Pine Creek and Mount Humphreys (August, 2010)

We ("we" being my son Alex and our friend Eric) had originally intended to do a trip entering via Shepherd Pass, but when I called about permits, that entry was unavailable on our chosen date. I began running through my list of alternates, and got lucky with Pine Creek. This was fine becaue I was eager to visit the Bear Lakes Basin, as well as to make an attempt to climb Mt. Humphreys.

We left Tucson early Saturday 8/14/2010 and drove via Parker, Needles, and Barstow from Tucson to Bishop. Because we were not entering a national park, we were able to pick up our permit from the night drop box. Then we drove to the campground in Rock Creek and spent the night. Our strategy was to spend the night before starting our trip at as high an elevation as possible to aid in altitude aclimmatization. Rock Creek is over 9000 feet, and this worked well.

Day 1, Sunday August 15, 2010

For some reason, we decided to drive back to Bishop and grab breakfast, then we drove to the Pine Creek trailhead and started the trip. The first few miles of the trail are on an old mine road, with views of the old Pine Creek tungsten mine. This was once the biggest tungsten mine in the world, and was a big factor in providing tungsten for the manufacture of high grade steel (used in armor plate) during world war II. The deposit is now exhausted, and the mine is quite a mess. Some people bellyache about the mine, and I certainly agree that the scenery would be improved by its absence, but the views are still spectacular and inspiring enough that I can basically just overlook it.

It isn't long before the mine is left behind and the trail arrives at Pine Lake, where we stopped to eat lunch and enjoy the views. Then we pushed on, determined to get over Pine Creek Pass (11150 feet) on our first day. This is a fair bit of work (the trailhead is at 7405 feet elevation), but reasonable for the energetic hiker. We crossed the pass and found a campsite on the north side of French Canyon.

Day 2, Monday August 16, 2010

As we were breaking camp, a horse packer dropped by and kindly asked if we had any trash that we might like him to carry out (we didn't). We then hiked to the trail junction in French Canyon, admiring views and wildflowers, and then made our way up the trail to the bench holding Elba, Moon, and L-Lakes. We thought of camping near L-Lake, but upon discovering a dead mule in the middle of a campsite near L-Lake, we retreated back to near Moon Lake and selected a nice camp spot.

Eric wanted to spend the afternoon fishing in the nearby lakes. Alex and I took off to explore Puppet Lake and Puppet Pass, in preparation for our attempt to climb Mt. Humphreys the next day. Puppet pass is an intimidating steep pile of large talus blocks, but we found it reasonable enough to ascend on the right side, and on the descent found a perhaps even better (and more frequently used) route on the far northeast side of the pass. Once at the top, we climbed up to the top of the peak to the northwest (peak 12225). This peak is quite impressive when viewed from L-Lake and offers a great view from the top. It is a straightorward walkup from Puppet Pass. In retrospect, if we had been a bit more energetic, we could have walked west from Puppet Pass and climbed Pilot Knob (12245), but we didn't.

During the night we discovered that we were not far enough away from the camp with the dead mule as nasty smells arrived at our campsite when the wind died down. A memorable night of the worst sort.

Day 3, Tuesday August 17, 2010

We arose at the first hint of light and in no time were on top of Puppet Pass to greet the full morning light. This was our day to attempt climbing Mt. Humphreys and I have learned from past experience that an early start can make all the difference. At an elevation of 13986, Mount Humphreys is only 14 feet short of the magic 14,000. This of course is pointless, Mount Humphreys is one of the great summits of the High Sierra, and a great summit anywhere for that matter. We were following a portion of the Sierra High route on our way to Desolation Lake. The terrain may look relatively flat on the topo map, but there is actually plenty of topography to find an efficient way to move around in. We passed gigantic Desolation Lake on the south and made our way up a rocky ridge (with superb views to the south of the Glacier Divide) heading for Humphreys Lakes. From here we were puzzled by the route description we had, and moved up onto the west face of Mt. Humphreys, entered a chute and made our way up to the notch where the real climbing starts. We clearly did not ascend the chute that most people use, but it worked out fine.

We (actually Alex carried it) were carrying an 80 foot climbing rope, and a selection of 3 or 4 climbing nuts. We used them all and found that we had barely enough gear to get us safely up the class 4 section, which was exactly what we intended. We soon were on top. This was a very satisfying summit in many ways. The views were superb, the climbing exciting and challenging, and above all, this was a summit that I have been interested in for almost 40 years. We were alone on the mountain.

A person with a full length rope might have done a couple of rappels to get down. With an 80 foot rope, we downclimbed the two pitches. This was entirely reasonable, and given the number of climbing accidents that occur when rappelling, probably even safer, and probably just as quick. We descended the same gully we had come up, even though we could see that most traffic went down a different way. Our gully was fine, had no particular hazards, and above all, the ski poles we use as hiking sticks were waiting for us near the bottom of the gully.

From here Alex picked the route back, and he did a fine job. Along the north side of Desolation Lake we stopped to talk to some fellows who were camping nearby and told them that we had climbed Mt. Humphreys. We told them we couldn't stay and talk any longer because we wanted to get back to our camp in French Canyon (shadows were already starting to get long). They looked at us in amazement, and asked, "Who are you? Bob Burd?", which I thought was a nice compliment.

Our goal was to get down Puppet Pass before dark, and we managed to do exactly that. It was indeed dark by the time we arrived back at camp. We had hoped to move camp away from the dead mule, but Eric (who had spent the day fishing and exploring the nearby lakes) had wisely decided not to move the camp till we got back, so we enjoyed another evening of putrid and vile smells.

Day 4, Wednesday August 18, 2010

Our agenda was an easy day after pushing hard the past two days. Our goal was to move our camp to Merriam Lake, on what promised to be a nice bench on the other side of French Canyon. We hiked cross country from Elba Lake to join the trail near the giant waterfall from Royce Lakes. We found a nice meadow further down French Canyon where we ate lunch and then continued down canyon to where we felt it prudent to begin the cross country ascent towards Merriam Lake. We found a suitable camp spot east of the lake, and since clouds had been building all day, rigged our tent for possible rain and relaxed a bit watching the clouds drift over the peaks.

Day 5, Thursday August 19, 2010

The rain never materialized, and they next day broke fine and clear. I actually was enjoying the cloudy day the day before and felt just a little disappointed, but also relieved. This was to be another big day, though we didn't feel a pre-dawn start was required (and it wasn't). Our goal was to hike over Feather Pass and into Bear Lakes Basin. Although I was feeling crummy, this passed by the time we got to Feather Pass, and it turned out that the climb from the south to this pass was the hardest part of the day and was not too bad at that. The descent into Bear Lakes Basin crossed a small snowfield and led nicely across rock slabs to the lakes. We admired Seven Gables and made our way to White Bear Lake, which we decided was far enough. Seven Gables would be a fine goal for a future trip. Our return went quickly and smoothly and we were back to camp well before sunset.

Day 6, Friday August 20, 2010

It was time to begin heading out the way we came, so it was back up French Canyon, over Pine Creek Pass and to a campsite on the east side of Honeymoon Lake.

Day 7, Saturday August 21, 2010

I awoke before Alex and Eric, made coffee, and decided to go for a run up to Italy pass if I could get that far. I wanted to take a look at Granite Park and was feeling quite good, so I took off determined to run as much of the distance from our camp at 10400 feet to Italy Pass at 12400 as I could. This turned out to be the whole way, and everything went quite well and I was soon at the pass with even a few minutes to spare. Finally at another spot that I had only seen on maps for so many years. On the way down I was feeling good and ran past some people who said, "It's hard to feel tired seeing you go like that!". Comments like that make an old goat feel good. I got back to camp expecting Alex and Eric to be upset waiting for me, but Eric was still off fishing and Alex was glad for some time to just relax. We hiked out without any trouble and drove to near Lone Pine, camping at the Tuttle Creek BLM campground after getting a shower at the hostel in Lone Pine and getting some food.

Day 8, Sunday August 22, 2010

Our day to drive back home. We stopped at the interagency center and were told that if we had wanted we could have obtained walk in day trip permits to go up Mount Whitney. It occurred to me that after a week at altitude we were wonderfully aclimatized, in great shape, and that a quick light romp up to the summit of Mount Whitney would have been just the thing. I will try this on a future trip, mood, weather, and space permitting.

The crowds on the Mount Whitney trail would be quite a contrast to a day alone climbing Mount Humphreys or the remoteness of the Bear Lakes Basin.

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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