Category Archives: Backpacking

Uglies 5: Let’s get out of here!

Inauspicious dawn

Inauspicious dawn


I slept fitfully, waking when the wind strengthened in my unsheltered camp, lying awake to watch the clouds wax and wane. Thankfully it did not rain overnight, but the morning’s scattered high clouds hinted that it might be another day of storms. To keep my options open, I decided to head over Valor Pass and down Goddard Canyon. If things looked good, I could head up to Davis Lake, climb McGee, and pack out over Haeckel Col or something the next day. If things looked wet and electrical, I could make my way back to North Lake via Piute Pass, staying low and on-trail most of the day. I put on my least damp socks and t-shirt, packed up quickly, and took off for the pass.

Martha Lake and Goddard

Martha Lake and Goddard

With one eye on the weather, I had a mostly-pleasant hike down to Bighorn Lake, then up to Ambition and Valor, and up to the saddle near Reinstein. The other side of Valor Pass had looked like easy slabs from the Reinstein’s northeast ridge two days earlier, but proved a bit trickier in practice. The far shore of Martha Lake looked easy, but awfully far away, so I instead hopped some difficult giant boulders on the near side, hoping to pick up some kind of trail near the outlet. My map, evidently based on the USFS maps, was wrong about this; both current USGS 7.5′ maps and historical maps show the trail ending a mile or more below the lake.

Upper Goddard Canyon

Upper Goddard Canyon

After some very pleasant and easy cross-country travel, I picked up a faint trail near where the USGS maps suggest it should be, and followed it down to the unsigned intersection with the equally-faint trail to Hell-for-Sure Pass. At this point I had to decide whether to head cross-country up North Goddard Creek (connected to the San Joaquin River, not Goddard Creek — ugh!) to Davis Lake, or to continue downstream and out. The clouds looked like they were getting serious to the south and east, so I began the long march home.

More cool slot canyon

More cool slot canyon

Continuing down the San Joaquin, I enjoyed the way the vertically-jointed rock caused the river to flow through slots and cascades, while the trail followed ledges above. Along the way, I was gradually reintroduced to civilization. I met another solo backpacker headed up to Martha Lake, who was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. After we parted, the trail gradually became more defined and I began to see more horse manure — apparently packers still use the first couple miles above the JMT.

San Joaquin falls

San Joaquin falls

At the JMT junction, I could and probably should have gone up into Evolution Valley, on to the Darwin Bench, and over Lamarck Col, but the easiest and seemingly driest course was to continue downstream to Piute Creek. After seeing all of three people in the last 3.5 days, I suddenly found myself wading through the south-bound JMH herd. They wore various forms of rain gear, ranging from Arc’teryx down to ponchos, though none were quite as down-market as me in my garbage bag. While they all headed south and up toward certain drenching, I took off my rain-gear as I headed down and down to the junction at just over 8000 feet.

Up Piute Creek toward Pilot Knob

Up Piute Creek toward Pilot Knob

Fortunately I had saved plenty of battery and listening material, because the rest of the day was a mind-numbing slog along a pack trail. With no more peaks to climb or new things to see (I had run down this trail in 2012), I just wanted the trip to end. I was also in a hurry, as I needed to hitch a ride from North Lake back to my car.

I ground out the miles to Hutchinson Meadow with barely a pause, then stopped to cook myself an early dinner — I was out of non-cooking food, unless I wanted to drink olive oil. After 15 minutes to boil water and inhale glop, I was off again, climbing up and across Humphreys Basin, passing a lone woman at Piute Pass, then loathing every huge step and awkward rock on the pack-trail down to North Lake.

I reached the campground just before sunset, and cleaned up a bit at the spigot, still hoping that I might catch a ride with some other late hiker, though it was a weekday and I had seen no one below the pass. I slowed my pace after passing the hiker parking a mile down the road, but the only cars that passed me were driven by packers, who of course give no free rides. I eventually made it down to the main Lake Sabrina road before full dark, and hung out next to the sign a bit, but no ride was forthcoming, and it was getting cold.

Sad camp

Sad camp

So I ended the trip with a sad bivy on the old road-bed, watching the occasional headlights pass below as I tried to sleep. The next morning, I walked the road through Aspendell to the South Lake turnoff, whistling some Bach to myself and watching the occasional unhelpful driver blow by. I was fortunately spared the 7-mile walk back up the South Lake Road by a nice older couple who used to be fire lookouts in the Bighorns. They kindly pretended not to mind my stench, and I gave them some suggestions for their dayhike. With the ride, I was back in Bishop and showered by mid-morning, resting and planning my next move.

Uglies 4: Finger and the Tunemah suck-vortex

Tunemah (r) from west

Tunemah (r) from west


Though it was not Bob’s longest outing, most peak-baggers would agree that Tunemah is the ugliest of the SPS list’s uglies. Not only is it far from the nearest trailhead, but it sits at the center of a vortex of every type of Sierra terrain that sucks. Giant boulders? Sure! Loose, shale-y, “surprise surfboard” talus? Plenty! Sand slopes? Of course! It even has a krummholtz maze, incongruously perched above 11,000 feet. Even before some sadist put it on the SPS list, frustrated Chinese shepherds aptly named it a curse involving one’s mother.

Blue Canyon from Finger

Blue Canyon from Finger

Despite the late sunrise west of the Sierra crest, I forced myself to get an early-ish start on what was likely to be a long-ish day linking Finger and Tunemah Peaks. I checked out Finger’s north face and northwest ridge as I made my way south past Pearl and Midway Lakes, but did not see an obvious direct route to the summit. Instead, I traversed around the base of the ridge, then climbed class 2 talus and a bit of sand to the sloping plateau at the head of Blue Canyon. I saw an old downward boot-track, so this route sees at least a bit of traffic.

White Divide north of Finger

White Divide north of Finger

After some boulder-hopping and scrambling past a couple of false summits, I found a cairned route up the true summit’s southwest side. At one point someone had constructed a cheater-step below a big step, for which hand-and-a-half me was grateful. Though most of it seems to be class 2 boulder-hopping interspersed with time-consuming class 3 obstacles — or worse farther south — the White Divide forms an elegant, sinuous line north from Finger to Reinstein, and southeast to Tunemah. To its west, the terrain gradually falls away in granite slabs, meadows, and high forest. To its east, the white granite gives way to darker rock where Goddard Creek drops sharply to the Middle Fork of the Kings River.

Finger from Blue Canyon

Finger from Blue Canyon

From Finger, I stayed near the ridge heading east, eventually reaching Blue Canyon Peak. The old and sparse register featured some of the usual obscure-peak folk, the occasional SPSer traversing like Yours Truly, and a few Sierra Club trips from back when they hiked the old Tunemah Trail, but no Bob (hah!). After a short break, I continued to Peak 11,920+, where the ridge splits, leading to tempting peaks to both east and west. To the east, Peak 12,096 looked like interesting class 3 on good granite, while Peak 11,987 (“Black Crown”?) to the west, with its rotten-looking black top, features an impressive 4000 feet of relief above nearby Goddard Creek. But I wasn’t here to have fun; I was here to bag distant Tunemah, then get back to camp without headlamp time. I was also a bit sluggish after three 10- to 12-hour days with a big pack.

Tunemah Lake and Peak

Tunemah Lake and Peak

I found a pleasant slab-and-sand descent to Tunemah Lake, where I refilled my water, then strode boldly into the Suck. The ridge leading south to Tunemah features two false summits, each with its own unpleasant character. The first starts out okay near the lake, then gradually becomes a pile of sliding dinner-plate talus. The brush begins past its summit, though it is not yet oppressive. The second peak is loose gray talus and sand, slightly less bad than the first; a steep cut in the ridge to its south prevents bypassing this summit.

Tunemah at last!

Tunemah at last!

From the second false summit, Tunemah reveals its true awfulness, a long maze of giant boulders mixed with sand and tough, scraggly pines. Worse, thunderclouds were building over camp and threatening to come my way. Worst, all this misery was self-imposed. I tagged the summit, then ate some tortillas to make myself feel better while trying to appreciate the views far down to Goddard Creek and the Middle Fork.

Looking toward the return

Looking toward the return

Instead of retracing my steps along the ridge, I decided to head straight west over a pass to Blue Canyon, rejoining my route on the way out at Kettle Ridge. The descent was pure Tunemah, dodging among trees and boulders down a sand-slope, almost cliffing out in rotten black cliffs near the bottom, then doing an awkward three-legged crab-walk across sliding debris to reach the forest near Alpine Creek. Here the terrain suddenly improved; I had apparently escaped the vortex.

The storm finally hit near the unnamed lakes at the head of Blue Canyon. Rather than a Rockies-style sudden downpour, it alternated between wind and light drizzle. My trash bag performed well as always, though I had to remove it when the wind picked up and its flapping became too loud. Finally reaching camp after a bit over 10 hours, I realized I had been incredibly lucky with the rain. Though I had never felt more than a drizzle, my (impressively waterproof) bivy had accumulated two large standing puddles, which may have helped keep it from blowing away. I shook it off, rinsed my feet, then peeled off my damp clothes and crawled into my sleeping bag for a long night. My spare socks and shirt, which I had set out to dry, were of course soaked. Tomorrow could be a long day…

Uglies 3: Lake 11,592 to Division Lake; Solomons, Scylla, Hansen, Reinstein

Sirens and Scylla from north

Sirens and Scylla from north


Waking up in starkly scenic Ionian Basin, I ate my morning glop, then left my camp in disarray to tag Solomons before packing up and heading west. Thinking I had the basin to myself, I was surprised to see someone perched on a rock a few hundred yards around the lake. I think we both wanted to pretend we were alone, so neither of us acknowledged the other, and the man and his partner had left by the time I returned from the summit. I went up Solomons’ south ridge, hoping for stable talus, and down the southwest slope, hoping for good sand-skiing. Neither worked as well as I had hoped, but I found no real difficulties. The peak is unremarkable from all sides, but commands excellent views of Ionian Basin and more impressive neighboring peaks like Scylla, Charybdis, and Goddard.

Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla

Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla

Packing up, I moved on to the lake just north of Scylla, then dumped my bedroll and food bag before heading out on an extended excursion. In addition to Scylla, I wanted to tag neighboring Hansen and the Sirens, three forbidding black peaks between Scylla and Enchanted Gorge. The Sirens were supposedly all class 3 or 4 along their west ridges, but reaching the base of those ridges looked hard. The north side, which was a friendly snowfield as recently as 2010 (a big snow year), has wasted away to an ugly mixture of packed dirt and bare glacial ice in the recent drought years. While it would be most efficient to start with the Sirens and work my way west and south, I did not want to try the miserable and treacherous slope. Instead, I headed up Scylla’s class 2 northwest slope, which was loose but bearable.

Enchanted Gorge from Scylla

Enchanted Gorge from Scylla

From the summit, I had excellent views of Enchanted Gorge, Ragged Spur and, beckoning below to the east, the Sirens. I dithered a bit, then began downclimbing Scylla’s east face, drawn by the prospect of reaching those rarely-climbed summits. Though covered with loose junk, the underlying rock on the face seemed mostly solid. The downclimb started as class 2, then gradually steepened and worsened. It reminded me a bit of the descent from Easy Mox in the Cascades, a blind downclimb that subtly draws you into ever-scarier terrain, all the while threatening to cliff out. I stayed north, hoping to hit the saddle at its high point.

Nope...

Nope…

Perhaps 100 feet above my goal, I reached the limit of what I was willing to downclimb. I saw that gullies to the south clearly cliffed out, as did my line, barring some kind of miracle ledge. The north approach to the notch looked just as bad from above. The south talus-slope looked easy, though reaching it would require a long detour back into Enchanted Gorge. Retracing my steps to Scylla, I managed to break a solid-looking foothold I had been using when I put just a bit more weight on it to switch feet. Fortunately I was climbing paranoid, so I stayed put even with a gimpy hand. I left a warning to others in Scylla’s register, then headed for Hansen as a consolation prize.

Lots of Hansens

Lots of Hansens

The traverse was obnoxious but not hard, following ledges over rotten class 2 terrain right of the crest. Though Hansen is higher than Scylla, it is not on the SPS list, and therefore sees far less traffic. Judging from the register, most visitors are members of the Hansen clan, who have appropriated the peak as a sort of shrine/mausoleum. I made my interloping mark, then returned to my gear stash before heading west.

Unnamed and Reinstein

Unnamed and Reinstein

There was a bit of cliff-related frustration getting through the black rock around Lake 11,818, then travel turned more pleasant as I dropped across the grass and granite benches near the head of Goddard Creek. With more time and energy I would have scrambled up the impressive pinnacle of Peak 12,432, but it was late, and my plans for the next day required camping somewhere in Blackcap Basin. I found a few cairns on the way to the pass between Goddard Creek and Goddard Canyon (which, confusingly head in opposite directions), though I doubt the pass sees more than a handful of backpackers per year.

Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake

Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake

I lucked into climbing Reinstein the right way, scrambling up some steep, stable class 2-3 talus on the northeast ridge, then bombing down the standard sand route to the south. Blackcap Basin is a wonderful place to camp, with a ridiculous number of lakes tucked up against the White Divide near tree-line. It is also far from the nearest, annoying-to-reach west-side traiheads near Wishon Reservoir, so it sees few visitors. Reaching Regiment Lake, I decided that I was close enough to reach Tunemah, and set up my camp for the next two nights.

Uglies 2: Ladder Lake to Lake 11,592; Citadel, Wheel

Looking down Enchanted Gorge

Looking down Enchanted Gorge


This was a true adventure day: I wanted to get from Ladder Lake to… somewhere, preferably near Chasm Lake, but had no idea what actually connected. While most of the Sierra is friendly to cross-country travel, and most internal valleys are not deep, Enchanted Gorge and Goddard Creek are neither, plunging steeply through lousy rock to 7000 feet in the heart of the range and creating Cascades-level local relief of 3000-5000 feet. Though people go up and down both canyons, I had read that the lower reaches of both are choked with nasty brush, bad enough that some people prefer walking in the river. Also, I had little desire to tackle a nearly 5000-foot climb with my still-heavy pack.

Citadel, weird cloud, and Palisades

Citadel, weird cloud, and Palisades

The first order of business was the Citadel, a quick class 2 jaunt from Ladder Lake. Following the terrain more than the map, I packed up easier terrain to a shoulder above the talus-choked col blind map-obedience would suggest, then headed off for the summit along a narrowing ridge requiring some third class choss escapades. Surprisingly, the register indicated much more traffic than on Langille. The Citadel is lower, slightly harder to reach, less striking, and has poorer rock quality than Langille, so the difference is hard to explain. A number of parties reported climbing a 5th class route (“The Edge of Time”), though it seems like Langille would be better for that kind of thing.

Looking toward Rambaud Pass

Looking toward Rambaud Pass

I returned to my pack, then got to the ugly business of forcing my way to Lake 10,892 below Rambaud Pass. There was of course suffering, but this sort of route optimization — choosing an objective, looking at the map and terrain, then trading off among elevation, distance, and ease of travel — is what makes cross-country backpacking interesting to me. While I need constant listening material to grind out trail, I find this mentally engaging enough not to require other stimuli. The direct ridge to Wheel looked bad, and a descent to Rambaud Creek around the 10,000 foot level would be bad, so I took the easiest path to a random ridge, then found a partially scree-able chute down to the lake.

Ugliness below pass

Ugliness below pass

Rambaud Pass looks like an absolute nightmare, with an ugly black boulder-field leading to a steep dirt-chute below the saddle. However, the boulders are less bad than they appear, and there is a left-trending ramp leading to a point right of the saddle that avoids the chute. From the pass, I could see almost 5,000 feet down in a straight line southwest to Goddard Creek, and across to Tunemah, 5,000 feet up the other side.

Yes, they stack it this high.

Yes, they stack it this high.

Turning aside from that for now, I headed up the long, mostly easy ridge toward Wheel Mountain. The fun ended at the shoulder southwest of the summit, where the broad ridge disintegrated into a series of ugly choss-towers, each a few feet higher than the last. I third-classed my way awkwardly through with my heavy pack, eventually finding the highest, and couldn’t resist misquoting “Full Metal Jacket” in the register: “I didn’t know they stacked shit that high!”

North from near Wheel

North from near Wheel

Now it was time to decide how to head off into the unknown. Perusing the register while having lunch slash stress-eating the rest of my sausage, I saw that people had traversed north to McDuffie, and that Jonathan had crossed from Tunemah Lake. I rejected the first because I did not need to break another hand on the Black divide, the second because “brush-fest,” and chose a third way instead.

Cliffing out in Enchanted Gorge

Cliffing out in Enchanted Gorge

Leaving the summit, I dropped down bad talus and decent sand to the plain to the northwest, then into the drainage north. I managed to avoid most of the loose stuff by staying on a faint ridge in the boulders, then refilled my water while crossing the mostly-buried outlet stream of a small lake. With only one loose gully crossing, I made it to pleasant travel across low-angle turf and rock near Benchmark 11,512′.

Approaching Scylla and Charybdis

Approaching Scylla and Charybdis

Every bit of progress up this side of Enchanted Gorge meant less elevation lost, as the stream rises rapidly through this section. This side-stream would deposit me around 8,500 feet — prime brush country — the next at 9,500; if I made it through that one, I could probably traverse right into Ionian Basin above 10,000 feet. Unfortunately, the traverse became steeper and looser, and a solid-looking wall of rotten cliffs appeared to block exits from the next gully below 11,500 or 12,000 feet. Looking at the map, it seemed that I might be forced right over 13,300 foot Mount McDuffie, something I had been trying to avoid.

Lake with inlet

Lake with inlet

I thought for awhile, then decided that the least-worst option was to drop almost 2,000 feet into the Enchanted Gorge, then come right up between Scylla and Charybdis to reach Chasm Lake. This decision was supported by necessity, literature, and a desire to see the rarely-visited Gorge. After some decent scree-ing up high, the descent was straightforward and only moderately loose, depositing me in the talus-choked ravine next to Disappearing Creek just below an unnamed lake.

Quick appearance by Disappearing Creek

Quick appearance by Disappearing Creek

Flowing between two colliding choss-slopes, Disappearing Creek does in fact disappear and reappear as the valley bottom flattens and drops. This is not remarkable: much Sierra water can be heard flowing under boulders, tantalizing and inaccessible. However, Disappearing Creek is remarkable for its thorough and sudden transitions. The first lake I encountered was fed by a raging cascade, but had no visible or even audible outlet. And at one point higher up, the creek completely surfaced and burrowed deep underground in no more than 50 feet.

Colorful lake

Colorful lake

This first lake’s depth apparently varies by 10 feet or more, and it was surrounded by a ring of white deposits on the dark boulders. The combination of this light ring, the dark talus, the pink headwall, and an eruption of purple and yellow flowers made a striking scene that was difficult to capture on camera, even more so in the flat light of an increasingly cloudy day. Enchanted Gorge is a grim slog, an endless talus-march up high and (apparently) a brush-bash down low, but it is a remarkable place. Those wishing to visit should probably go up rather than down, as the talus is easier going up than down, and the scenery’s “dramatic arc” works better (or something).

Traversing around Chasm Lake

Traversing around Chasm Lake

I eventually reached the narrow outlet of Chasm Lake, and had to choose a side. I chose west, since that was where I was ultimately headed, and was promptly and severely punished. After third-classing around a cliff near the mouth, I was driven away from the shore again and again, gradually traversing higher through slabs and talus infested with late-season mosquitoes. It was growing late, and while this meant great sunset views of Charybdis behind, I was increasingly tired and desperate to find a flat place to camp.

Charybdis and Chasm Lake

Charybdis and Chasm Lake

Most of the way around the lake, I was 100 feet or more above its surface, and abandoned hope of camping near the inlet. Instead, I gritted my teeth and climbed on up to Lake 11,592′, where I finally found a good spot at the base of Mount Solomons, my next objective. I set up my bivy, shoveled down some hot nutrient glop (rice-based, I think), and settled in to my typical bivy-sleep. Since I go to bed around dusk (7-8:00), I tend to wake up several times in the night, even more around a full moon, when the white Sierra granite makes it almost as bright as day. I’ve grown not to mind it: staring at the silent stars is relaxing, and I seem to get enough sleep in bits and pieces.

Uglies 1: South Lake to Ladder Lake; Langille

Langille across Le Conte Canyon

Langille across Le Conte Canyon


I picked up a permit listing a vague 6-night version of my plans in Bishop, then drove up to the South Lake trailhead to sleep in the overnight lot. I was shocked to find people parked in the overflow a mile down the road on a Thursday evening, but fortunately there was a single, relatively flat space in the lot for me to sleep. I had packed my pack the night before, but had to completely yard-sale it to add the sleeping bag I used as my blanket in the car, so I had some time to chat with my fellow parking-lot-sleepers before heading off into the wild.

Passing balanced rock headed down Dusy Basin

Passing balanced rock headed down Dusy Basin

My first job was getting to “the wild.” South Lake is a mercifully high trailhead, but I unfortunately had to grind out a dozen miles of nasty pack trail to reach my jumping-off point. From South Lake, the trail climbs to Bishop Pass near 12,000 feet, then drops to around 9,000 feet to join the John Muir Highway at the Le Conte Canyon ranger cabin. The JMH is normally crowded, and is even more so this year, perhaps thanks to the popular “Wild” book and movie. Indeed, the wandering, free-spirited Muir seems better commemorated by a true wilderness like the Bob Marshall, while the trail could perhaps be renamed for Horace Albright (explanatory PDF), whose well-intentioned efforts to save the wilderness by making it more public-friendly (e.g. by feeding bears) led to a non-wild situation that is taking decades to fix.

Convenient log bridge

Convenient log bridge

I stopped for lunch near the cabin, half-hoping to talk to the ranger. He and his girlfriend/co-ranger were in, but not especially outgoing, probably because they were about to take off for some quality time away from the constant company on the JMH. I finally asked him about the next leg of my intended route, and he discouraged me from taking it without providing much more information. I finished eating, then ignored his advice and continued as before.

Langille from south

Langille from south

I crossed the creek on a convenient log bridge just upstream of the cabin, then followed some branching and fading use trails uphill through the forest before breaking out onto slabs around the creek leading down from Hester Lake or one of its neighbors. I refilled water at some random tarn, drank as much as I could, then dropped my pack to head up the turf and boulders on Langille’s south side. Despite its impressive appearance from the east, Langille is only class 2 from the “back,” and sees few ascents. One of the backcountry rangers was the last to sign in, after a recent visit to the Le Conte couple.

Palisades from Ladder

Palisades from Ladder

After returning to my pack, it was time to see how hard the traverse to Ladder Lake actually was. As it turned out, while it required a lot of talus-hopping, including a section of unpleasant loose dinner-plates, and some up-and-down, the line I had spotted on my map went at no harder than class 2. From near my tarn, I headed southwest to Lake 11,654, then passed through the easternmost of two gaps to its south. The gap held some snow-patches, a welcome break from the talus, and I soon found myself looking down toward Ladder Lake. A surprising amount of the descent featured obnoxiously loose talus, but nothing unusually difficult or treacherous, and I soon found an old campsite on a peninsula south of the lake, from which I watched the sunset on the nearby Citadel and the Palisades across Le Conte Canyon to the east.

Backpacking the Big Uglies

It's that time again.

It’s that time again.


Though I prefer not to backpack, I had many reasons to do so recently:

  1. I wanted more red blood cells, and backpacking in the Sierra is a good way to stay above 10,000 feet for most of a week.
  2. I also wanted to trim a bit of body fat, and backpacking is a great way to starve.
  3. With only 1.5 hands, I am limited to 4th class and easier terrain, putting some of my summer objectives out of reach.
  4. There are certain “ugly” peaks on the SPS list that are hard to reach as dayhikes, but not intrinsically interesting.
  5. I only really enjoy backpacking off-trail, and the Sierra are the best place to do that.

So I loaded up with some food:

Type Cal Weight
Trail mix 9600 4 lbs
Summer Sausage 2000 20 oz
Tortillas 2000 1+ lbs
7 protein bars 2000 1+ lbs
Rice 1500 14 oz
Oats 1600? ~1 lb
Instant potatoes 1500 1 lb
Protein powder 900? (3.5 cups)
Flax seed 2000? 14 oz
Olive oil 3000 (1 pint)

and did this. Stats (and links to narratives):

Day Miles Gain Loss
Day 1 16.9 7500 6800
Day 2 10.4 7000 5900
Day 3 9.4 5900 6500
Day 4 14.4 7000 7000
Day 5 32.7 4700 6700
Total 83.8 32,100 32,900

Nankoweap hiking

Rooms with a view

Rooms with a view


After more uncharacteristic but not unwelcome water-adjacent activities, we were off to the Grand Canyon for what turned out to be two fairly intense days. The first part of the plan was to backpack the Nankoweap Trail, a less-used and challenging route from the North Rim to the Colorado northeast of the main canyon. I had first become aware of this trail while researching last year’s trip down the Tanner Trail to the Little Colorado. I was interested in seeing it both because it passes through a new-to-me part of the canyon, and because it is the northern part of an old horse-stealing route leading up the Tanner and on south to Mexico. Renée gamely played along.

Just below the trailhead

Just below the trailhead

The trailhead is at the end of a long dirt road following the National Park boundary east, drivable at fairly high speeds even late at night. This being National Forest land, there was ample free camping at the trailhead (i.e. enough for 3-4 parties). We got a leisurely start, eating a decent breakfast and packing various camp-stuff before taking the rolling trail along the forest boundary down toward Saddle Mountain.

Supai traverse

Supai traverse

Where the trail joins another from the north, it crosses into the park and descends steeply south, then contours along the Supai layer to Marion Point. Like most Grand Canyon trails, its course is constrained by breaks in the white Coconino and red-painted gray Redwall cliffs. In this case, the breaks dictate a long and at times semi-exposed traverse to the saddle west of Tilted Mesa. As this traverse is south-facing and dry, I had packed an extra gallon of water to leave at some appropriate-seeming place. My knee was not altogether happy with the extra eight pounds, so I dropped the water at the saddle, a mere 2500 feet down the canyon.

Flora (century plant)

Flora (century plant)

Along the traverse, we had met a couple hiking out, each party surprised to see the other in this little-used corner of the park, and they mentioned making camp at Nankoweap Creek rather than the Colorado. This sounded like a good idea to me, as it would both make the hike out shorter, and justify my caching the water so high up. Below Tilted Mesa, the trail descends southeast across a loose, steep slope, passing through the Redwall via a rubble-pile before continuing to something like the Tonto Plateau. Unlike in the main east-west canyon that most visitors see, where the rock strata are flat and parallel, the layers here are tilted and confusing, with the same rock appearing at different elevations to the south, and across the river to the east. There were also flora and fauna.

Fauna (collared lizard)

Fauna (collared lizard)

Below the Redwall and Muav, the trail enters a scorched desert hellscape, crossing spiny brush, cactus, and sharp rock on its way toward the cottonwoods suggesting some kind of watercourse. Though these water sources are often buried, we found Nankoweap Creek to be 3 feet of swiftly-flowing, though warm and not especially tasty, water. After a break in the shade, we crossed to find a popular-looking camping area, where we ditched most of our gear before continuing downstream toward the river and some rumored ruins.

Nankoweap Canyon

Nankoweap Canyon

The river was farther away than I thought, around endless bends in the lower canyon. Though we found occasional cairns and bits of trail, most of the route was a boulder-hop along one or the other side of the creek. Most of the way down, we found a superior source of water: a virtual spigot of a spring coming from an overhanging rock just above the creek. I quickly topped off my bladder, diluting the Nankoweap-y taste of the contents to an acceptable level.

Rafter beach

Rafter beach

The stream meets the river in a nasty locust- and mesquite-soaked delta, but a trail leads up and south, crossing over a low ridge before descending to two beaches popular with rafters. Just past the ridge, a well-built trail leads from one of these beaches to the cliff dwelling; both even appear on the USGS topo. Though we had the ruins to ourselves for the moment, two parties of rafters were disembarking on the beaches, while more streamed by along the river. As we later learned, this is a well-known landmark and popular stopping-point for those visiting the canyon by raft.

Lintel technology

Lintel technology

Ruin-wise-speaking, we had visited Nankoweap and Grand Gulch in the wrong order: buildings that might have impressed me a few days ago seemed mundane compared to what I had recently seen. Still, it was interesting to note the different levels of lintel technology in adjacent dwellings, with some individuals having a better grasp than others of this important building technique. The inhabitants seemed not to have mastered arches; then again, given the abundant flagstone-like rock, they had no need.

Seeing a herd of rafters approaching, we beat a hasty retreat, passing a line of people in mediocre hiking shape on our return. Having time to kill, we headed to the less crowded-looking of the two beaches, planning to rinse off in the river. However, with high clouds directly above, the air and water were too cool for more than a brief foot-rinse.

Sunset looking south

Sunset looking south

As we photographed (me, easy) and painted (her, less so) the surroundings, a couple of the rafters approached to chat. Our different frames of reference made talking about the canyon difficult: where they dealt in miles along the river, I thought in trailheads. The raft-folk seemed friendly enough, even offering dinner and use of their “groover,” and I was tempted to laze around for a few hours, partake of their board, and try to interact with humans before shuffling back to camp. Renée was not so inclined, and I soon found my self psyched about her plan to hike back out the same evening. Doing so somehow seemed truer to my nature, and I could probably use the fortifying hours of evening headlamp time.

We dumped and replaced our water at the spigot, shoved the camping gear back in our packs, and took off for the rim in cloudy, comfortable conditions. We reached the water cache surprisingly quickly, and I laughed at the absurdity of pouring out three of the quarts I had lugged all that way. I knew the Supai traverse would feel long on the way up, and doing the last two thirds by headlamp made it feel even longer, especially with no moon. However, I underestimated the long slog from Saddle Mountain to the trailhead; though it is all “along the rim,” it gains 1,200 feet over several rolling miles. We finally reached the cars at some ungodly time near midnight, where I diligently resumed my sleep deprivation training.

Northern Yosemite Backpacking

Northwest from Volunteer

Northwest from Volunteer


Since it has few high peaks, I have not paid northern Yosemite much attention in the past. However, I was passing by, it was smoke-free, and it contained several remote SPS peaks I had yet to climb, so I decided to go backpacking. After a couple of years away from the high Sierra, I was reminded of both the pleasure of cross-country backpacking, and the soul-crushing tedium of on-trail travel, which is often merely hours spent walking in a trench full of powdered manure. As most of the route was on-trail and therefore boring, I won’t split out the individual days as I have in the past.

After sleeping off highway 395, I rolled into Bridgeport early in the morning, checked my email outside the library, and continued to the permit office south of town. I was expecting to get a permit for the next day, but I was early enough to get a same-day entry permit, so I swung back into town to buy some dry carbohydrates, then drove up to Virginia Lake to assemble my pack. With such luxuries as a down jacket and four cans of Trader Joe’s sardines, four nights’ worth of stuff barely fit in my pack, but I got it all crammed in somehow, had a final meal, and was on the trail a bit after 10:00.

Virginia Lake to Matterhorn Canyon

Equestrians above Virginia Lake

Equestrians above Virginia Lake


Long talus-walk to Excelsior

Long talus-walk to Excelsior

I slogged up to the unnamed pass above Virginia Lake, passing some horse-tourists, then dropped my pack to tag Excelsior, the first peak on my list. One talus-slog later I was on the surprisingly popular summit, looking around at more impressive peaks like Conness and Shepherd Crest. I returned to my pack, then rejoined the trail down to Summit Lake and Pass, where it enters Yosemite and descends into Virginia Canyon.

Looking down Virginia Canyon

Looking down Virginia Canyon

The next two peaks on my list were Volunteer and Pettit, still a couple of canyons over. The obvious trail route descends Virginia Canyon to the PCT, passes over a divide by Miller Lake, then crosses deep and scenic Matterhorn Canyon to Smedberg Lake just north of Volunteer. I cruised down Virginia Canyon, passing a small tent city at the intersection with Spiller Creek, eventually meeting the PCT at one of the day’s low points.

Miller Lake

Miller Lake

The next section was notably unpleasant, a dusty slog through rolling forest across the divide with Matterhorn Canyon. The highlight is Miller Lake, with a pleasant beach and view to the south. Stopping on the beach for a snack, I got intermittent whiffs of stable smell, and figured there must be a horse camp nearby. I eventually realized that some equestrian jerk had let his horse pee on the beach right next to my obvious sitting-log. Thus encouraged to keep going, I dropped the 1,000 feet into Matterhorn Canyon, then continued a half-mile downstream to a nice camp spot.

Matterhorn Canyon to Seavey Pass

Volunteer and Benson Pass

Volunteer and Benson Pass


Smedberg Lake from Volunteer

Smedberg Lake from Volunteer

I spent the first part of the next morning grinding out the climb up the other side of the canyon to Benson Pass. After descending most of the way to Smedberg Lake, I left the trail to climb some grass and slabs to the saddle southeast of Volunteer. I dropped my pack for the short climb to the summit, from which I could see Pettit several bumps away along the ridge to the south. After reading in the register that the traverse was unpleasant, I decided not to attempt it with my overnight pack, but instead to drop down to Rodgers Lake and come at it from the west, picking up Regulation Peak along the way.

Volunteer from Pettit, with Tower behind

Volunteer from Pettit, with Tower behind

With scattered clouds blocking the sun as I rounded the lake, I felt cold and lethargic. I stopped to cook lunch and read for a while, and almost decided to stop and camp, but eventually roused myself to scramble up Regulation’s west side, a typical northern Yosemite pile of sand and scrub. After climbing a few of the highest-looking rock outcrops on top, and finding no marker or register, I continued across a saddle to Pettit. Descending from Pettit, I made my way along the south shore of Rodgers Lake to my pack, then picked up the trail back north past Volunteer to the PCT.

Benson Riviera

Benson Riviera

Back in the trench, I made a long descent along a dry streambed to the also-dry Piute Creek, where I met two men section-hiking the PCT between Carson Pass and Yosemite. They seemed to be enjoying themselves on this, one of their last two remaining sections of the trail, though I still can’t see the appeal. I was tempted to stop, but they informed me that there was running water along the trail and nice lakes up toward Seavey Pass. After a quick side-trip to check out the “Benson Riviera,” I continued up the trail, crashing at a flat spot just off the trail near the first lake. Somewhere in this section my stove must have fallen off my pack, so dinner was sardines mashed onto a few tortillas.

Seavey Pass to Spiller Creek

Lake near Seavey Pass

Lake near Seavey Pass


Piute (summit on right)

Piute (summit on right)

After spreading out my gear to air out on a rock, I took off with just my camera and an apple for nearby Piute Mountain, another SPS peak. I had no route information, but figured that I could deal with a northern Yosemite peak. After retreating a bit along the trail, I crossed below another lake, then climbed southwest up a broad, scrubby hillside to a saddle where I could finally see the cliffs of Piute’s east face. Deciding to use a steep chute south of what turned out to be the summit, I crossed a small trees-and-talus bowl to its base. This was taking longer than I had anticipated, and the day was warm, so I was grateful to find a small pool of clear water hidden in the boulders. The chute was a chossy class 3-4 affair, but it got me to the summit plateau, where I followed footprints north to the summit.

Benson Lake and Piute from Volunteer

Benson Lake and Piute from Volunteer

I admired the rolling granite landscape extending north to Tower Peak for a while. While northern Yosemite lacks the domes of Tuolomne, the huge faces of the Valley, and the great peaks of the high Sierra, the rolling, sparsely treed terrain is scenic in its own way. I chose to descend directly northeast from the summit, finding a reasonable third class route back to the saddle, from which I retraced my steps to camp.

Lower Rancheria Canyon

Lower Rancheria Canyon

I was done with my peak-bagging at this point, but was stranded distressingly far from my car. The obvious thing to do would be to retrace my route, but the though of over a full day of trail-slogging through familiar terrain, especially the unpleasant climb out of Matterhorn Canyon, held no appeal. My iPod battery would die partway through, and I would be left with nothing to distract me from the monotony. Instead, I decided to loop north up Rancheria Creek, over Mule and Burro Passes, then (hopefully) shortcut cross-country back to the head of Virginia Canyon.

Upper Rancheria Canyon

Upper Rancheria Canyon

I enjoyed the new territory for a while. Rancheria Creek is open and flat, with large granite outcrops on either side. I passed a few backpackers headed in from Twin Lakes for the weekend, and a group stopped for lunch at the junction with the Rock Island Pass trail. At this point the day had turned into a slog, so I put on some music for the wooded climb over to Snow Lake. The trail descends northeast to skirt Slide Peak, then turns back southeast to Mule Pass. I stopped at the pass to admire Sawtooth Ridge, and to inspect my hoped-for crossing into upper Spiller Creek south of Matterhorn, then dropped into Slide Canyon, joining the path we had used to reach Finger Peaks during the Sierra Challenge.

The Doodad

The Doodad

I was tired, but my mood was lifted by the prospect of finally leaving the trail, and by views of the Sawtooth just to the north, especially the huge, balanced summit block of the Doodad. From Burro Pass, the saddle south of Matterhorn looked very doable; hopefully the other side would cooperate. After side-hilling my way around the head of Matterhorn Canyon, I was encouraged and surprised to see a large group descending my intended pass. After mining them for beta about getting down the other side, I followed a faint use trail to the ridge, descended a ramp at the north side of the saddle, and started down Spiller Creek.

Looking down Spiller Canyon

Looking down Spiller Canyon

Wanting to make some more miles before dark, I bypassed the lake at the head of the canyon, figuring I would stop by the creek when I was tired. As I should have anticipated in this dry year, the upper creek was dry, but fortunately numerous springs on both sides of the valley were flowing. Around dusk, I found a nicely-made tent platform near the creek almost due east of Whorl Mountain. This is how the Sierra should be: scenic white granite, easy cross-country travel above treeline, and camping wherever you want. I miss the Cascades’ glaciers and greenery, but they can’t compare to the Sierra for backcountry rambling.

Spiller Creek out

Whorl and upper Spiller Canyon

Whorl and upper Spiller Canyon


Spiller Lake

Spiller Lake

The obvious way out from Spiller Creek is to hike down to its junction with Virginia Canyon and pick up the trail from there. However, that involves lots of extra miles and elevation loss. Looking at my topo map, I picked out a route to Spiller Lake, then over the plateau south of Stanton Peak and down to Return Lake. This might involve a similar amount of elevation gain/loss, but with fewer miles and less trail. Other than some ugly talus above Spiller Lake, the route worked well, with an easy side-hilling traverse out of Spiller Canyon to the lake, and easy cross-country travel down to Return Lake.

You know you're close to the car when...

You know you’re close to the car when…

Passing two campers at the lake and a larger group below, I followed the Virginia Pass trail a short distance downstream, then cut the corner between it and the Summit Pass trail, where I rejoined my outgoing route. It being Labor Day weekend, the trail was crowded with backpackers and dayhikers. I enjoyed the distraction, especially as I neared the lake and the dayhikers became increasingly ridiculous caricatures of SoCal culture. The winner had to be a woman walking her rat-dog, leash in one hand and Starbucks travel mug in the other, oversized phone poking out of her back pocket. Back at the trailhead, I threw my reeking sardine-trash in the dumpster, rinsed up a bit, and headed south into a pall of horrible smoke pooling in the Owens Valley.

Eldorado

Sunset on Eldorado

Sunset on Eldorado


Yes, I’ve been there before, but I don’t mind going back. When Kate mentioned she’d be spending time in northwestern Washington, I started thinking about appropriate first Cascade peaks, and almost immediately settled on Eldorado. It has all the key elements of a classic Cascades peak — lush forest, alpine heather, spectacular scenery, and a big glacier — without long trail miles, tedious bushwhacking, or tenuous choss-and-moss scrambling. It can also innoculate against the mindless orthodoxy of always roping up on glaciers: while the Inspiration and Eldorado glaciers are heavily crevassed in places, the route itself is both obvious and crevasse-free. For someone with the good fitness and snow-travel skills, a one- or two-day trip up Eldorado is the perfect introduction to the Cascades.

After picking up a permit and cooking lunch, we drove up the dusty Cascade River Road to the large trailhead, availed ourselves of the fantastically-clean outhouse, then started across the old logs and up the “super-secret” Eldorado Creek trail. The Marblemount ranger had mentioned that the area had seen a lot more traffic lately, and the trail was much more beaten-in than when I had visited in 2010. While the straight-up climbers’ trail can be hellishly hot in the afternoon, temperatures were mostly reasonable, with gradually-increasing high clouds blunting the sun’s force. Partway through the boulder-field, we passed a group of three returning from a 5-day expedition way the heck across the glacier to Austera and Primus. They looked worn down, having gone in heavy with both glacier and rock gear, and warned of calf-deep mashed potato snow.

We under darkening clouds up the heather section, watching far-off Glacier Peak disappear behind a curtain of rain. This section was at least as dry as when I last visited in August 2013, and showed the impact of more traffic and less snow-cover. With the ground snow-free for more months, and more parties visiting, the trail is a deepening trench. At the crest of the ridge over to Roush Creek and the Eldorado Glacier, we paused to wait out some light sprinkles. My original plan had been to camp at the flat spot on Eldorado’s bare east ridge, which has great view and early sun, but that looked cold to us in our damp state, so we decided to set up camp.

View east from camp

View east from camp

Used to rushing through this kind of area while commuting between trailhead and rock or snow, I was more comfortable than I had expected lazing around with a map and some snacks while the clouds thankfully dispersed. I am relatively unfamiliar with the peaks south and east of Cascade Pass, and never get tired of looking at Johannesburg. We engineered a “couch” out of camping pads to have dinner and watch the sun set on the pass, then found some bare patches of ground to sleep.

Starting up Eldorado glacier

Starting up Eldorado glacier

This high up and far north, it is only truly dark for about 6 hours at night; I woke a bit after 4:00, opening my eyes to face a mosquito patiently waiting outside the netting of my bivvy. We eyed each other for awhile, then I drifted off into my thoughts for awhile before emerging lazily around 5:00. It wasn’t cold enough for the snow to have completely hardened overnight, so there was no advantage to tromping around the cold dark. After a leisurely hot breakfast, we spread our sleeping stuff out to dry and took off for the base of the snow.

Ascending from ice plain

Ascending from ice plain

Ascending the snowfields and the edge of the Eldorado Glacier, we found a variety of up- and down-bootprints leading to and from the broad ice plain south of the peak. As we topped out on the plain and into blessed direct sun, we saw a group of three early-starters on the ridge near Eldorado’s summit. The view of the steep Forbidden and broad Inspiration Glaciers draining into Moraine Lake, and the ridges of Forbidden and Klawatti behind them, is revelatory to someone only familiar with the small glaciers and snowfields of the Sierra, Colorado, and Wyoming. Though my time spent in the Cascades and Canada has dulled the “wow!” factor for me, I still remember the impression of my first visit.

Klawatti across Inspiration Glacier

Klawatti across Inspiration Glacier

Short-cutting through a gap in the ridge, we started up the bare talus left of the Inspiration Glacier toward the summit. The group of three we had seen earlier soon passed on their way down, roped together and fully kitted-out with crampons, axes, and helmets on the moderate snow-slope. We later learned that they were a guide and two clients on a course, so I suppose it was practice. Still, in practical terms, it was hard to see the point of all the gear on a slope so shallow and soft that it would be impossible to glissade without “rowing” with one’s axe.

Nice crevasse and clouds

Nice crevasse and clouds

Where the snow became easier than the rock we switched over, using the group’s downward bootpack where possible while kicking steps up the slope in running shoes. Feeling an urge to sight-see, I wandered over to look into some of the small crevasses near the ridge, where the glacier is pulling away from its edge. A couple were decent-sized, but most were a jump wide and not too deep; still, it was fun to look down through the layers to the hard blue glacial ice.

Descending summit snow ridge

Descending summit snow ridge

After more trudging, a final bit of steep step-kicking got us to the base of Eldorado’s distinctive and improbable summit snow-fin. Though she had been on plenty of steeper snow in the Tetons, Kate found this exposed ridge fairly intimidating, especially the prospect of descending it. It is a lot less risky than it looks, but it wasn’t hard to make myself picture tripping off one side or the other and sliding helplessly into the void. Exposure is strange and individual in how it creates unwarranted security or fear: I remember my rush of adrenaline induced by the convex drop of the south side of Mount Russell’s east ridge when I first climbed it in 2007, and how it seemed irrelevant on the reassuringly broad ridge when descending it in 2010.

After a few minutes of what I hope wasn’t undue peer pressure, Kate carefully kicked her way up to the summit and, after a demonstrated lack of me dying, continued on to the rocks to the west. Dark, sunny, and warm, these rocks nevertheless lacked a crucial feature: comfortable seating. While Kate dug out the summit food, I set about constructing a south-facing bench next to a convenient backrest. Flagstone job done, we sat back to enjoy sardines and salami on slightly-stale bread, tearing them apart with our hands and teeth for lack of utensils.

Fury across ice plain

Fury across ice plain

It was windless and t-shirt warm, and we had the aural and visual world to ourselves for awhile, until two more groups of three started making their (roped) way across the ice plain. After watching them for awhile, we abandoned our perch for the manageably-intimidating descent of the snow fin, and some plunge-stepping and boot-skiing back down along the ridge. Back at camp, I found my sun-baked sleeping bag smelling better (or at least less bad) than it has in a long time. We were fortunate to have made the climb when we did, as the oncoming heat-wave would have been truly brutal on the south-facing afternoon climb through the dark boulder-field. I pitied the suckers we passed on the way down, and felt warm enough to overcome my aversion to cold water and rinse off in the Cascade River for all of 30 seconds.

Tinemaha, St. Jean Couloir

Split from below Red Lake

Split from below Red Lake


Looking at the forecast, I knew I should have done this a day earlier, but I felt unexpectedly beat-up when I woke up at Red Lake Trailhead, so I lazed around for a day before heading up the trail packing boots, tools, and camping gear for a quick mission. Though Split Mountain is a grim talus slog by its standard route, it has two interesting couloirs on its east face, which I hoped to climb and document.

View up Red Lake trail

View up Red Lake trail

Both the road to the trailhead and the trail itself seem to have decayed somewhat over the past two years, but I had little trouble following either, and the willow maze was easier without leaves. Despite the previous week’s snowstorm, the trail was dry all the way to Red Lake, which was completely melted and already noticeably below its normal level. I set up camp at one of the luxurious spots, had a leisurely lunch, then wandered off to tag Tinemaha, a nearby SPS peak.

East (l) and St. Jean (r) couloirs

East (l) and St. Jean (r) couloirs

Lying at the end of a ridge extending east from the crest between Split and Prater, Tinemaha seemed likely to have a nice view of the valley and surrounding peaks. Heading north from Red Lake, I turned right into the next drainage east of the standard Split route, hiking through acres of fairly-stable talus and small patches of snow. I eventually climbed some steeper terrain to reach a saddle just west of the peak, then turned right to follow the ridge to the summit.

Split (l) and Prater (r) from Tinemaha

Split (l) and Prater (r) from Tinemaha

The view wasn’t quite what I had hoped — the higher Ed Lane and Birch Mountains blocked the palisades, but it was a nice place to sit for awhile before returning to camp. It also has an excellent view of Split’s St. Jean and East Couloirs, the two routes I had come to do. While the former looked filled-in, the latter featured a discouragingly bare rock band low down. Hmm… Returning to camp, I read until the sun dipped behind Split, had my hot glop pot, then crawled into my sleeping bag to read myself to sleep.

Base of couloirs

Base of couloirs

I woke to gray skies, but consumed my morning glop, suited up, and was on my way by 6:15. The forecast suggested that things wouldn’t get serious until the afternoon, so it was worth trying at least one climb. Reaching the base of both climbs a bit more than an hour later, I saw that the East Couloir was not to be: starting with a 20-foot frozen waterfall, it continued with some snow, a bare rock step, and some extremely thin ice. It had started snowing, but I figured I could at least do the shorter, easier St. Jean.

Starting up St. Jean

Starting up St. Jean

After a bit of névé and aerated snow getting into the couloir, I climbed an easy 20-foot ice bulge low down, then proceeded up endless, fairly consistent névé/snow for most of an hour. The climb was never particularly challenging, but still fairly fun, passing through scenic rock and sheltered from the storm. Looking around online, I gather that conditions can vary wildly between months and years, from skiable powder, to deep slush, to solid alpine ice, to awful scree-covered rock. Given the options, I suppose I lucked out.

View up from descent

View up from descent

I stopped to put on my goggles shortly below the rim, then topped out into blowing snow on Split’s broad northwest talus plain. Without even contemplating the summit, I made my way down over talus and variable snow to the standard descent, which would have been very hard to find were I less familiar with the route. Returning to camp, I packed up as quickly as I could, and set off through the snow toward home.

Camp post-snow

Camp post-snow

I noticed some fresh footprints in the willows, and startled an older backpacker just below. Unfamiliar with the trail, he had camped the night before at a nasty, lesser lake only a few hundred feet below Red Lake, then sensibly turned around when he saw the weather. While talking on the way down, I learned he had been forced to park his 2WD vehicle and walk all the way from McMurray Meadows, so I kept pace with him to drive him back and save him the walk. This small kindness paid off in barbecue — the only thing to eat in Big Pine besides C-store food — after which I holed up out of the rain to mope and plot my next move.