Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

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RobinB
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Joined: September 9th, 2013, 11:29 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by RobinB » April 25th, 2020, 12:29 am

So this one’s both a little old and a little far from Oregon, but, given how much time we’re all spending indoors these days…

Back in summer 2018, I had a week to spend in the Sierra, while Krista was doing a big section of the PCT from Yosemite to Tahoe. But I didn’t want to deal with a shuttle or anything, so I planned a version of the North Lake / South Lake Loop, but with a bit more off trail travel: into the Sierra via the way trail over Lamarck Col and the Darwin Lakes, South on the JMT to the Palisade Lakes, off trail on the Sierra High Route north to Dusy Basin, and out via Bishop Pass.
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Opening picture: the Darwin Lakes.


July 22, 2018

It’s early evening and we’re sitting in a hotel room in Lee Vining, watching the sunset on the smoke that’s settled across Mono Lake.

I’m staring at my phone. It’s been raining hard the last few days, and roads across the eastern Sierra have been washing out. Apparently, several hundred feet of hillside gave out above the road to North Lake—and my trailhead—today, spreading a twenty-foot-deep layer of mud and rock across the pavement.

“So I think my trip might be over,” I mumble to no one in particular.

“Look at the map,” Krista says, almost smiling.

*

Her trip almost got cancelled yesterday. She’s starting from Yosemite, but the road between here and there got washed out by a slide near Tioga Pass. This is apparently a relatively common thing, though, and within a few hours the National Park had used old snowplows to push off the rocks and reopen the roads.

My slide’s not like that. They’re saying the road will be closed until at least next week.

*

I look at the map and figure out a sort of alternate.

My plan was to start at North Lake, but that bit’s impossible now. But I can still make it work if I park at South Lake, road walk a few miles down, then apparently there’s an old trail that goes up the Tyee Lakes, over an unnamed pass, and down to Lake Sabrina, from which I can road walk again, on the other side of the landslide, over to North Lake and up my original route.

That’ll triple my mileage for tomorrow, but I guess I’ll be okay? In the back of my mind, a quiet voice says something about altitude sickness. “Isn’t that a lot of miles to do your first day that high up?” I don’t listen.


July 23, 2018
North Lake to Upper Lamarck Lake
Tyee Lakes Trail, Table Mountain, George Lake Trail, Lamarck Lakes Trail

My alarm beeps quietly at dawn, and I slink to the sink to boil breakfast water in the coffeemaker, trying not to wake Krista. I eat my oatmeal out of a hotel shrink-wrapped Styrofoam cup, make freeze-dried coffee in the remnants of a latte we had in the car, then rush out the door.

There’s a thin layer of sunrise smoke over Mono Lake turning the whole basin red. Sunlight’s just creeping down the eastside Sierra peaks, and the road is absolutely empty. I go 20 miles without seeing another car. I roll down the windows—it’s already warm out there—and turn up my music, feeling like a tiny point of civilization, drifting down the center of a vast wilderness.

Then Bishop and morning traffic, a last-minute text to Krista, and a short drive west, up into the mountains. The Department of Transportation’s put up large lit-up signs about the road being washed out.

*

The South Lake Trailhead’s already bustling with backpackers—a big group, all struggling to strap bear cans to the tops of their towering packs. A sort of trip leader’s giving a pep talk up front. He pauses for a second, looking confused, when I walk by and away, down the road we just came up.

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The road walk’s pleasant enough: warm, even in the shade, and so gentle that I run a little. There’s a horse packer halfway down. A middle-aged couple’s standing in the stables, stroking a black one’s mane.

*

The Tyee Lakes Trail starts at a small, swampy pullout in the road, just big enough for a few cars. Almost immediately, it braids and fades, taking multiple ways across roots and rocks, then switchbacking steeply up a glacial step toward the lakes.

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There’s a half-dozen lakes, ranging from small puddles to vast pools that fill the entire cirque. The trail stays good—or, at least, it remains reminiscently trail-like—until the highest lake, where it enters some alder but never exits.

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I climb the draw where my map says the trail should be, sometimes hand-over-hand on grass and good talus, until I emerge onto an enormous plateau—Table Mountain—that separates South Lake from North, and the South Fork of Bishop Creek from the Middle.

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If the problem had been there being no trail, it’s now that there are too many: confused and crisscrossing the plateau in every direction. It’s hard to tell what’s animal and what’s human, or if the distinction even still makes sense up here. I pick a path that goes vaguely in the right direction, then pass a high point, marked with a cairn and a stuffed bear in startlingly good condition.

*

Dropping off the plateau, the trail—or trails—disappear again, and I end up boot skiing down scree and shallow snow, on the route of least resistance down to George Lake. Occasionally I stumble—sometimes literally—on old bits of tread, but it ends up being easiest to just follow the terrain.

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George Lake is surrounded by swamp and talus. Everywhere, water flows: over the grass and under the boulders, coalescing, as I descend, into something between a lower lake and a stream.

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I follow where it feels like the trail should be until, a mile later, the trail actually appears, fading in at the moldering remains of an old wooden bridge.

*

I follow the trail—a trail!—as it switchbacks down to Lake Sabrina, then stop at a trailside spring for a very late breakfast just as it starts to rain. There’s a storm moving over the main Sierra crest, and lightning long in the distance, on the plateau I’ve just left.

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Then… a helicopter. It circles twice low around the lake, then lands at what must be a pad or parking lot just out of view. I’ve never seen one this close; the wind from its blades merges with the storm. Then a siren in the distance.

I take my time finishing—is this really something I want to walk into?—then reluctantly pack up.

*

I reach the road and immediately see a convoy of cop cars headed down the mountain, each full of a passenger or two. I follow as they wind out of sight and it starts to rain. Then nothing for a mile, save the increasing sound of rain on my coat and thunder coming closer.

Just as I’m turning up toward North Lake, a sheriff’s van with its lights on pulls over and leans out the window. “We’re evacuating. You need to go back to your car immediately or you will be stuck up here.”

“I’m just, uh, I’m heading up… Can I evacuate up?”

“Where are you parked? You need to go back to your car immediately.”

“I’m parked at South Lake.”

“This is North Lake.”

“Right.” A long, awkward pause. “I walked over Table Mountain this morning. I have a permit to start a trip today, up over Lamarck Col and into the Park.”

Another long pause, then he counters. “You won’t be able to go back this way.”

“I don’t need to. I’m exiting via Bishop Pass and South Lake.”

Another pause, and another counter. “If something happens, we’ll be working on the road. Search and Rescue won’t be able to come up from this side.”

“That’s no problem.”

“Well…” yet another pause, but no counter this time. “Please get off the road as soon as possible.”

“Will do!” Just as he’s rolling up the window, a man I hadn’t noticed leans over from the passenger seat. Looks like a hiker. He smiles with something like mischief, “Sounds rad! Have a great trip dude!”

I tell him that I will.

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*

The rain turns to hail and the thunder comes closer, lightning over North Lake. As I climb a final switchback in the road, another cop car comes down the road toward me. “We are evacuating. You need to leave the area immediately.”

“I just talked to your colleague. I’m headed over Lamarck Col and will not be returning to the area. He said it was fine.”

He pauses, a silent echo of the sheriff. “Okay then.” I smile, and we go our separate ways.

*

The storm gets worse and worse: hail and hard rain, close lightning, thunderclaps I can feel in my feet.

Passing through the abandoned North Lake Campground, there’s a lightning strike on the ridge just above me, then a boom loud enough to make my ears buzz. My trail goes up that ridge.

Then I smell ozone and see a strike so close that it turns the entire grey scene golden white. Huh. Maybe best to hang out for a while and let this pass. The bathroom’s still unlocked, so I go in, and end up spending a surprisingly pleasant couple hours here—sitting on a closed toilet at 9300’, in the middle of an evacuated campground—as the storm rages outside. Every few minutes the room flashes white with lightning and the entire building shakes from thunder, but it’s warm and dry. I guess I can sleep here if it comes to it.

*

In the early evening, the storm seems to pass. The drilling rain turns to drops, then to nothing at all. The booming grows distant, just a faint echo through the trees. Outside, the light’s gone golden, and all the trees gleam green in the lifting mist.

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My way crosses Bishop Creek, which is now flowing above the bridge and up onto the surrounding hillside. I hold my breath and cross, but the thing stays stable, and soon I’m switchbacking steeply up the wooded slope below the Lamarck Lakes.

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*

The clouds clear as I climb, and soon the thick trees are replaced by bright granite boulders. It’s beautiful. Only… I feel terrible: out of breath and sick to my stomach; stopping every twenty steps, then every ten. Maybe I’m hungry? I haven’t eaten lunch yet, and it’s nearly six. I push down a bar, then immediately throw it up.

Altitude sickness. So it’s going to be that sort of thing.

Maybe I’m dehydrated? I tend to drink a liter of water every five miles, but I’m way behind that here. I take a gulp of water—fresh and cold from my filter. But in a few steps, I throw that up too.

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I don’t think at all for the next few switchbacks, just push through a few steps at time and pause. It turns into a slow rhythm: step step step pause, step step step pause, each pause as long as the steps. I count to keep consistent: one two three, one two three. It’s a waltz.

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Between sets of switchbacks there’s a small wooded bench with a small rainwater stream running through. There’s nowhere to put a tent, or even just a sleeping pad, but there are rocks to sit on and rest. And I do, for twenty minutes, then thirty—eyes closed, counting my breath. I look at my GPS. I’m only 200’ feet down from Lower Lamarck Lake, where there will surely be camps. And it’s only seven. I’ve got hours of daylight to make it just a couple hundred feet.

*

It takes me hours.

The sun’s already setting by the time I reach Lower Lamarck’s outlet stream. It’s a swollen thing, above my knees, but the cold feels good. And there’s a dry plateau just on the other side with a spot for my tent and rocks to sit on and watch the sunset.

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It takes hours again to set up camp. I get dizzy with every breath blowing up my pad. It’s a bit after ten before the tent’s up and my bed’s in order, but there’s somehow still light in the sky. The clouds are gone completely, the Milky Way a bright stripe above. Way down in the Owens Valley, I can just make out Bishop’s blinking lights.

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I eat a bite of tortilla and immediately feel sick, but close my eyes and count my breath—still in waltz time—and eventually the feeling passes. Another bite, another waltz, a break to stare down the valley.

Time passes slow and fast all at once, and soon it’s midnight and I’m eating the last of my tortilla. The lights down in Bishop are still there, but there are fewer of them, and they seem to blink less frequently.


July 24, 2018
Upper Lamarck Lake to Evolution Lake
Lamarck Col, Darwin Lakes, Darwin Bench, JMT

I wake up with the sun, take an hour to pack up, then spend another eating breakfast. Eating’s hard, but getting easier, and in any case it all stays down. What a strange victory.

There’s a certain texture to feeling terrible: the world slows and closes in; it’s difficult to focus on much beyond what’s immediately at hand. But, inversely, feeling better makes the world bigger: things speed up and the view broadens. It feels a little like being born.

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*

The day begins with a stout climb up through Lamarck Creek’s steep valley, then a ford across the creek itself—here broad and deep and slow, more like a lake than a river. I feel sluggish today, and sore. But the more I climb, the easier it feels.

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The trail mostly disappears across the creek, but it’s easy enough to pick a way up out of the valley and onto an old moraine—a remnant of the glacial system that once filled this whole basin—which I then follow onto a vast system of highland meadows. Here and there cairns mark the way across the fields of flowers and new green grass. Marmots whistle and pikas call out in short, staccato shouts. Tiny birds—a few fingers in size—fly low above the tundra. It feels as though the world is waking up.

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*

Eventually, sharp rocky ridges replace the plateau I’ve been following, and talus overtakes the meadows. I rock hop up a short glacial step, then see Lamarck Pass for the first time. It’s daunting from a distance: a steep hanging snowfield framed by rocky spires, dropping directly down into a half-frozen tarn. But as I get closer, an obvious way up—from the side of the tarn across the snow to a small notch in the ridge—appears.

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The hardest bit turns out to be getting to the snow in the first place. The tarn’s flooding, and its icy water has made the talus into a series of islands. I jump unstably from rock to rock, thinking of that game we used to play when we were kids, where the ground was lava.

The snow traverse is scary, but forgiving enough that I can kick in relatively stable steps, and soon I’m in the notch, saying goodbye to the Owens Valley. After a day like yesterday, it feels like an old friend. We’ve seen some stuff.

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*

The west side of the pass is all big, unstable boulders for the first few hundred feet. I climb down on all fours, as things shift uneasily. I cut my thigh sliding down a rough rock, then my arm on a sharp ledge, but it’s fun in a way. Again, I feel like a kid. And I can see the way get easier just below.

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After the boulders, I turn sharply south, to a gentle, blooming slope watered by hundreds of small springs, flowing from what’s left of the Darwin Glacier. On the cliffs far above, I can just make out a small herd of sheep, playing.

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*

The slope leads down to the Darwin Lakes—a set of five enormous blue pools that together fill the floor of Darwin Canyon. Water flows from one to the next in a series of steep, rocky waterfalls. It all feels like paradise.

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Getting down through the canyon turns out to be something of an ordeal: the lakes fill the floor so completely that the only way out is by traversing a steep talus slope that lines the north shore. But after a couple uneasy miles, the talus subsides and the slope smooths, and I drop onto a broad, grassy plateau—Darwin Bench—dotted with small lakes and streams, stark white granite boulders, and thousands of flowers, all in perfect bloom. Blue lupine and shooting star, crimson columbine and paintbrush, yarrow and iris and lily.

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*

I stop on the Bench for lunch. Eating’s easy, so I do a lot of it—my rations for today and yesterday and part of tomorrow. Then I watch cloud shadows play on Evolution Valley, several thousand feet below, and think of the trail down there—the JMT. It’s strange to be here again, and to be looking down at what seemed, when we were there for the first time years ago, to be the highest a human could walk.

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“The top is not the top.”

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It’s so beautiful here, and so quiet. There’s no one for miles. I think of the couples down on the JMT in the Valley with their big packs and blisters, like us, having the times of their lives.

I feel as though I’ve accidentally limped into the central point around which time turns.

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*

Across the Evolution Valley, the clouds coalesce into a storm. Lightning strikes The Hermit—a lonely, poor old pile of talus at the head of the valley. Time to descend.

The way down to the JMT is strangely precarious. There are several steep cliff bands, none with an obvious way down. But I pick my way through the stunted trees and boulders and flooded meadows, following Darwin Creek—here a nearly continuous waterfall—until a deer trail dumps me unceremoniously onto the JMT.

It’s like a freeway.

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The trail’s smooth, and wide enough for several hikers to walk side-by-side. I follow a few mellow switchbacks up to Evolution Lake as the storm takes over the sky.

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*

The storm breaks as I reach the lake—an absolute wall of water and thunder. I rush to a clump of trees a few hundred feet from the trail and set up my tent. It’s pouring, but warm, and too early to go in, so I shelter under a tree and make dinner. I eat quick, then make another, and finish it even faster. I guess my stomach’s back?

The rain rages for an hour, but then fades out into the most beautiful sunset. I take a walk around the lake as all the evening birds begin to sing. Some swoop down low over the water, others gather in the trees around squawking nests.

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*

As the night descends, there’s a shift change: the birds tag-in the bats, red clouds are replaced by stars. My neighbors are sitting around an electric lantern, laughing, and I sit out for a while too, on a wet boulder beaming bright from the moon.


July 25, 2018
Evolution Lake to Deer Meadow / The Golden Staircase
JMT / PCT, Mt. Spencer, Black Giant, Le Conte Canyon

There’s light in the sky long before the sun finally climbs over the Sierra Crest: blue to purple to pink, avalanches of birds singing down from the divide. Then a flurry of activity around the lake: my neighbors shake the wet from their tents and leave them to dry in the sun; a late arrival from last night sits on the shore eating breakfast; a family of deer tiptoe past the rock where I’m sitting with my map.

*

I’m on the JMT now, south to the Black Divide. Large groups with large packs grin and grimace in equal measure, ask if I know how long we have before the pass. Several younger guys speed up as they see me coming, then ask, as I pass, if I’m just out for the day. I tell them no, but that I’m out for something smaller than I suspect they are. And I mean it: my life’s already been changed.

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I turn off at Sapphire Lake, rock hop across a series of braided cascades in the creek, then scramble up Mt. Spencer’s easy south side.

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*

I run down the smooth white rock, back to the trail and up the divide, past Wanda Lake’s seashore waves and the seeping springs that water the last few switchbacks south of Muir Pass. There are at least two-dozen hikers gathered around Muir Hut, taking pictures of themselves or little videos with their phones, talking surreptitiously to imagined future online admirers.

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*

I leave the trail again at the pass, and tumble through easy talus toward Black Giant. I’ve printed out some suggested route information, but the terrain’s so easy that I make my own way—past lakes named after their elevations, and eventually up the peak’s wide-open west slope.

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Halfway up, I hear thunder in the distance, then ignore it for ten minutes before realizing that it’s getting louder. I sit on a broken rock for a while, trying to decide what to do. There’s a flash, and I do the usual counting to measure distance. I nearly get to ten before I hear its boom. Two miles? Another, but this time I only get to nine.

I guess it’s time to go.

I glissade down a few hundred feet, then shoe-ski down a scree slope until I’m essentially back at the trail.

The thunder, apparently, has stopped.

I look back up at the peak. “Seriously dude?”

Seriously.

Oh well. I take a long lunch in the sun—sun!—and yardsale my stuff. A steady stream of hikers pass by. Every one asks if I’m doing the JMT.

*

Then the most-lovely descent through blue pools and raging rapids, as the Kings River assembles itself from melting snow. I feel strong and fast, like I’m running down the mountain on a moving sidewalk.

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*

The weather shifts back to bad, and rain wails as I pass below timberline, then turns back to sun one last time, as I emerge into a world of gleaming white granite and soft loamy ground, back down into summer.

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Halfway down into Le Conte Canyon, below a small rock overhang, I see a small sliver of blue—a shirt. A person’s curled up under there, sleeping. No blanket or bag, no tent. No nothing. Just a person, curled up under and overhung rock.

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Maybe it’s elevation or exhaustion, but, in that moment, it seems like the most profound thing I’ve ever seen.

I worry about the sliver’s safety, but, as if on cue, a hand emerges from the rock and waves. Then a face, a smiling young woman with messy hair. I give her a thumbs up and ease on down the way.

*

I amble down the valley and the sun follows suit, hanging over the white granite walls just long enough to shine its last light on a small family of deer at the outer edge of Grouse Meadow, an echo of my friends this morning.

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Then the bottom of the canyon, and up again, along Palisade Creek.

*

At precisely 6:30, the JMT crowds flee from the trail for camps along the creek, and soon every site’s occupied by big tents and small fires and swirling smoke in the early evening air. Old men in long underwear wave at me from over their Mountain House dinners; some come out to meet me, offer me a spot near them. “It’s getting late!”

I just smile and say I’ve maybe got a few miles left in me yet.

*

There are times out here when everything seems to sing a single tone, when the whole world seems joined in a chorus of… of I don’t know. Maybe just “I am.” And it’s singing that here, in the failing light that flits between the camps of couples cuddled in for the night.

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For the next two hours, the whole valley seamlessly fades through every shade from red to purple to blue. As the first stars appear, I find a small clearing along a minor creek at the base of the Golden Staircase and set up camp for the night. Not a soul in sight. Across the way, Cataract Creek careens down a narrow basin. There’s a bear up on the ridge, barely big enough to make out.

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I eat dinner by the creek, my feet in the water, and I think of Krista. She’s a few hundred miles north of here, but on this same trail, this same narrow band of civilization. And under this same big sky.

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July 26, 2018
Deer Meadow / The Golden Staircase to Dusy Basin
JMT / PCT, Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass, Barrett Lakes, Knapsack Pass

It’s going to be a long day up high today, so I wake early—just before five—to get down before the day’s thunderstorms show up.

I’m changing by headlamp outside the tent when a person—that blue slip of a person from yesterday—startles me. She’s hiking without a headlamp, even though the sun’s just barely breaking over the hills. And also, I’m not wearing any pants.

“Hey dude!” A tiny woman just about my age sidles into my headlamp’s beam.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I stammer, pulling up my shorts.

She laughs. Hard. “No worries! I thought you were Bigfoot!”

“I didn’t realize he used headlamps?”

“What, you think he can see in the dark? No dude, he’s all about headlamps. Also, he’s got your tent.”

There’s a long pause. I guess Big Agnes sort of makes sense for Bigfoot: it’s light, but not ultralight, and comfortable enough to spend some time in when need be. Plus, I don’t think Bigfoot has a trust fund, so the usual ZPacks stuff is out.

“Actually,” my new friend breaks in, “I totally matched with Bigfoot on Tinder the other day.”

“Oh?” This is not the conversation one expects at five in the morning in the woods. Or maybe this is exactly the conversation one should expect?

“Oh! I mean, it’s slim pickins out here. But then he ghosted me!”

I try to nod sympathetically.

*

We introduce ourselves, and I ask if she’s doing the PCT—she’s not a JMTer: the pack’s too small, and the laugh’s too loud.

“Sort of,” she pauses. “I started at the Oregon boarder a few weeks ago.” The Oregon border’s something like 800 miles from here. “And I’m trying to make it to Mexico before the end of August, so I can NOBO through Oregon and Washington before the rain.”

“You’re moving!”

“Not really,” she laughs. “I’m trying…” She drifts off, then back in. “Anyway, I’ve got to get going. I’m trying to make it to Horseshoe Meadows day after tomorrow.” I think I must have misheard. “That’s got to be, what, 100 miles away?” She laughs. “80. 30 miles today, 30 miles tomorrow, then just 20 the day after.” I’m in awe: I can do 30s, but not here. And here she is, blithely doing daily 30s and thinking 20’s a nero.

By the time I come to grips with all of this, she’s already walking away. “Good luck!” I shout. She turns around and walks backwards, because of course she does. “Don’t need it.”

*

It takes me ten more minutes to finish packing up. By the time I hit the trail, my friend is already half a mile ahead—I can see her silhouette bounding up the Golden Staircase, 500’ above.

What a boss.

*

The sun rises slowly as I climb, more slowly, up the Staircase. The light overtakes me, then plays on the seeping streams and shining white boulders. Here and there flowers bloom in the shady cracked ground beside the trail.

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Soon I’m up at the lowest Palisade Lake, doing all the morning things: eating a quick breakfast, brushing my teeth. Then goodbye to the JMT, and off trail up easy slabs and steep ramps toward Cirque Pass. The way winds up a broad rocky valley, intermittently grass and granite. A thousand feet up, there’s a small step, filled with tiny lakes. The water’s running so gently from one to another that at first it seems wholly still.

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Above the step, the way steepens, and switches from stable rock and grass to sliding talus. There’s a storm to the south, dark clouds and rain over Mather Pass, but it’s far enough away that things still feel fine, and it’s fun, in a strange sort of way, to stride up, then slip half a step back. Here and there, in the most improbable places, small pools of barely moving water gather under the granite.

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*

From Cirque Pass, the Palisade Lakes seem just small pools, just like the ones I’ve been skipping over. To the north, on the other side, an unnamed lake—the source of Glacier Creek, near where I camped last night—fills nearly the whole basin, and Potluck Pass stands terrifyingly steep on the other side.

The Sierra always plays this trick: from a distance, the way will seem to be an impenetrable cliff, but, closer, there will always be a set of grass ramps or relatively mild rock steps that lead up. The issue is just finding the set that goes.

The storm’s gotten closer, and I run down a series of slabs to the lake-filled basin to the echo of not-too-distance thunder.

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I rock hop across Glacier Creek, then climb a small knoll to get a closer look at the pass, only to find another lake in the way, this one much smaller, the shore an indefinite confusion of rock and water and flowers. The pass still seems impassable.

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*

Maybe the pass is impassable? I scramble down from the knoll and around the smaller lake, then try one ramp after another, but all lead to slick cliffs. And the thunder’s getting closer. I find myself halfway up, kinda paralyzed, too scared to go back down the way I came and uncertain if there’s a way to go forward. I’m having the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I’ve ever had while doing this. And I start crying—the sort of gasping ugly cry you don’t normally see in people over seven. Then this thing happens that often happens at times like this: without meaning to, still crying, I start laughing at myself for crying, then laugh more at myself for laughing at myself for crying. I imagine an infinite regress, an old man me, laughing for fifty years on this mountain.

*

So I’m standing here, on a crack in this giant granite wall with a storm approaching, at once terrified and amused by the melodrama of my terror. Then the most incredible thing happens: I see a small fourth class crack that looks vaguely doable, and I just… do it. Thirty feet up, quickly, before I can really think better of it. And now I’m on the top, watching lightning strike Cirque Pass.

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I run down the other side, laughing and smiling as the storm overtakes me and it starts to rain big drops. The strange clean smell of ozone. In a few minutes I’m in the confusingly-named Palisade Basin. This has nothing to do with the Palisade Lakes I left a couple passes ago. The Palisade Basin actually contains the Barrett Lakes. They could have just called it Barrett Basin, but it’s evidently so nice here that they gave it two names, even stealing one from a more-famous southern cousin.

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*

The route is complicated by dozens of granite corridors, each hemmed in by walls of rock between ten and a hundred feet high. I keep choosing the wrong one: I dead end at a lake, then a cliff, then at a bear, who seems just as fed up with this whole situation as I am. And I laugh again, backing away.

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*

Eventually I find the right corridor, and am led to an ancient, overgrown trail that curves around Lake 11523. (The basin gets two names, but this lake—one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen—doesn’t even get one.) Then up a small saddle and onto a plateau at the head of a deep valley overlooking Le Conte Canyon. I stop for lunch and the lightning reappears, but it’s further away now, striking the wild country at the head of Cataract Creek.

I hope Bigfoot’s alright up there.

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The lightning lingers for longer than I’d like, but it eventually fades back south, and I continue north, up what feels like an almost insultingly straightforward climb to Knapsack Pass.

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*

From the Pass, the lowest lakes in Dusy Basin stretch out in a chain toward the Black Divide, and the way down’s more straightforward talus. This morning, I kept checking my maps to make sure I was on the right track, but now I just walk down the path of least resistance, knowing that there’s no need to think about it too much—that I’ll find a way through.

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It rains off and on as I jump from rock to rock, but then settles into a late-spring detente of clouds and sun and sky.

I’m so tired when I get to the bottom that I don’t bother with setting up my shelter: just throw it all on a rock, blow up my pad, and fall asleep before sunset.

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July 27, 2018
Dusy Basin to Long Lake

Off Trail in Dusy Basin, Bishop Pass

The sun and I wake up at the same time. It climbs over Columbine Peak and sends shards of perfect yellow light onto the Black Divide’s white granite. And I go to wipe the sleep out of my eyes, only to realize that I fell asleep in my glasses last night.

The world’s still that sort of still that feels suspended in time. It’s like in those old cartoons where someone runs off a cliff then just keeps running on air until they look down: the night’s over, the day and light have come, but nothing’s realized it yet.

I feel like I’m in on a secret.

*

I eat breakfast by the last of the long, unnamed chain of lakes that stretch northwest from Knapsack Pass to the trail, watching early-bird hikers stumble up or down the switchbacks that lead to the PCT. An old couple amble up, absolutely filthy but smiling. Two dudes with full-size fishing poles and seemingly no socks run down.

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Then I walk away from the trail, and up a steep granite slope that leads to the upper basin. I have no real plan today, nothing I have to do. I set a silly rule for myself: no looking at my GPS, and no looking at the time. I spend so much time rushing to get from place to place, trying to beat the sun. But not today. Today I’ll point at the map and follow my compass to who knows where.

*

So I spend the morning and afternoon wandering up small streams and down dry washes, to lakes and empty basins, up talus toward the sky. Minor passes that no one’s bothered to name. Lunch at a large lake surrounded by crumbling hills.

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I’ve been trending vaguely east, and eventually I hit what I assume to be the main Sierra crest. Maybe that’s Bishop Pass down there? I scramble down an easy slope to meet a stream of good-smelling weekenders headed into Dusy Basin. They all look at me like I’m a car crash.

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*

Then down Bishop Pass, on the east side of the crest for the first time in a week. A steep set of switchbacks then miles of gentle hills and lovely lakes.

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I set up camp early, in a forested clearing on the southern shore of Long Lake. Across the way, there’s a family—a whole family, with two kids and two parents—all playing in the water. Their laughs echo all through the basin.

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*

I’m sitting on a rock a few feet above the water when a man a year or two younger than me interrupts to ask if he can fish at “my shore.” I tell him that nothing out here is mine, and of course he’s welcome to fish wherever he likes.

Turns out he’s part of a larger crew of dudes out here for a bachelor party. There’s something sad in the way he explains it to me—like he views the whole thing as more of a funeral than a party.

I say a vague goodbye and drift off up to camp to cook some dinner.

*

As I’m finishing up my food—that is, as I’m licking the bottom of the grimy little ziplock to get at the last bits of barely rehydrated teriyaki—my fishing friend from earlier approaches with one of his buddies. “Hey man, you camping alone?” I tell him that I am. “You wanna come have a beer with us?”

Beer?

I follow them through marshy brush to an expedition-style tent, around which their group—the two guys, plus three more and two dogs—have set up an outdoor living room, complete with blow up chairs and a Bluetooth speaker playing 90s pop country.

Also, they have three cases of beer.

*

Brian, the bachelor, offers me two beers—two beers, simultaneously—and a seat that he’s vacating to go cook another steak. Another. Steak. Like, he’s already had one, and is now moving on to a second.

They talk and laugh in that way that dudes do when they’ve known each other for long enough to know what’s under the dudeness. I mostly listen at first, but after my second set of two beers—two beers, it seems, is the serving size here—they few ask about my trip, and about what’s on the other side of the pass.

I drift in and out of the conversation. Every time I think I should go back to my own camp, someone offers me some food or another set of beers, and so I spend hours listening to their laughter, and to the old country songs that become more familiar the more I drink.

*

The conversation turns to Brian and his wedding next week. The guys are giving him a hard time. “Dude, you’re never going fishing again.” “We’ll be out here killing it, and you’ll be at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, buying linens.”

Brian laughs, but then things get serious. “No man, I’ll always be out here.” He’s just bought a house with a backyard big enough for everyone to come over on weekends, and they’re getting a new grill—gas, of course. And they’re breaking up the asphalt patio to plant a garden of wildflowers and hearty herbs that will last few the winter. Maybe there’ll be a fishpond.

“It’s like,” Brian slurs—I guess those pairs of beers are getting to him—“it’s like, under the asphalt, everything is this,” and he gestures toward the lake and hills beyond. His friends all nod sagely, and so do I. “The entire country’s the Sierra under the asphalt.” My fishing friend from earlier shakes his head yes so strongly that I’m worried he’s going to fall over. “Hell yea man. I’m stoked to see what you make of it!” Brian smiles. “I’m making this.”

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July 28, 2018
Long Lake to South Lake TH and Home
Bishop Pass Trail, a Whole Bunch of Roads

The day feels over before it begins: I wake up with the sun and my mind at the car; pack up thinking about unloading my stuff into our house; and walk out in a sort of haze—didn’t I already do this?

*

But then time stops. Then sun comes up quick, but then just kinda sits there, halfway above the horizon. The whole place glows for nearly the entire time it takes me to walk the few miles out—pink on the water, red on the peaks. The light’s so consistent that I feel like I’m in one of those old cartoons, where the sun wakes up late, rushes up to clock-in to the sky, then, having made it to work, stops moving to take a coffee break.

I take fifty pictures but none of them really get it.

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*

There’s no one on trail this morning, but there are tents everyone—in every possible, and some impossible, places. And they get thicker as I approach the trailhead, like birds on shore bringing ships into port.

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Then I’m at the packed peak-season Saturday trailhead, cars circling for open spots. I throw my stuff unceremoniously into the car. I’d meant to take some time—maybe soak my feet in the lake—but I feel bad with all the people waiting for my spot, so I start down immediately. And before I’m ready, I’m speeding ten times faster than my walking pace down the broad paved path. Wait, path? Road? Right, these paths are called roads.

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*

Ever since the JMT, Highway 395’s been this almost holy place. I know every curve, every big view and little town. But I pass through now in a different way, looking west up the rugged crest. Krista’s up there somewhere in the smoke. I hope she’s having the time of her life.

I stop in Susanville for gas, then climb into the hills. Smoke’s been bad since Mono Lake, but it’s particularly thick here. And so is the traffic. The speed limit’s something like 55, but we’re going 20, bumper to bumper. I don’t know it, but we’re actually being escorted through by CalFire, as an uncontrolled wildfire burns a few miles away, threatening the freeway.

*

The sun gets low as I speed through northern California and starts to set I stop in Klamath Falls for a last snack and gas before the final push through Oregon. Then up to Odell Lake for a beer on the shore in the day’s last light. I think of coming here to ski in winters when I was a kid, getting drunk out on the backcountry trails. And I think again of Krista. Maybe she’s camped on a lake like this, looking up at the same sky.

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Webfoot
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by Webfoot » April 25th, 2020, 3:39 am

Thank you.

arieshiker
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by arieshiker » April 25th, 2020, 4:58 am

Epic Robin! Wish I'd seen this last night - I just woke up and I'm exhausted again.....thanks for posting another of your classics. Yosemite and most any part of the Sierra comes with magic included in the price. I think I was 18 and in the Marines the last time I came even close to 30 miles in a day - and it wasn't a voluntary thing. Yellowstone has the animals, Yosemite has the trails. Both environments must be thriving in all this closure.

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retired jerry
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by retired jerry » April 25th, 2020, 6:38 am

Nice! I've checked out that area, gotta do it some day, thanks for the beta. Such a long drive from Portland.

pablo
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by pablo » April 25th, 2020, 9:27 am

That was an incredible, thrilling read, more like a short story or novella than a mundane trip report. I was not sure you were going to make it. What a place to be. Great photos.

Thx,

--Paul
The future's uncertain and the end is always near.

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BurnsideBob
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by BurnsideBob » April 25th, 2020, 1:54 pm

Robin, another monumental trip report. Thanks for sharing, and bringing back memories. I've always wanted to do Lamarck and Knapsack Cols and thanks to you, I have.

FWIW, when I was thinking of doing Roper's Sierra High Route I wondered if you could cut over to Lamarck Col from George Lake to avoid the road walk and, on Roper's route, much of the JMT section. At the trail intersection above Sabrina, you would turn left and pass Blue and Dingleberry Lakes, then head Xcounty to Fishgut Lakes. From the lowest Fishgut Lake you would go up Granite Lake's outlet stream to Granite Lake, then up the scree chute connecting Granite Lake's outlet to the ridge crest, and descend the other side to connect with the Lamarck Col use trail.

The following photo, taken from the outlet of middle Fishgut Lake, shows the Granite Lake side of the ridge crest, the same ridge crest you illustrate in the 4th photo of your 24 July account. Looks a lot gnarlier on the Granite Lake side!

In the photo Granite Lake is behind the ridge left mid scene. The scree chute is to the left of the "Batman's Ears" formation and not visible in this shot. I didn't have time to recon from Middle Fishgut to the scree chute, but on sat photos all but the last 50 feet looked OK.

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I keep making protein shakes but they always turn out like margaritas.

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Bosterson
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by Bosterson » April 25th, 2020, 2:09 pm

Hey Robin, glad you came out of the woodwork to post this! (Though where were you in 2018, huh??) Thanks for the memories and inspiration - this seems like the rambling I sometimes wished I was doing back when I was on the JMT in 2012. I'll have to get myself back down there and go wander into all the nooks and crannies I skipped. I'm glad to see the tooth rock in Le Conte canyon is still going strong!
RobinB wrote:I scramble down an easy slope to meet a stream of good-smelling weekenders headed into Dusy Basin. They all look at me like I’m a car crash.
Oh man, this is exactly how I remember feeling coming down from Whitney! :lol:
RobinB wrote:This morning, I kept checking my maps to make sure I was on the right track, but now I just walk down the path of least resistance, knowing that there’s no need to think about it too much—that I’ll find a way through.
Amen, brother! :)
#pnw #bestlife #bitingflies #favoriteyellowcap #neverdispleased

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Brian95
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by Brian95 » April 25th, 2020, 4:40 pm

Absolutely amazing. You're a very talented writer; I wish I could get my trip reports to turn out like this.

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RobinB
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by RobinB » April 25th, 2020, 8:21 pm

Thanks so much everyone - for the kind responses, and (maybe more amazingly) for just reading the damn thing!
BurnsideBob wrote:
April 25th, 2020, 1:54 pm
FWIW, when I was thinking of doing Roper's Sierra High Route I wondered if you could cut over to Lamarck Col from George Lake to avoid the road walk and, on Roper's route, much of the JMT section. At the trail intersection above Sabrina, you would turn left and pass Blue and Dingleberry Lakes, then head Xcounty to Fishgut Lakes. From the lowest Fishgut Lake you would go up Granite Lake's outlet stream to Granite Lake, then up the scree chute connecting Granite Lake's outlet to the ridge crest, and descend the other side to connect with the Lamarck Col use trail.
That sounds great! The whole set of basins in that area - Hungry Packer, Hell Diver, etc - look absolutely incredible. I'm not sure I have the skills to roam around up there as much as I'd like to, but maybe someday.

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BurnsideBob
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Re: Up High in the Sierra, July 2018

Post by BurnsideBob » April 29th, 2020, 6:33 am

It is a beautiful area. Thanks again for sharing your adventure there. Your route and trip report are classics. Dreams are made of these!


A more distant view of the Granite Lake Area showing scree chute. Taken from trail between Blue and Dingleberry Lakes.

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Photo of the basin from ridge between Fishgut Lakes and Dingleberry Lake, looking more or less South.

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Middle Fishgut Lake.

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Burnside
I keep making protein shakes but they always turn out like margaritas.

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