Category Archives: California

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


The Evolution Traverse, pioneered by Peter Croft in the 1990s, connects a long ridge of peaks from “Mount Steven Jay Gould” to Mount Huxley in the Evolution region of the Sierra. Thanks to mostly good rock and to Croft’s imprimatur, it sees a fair amount of attention from Real Climbers. “Evo” has been at the outer limit of my ambitions for the past couple of years, as its 5.9 rating is out of my league. However, this is a “Sierra traverse rating,” not a true YDS rating: as with the similarly “VI 5.9” Kaweah traverse, it can be made easier with a bit of creative route-finding.

After I broke my hand on Fury, I thought I was done with technical outings for the season. But after a successful outing on Williamson’s NE ridge and a scouting trip to Darwin, I decided to give it a try. Since I would rather use this part of the summer elsewhere next year, it was now or never, and I was fairly confident Evo was within my abilities. The short September days would be inconvenient, but if I could manage the 20-21 hours I hoped, there would be enough daylight for the ridge, and I can deal with the long approach and return at night.

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

I woke to my alarm at 2:00, ate the usual Cup of Sadness, supplemented it by choking down some beet nitrates, then walked the road up to the trailhead as a sort of warmup. I didn’t remember how long the approach to Darwin Bench would take me, but I wanted to have as much daylight as possible for the technical part of the day. Moving by headlamp at the start of an anticipated 20-hour day, there is little running to be done on the Lamarck Lakes approach, as the trail is often steep and/or rough, but I at least jogged a few short flatter stretches for appearances. I had an unpleasant experience getting lost on the way to Lamarck Col a number of years ago, but had no trouble this time, even on a moonless night.

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

The other side of the col is still the same mess of cairns and boot-prints higher up. There is a fairly decent and efficient trail lower down, but with no chance of finding it at night, I just brute-forced my way to the bottom, where I picked up the on-and-off Darwin Bench trail. I walked through some people’s camp at night, reached the end of Lake 11,623′ (rather than the normal 11,592′), then headed up some part of Gould that I thought I could make work. Gould is a mess of gullies and fins from this side, and I had not planned to start up at night, but I had crossed Lamarck faster than expected, and did not want to waste time waiting for light.

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

I turned off the headlamp after a half-hour of blind class 2-3 scrambling, and continued up my gully as it steepened. It was probably a snow/ice climb 10 years ago, but such things are increasingly rare in the Sierra, and I found only dirt and dirty rock. As it got steep, I moved right onto a rib via some class 4-5 terrain, then made my wander-y way to Gould’s summit. I glanced at the register (no pencil), then headed off toward Mendel.

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Having done the traverse through Darwin in 2012, I remembered a bit of route-finding trickiness on this part, and a short headwall with a fun hand-crack. I found the latter, and had no trouble with the route-finding. Still, this is a long connecting ridge, and it took over an hour to reach Mendel.

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

Though Darwin looks close from Mendel, I remembered that this next part was time-consuming and difficult, and that I had rappeled one section in 2012. Despite this difficulty, the first part is a virtual golden sidewalk along the top of the ridge. After this easy early progress, it is a rude shock when the ridge suddenly turns serrated broken, and loses precious elevation. After downclimbing past one or two useless-seeming rap anchors above short drops, I moved to the left side of the ridge, hoping to traverse across some of the more difficult towers on the crest. While I might have spared myself some harder climbing, I certainly did not save time, as I had to backtrack a few times while climbing up and down to connect ledges on the steep, sometimes crappy face. I eventually took a dirty gully back up to the crest, and was much happier.

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

After a final, unexpected and spitefully steep downclimb into the final notch before Darwin, class 3-4 terrain lead to the summit plateau. I dropped off toward the detached summit block and then, feeling my oats, did the direct Peter Croft-style mantle up the front side. Though a friend of mine was supposed to traverse through, I was surprised to find that my scouting mission the week before was the last entry in the summit log. I signed again, then had a snack while I psyched myself up for the second scary section, from here to 13,332′.

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

I went down the back of the summit pinnacle, then continued to the first nest of rap tat. The crappy downclimb seemed less scary than a week before, and I went straight across the golden face rather than taking whatever ugly line below it I had chosen then. Even though I had done it in the other direction just a week before, from there to 13,332′ was a mess of haphazard route-finding with a bit of backtracking — this part is confusing! I stayed mostly on the crest, bypassing a few things to the left or right.

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

I got around the crux 5.9 crack downclimb that many people mention on the other (west) side this time, via a convoluted line that involved climbing up a chimney with an unreliable-looking semi-detached 30-foot pillar in front of it. (I banged and kicked it a few times beforehand, and it stayed put.) I may be pretty bad at climbing, but I’m pretty good at alpine hijinks. I downclimbed the fifth class big-talus south of the crack, then stupidly wasted a bit more time before getting on the obvious line to 13,332′.

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

I was stoked: although I had a long ways to go, it was less than 10 hours into the day, and I was done with the scary part of the traverse. I dropped off the summit and began the long, downhill boulder-hop to Haeckel Col. It would cost very little time to drop past Lake 12,345′ instead of traversing the tricky little pyramid north of Haeckel, but I was doing fine for water on a cool-ish September day, so I stayed high.

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a helicopter just before the col, and paused my music to pay more attention. It approached the col, then made several circles around the Haeckel-Huxley cirque. I made random “I’m okay” gestures when it was near me, but had no idea how I could or should communicate. Taking several trips back to base to refuel, it eventually set up a base camp near Lake 12,021′ and extracted someone from Haeckel’s west face. I saw nothing as I climbed past this section of the ridge, but learned later that it was recovering the body of a woman who had just been doing exactly what I was doing.

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

After getting past the pyramid, I found Haeckel’s northwest arĂȘte to be a fun class 3-4 romp on mostly good rock, and after mostly slow technical climbing and the descent to the col, I had the energy to move quickly. I found the register container stuck shut, and continued quickly along decent rock on the top of the ridge. Wallace is a garbage-mound, and Haeckel-Wallace Col marks the start of the traverse’s chossy section, which continues to somewhere past the aptly-named “Crumbling Spire.” I signed in on Wallace, relieved to see my friend’s entry from a few days ago, then chossed on.

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

I had done Huxley-Warlow-Fiske in 2009 or 2010, and remembered that doing it in that direction felt like “petting a cat the wrong way” — walk up boulders, then downclimb steep stuff. However, I had not remembered any particularly tricky climbing, and was surprised to find quite a few 5th class sections on what I thought was the home stretch. I was getting tired, and the long traverse to Fiske seemed endless, with each technical difficulty feeling like an affront. Only when I reached the headwall on Huxley, steep enough to be thought-provoking but not scary, did I enjoy the challenge rather than resent the slower progress.

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

While I was happy with my time as I signed in on Huxley, I was feeling worn down, and apprehensive as I looked at the long route I must take back around Gould, up near the other side of Darwin, and over Lamarck Col, in the lengthening shadows of afternoon. I dropped down the wrong (second) gully about halfway before crossing over into the northern one to pick up a faint bootpack. It didn’t matter: after so many hours on class 4-5 terrain, I barely noticed a few 4th class steps.

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

I finished my water at the base of the chute — perfect timing! — then refilled a safe distance from the Jolly Manure Trench, crammed down some pop-tarts, then took off at a jog down the trail, finding enough energy to make good time on the gradual descent. I passed the usual assortment of campers settling in for the night, then turned off on the Darwin Bench trail as the JMT dropped through the woods toward Colby Meadow.

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

I had expected to do this section at night, but was thankful to be ahead of schedule making my way up Darwin Bench. While the trail is clear in some places, it fades in and out of existence crossing slabs and boulder-fields; it would be hard to get lost in the early moonlit night, but it would also be easy to lose a lot of time. Knowing that daylight would save me time on Lamarck Col as well, I forced myself to jog some of the flatter sections, and reached the sign at the col around sunset. Realizing that I could go under 18 hours, I ran the sandy upper col in the twilight, passing a couple camping near a random snowbank, then finally turned on my headlamp on the switchbacks just above the creek crossing. I at least managed not to face-plant as I negotiated the rocky trail past Lamarck Lake to Piute Creek, then ran past a few campers to the sign to stop the clock. I whistled happily as I wound down on the walk back to the car. It had been a good day.

Splits

  • Piute TH (2:49 AM)
  • Lamarck Col (4:44)
  • Gould (6:36)
  • Mendel (7:46)
  • Darwin (9:18)
  • 13,332′ (11:31)
  • Haeckel (12:29 PM)
  • Wallace (12:59)
  • Crumbling Spire (1:19)
  • Fiske (2:14)
  • Warlow (3:12)
  • Huxley (4:04)
  • Lamarck Col (7:09)
  • Piute TH (8:31)

Gear notes

I used some trail runners I am familiar with and trust on rock for the whole thing. I took 1L of water over Lamarck Col, filled up with ~2.5L before leaving Darwin Bench, then got another ~1.5L after Huxley. I had ~4000 calories of food: 5 packs of pop-tarts (2000 cal), 6 caffeinated Clif bars (1500 cal), and 3 “sweet ‘n’ salty” granola bars (540 cal). I also consumed a half-dozen salt pills and 600mg of ibuprofen. Other than that, I had standard Sierra hiking gear.

Comparing traverses

Having now done the Evolution and Kaweah Traverses, both rated “VI 5.9,” with similar levels of fitness and climbing competence, it’s worth comparing them. Evolution has a longer traverse section, a slightly harder crux (5.6 vs. 5.4-5.5), and trickier route-finding keeping the difficulty within the realm of things I can solo. However, Kaweah’s climbing is more sustained: once past Second Kaweah, there are no long choss or boulder-hopping sections. Kaweah’s rock quality is also somewhat worse, demanding some caution, though it is better in the steeper parts than one would expect given the Kaweahs’ reputation. Kaweah’s approach (Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes) is also much harder than Evolution’s (trail or pseudo-trail over Lamarck Col).

Michael Minaret

First view of Michael

First view of Michael


From Clyde Minaret, Michael looks like an evil ice cream cone, an impossibly steep pyramid of dark choss. Lying behind the main Minaret crest, it is harder to reach than most of its compatriots: from Agnew Meadows, one must either go around the Minarets to the north or south, or go straight over them. I chose the second option, climbing the Rock Route on Clyde Minaret, then traversing below Eichorn to reach its saddle with Michael. The Minarets are steep, and have a reputation for bad and unpredictable rock; while the class 3-5 parts of the route I took were solid, this reputation makes me too irrationally nervous to enjoy harder scrambling in the area.

Minarets from near Iceberg

Minarets from near Iceberg

I slept through my alarm at Minaret Vista, but still woke early enough to make it through the gate well before it was occupied. Cold air often pools in valley containing Agnew Meadows, so it is often colder there than at the crest 1,200 feet above. With this in mind, I took the time to enjoy some hot coffee, then started out in hat and glittens just after 7:00. After about an hour in the shade, I finally reached the sun on the climb up to Shadow Lake, and became comfortable in a t-shirt while moving uphill. I passed a fair amount of traffic on this short stretch of the JMT, but nowhere near as much as I have earlier this summer.

Eichorn and Clyde from Michael

Eichorn and Clyde from Michael

Continuing past several parties camped at Lake Ediza, I followed the trail up to Cecile, refilled my water, and started up toward Clyde Minaret. While the Starr Route is better climbing on more solid rock, I chose the easier Rock Route, figuring I would get my fill of harder climbing later. I topped out near Clyde’s summit, then turned right on what I remembered as a tricky and non-obvious traverse to Eichorn.

Slanting ledge toward Eichorn

Slanting ledge toward Eichorn

My memory was correct: though the ridge is not long, the correct route is non-obvious and steep in places. The easiest path seems to stay near the crest for the first part, then climb a narrow, slanting series of ledges to surmount a false summit. Past this point, the crest becomes sharply serrated, and the fastest route to Eichorn probably drops down across a sort of bowl, then reascends near the summit. Since I had already climbed Eichorn, I continued across the bowl to its west ridge on chossy class 2 ramps.

Michael from near Eichorn

Michael from near Eichorn

I spent a few minutes studying Michael’s northeast side, then descended to the top of the Eichorn Chute, one of its west-side approaches. After a third class traverse around the west side of two gendarmes separating Eichorn and Michael, and a final bit of fourth class weirdness to the east, I finally found myself at the base of my peak.

While I had a photo of Secor’s route description, it was mostly useless, and I had failed to bring Bob’s more detailed notes. Fortunately, my usual “do the obvious thing” approach worked with only a little backtracking. From the notch, I followed a ramp up and left, then headed straight up when doing so made sense. After a minor misadventure trying to circle around too far east and south, I found some reasonably solid 4th class climbing leading back up and right to the summit.

Register box

Register box

Since it is difficult and not on any list, Michael sees only a few ascents per year, mostly by people doing the Minaret Traverse. I was the second person to visit the summit this year, and only one or two others had passed since Alex Honnold apparently did the traverse in July 2015. Vern Clevenger had placed the register in 1989, shortly before his son’s birth, and visited again with his son only a few pages later.

Starr plaque

Starr plaque

After enjoying my fish, it was time to get off this thing. I contemplated dropping down and around either north or south notch (thanks to global warming, an ice axe is no longer necessary), but decided to simply retrace my steps. I must have been closer to the “correct” route on the way back, because I passed a couple nests of rap-tat, removing as much as I could, and also found the Walter Starr memorial plaque. An early Sierra climber, Starr pioneered many bold routes, and seemed to mostly climb by himself. He also died in a fall near Michael Minaret when he was only 30 years old. I signed the log book, then spent a few minutes lost in somber thought.

Back to business, I took the same line back near Eichorn and Clyde, quickly descending the Rock Route to Cecile. I hiked the rougher trail down to Ediza, then ate my last food and jogged the rest of the trail home, passing a steady stream of backpackers headed in both directions. The outing took a bit less than 10 hours, and took care of a final bit of unfinished business in the area. While I have not climbed all of the Minarets, the remaining ones seem either uninteresting (Bedayan) or scary-hard (Dyer), and the traverse sounds like more fear management than fun.

Darwin (from Haeckel Col)

Haeckel from Darwin

Haeckel from Darwin


I have already climbed Darwin from the north and west, but those who know a bit about Sierra climbing will understand this trip.

Haeckel (l) and Darwin (r)

Haeckel (l) and Darwin (r)

I waited for dawn, then mostly tuned out the surroundings as I made my way around the lake, up the switchbacks, and on into the maze of lakes and trails in Sabrina Basin. It felt like fall, with the aspens starting to turn, the sun rising low and late, and the air cool enough to hike in an overshirt. Over the years I have gone from awe at the basin’s lakes and jagged peaks, to frustration at the length of the horse-ravaged trail, to familiar, benign indifference, and the two hours or so to the Midnight Lake junction passed almost unnoticed.

Haeckel and Lake 12,345

Haeckel and Lake 12,345

After a short deviation toward Hungry Packer Lake, I took off up the broad, slabby ridge toward Haeckel Col and started paying more attention. I had used this route twice in the past, for Goddard and Spencer, and I believe it is the least-bad way for day-hikers to reach peaks between Muir Pass and the Darwin Bench. It is still awfully long, and I was feeling sluggish, stopping frequently and eating more of my food than I needed. Passing some unnecessary cairns, I eventually reached Lake 12,345′ at the base of Haeckel’s north face, then followed a faint boot-pack up the sand and boulders to the pass, just north of the saddle.

West from Haeckel Col

West from Haeckel Col

I was not impressed with my time, and still not feeling fast, so I sat down to eat my fish and decide how to proceed. This would be the natural route to dayhike McGee, but I doubted I had the energy for that. I could also just tag nearby Point 13,332′ and go home, or simply turn around at the pass. Indecisive as usual, I found a comfortable spot and some suitable listening material, then let my mind drift for an hour or so.

East from Haeckel Col

East from Haeckel Col

I eventually decided to at least check out 13,332′, and was about to leave when I spotted a backpacker making his way past 12,345′ toward the pass. Curious to see who it was, I waited another 15-20 minutes for him to reach me. I hadn’t met him (Dale?) before, but he turned out to be widely-traveled in the range. On this trip, he was headed around to Darwin Bench and probably out Lamarck, after spending a few nights in Sabrina Basin eating through enough of his 11 days of food to be able to get over the pass.

Darwin from Peak 13,332

Darwin from Peak 13,332

After we parted, I took off for 13,332′. Having scoped out the initial route, I eschewed the crest, which would cost a lot of difficulty and up-and-down, instead making a class 2-3 traverse up boulders and ledges on the right. This had the side-benefit of protecting me from the wind whipping over from the west. At the summit, I found a register featuring some well-known names from before I was born (Lane, Smatko, etc.), and more recently some more and less familiar ones, mostly doing the popular Evolution Traverse.

I eyed the slope back toward Lake 12,345′, then the ridge north to Darwin, then psyched myself up enough to “at least start on” the latter. After a quick mistake on the east side, I downclimbed past some difficulties on the west, and things fairly quickly turned serious. In general, the ridge to Darwin is a gradually-rising sawblade, with sides steep enough that it is often best to stay on the crest. The rock is mostly good, usually better to the west and dirtier and more rotten to the east (as expected). There are many possible paths, and the one I took is too complicated to describe, but I will describe some highlights.

Got around this somehow...

Got around this somehow…

The first main tower north of 13,332′ is, I think, the crux of the route for many people, with a reportedly 5.9 hand-crack leading up the crest. I explored a bit, and nearly turned around — once past here, my retreat would be a trek down the west side and around over Haeckel Col — but found a series of chossy ledges and low 5th class boulder problems that got me back to the crest past the difficulties.

Some steep ridge

Some steep ridge

Past here I stayed mostly on or west of the crest for awhile, pulling the odd bit of low 5th class or alpine craziness, including some chimneying between giant blocks and a 20-foot a cheval along the crest. I found a few slings in random places, signs of other climbers’ distress. As things steepened toward Darwin, I again dodged some difficulties to the east, then was forced back east for the final climb.

More steep ridge

More steep ridge

I climbed some knobby 5.5-ish face up to a large nest of rap-tat, staying left of the rappel line, then continued up to an impasse. Seeing a cairn on a fin to the west, I retreated a bit, then made an awkward traverse to pass it, at one point trying and failing to go down and around via perpendicular chimneys and a squeeze. I climbed a dirty gully, passed under a chockstone to the east, then returned to the crest for most of the final climb. Shortly below the summit, I was again forced west, this time climbing a dirty and unstable-looking garbage-vein past another rap station. I wasn’t too happy doing this, but I climbed paranoid and nothing broke off. Above, it was smooth sailing to Darwin’s summit.

Blue Heaven and Hell Diver (l) Lakes from Darwin

Blue Heaven and Hell Diver (l) Lakes from Darwin

Most of the register entries were from traverse parties — it’s like the JMT, but for climbers! I added my own swimming-upstream entry, then headed off down the east face and northeast ridge, all of which was supposedly class 4. After some initial steep dirt in a chute that sucked, I found some dirty but more pleasant ledges, and headed generally north to avoid cliffing out at the bottom of the face. I reached the northeast ridge near its base, and found some surprising difficulties, including what I felt was a low 5th class downclimb next to a fixed line.

After a bit more shenanigans getting down from “Darwin Col,” I headed down easier ground to Blue Heaven Lake. In a “what the hell” mood, I went cross-country down the Hell Diver Lakes drainage instead of picking up the trail at Midnight Lake. The middle lake is home to an impressive disappearing act, its outflow buried deep in a talus blockade. I picked up the trail just above the big rock-hop across Bishop Creek, then hiked and jogged back to the car, reaching it with just enough daylight left to rinse off my feet and cook some sort of dinner.

Northeast ridge of Williamson (~13h45)

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle


While California’s highest peak, Mount Whitney, hides well back from the Owens Valley, its second highest, Mount Williamson, stands strikingly close to the eastern edge of the range. Its long, twisting northeast ridge, rising 8000 feet from the sloping valley bottom, is one of the more striking features seen while driving along highway 395. This long, waterless ridge, rated between class 4 and 5.6 depending upon whom you believe, is something of a classic “type II fun” Sierra climb.

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

After three solid days, the last a dayhike to Bolton Brown out of Red Lake (ugh), I took a day off, then drove down to Independence to camp at the base of the ridge. When my alarm woke me entirely too early, I felt stiff and unmotivated, and decided to take another day off and try a later start. An hour-plus bushwhack by headlamp was not how I wanted to start my day, so I got an irresponsibly late start around 5:45, using my headlamp just long enough to make the surprisingly tricky crossing of Shepherd Creek before pocketing it to begin the ‘schwack. I knew I had a few hours at the end of the day descending Shepherd Pass that I would almost rather do in the dark.

Looking down litterbox

Looking down litterbox

The first 3500 feet do not follow a well-defined ridge, but instead climb a steep slope of decomposed granite — basically kitty litter with trees and brush. As on the similar start to the northeast ridge of Lone Pine Peak, I was able to find some game trails to make it more manageable, but it was still a slog. Fortunately the slope is angled so that I remained in the shade for most of the climb, staying cool and saving my precious water.

View back down lower ridge

View back down lower ridge

Above this initial climb, the ridge becomes narrower and flatter, entering a new regime of suck. From 9900′ to where it turns south around 11,000′, the ridge is mostly uneven on top, with steep, sandy, brushy terrain on the south side, and often unusably steep rock on the north. The easiest path usually stays close to the crest on its south side. I found an old paint can hanging from a tree, and possibly some old boot-prints, but there were very few signs of human passage.

Looking down from above first south turn

Looking down from above first south turn

Around 10,500′, the ridge is cut by a double notch, which presents the first real climbing challenge. I got into the first notch via some 4th class on the crest or to its north, then continued along and up the right (north) side on class 3-4 ledges and slabs. The terrain on the left may have been less steep, but the lack of brush on the right made it seem preferable. From here to the southward turn I stayed close to the crest, which offered brief stretches of quick hiking broken up by boulder problems. After a morning of brush, I welcomed something more like climbing.

Crux-y section

Crux-y section

Passing the turn, I stayed right of the crest, diagonaling up class 2-3 terrain to where the ridge flattens out near another notch. It might be easiest here to head far right and climb the talus-slope, but I thought it would be more fun and sporting to stay somewhere near the ridge. I found the first crux near a step in some reddish rock that was just a bit too large to jump. Climbing down the left side of the ridge, I found a few pieces of rap tat, which I climbed past and around via some tricky traversing right and down, to where I could regain the ridge at a notch.

Arch!

Arch!

Farther up, where the ridge splits, I was again forced down the left side. This time, I was surprised and pleased to find a natural arch burrowing through the notch that had caused me to leave the crest. I passed through to the right side of the ridge, then climbed some easier class 2-3 slabs to where the ridge flattens and turns back north. I am amazed that I did not find any mention of this arch on Summitpost, since it seemed natural to pass through it on the climb.

Difficulties before East Horn

Difficulties before East Horn

The ridge becomes easy talus here, and it looks like it should be smooth sailing to the top of the East Horn. But the rock turns ominously reddish as the ridge makes another jog south, usually a sign of rotten, shale-y rock in the Sierra. After climbing the crest of the garbage-fest for a bit, I crossed again to the right side to avoid some decomposing towers, then began slogging the final talus-slope to the East Horn. Due to a combination of altitude and late-season fatigue, I was painfully slow on this final easy climb.

Crux chimney

Crux chimney

With most of the distance and elevation gain out of the way, it was time to deal with the bulk of the technical difficulty. I dropped left of the ridge a bit on some broken terrain, then returned to the crest as the left side dropped away. Where the crest got serious before the first of two notches, I downclimbed to some rap tat, where I was momentarily stymied. Looking back, I saw that I could traverse back, down a sort of dihedral/chimney, then forward again to the base of the apparent rappel. This second crux felt about as hard as the first, definitely harder than 4th class, but not 5.6 as some claim. The rock was decent, and I felt reasonably secure in running shoes.

I could have climbed back up to the ridge crest from here, but I remembered that there is a second notch, and I suspected that going too high would lead to more difficulties. Instead, I traversed some crappy dirt-ledges, crossed a partially ice-filled gully, then crossed some outward-sloping ledges to emerge near the base of the second notch. While not as hard as the chimney, this section was probably more intimidating, made worse by leftover snow from the unusual storm a week before.

Knife-edge past West Horn

Knife-edge past West Horn

Back on easier class 3 terrain, I quickly scrambled to the top of the West Horn, where I saw that the difficulties were not quite over. Rather than guessing the route, I took the time to read Secor on my camera, which said to drop 200 feet (vertically? straight-line?) on the right side before passing through a notch. I dropped part of this distance, then saw a ledge/crack system that might save some elevation loss. I don’t think it saved time or effort, but it certainly added some interest and spice. Returning to the ridge crest before the notch, I was surprised to find an incredibly sheer knife-edge. Resisting the urge to further tear my pants with an a cheval, I carefully hand-traversed along this section, gasping in relief when the ridge once again broadened.

I traversed down into Secor’s notch, and found easier terrain leading to the gap with the true summit. A final traverse left around a slabby knoll led to the summit sand- and talus-plain. I was tempted to skip the summit, but made the trudge to see if the old register was still there, and to enjoy my summit fish a bit over 9 hours into the day. The register was intact, but the talus gnats had apparently migrated up from Lake Helen of Troy since I was last here in 2012, so I moved on quickly, cramming down some pop-tarts as I boulder-hopped toward the tourist route.

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

The rest of the day was familiar: slide down the loose chute, hop across the Williamson Bowl, then make the surprisingly long hike past Tyndall to the Shepherd Pass trail. For better or worse, I was fast enough to do the trail entirely in daylight. The top section, which switchbacks down a steep scree-slope, was partly destroyed as usual. Below Anvil camp, I saw signs of a trail crew re-routing (and doubtless lengthening) the trail where it crosses a dirt-gully. Though frustratingly low-angle, the trail is at least pleasantly runnable from here to the base of the dreaded sand hill, and I had enough energy to make good time. I hiked the hill, hated life down the endless switchbacks into Symmes Creek, then appreciated the newly-improved water crossings on the final stretch to the parking lot.

As I was parked a mile or so away at the mouth of Shepherd Creek, I slowed briefly in the parking lot while preparing to jog the road. A man just packing for a late start to a backpack hailed me and asked me my name; I gave it warily, figuring I had offended some authority or other. Instead, he turned out to be the guy who had videotaped me coming down the very same trail on my 14er record run in 2012. After getting over the amazing coincidence, we talked for awhile, then he got back to packing while I jogged and hiked the remaining distance to my car. I had not felt fast for most of the day, but I think my time of around 13h45 is fairly respectable.

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.

Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

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.