The day’s plan was to let my stuff dry in camp while tagging McGee, then pack as far north as possible, hopefully to Merriam Lake. After watching some morning clouds while eating breakfast, I drank as much water as I could hold and set off for McGee carrying just a camera and overshirt.
After some mixed grass and scree, I gained the northeast ridge, where I found more moderate class 2-3 terrain leading nearly to its junction with the main east-west ridge. The final bit was unfortunately a bit like neighboring Goddard — steep, loose, black talus. Worse, it started to rain a bit, on both me and my “drying” gear below. Rounding the corner to the south side, I made my way (clockwise, fortunately) over more of the same crappy terrain, crossing several ribs before reaching McGee’s lower east summit…
… where I was screwed. The east side of the true summit is a steep face of dubious-looking rock, with long, sheer ribs extending far south toward Davis Lakes, and rotten cliffs to the north. (It turns out that the face goes at class 4, but that wouldn’t have helped one-handed me.) Faced with a long climb down to Davis Lakes and back up a chute farther west, I headed back to camp and had an early lunch while waiting for my stuff to re-dry.
After weighing the options, I decided to continue down McGee Creek and rejoin the High Route on the Darwin Bench. The hike down the creek was pleasant and easy, with bits of use trail and a convenient log to cross the creek to the JMT at the end. After grinding up some switchbacks on the JMT, I easily found the well-used Bench cutoff at the end of the last one. Reaching the lower end of the bench, I noticed both smoke from the huge Rim Fire to the northwest, and scattered stormclouds mostly to the south. There would be little rest for the weary.
Turning north toward Alpine Col and the Keyhole, I climbed some pleasant grass and slabs, skirted two huge lakes — right, then left — and was making my way toward the third when I noticed two men consulting a map. Somewhat surprised, I crossed to investigate, and learned that they were the vanguard of a Sierra Club party of ten making its way over Alpine Col and back via Lamarck Col. After chatting with the leader and giving them what beta I could, I continued to the last lake, internally shaking my head at the members industriously filtering water from the pure, high alpine lakes.
The Keyhole and Alpine Col cross the Glacier Divide on opposite sides of Mount Muriel, at the head of the final lake. Though I knew that the other side of the Keyhole is more pleasant, Alpine Col was obvious from the south while the Keyhole was not, so I chose the former. One long boulder-hop later (going right around the lake might have been better) I was at the col. The descent to Goethe Lakes was relatively quick and painless, but the long boulder-hop around the left side of the lakes seemed endless. The view across these glacial lakes to Mount Humphreys can be spectacular, but it was drab in the thickening smoke.
Humphreys Basin is some of the easiest, most pleasant cross-country travel in the Sierra. I picked up a use trail for awhile, then took off across the grass, crossing two maintained trails on my way toward French Canyon. Picking the most likely-looking notch in the ridge on the north edge of Humphreys Basin, I found a plaque indicating that I was at “Carol Col.” I aimed for the gap between Paris and Puppet Lakes on the other side, and found more pleasant travel once I had negotiated the initial talus descent (stay right).
After debating whether to camp there or on the other side of French Canyon, I compromised by stopping at Elba Lake (get it?), on its own bench a few hundred feet below the French Lakes. I saw another solitary backpacker as I was getting water, but we were both content to keep to ourselves.