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114 degrees? Time to buy an ice ax

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POSTED June 16, 2017 1:44 a.m.

The high is supposed to hit 114 degrees in the coming few days.
The perfect time to buy an ice ax, right?
That might strike you as a bit strange but remember it’s me we’re talking about.
Actually I’m getting ready for a week-long hike in the eastern Sierra next month. And it wouldn’t be a summer vacation if I can’t hike up to mountain passes cresting at 9,000 feet or more.
An ice ax comes in handy especially this time of year when the sun at higher elevations makes the top layers of snow slightly slushy before refreezing overnight.
On previous hikes such as Bishop Pass last year I’ve crossed fairly small stretches of snow on trails in the summer. To say they were a tad slippery and that standard hiking poles weren’t all that sturdy is a slight understatement.
This year I elected to base close to home in Lee Vining — some 160 miles east of Manteca just off Highway 120. My intent is to tackle six different trails to mountain crests areas between and near my two favorite areas for day hikes — Tioga Pass on Highway 120 and Sonora Pass on Highway 108. Normally I head farther south around Mt. Whitney and the Sierra east of Bishop.
My affliction/love affair with both passes started 30 years ago this month.
On the first day of summer in June of 1987 I was riding out of Lee Vining on the fourth leg of a six-day fully loaded bicycle tour from Lincoln in Placer County. I had a younger cyclist — read that a skinny as a rail 18-year-old with no body fat — riding with me heading for our next stop in Sonora. Perhaps a half mile up Tioga Canyon after leaving Highway 395, it started to snow. What I expected to be a quad challenging 12.7 mile climb gaining 3,200 feet that would take 90 minutes to reach the Yosemite National Park entrance at Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet turned into a slushy, cold slog.
Making matters worse was the winter cycling tights and gear that Brian had packed wasn’t enough to keep him from shivering uncontrollably. So about a third of the way up, I peeled down to my summer cycling jersey and shorts to give Brian an extra layer. It eventually stopped snowing as we neared the pass. After resting in Tuolumne Meadows for a short time we started the descent only to be slammed with hail.
That, by the way, was my first time in Yosemite. I didn’t drive the high country or venture into Yosemite Valley for another five years as I was completely satisfied at the time with bicycling across Tioga Pass four times.
It was 29 years ago today on another fully loaded bicycling tour with friends that I nearly met my waterloo on Sonora Pass above Kennedy Meadows a half-mile beyond where Highway 108 reaches a 15.91 percent grade. I collapsed on the road from what an emergency room physician hours later when I came to at Tuloumne General Hospital in Sonora said was the worst bonk he’d ever seen. Not only was my glycogen depleted to the point I had no more energy left to ride but the 90-degree heat pedaling up from Sonora took its toll.
It didn’t stop me from bicycling. If anything it made me more determined to cycle opting for 100 mile rides battling the winds and grinding up hills and mountains carrying 30 more pounds than I do today. It was so I could savor downhills where the fastest I ever clocked was 68 mph coming down the Nevada side of Mt. Rose.
The experience on Sonora Pass — and a head-on encounter with a dog going downhill out of Auburn at 35 mph a year later where I woke up in the back of an ambulance — made me double down on taking precautions.
That’s the reason I’m getting an ice ax. I may strive to stay out of risky situations but you never know. That said I’m getting a little anal about watching videos of how to use an ice ax in case you need to self-arrest. That’s jargon for stopping a slip from becoming something much worse on a slope covered with snow.
That said, more than a few people think I’m insane to hike where there is snow still piled on trails that often hug mountains.
I beg to differ. I’d be insane not to hike.
When I was bicycling 10,000 miles or so a year it made me realize how vast California really is. It also allowed me to consume inordinate amounts of ice cream without gaining weight. I never really soaked in much of anything.
Hiking is entirely different. You learn to appreciate miniature flower blooms at 11,000 feet breaking through granite and trying to survive the elements for a brief dance before dying. How can we not soak in the beauty around us given that our stay on this massive rock orbiting the sun is limited?
 There was a time I thought a 1980 Datsun 280ZX was the most beautiful thing created, especially the two seater I owned that had a T-top, plush leather seats, a killer stereo, and lacquered graphite gray body paint.
It no longer even makes my top 100,000 list of beautiful things I’ve seen.
It’s hard to top sitting on Mt. Dana — my favorite day hike near Manteca — and peering down from its 13,050-foot summit less than a three hour hike from Highway 120 with sweeping views of the Yosemite high country, Mono Lake, and the Great Basin.

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