Category Archives: California

Breaking up a drive north

I had both driving to do and time to kill, so as I prefer to do, I broke up my travel by tagging some semi-random peaks along the way. None was interesting enough for a long writeup, so here they are in a single pile.

Patterson

Please don’t drive on Mars


Mount Patterson is the highpoint of a distinct mound of mountains north of Bridgeport near the California-Nevada border. It is not particularly impressive, with a jeep road nearly to the top, but its isolation does give it over 4000 feet of prominence, and it was not too far out of my way. For those with normal-clearance cars, it is most easily reached from the long dirt road to Lobdell Lake, which was more of a large mud puddle when I saw it.

Road toward Patterson

I drove halfway in the night before, then finished the drive in the morning, partly because I didn’t want to drive the rougher part of the road at night, and partly to blast the heater on a cold morning. I parked on the south side of the “lake,” then hiked across the earthen dam to join the jeep road leading toward Patterson. I met some hunters on their way down in a quad, but otherwise had the path to myself as I hiked up a hillside, through a canyon filled with turning willows, and finally switchbacked up a slope to the plain below the summit.

Road through Mars

There was a sign describing the precious tundra, and instructing motor vehicle enthusiasts not to drive on it. There were pleasantly few off-road tracks, though I suspect this was more because few people drive here than because the ones who do are better-behaved than average. I found bits of crusty snow on the road, and a bit of rime on the summit, reminding me that my season is unfortunately ending. While I was comfortable hiking up, a cold wind on the summit soon chilled me and made my hands clumsy.

I had been thinking of tagging some neighboring peaks, but after a quick look over at Nevada, I decided that I had had enough cold for the day. I hiked and jogged back toward the car, stepping aside on the lower climb to allow several souped-up jeeps to pass, a couple towing burly off-road trailers. There were a couple more waiting at the sign at the bottom, and one of the occupants asked if I was okay. I suppose he thought I might have broken down, and when I explained that I was just out for a hike, I could see him asking himself “why?” Walking a jeep road is indeed silly, but sometimes it happens.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk Lake and Peak


Black Hawk was one of my two remaining SPS peaks in the Sonora Pass area. It is a moderately long hike from Kennedy Meadows, around 20 miles round-trip, starting along a horse-ravaged trail and ending with a long cross-country climb past Lewis Lakes and Black Hawk Lake. It sits amidst an interesting mix of rolling Sierra granite and black volcanic choss, with its summit made of the latter, but much of the approach of the former.

Kennedy Meadows trail

I camped near Sonora Pass, again giving myself a chance to blast the heater on the drive to the trailhead. I had not been to Kennedy Meadows before, and was disappointed to find it both lower and farther west than I had expected. I parked where the signs said I should, then walked most of a mile along a road through a redneck encampment of RVs and summer cabins, and also a restaurant/store and what looked like day use parking. Oh, well…

Relief Reservoir

The trail up to Relief Reservoir, which may once have been a wagon road, has been beaten to death by pack traffic, but the recent rains had fortunately subdued the dust. The trail slowly improved as it went around the reservoir, then climbed southeast along Summit Creek. Based on some tracks downloaded from Peakbagger, I left the trail at a semi-random stream junction, then flailed around in the granite slabs and woods, going too far west before making my way around one of the scenic Lewis Lakes to get back on track. I found traces of an old trail, and a “no fires above here” sign, but the terrain was otherwise trackless and confusing. The flatter areas not filled with lakes were mostly willow-choked bogs, though I fortunately managed to mostly avoid crossing them.

Lewis Lakes

Black Hawk Mountain has a distinctive permanent snowfield north of its summit, and the track I was following climbed the granite slabs to its left. However, with a dusting of snow lingering up high, it looked easier to me to climb the broken volcanic stuff to its right. Though most of the sky was clear, there was a persistent cloud shadowing the summit, so I did not stay long. Finding no register, I took a few photos, then returned toward Summit Creek, this time taking something more like the correct line. The clouds began looking more serious as I hiked and jogged toward the trailhead, but it fortunately never rained or snowed. I reached the trailhead mid-afternoon, then returned to 395 to head north.

Pluto (Northstar ski area)

Knowing I would have to do more running the next day than I had in over a year, I was looking for an easy day, and settled on some minor peaks off the Mount Rose Highway. I pulled in fairly late to sleep in the summit parking lot, but between the cold (low 20s) and strong, gusty wind, I mostly just lay awake. I made myself a couple cups of coffee in the morning, then hiked all of a half-mile toward one of the peaks before getting too cold and returning to the car. I bummed around town until it was warmer, then hiked up the slopes to the summit of Mount Pluto, a 2000-foot prominence peak that is the top of the Northstar ski resort. The terrain did not look like very interesting skiing, but the place definitely earned the “Resort” in its name, with a gaudy, lift-accessed Ritz-Carlton partway up. I guess it was a good warmup for the next day’s suffering…

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…

Laurel (NE gully, 1h31 up)

Laurel from trailhead


As much as I claim to be getting too old for the FKT game, sometimes I can’t help myself. Laurel’s northeast gully is a classic “workout route” out of Convict Lake, just south of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra. The area’s rock is absolute garbage, but avalanches and waterfalls keep this line clean, and the crumbly rock’s layers are angled to create positive holds in what is left. After an initial hike or jog around Convict Lake, and a short boulder-hop, the climb is remarkably sustained class 3-5.easy for about 4000 feet. The first time I climbed this route, I went too far left and finished in sketchy, crumbly terrain. The second, in 2016, I was climbing with a broken hand, and could not come close to Jason Lakey’s 1h47. This time, I had two hands and decent climbing shape, and managed a 1h31, better than I expected.

I waited until I thought the temperature was about right, then started my watch and took off from the trailhead sign next to the boat dock. I reached the boulders where one leaves the trail after about 15 minutes, then spent another 5 minutes boulder-hopping to the base of the face. From there, I was redlined almost the whole way up, with only a few pauses to deal with the crux sections that pass through smoother, steeper waterfall sections. I stayed in the gully most of the way, once accidentally getting out to the left, and once to the right in the broad bowl most of the way up. However, this time I knew where to go, and generally followed the left branches of the gully system until they fade out near the summit.

Right as the gully merges into the final choss-slope, I saw someone ahead of me making pretty good time. I was surprised to have company on a weekday morning, and grateful that he had not bombarded me with loose rocks when I was down in the gully proper. I reached the summit maybe 20 seconds after he did, checking my watch before coughing and gasping for awhile.

I had planned to establish a round-trip FKT, but (1) the Strava app on my phone had crashed, and (2) I decided I would rather chat. He turned out to be a guide from the Zion area who makes semi-regular pilgrimages to the eastern Sierra. He had taken something like 1h45 for the meat of the route, an impressive time since he was carrying a pack with food and water; I had carried nothing but an overshirt tied around my waist, counting on the food and water I had chugged at the trailhead to get me through the climb.

I signed the register, then took off north down the standard descent route. The use trail started off clear, then faded more than I remembered from 2009. I knew more or less where I was going, though, circling around the mountain’s north flank, then following the northeast ridge until I could drop down a sandy gully. This was steep and somewhat obnoxious, but fast until near the bottom, where it became brushier and I had to proceed with some care wearing shorts. I returned to the boulders near where I had left the trail, then ran as quickly as I could back around the lake with all the sand packed in my shoes. It had been awhile since I had showered, and I needed to interact with civilized humans later that day, so I found a secluded spot and, against my nature, fully immersed myself in Convict Lake for all of 5 seconds. Hoping that qualified as “hygiene,” I toweled myself off, changed into fresh clothes, and headed into town.

Izaak Walton

Izaak Walton from col


Izaac Walton is an SPS peak along the Silver Divide, buried near the center of the Sierra between Mammoth Lakes and Lake Thomas Edison. Because it has difficult access from the east and relatively few high peaks, I have spent relatively little time in this part of the range. The best eastern approach to Isaac Walton is via the long but scenic trail over McGee Pass, which I had used once before to reach Red and White Mountain. The pass is slightly higher than the peak, and one must drop 1500 feet on its other side.

Climb to McGee Pass

I got a reasonably early start up the semi-popular trail, climbing gradually east, then south past colorful Mount Baldwin, eventually emerging from the forest into meadows below Big McGee Lake. Here the valley and trail turn back east and north, climbing through the region’s colorful garbage-rock to McGee Pass, a saddle near 12,000′ between Red Slate and Red and White Mountains. Not having seen any tents, I was somewhat surprised to pass a lone backpacker just below the pass, possibly headed for one or both of the nearby peaks.

Izaak Walton from pass

The other side of the pass seems to see much less traffic, and its maddeningly flat switchbacks are gradually fading. I followed the trail for a bit, then cut directly cross-country to eliminate long stretches of pointless meandering. I left the trail near an unnamed creek, passing directly south through a gap to cross Fish Creek and emerge near the inlet to Tully Lake. I continued more or less south, aiming for the unnamed cross-country pass leading to Bighorn Lake. I was surprised to meet a lone backpacker here, moving fairly quickly despite his overnight gear. I angled slightly toward him, but he seemed to want to pretend that I did not exist, so I passed without acknowledgement.

McGee Pass from summit

I made my way up a mixture of talus and slabs to the saddle, then traversed through ledges and scrub around the south side of Point 11,588′ to the base of Izaak Walton’s northeast ridge. This was rumored to be a fine class 3 scramble, but began as a disappointing pile of sand and talus. It fortunately improved higher up, with the last few hundred feet along the crest being sustained and fun.

Evon benchmark

I glanced through a list of the usual suspects in the summit register, then took in the views from the middle of an unfamiliar part of the range. Lake Edison was clearly visible to the southwest, and the back sides of Red and White and Red Slate to the northeast. Directly west, I could see where an unfamiliar stretch of the JMT crosses Silver Pass on the other side of Evon Benchmark. Though Evon and Peak 12,238′, the two ends of the Silver Divide, are both higher than Izaak Walton, for some reason neither has a name or a place on the SPS list.

Toad?!

After finishing my snack, I retraced my steps, finding a slightly higher and better traverse to the Bighorn Lake col. Right where I rejoined the trail, I was surprised to see a good-sized toad. Fortunately he was alone, and both less disgusting and more wary than the giant toads of the Big Beaver, scurrying into the bushes before I could get a clear photo. The climb back up McGee Pass was sort of a slog, and I did not feel like running as much of the gradual descent to the trailhead as I probably should have, but I had plenty of day left to reach the car. I passed a pack train and a number of humans near a mud flat below Steelhead Lake. They were maybe 100 yards off the trail, and it looked like they might be posing for a pack company advertisement, with the golden aspens and red and white rock in the background. It certainly didn’t seem like a normal place or time to set up camp.

Stanford North, Morgan North

Morgan from approach


Stanford and Morgan North are two more SPS peaks, found on the north side of the Hilton Lakes drainage, sitting at opposite ends of an undulating talus ridge. They are most easily reached from the Hilton Lakes trailhead in Rock Creek. This Morgan is one of two Morgans within sight of each other on either side of Rock Creek. I don’t know if one or both is named for J. P. Morgan, or if this Stanford is for Leland Stanford (the other is named for his university), but I would like to think that the surveyors were planning a Robber Baron Range in the area, with mounts Carnegie and Rockefeller soon to follow.

Aspens near Hilton Creek

This was my reintroduction to the dusty, manure-filled pack trails of the Sierra, and despite being used to hiking through cow pastures in the Alps, I did not particularly enjoy it. Fortunately the aspens were nearing their prime up high, providing some distraction on the flat, meandering hike around the north side of Patricia Peak and down to Hilton Lakes. At the trail junction, I headed uphill and south, to where the trail ends at Lake 10,363′.

Continuing through the easy cross-country around the lake, I passed a decent-sized tent city, suggesting that I might have company higher up. I continued upstream toward the col south of Stanford Lake, finding boot-prints here and there. From the col, I crossed a shallow bowl, then made an ascending talus traverse toward the ridge. From a saddle, I scrambled a short distance north over big blocks to… Point 12,937′. It took me a few moments to figure out what had happened, and a few curses to come to terms: there was no register, and a crowd of people on a lower bump to the south. Taking out my map, I realize that that was Mount Stanford, and that I would have to cross right back over 12,937′ on the way to Morgan.

Morgan-Stanford ridge

I scrambled south as quickly as I could, and the other group seemed to be taking their time, so I met them on the real Stanford. They turned out to be a SoCal Sierra Club party, led by a friend of an acquaintance. We traded picture-taking duty, then parted ways, with them returning to their tents while I headed back north to Morgan. I was able to bypass 12,937′ and a couple more points to the east, where the traversing was surprisingly easy. I had a bit more trouble on the final points, returning to the ridge to avoid some cliffs, then crossing some steep slabs before reaching the barren plateau below Morgan. A final, short talus climb brought me to the summit, where I finally found the non-Verizon cell coverage so rare in the area.

Davis Lake

I responded to some email, signed the register, then had a decent boot-ski down Morgan’s east face. After a bit of onerous aspen-thrashing, I reached the edge of Davis Lake, rinsed my feet, and began following a fisherman’s trail. This eventually led around south to the official trails, where I passed a handful of backpackers on my return to the trailhead. I saw no sign of the Sierra Clubbers, who were likely behind me; one-night overnights never make sense…

Warren

Mount Warren is a mostly-unremarkable peak west of Mono Lake, notable for three things: having more than 2000 feet of prominence, being on the SPS list, and being the location of one of my favorite Bob trip reports. Unlike Bob, I chose the somewhat longer approach from Lundy Canyon to the north, where the camping is better. I took the old road and trail up to Oneida Lake, then went cross-country, finishing on the peak’s south ridge. On the return, I descended the horrible slope to the northeast, then dropped into Deer Creek, where mostly-easy travel took me back to somewhere near my car at the Lundy Dam. I did not take many photos, or have nearly as memorable an experience as Bob.

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.