Bishop Pass loop - August, 2013

This trip was done in August of 2013 by a party of 3: my sons Alex and Paul and myself. We hiked over Bishop Pass, down into LeConte Canyon, south on the John Muir Trail to Palisade Lakes, then crossed the Palisade basin area via Potluck and Knapsack Passes and then out over Bishop Pass.

Ultralight Backpacking analysis

Hammock Camping analysis

Photographic discussion

Day 0 - Saturday August 10

Paul worked till noon, so we planned a departure around 1PM. Alex arrived, we sorted gear and waited for Paul. Paul came, we sorted more gear, then were joined by my wife Ingrid and we all drove to the Summit Hut to buy a last few things and then the four of us had a late lunch at the Cracker Barrel at I-10 and Cortaro Farms road. Then at almost 4PM, I realized that my camera had the 100mm macro lens mounted instead of the 24-70 lens that I had intended to take. We turned around and phoned Ingrid, who saved us an hour by fetching the lens and meeting us with it in Marana. We drove through Phoenix and on through Parker and Needles (stopping at the Dairy Queen in Needles - which closes at 10PM), arriving at our usual campsite at Kelbaker road around 11PM. I was a bit cool for comfortable sleep with a thin old sleeping bag and we had only 2 cots. Paul said he had an excellent nights sleep in the passenger seat of Alexander's Camry.

Day 1 - Sunday August 11

Shortly after sunrise it was getting uncomfortably hot, so we were up and on the road to Barstow well before 8AM. We stopped for breakfast at Jenny's Mexican Cafe. A big breakfast, but it sat heavy in my gut all day, so may try another place next time. We got to the interagency center at Lone Pine around 1PM and had no trouble getting a walk-in permit for 3 people for Bishop Pass. The fellow said they had a lot of requests for Bishop Pass that day, scaring us a bit at first (we did have alternate options), but ultimately said that there were 9 spots left - it wasn't clear whether this was before or after giving us our permit. We stopped at a grocery store in Bishop to get a last few things and were at the trailhead at 3PM. We hiked to Saddlerock Lake and camped on the bench beyond the outlet. We found a nice spot (with good trees for the hammock), and had a nice night.

Day 2 - Monday August 12

We got up late and hiked without packs over to Ledge lake, which is an interesting and pretty lake above and beyond Saddlerock Lake. Then we packed up and headed up to Bishop pass in beautiful sunny weather. We were at the pass around noon and didn't tarry long. We dropped into Dusy Basin, which was much prettier than I remembered from my 1989 visit. Dusy Basin has an upper and lower section. The lower section has a chain of lakes and quite a few trees (making it attractive to the hammock camper). We kept going down into LeConte Canyon, meeting a foursome of guys heading to Kearsarge Pass. These four were 3 graduates of the University of Chicago business school - and one of their neighbors. We would alternately pass them and they would pass us on the trail. The descent into LeConte Canyon offers spectacular views, particularly of Languille Peak, and I made many stops to take photos. The descent is also quite punishing, particular on old knees like mine, but even the boys said that it took a toll on them.

We joined the JMT, took note of the ranger cabin at the junction and began hiking south on the JMT through the forest, looking for a campsite. We debated heading to Grouse Meadow versus stopping at the first good site. We ended up stopping at the first good site we found with plenty of light to make a nice camp before dark. Our camp was very close to the river, but unfortunately at a spot heavily used by horse-packers and heavily littered with horse turds. It was barely possible to find areas away from the stench and mess (at spots that I suppose the horse packers use, perhaps they enjoy the aroma or are so accustomed to it that they no longer notice or object). My hammock was set up with a fine view of the river only a few feet away, as well as of the cliffs on the south side of LeConte Canyon. Given the mess left by the horse-packers, I hardly feel apologetic for my choice of camp location.

We were visited by several tame deer, who seemed accustomed to being friendly with people using this camp spot. Curiously they seemed to accept us as a normal part of their environment, but would be started by people passing on the JMT only 50 feet away. It was as if we had become a part of their group. They appeared again in the morning and sniffed at our bear canisters and walked into our camp approaching withing 20 feet of me sleeping in my hammock.

Day 3 - Tuesday August 13

We got up, packed up quickly and began hiking towards Grouse Meadow, planning to eat our breakfast at the first nice spot with sunshine. This turned out to be Grouse Meadow itself, where we see more deer in the meadow at some distance (and not acting abnormally tame). We saw very few mosquitos on the trip (although Grouse Meadow seemed a likely place for them, and probably is earlier in the season.)

After meeting Palisade creek, the JMT begins steadily climbing toward Deer Meadow and it is hot. Above Deer Meadow, the trail begins a serious climb with switchbacks up to Palisade Lakes, but with superb views. We all actually enjoyed this climb over the hot hiking through the forest in the canyon bottom. We meet about one part every hour on the JMT, and probably less than that. I approached a pair camping about 1 mile below Palisade Lakes to ask if they had come down from there (they had not). He had an android phone with a GPS map applications (with crude maps), but also some kind of database of camp locations by mileage along the JMT! He informed me that they were at mile 146, but there would be campsites at 147 and then the last before Mather Pass would be at 148. An interesting way to do things. He kept the phone charged by a pair of solar panels mounted on top of his pack.

We continue up to the outlet of the first (northernmost) Palisade Lakes. We crossed the outlet and found a beautiful campsite beyond a rib of rock just across from the outlet. No place for a hammock, so I found myself sleeping on the ground alongside the boys -- which was certainly preferable in terms of companionship if not comfort. A cool night, but we were all comfortably warm. Alex let me use the bivy sack, and with my underquilt providing additional insulation on top of me, I was more than cozy. My thermometer was broken, so I have no record of actual temperatures, but we never found frozen water in our bottles after any of the nights. We suspect temperatures were in the mid or upper 30's.

A fellow along the trail told us that we should look for the Perseid meteor shower. After the trip I looked this up to find that it peaked the night of Sunday August 11. We looked, saw the usual few "shooting stars", but had the feeling (correctly) that we were looking too late). Apparently 2013 was a particularly good year to watch because the shower could be observed after the moon had set. The meteors are said to be particles moving at 37 miles per second. It was a beautiful starry night in any event, despite the two day late recommendation.

Although I am certainly a good deal warmer sleeping on the ground, I am far more comfortable in the hammock - and warm enough.

Day 4 - Wednesday August 14

We are up at no particularly early hour and check the map to ascertain the saddle we are to aim for to cross into the basin drained by Glacier creek. We are following the general directions given by Steve Roper to follow the SHR back to Dusy Basin. We scratch our heads and aim for what we think is the "grassy cliff" and find that the saddle we think we see from Palisade Lakes is only a bench leading to a good sized basin that we follow up to Cirque Pass. At the pass we meet a couple from Switzerland who began at Bishop Pass and decided from the map to try this "short cut" to Palisade Lakes. This pair seems relaxed and competent -- quite a contrast to another pair we met the day before who complained about "Ropers vague directions". I told them (him) that I thought that the level of adventure that Roper left in the high route descriptions was ideal. Clearly a fellow who was in over his head. The high route is not for the average or even highly experienced hiker -- it is for mountaineers and experienced off-trail travellers.

We reach the shore of the big lake (lake 11672). This is as good a place as any to complain about the imbeciles at the USGS who decided to map some quadrangles in meter elevations and others in feet. I would certainly prefer feet, the metric system can go to the devil for this purpose. But of all things, if some mindless beaureaucrat decides to do all the topographic mapping of the country in meters, then let them finish the job rather than leaving us with this idiotic patchwork of maps. My acrimonious comments are inspired by the fact that at the 7.5 minute scale, the Split Mountain quadrangle shows this lake as 3559 (meters), whereas the 7.5 quadrangle just to the west (North Palisade quadrangle) has elevations in feet.

We reach the shore of the lake at about 2PM and stop at the outlet for a lunch break and a pow-wow. We agree that we don't have time to attempt to climb mount Sill before dark. We also agree that we do want to climb Mount Sill and so we are going to spend the afternoon relaxing and dedicate the next day to the climb. The outlet of the lake is a pretty place and we spend quite a while relaxing there. We find a good campsite on the west side of the lake and study Potluck Pass which is close at hand.

There was an amazing incident during the night. I was awake for some reason and heard a tremendous rockfall from the direction of Mount Sill. This awakened Alex and Paul and we all listened to the noise, which went on for some time. Alex got up to watch in case any rocks might actually be coming our way, but the event was some distance away. The next day we found abundant evidence of recent and substantial rockfall with smashed spots on boulders and rock powder on talus that any rain would have washed away. The Palisades are a dangerous place. The next day we found abundant unstable and dangerous talus on our way up Mount Sill.

Day 5 - Thursday August 15

We had agreed to get up and going at first light and we are on the move before 6AM. There is light in the sky as early as 5 AM, but we wait till there is enough light to actually see where we are going. It was a cold night at 11,700 feet, but we were all reasonably comfortable (it didn't drop below freezing, but must have gotten close). I slept under my two quilts on the ground and folded my ridgerest pad to double thickness as a torso pad, which was an excellent move. There was no wind, otherwise I would have been in trouble without a bivy sack for the quilt. Alex used the bivy sack that I had bummed from him the night before.

We are following my transcription of Roper's route description from the Sierra High Route book, which I had written down as follows:

Begin at lake 11672 (11676). Ascend easy terrain N of lake. Enter steep sided cirque on the left. Work up cirque (talus and steep snow) to ridgecrest. Summit is short scramble east.
After an easy climb, we found ourselves in a talus field that led to a steep slope of scree and talus affording an entry to the cirque (which is somewhat of a hanging valley). We climbed this on the right to avoid cliffs further left, but then made the mistake of thinking we had gained the crest and wandering up onto class 2 and 3 rock to the crest reaching a summit at 13800+. From here we had a superb view of mount Sill to the north at 14153. After a discussion we decided that none of us had the heart to either attempt following the ridge to the peak or to descend and then follow the proper route.

The description in the second edition of Secor's guide is:

(class 2-3) Ascend the Glacier Creek drainage to where it is possible to go left (northwest) into the cirque between Mount Sill and Polemonium Peak. Cross the snowfield at the head of the cirque, keeping to its right, and follow the west ridge of the peak to the summit. The upper part of the west ridge consists of large talus; this is the only difficulty.
We all agreed that we had an excellent mountaineering experience, even without reaching the summit of Sill, but there was an underlying disappointment despite this rationalization. We did have certain underlying feelings that we were making a mistake by not moving left into the center of the steep cirque (we would have recognized our error if we had), and that it had been too easy to reach what we thought was the ridge. We should have slowed down, checked the map, and not have just eagerly wandered onto the rock on the right of the scree climb.

Some other lessons:

Here are some pithy words from peakbagger.com:
No one can call themselves an experienced mountaineer unless they have turned back unsuccessfully from some of their summit attempts. Climbing is a game of knowing when to press on and when to bail, and these choices can mean the difference between great success and needless death. It is a misnomer, of course, to call any trip into the mountains “unsuccessful” —these attempts are often richer experiences with far more opportunities for learning and growth.
Interestingly I shared our "failure" with two people in the next two days. Both were sympathetic and immediately shared tales of their own misadventures. Daniel Lorme (who we met on the day of our attempt and who reached the summit of Sill that day) said essentially that gaining the crest anywhere in the Palisade area was something to be pleased with.

We had decided the day before that after climbing Sill, our intent was to make our way to lower Dusy basin, so we went up and over Potluck Pass (which looks impossible, but is straightforward by climbing a rail in the scree slope on the left and wandering across nice ledges). Knapsack pass was exciting but came together nicely. A general rule with all of these passes and mountaineering routes is that they look insane from a distance but the closer you get, you see that things are not so bad as they look. The thing to do is to deal with the problems at hand and as you get closer the solution to the next difficulty presents itself. Careful study from a strategic distance is invaluable, as you often have a very limited perspective when you get in the thick of things.

We found ourself in lower Dusy Basin with perhaps 30 minutes of sun, but found a decent albeit dusty site that had previously used by horse packers. It had two trees that were ideal to hang my hammock from and I had a wonderful night of sleep. Each of us had some minor injury or pain. My right ankle was beginning to ache (and my knee pains come and go). Alex had some nasty blisters and some pain in his knee. Paul also is complaining of knee pain, which gets worse the next day. We were all quite beat up after a day from before sunrise to sunset.

Day 6 - Friday August 16

We are in no hurry to get up, but get on the trail out by around 9AM. The hike up to Bishop Pass seems pleasant and gentle. We meet lots of people on the trail, especially after crossing the pass. I keep the camera packed away as I just want to hike and enjoy the Sierra ambience and keep a hiking rhythm going. I figure that if I see anything exceptional, I won't hesitate to pull out the camera, but that I have already taken photos in this area (of course different light, clouds, and many things can offer a new and worthwhile photograph).

We get to the car about 3:30 PM. We drive to Bishop, get some snacks at the Bi-Rite market, good coffee at the Looney Bean. This is on the west side of the street across from the Chase bank. There is also a place called "Black Sheep expresso bar", but we thought the Looney bean was excellent. We drop into Eastside Sports to ask if Fig is there (he was earlier, but has left for the day), then drop briefly into the Galen Rowell gallery. Then it is on to Lone Pine for a shower at the Hostel and Pizza. We are on the road as the sun sets, avoiding the Chevron station with their deceptive sign (ten cents below the pump price with fine print about cash sales), and on to a Mobil station about 20 miles south with gas 30 cents cheaper. On we go to our camp spot on the Mohave Preserve, arriving around midnight. Breezy and pleasant, but I need a bit thicker car sleeping bag.

Day 7 - Saturday August 17

Up around 7:30. Drive to Needles and have breakfast at the Wagon Wheel, which we all like. Good white man's trucker food. Then on to Tucson by 3:30. Alex did all the driving in his Camry. He says he likes driving and seems to be inexhaustable. He says he could have effortlessly driven all the way to Tucson Friday night.
Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's hiking pages / tom@mmto.org