The Big Lug
August 20 - Pre-eclipse day
August 20 - the day before The Great American Eclipse - dawned clear and calm (pretty much the entire week's forecast was clear and calm). We were about six miles' (10km) walk and 3,000 feet from our planned camping location - high up in the alpine on a broad, gentle rise known as the Railroad Grade.
There's a steep and rough 4wd forest road that heads up onto Railroad Ridge, but unfortunately our rental car company swapped out our reserved Jeep Cherokee with a front-wheel drive Dodge minivan. We had a quick look at the forest road the night before, and quickly concluded that our much less capable vehicle wasn't going to make it. I had planned for this eventuality, though, and had always accepted that walking up to our camp was a viable backup plan.
The major extra hardship here was water: Railroad Ridge is dry and waterless, and that meant we'd have to bring a bunch of extra water to supply our dry camp. Along with all of the extra camera gear needed for the eclipse photography, we were carrying some pretty heavy loads. Pu, Jenn and Brian all had around fifty pounds on their backs. I had a total of eighty. yikes.
By 9 a.m., we were packed and ready to go. The route was pretty straightforward. Hike up the 4wd road, all the way to treeline and above. Then, veer off some distance from the road and find a nice spot to camp - hopefully within a short distance of our actual eclipse viewing location, which was an unnamed rounded peak right on the center path of totality.
We plodded upwards at a nice, slow pace, past the trump-adorned ruins of an old minesite, up and over the various waterbars and rough patches that our 2wd rental car would definitely not have managed.
Out of Big Boulder Valley
For the first hour or two the going was pretty quiet. No other hikers, no vehicles. Maybe it wouldn't be so busy up above after all? But then, a small ATV. Then a pickup truck. Then a high-clearance SUV.
Reaching the high country
The backcountry traffic intensity ramped as the day wore on, and by the time we had made our way into the true alpine, at about 9,500 feet, it was starting to look like desert caravans crossing inner Mongolia. Super-fancy camo-colored Land Rovers pulling equally fancy backcountry trailers, hopped up refurbished Volkswagen Vanagon Synchros, big new high-clearance pickup trucks. It was most certainly NOT going to be peaceful and quiet on Railroad Grade tonight,
Almost atop Railroad Ridge
Heavier than usual traffic
Initially we'd planned to just follow the jeep road and camp somewhere alongside it, but there was too much traffic to make that sound like fun. We noticed, however, that the vehicular traffic (which was basically everyone but us four hikers) was choosing camp locations quite close to the track. This made us want to find a place far away from the track. Fortunately, Pu noticed a nice gentle shelf some ways away from the track and visibly hidden from any of the many vehicles. Since we were the only hikers up here, we had it alllll to ourselves.
We were pretty high up here, well above 10,000 feet. Stiff grasses, tiny shrubs and small rocks meant that pretty much anywhere worked as a tent site. A beautiful late-afternoon light set over the landscape as we pitched our camp and enjoyed the feeling of relaxing after a hot, sweaty slog. I had a couple of reddish welts on my hips from the 80-pound pack, and was glad to walk around unencumbered again.
After a nice chunk of relaxation time, we set about making our dehydrated camp dinners. Above us, a fairly substantial high deck of wispy clouds had drifted by, muting the sun and making us worry a tiny bit about our eclipse weather for the following morning. The forecast had been clear, but would the skies follow along?
At this high altitude, the temperature dropped rapidly as sunset approached, and we bundled up into near winter clothes to stay warm. So attired, we did a little post-dinner walk around the nearby high tundra, walking past several encampments of 4x4 vehicles and taking in the sunset over the peaks of the White Cloud Mountains - the last sunset, we noted, before the Great American Eclipse of 2017.