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High Sierra

Jun 30 - Jul 7, '96

First bit of bad news: Vic got more responsibilities and duties so he bailed out of the trip, so it would just be Mike, Dylan and me. But then again, were any of us really surprised?

Our plans were to hike in from South Lake near Bishop and spend 4 or 5 days up in the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon N.P. (Dusy Basin). The weather looked good, the spirit was willing but the flesh was still a little weak so I decided I needed some high-altitude time. Let us therefore flashback to the previous couple of weeks....

Sonora Pass

I knew there was still some snow up there so I went and picked out some instep crampons. I reasoned that they were pretty light and it wouldn't hurt to have them along. Unfortunately REI was out of the topos for the area so I had to settle for the USFS map. I bought a few loaves of bread at the Farmer's Market, tuned the radio to Whad'ya Know and hit the road.

The rangers were friendly; still a lot of snow south on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) south of Sonora Pass--which of course is where I was planning to go! I got the permit and headed up the hill. At the trailhead I tried not to waste too much time playing with the GPS; I threw the tent, sleeping bag and thermarest into the day pack and set off. (Luckily the day pack is just large enough to take all this, and a separate fanny pack has the food and water. For overnight and weekend trips I think this is the best way to go.)

The trail was in pretty good condition--at first, anyway. The rangers were right, and there was a lot of snow. At first just little snowbanks that were a nuisance; but then bigger ones where it was hard to figure out where the trail really was. Pretty soon I gave up on the trail and decided to exercise my map reading skills. How I wished I had a 7.5' topo!

The snow conditions were excellent! Wonderful corn snow, warm and sunny. I wished I'd thought of bringing the skis. I did see another skier coming down a bowl about 2 miles away. It looked wonderful.

The trail traversed a large snowfield and climbed up to a ridge. I could see the trail every now and then so I knew I was heading in roughly the right direction. Then there was a switchback and it looked like the trail traversed back across the snowfield, but higher up--and it looked really steep! Well, I knew the trail gained the ridge and stayed up for a bit so I thought it might be simpler to just go straight up to the ridge. After I got up to it I realised that this was not the crest itself but was a buttress. Still, the views were wonderful and the next cirque looked beautiful so I explored that a bit.

Ok, back to work. from the buttress I scanned the other side of the bowl and could pick out where the trail probably was, so I headed for it. It was a little nerve-racking traversing that steep a slope on snow; it was good to have the crampons. Very soon, though, the slope became a little too steep; eyeing the exposure (and the cliff at the bottom of the slope) I decided it would be better to retreat and try again at some other time. I found a flat place and crashed.

The next morning--yikes! The temperature had dropped below freezing at night, and that beautiful corn snow of the previous afternoon was now sheet ice. Thank god for the crampons! I put them on and started back.

I thought traversing on the slope was unsettling the previous day... this was unbelievable. The ice was hard, and the sun-cups didn't make it any easier. Maybe it was a good thing I hadn't brought my skis along! I traversed carefully across the large bowl, making sure that the points on the crampons had a stable base on every step. After a harrowing half hour I was finally across. Now a new problem presented itself: alternating snowbanks and dirt meant I had to take off and put on crampons every 25m. Finally I decided that death was preferable and just climbed down the snowbank to the base of the cirque, from where it was a pretty easy walk out. (Making sure I didn't fall through the snow to the stream underneath, of course!)

Leavitt Lake

Since my quest the previous week had been fruitless (or bootless) I decided I should spend a little more time in the area. I was supposed to meet Mike and Dylan in Bishop on Monday, so I left on Saturday so I could explored the area (and do a little more acclimatisation). I bought an ice-axe and got some pointers on how to self-arrest (the memory of that icy cirque was still fresh in my mind!) Again, no topo so I found the side road towards Leavitt Lake after a while, parked, and set off.

Apparently after the snow is all gone this road is open to traffic till just below the lake itself. There was a gate across the road though, and still a lot of snow so I knew I'd have the area to myself. The road was easy walking although steep; a couple of stream crossings were negotiated without falling in. The lake was wonderful, a typical tarn at the base of a steep cirque. The trail up to the PCT went up one side of the cirque and it looked like this would be a good possibility later in the season. Right now it was totally snow-bound, and even with ice-axe and crampons I didn't feel like negotiating it.

Bouldering with Carpet

After a little side trip to Lone Pine to take pictures of Mt. Whitney and then Manzanar for pictures of Mt. Williamson, I found Wilson's Eastside Sports in Bishop. Not two minutes after I arrived, so did Mike and Dylan--amazing! Without further ado, we headed up the road to the Buttermilks. Dylan and Mike planned to do a little bouldering.

We found an area to pull off the road (which was dirt) and parked. Mike had asked me to bring some carpeting for use as a crash pad; so I did.

``Jesus Christ! I asked you to bring a small piece, man!''

``You said about 4 feet by 5 feet, and this is 5 feet by 6 feet.''

As we set off, I was shocked to see that they were not making any plans to take the carpet along.

``Hey! What about the carpet?''

``I'm not taking that stupid thing along!''

``What! After I brought it all the way?''

``Well, ok, I'll carry it.'' (This was Dylan).

So we set off down the road--I with a book, Mike with a camera and rock shoes, and Dylan with rock shoes and a rather large roll of carpet across his shoulder. Imagine our delight when a little way up the road we see a cooler. Just lying there! Obviously the road had been a little too rough for someone's car. We moved the thing off the road and resolved that if it was still there when we returned, it was ours.

...without carpet?

After we got to the rocks, the boys still weren't using the carpet! Dylan just threw it from him at the base of a rock, and then they just climbed a few routes. ``What if you fall,'' I asked them. No, they never got around to using the carpet.

Well, the sun was starting to come down, and it was time to return to the cars. This time Mike had the honour of carrying the carpet. And our fortune held, for there was the cooler! In the meantime we had also found an old broom and a pitchfork with a missing tine. Now since Mike was carrying the cooler, Dylan took the carpet; rich with these treasures of the road we returned, triumphant.

For that night, we decided to camp in a campground (shudder!) in the south fork area to get a little acclimatisation. At least we did find a ``tents only'' campground, that was reasonably separated from the other sites. But it cost $11. We also drove up to the South Lake trailhead. The canyon is quite narrow, and you don't see anything but the trees and the sides until you are almost at the end; then you come over a rise and suddenly you see a sheer wall a few thousand feet high, with lots of snowfields. The sheer surprise and beauty of the scene is almost unsettling. It promised to be a very good trip.

Thunder and Lightning

The next day we decided to go on a day hike for further acclimatisation. We decided on the Thunder and Lightning hike. The trail starts with about a mile of walking on a small pipe that heads up the side of the cayon. Apparently the city of LA decided that the stream that joined the south fork Bishop Creek below the South Lake dam was just water that was being wasted, so they channeled it into a pipeline where there would have been a waterfall into the south fork; the water ends up in South Lake so that more Angelinos can water their lawns.

After some more climbing we were up in the side canyon. We passed a few damp meadows and a lake; then more climbing up a little rockfall. It was quite warm, and very sunny; adn Mike was starting to complain. ``Just a little further,'' I urged. We finally got to Green Lake at about 2pm. The mosquitoes were out in full swing, ahving the time of their lives. We met a couple who had on some sort of full-length bug suits. The commiserated with Mike's tiredness. After a nice lunch (crackers and smoked Alaska salmon) it's time to move on.

The trail to Thunder and Lightning goes up what seems to be a vertical wall of very loose scree. For added effect this wall drops straight into the lake itself. We weren't daunted though. Once we got to the that section it wasn't as bad as it looked--the footing was good and the slope itself wasn't that steep. The views of the lake were wonderful. We were climbing the side of the valley; the head of the valley was a glacial cirque with a very impressive headwall.

After that stiff climb we were treated to a high plateau. This was above treeline, so it was totally barren and flat. The little plants spread like a thin carpet draped on the table. Hiking in areas like that is just the very best! This plateau was actually the Thunder and Lightning Pass.

After a surprisingly long walk on that flat part we finally got to where we could look into the next valley. Thunder and Lightning Lake itself was out of sight since we couldn't see down into the hollow; a couple of other lakes lower down were visible though. The best thing was just being able to look across rather than up at the very impressive ridge on the other side. We didn't stay too long up there; the book said that the pass was aptly named and we could see the clouds forming.

The trip begins

Figure 1.1: Off we go!
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After spending $11 the previous night for dubious value we decided to head back down to the desert to camp for the night. We went further down the Buttermilk road and found a place to pull off. Happily it was even right next to a stream, and there were no mosquitoes. We had eaten in town that night, so all we had to do was set up the tents and partake of some truly dank ``snacks'' (or ``beverages'').

As usual the day dawned a perfect blue. (As usual we didn't wake up in time to catch the alpenglow.) The trail started out quite steeply and just followed the east shore of South Lake for a while before turning inland and climbing up a rocky ravine and then we were in the woods. It was bright and sunny, and I had forgotten my sunglasses--oh well. The trail was still steep here but at least it was shaded... on the other hand, the mosquitoes were fierce. We stopped at a quasi-level spot and regretted it instantly. I have never in my life seen that thick a swarm of mosquitoes. I had earlier in the day scorned Dylan's use of DEET but those insects humbled me.

As we were DEETing up who should we see approach but our friends from Green Lake! We exchanged pleasantries and they inquired after Mike's tiredness. Those bug suits would have been very welcome indeed! They were planning on going to Treasure Lakes so we didn't expect to run into them any more.

After about a mile, the hard climbing was over--at least until we got to Bishop Pass. We were in a wide valley, and looking along it (due south) we could see the Pacific crest at the head. It looked very snowy, adn it was hard to see where Bishop Pass might be. We were at the shore of Long Lake, which reflected the whole incredible scene. Speechless, I knew I had to take some photographs... and it dawned on me that all the film was back at the car!

What a disaster. All the descriptions of the hikes in the area had been unanimous in the beauty, and each mentioned the need for lots of film. What now? Was life worth living? Should I be content with just memories of this trip? No, that would never do. I had to go back to the car. At least I wouldn't have to take my backpack along! After lunch, it was time; I started back. It was easy going, with no pack and all downhill. Since I was running most of the way the mosquitoes were baffled too. It took only 45 minutes to get back. Found the film, got the dark glasses, the extra pants for Mike (he'd forgotten them), and a quick trip to the toilet, and it's time to head back. It was much warmer though, and I cursed that I hadn't thought of bringing a water bottle or two. There was no water at the trailhead.

The lack of water wasn't too much of an issue though--it was still quite cool. After all, this was at 10,000'. It took 45 minutes to get back, and Mike and Dylan were still waiting for me. Apparently they decided to partake of some ``snacks'' (``beverages'') after lunch.

As we haeaded on, that little ``snack'' cost Mike dearly--he was just dead. We headed on past Long Lake and then climbed quite steeply above the next lake to the Timberline Tarns. This was where we first had to walk across snowbanks. The South Fork valley (I suppose all glacial valleys) rises in a series of steps, with each step holding a tarn (glacial lake). The Timberline Tarns were two smallish lakes set close together. We found a campsite near the lower one with a stupendous view down the valley.

To the left was Hurd Peak, an impressive granite mass; to the right the forbidding wall of the Inconsolable Range dominated by the peak called Cloudripper. The Inconsolable Range was a sheer wall of granite rubble all the way up to the ridge, about 1000m high. This valley between the two ridges was bisected by Chocolate Peak, a lower hill that formed the division between the South Fork Valley and the Chocolate Lakes. The peak was a bright orange colour, and it looked like an easy walk up from the south. Looking up-valley, we had the Incosolable ridge to the left (west), the Pacific Crest to the north, and Mt. Goode to the east.

The walk itself wasn't without incident: to get to the campsite we had to cross the outlet of the lower Timberline Tarn. The stream was quite wide at that point but there were rocks (apparently placed deliberately) to step across. Unfortunately my attention wandered and I was off-balance; I could feel the backpack pulling me off. I managed to step on another rock but then the pack went the other way and I was committed to placing a foot on a grassy bank... which turned out to be some floating stuff. The water poured in over the top of the boots. Ah well, at least we were there.

South Fork Tour

We decided that we would spend one day exploring this valley, and another day for Dusy Basin. From where we were it looked like we could bushwhack up the ridge that separated Ruwau Lake from Timberline Tarns; and then continue over the next ridge to the Chocolate Lakes. After a not so early start (and more missed alpenglow, I'm sure) we hung the food down a cliff and set out.

It was pretty easy going, though of course not as fast as on a trail. There was very little vegetation to obscure the view, so navigation was easy; and the boulders weren't too big so it wasn't too hard to make steady progress. The first ridge was easily topped, and there was Ruwau Lake. It looked pristine and untouched although on close examination we could see several fishermen on the shores. It was in a very dramatic setting, with the wall leading to Cloudripper directly on the lake. Looking back we could see our camp and the upper lakes, and we spotted our food hanging down a cliff where we had tied it.

After a few photo-ops we continued along the ridge since climbing down to the lake looked too scary--lots of steep cliffs leading to snowchutes that went directly to the water. There were a few snowbanks on the ridge that were not too serious, except for one that went right to the edge of a ridge and ended in space. We climbed down alongside to get a better look, and there was a frozen waterfall. The snow itself had an ominous crack where it came close to the edge. Needless to say we skirted around that one!

We did find one with a pretty nice slope and safe runout so we decided to have some fun glissading. The sun-cups made the going hard at first, but as soon as we had a chute in the snow, we could get really going. I used my rain shell to slide on and after a few runs it got nice and fast! Mike still wouldn't do it though... kept mumbling about sections in ``Accidents in North American Mountaineering'' about ``failed to self-arrest while glissading.'' Strange.

After a while we managed to tear ourselves away from that slope and headed on. We climbed down to the lake, and then over the next ridge, with an even better view. And yes, we could still see our food back at camp!

From this ridge we planned to climb up to Chocolate Peak. After a light lunch we started off, but Mike still didn't want to! Said something about hating hiking, and called us names... he went on to the Chocolate Lakes where he would wait for us, while we headed uphill.

Man alive, the views! They got better at every step, as the entire valley seemed to unfold. The higher we got, the more little side valleys we could look into, and see the little lakes. And although we must have been about 2 or 3 miles away, we could still see our food!

The culmination was of course at the peak. The Chocolate Lakes were beautiful, set in a naorrow valley; the main valley of the South Fork was revealed in all its granite glory with all the lakes and snow. To either side we were looking about halfway up the ridges, Hurd Peak on one side and the Inconsolables on the other; and looking north, there was South Lake itself!

Out of film, it was time to go back down. After an uneventful descent we rejoined Mike at the Upper Chocolate Lake. The lakes are probably stocked or something, because there were just an unbelievable number of fish in there--we could have just waded in and caught as many as we wanted. Lots of mosquitoes, of course; so we didn't stay long.

We walked on down to the Lower C. Lake and then to Bull Lake before finally meeting the main trail just below Long Lake. Thanks to my little adventure the previous day I felt quite at home seeing that parth of the trail--after all this was my fourth time there in two days!

After that we just hurried on up the trail up to the camp. After what had been quite a long day we were hoping for some rest, but it was not to be; it was calm, and the mosquitoes congregated for their dinner. Apparently it had been the wind the previous night that kept them off.

Bishop Pass

A few people we met on the trail didn't seem too concerned about the snow on Pass; although they did say they walked up a snow ramp, not the trail itself. We decided to cache the garbage in the same way as the food so we didn't have to cart to Dusy and back, adn we set off.

The trail followed the valley floor by all the lakes till it got to the headwall. The lakes were beautiful, especially Bishop Lake which still had ice. Saddlerock was unique in having numerous rocky islands; and as we climbed higher, we could see Margaret Lake and some small unnamed ones. We could also see the back of the massive cornice on the arete on Mt. Goode.

Finally we reached the head of the valley. The trail climbed up through a rockfall from Mt. Agassiz and was in excellent condition. After a while we left that and the trail climbs up the nose of a small protrusion. This was where the exciting snow was! The snowbanks would cover the trail, and we'd have to climb them while trying to not think of the exposure. I was very glad for the ice-axe although I decided the crampons weren't required. Mike had the worst--not being as tall he couldn't just step over some of the dicey stuff.

After a while we finally gained the top. It was quite easy to walk along the ridge, and what a view! We couldn't really see into Dusy Basin, but looking north the entire South Fork valley was revealed. The top of Chocolate Peak was lower than we were, and form of the two valleys on either side were clearly revealed. Mike went ahead on the trail while Dylan and I decided to walk up to the ``diving board,'' a rock that stood out from the ridge about 10m, and looked down on a sheer drop of about 100m before you hit the headwall... there was a small boulder on the end of the diving board but neither Dylan nor I wanted to climb on it.

Dusy Basin

North of the Pass the terrain dropped off gently so Dusy Basin wasn't visible at first. The trail went down the shoulder of the crest until we got to where it dropped off. This was where we got our first view of Dusy Basin.

Dusy Basin is a wide rocky area with numerous lakes, surrounded by incredible peaks. Behind us (to the north) was the wall of the Palisades. Since the sun was shining directly on it, there were no shadows; the ridge looked like a featureless wall. The granite on the wall changed from a lighter grey on the left (at Mt Agassiz) to a very forbidding dark on the right (Mt Winchell). The dark granite was intruded by the lighter, and the dikes were like counterpoint to the sharp and jagged ridge itself.

On the left were Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak. Both of these had faces that were talus. Again the pattern was that the grey rocks formed cliffs, but the brown rocks (like on these two peaks) seemed to be weaker, and split vertically. This resulted in very jagged ridge shapes and buttresses that were just rock slides.

To the right of Columbine Peak the ridge dipped to Knapsack Pass (leading to the XXX lakes) and then climbed back up to Mt Giraud, due south. This is a beautiful peak. The wonderful shape is complemented by its light colour; the east ridge is highlighted by darker rock, and the base of the headwall has an extensive snowfield.

The most impressive feature was hidden, though; to the right, Dusy Basin emptied into the LeConte Canyon of the Kings River. We could just see the top of the canyon, and then just a vast abyss. On the other side were impressive and very substantial peaks; and the whole shoulder of the ridge just above the canyon gleamed in the sunlight. The snow melt was probably running down the granite and catching the sun.

The guidebook wrote of an impressive waterfall where the streams from Dusy entered the canyon and the trail crosses it on a footbridge. That would have been wonderful to see; unfortunately there would be no time to do all that, for that would be another 5 miles or so, and we had to head back the next day.

After finding a campsite, the plan was to explore the basin. The largest lake in the area was on the other side of a low ridge across the medium size lake; from that distance, the ridge looked like it would be easy route-finding. We resolved to get there. But first, time to wash up in the streams. Our camp was above a lively creek. Mike was planning on going in, and Dylan and I wanted to watch, so we all went down. First, to a small lake that looked blue with all the ice floating in it. We waded in--it was unbelievably cold. The time to lose all sensation in the toes was about 5 seconds. Incredibly there were lots of frogs around. How the hell can cold-blooded creatures live in that water?

Mike had waded across to the other side, and carefully stepped up on some snow that was floating on the water. Foolhardy, but nothing compared to what was coming up! We decided the water was too stagnant and went back to the stream. This was where Mike stripped down and submerged completely--for about a quarter second, befor he jumped back out. Unfortunately Dylan and I had both neglected to take pictures, so we actually convinced him to do it again for $25 and a picture. Hey Mike, did you know that ``gullible'' isn't in the dictionary?

After his little adventures Mike wasn't so keen on exploring, so Dylan and I set out. We worked our way below the medium lake and climbed up to the low ridge. What from the distance looked like flat (but not level) rock and easy going was a little more challenging, because the ``flat rock'' was actually extensively cracked. We finally managed to get all the way through to the next lake. The large lake that was out goal fed this one so we headed upstream. Unfortunately it was getting late, and the outlet of the large lake looked choked with massive boulders that would take quite a while to climb through, so we decided to head back.

We found an easier way up the central ridge, and then we could see the large lake. It still had a lot of snow and ice, and our initial impression that it would take a while to get there looked correct. It was very impressive though, tucked away between Isoscles Peak to the south and Mt. Winchell to the north.

To return, we decided to work around the head of the lake that we had earlier gone round the bottom. Again, we had to find a route down the ridge to the lake, and we managed with not too many snobanks. The head of the lake was a marsh, which was interesting; we managed to get across without getting our feet wet. After that it was a little more scrambling over the rock to get back to camp. One good thing about being treeline (well, one of the many good things!) is that it's pretty hard to get lost.

Over too soon

How I wish we'd had more time to explore the basin! That upper largest lake, the LeConte Canyon, Knapsack Pass... I shall return, I thought.

The trip back was uneventful... the way down from Bishop Pass had a few hairy moments on the snowbanks. Climbing down steep snow on a sheer cliff with a 1000 foot exposure (even if we only had 10 feet to negotiate) was quite exciting. We stopped and picked up the garbage--still unmolested, but Jesus Christ, the smell! We weren't about to put that inside the packs, so I carried it with a handle I made from a short length of string, and Mike suspended it from his ski pole. We walked all the way down to Long Lake and found a campsite near the outlet; and then the next day we walked out to the trailhead. I have omitted all mention of the mosquitoes since that memory is too horrible to bring up.

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Copyright © 1995,1996 by Shamim Mohamed.