Repositioning myself in my sleeping bag, I open my eyes and squint at the roof of my tent. Soft sunlight filters in, and condensation threatens to drip. My tent-mate stirs and we quietly begin to pull on layers. Murmuring morning jokes that make no sense, we stretch and work our feet into cold boots. Tumbling into the sunlight with puffs of opaque breath, we wipe frost from the rain fly, and peer at the other tents. We join our leader in gathering food from our bear cache and prepping the stoves. As the sunlight strengthens, the day quickly warms. One by one, our group members emerge and engage in the sluggish camping morning routine characteristic of a relaxed day in the backcountry. We stretch, read, check the water for bubbles, whittle willows, skip rocks, check the water, journal, sun on rocks, check the water, dry tents and bags, take bathroom hikes, and finally find that our water is boiling.
After the standard breakfast of oatmeal, we shoulder our day-packs and point ourselves west, up the mountains. From our sheltered valley, we can see several snow-capped peaks. A creek bubbles parallel to the path, and beef cattle mill about on improbably steep slopes. Telling trail riddles and singing snippets of songs, our nine-person group ambles up the path. Our goal: a mountain lake “a few miles up the trail.”
After some water and photo breaks, we realize that each ridge was announced by a hopeful, “the lake must be over the next one.” We decide to make the push, although we realize that the lake was much higher than we hoped. Scrambling up the steep path, we spook cattle and pika, discernible only by the noises; our eyes are trained at the loose rocks that litter our trail.
For seemingly the hundredth time, we crest a ridge. Before us is a glimmering pool of milky-blue water: a mountain lake. Only the second lake I have ever seen, it is startling in its undisturbed beauty, a silken sheet draped among rough-cut gravel and scruffy grass. Whooping, we scamper to the shore and celebrate. Little trout glide away above clearly visible rocks that slope away towards a deeper western shore. A boulder field borders the southwest side of the lake; a cliff runs along the northwest. The sky is darkening with clouds and late afternoon; our hopes of swimming are dashed.
Most of the group dashes across the rocks, circumventing the lake in just enough time to begin our descent. Leaning into the mountain, we leave the lake reluctantly. As always, the journey back is quicker than the journey there. We arrive at camp and get water; we start the stoves and wait for the water to boil.