Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

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RobinB
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Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » March 8th, 2018, 11:45 am

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Opening picture: unnamed lakes, near the headwaters of the South Fork Kings River, Kings Canyon National Park

After my trip across the Olympics last summer, Krista and I cobbled together another trip together, this time out of greatest hits and new adventures in the Sierra. The basic idea was to start at Kearsarge Pass, just outside of Independence, take a meandering route north—sometimes on the JMT, sometimes off trail—and end up near Piute Creek. Then I’d run a bit further to Muir Trail Ranch to pick up a resupply, run back, and we’d head up the creek to Humphrey’s Basin, where we’d have a few more days to fumble around before exiting out Piute Pass, near Bishop.

I'm going to split this into three entries: this one, on the South Fork Kings River drainage; one on the Middle Fork Kings; and one on the San Joaquin. Given that this is stretching the definition of “Oregon” a bit, I’ll try to condense more than I did with the Olympics, though you can read much more expansive daily entries at my blog, here. (Though as before, I don’t exactly recommend it.)


August 27, 2017
Acclimation


After a long drive and a surprisingly smooth shuttle, we arrive at the Onion Valley Campground, 15 miles west of Independence, where we quickly find a spot and setup for the night to acclimate. As soon as we do, I feel ridiculously relieved. We’ll spend the day here, getting used to the altitude, then hike out tomorrow, up into the wild hills.

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We spend the day in camp, eating sandwiches from Schaat’s, hiding from the sun, and sitting by the small creek that runs just west of here. We’re both a little headache-y. I feel winded walking across the parking lot. But that’s all to be expected, and it’s nothing compared to a few years ago, when I had a “mild” case of high altitude cerebral edema. I’m not hallucinating… yet?

In the evening we take a “short” acclimation hike up to Robinson Lake. Just a mile and 500’ up! But, well… it’s not that. I’ve spent most of the summer with a map of the Olympics with 100’ contour lines. Our new map’s 300’, but I guess I didn’t bother to look.

So we walk up a mile and 1500’. After the first 1000, Krista gets a little suspicious, but doesn’t say anything. I stammer. “I, uh…” She smiles with the double joy of having a husband that’s wrong, and that’s about to have to admit he’s wrong. “I think I may have read the map a little… imaginatively?” She smiles bigger.

The lakes’ beautiful, though: a 500’ long still blue pool, at the foot of a long valley that reaches all the way up the main Sierra Crest, just a mile-and-a-half from here.

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We filter some water, eat some snax, and reluctantly note that, with the sun going down, it’s maybe best to ramble back to camp.

The walk down’s much easier than the walk up, picking our ways through the rocks and rubble as the light turns red on the Inyo Mountains, across the Owens Valley.

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August 28, 2017
Onion Valley CG to (Just Below) Glen Pass
Kearsarge Pass Trail + PCT789-790


We pack up in a blur: breakfast and bear barrels and the heaviest bags either of us have ever carried, all in a haze of excitement and fear.

The first few switchbacks are harder than they should be. Molasses miles. But we somehow flow upward, up into the National Forest and the land of lakes and light white spires of granite.

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And it’s lush. The last time we were here, almost exactly two years ago today, this was all brown and blown dry. But now there’s rain and everything’s green. Waterfalls flow from every ridge as far as we can see. Every lake’s overflowing its banks. There’s marsh where there’d been dusty sand.

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We stop at Gilbert Lake and again at Flower. No reason to rush.

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The trail oscillates between switchbacking steep climbs and long, smooth benches. Glacial steps. It rains off and on as we approach the pass, but nothing to worry about.

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Clouds come and go on the distant peaks, deep in Kings Canyon. Distant rain looks like long lines in the sky, connecting it to ground.

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We drop down the other side into a giant basin, full of lakes—Kearsarge, Bullfrog, and dozens of dark blue ponds too tiny to have names. The trail splits just below the pass, with a lower route going by the lakes, and a higher one sidehilling above, in the shadow of Mt. Rixford.

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We take the high route, but then immediately stop for lunch at a small, trickling snowmelt stream, lined with lilies and lupine and purple monkeyflower. Krista hops around taking video. A white-tailed ptarmigan pops out of her hole for long enough to register an objection to all the fuss. Evidently this is the trail less taken.

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The trail traverses back-and-forth through steep sidehills and small, shallow benches littered with white granite boulders. We disturb a family of marmots, then a family of pika. The trail disappears in the overgrown grass only to reappear ten feet later, marked by two tidy rows of tiny stones.

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And the views are absolutely beautiful: south, down to Bubbs Creek and further, to Vidette and up to Forester Pass; and west, over infinite ridges to the South Fork Kings River, somewhere down there. Closer at hand, two deer graze at the base of our hill, either unconcerned or unaware that we’re here.

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We hit the PCT in late afternoon, and stop for a short snack. There’s a charming letter from the ranger taped to the trail sign, telling of a few bears in the area, and admonishing hikers not to do anything their mothers wouldn’t want them to do.

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Camp tonight’s a well-sheltered set of spots on a broad knoll overlooking the first of several lakes at the southern base of Glen Pass. We set up in the sunset, wash off in the lake’s icy outflow, and set about making dinner. Gumbo tonight. The stars come out, then the Milk Way, then the moon, bright enough to dim everything else in the sky. But it lights up the hills, all glowing white in the still night air.


August 29, 2017
(Just Below) Glen Pass to Rae Lakes / Sixty Lakes Basin
PCT790-793 + Sixty Lakes Basin Trail


We wake up late, and do a sort of befuddled fumble toward the trail. I’m feeling the altitude. But the trail is astonishingly beautiful. We can see the South Fork stretch further and further west the higher we climb. And the mountains! The Great Western Divide’s in the distance, nearly the whole horizon, a series of steep snowy peaks that seems, from here, completely impassable.

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We pass a dozen lakes, some marked on our map, some just flooded flats from the year’s deep snow. There’s deep water and icebergs where before there’d been only dry soil. Flowers still bloom on the shores of every lake and the sides of every creek.

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The trail itself is a little worse for wear after the wet winter, but nothing scary, and we happily switchback up to the pass, eating Snickers on the way.

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The view north from the pass is another revelation. The Rae Lakes arch off screen, Woods Creek tumbles down its steep canyon, and all around more mountains stretch to the horizon.

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There’s a bit of snow on the descent, some of which requires a little fancy dancing to get through safely. More worrisome, though, is the tower of clouds that’s begun to build behind us—a solid grey-black wall. I’m not normally afraid of weather, but the weather here is… different. I guess storms here spend several days building before breaking, and the slight rain yesterday certainly wasn’t it for this system.

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So we hurry down the pass as it starts to storm behind us. We’ve only gone a couple miles today, but between the gorgeousness of the Rae Lakes and the unwelcoming storm, we decide to stop, at least for a couple hours, and set up to stay dry.

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The lakes are already crowded with campers, corralled all along the trail corridor. But just half a mile off the main way, we find a lonely bluff with the most beautiful view of the lakes. This is, we realize, the secret about the Sierra: the PCT is packed, but as soon as you leave, there’s solitude. There are miles of untrodden trails, and miles more of untrailed wilderness.

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The storm comes fast, all at once: first thunder and lightning and torrential rain and wind. I’m a little nervous about our new tent, but it holds things off beautifully, and we sit in almost preposterous comfort as wind wails outside. I look out for a moment and see white caps on the lake.

The storm fades slowly, like a chord decaying out into echoing silence. The last sound on Abbey Road. And we stumble out into the crisp late afternoon air.

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There’s still some sunlight left, so we walk up a few miles into the Sixty Lakes Basin, a long, thin valley nestled under jagged peaks thousands of feet above. At the pass above the Basin, we stop, and look back, down at the Rae Lakes and across, at the sun setting on the main Sierra Crest. Krista seems to be in a standoff with the horizon.

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The light disappears as we rush back down to camp, and cook dinner as the last shades of reflected red disappear on the lake’s rippling surface. Headlamps slowly appear across the lake, one after another, until we can see a dozen bright sparks in a semi-circle around us. And the sky clears, until we can see a million bright sparks above.

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August 30, 2017
Rae Lakes / Sixty Lakes Basin to Twin Lakes Plateau
PCT793-805


At three we wake to the sound of rain, soaking again the still-damp ground. I stumble out to make sure all our things our stowed, and watch our half-dozen friends appear along the lake, fumbling lights affixing rain flies and covering packs. Then we all drift back to bed, the fumbling lights and I, to the sound of distant thunder. Our lamps blink off across the valley, disappearing dots surrounded by colossal dark, but we’re immediately replaced by full-sky flashes of lightning, bright enough to make moments of day appear in the middle of the night.

The rain comes and goes for the rest of the night. It mostly comes. But there’s a break around eight, and we furtively rush around, getting everything packed before the storm comes back.

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We leave camp just as rain starts again. The trail crosses a thin land bridge between two Rae Lakes, then meanders along the water’s eastern edge, tucked between it and the main Sierra crest, towering just above. Storms come and go all morning, rain and thunder and sun all overlapped and crisscrossing. We play a sort of game, putting on our coats then taking them off, in an endless loop.

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There’s a crowd of campsites at the lowest lake, all full of big groups just setting out for the day, hoping to make it over Glen Pass. Kids doing the JMT.

There are a few deep crossings, every one surrounded by more groups, all making meals out of the whole thing, taking off their boots and happily screeching their ways across the cold water. Krista splashes through, laughing.

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The trail down to Woods Creek is a revelation. We’ve seen this all before, of course, but not like this.

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The whole sky’s here, amplified by the streaks and shadows it casts. Clouds pass quickly, rain and sun in the same view. Down our valley, bright light burns white granite, and waterfalls rush from Window Peak.

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A storm comes from behind and absolutely envelopes everything. Sheets of water, shredded by wind. We shelter under a short shrub, laughing.

The sun comes just after we cross Woods Creek. We stop on a smooth granite slope to dry our things and watch the water go by. Storms still serge over Glen Pass. I hope those SOBO kids we met this morning are okay.

There’s a small granite perch above the river, just big enough for the two of us to sit on and soak our feet. Trail mix and dried mango. All the water we want to drink.

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The last climb of the day, out of Woods Creek and onto the plateau beneath Pinchot Pass, goes slowly. Old avalanche tracks and snowfields and energetic mosquitoes. The afternoon drags. So do my legs.

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But just as the sun starts to set, the terrain turns easy. All the hills are filled with pink and purple and gold reflecting off the granite. The plateau’s so flat that one could sleep anywhere. We find a perfect little spot under an ancient pine, watered by a thin, seasonal, snowmelt stream, the width and speed of water from a kitchen faucet. There’s a family of five or six deer grazing in the boggy meadow below.

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We throw up the tent, fetch some water, and eat a quick dinner in the last of the evening light. Then stars appear. I amble out into an upper meadow, and watch them fade in, so subtly that no change is ever really obvious. But soon the whole sky is full of blinking lights. A new moon just breaks the horizon, and the whole meadow glows white.


August 31, 2017
Twin Lakes Plateau to White Mountain Lakes
PCT805-809 + Off Trail to White Mountain Lakes


We wake to the sound of a half dozen deer flitting by our tent: running through the meadow, circling the trees, jumping over bushes… Playing. The sun’s just up, the mountains still dark but for a thin beam of red across the skyline.

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I stumble out and watch the deer jostle below. They’re sipping water from our snowmelt stream and nibbling at the tall, blooming grass, which reaches halfway up their legs. I swear I see one laugh.

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The morning’s an off-trail ramble around the lake-lined perimeter of this massive plateau. I guess it’s an old glacial step, but it’s still full of meltwater pools, of water on its way to becoming a river.

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None of these lakes have names. A few are marked on our map with their elevations—“Lake 11309,” “Lake 12027”—but most are just thick moments in a solid blue line that reaches from just below the pass to the bottom of our map. To the ocean.

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It’s beautiful. But also: the bugs are apocalyptic. Every time we stop, we’re swarmed by armed mobs of mosquitoes, who have apparently been lying in wait all year, strategizing. It’s so bad that it’s funny, and I can’t stop laughing. Then it’s so bad that it’s not funny anymore.

We cross the trail briefly, but only to continue on, in the other direction, to a large series of lakes below Crater Mountain.

Soon the trail disappears, and with it the bugs. The green grass thins until all that’s left are occasional clumps surrounded by an eternity of white and grey rock. And then there are the lakes, like massive oceans, almost as big as the sky. Everything’s as big as the sky here.

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I sit on a crumbling old rock and watch the wind wave across the water, try to count the distant waterfalls. There are too many.

The trail up to Pinchot Pass is as magnificent as I remembered it: an improbable set of switchbacks, ascending what looks, from the bottom, like a sheer face of rock. But it’s easier than I remembered, and we bound up.

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We eat lunch on top just as it starts to rain, then hurry down. We’re only staying on the trail for a half mile or so, then we’ll leave to find a series of lakes our map shows in the shadow of White Mountain.

The descent’s over almost before it begins, then we jump off into a jumble of long, flat boulders and even ramps of grass. Easy walking. Krista leads the way, so fast that I can barely keep her in sight.

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There are a few bits of climbing to get down to the lakes, but there always seems to be an easy, unseen way—thin grass walkways hiding in the granite’s cracks—and we make it down by the early afternoon. The lakes are overwhelmingly beautiful: green-blue pools, full of tiny white islands, bounded by bright pink, blooming heather. And there’s absolutely no sign of anyone else ever having been here. It’s easy to forget that anyone else exists, anywhere.

We find a flat-ish spot big enough for our tent—there’s nothing even resembling an established site here—then meander out into the largest lake.

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There’s an island in the middle, connected to the shore by a shallow isthmus. We wade out and sit on the island, surrounded by water. Krista plays king of the hill with herself.

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In the evening, I scramble up White Mountain’s solid granite shoulder to find the rest of the lakes. There are at least half a dozen, settled into strange shapes with long arms extended, separated from each other by short granite shelves. When wind comes, waves splash between the pools.

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The sun starts to set and I hurry down. Back at camp, Krista’s pointing over my shoulder. “What?” I look back, and see… black. A solid mass of black clouds, just breaking over White Mountain. “Huh.” We stare a while longer, until we start to see sky-full flashes of lightning in the upper lake basin.

“So, uh… dinner?”

We cook and eat quickly, throw everything in the tent, and wait for the storm. I’m just about to say I don’t think it’ll reach us when we feel the first drops of water. Then, in seconds, a deluge. We jump in the tent just as the wind picks up. I’m just about to say how improbably calm it feels in here when a gust lifts a corner of the tent a foot off the ground. I don’t bother to finish before venturing out to secure it.

For hours, the weather gets worse and worse until it’s hailing, and the wind is so loud that we can barely hear each other speak. Every couple of minutes there’ll be a flash of lightning, and immediately a burst of thunder so deep I feel it in my chest.

Things begin to clear around midnight. By one, the storm’s gone and the sky’s full of stars. I should be sleeping, but I wander out onto the warm, steaming wet rocks, look up, and laugh to myself, laugh at the improbability of it all: a puny person in the middle of this rock cathedral.


September 1, 2017
White Mountain Lakes to Split Mountain Moraine
PCT809-816 + Off Trail from White Mountain Lakes and to Split Mountain Moraine


The sun’s up before us, and all traces of last night’s storms have flittered away. All that’s left are small wispy clouds, like bits of ash floating up from a fire.

We sleep in, exhausted from last night, and have breakfast on the rocks by camp, everything we own laying out in the sun to dry. Our footsteps from last night have all been beaten away by the rain, and all the rocks around have been washed clean. The place glimmers like new.

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The off-trail route down to Marjorie Lake is a delightfully quick scramble, and I think again of the rocks here, how there always seems to be a hidden way through, on unseen ramps or cracks that are always wider than they seem.

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Back on the PCT, there are immediately people: camped along the lakeshore, packing up, skipping rocks. It feels like we’ve just emerged from a secret world onto a highway.

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The drop down to the South Fork Kings River goes much quicker than I remembered, and soon we’re at the ford, walking through with our shoes on. We’d been a little nervous for the crossing—someone died here earlier in the summer—but now it’s just up past our knees, and gentle enough to be doable without poles.

From the river, it’s just an easy few miles up into the Upper Basin—a massive plateau, where the South Fork Kings begins. It’s maybe the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

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We amble up the river as white granite towers higher and higher above us, and soon we’re in the basin, surrounded by small streams, blooming flowers, and late-season snowfields, all still perfectly white against deep green grass.

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We leave the trail as it begins to curve toward Mather Pass, and follow a series of rock ledges toward Split Mountain. A very large lake is hidden here, surrounded by several smaller ones. We find a bare, mostly flat spot big enough the tent, setup, and get do some camp chores: wash our clothes in a snowmelt stream; attend to a couple Foot Things; take very cold, very short baths. Mine is accompanied by several staccato yelps.

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The sun sets for hours, coloring the granite every possible shade of red and purple and blue. Then there are miles of stars, bright enough to color our little camp white. It’s too cold to sit out for long, but we lie for a while on the still-warm rocks, watching the sky change.

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olderthanIusedtobe
Posts: 461
Joined: January 2nd, 2014, 10:45 am

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by olderthanIusedtobe » March 8th, 2018, 1:37 pm

You have the best TRs!

I love the Sierras. I've seen the beginning and end points of your trip but missed most of what is in between. Looking forward to further installments. Humphreys Basin is an area I was interested in, but skipped on several trips down there before finally getting around to it. I just did a one night out and back, thought it was great. Explored around the Desolation Lakes. The view of Mt. Humphreys from my camp and various places around the basin was fantastic.

Will have to wait and see exactly where your trip took you. My brother and I did a multiple day trip starting at South Lake, up to Bishop Pass, Dusy Basin (still right at the top of my favorite places in the Sierras), dropped down to a fork of the Kings River, up to Muir Pass and Evolution Basin and then "off trail" along Darwin Canyon and over the shoulder of Mt. Lamarck (I think we overshot Lamarck Col) and then down to the Lamarck Lakes. From there out via North Lake trailhead and hitch hiking/walking back to South Lake. That was an outstanding trip, but I got totally worked over. The elevation probably played some role, but I'm fairly sure I either had heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

So many good pictures. Did I mention I love the Sierras?

I believe you about the laughing deer. I swear I heard a contented sigh from a mountain goat lounging right next to my tent up in the Enchantments a few years ago. The look on the goat's face, it was pure bliss.

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bobcat
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Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by bobcat » March 8th, 2018, 7:33 pm

Another stunning report! As usual, the delights are in the details. Looking forward to the next installment . . .

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BurnsideBob
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Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by BurnsideBob » March 8th, 2018, 9:11 pm

Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip. Looking forwards to your next installment.
I keep making protein shakes but they always turn out like margaritas.

RobFromRedland
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Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by RobFromRedland » March 9th, 2018, 9:05 am

Another kudos to your trip report. The pictures are beautiful, but the writing is wonderful. I wish I could write like that. My writing feels like a never ending ramble of incoherent thoughts (I guess it echoes what goes on in my head! :D )

Thanks for posting - I look forward to part 2.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: WOW-What a ride!

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RobinB
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Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » March 12th, 2018, 9:00 am

Hey, thanks so much everyone! It always feels a little self-indulgent to write TRs this long, and I'm so glad when it turns out that someone besides me enjoys them.
olderthanIusedtobe wrote:My brother and I did a multiple day trip starting at South Lake, up to Bishop Pass, Dusy Basin (still right at the top of my favorite places in the Sierras), dropped down to a fork of the Kings River, up to Muir Pass and Evolution Basin and then "off trail" along Darwin Canyon and over the shoulder of Mt. Lamarck (I think we overshot Lamarck Col) and then down to the Lamarck Lakes. From there out via North Lake trailhead and hitch hiking/walking back to South Lake.
Oh nice! I was just thinking about doing that same trip, but starting with Lamarck and ending with Bishop Pass. How was the area between the Lamarck Lakes and Darwin Canyon? I'm pretty comfortable with off trail and light class 3 scrambling, but much more than that and I start getting nervous.

olderthanIusedtobe
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Joined: January 2nd, 2014, 10:45 am

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by olderthanIusedtobe » March 12th, 2018, 9:30 am

RobinB wrote: Oh nice! I was just thinking about doing that same trip, but starting with Lamarck and ending with Bishop Pass. How was the area between the Lamarck Lakes and Darwin Canyon? I'm pretty comfortable with off trail and light class 3 scrambling, but much more than that and I start getting nervous.
It's been quite a few years ago, but I don't remember anything being class 3 or above. Above the Lamarck Lakes was a plateau w/ some tiny tarns, leading right up to the edge of Mt. Lamarck. I think there may be an actual "route" if not trail going over the shoulder of the peak, but we missed it. I think we were within a couple hundred feet of the summit, higher than Lamarck Col. The way we did go I would describe more as tedious than technically challenging. Steep and a bit of loose footing in places but I don't remember there being much in the way of exposure.

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RobinB
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Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » March 12th, 2018, 9:48 am

olderthanIusedtobe wrote:
RobinB wrote: Oh nice! I was just thinking about doing that same trip, but starting with Lamarck and ending with Bishop Pass. How was the area between the Lamarck Lakes and Darwin Canyon? I'm pretty comfortable with off trail and light class 3 scrambling, but much more than that and I start getting nervous.
It's been quite a few years ago, but I don't remember anything being class 3 or above. Above the Lamarck Lakes was a plateau w/ some tiny tarns, leading right up to the edge of Mt. Lamarck. I think there may be an actual "route" if not trail going over the shoulder of the peak, but we missed it. I think we were within a couple hundred feet of the summit, higher than Lamarck Col. The way we did go I would describe more as tedious than technically challenging. Steep and a bit of loose footing in places but I don't remember there being much in the way of exposure.
Excellent, thank you! Great to hear.

olderthanIusedtobe
Posts: 461
Joined: January 2nd, 2014, 10:45 am

Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by olderthanIusedtobe » March 28th, 2018, 2:54 pm

I'm dying waiting for Part II! :D

I'm sure constructing your TRs are time consuming sorting thru pics and carefully telling your story w/ your prose. Just really looking forward to the ongoing adventure.

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RobinB
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Re: Across the Sierra, Pt. 1: South Fork Kings River

Post by RobinB » March 28th, 2018, 6:27 pm

olderthanIusedtobe wrote:I'm dying waiting for Part II! :D

I'm sure constructing your TRs are time consuming sorting thru pics and carefully telling your story w/ your prose. Just really looking forward to the ongoing adventure.
Ha, sorry to have kept you waiting! It's been a busy month :)

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