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Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -


Nowhere in the US does a place stand to suffer more and lose so much should the trend of Global Warming continue; this became quite evident on this recap trip over Echo Col and return via Lamarck some eight years after the first excursion. It was clear to everyone that something seriously wrong was with the weather and this abstraction everyone had heard about on the Discovery Channel and in magazines is about to slam the Golden State with a prizefighter's punch of reality.

There is virtually no rainfall of any consequence in California, and there are only three rivers of any consequence flowing through this place that is 900 miles long and host to well over 35 million people, producing more than a quarter of all the foodstuffs for the nation from land that is essentially irrigated desert. Where does the water then come from? It comes from snow melt. That feeds into reservoirs that reside on thousands of acres of land in the high sierra owned by the City of Los Angeles.

Today, the reservoirs are full, but the snow pack is entirely gone, vaporized by higher than average temperatures. As I climbed out of my bag at three am to look at the stars and take care of nature's business, the sensation of warm air in a place that is normally 28 degrees created an unearthly sensation of wrongness. All of the streams and lakes below 11,000 feet are choked with long strands of light-green algae where before the crystal clear water plashed over clean rock. For 15 years I have been packing a sleeping bag rated for -20 degree chill and down vests with waterproof liners and all the rest, but none of it was needed, as I hiked across dry ridge after dry ridge barren of snow. If the state does not get a wallopping huge snow this winter, the resulting drought will be catastrophic to the State and to the nation.

The Sierra snowpack, normally, is so big that it supercools itself and produces its own weather. At some point, the high temperatures tipped the balance in favor of uncontrolled melting, which, after enough snow had receded, continued to melt with exponentially increasing speed without subfreezing nightime air to slow things down.

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In any case, here are pictures from this year's disturbing trip into the warm and very dry Sierra Nevada.  We begin at the first camp just below Sailor Lake at 11,400 feet looking at Mt. Wallace.

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Next we climb over the hump and boulder our way around Hungry Packer to the next terrace which is cut by a stream tumbling down a narrow chute.  Into the chute, we look back at Hungry Packer Lake.

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Looking up the chute we are encouraged by this sight.

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Somewhere near 12,000 feet we top off to view the col and the task ahead, and muse upon the disturbing lack of snow.  In normal years, the snowpack is well over 16 feet deep and juts way out over the col with a massive ice ledge.  

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The way to proceed is to scale a 20 foot granite worm (out of the picture to the left) and scramble along ledges until you are about the same height as the glacier break -- about 100 feet above the pond.  Any other choice is foolhardy and extremely dangerous.  You should be able to make a dozen boulder hops to get to this rock wall barrier.  In most years, only a few tips of rock show above the snow.  Here we see the rock wall and our first view of "Black Notch".  Its steeper than it looks.

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Should you look to your left, wishing you had taken that "friends" advice and chosen Wallace Col instead, this view might cause you to rethink your options.

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Wallace col is quite tedious for a backpacker as it contains miles of loose talus, as you can see, and a quite steep vertical pitch, which adds up to hella backsliding. The acutual pass is between the left edge of the frame and that peak. I am told that Haeckle col is not much better, even with the relative lack of snow barriers. Just getting up to the bench to decide your options is quite a grunt and should be attempted only by seasoned mountaineers used to that sort of thing.

Turning back, after climbing over the two rock walls, we have this to look forward to.  100 meters of lovely stuff.

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After crossing the two rock walls, I found, instead of a smooth, pristine snowfield, a soggy quagmire with streams running over clearly visible rock.  It takes about fifteen minutes to cross the 100 yards to the outcropping below the notch.  If you are careful to keep to the right on this pitch, things shouldn't get too scary until you come to the notch itself, and there is still a bit of pullup work to do with your arms to scale the last chimney.  Once on top, photo opportunity!

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The view westward is narrower, but more open.  Down below, the 20 yard tarn  usually has some snow to keep it company.

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There is a bit more scrambling to get down, but its all over in 30 feet or so.  I just lowered the pack on a rope and fisted down a crack, but there are less elegant ways.   Down at the "obelisque", a huge boulder called more accurately by geologists as an erratic, you look back at this and wonder to yourself, "Now it looks so easy!  What made it so darn hard?".  The altitude here is about 12,000 feet give or take a few.

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You may say to yourself, "This place is a perfect place to camp." I did.  Then, next morning, you may say to yourself, "My god, what have I done?"  For the earliest sun hits this spot at 9:30 am.  Here you may note objects drying in the morn as the Black Giant looks on with serenity.

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Down from here, there are only two ways to go: left to Le Conte canyon and the teeming millions who camp there, or right over Muir Pass, skipping by Lake Helen, as these hikers are doing.

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Lake Helen is actually quite a jewel and worth spending some time to explore. The vistas are extraordinary, as this view of Mt. Warlow indicates, and there are numerous side-excursions in the area that is dotted with tarns.  The lake has even several sand beaches, quite unlike the other alpine pools. 

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If you are looking for wisdom on the mount, then Mount Solomon outta do the trick.

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From here its an hour uphill to Muir Pass.  Looking back, kiss Helen goodbye, as well as Mt. Powell.

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At the pass itself, is the famous emergency shelter built by Depression-era projects.  

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Normally, that entire flank of Mt. Solomon is covered with deep snow right up to the edge of the hut.  Looking down, I was surprised to see Wanda Lake free of ice and snow for the first time in eight years of hiking in this area.  Not a snow patch to be seen for miles.  The frogs in the lake were loving every minute of the unusual weather, though.  The dark mass is part of Mt. Goddard and the lower peak in the center of the frame is Mt. McGee.  That saddle between the two is where I cut over on last years trip.

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Because of an injury sustained on crossing Echo Col, the route pursued the John Muir trail this year to Evolution Lake, where we great our old friend, The Hermit.   This is about 10800 feet..

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If you follow a worn use trail around the hillock there to the left, you come to the lake's true outlet, a sheer 800 foot waterfall with a spectacular view of Mclure meadow nestled in Evolution Valley down below at 9800 feet. By-the-way, the fishing is superb.

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That evening, I was joined at the lake by a party of young fishermen and we watched nervously as a ferocious Sierra storm circled overhead for three hours before hitting Mt. Spencer and then dissipating as a fantastic full moon arose over the hard hit peak.  In the morning, I tried unsuccessfully to locate the "wild onion" trail according to foolishly insufficient instructions.  The trail actually begins on the banks of a stream -- which the would-be guide failed to mention.  Anyrate, I scampered up to Darwin Canyon to find a sort of unexpectedly pleasant and warm prospect for this usually austere snow and ice-filled ravine.  Not a trace of "blue" ice to be found.

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Going around the lakes without snowpack barriers was virtually a breeze.   I even experimented with a "high" traverse for a while, just to make it interesting and explore a bit.  Climbing up the cut proved as tedious as always, but at least the way was well known. Once over, there awaited yet another surprise in the glacier, which had melted into a wierd griddle of potholes five feet deep lined with ice, but which looked at a distance to be no more than soft hillocks.  The col itself was half the size and only a couple feet deep, as opposed to eight to ten feet.  The glacier had receded back away from the shoreline, similar to Echo Col. In the middle of the snowfield I took this shot,. looking up from what had been a perfectly smooth snow slope on the last trip.

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Once down I took this shot of what had once been an imposing glacier a quarter of its former size, standing on a rock that in the past had rested under three feet of ice-cold water.

Descending, the first two snowfields were entirely gone without a trace. Definitely wierd. So strange was it that I hurried out that day, fully expecting to find that nuclear war had destroyed the Western World and nothing was left but radioactive ash. In fact, I really got worried about my cat, Friederich. If everybody was dead, who would be there to feed him?