It was a Thursday afternoon, and I had just checked in to a hotel room in Truckee, CA. I had driven an hour or so from Colfax to attend a wedding and visit my parents who were flying in from Idaho later that night. The girl at the front desk had looked at me with some worry when I walked in with my full military rucksack complete with a machete strapped to the side, but I didn't really have any other option. The majority of Team Bersheisse had green lighted a weekend trip to begin the following night, and it would be the last time such a large number of the core would be together. I had forgotten about the wedding, which was scheduled for 3pm on Friday, about 6 hours before I was supposed to be in Sierra City to meet the Team. So, this is how I ended up walking through the doors of a Hampton Inn wearing formal clothing and carrying enough equipment to survive alone in the Sierra Nevada mountains for around a month.
On my way to the hotel, I had stopped by the Ace Mountain Hardware store in Truckee to pick up a few forgotten items. The store is definitely not your typical Ace Hardware. In addition to tools they are fully stocked with all kinds of wilderness survival and sporting goods. For $7.95, I got a custom topographical map of the Sierra Buttes/Deer Lake area printed and laminated. As I studied the map of our weekends adventure, I began to realize that "backpacking in the Sierra Buttes" didn't mean we were going to be mountain climbing. Our destination, Deer Lake, would actually take us 3 miles away from the Buttes. I decided that, if need be, I would skip the wedding to go early the next day to make the climb before the Team arrived.
I got a late start on Friday, having some obligation to my parents and family friends, but I was off on the 50-mile drive to Sierra City without too much trouble. Fellow adventurer and good friend Dane had been living in the forest just outside the town of Calpine, and I was looking forward to stopping in to check up on him. However, I couldn't remember the name of the small town, and only later did I realize that my path to Sierra City took me left on CA-49 when I should have veered right on CA-89 for a short detour to Calpine. Soon I was flying around a sharp bend in the road and my mountain loomed in front of me, reaching like the tentacles of a giant squid into the sky. Once I saw what I was up against, I forgot about Dane and was eager to get my feet on the ground.
There are several different routes that lead up the mountain to the fire lookout station, which sits 8,591 feet above sea level. The usual trail begins at Upper Sardine Lake and climbs 3,200 feet over 5.5 miles to the summit. Since it was already approaching 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I opted for the slightly shorter Tamarack Lakes trail head which climbs 2,300 feet over 4 miles. I parked my truck next to the tail head, loaded up my daypack, which I keep attached to my full pack, and I was on my way to the top. The trail began to climb immediately, and I kept a steady pace. It started off as a 4x4 trail, and I passed one truck on its way back to the main road before I reached a narrower trail that vehicles cannot navigate.
After climbing the first two miles or so, I hadn't seen anyone besides the truck. As I rounded a corner, I was startled to see a dirty man with a very full beard, trekking poles, and a classic looking rucksack walking down the mountain. We stopped for a minute to talk, and he told me that he was thru-hiking the PCT, which starts in Mexico and ends in Canada. I was excited to see him, since the PCT is something that I still only dream of accomplishing. He was on his way to near by Packer Lake for dinner, and although he had probably been on the trail for weeks since his last stop, he didn't seem worn out or tired in the least. After a while, I wished him good luck and sent him on his way to Packer Lake, feeling slightly less significant as I set out once more up the mountain.
The rest of the climb was mostly uneventful. My legs began to get a little stiff only after I reached the switchbacks that lead up to the lookout. The tower is perched atop the mountain like a Taoist temple, and has 4 sets of very steep stairs. There is usually a fire lookout inside the tower during the summer, and as I climbed the stairs I looked up at the thick windows and thought I saw someone looking down at me. I climbed higher, and I heard music coming from inside the tower. When I crossed the final step and peered inside, the place was completely deserted, and for a minute a feeling of panic washed over me, followed by embarrassment.
Focusing so much on the tower, I hadn't even looked at my surroundings. Green hills and contrasting red and brown rock were scattered generously with twinkling blue lakes; blue green mountains lined the horizon in all directions. The wind had picked up and was now threatening to send me back down the way I came, but I couldn't move. I stood there, torn by the wind, my eyes attempting to take in everything at once, as a golden eagle soared across the sky looping back and forth before disappearing into the sun.