Category Archives: Backpacking

Ericsson Crags 2 and 3, Minster

Ericsson from Crag 3


With all parties assembled, it was time for the main event. I was elsewhere the year before, when a group of some of the same people climbed the harder Ericsson Crag #1 (not without incident). This time Bob, ten-fingered Tom and the others had returned for Crags #2 and #3, both class 3-4 scrambles from the saddle between them. We had breakfast at various times, then started up the trail toward Lake Reflection in a pack. Fortunately the others had been this way before, because I would never have found the old Harrison Pass trail on my own. Though it is blazed, and was once one of only two trails over the Kings-Kern Divide (Junction Pass being the other), it has all but disappeared since the creation of Forester Pass in the 1930s.

Deerhorn from Ericsson Crags

We left the old trail a bit above a lake to cross some talus west of the Crags, angling toward a chute between our two targets. The chute had apparently been filled with snow the previous year, but was now steep, loose and treacherous. With the seven of us spaced out by the approach, climbing the thing without killing those below was a slow, cautious affair. Fortunately everyone was well-behaved, and there were no injuries this time. The chute was mostly class 2-3, with a bit of fourth-class shenanigans to the right, or a lower detour to the left, required to get around a chockstone.

Buried glacier below Ericsson

The chute branches and becomes indistinct as it nears the ridge. Partly because I thought it made sense, and partly because I wanted to be in the sun, I headed up one of the branches to the left, while Bob and Robert waited behind to see if I was wasting my time. I emerged on the other side, happy to be in the sun and somewhat out of the wind, to see Deerhorn’s complicated southwest face across the way, and the buried remnant of a glacier in Ericsson’s shadow below. Traversing down and around left, I found my way back up to a notch, from which informed the others that this was the way.

Above where I had hailed them, there is a steep step in the ridge. I went up some fourth class to the right, while they found another path to the left, and Scott and Iris, coming later, went up the middle; I think all routes are similar. Beyond the step, the ridge flattens out, with various class 3-4 options going over or around blocks and pinnacles leading to the summit.

Crag 3 register

I was surprised and pleased to find an old SRC register canister on this obscure and rarely-visited summit. This contained a book placed in 1991 by Fiddler and Keating, traversing the crags in 1991. Nestled between its pages was something even better: a fragile 1939 register held together by stickers, mentioning a 1921 sardine tin. I looked around a bit for the tin, then added my name to the book and sat down out of the wind to watch the others make their way along the ridge. They each in turn admired the relic, then we all departed for Crag #2.

Bob on Crag 2

We passed Iris and Scott at the step, then traversed past the notch on the east side of the ridge. From there, we found a variety of class 3 routes traversing up that side of the ridge, leading to a short scree-field below the summit area. The true summit was a 12-foot-high class 3 pyramid, which we took turns mounting. We found a few more scraps of paper in an inverted jam jar, far more fragile than those on Crag #3 and probably not long for this world. Bob left a book in one of his new custom register cans, then we sat around watching Scott and Iris do… something on the other summit. At first I thought they were posing for silly photos, but then they started descending and reascending different sides of the summit. Later, we found out that they had not found the old paper scraps, and were looking for a sardine tin. Sorry, guys!

When we returned to the notch, Tom and Robert returned down the death-chute we had ascended, while I convinced Bob to join me in descending the other direction, toward Harrison Pass. The chute on that side looked better, and I hoped to pick up the old trail. Also, there was the Minster… We descended the chute in tandem on opposite sides, finding it shorter and slightly less loose than the one we had ascended. The Harrison Pass trail has more or less ceased to exist, but at least the cross-country travel was fairly easy.

Minster from stream

I stopped to wait a minute for Bob below the Minster, which looked close and easy, then glanced at it and asked “shall we?” Probably neither of us would have done it on his own, but we somehow managed to convince each other. We took off through the nasty sand and sparse brush of the lower slopes, aiming for the middle of the Minster’s various spires. We knew from Eric’s report that the highpoint was on the far left (west) side, and hoped to skip some tricky traversing.

Things get complicated

We eventually passed through a notch midway through the formation, and began scrambling along and up the north side somewhere near the middle. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the north side is steep and composed of a disgusting mix of decomposing granite and spiny brush. I went up too early, finding myself on the third spire from the end, then made a tricky traverse back down to join Bob, whom I had advised to stay low. More class 3-4 scrambling eventually got us to just below what I think might have been the summit. I tried the final pitch, but backed off, not liking the climbing, and not wanting to push it for some obscure, minor summit.

View from the wrong summit

Retreating in near-defeat, we convinced each other to give it one more shot from the other side. With Bob leading, we climbed to a gap, took off our packs to squeeze under a chockstone, then found a short, tricky descent to easier ground on the south side. We eyed the south side for a bit, and I was just starting up to check it out when we heard Kristine shouting to us from the summit. She explained that she had climbed the west side, the one aspect we had yet to explore. sigh

Climbing the Minster

We continued our circumnavigation, then made our third class way upwards, running into a line of cairns that Kristine had left to help find her way back down. I was grateful for their help at this point, and thanked Kristine as we passed her on her way down. Finding no register on the summit, Bob left another of his cool custom canisters, then we headed back toward camp, satisfied at finally solving the Minster’s frustrating little problem. We found decent boot-skiing down to a lake, followed something like the old Harrison Pass trail, and were soon back at camp. As is their wont, Iris and Scott dallied along the way, finally arriving just before dusk. We again hung around until some pathetically early hour of the night, then retreated to our shelters to pretend to sleep.

“Marmot Ridge,” “Sheldon,” “Sky Pilot,” 13,110, 13,228

Brewer and North Guard


Since I was already awake well before first light, I followed Kristine’s military schedule, eating breakfast in the dark and starting hiking just before the end of headlamp time. Robert and Kristine were headed for “Marmot Ridge,” then North Guard and onward; having already done the Guards in 2012, I decided to join them for the first, then figure out something else to do afterwards. We made our way up the Ouzel Creek drainage, which contained pines, willow brush, and no water-ouzels.

North Guard, Farquhar, Cross

Marmot Ridge the high-point of North Guard’s long northeast ridge, and its true summit is not clear from below. At some point we left the creek, trying to pick the best way up and left across the face toward what seemed like the summit. Robert was dragging a bit, but Kristine kept up a solid pace, fused ankle and all. She turned out to be not only a solid scrambler, but a jack-of-all-trades: she made her own pants and pack, mixed her own powdered drink mix, tended a small farm at home, and probably all sorts of things I didn’t think to ask about. The slope was a mix of scrub pines, sand, and talus, but there always seemed to be a class 2 route that was not too unpleasant up to the base of the summit rocks.

Approaching North Guard

We ended up somewhere east of the true summit, and had to navigate a bit of a class 3 maze around and over various blocks and pinnacles to what looked like the highest. This seemed like the kind of obscure peak that might hold an old register, but we failed to find one in about 10 minutes’ search (it was too well-hidden), and settled in to eat and wait for Robert to catch up. After regrouping, we dropped to a plateau on the ridge east of North Guard, then diagonaled down to a nice lake below its east face. Here we parted ways, I toward the first notch south of North Guard, they toward the northeast ridge route I had apparently descended in 2012.

Notch south of North Guard

The notch looked like it could be either ice or a hideous dirt-chute, but was short and fairly pleasant, with reasonably stable rocks on its north side. In a heavier snow year, however, it is probably icy and impassable without crampons late in the year. From the notch, I had to make a long traverse around Mount Brewer’s west side, which required dropping down to upper Brewer Creek, then reascending easy slabs to the two nice little lakes I remembered from my last time through.

Sheldon

The next peak on my ad hoc agenda was “Sky Pilot,” a minor summit south of Longley Pass, but a 12er southwest of the col had looked interesting from the traverse, so I decided to tag it on the way. The climb proved less interesting than I had hoped, a long, flat talus-hop along the ridge followed by more talus leading to the summit. However, the summit proved more interesting than I had anticipated. It contained a large brass plaque, explaining that this was “Mount Sheldon,” named for Mrs. Mattie C. Sheldon, born in 1871 and still alive as of the plaque’s installation in 1959. Her grandsons seem to have christened the peak on their own, as the Board on Geographic Names is unaware of the name. I also found an old film canister, which may have once contained an older register, but now only contained a single sheet of paper signed by the ubiquitous Brian and Marie.

South Guard Lake and Longley Pass

It was almost a straight shot from the summit, around the south side of South Guard Lake, and across Longley Pass to Sky Pilot. Unfortunately Longley Pass sucks, with lots of sand and awkwardly-broken slabs, so the journey to Sky Pilot was more exhausting than it looked. Also, there is a surprising gap between the visible and true summits. It looked like I might be able to downclimb a steep class 4-5 chimney, but I took the safe and easy route around the southeast side.

Yes!

I had two options to return from here: either drop straight down Longley Pass, or continue south along the ridge to just before Thunder Mountain, then follow the lakes northeast to join the Longley route just above Lake Reflection. I didn’t want to hang around camp all afternoon, and there were rumors of treasure on Peak 13,110′, so I decided to take the long way home. The ridge from Sky Pilot to Point 3852.1m is jagged, so I bypassed much of it on annoying terrain to the right. The rest of the traverse toward Thunder is easy, with the highpoint of the final plateau near its southern corner. The promised treasure was still intact, and I happily signed in as the sixth summit party.

Lakes along return

I really should have stopped there, but I had yet to climb the ranked 13er east of Thunder, and for some reason my upcoming meeting with Bob made me care about such things. I dropped off the southeast side of the plateau, descending below the snowfield/glacier on Thunder’s north face. After contouring around, I crossed a small glacier, then climbed some horribly loose fresh moraine to the ridge northeast of Thunder Pass (?). I climbed easy talus along the ridge east, then dodged some unusual chossy towers to find the register on the farthest one.

There was no treasure here, just a modern register with a few familiar names, including Robert’s from an early ill-considered adventure. I added my own, then continued north along the spine of the Kings-Kern Divide to the next saddle, where I found a reasonable descent to the unnamed lakes. From there, I had a dismally long and flat boulder-hop to rejoin the route from Longley Pass to Lake Reflection.

Lake Reflection logjam

I was hoping for some sort of use trail, but was disappointed. Reflection’s south side is a brushy, talus-y mess, while the west has cliffs lower down. I stayed high on the west, picking up the occasional cairn or bit of game trail, but nothing resembling a regularly-used route. At the north end of the lake, I crossed the stream on an impressive log-jam, then joined the trail down to East Lake. I was thoroughly tired by the time I returned to camp, having put in a bit under 12 hours. Bob and Tom were preparing to camp in style, with a tent and clothesline. Robert and Kristine returned a few minutes later, then Scott and Iris just before dark. With a larger crew, we were able to stay out of our sleeping bags a bit longer, but still retired pathetically early to endure a slightly longer and colder night.

West Vidette

Previous “Backpacking with Bob”


“Backpacking with Bob” is a regular late-summer Sierra occurrence, and an irregular feature on this blog. Perhaps growing tired of repeating a handful of grim headlamp approaches for remote Sierra peaks (e.g. Shepherd Pass, Bubbs Creek), Bob has resigned himself to the dubious pleasures of camping out. In typical Bob fashion, he has also managed to convince others to join him in this strange activity. Previous instances have involved such fun as being snowed on while on the wrong side of the range (sorry for the broken images).

This time it was a trip to East Lake, a drainage in the middle of the range between Independence and Kings Canyon. About half of us came in from either side of the range, setting up camp for 2-3 nights near the bear box at the upper end of the lake to tag various obscure surrounding peaks. Bob seemed to be on a mission to tag every potential 13er with potentially 300 feet of prominence in the Sierra; the rest of us were mostly just along for the ride. I had planned to hike in from Onion Valley with Robert and Kristine, but when informed that they were starting at 5:00 AM, I decided that they should scout ahead. With stable weather and later sunrises this time of year, I saw no reason to put in headlamp time on an overnight. Instead, I slept in, listened to a bit of Supreme Court fiasco on the radio, then got a mid-morning start over Kearsarge Pass.

Bullfrog Lake

It had been awhile since I had come this way, and I stupidly took the Charlotte Lake trail instead of the shortcut via Bullfrog Lakes, reaching the Lower Vidette Meadow junction. Here I had lunch, stuffed a bar in my pocket, and stashed my pack to tag West Vidette, an unremarkable SPS peak. A few minutes up the trail, I spotted a bear box, and returned to grab my pack and food, figuring I might as well store them legally. It turns out that I should have inspected the bear box more closely: it was padlocked, with a passive-aggressive note from the ranger to the effect that “if you keep leaving trash in bear boxes, we’ll keep locking them.” This was, of course, a bone-headed response, since simply not emptying the box and allowing it to fill with trash would either prompt people to empty it themselves, or effectively close it. So I re-stashed my pack and food as before, just slightly farther up the trail.

Upper Vidette Lakes

I had been up Vidette Creek once before, to climb Deerhorn on my first Sierra Challenge in 2009, which made it vaguely familiar. However, I had more trouble finding and following the use trail this time, crossing Bubbs Creek too soon, then losing it a couple of times in some willows before the first lake. I followed the creek to just below the first of the upper lakes, then angled southwest toward the saddle between West Vidette and West Spur. The route description said to go up a steep chute to the saddle, but I chose a slabby ramp to its right, leading more pleasantly to the ridge. From there, it was an easy hike to the summit. I should have tagged the higher West Spur as well, but it is not on the SPS list, and I had miles to go, so I ignored it. I retraced my steps, stopping a couple of times to drink from Vidette Creek, taking off my hat and crouching to suck water from the surface. I don’t have a cat’s mastery of fluid dynamics, but I do have lips.

Bubbs Creek Wall

I returned to my unmolested pack, then began the depressing descent from 9600′ to Junction Meadow at 8200′ (I had started my day at 9100′). I passed the usual backpackers, then a large tent city between the East Lake turnoff and the Bubbs Creek crossing. I quickly found the horse ford, but didn’t see an obvious nearby log or rock-hop, and didn’t feel like wading, even though the water was low this late in the year. Conscious of the kids wandering around the tent city, I quickly made my way upstream toward the complex log crossing I remembered from some years back. The route probably changes from year to year, but the idea is to cross Bubbs Creek where it is braided above the junction with East Creek, then cross the latter to regain the trail. After some backtracking and thrashing, I was back on the trail to climb 1300′ to the lake.

Expecting to find Robert and Kristine, I was surprised to have the camping area at the lake’s outlet to myself. I was tired, though, and grateful for a chance to drop my pack and wash off my feet. Only after I had relaxed did I look at the bear box, where I found a note explaining that it was broken, and that the working one was at the other side of the lake. Ugh. I packed up again, circled the lake, and found the others just before dark. I ate “dinner” (instant potatoes, parmesan, flax seed meal), then chatted in the dark for awhile before crawling into my sleeping bag for a long, chilly, and mostly sleepless night. Ah, camping…

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.