. We picked our way down the steep, rocky embankment paralleling the creek bed, knees complaining but knowing we were close. After some searching, we found a good tent site, which involved a bit of a scramble down to the water but afforded expansive views of the lake. Tired, but satisfied that nine difficult miles were behind us, we made camp and watched a few boats traverse the lake. We’re not used to seeing trappings of the modern world when we backpack, but we were expecting it and knew it was only one night until we got into more remote country. The music blaring from the campsite across the inlet was a bit unnerving, but they were playing some good selections so we considered it happy hour, gave them a neighborly wave and had a drink. We reveled in the relative warmth of the water and evening air, something you don’t get in the higher elevations of Tahoe. Tired from the exertion of the day, we turned in early and drifted off to sleep, only to fly out of the tent at the sound of an explosion ricocheting off the granite walls cupping the lake. Our happy campers were shooting off fireworks in a pre-4th of July celebration. Groaning, we went back to bed and were only mildly startled as a new discharge went off every 15 minutes for awhile.
The next morning we broke camp to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, paying homage to the pop star who had died the week before. We had a relatively easy five-mile day planned to get to McKinstry Lake, but we got going early, knowing the trail might not be well marked. We weren’t sure how we were going to get to the other side of the inlet as the water looked fairly high, but we figured if we just kept walking we’d find a narrow spot. We hugged the rocky shore and ducked under low hanging oaks as we walked toward the narrow section, stumbling into Nate and Julie’s camp as they were having breakfast. We were so lucky to happen across them for so many reasons. They knew the area well and gave us all kinds of beta, saying that they trail we were headed to was indeed faint. However, they encouraged us on. Nate was concerned that we wouldn’t find a way across the river, saying that normally one could walk over to the Rubicon River on the other side, but the abnormally high water precluded that. He knew that the inlet became a narrow gorge further on, so he very kindly suggested ferrying us across in their kayaks. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, or we would have been stymied.
Steve took one kayak with a pack strapped to it, and Nate took the other, with me stowed in the back. Ten minutes later we were on the other side. Grateful for the information and lift, we bade him goodbye, waved at Julie across the shore, and climbed up a knoll to have a look at the Rubicon River. A beautiful sandy beach bordering a pool, water rushing over granite boulders above and leafy trees providing shade created an idyllic scene. We waved down at George, and his eight-year-old daughter, Natalie, and tumbled down to talk to them. They reiterated the same story as Nate, saying some campers had done a day hike up the next portion of the route, reporting that it was marked in some places, not in others. We thanked him for the information and after I accidentally slipped into the water, completely submerging my boots, I changed my socks and we were off again. Taking off on the right side of the river (looking upstream) we found some faint trail markings, then more obvious stone cairns that took us over a steep section of rock bordering the mid-portion of the river, and quickly descended back down to the river. So far so good. We stopped at the river and had lunch, then plunged into the brush and could not find any semblance of a trail. We brought out the GPS and bushwhacked our way up a seasonal dry stream bed until we got above the brush onto smooth granite. Steve saw a rattlesnake, reminding us that we had been warned about a rhumba of rattlesnakes on this trail so we took our time with foot placements in rock crevices. We were able to cross the larger creek high on the granite, then miraculously, stone cairns again appeared in profusion, all the way to the top. We gained a tremendous amount of elevation, so while it was an effort to get up, we reveled in the confidence that we were on a route.
As we neared a saddle conifer trees were visible as the route disappeared into the forest and we repeated the same scenario as before. We bushwhacked through dense brush and clambered over deadfall, trying to pick up the faint traces of a trail that all but vanished as the forest thickened around us, now dense with swarms of mosquitoes. Swatting and slapping, we forged on, believing that we would happen upon the high alpine Lake McKinstry at any moment. We traversed a hillside and headed for higher ground. Tired and running low on water we eagerly anticipated our first lake views. We came into an opening, walked to the last rise, looked over the edge of an abyss to see no lake, only steep folds of granite and forests deepening into clefts that ended very far down in a narrow ribbon of water, out of reach and showing no signs of a lake. With a sinking feeling we realized we must have taken a wrong turn and uncertainly tried to establish our location on the map. Fatigue, hunger, thirst and the waning rays of summer sun worked on our consciousness in unhelpful ways. I suggested that we turn back to where we knew we were on the trail, but Steve pointed out that we needed water and that trumped route finding at that moment. Hoping we would find a creek, or impossibly, that we might find a way down to the distant river, we headed down, carefully picking our way through dry stream beds and traversing the steep hillside. We got into a dry creek bed as the slope steepened, which provided a reasonably safe descent, filled with boulders that were so large I sat on them, dangled my legs over the front and slid down. As dusk fell we donned our headlamps and forged ahead. We came across a seep that provided enough water to fill out bottles, but Steve was discouraged to look beyond to find the gradient unsafe to proceed. In the gathering twilight, with fatigue mounting I said I’d be happy to throw my sleeping bag down in the narrow creek bed and consider our situation in the light of day. It was a warm evening, the mosquitoes had abandoned our trek and a night bivouacking in the open didn’t seem so perilous. Besides, we were near water so our immediate needs were taken care of. Steve crawled to the slope to the left of the creek and said he found a better place to bivvy. I looked doubtfully at the overhanging route and Steve got the rope out and tied it to a tree so I’d have something to hang on to. When I got to his special place it turned out to be a steep slope with two trees close together. He laid his bag across the hill with his body between the trees, while I laid my air mattress and sleeping bag parallel to his but against the higher tree. We tied the rope between the trees and clipped our packs to the rope so they wouldn’t get away from us in the night. We managed to fire up the stove and cook some dinner, one of the most inedible freeze dried meals we’ve ever had. I tried to force myself to eat, but could only consume a few bites of the pungent curry mix. Unaware that I was getting sick, I chalked it up to exhaustion, tried to drink as much energy drink as I could and turned in for the night. We spent a restless night in the open, both grappling silently with the trip, wondering where we went wrong, whether we’d be able to get off this slope, if we’d be able to climb up what we had just come down, if we’d be able to find our way back, or forward. The Sierras can feel pretty vast and remote when you’re a small speck in a creek bed on a large forested slope, off your route.
The next morning we were up at first light, and each had come to the same conclusion. We had to climb back up, and we had to turn back. Even if we could easily find our route, we weren’t making good enough time on these faint trails to be able to complete our itinerary in the allotted time, and we only had food for two more days, though we could stretch that out if necessary. We decided to get off our precarious perch and into the safer creek bed to have breakfast, knocking off the first of four milestones I had separated the day into. Out came the rope and after a half hour of skidding our packs and ourselves over to the creek we breakfasted. I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t hungry, but I ate some granola and focused on the difficult pitches ahead, knowing we had to exercise caution. It wasn’t steep enough to require a rope, but we pulled out our rusty rock climbing skills to find tiny footholds and sturdy handholds, sometimes stemming against the sides of the narrow creek bed, Steve pushing me over some of the larger boulders. It was slow going, but we were making steady progress and I was elated that the next milestone was falling away. Pulling on some sturdy Manzanita bushes we pulled ourselves over the smoother rock and returned to the flat plateau where we had gazed down at the river the evening before. We spent some time with the map and conclusively determined where we were, where we were supposed to be, and where we were headed. Crossing a large meadow, we found two pieces of pink surveyors tape and wondered if we were back on the trail. Nearby we found other traces of the trail and headed back toward Hellhole. Immensely relieved to see the distant azure waters we headed down gray slabs of granite. It was a hot day and we headed toward a gash in the granite where we had found water the day before. Dazed, I staggered to the small stream, pulled out my pad and curled into a ball. Realizing something was amiss we finally determined that I was sick. I tried so hard to eat some soup, but the food just wouldn’t go down. Concerned with the amount of physical exertion we were expending and the negligible calories I was taking in, Steve got some energy drink down me, dipped my bandana in the cold water and tried to cool me down. There was no stopping. We simply had to get down to Hellhole, where I knew we had a much better chance of rescue than anywhere on the granite, though we were at least out in the open, unlike our perch of the night before. I got my stuff stowed and shouldered my pack, so out of it I didn’t even realize Steve had taken the food barrel to relieve me of some weight. We walked across the hot granite and followed the trail all the way down, connecting with a section we hadn’t been able to find the day before that dropped right down to the river on the right side (looking down). When we got to the river we crossed to the left side where we rested and put our feet in the water. I tried to eat some trail mix, to no avail. Frustratingly, we lost the trail at the river in the thick underbrush in a similar place where we had lost the trail the day before. We pushed through, scratched and bleeding, just focused on getting to the lake. In some places, the brush was almost impenetrable. We tried going higher, lower, by the river, away from the river, through creek beds, but it all led through the thick brush. Finally ending up at the river we decided to cross to see if we had better luck on the other side. It was much more open and though we didn’t have a trail we could at least keep up some momentum. I kept having to rest and at one point I lay down and could barely move. Steve scouted around and was gone a long time, but he returned triumphant that he had found a marked trail. Feeling weak but just putting one foot in front of the other we meandered up and down, not knowing where we were going but trusting the cairns. Just as we neared the lake I paused, stepped to the side of the trail and vomited all over a rock. Steve all of a sudden looked stricken, saying, “Now I’m worried.” I just stared dully ahead and kept walking, just wanting to get in my tent to lie down. We got to the sandy beach at the mouth of the Rubicon River where I threw my pack down and sat there, almost uncomprehending that we had made to the third milestone. How were going to achieve the fourth milestone I had no idea, which was getting across the river inlet that we had been ferried across the day before. It was mid-week, so worst case scenario I figured boaters might be back the following weekend. Steve clambered over the boulders protecting the mouth of the river while I lolled around trying to feel better. I dozed and wished I could get out of sun but mostly reveled in non-movement. I calculated endlessly in my head: how long it would take Cindy and Laureen, friends back home who had my itinerary, to realize we were overdue, and how long it would take them to initiate a rescue. We wouldn’t even be overdue for two more days. What if they forgot we were gone? What if it took them a couple of days to think about initiating a search? What if we hadn’t been able to get out of the creek? What if I got sicker? What if we couldn’t get across the river? What if, what if, what if. “Who cares”, I said to myself, “I made it to Hellhole, and that was the goal of the day”.
Steve’s head popped up above the boulders and he came running down to tell me that George and Natalie were still at their camp. Our saviors! After a quick assessment of pack loads and kayak capabilities, we determined that Natalie’s small kayak probably couldn’t handle the weight of the packs. Steve crammed his body precariously into Natalie’s tiny kayak and clung to George’s kayak as they rafted over to the other side. When George returned he asked Natalie if she thought she could paddle to the other side, towing his kayak loaded with a pack. She flashed a smile and said, “Sure, Daddy, should I get my PFD?” She scampered up the rocks in her pink crocs, clad in pink pants and a pink top and returned seconds later outfitted in her Personal Floatation Device. She proudly stated that she had been kayaking since she was seven (one year ago) and expertly maneuvered the kayaks across the river. When she returned she was game for another trip, taking the second pack. Then she picked me up and towed me across, delivering me to safety. What a great kid. We couldn’t believe our luck that they were there and I still don’t know how we would have crossed the river inlet if they hadn’t been there.
Steve had the tent erected and I dove inside to rest, hoping that an hour lying down would revive me. Steve took care of all the camp chores and called me to dinner awhile later. I tried to get up but couldn’t even muster the strength to leave the tent. He brought me some dinner and with strong encouragement from him I tried to take a few bites. A few minutes later I barely got the tent fly unzipped before I lost dinner. I tried to drink some water and gave up for the night, snuggling in my bag, worrying about the morrow. When Steve turned in I said that if I felt the same or worse in the morning I didn’t think I could walk out. He tried to be as reassuring as he could, and said, “Don’t worry about what we’ll do. We’ll do whatever we have to to get out, and we’ll figure it out when we get up.” We knew George and Natalie were pulling out early and we thought we could flag them down to get a message to a ranger if a rescue was necessary.
In the morning, I felt slightly better. I still couldn’t eat, but I was strong enough to move around. We waved goodbye as George and Natalie slid by, and I resolved to get myself out under my own power. We broke camp and I again separated the day into milestone sections. First we ascended the steep trail adjacent to the creek, staying meticulously on the trail. We still had some difficulty with the trail when it crossed the creek, but we devoted considerable time to route finding and found ourselves back on the trail for the most part. I had to take frequent rest breaks as the first part of the trail was extremely steep, later easing into a traverse. By noon, I was able to drink a little broth and eat some noodles, the first food I’d had in several days. Hours later we stopped at Diamond Crossing and made the last of our real food, some mashed potatoes, and that tasted pretty good. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I could force the bland food down. By now we had been hiking for eight out of what was ultimately twelve hours of hiking and I was extremely fatigued. The last section from Diamond Crossing to Barker Pass involves quite a bit of elevation gain so I knew it would be difficult. We hoped to make it to the car before dark, but the gathering shadows caught us and we had to use our headlamps for the last hour or so, which made staying on the trail very challenging. I was physically so spent my milestones were now broken into 10 step stages. I’d take 10 steps, then another 10, then another, trying to make 30 steps before pausing to rest. Steve took even more weight from me. The last thing we wanted to do was spend another night outside when we were so close. Laboriously I counted off endless 10 step stages until we caught sight of the car at 10 pm. I sank into the seat, grateful to not have to move any muscles to propel myself. My arms and legs wouldn’t stop shaking for hours. Our friends were calling us, worried because we were overdue. I needn’t have worried that they forgot about us as they would have initiated a search the next morning. When we arrived home we quickly showered and tumbled into our soft bed, visions of various stages flitting across my consciousness, unbidden and unwanted memories of a trip I wanted to forget.
Later we thought about what we would have done differently, and there were a few things. We should have done more research on the trail, and we would have been forewarned about just how difficult the route finding would be on this un-maintained trail. We let fatigue and a realistic, but misguided quest for water lead us down a ravine that we had no business being in. I have no idea how I got sick as we were meticulous about filtering our water, and most of our food was dry.
We did a few things right. We turned back when we should have and abandoned our original destination. We didn’t have unlimited food, but we had enough to last a day or two extra if we had needed it. We were armed with a good map, GPS and compass, and used them extensively. We have good backcountry skills and knowledge of first aid. We left our itinerary with friends who knew what to do if we didn’t return on time.
As the poison oak rash bloomed across my arms a few days later I reflected back on the experience. The backcountry comes with inherent risks, and part of the appeal of the backcountry is to test yourself against the elements. We passed the test, but only by the slimmest margin. I pushed myself to the very limit of physical endurance, Steve took on as much as he could to lighten my load, and the end result is that we were able to draw on our strength and experience to get ourselves out. A pleasant trip? No. A successful trip? Yes.
Here are some websites we should have checked before we left:
- Gorp, Hellhole Trail Granite Chief Wilderness Area
- Granite Chief Wilderness
- Wikipedia, Hell Hole Reservoir
There are much better hikes listed in this invaluable guide book: The Tahoe Sierra, by Peter Schaffer.
Permits are not required for overnight use in the Granite Chief Wilderness. However, California Campfire Permits are required if using a portable campstove or building a woodfire. Permits and information about current fire restrictions are available from any Ranger Station or California Dept. of Forestry office. They can also be obtained instantly online after taking a brief quiz at PreventWildfireCA.org.