Category Archives: Backpacking

KL day 6-7: Big Arroyo out

Big Arroyo patrol cabin

Big Arroyo patrol cabin

Sometime around 3:00 AM, I peered out of my tarp and saw the moon — thankfully the storm had passed, so I would be able to dry out, or at least warm up, in the morning. The mix of snow, graupel, and sleet had frozen into a hard, white sheet that anchored my tarp against the wind, and supported Tom and Matthew as they walked around in the morning. After an interminable wait for the sun to reach the bottom of the valley, I ate breakfast and packed as quickly as I could, with frequent breaks to stand in the sun and rewarm my hands.

Michael had left for Big Kaweah; the others were still deciding what to do as I followed him south along the High Sierra Trail. My original plan was to cross over Red Spur and Kaweah Basin, camping near Picket Guard. However, I was enjoying the sunny hike on untracked snow (rather than pulverized dust and horse manure) so much that, when I came to the point where I should leave the HST, I decided instead to keep strolling along the trail and visit the Kern Hot Springs and Valley, though it would mean dropping down below 7,000′. I continued strolling along the plateau in perfect brisk t-shirt weather.

Decide in haste, repent at leisure. While the hike along the plateau was pleasant, and the lower Kern is impressive with its 3000-foot-high glacier-carved walls, the hike back to Junction Meadow is endless. I stopped briefly at the hot springs, but a hot, slimy, sulfurous bath did not appeal in the midday heat. An exit to Whitney Portal was impossible, but I could at least make my last day short, so when I reached Junction Meadow before 4:00, I took only a short break before continuing 4.3 miles and 2,200′ to the JMT junction at Wallace Creek. I had to continue several hundred yards up the faint trail to get past all the JMT parties camped there.

Though it had been warm hiking up the Kern the previous day, the night was the coldest of the trip: for the first time, my CamelBak hose froze solid, frustrating my breakfast preparations. I was almost out of oats, so breakfast was a disgusting paste of oil, instant mashed potatoes, and vanilla protein powder. It only needed to last me about 10 miles over Russell-Carillon Col and down to the Portal.

My knee and shin were both stiff and painful, so I started off at a limp, but fortunately they loosened up after an hour or two, before the steeper part of the col. I was tired and slow on the hills, but had enough music to last me through this familiar terrain, and reached the trailhead around noon.


KL day 5: Big Arroyo; Eisen, Lippincott, Eagle Scout

Kaweahs behind clouds

Kaweahs behind clouds

After getting up at our own paces, we scattered to several objectives: Michael to Black and Red Kaweahs, Bob and Matthew to Red Spur and a nearby 13er, and myself to the SPS peaks forming the west side of the Big Arroyo: Eisen, Lippincott, and Eagle Scout. Michael had tagged Eisen from Black Rock Pass the previous day, and reported that it sucked. From my topo, it looked like it should be possible to head straight up the valley to its east, bypassing the hideously loose ridge.

I headed up the trail to Little Five Lakes, then took off west up the drainage, following bits of trail past several lakes. As I had hoped, this way was much better than that from Black Rock: after gaining most of the elevation on nice slabs and grass, I gained the ridge between a knob and the north summit. A bit of 3rd class, with a couple detours to the shady, windy, rotten north side of the ridge, got me to what I thought was the high point. Alas, the register had been placed on the lower-looking point a couple hundred yards to the south. The connecting ridge was unpleasantly loose, but at least it was much shorter than the similarly-awful ridge from Black Rock. I congratulated myself on my route choice.

Lippincott looked far away, across several lower summits and a long, probably nasty ridge, so I took my time resting on the sunny, sheltered side of the ridge. I noted that Rick and Darija had traversed the other direction a few years ago, so it clearly went. I returned to the north summit, then vacillated. The ridge itself looked time-consuming and probably crappy. Losing a couple thousand feet off the west side, then passing above a lake and re-climbing Lippincott, looked direct. Ultimately, I followed the ridge a bit, then dropped down a nasty dirt chute to the east when it started to look tricky.

I managed to bypass one of the intermediate summits without losing too much elevation, but the line I took crossed much tedious talus and sand. I ended up climbing back up to the ridge before the last sub-summit, following the ridge for a bit, then contouring down the west side to the final saddle. There may be no pleasant way to get between these peaks. However, the final climb up Lippincott’s east face was actually pleasant, consisting mostly of slabs and stable boulders.

The wind that had been blowing all morning was starting to bring the friendly, puffy clouds out west a bit too close, obscuring parts of the remaining traverse. I couldn’t see all of the ridge north to Eagle Scout, but what I could see looked tricky, and I knew it crossed two higher summits. The east ridge, on the other hand, was still in the clear, and definitely manageable on its south side.

Dropping down a mixture of the east ridge and southeast face, I aimed for a saddle where, I hoped, I could hop over to the broad, slabby basin north well above the bottom of the valley. After a failed attempt on a sketchy, lichen-covered ramp, I found a reasonable 3rd class way near the saddle’s west end. The rest of the traverse north was mostly pleasant slabs and grass, passing around one rib, across the outlet of a decent-sized lake, then through a saddle to Eagle Scout’s southeast face. Looking back at the ridge to Lippincott, I saw that it would probably have been Serious Business.

Eagle Scout probably has a great view of Precipice Lake and the Bearpaw area, but I summited in the clouds. Somewhat worried about my exposed gear back at camp, I rushed down the sand and slabs to the Big Arroyo trail, then jogged most of the way to camp. I washed up, and was just settling into Bob’s camp chair when a few graupel kernels began falling. It was probably around 4:30 when I crawled into my sleeping bag, then doubled my tarp over it and my gear. This is where I would stay for the next 16 hours.

Tom arrived shortly thereafter, bringing some mystery treat in a Gatorade bottle. As he finished catching up and setting up his palatial tent, Michael returned, having successfully tagged both of his Kaweahs — a tough day. Matthew and Bob returned somewhat later, having caught a healthy dose of precipitation on their way back from distant Red Spur.

While I was content to sit filthily in my filthy bag and cook dinner, Tom and Bob like to stay clean. Tom accomplished this by falling waist-deep into the creek, washing himself along with his pants and shoes. Bob had packed in a solar show, which he set out to heat during the day. Despite the water being no warmer than when he drew it from the creek, he took the black bag and his chair around the corner of a boulder. A few minutes later, we heard a series of agonized gasps. While Bob probably emerged cleaner than before, I can’t imagine it being worth such misery.

The mixed precipitation came down harder, and I engineered the best shelter I could, trying defend my down bag against both the snow and condensation collecting on the tarp, with my pack serving as both pillow and prop at the head-end. Though I heard Tom snoring in his tent, I slept very little myself. When I lay flat on my back, the tarp would slowly collapse under accumulated snow and collect condensation, and my feet would get cold. Lying on my side allowed adequate ventilation, but my hip and elbow would get sore, requiring me to switch sides. I stayed warm and dry enough, but spent most of the night switching positions and punching snow off the tarp. I imagined waking to a continuing blizzard, wrapping my hands and feet in bread bags, and deciding when and how to make a desperate dash for civilization. I wondered if I would end up in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, and if they would note that I was not wearing a helmet when I succumbed to hypothermia.

KL day 4: Nine Lakes to Big Arroyo; Lion Rock, Stewart, Kaweah Queen, Lawson

A strange sight

A strange sight

After the previous day’s pack-over, it felt great to knock out a few peaks with just a daypack. Making my way around the lake, I scrambled quickly toward the ridge between Lion Rock and Stewart, eager to stay warm and reach the sun. I had hoped to find something easy on the other side of the ridge, and especially the tower east of the summit, and was disappointed. However, a bit of 3rd class got me to the notch before the tower, where easy 3rd class led around the shady side and up to the summit.

The ridge to Stewart looked long, and I was not sure how hard it might be, but it seemed better than going all the way around to Kaweah Gap. Retracing my steps, I found easy ground past a section of red rock. Things turned trickier once I got on the white granite. First came a horizontal maze of giant talus blocks, which went as class 3 with some backtracking. This ended at a steep step, with a fun-looking 5th class dihedral on one side and steep, ledgy terrain on the other. I finally found some 4th class trickery to get me up the ledgy side, where more 3rd class got me to the higher-looking false summit. I wasted some time trying to stay on the ridge, cliffing out on some giant boulders, but eventually reached the summit.

I still had hours to kill, so I decided to tag Lawson and Kaweah Queen, two fairly obscure non-SPS peaks. After peering over the high side to Bearpaw and the tiny Lilliput Glacier, I made my way down the obvious easy side, across Nine Lakes Basin, and up toward the northeast side of Black Kaweah. I was surprised to find bits of use trail in this section, since there are few reasons to pass through the area. I followed them, and the easiest-looking line, to the saddle between Kaweah Queen and Lawson, trying to minimize my encounters with the horrid loose talus.

I decided to tag Kaweah Queen first, and was surprised to find that, although it looks like a big mound, it requires a bit of classic Kaweah rib-and-gully work to reach the summit. I found a surprising number of (mostly familiar) names in the young register. The peak is nothing special, but its position gives it great views in all directions, including into the seldom-visited Kaweah Basin to the southeast. Lawson, an easy traverse away, is similar: a nondescript talus pile in a good location. I even found a couple wind-breaks on the summit plateau, perhaps built by particularly hardy backcountry photographers looking for a sunrise shot.

I took a more direct path down from Lawson, where I found some truly awful talus. After a long walk back to camp, where my stuff was pleasantly dry and aired-out, I packed back south, meeting the Big Arroyo trail below Kaweah Gap. Along the way, I passed a herd of free-roaming mules, then some cowboys walking another dozen of them up-canyon, who asked if I had seen the first ones. Michael had already claimed a campsite when I arrived at the bear boxes, and Bob and Matthew arrived perhaps an hour later. Michael had even packed in meat to share, a welcome change from my standard pot of oil, bean and mashed potato flakes.

KL day 3: Lake NE of Kern Point to Nine Lakes; Kern Point, Centennial, Triple Divide

Triple Divide's east ridge

Triple Divide’s east ridge

The sun rose relatively early on my east-facing camp, so I was able to start at a reasonable time. Reaching the large lake north of Kern Point, I saw bootprints and strings across the lake; according to Bob, the strings are gill nets to kill the fish for the frogs’ benefit, though I can’t imagine any sane frog living in such a frigid place. The first slope up from the lake, normally covered by snow, was loose misery made worse by my heavy pack, but fortunately things got easier after a couple hundred feet. Though Kern Point looks like a big talus mound, I topped out on a surprisingly sharp northeast ridge, and enjoyed slightly more scenic and interesting climbing to the summit.

From my perch on the summit, I looked down at the Kern-Kaweah valley leading west from Junction Meadow, at 8300′, to Colby Pass near 12,000′, and on to Triple Divide, my next destination. Heading west, I made a descending traverse to about 11,000′, then stayed around that level to the lakes and meadows below Colby. Though there were one or two unpleasant talus sections, most of the traverse was on pleasant slabs — preferable to, and possibly faster than, dropping down to the Colby Pass trail and regaining 1000′.

Though it wasn’t on my agenda, I realized that I could tag Centennial Peak with only a short, 2,000′ detour. Though the peak is a complete nothing-burger, a class 2 mound surrounded by higher neighbors, it may be the only officially-named Sierra Peak I will ever reach before Bob; I couldn’t resist. One slog later I was at the summit, looking north along a jagged ridge to Milestone, and west across Whaleback and Glacier Ridge.

I returned to my pack, took 50 steps or so on the Colby Pass trail, then left it to the southwest, crossing a class 2-3 ridge and making my way over rolling terrain to Triple Divide Pass. I am not sure why people use this pass, but there were footprints. From a bump southwest of the pass, a long, gradual ridge leads to Triple Divide. The ridge is mostly class 2, with a few class 3 moves, and the rock is pleasantly solid for the area.

After enjoying the view for a few minutes, I started worrying about how I was going to reach Nine Lakes. This was my first visit to this part of the range, and I was unfamiliar with the topography. It looked like I could drop to Lion Lake using either the west ridge or southwest face, then climb an ugly slope over Lion Rock’s east ridge to reach my goal. The other option would be to follow Triple Divide’s south ridge to where it met that ridge. I went a few yards down the west ridge, but retreated when I found left-handed traversing and terrible rock. Then I dropped a bit down the southwest face, chickening out when I couldn’t see whether my chute cliffed out. The ridge it was.

Starting from a short way down the southwest face, I contoured south over classic Kaweah terrain: endless fins and gullies of crappy rock. Reaching an impasse, I retreated, crossed through a notch to the west side, and found that I could have simply walked down easy class 2 terrain from the summit. Oh, well. The top and west side of the ridge continued to work surprisingly well, though I could see it growing steeper ahead.

After a miraculous ledge took me around one impasse, a tower with a sheer left side forced me back to the right. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at a steep cleft, and thought I was hosed. Carefully walking along the narrow ridge, I found a 4th class downclimb on the left side — tricky with 1.5 hands and an overnight pack — that took me to the notch. Past this notch, the top of the ridge was an easy class 2 walk to the head of Nine Lakes. I looked over at Lion Rock, but was too low on water and too tired; it would have to wait for morning.

KL day 2: Crabtree Meadow to Lake NE of Kern Point; Ericsson

Panorama west of Bighorn Plateau

Panorama west of Bighorn Plateau

One normal way to get from Crabtree to the Kaweahs is to drop down Wallace Creek to the Kern, take the Colby Pass trail back up and somehow squeeze through between the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide, perhaps via Pants Pass. This is direct, but requires dropping down to the Kern River at Junction Meadow (8,300′). Having plenty of time to reach the Big Arroyo, I made a detour around the head of the Kern to tag Mount Ericsson, my last SPS peak in the Shepherd Pass area. This route had the added advantage of allowing me to stay above 10,000 feet for the next few days.

After packing up, I made my way down to the JMT and listened to some NPR as I made the morning “commute” to Lake South America. I do not normally enjoy extended trail hiking. However, crossing the Bighorn Plateau in the morning, with the sun rising on the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide, put me in a good mood; I even took out one headphone to be friendly to the south-bound JMTers. Mount Ericsson’s distinctive, jagged south ridge loomed for hours in the distance.

Just past Tyndall Creek, I turned left on the Kern cutoff trail, then right on the less-traveled, new-to-me trail to Lake South America, leaving the JMT to wind its way up Forester Pass. This unmaintained trail follows a long, grassy valley to its headwall, passing a few smaller lakes. I was surprised to see two herds of deer, and I in turn surprised the heck out of a fox (I think) stalking something next to one of the lakes — when he finally noticed me, he sprinted all the way to the opposite shore.

After crossing the headwall, I made my way past a scenic, unnamed lake, then dropped my pack at the next trail junction, cramming as much trail mix and water as I could stand before heading for Harrison Pass and Ericsson’s east face. Since it is class 3, I had glanced at Bob’s trip report for beta on the route; I learned, most importantly, that the northernmost high point was the summit. The climb is mostly forgettable but not unpleasant class 2. Near the summit, however, things get trickier. Heading north too soon, I got into some tricky terrain near the steep chute just south of the summit, but managed to zig-zag my way to the summit ridge with some creative hand-and-a-half climbing.

The summit views were well worth the climb: to the southwest, I looked down the Kern from its origin; to the northwest, the deep valleys holding East Lake, Bubbs Creek, and the Kings River, as well as Charlotte Dome and the steep side of Bago; to the east, Stanford, Deerhorn and, behind them, University; to the west, Brewer and its companion peaks. Unable to find the register, I scrambled along the west side of the summit ridge and up the class 3-4 cracks to a lower, southern summit, which at least had a cairn. I found the “correct” route partway between these two summits on the way down, then finally made my way across undulating terrain to my pack.

Following the extremely faint Kern trail southwest, I was surprised to see an older woman backpacking by herself. I said “hello” to try to avoid startling her, and remarked that I did not expect to meet anyone; she did likewise, but seemed not to want to talk, so I went quickly on my way.

At around 10,500′, I crossed the “mighty” Kern (all of a foot wide at this place and time of year) and picked up the old Milestone Basin trail. I left it before it started climbing, crossed the creek south, and was surprised to find another creek flowing in a sheer, deep valley. I was forced to climb slabs to the west to where it rose to join the level of the valley, where I easily crossed, then climbed some annoying talus to pass through the ridge to the south. I was surprised to find a couple of cairns along the way, though there were no other signs of human traffic. I spent the rest of the afternoon contouring around 11,000′ along the plateau west of the Kern, finding a convenient lake north-northeast of Kern Point around sundown.

KL Day 1: Whitney Portal to Crabtree Meadow; Hitchcock, Newcomb, Chamberlin

Endless ridge toward Hitchcock

Endless ridge toward Hitchcock

Racing down to Lone Pine after tagging Red and White Mountain, I made it to the visitor center late and was happy to snag the last Whitney entry permit. After stuffing various foodstuffs into my rented bear canister in the McDonalds parking lot, I crashed in the Alabama Hills, having already packed my sleeping bag, then drove up to the Portal in the morning. Just for the heck of it, I hung my pack from the trailhead scale, which reported 37 lbs. (including 1-2 liters of water) — not bad for 7 days.

Putting on some music, I took the old Whitney trail to the new one, then cruised up the endless switchbacks. I started passing wag bags below the switchbacks, and Whitney hikers shortly thereafter. I reached Trail Crest in about 3h30, poked my head into the wind blasting through the gap, then retreated to leave the trail and pick my way around the sheltered side of Discovery Pinnacle.

Somewhat suboptimally, I chose to tag Hitchcock first. Traversing south of the ridge, I followed a line of ducks, then left them as they descended toward Crabtree Lakes. This side of ridge is easy but endless, an obstacle course of boulders and sand common to this part of the Sierra. I eventually reached a chute dropping to Hitchcock Lakes, where I dropped my pack before scrambling to the summit, which sees regular traffic from the Crabtree ranger. Returning to my pack, I dropped southwest down sand to the big Crabtree Lake, then took out my daypack for an extended excursion to Newcomb and Chamberlin.

I knew nothing about routes on these peaks, but I spied a chute that appeared to lead to the ridge near Newcomb. It worked, though there were some utterly horrid loose sections, and I soon found myself on the easy side of the peak a short distance west of the summit. I turned west toward Chamberlin, and was surprised to find that the easy side became non-easy in the middle. Dropping down to easier terrain was too painful to contemplate. This section turned out to include some fun class 3, with a bit of block maze and some tunnels and catwalks.

Passing over Chamberlin’s summit, I continued to a chute I had seen across Crabtree Lake, and found encouraging footprints leading down. The chute worked, but was not as nice as I had hoped, with far less skiable sand and scree than I had thought to find.

Once again carrying my heavy pack, I picked up increasingly well-established bits of trail leading down along the lakes. I met a group of backpackers at one who had come in via Meysan Lake and the hideous death-chute between Irvine and Mallory, having failed to acquire a Whitney Permit to come in over the slightly less hideous Arc Pass. We chatted for awhile, and I gave them a few pointers on coming out Russell-Carillon Col. Anticipating a long next day, I did the extra miles to Lower Crabtree Meadow, found a maintained trail, and hiked upstream to the Crabtree bear box (not all my food fit in my bear can yet). I stowed my trail mix, cooked dinner and, after reading until my hand was too cold to hold the book (about 10 minutes), turned in embarrassingly early.

More backpacking: Kaweah Loop

I spent six nights on another backpacking excursion, this time starting at Whitney Portal and looping around the Kaweahs. I did some peak-bagging along the way: Hitchcock, Newcomb, Chamberlin, Ericsson, Kern Point, Centennial, Triple Divide, Lion Rock, Stewart, Kaweah Queen, Lawson, Eisen, Lipincott, Eagle Scout.

Here are the stats:

Day mi +
1 15.7 8800 6500
2 21.4 6500 6300
3 10.7 6900 6600
4 13.1 5300 6900
5 10.7 5700 5700
6 23.8 5200 4300
7 8.7 3400 5500
Total 104.1 41800 41800

And here is a map: interactive online version; multi-page detailed PDF.

SHR day 7: Lake Italy to Mosquito Flat; Hilgard, Gabb, Dade

SW to Seven Gables from Gabb

SW to Seven Gables from Gabb

(I’m finally done with the backpack, but will probably skip writing up most of what I’ve done since. — ed.)

I woke to cooler temperatures and, thinking of the previous evening’s lenticular clouds, I felt that the weather might be changing for the worse. Rather than spend another day going over Gabbott Pass and through the Mono Recesses, I decided to pack straight out to Mosquito Flat. After quickly dispatching Mount Hilgard, I packed up, bid farewell to the couple across the lake, and made my way around the northwest side toward Gabbott Pass.

I hadn’t figured out how I would reach Rock Creek yet, but it looked easy enough to cross the ridge west of Bear Creek Spire. As I got closer, I saw an apparently-climbable route near Dade, hopefully leading to the standard hourglass route on the opposite side. If I were right, it would be easy class 2 from there to Dade’s summit, and a convenient descent down a loose chute to Treasure Lakes.

Dropping my pack, I set off to dispatch the deceptively-close-looking Gabb. While it is an easy boulder-hop from the southeast, well left of the pass, I for some reason headed more straight toward the summit, and quickly found problems. Like much of this part of the Sierra, this part of Gabb is a talus pile partially covered in loose sand and gravel. The talus I had chosen grew larger toward the ridge, frequently forcing me to backtrack when the climbing exceeded my one-handed abilities. I reached the ridge north of the summit, and was nearly turned back by some exposed, dicey class 3-4 climbing. Caution, creativity, one-handed fist jamming, and a bit of awkward writhing got me to the summit. I gratefully took the easy way down.

My apparent ramp worked, dropping me above a lake at the top of the hourglass, though it was infested with more miserable sand. After tagging Dade’s summit, I made my way down the completely dry hourglass, finding it incredibly loose; going down worked, but it may not be physically possible to climb it without snow. From the base, I made my way to the Treasure Lakes, where I washed up as best I could, thinking that being semi-clean would probably improve my odds of finding a ride back toward Onion Valley. As it turned out, this was unnecessary, as I met Jonathan and a friend while hanging out in the parking lot, bumming a ride, shower, and dinner.

SHR day 6: Elba Lake to Lake Italy; Gemini, Seven Gables

Seven Gables from Gemini

Seven Gables from Gemini

(Still working through the backlog, slowed by my hand. — ed.)

I woke to clean air and my neighbor already heading out. Rather than taking the trail, I dropped straight down a creek opposite the impressive cascade from the Royce Lakes and picked up the French Canyon trail. Expecting a sign directing me to a well-used trail to Merriam Lake, I put in my headphones and turned off my brain. Most of a mile after passing the obvious place where the trail should be, I saw the error of my ways. I backtracked to the creek from Merriam Lake, then ground out the 1,000-foot gain cross-country. I saw horse prints below the lake, suggesting that the trail still exists somewhere, but I never found it.

Finally reaching Merriam Lake, with its splendid beach, at the northwest corner of the bench, I again left the official High Route. Consulting my map the night before, I noticed that Gemini and Seven Gables — “west side peaks” — were only a bit out of the way, and I have long wanted to tag the latter. I headed up some slabs to the ridge between Merriam Lake and the “Indian Word Named Lakes” (and “Lake Awee-ma-wep,” where the lion sleeps while away from the mighty jungle). Mostly because it would involve clockwise climbing, I headed south of the last pinnacle on the ridge, then made a descending class 2-3 traverse to the edge of the Seven Gable Lakes basin. I got lucky here — the other side of the pinnacle is impassable.

Noting a nice slab route down to the Seven Gable Lakes from the col between Gemini and Seven Gables, I made my way up the class 2-3 ridge northeast of Gemini to gain the connecting north-south ridge. I dropped my pack to tag Gemini, carried it down to the descent col, and dropped it again to tag Seven Gables.

As I remembered from Bob’s trip report, this impressive-from-the-east peak is mostly just a sand slog from the west. However, reaching the proudly overhanging summit phallus required some semi-exposed 3rd class scrambling which proved thought-provoking with one hand. Reaching the summit, I walked out to the end of the overhanging block, then returned to sign in. To my surprise, the register had been left by a group summiting earlier that day, including a name from my past that gave the already cloudy afternoon a melancholy cast.

After a quick and painless sand ski and walk to the col, I crossed to Vee Lake, where I found bits of use trail taking me through the maze of Bear Lakes (Little, to Big, to White, to Brown). Other than the nasty talus descent to Brown Bear, the hiking was all pleasant. I met two guys camped near Little Bear, and five dysfunctional ptarmigans below White.

I picked up the Lake Italy trail just past Brown Bear’s outlet, crossed to the west side of the lake to camp beneath Hilgard, then pocketed my camera and wandered around to kill time before dinner. A nice older couple, who had been camped at the lake for awhile, invited me up to their campsite to talk until I got too cold. It was good to have someone besides myself as company for a few minutes.

SHR day 5: McGee Lakes to Elba Lake

French Lakes

French Lakes

The day’s plan was to let my stuff dry in camp while tagging McGee, then pack as far north as possible, hopefully to Merriam Lake. After watching some morning clouds while eating breakfast, I drank as much water as I could hold and set off for McGee carrying just a camera and overshirt.

After some mixed grass and scree, I gained the northeast ridge, where I found more moderate class 2-3 terrain leading nearly to its junction with the main east-west ridge. The final bit was unfortunately a bit like neighboring Goddard — steep, loose, black talus. Worse, it started to rain a bit, on both me and my “drying” gear below. Rounding the corner to the south side, I made my way (clockwise, fortunately) over more of the same crappy terrain, crossing several ribs before reaching McGee’s lower east summit…

… where I was screwed. The east side of the true summit is a steep face of dubious-looking rock, with long, sheer ribs extending far south toward Davis Lakes, and rotten cliffs to the north. (It turns out that the face goes at class 4, but that wouldn’t have helped one-handed me.) Faced with a long climb down to Davis Lakes and back up a chute farther west, I headed back to camp and had an early lunch while waiting for my stuff to re-dry.

After weighing the options, I decided to continue down McGee Creek and rejoin the High Route on the Darwin Bench. The hike down the creek was pleasant and easy, with bits of use trail and a convenient log to cross the creek to the JMT at the end. After grinding up some switchbacks on the JMT, I easily found the well-used Bench cutoff at the end of the last one. Reaching the lower end of the bench, I noticed both smoke from the huge Rim Fire to the northwest, and scattered stormclouds mostly to the south. There would be little rest for the weary.

Turning north toward Alpine Col and the Keyhole, I climbed some pleasant grass and slabs, skirted two huge lakes — right, then left — and was making my way toward the third when I noticed two men consulting a map. Somewhat surprised, I crossed to investigate, and learned that they were the vanguard of a Sierra Club party of ten making its way over Alpine Col and back via Lamarck Col. After chatting with the leader and giving them what beta I could, I continued to the last lake, internally shaking my head at the members industriously filtering water from the pure, high alpine lakes.

The Keyhole and Alpine Col cross the Glacier Divide on opposite sides of Mount Muriel, at the head of the final lake. Though I knew that the other side of the Keyhole is more pleasant, Alpine Col was obvious from the south while the Keyhole was not, so I chose the former. One long boulder-hop later (going right around the lake might have been better) I was at the col. The descent to Goethe Lakes was relatively quick and painless, but the long boulder-hop around the left side of the lakes seemed endless. The view across these glacial lakes to Mount Humphreys can be spectacular, but it was drab in the thickening smoke.

Humphreys Basin is some of the easiest, most pleasant cross-country travel in the Sierra. I picked up a use trail for awhile, then took off across the grass, crossing two maintained trails on my way toward French Canyon. Picking the most likely-looking notch in the ridge on the north edge of Humphreys Basin, I found a plaque indicating that I was at “Carol Col.” I aimed for the gap between Paris and Puppet Lakes on the other side, and found more pleasant travel once I had negotiated the initial talus descent (stay right).

After debating whether to camp there or on the other side of French Canyon, I compromised by stopping at Elba Lake (get it?), on its own bench a few hundred feet below the French Lakes. I saw another solitary backpacker as I was getting water, but we were both content to keep to ourselves.