On Tuesday the girls and I went for a long walk on a high ridge. (“Better than a long walk off a short pier,” says the voice of Dad in my head.)
For the entire day I thought no particularly profound thoughts and beheld
no flashes of deep insight, just walked with my dogs, enjoying the wind and the wildflowers, and the solitude.
I would also have enjoyed the view, but the winds were gusting up from the southwest, bringing some cooler temperatures but also a thick pall of smoke from the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, which was tracking at 45,000+ acres burned as of this writing. A small monster, growing rapidly.
With the mountain vistas shrouded in smoke I had to focus on the “local view,” as they say in the Real Estate business, which was rocky ridges, dogs, flowers, snow fields and some lovely, hardy enclaves of whitebark pine standing watch at strategic outposts along the high altitude ridges. I knew the views were there because I had seen them last week. I knew what I was missing, but that was okay because I had chosen a different goal for this Tuesday’s hike.
I was aiming to do a grand loop tour of the Steven’s Peak Ridge system from Big Meadow Trailhead. Here’s a map of the area.
Steven’s Peak is a familiar sight to anyone who travels around the South Lake Tahoe basin, even though I suspect many people might not be able to identify it by name. I hiked around the area for years before I could reliably pick it out from the small crowd of peaks in that area, and it’s only very recently that I figured out the ridge system associated with the peak, which is actually kind of embarrassing since there’s really only 3 main ridges. I think. The problem is this: depending on where you are when you look up at one of them from any given vantage point it’s hard to know where the others are in relation to the one in front of you, not to mention the changes in appearance that come with the changes in season or changes in weather.
Yesterday, for example, we could have been on Mars for lack of being able to see familiar landmarks.
The route was as follows: start at the Big Meadow Trailhead on Highway 89, heading south. At the top of the first big incline but before you hit the meadow veer left on the Scott’s Lake trail. Meander up the little valley along the base of the Waterhouse peaks, crossing numerous little creeklets, admiring the Mule Ears, paintbrush, larkspurs and scarlet penstemon, and swatting the mosquitoes. At the top of the valley cross a fenceline and then drop down to Scott’s Lake. Enjoy the beautiful lake and admire the view of Hawkins Peak to the East while the dogs refresh themselves in the lake.
Then traverse along the west shore of the lake until you come to the inlet stream for the lake, which is a very cheerful little cataract tumbling down through the red fir forest. Wander up through the forest, using the the brook for a rough guide for orientation. Eventually the grade begins to level out and there is an open wet meadow full of corn lilies and mosquitoes. Stay to the left side of the creek and start thinking about heading up that hill to your left. If you are lucky and keep wandering along still within earshot of the creek you will find a decent route up the slope, conveniently marked by a series of rock cairns. I have to stop here and tell you about Cairns.
Being a dog person I can’t help thinking about Cairn Terriers whenever I see a cairn. I have this fantasy that cairns are built by Cairn Terriers. In my fantasy every spring little packs of Cairn Terriers trek out into the wilderness to rebuild all of the cairn towers that have been knocked over by the winter’s snowstorms. Troops of terriers get out early in the season to beat all of the early hikers and make sure no one gets lost…picture these hard-working dedicated little pups with their snowshoes and little terrier snow suits… I mean, who doesn’t love Cairn Terriers- the original faithful Toto dog. So next time you are following a trail of cairns across some remote landscape, not getting lost, think about those fearless little dogs out there collecting all the rocks and stacking them up, balancing them on top of each other just so….and be grateful.
My dogs have never been very interested in trail maintenance, but then again, they are not Cairn Terriers. They are dedicated companions nevertheless, and I am very grateful for that. They are joyful, enthusiastic hikers, and will follow me anywhere. By following I mean that they will generally be out in front leading the way in the direction they think I will go. They know all about following ridges and going up mountains, and they always seem to know which direction to go back to the car. Even Tina with her grade VI mitral valve dysplasia would never miss a hike. I know high altitudes are not really good for her heart, but I also know she’d be broken-hearted for sure if I left her at home. She knows the difference between when we are going for a hike versus going for an ordinary errand!
Back to the trail. Follow the cairns or just keep climbing up through the forest until you come to open ridge climbing steeply to the right. At present it is sprinkled with colorful wildflowers and patches of snow.
Climb up towards the knobby volcanic cobblestone towers. In a short time you’ll be able to see the ridges spreading out ahead and to the left all the way to Steven’s Peak summit. Keep climbing, following the ridgeline along up towards the summit. With every step the view gets better and better, at least on un-smokey days, so stop often to look around.
The girls and I tromped along steadily up the big ascent to the spot marked 9,462′. Last week we made it to this spot for lunch. The air was clear that day, and I had spent most of the morning playing with my camera. On that day I had sat studying the ridge ahead while sharing lunch with the furballs.
It was hard to tell from afar how difficult it would be to climb up the last bit of the Scott’s Lake branch of ridgeline to the main Steven’s Peak summit ridge. Previously I had climbed up and down that ridge from the opposite side, from Meiss Meadows and from Red Lake Peak. It looked like it would be possible to pick a way up there between the whitebarks and rocks, over the snowfield. I wasn’t sure about the climb up the snowfield however- it looked like it might be steep. So I decided to return the following week and find out. So here I was again, about to find out.
As I continued on past peak 9462′, when to my surprise 2 spindly figures materialized out of the smoke, like aliens in a B-grade sci-fi movie. Or angels emerging from some other dimension. Or alien angels. In retrospect I think it more likely that they were angels, because the timing of their appearance and the story they told me was right out of an X-Files screenplay. They couldn’t have been friendlier folks- just as surprised to see me and the girls as I was to see them. The wind gusted at nearly gale-force velocity, whistling in our ears and sending smokey wraiths swirling around us as they told me the following story:
It seems I was only a few yards from a very special place in the history of the mountains- the Kenny Miller memorial. In June 1992 a twelve year old autistic boy was out hiking in Meiss Meadows with his parents, when he unexpectedly disappeared. His parents called and called for him, but Kenny didn’t answer. He was gone. They searched everywhere, and eventually the search developed into the largest search and rescue operation ever seen. In the end little Kenny’s body was found high on the ridge near Steven’s Peak. How he came to wander up 2000′ from the meadow to that rocky ridge know one knows. Perhaps he loved the magic of the ridgetop the way I do- it’s the only way to walk through the sky without your feet leaving the ground.
The angelic aliens disappeared down the ridge and I found the memorial- a pile of stones with an inscribed granite slab and assorted scattered toys. I sat down next to it and promptly burst into tears. (Not coincidentally, I was wearing my Dad’s old favorite rugby shirt for protection against the chilly winds gusting over the ridge. It was my favorite shirt too and it always made me feel like he was close by. It wasn’t the type of shirt that I would normally have grabbed for a dayhike, but for some reason this morning it had felt good to wear it. It felt like Dad wanted to come along for the adventure, I guess.) It had been 25 years since Kenny had died on this ridge but the sense of loss and grief hit me as sharp and fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I knew what it was like to loose a loved one. My children are all 4-footed and furry, but I love them with all my heart. Tina jumped in my lap and pressed herself close. I breathed in her warm earthy furry odor and let it diffuse right through me, chasing away the sorrow. I hugged her tight. “Our little angel, heaven bound,” was the inscription on the slab. It was perfect. Little Kenny was truly heaven bound when he climbed up that ridge because Steven’s Peak ridge was close to heaven, I thought. At least it was lot closer to heaven than any place down there in the valley. It was a stairway to heaven, Jacob’s Ladder, climbing up to the sky. I’ve always loved ridges and now I have a reason to love them even more. Kenny Miller found the doorway to heaven when he climbed up that ridge. My Dad found the doorway too, but it was in the hospital. He would have much preferred being in the mountains though, looking at the rocks and thinking about the geological history they told. And he would have been deeply touched by Kenny’s story.
Eventually we left Kenny Miller’s memorial and continued on to the next ridge. The little bit of climbing up to the junction was ridiculously easy- only a little snow field to cross and nothing steep or cliffy. From the junction it wasn’t far to the final heap of talus marking the summit. The slabs are like a jumbled pile of dinner plates- flat and tippy and hollow sounding.
At the summit we settled in to enjoy the view and check out the summit register.
I found my entry from last year, with my friend Patty and the same crew of pooches. I wonder if they remembered that day. We had hiked in from the other direction, across the ridge from Red Lake Peak. That had been another beautiful memorable day.
From Steven’s Peak we wandered all the way down the west arm of the ridge which overlooks the Round Lake Valley. We descended knoll after rocky knoll, peering over the edge whenever we could and taking photos. The air was still smokey most of the way. At the final knoll we descended into the forest and followed the GPS to intersect with the Tahoe Rim Trail. Then a mile or so down to Big Meadow and we had completed the grand loop tour of Steven’s Peak via Kenny Miller’s stairway to heaven.
Wishing you happy trails and lots of great ridges. (If you feel inclined to go up and say hi to Kenny take him a present- he likes Tonka Toys and dinosours….) – Shirley & Co.