Oregon was spewing smoke, and the fumes from the forest fires were reaching down into the Trinity Alps of Northern California, making my plans for a backpacking trip seem misguided. The last time I had visited these mountains, it was a chilly adventure, for the trails were buried in snow and the lakes were still frozen, even in July. This time around, I hoped for easier access to the high country, and if the pacific winds were generous enough to clear the smoke away from the Alps, the views would be magnificent. If they weren’t, then I had a whole lot of wheezing and coughing to look forward to.
Risking the poor air quality, I ventured up the exceedingly popular Canyon Creek Trail, which led through an evergreen forest full of madrones, firs and lofty ponderosa pines. Wildlife was scarce, but my movements once startled a fledgling Steller’s Jay, who careened through the air with all the confidence of a crash-test pilot. The chick was only brave or capable enough to fly short distances, and it possessed an endearing habit of hugging the bases of trees whenever it landed. Upon investigation, I saw that its blue tail feathers were not fully grown, and the gray crest atop its head was still only half as high as the one worn by its parent, who flew up and scolded me harshly with its forceful, sandpapery rasp.
I left them to resume flight school and continued up the valley. The forest here was littered with giant boulders – mossy castoffs from the peaks, which were hidden from view by the trees on both sides. After eight miles, I finally broke out of the woods and had my first unfettered view of those rocky sentinels. I was in awe. The long valley had led me into a vast bowl of silvery-white granite, with slick walls that stretched three thousand feet up to a more delicate ridgeline of crumbling towers. One of those towers was Thompson Peak, the highest point in the Trinity Alps and my ultimate goal for this backpacking trip. The steep slopes beneath the crest of the ridge had been polished by glaciers until they shone, so I would need to choose my route carefully or risk encountering cliffs too sheer to negotiate.