The basic concept was to spend about a week in the backcountry, do a loop trip rather than an in and out, visit the evolution region, maybe bag a peak or two, and hike a bit of the sierra high route. The "bit" in question was Snow Tongue Pass (one of the more difficult passages in the high route), which proved to be just fine this late in the season.
Saturday, September 23
I left Tucson Saturday morning and drove to someplace in California, just across the line and south of the interstate.
Sunday, September 24
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Continue driving, arriving in Bishop in time to get my backcountry permit at the ranger station there. (No problem) I asked about backpacking into the Thousand Island Lakes region, and they told me that there was a risk of the road being closed and my vehicle being in there the entire winter. Basically when the first storm with snow comes along, they close the gate on the road (Agnew Meadows or whatever the trailhead is back near Devils Postpile) and lock it, and keep it locked until things thaw in the spring. I camped at the trailhead camp above North Lake in Bishop Creek. The way this is, you park your vehicle at the parking lot near the horse packing (mule packing?) outfit, and hike the 0.7 miles of road to the camp area (there is no parking at the camp). I set up my tent, used the bear proof food enclosure and went to sleep to the sound of the running water of Bishop Creek (North Fork).
Monday September 25
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Woke up, ate breakfast, and packed up. Returned to the truck for something I had forgotten. Not a bright and early crack of dawn start. The trailhead camp is amidst pines and down in the cold depths of a canyon, and I was happy to be waiting till some sun was shining in the treetops at least. Coming from the warm desert to the cool mountains was enough excuse to not be jumping up in the cool of the morning. The goal for the day is to get up and over Lamarck Col and be camping in Bishop Canyon.
The start of the hike is through pleasant forest up towards Grass Lake (which I never saw, though the trail junction near there was my first stop (a nice meadow area). Then it was up over some switchbacks to Lower Lamarck Lake (10662), which is one of the most beautiful spots I can imagine. I wonder what "Wonder Lakes" are like, given their name and the beauty of Lower Lamarck Lake. From there, it was up the trail to where the trail fizzles out near Upper Lamarck Lake. This is a nice lake, but kind of tightly jammed into its little niche. This is the departure point for the Lamarck Col backcountry route (no longer a maintained trail, though it clearly once was). I basically just took off across country to the south here. I could see the trail switchbacking up the nose of a ridge to the south, and eventually got on the trail and followed it up and around the nose and then up the little hanging valley to the tiny lake southwest of Mount Lamarck. From here the issue is the snowfield on the north facing side of Lamarck Col. I climbed up the snow, ice and giant snowcups, which was not the best route (though it worked out alright). The best thing would be to stay on the left (southeast) side of the snowfield on the rocks, then traverse across the top to the Col. The Col itself has a fancy sign and the trail on the southwest side is a very well defined set of switchbacks. This marks the entry into Kings Canyon National Park.
A pair of climbers caught up with me right at the Col. Two very nice guys that were here doing a traverse of the peaks in the region. They are mountain guides from back on the east coast, and I promised them some photos that I never did send. I carried a little logbook of the trip that I wrote in dutifully each night in my tent, I know their emails are in there, along with my memoirs written on the spot rather than 2.5 years later, when this is/was first written.
The descent to the uppermost of the Darwin Lakes was straightforward enough. The trail pretty much fizzles out down near the lake. I set down my clip-on polarizing sunglasses while taking a photo (they play hob with my camera viewfinder, particularly when it is using a circular polarizer) and forgot them, not realizing it till I was down at the lake. I made camp on a rocky peninsula above lake 11623, once again (as always through this trip) able to hear the sound of running water as I go to sleep. Began at elevation 9382 at the trailhead, climbed up to 12900 at the Col, then down to 11650 to camp.
Tuesday, September 26
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Up and about - this is the maiden voyage of my jetboil stove. Also one of the first trips I am trying to be serious about packing light. I have a long way to go, as I started out with about a 44 pound pack. In the "old days" I just kept loading things into my pack until no more would fit and then made myself hump it around. I never weighed my pack in those days, but I am sure I was hauling 70 pound packs around.
On this trip, I took my tiny little 1.5 man Sierra Designs tent (4 pounds), and the big luxury of my new Canon 20D digital SLR camera. I debated not bringing the tent, but as it turns out, I was glad to have it and not just a bivy bag (an option that I did consider). Particularly so in a hinge season trip where an unexpected storm is not unthinkable. Also, even with my nice 15 degree rated Marmot sleeping bag (a new purchase as part of my ultralight efforts), I was just barely warm enough some nights.
After waking up, I decide that I really need to go back and find those sunglass clip ons, and end up (although travelling light and without the pack) going all the way back to the summit of Lamarck Col -- 12900 feet. Never did find the sunglasses. I return to camp, pack up and work my way along the lakes. This is kind of a grim business with a heavy pack and no real trail in the talus along the lakes. The lakes are beautiful, and it is great to be always alongside water. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was suffering from some mild altitude sickness. Mild headache and poor appetite and less energy than I might wish for. Views of the north side of Mount Darwin and Mendel which are home to the most well known ice climbs in the High Sierra. I make camp on the bench betwixt the lakes on Darwin Bench and am amazed to find a sudden snow flurry blow up. I pitch the tent in a sheltered place between a big rock and a small tree and walk out to the edge of the bench to enjoy a stunning view.
Wednesday, September 27
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Pack up and make the descent along the outlet stream from the largest of the lakes on Darwin Bench to where my path joins the Muir Trail. A beautiful sunny day and any worries from the previous afternoon are forgotten. The Muir Trail makes for fast hiking up to Evolution Lake, which is fantastically beautiful. I should mention that I have seen absolutely nobody apart from the pair of mountaineers two days before. Even on the potentially busy Muir Trail there is nobody, and nobody is camping at this fabulous lake (it may be forbidden, but that is a moot point this late in the season). I continue along to Sapphire Lake and make camp near the inlet stream above the lake. (Amazingly little progress for a full day of hiking -- clearly I am not running on all my cylinders and need to get in better shape, carry less weight, get acclimatized -- or something).
Thursday, September 28
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My mountaineering day. I leave my camp set up, and take off with just the lid from my Dana Astralplane to serve as a hefty butt pack. The goal is to climb Mount Goddard via the Starr route (a third class route up the buttress on the northeast face). All day long, the phrase from Secor's guidebook was running through my head: "an interesting route on an otherwise dull mountain". He calls this route class 2, which is patent nonsense - I am an experienced rock climber, and I was continually using my hands and taking care to avoid wandering off route onto class 5 rock.
Up the Muir trail I go to a place alongside Wanda Lake (an amazingly desolate body of water!) where I depart to the west to go across what looks (on the map) like a pleasant nearly level stroll into the basin to the west. Everything is boulders and talus though, so it is not easy walking as you might think. The buttress looks impossible and the cliffs above are impressive. I have done things like this before, so I know to just keep pushing on and take each little bit as it comes. The route has had enough traffic that there are boot prints here and there and signs of the passage of other people. I could take a dim view of this, but I don't. I am glad to have some confirmation of being on route since I am alone on a big mountain and three days hike from my vehicle. The route is better than I expected. Finally, a long diagonal ledge leads me left to the ridge crest, just about when the buttress above looks really impossible.
I hike up the talus to the top of unnamed peak 13050 and decide not to go all the way to the top of Mt. Goddard. My watch tells me I will just make it back to my camp by dark, and it looks to be 2 or 3 extra hours of obnoxious talus to accomplish it. The view from 13050 is superb. I take plenty of photos (including some I intend to process into panoramas). It is a wonderful clear day. I am looking down into the Ionian Basin as though from an airplane with clear water and beautiful rock surrounding the lakes (the Ionian Basin is one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the high sierra; perhaps someday I can manage a visit). The descent of the route I climbed is of some concern. It is easy to get off route, and someone like me with some rock climbing experience and skill gets continually tempted to just push things through rather than being diligent to find the easiest and third class route. I just keep reminding myself that I am all alone and the only people around are far away on the Muir trail. I am relieved to get off the semi-technical part of the route and onto mere talus slopes. I am glad for any walking on something like dirt or sand, and enjoy the extra stability of the derelict ski pole I use for a walking stick.
I get back down to Wanda Lake as shadow begins to darken the valley, and back to my camp, as predicted, just about at dark. I realize that I am going to have several pounds of food when I finally hike out. My appetite is not what it usually is, and the gorp I carefully mixed and prepared is just not what I want to eat. I hike back up to the Wanda Lake area to try to catch some fellows I chatted with, but don't locate them to give them the food (some part of our conversation led me to believe they would appreciate it). Ultimately I end up hiking out with it (I suppose it is good to have extra "just in case"). Tomorrow I try offering some of my extra to some hikers on the Muir trail, who inform me that they are not interested and burned several pounds of their own food the night before. Hmmm.
Friday, September 29
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This is the turning point of the trip and my mind is now oriented toward the hike out. An ongoing worry is that the loop route I have selected takes me over what is called informally as "Snow Tongue Pass" and has been described in worrisome terms in my guidebooks. If it proves to be something I cannot safely negotiate, then I have a long roundabout hike through the Evolution Valley and Piute Creek basin. I pack up, take sunrise pictures at Sapphire Lake and head down and around Evolution Lake. When the Muir trail clearly takes a turn and drops into the Evolution Valley, I begin contouring to the northwest. This proves to be tricky and arduous bushwhacking with the cliffy dropoff into Evolution Valley on my left and a granite nose obscured by forest on my right. I am never sure if I ought to be higher or lower and wander from one granite bench to another, but things seem to work out and eventually I am up onto an open area heading for lake 11092. I make camp to the east of 11092 which is a large lonely expanse of water with a massive granite expanse behind it.
Saturday, September 30
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High clouds seem to be working their way in, and it is entirely possible that a change in the weather is now afoot. My mind is fully occupied with concerns about crossing Snow Tongue Pass, and I work my way up north to 12479, passing a pleasant little lake. After checking the map realize I want to aim for the notch to the right of this peak, not the one to the left. A series of granite benches yield what is actually a nice route to the ridge crest, and I am able to admire the drop on the north side that I have been warned about. Clouds and wind are blowing up, I enjoy my first view of Mount Humphreys, take some pictures and begin the descent. It is a steep chute with dirt and rocks. The main concern is that I get below some loose rock that will through some delayed action event tumble down on me from above. This never happens and before long the angle eases and I am able with care to cross some small patches of snow and work my way down to Wahoo Lakes. Now it is the never ending battle with seemingly endless talus. These lakes are conspicuously low at the end of the season. A lot of brown stained rock around the lakes are exposed.
Humphreys basin and the Desolation Lake area are a lot of wide open territory that looks inviting to wander around in. I now begin to aim towards Piute Pass, wandering near Lake 11183 and Muriel Lake. 11183 would be pleasant to camp near with a lot of level terrain near the outlet. The wind and clouds lend a certain excitement to the day. I join the main trail near Piute Pass and experience for the first time on this trip the special ambience of horse droppings on the trail. I have had none of this on the Muir trail, and by no means none of it on my backcountry travels. Clearly Piute Pass and the North Fork of Bishop Creek are heavily used by the mule packers next to where my car is parked. I keep moving, eager now to hike out and get to my truck. After 6 days, I am finally reasonably acclimatized and in decent shape, so I am finally moving along. (This has happened on other trips as well. I really wonder if I can find a way to be in superb shape all through a trip like this?) I finish the hike in the forest in the lower parts of Bishop Creek in near darkness. The lakes I pass seem heavily used. Maybe I am getting snobby after my time in much less travelled areas.
I drive to Bishop, get a burger with onion rings (which tastes like the best thing I have ever eaten). I try to find a motel room, wanting to get washed up before driving up to see my parents in Sparks, Nevada tomorrow. Every room in town is taken! Apparently the late fall is the best fishing season of all. The volume of water in the lakes is low, the fish are hungry, and insect life is scarce. I drive out of town north on US route 6 into Chalfant Valley, find a dirt road, set up my cot, and get a great nights sleep.
Sunday, October 1
In the morning I visit the ranger station, get a sheet with a list of places to get showers and pay a few dollars at (if I remember right) a place called "the wash tub". It is a laundramat with a couple of shower stalls for hire, the perfect thing. Soon I am heading north on 395 feeling clean and good and ready to spend some time with my parents in Sparks.
All told, a 6 day backpacking trip, and a wonderful, special, and memorable time.
I had at least 2 pounds of excess food, perhaps it would be wiser to go a bit light and risk being a bit hungry. This is the first trip where I know I had some altitude sickness. I really wanted salt and the Raman soup I carried was by far the most appealing thing in my pack. Even at around 40 pounds, my pack was a hated thing. I need to find out how these ultralight people do what they do and get my pack weight down near 30 pounds or below. One thing that would indeed make a difference would be a lighter pack (my big Dana is 6 pounds all by itself, why carry all that?). The little Sierra Designs tent is 4 pounds, so pack plus tent is 10 pounds just to get started.
Doing this trip solo was great and I would not hesistate to do it again, although a good companion would certainly be welcome too! I did this with my lightweight and lowtop Lowa boots, but I think a pair of boots with a more high top cut and some ankle support would be better yet, a sort of insurance this far back in.
My average mileage per day is disappointing, but I could not have pushed it harder and done better. The only answer is to get into better shape, learn to pack lighter, and to allocate a couple of easy days at the start to get acclimatized. The second day should be a loafing day at some 11,000 foot scenic wonder of a spot.
Heavy though it is (3 pounds and 11 ounces), I have absolutely no regrets about carrying the Canon 20D with the 17-40L lens. This trip really taught me how flare-prone that lens is. What would have helped would be to shoot as much as possible without a filter (though a polarizer is a plus for many shots). The flat glass of a filter, with this lens is a sure recipe for flare. The other option I would consider would be to carry the 10-22 S series lens I now have. Somehow that ultrawide lens seems immune to flare.
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