Cold Nights and High Altitudes - October 2017
It’s been a long summer. Hot days, many hours working either for my job or for other projects and in general a pretty packed schedule. I haven’t had the opportunity to spend too many nights outdoors, so when a friend of mine put together a weekend trip to the Eastern Sierras for his birthday with a group of fellow Toyota owners late in October, I couldn’t say no.
It was a late night burn from the Bay Area. You either get out before noon on Friday, or you leave around 7pm when traffic dies down. This was a trip involving the latter version of escape. Travelling late is something that you get used to when you want to spend the most amount of time at your destination. Thankfully, I have gone through many of the passes in the Sierras during the daylight hours so missing the views isn’t too big of a deal. The downside to this method is that at some point you’ll hit a wall where you can’t overcome the need to sleep. I have found that I usually don’t have a problem with getting sleepy before my destination but it is best to be aware and open minded to pulling over for some shut eye when needed. Our destination was about 6 hours away with the remaining traffic (yes even at 7pm) adding almost an hour of additional driving. I met up with 2 members of the group, Bryant and Daryl, at a restaurant on the road. A few hours later we met up with another few members, Stanley and Alvin, at a fill up in the Central Valley.
We were 5 vehicles deep heading over the mountains through one of the busiest passes in the Sierras, highway 120, up and over Yosemite National Park. Thankfully at 11pm, the roads are all but deserted and it makes travelling much simpler. With some good comms banter and a cup of coffee we made it to our destination region, Mammoth Lakes. The guys in the group with me were meeting with the rest of the group at Laurel Lakes, a 4x4 campsite at the end of a moderate trail. I decided that airing down and wheeling at 1:20am wasn’t going to be the smartest idea for me. I didn’t want to risk damaging anything or slicing a tire due to exhaustion. My campsite was one that I had found with my buddy Reed on our last Eastern Sierras trip with the ladies for the eclipse. Reed was on this trip too and was already at the campsite coming from Southern California. He too didn’t want to risk the late night wheeling, so we decided to meet up and catch up with the group in the morning after they descended from their higher altitude campsite.
The temperatures on the highway leading into camp had been in the steady 30 degree range. However in the 5 minutes it took me to drop into camp, the temperatures also dropped into the high teens. After reaching camp, Reed and I made a quick fire to catch up, have a beer and keep warm before calling it a night. This was the first night I would be spending in my newly acquired AutoHome roof top tent, and it would also go down as the coldest night I have ever camped. I had prepped for high twenties/low thirties, but temps in the mid to low teens were outside the prep zone. I should have gotten into the 4Runner to warm up, but I couldn’t get myself motivated to leave the little heat I had generated. This will be the last time this happens. I ordered new bags for the tent as soon as I got back from the trip.
In the morning, I was as frozen as the previously flowing creek that we were camped next to. It took a bit of moving around to warm up before the sunrise, which was the best part of the day as far as I was concerned. We packed up camp, which was simple because we had nothing out, and took off for some of the local hot springs. Our first tub was a bust as there were people camped out nearby and caught the early bird soak well before we got there. We decided to try another spot and here’s where things got interesting for me. I was about 30 seconds ahead of Reed and at an intersection decided to get out to check my diff breather lines on the rear axle. It was random, but I realized hadn’t checked since having the lift installed, so I thought I would check while he caught up. What I found when I knelt down under the rig made my stomach drop. The bolt holding the axle side of the lower link to the axle was backed ¾ of the way out and the OEM flange nut was gone all together. It was a ticking time bomb that I caught soon before a total failure would have happened. All I could figure was that the bolt hadn’t been torqued properly, and Loctite hadn’t been applied. My mistake for not thoroughly checking the work done by others, but it was a lesson to learn from. We jacked up the 4Runner from the slider to take weight off of the link. Using a combination of a log and putting the 4Runner in gear we got the bolt to line up and I was able to push it through. With the nut missing, I used two zip ties to hold the bolt in place as we limped into nearby Mammoth to find a band-aid bolt to get me through the trip. The Napa was a bust, but a local hardware store had the nut (M14, 1.50 pitch in case you are wondering), a flat washer and good old red Loctite. Situation handled. The correct OEM parts have been ordered from the local dealership and will be installed on arrival, WITH LOCTITE!
Around the time we got things on my 4Runner handled, we heard Victor on comms from Laurel Lakes. They were about 45 minutes out, and then Reed suggested something great. Getting a cold beer at Mammoth Brewing. Considering the long night before, and the stressful morning, I was ok with getting a brew before noon. We enjoyed some of the mountain’s finest before hitting the road to meet up with the rest of the gang at the base of the Laurel Lakes trail outside of Mammoth.
Once we caught up with the rest of the group, we hit our first stop, the Mono Lake Tufa State National Reserve. These limestone monuments that line the south shore formed back when Mono Lake was much deeper, before 1941 when water was diverted from this basin and into the Los Angeles water system. For more info on the Mono Lake’s history and it’s Tufas click here. We took some time to walk around in the “Tufa Groves” before settling in for lunch back at the parking lot.
We stopped in Lee Vining for firewood on our way to the south entrance to Bodie. This route to Bodie is an alternate to the main road that comes from 395. It’s a bit rougher, but that’s the fun part. The last time I drove this road was in college with a 12 year old suburban that had over a quarter million miles on it. This road made nearly every plastic panel rattle off of the dash in the trusty GM, but this time was a much different experience thanks to a more youthful vehicle and the upgraded suspension. When we arrived in Bodie, we gathered in the parking lot before walking into town. Daryl decided to get himself pulled over by the park ranger for what we thought was speeding, but it turns out that George’s registration tags had expired. Bummer!
Bodie is a ghost town, a remnant of the gold rush in the late 19th century. Known now as one of the best preserved (and restored) ghost towns in California, you really get a feel for what times were like back then. They have begun to restore the town, bit by bit, trying to preserve what it is for generations to come. For more detailed information on the Town of Bodie, click here.
As the light began to fade, we left Bodie, heading west towards the highway where we would take it a short distance before hopping off on the other side and into the high desert terrain. Alvin lead us down the highway embankment and through a few creek crossings before we started to gain elevation towards our camp site target at Kavanaugh Ridge. The trail was steep and rocky, and at this point it was dark adding a different element to our ascent. My upgraded Baja Designs fog lights worked really well for this application as we were moving slowly on the twisted trail. The even amber lighting really lit up the foreground and the areas on the side of the trail which is really important on this type of trail. Sharp rocks lurk in the shadows of shrubs, and they love to take out sidewalls. They are much easier to spot with appropriate lighting.
At 10,000 feet our campsite was poised at the base of a mountain peak with a snow melt lake in the foreground. We set up amongst the trees at the edge of the lake basin, and settled in for a cool (but much warmer than the previous) night in the mountains amongst clear skies and good friends.
In the morning, we cleaned up our site and took a quick trip to the top of the ridgeline where the views were striking from both sides of the mountain. One side looking back on the Mono Lake basin, the other into the wilderness and the lakes of Toiyobe National Forest. We took the opportunity for some photos and Stanley flew his drone for some aerial footage. The calm air and vistas made for a great place to sit down and take it all in…
We drove down the mountain to where the trail met the pavement and aired up before hitting the road back to the Bay Area. Not before stopping at the Whoa Nellie Deli at the base of Tioga Pass for some last stop grub. Alvin continued on for another day of adventure on the East side, while the rest of us drove over the pass and back home. A filling end to a good weekend.