4th Annual Memorial Day Massacre: Courtright In A Kilt Edition

  • Updated: May 28, 2013
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

May 24th & 27th, 2013
Three Sisters (10,612')
Dogtooth Peak (10,302')
Black Peak (9,773')
Zingheim Heights (11,138')
Mount Henry (12,196')

Memorial Day is somewhat of a problem.  On one hand it's an opportunity for a long weekend close enough to Sierra season to make me want to run amok up at altitude.  But on the other hand it's a bit early for trailhead access and for the snow pack to be melted not to mention the history of somewhat bad weather.

But of course a long weekend isn't something to be wasted.  So enter the now annual Memorial Day Massacre.  It started way back in 2010 as a normal enough three day backpack with an aggressive schedule.  A planned hike from Canebrake back down to Walker Pass along the PCT grabbing 7 or 8 peaks in the process went a bit downhill after a (not uncommon) route finding issue on Spanish Needle followed and a water source reported to be running which turned out to be dry.  Cue a bit of a reroute lasting until 10:30 pm or so followed by a few somewhat long days and the majority of the group not getting near all of the planned peaks.  Fun was had by all.  Except those that took an extended break from hiking as a result.

Following the aftermath of that little jaunt I rebranded it the Memorial Day Massacre and started making plans for the following year.

In 2011 we headed for Shepherd's Pass only to have an only unpleasant weather forecast transform into a 100 mph fun fest.  One retreat from altitude, a torn tent, and a night spent in a rather friendly bush with snow coming down on top of us later we bailed out and settled for a dayhike of Olancha.

The Third Annual Masochistic Fun Fest we stuck further south.  This time bad weather was largely shrugged off and we managed an impressive 100 miles, 20k gain, and 6 peaks.  Granted I limped out of Haiwee Pass 5 days later with some of the worst blisters I'd ever had and was barely able to walk for the trip the following weekend.

Having found success in that model (Gee, Kern can be done as an easy 2 or 3 day from this trailhead, lets get it from waaaaaaaay the hell over here) I set my sights on Courtright for the sure to be legendary 4th annual outing.

Courtright Reservoir is a seven hour (-ish) drive from Orange County so generally I like to try and leave at least a little earlier than our usual 7 or 8 pm departure.  Unfortunately Jen couldn't escape school so we didn't leave the local park and ride until 7:30 pm or so.

It was a late night.

Hundred of miles and many many cups of coffee later we found a dirt road a bit before the Dinky Lakes permit station and pulled over for a few precious hours of sleep.

We woke up and were at the station before it opened ready to go.

The volunteer who used to run the Dinkey Lakes office had apparently just retired at the end of last season and this was the second day for the new lady.  She instantly got major bonus points with me when she showed up early, puppy in tow, and cheerfully let us in and issued our permit without bothering to wait until the official opening time.  (Not that I'm bitter Lodgepole ranger station...)

A few minutes later permit in hand we made a mad dash for the western side of Courtright Reservoir and the Cliff Lake TH.

Friday:  Cliff Lake Trailhead, 3 Sisters, and Dogtooth

According to the volunteer in Prather this was usually a rather busy weekend so I'd been somewhat concerned about getting a walk up permit. I actually came ready with two backups plans in case Cliff Lake TH was already at quota.

So of course we were the only vehicle at the trailhead.  Granted we were coming in on a Friday morning instead of Saturday but still!

We did see RV and car campers all over the place on the way in but I'd still expected more considering the promising forcast.

The trailhead is located right at the gate to Courtright Village (which was locked) and has the usual signs and bear lockers but no bathrooms.

Fearing snow at the latter half of the trip we decided to (reluctantly) carry snow boots.  This combined with the fact some of my lighter down gear was still being cleaned (and was a week+ late being shipped back) meant my pack was somewhat heavier than I would have liked.

And of course there was the kilt.  I bought it on a whim from Sports Kilt thinking I'd wear it on my planned JTM run later in the summer.  I brought it along and decided why the hell not, what could go wrong!  In the name of science and all of that.  (Queue the screams of my poor trip participants)

We set off down the trail at a reasonable pace.  As with the climb of nearby Spanish Mountain last year the trails have a large amount of greenery and this time we didn't have to worry about the bugs and hostile bovines.

the trail soon joined the north western corner of the reservoir giving us our first decent view for the weekend.  There was a fishing boat puttering around the shore that gave us a few odd looks while we were sitting out on the rocks.  It's like they aren't used to seeing a man wearing a kilt and a giggling little blonde girl or something...

A few easy stream crossing and relatively gentle trail miles later we arrived at Cliff Lake.  I'd heard it was a pretty spot and sure enough it didn't disappoint.

We rested by the lake briefly then stashed our overnight gear behind some brush and headed off for 3 Sisters carrying daypacks.

Three Sisters was a trivial scramble though we did have the occasional snow patch to dodge around.  We could see the Reservoir off in the distance and had a good view of Dogtooth (a non SPS peak nearby known for light 3rd class with a damn nice view up top)

We decided to just walk the ridge down towards Dogtooth and grab it before returning for out stuff at Cliff.

We ran into a fair amount of snow on the north side of Three Sisters and so skirted south to mostly stay on dirt and rock.  After last weeks experience post-holing we weren't in a hurry to have wet boots again.

We climbed up Dogtooth without much difficulty though there were one or two spots of easy 3rd class and some variations if you wanted to be a bit more adventurous.  

Summit views were spectacular since it sits out above the reservoir valley.

We enjoyed some time up top but eventually forced ourselves to get moving again.  We dropped down to Bullfrog Lake just for grins then took the trail back to Cliff Lake.

We debated moving further along before camping but the amount of snow we'd seen looking further north combined with the lack of sleep the night  not to mention some rather awesome looking fire pits decided us for staying there.

A few firewood runs later we settled in for a rather nice night.  We had the lake almost to ourselves except for another group which we hardly noticed once they stopped failing around with a hatchet.

Saturday:  Cliff Lake, Black Peak, and Thompson Lake

We spent the night sleeping out and I had one of the best rests I'd had in a long time.  We didn't have an alarm and decided to just wake up with the sun and get moving in a relaxed fashion.

Another person arrived just as we were getting ready to leave and I expected a lot more were on their way with the long weekend.  So we were off!

We continued over the saddle between Three Sisters and Dogtooth and hopped along the various lakes.  As expected most of the camping spots were either still partially covered in snow or a muddy mess.

We continued along until we reached First Dinkey Lakes.  Here we found several groups camped and more on their wait in from the northern Dinky Lakes trailhead.  It's a pretty area!

We swung around to the north east and soon reached the base of Black Peak.  It was a short scramble but we again stowed our camping gear before heading up.

According to Jen Black had the best view of any of the peaks.  I'm still not sure it beat Dogtooth but it was a damn nice view.  In addition to looking over the expanse of Courtright it also gave a view of some rather nice looking meadows further north.

We dallied for a good while up top then returned to the trail.  We soon came to a junction with a 4WD road.  We could have followed that along the ridge past East Lake but some of the maps showed a hiking trail running along Rodeo Meadow.  We opted for the later.

The trail varied from place to place sometimes giving us a clear trail and other times we had to bushwhack and play hunt for ducks.

We came across the remains of a cabin along the way in a section of trail that appeared to be more heavily used than the others and then quickly returned to hunting for ducks.

As the day stretched on we talked about where we wanted to camp for the night.  It was becoming increasingly clear that we weren't going to make it down to the drainage below Zingheim and equally clear any dry campsite was something not to be passed up.  And we really wanted another campfire.  By the time we reached Thompson Lake we were quite ready to stop.

Thompson is a stop along the Dusy-Ershim jeep route we were sometimes crossing.  We were early enough that the route didn't appear to be open so we had it to ourselves other than one dirt bike I heard off in the distance near dusk.

There was even luxury.  A pit toilet!

There were fire pits about every 10 feet on the western side of the lake but again most of them were flooded or surrounded by mud pits.  I circled the lake while Jen was filling water and found what I'd say is the best spot around the lake immediately to the south.  It was dry, had a nice campfire ring, easy access to firewood, and even better there was an awesome view across the lake.

We settled in for the night enjoying a nice view of lenticular clouds lit by the setting sun.  And the campfire was awesome.

Sunday:  Thompson Lake to Rae Lake

We did our usual easy wakeup and got moving somewhat slowly.

There were occasional ducks leading over Thompson Pass but nothing resembling the trail my Garmin maps showed. From the pass we turned south we dropped down through muddy meadows periodically finding and loosing a somewhat obscure trail.

We did find some snow survey markers though some were in better repair than others.

Eventually we reached Long Meadow and joined the major trail that comes in from the eastern side of Courtright. From here it was a lot easier to follow.

We also ran into the worse mosquitoes we encountered for the weekend.  It was like moving forward in the season a few weeks.  Fortunately we left them behind.

South of Post Corral Meadows we came to the only stream crossing the entire weekend that actually required taking off boots.  We took the opportunity to soak our feet and chatted with another pair that happened by at the same time.  As it turned out we'd actually seen each other in the ranger station a few days back.  They were headed out ahead of the expected bad weather so we waved goodbye and started the climb to Flemming Lake.

It was a decently long climb but we put our heads down and pounded it out at a good pace.  Once we reached Flemming we started to see more people though most seemed to be on their way out and not inclined to talk to a sweaty man in a kilt for some reason.  

We saw one campsite at Flemming Lake which was already occupied and much too close to the trail for my taste.

We continued on to Rae Lake and instantly decided to stay there.  It's filled with a lot of trees and small islands and was the prettiest thing around.  

We found a pair of horse packers on the northern end of the lake and almost despaired at finding an existing camp with a fire ring.  We eventually found several sites on the south end of the lake including on with a nice view and even better, a fire pit!

We were both tired after a good long day and gratefully settled down around the campfire to enjoy the warmth, view, and best of all the fact we weren't walking.

Monday:  Zingheim Heights and Mount Henry

One of the neat things about Rae Lake was the water would steam every night and morning.

This was day 4 of 5 and we vaguely planned to grab Zingheim and maybe Flemming and then head south east into Red Mountain Basin with a goal of camping either at Devil's Punchbowl or Halfmoon Lake.

We jumped on the trail and followed it up to Mosquito Pass.  Flemming looked somewhat uninteresting from the west so we decided to climb Zingheim fro the pass and maybe walk south along the ridge.

Once again conditions further up the drainage proved we were right to camp where we did.  Everything around Lower Indian was flooded and there was a fair amount of snow at Upper Indian Lake.  Looking down the north side of Mosquito Pass was a protected snow chute steep enough I wouldn't have done it without an ice axe.

We climbed the west face of Zingheim sticking further north than we really had to managed some interesting 3rd class bits along with some short bushwhacks all of which were made significantly more interesting than they really had to be by the fact I was wearing a kilt..

We topped out on Zingheim to find a custom little plague.  Across the drainage we'd been eyeing the ridge up to Henry and we soon decided it was too tempting to pass up.

Secor listed the peak as 2nd class from the Turf Lakes Basin and we figured we follow the western ridge from Upper Indian and if we ran into any trouble drop down.

I was somewhat concerned about the bits we couldn't see from Zingheim and sure enough we managed to get into some fun 3rd class and almost cliffed out right before joining the 2nd class route we'd read about.  Fortunately there was a bit of an overhanging crux we managed to downclimb and from there we were home free.

Right before the summit we caught a snow field and kicked our way up as clouds started building all around us.

I had to relent and put on long johns under the kilt since the cold wind was shooting up from below making it feel like I wasn't even wearing any pants.  (Also, kick stepping in a kilt has this tendency to spritz ones dangly bits with snow which wasn't helping)

We made the summit just in time to have a rather epic view with the rapidly lowering clouds.  We signed in quickly and headed down.

We dropped off the peak and followed ducks down to Turf Lakes and then Davis.  I thought I remembered a sign from Lower Indian pointing out a trail to Davis but we never found anything.

It started raining on us around Davis Lake and by the time we picked up our gear near Rae we were rather tired and increasingly soggy.

After some discussion we decided it probably wasn't a good idea to head further in amid bad weather.  As it stood we had about 20 miles to make it out the next day and we both remembered the blistered filled 26 mile day that topped off last years massacre.  Rae Lake again it was!

The horse packers were gone and their camp in the trees seemed like it would be a bit better protected than our wide open camp the previous night.

While this made sense it turned out to be not much of a benefit though the site did smell much more like wet horse droppings so there was that.  We started a fire with what dry would we could find only to eventually admit the rain was winning out over the heat and retreat into our shelters.

Jen's version of staying out of the rain
Matt's version of staying out of the rain
The rain kept up until right before dark.  Sadly it was a bit of a downer after the last three nights of excellent camps.

Tuesday:  Rae Lake to Cliff TH

The rain had stopped overnight but shortly after dawn it started up again.  We both stayed in our bags fervently hoping it would stop and keep us from having to pack up wet gear.

It did finally stop but not until we'd been forced to start getting ready.

Everything was wet.  But hey, we hadn't really had a bath in 5 days so maybe it was for the better.

After packing up our soggy gear we got moving back down the trail.  The weather was improving steadily and soon we were dry but with 20+ miles to do that day so we didn't really have time to stop and dry out all our gear.

The retread section went quickly and soon we were headed for the Maxon Trailhead.  This part seemed to really stretch on possibly due to kilt chafing issues.

We never saw the turnoff on the map leading through Chamberlains Camp straight to Voyager.  I'm not sure if it doesn't exist or what.

We didn't see a trailhead in Maxton Madows but instead crossed a jeep trail which we took north to Voyager Campground.  This was another part of the Dusy-Ershim jeep route and as before I didn't think I could have done it in my stock Wrangler.

Voyager Campground was rather nice with lakeside views and pit toilets but no one was there.  We poassed through and tried with limited success to find the trail heading around the northern side of the lake.  As before there were places where the trail was clear and then a lot of others where downed trees and overgrown brush obliterated it.

We spent a section walking the beach which was pretty but the sand was frustrating to slog through.  I'm not sure how legal they are but there were campsites and fire rings all over the place.

We rejoined the jeep road for which took us to the north eastern corner of the reservoir.  We started on the trail to Helms Lake and promptly list it and spent the next hour or so wandering through various amount of brush.

We rejoined a refreshingly well marked trail at Helms Creek and from here we were pretty much home free. The last section before the trailhead was a climb so we were both happy to see the subtle green shades of the party jeep peeking out between the trees.

We arrived back at the jeep at 6 pm feeling like we'd put in a good day.  The GPS has us at either 20 or 23 miles depending if you believed the stats or the track.

We made it to Prather in plenty of time to have dinner at Velascos mexican.  Not the greatest ever but not bad considering the location and the fact we hadn't had prepared food in 5 days.

The drive home was long not helped by construction on the 395 and a really frustrating complete shutdown of the 5 freeway at the 710.

So in the grand pantheon of Memorial Day Massacres I'd say this one was fairly successful.  The end stats were around 76 miles, 14,200' of gain, and 5 peaks 2 of which were on the Sierra Peaks Section list.  So a little less impressive than last year but unlike last year it didn't take me the better part of two weeks to regain the ability to walk without pain.

Both Jen and I decided this style Massacre worked a lot better than the more peakbagging focused or higher altitude versions.  So, turn in in 12 months for another long day peak filled loop backpack!

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