Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -
Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -
This year the Mountain Sabbatical went up from North Lake over Lamarck Col, down across the Evolution Valley and up into McGee Canyon. A new wrinkle was finding a backway out of McGee with hope of finding a way into Davis Lakes. And the way out was over the infamous Snowtongue Pass.
The climb over the Col went as per usual. The three snowfields in the sandy valley are back although not the arduous barriers they once were and the glacier has rebuilt itself to about what it was five years ago, but still with no overhang over the tarn as it was when first seen in 1995. In that year, the ice hung out in a sheet a good twenty feet thick to half cover the tarn, which itself was at least six feet deep.
First camp was high near Lake #2 (counting from the east end of the canyon). at an elevation of some 11,400 feet.
As the sun sets, this was the view of the east end of the lake towards the point where people need to start climbing towards the Col on the left.
Looking across the lake (south) and straight up from the sleeping back we admire the august face of Mt. Mendel and the blockish form of Mt. Darwin.
Mountain light can play remarkable tricks on one. Here is the same view to the east from camp at the Col ascent point, but in the morning.
Departing this pleasant, but windy, camp, we scramble along until the Darwin's bench, there to take a series of photos stiched together here. The imposing block to the left is The Hermit, and a shaft of light seems to fall on the distant form of Mount Goddard.
The Bench is usually employed as a mere crossing point for most hikers, but there are Golden Trout in those lakes and that makes just one reason to set up camp. It is also at elevation 11,100 feet, which means mousquitos are at a minimum.
There is nothing better than keeping one's catch nice and cold on Nature's Refridgerator. This snow bank was only six feet from the lakeshore.
There is nothing better than fresh fish breaking the monotony of dehydrated camp meals.
Time in paradise continues to move, and so the following morning we descend along something that remarkably resembles a trail, following the lake outflow and exhuberant plots of purple lupine for some time.
Keeping an eye out, we take a last careful look at the Hermit. We'll be up in that canyon to the right of the old man in a few hours, descending to 9800 feet before climbing back up again to 10,100.
We descend into the Valley via goat tracks and the occasional stone duck to the John Muir trail, which we follow down another few hundred feet to Colby Meadow, there to leave all semblance of trails for the next few days. Bushwacking along the river east, one comes across an old packer's camp and a handy bridge to cross the swollen stream. There are no Balrogs here and so we cross safely over to the trackless other side.
There are no instructions for climbing into McGee Canyon and there are few indications that anyone has visited there for years. Basically, one ascends a ridge along granite flows with the drainage to the left for about 40 minutes until one pops up into the rivulet-laced, marshy and quite level McGee basin.
This part of the canyon is pleasant and mildly pastoral with none of the extraordinary vistas or Olympian grandeur of the surrounding areas, but is possessed of a quiet charm. The way to get through here without sinking into a quagmire -- always an unfortunate experience -- or turning an ankle, is to keep well to the right, or western edge of the meadow. There are hints of former trails through here, but most of them go nowhere as they have not been maintained for quite a long time.
After skirting this soggy meadow, the way to go is to cross all the streams to the eastern side, and then ascend a ridge to the left, following faint traces of a former use trail and the stone ducks we have left behind on this and a previous trip, gradually rising above the stream, always going higher when in doubt, for the stream drops from a waterfall and cliffs that can be hazardous.
Once climbing out to the top of a rocky ridge. the McGee lakes extend for another two miles in a crescent south-east. Here is base camp.
Stepping past those dwarf pines there, we have a nice view of Mt. Peter looking over one of the lakes.
Looking east in the opposite direction we see distant Mt. Mcgee brooding over the lake's inflow from a waterfall.
A waterfall? Looks like a delicious cold shower to me.
After a nice cleanup, its time to make dinner.
The way out begins with a pleasant ramble along the north shores of the various lakes, with plenty of eye candy to enjoy along the way.
On reaching the last big lake, ducks (placed by me) will send you up and around a granite tumulus that pushes out into the lake. Most years, it is not possible to skirt the foremost boulder at lake level. Ascending to a little watershed ravine, the traveler usually pushes north and to the left to arrive at the final rock wall. For this trip, we crossed directly south to the base of this saddle.
The climb is substantially without challenges, other than a lot of work, into progressively more barren and rocky environments, icy, rockbound tarns and thin air. Looking back one sees the last McGee Lake and a couple of other lakes that are hidden from view at canyon-level.
The pass tops out near 12,000 feet in elevation on top of the ridge that stands above the extraordinary Evolution Basin and the view is quite impressive, despite a haze from a forest fire somewhere in Le Conte Canyon. From here we see Lake Wanda, Muir Pass, part of Mt. Goddard, Mt. Solomons and a very hazy Mt. Goode, some six miles distant.
Looking to the left, or northeast, we see the outflow lakes from Wanda guarded by massive Mt. Huxley. That is pointy Mt. Haeckle in the background with the flat top of Mt. Darwin appearing subdued from this angle as Mt. Mendel dominates the left portion of the background.
Our next attempt was to make a traverse, staying high, to the saddle that drops down to Davis Lakes. It appeared relatively flat on the map.
Well, some ideas are better left as theories. Some two and half hours later we found ourselves down at the shores of Lake Wanda, looking up at the saddle which appeared to be not more than a few hundred yards away.
Oh well, the view from the camp on the Wanda peninsula made up for the disappointment.
There are no fish in Wanda. Plenty of frogs, but no fish. When we first saw Wanda some 12 years ago, the shores were bound by snow and icebergs moored themselves in the ice-choked surface. It has gotten considerably warmer.
The walk along the trail for the next five miles the following day is through the Evolution Basin, which has its one austere, albeit well-traveled beauty. This is the main trail that people use to access the back side of Mount Whitney to the south.
From the 11,100 foot Wanda elevation, one descends via several well-cut stone staircases to each terrace, passing the jewel-like Lake Sapphire.
One descends from long Evolution Lake via more stone stairs to the temperate regions of tree-clad Evolution Valley below 10,000 feet and arrives ultimately to McLure Meadow, there to view the Hermit once again, having traveled a complete circle about his base.
A small forest burn had swept through this area recently and there were many downed trees as well as scortch marks on the standing ones with lower limbs knocked off. The entire meadow appeared to be empty and even the ranger station had no one in attendance.
After a morning visit by a mule deer who passed some 20 feet from the foot of the sleeping bag, the climb toward STP began from this elevation of some 9600 feet. Following the stream that runs beside the ranger station, keeping the stream to the right, the ascent starts gradually, then steepens to a fairly continuous 30-40 degree grade with no special challenges other than exertion. As the trees thin out and become reduced in height, the ground gives way from chuff and forest floor to more and more granite and grass. It levels out somewhat around 10,500 feet to granite terraces and then pops over into an upwardly sloping and relatively treeless area liberally covered with grass and scattered stone and laced with intermittent rivulets. The area is so riven with shallow gullies that it is quite possible to miss the immense Lake 11092.
The landscape evokes Stonehenge or Ireland before they had stone walls. One imagines giant mountain trolls fighting one another here with great boulders lashed to massive tree trunks.
From here one can finally see the Col to the north. It may look intimidating -- in fact, it IS.
This is the only Col where there was not the hint of a trail nor a single trace of a human being ever having passed this way. Not to say that if one looks closely, one will not find pleasures of the natural kind.
With no prepared camps in this area, one had better be ready with a shovel and some labor to create a flat place to lay one's bag. Especially at 11,800 feet.
It does not look like much facing this direction north, so lets turn 180 degrees and see Mt. McGee and Goddard to the south.
That night, while nestled in snug and reading Defoe's Moll Flanders, just as Molly is about to snatch a gold watch from a duchess in the press of the crowd in 16th Century London, a coyote set up a howl not fifty feet from us, probably at the edge of the tarn you can see above. Right away, a whole gang of them started yipping and yapping right on the other side of the berm sheltering the camp.
That got us up in a hurry. Fine and romantic thing to hear them go off from another valley or ridge, but certainly another story when they are right there in the same gulch with you.
Fell asleep clutching the pepper spray in one hand and the knife in the the other.
Turns out the fellow was probably just warning the kids that some damn fool human was sleeping down by the watering hole. Stay way boys; them humans are nasty creatures and they don't taste very good either.
As much as we hated to part company we got up in the morning, ate breakfast, threw it up again and thus vigorously prepared, climbed the Col.
The actual col is dead center although we found ourselves up on the right. There we came face to face with a composite rock (igneous & sedimentary) which bore the clear foot prints of some long ago three-toed animal as it walked through a puddle of mud and off into prehistory.
No, the picture did not come out.
But all good things must come to an end and an end to the easy part had come. Here is the view from the pass looking south, back the way we had come. the camp tarn is the one on the left. The green line of trees marks the abrupt drop down into the Valley and the mountain is Goddard with Reinstein in the far distance.
Turning about 180 degrees, as we are wont to do on these high passes, we look north across the jumbled rock wasteland of Wahoo Lakes, the two-mile-wide expanse of Humphrey's Basin below that and the imposing bulk of Mt.Humphreys itself.
We then come to the descent and the words of Roper, who states in Sierra High Route, "The terrifying part of the view is the immediate foreground where acres of shattered rock drop precipitously down the northern escarpment of Glacier Divide. James Hutchinson was aghast as he gazed over this cliff in 1904, noting with gloom that "the prospects were far from bright."
In fact, the descent turned out to be more of an irritating comedy, sort of along the lines of being the straight man who gets wacked with a rubber chicken every time he says a particular word, although no one ever clues the hapless victim in on just what the word might be.
In this case, the word is "scree."
The hiker must descend between steep cliff faces, bearing to the right and keeping to a loose mixture of gravel, dust, and intermediate sized rock, much of which will descend in advance down a 60 to 70 degree slope. It is not possible to ascend this, only go down and even Roper recommends alternate passes for reversing his route.
After about 150 feet of this kind of scary tedium, I hit the snow couloir. Descent was easy here: kick out the legs and go slide!
There follows a good 100 yards of bouldering and scramble to get to the first Wahoo lake and the last flat spot to be seen for the next five hours.
Looking up we admire the pass, the view and the firm resolution never to do that again.
Oh, but a special pleasure awaits the weary hiker. Roper says, "From here, work down horrible, endless talus to the rockbound Wahoo Lakes." The next four to five hours are spent hopping from one boulder to another with no trace of grass or earth to be seen, laboriously picking the best way over, among and between refrigerator-sized rocks all tumbled together where the last great ice-age glacier left them after dissolving its thickness of some 2,000 feet into Humphrey's basin quite a long time ago.
There is no camp anywhere near the Wahoo Lakes -- there are no fish and no one ever goes there. There is a spot on a knoll looking over an outlier tarn and that is where camp 10 was set up, also with aid of trowel and a bit of rock-moving sweat.
It looks humble, but the view from here at 11,400 feet encompasses the entire basin below.
Having learned a stern lesson about morning nourishment at high altitude the previous day, we enjoyed a cup of coffee and a powerbar for breakfast -- and that is all. We skirted the other Wahoo lakes to check out future possibilities here, then rounded a knoll that was so grassy and gentle it would not have been surprising to see Mary leading the Von Trapp family in lederhosen. There one can enjoy a last unimpeded view of Mt. Humphreys.
From this bucolic interlude, one undulates down to Lake Muriel, there to admire the mountain of that name as well as the two far easier passes that pass to either side of it, called Keyhole and Alpine respectively.
Looking back from Piute Pass after skirting Lake Muriel one notes that the Glacial Divide looks from this angle to be so easy to cross. Sure, any child can do it.
From here, the homeward bound hiker will gaze east for the next two hours in a plummetting descent from 11,400 feet to 9,800 over the next five miles.
The observant naturalist will note a few treasures still to be seen on the way down.