John Muir Trail (JMT) – Sierra High Route (SHR) Loop - 8/30/2011 to 9/7/2011
Photos are at this link:
This year’s Sierra trip would take my friend Steve and I in over Lamarck Col, then south for a day hike on the JMT to Muir Pass. From there we would turn north and run the JMT over Seldon Pass and stop at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) for beer and resupply before taking the Sierra High Route back to Piute Pass. On the SHR we would cross Gabbott, White Bear, Feather and Puppet Passes.
Having never done much off trail hiking in the Sierra I was not sure how tough or enjoyable the SHR section would be.
Day 1 - Lamarck Col – 8/30/2011
This year Steve and I returned to the North Lake TH to enter the Sierra over Lamarck Col. Our plan for the day was to make it to a high camp (12,600') at the tarn just below Lamarck Col. We started fairly late in the morning after a nice breakfast at the Cardinal Resort in Alpindale. Very soon we meet up with a day hiker named David who was planning to make it to the Col and back that day. David, it turns out is 71 and has a passion for long day hikes. He could really move and soon we saw him making quick time up the switch backs as we dropped back carrying our packs filled with five days of supply. David was a real inspiration. Steve and I both hope to be that fit and spirited at 71. We joked that we may just be retiring since we anticipate Social Security will be further pushed back.
We made the Col in late afternoon and caught up with David who was just starting down. He decided to crest the ridge just to the south of the Col to avoid the snow field on Lamarck.
The snow field was at least three times larger than when we climbed it last year on almost the same date. We had both decided to bring micro spikes this year so we figured we would have a test of our new gear in the morning.
Day 2 - Over Lamarck to Wanda Lake – 8/31/2011
After a restless night sleeping at high elevation we had breakfast, put on our spikes and made quick work of the icy snow cups up to the col. The spikes worked great and getting to the col was much easier this year, crossing the snow rather than walking over talus. This would prove to be a theme later in our hike when going cross country over snow on the SHR. We were both very happy to have added the micro spikes to our kits. I had made a last minute decision and made a run to the REI store in Pittsburgh to pick up a pair just a day before departing. That proved to be a great move. I purchased a pair of Kato Ice Trackers.
The run through Darwin Canyon and Bench was very nice and we made it to Evolution Lake just after lunch. Although, the focus of this trip was to make a loop going north on the JMT to the SHR, entering the SHR at the Second Recess off of the Mono Creek Trail, we could not resist the pull of Evolution and Muir Pass so we headed south on the JMT and made camp at Wanda Lake to stage for a day hike to Muir Pass the following day.
Day 3 - Muir Pass to 2 miles before the JMT merge with Piute Trail – 9/1/2011
We made a quick run to the Muir Hut before turning north. Now heading north on the JMT, we hiked on through Evolution and the Meadows. Very few mosquitoes so far, just a little DEET needed in the meadows.
We found a great camp that Steve remembered from his Boy Scot days. The camp was at low elevation in the woods just prior to the first bridge over the San Joaquin River. We both caught up on our sleep.
Day 4 – Seldon Pass – 9/2/2011
After breakfast we made quick work of the section to the bridge where to Piute Trail merges with the JMT and started the climb to Seldon Pass. The weather continued to be clear and warm by late summer Sierra standards. The section of the JMT from the valley to the Sally Key Lakes always seems much longer than the distance on the Harrison Map but we finally made it to Sally Keys for a swim and late lunch. I just love the double lake and it brought back memories of my first hike in the Sierras in 2008. I wish this place was closer to home.
After lunch we made the climb to Seldon Pass. The last few turns are hot and exposed so we were glad to be at the top.
As soon as we crested we ran into a party lead by Tim who was doing several of the SHR passes that we were planning on doing, but in the reverse direction. The beta from Tim was that the decent of White Bear Pass was steep and took them six hours. Not good news since we planned on White Bear as being our second pass of the day after going over Gabbott Pass on the SHR. It was late in the day at the top of Seldon and they had been climbing, but they looked like a group that was glad to be back on trail and away from the High Route.
Oh well in a few days we would be starting the SHR ourselves and see firsthand.
That evening we camped at Marie Lake and met several hikers who we visited with. Stan and Robert told us some great stories of their many adventures in the Sierra. The best was a tail about sending a friend out from Lamarck Col who had altitude sickness. Although they had concerns about him walking out on his own the guy assured them he would be fine. When they got out a few days later his car was gone, so they figured he made the short walk out without incident. It was not till they called their wives to check in that they found out their buddy had fallen off a cliff and had to be rescued. Their wives were all asking what they did to their friend and were shocked they would abandon their pal in the mountains and enjoy a few more days of hiking. They still got a big kick out of this. They had years of stories most of which were very funny. After eating, a JMT hiker named Rose stopped over for tea. Rose who is 63 was doing well on the trail having made it nearly half way. She was to go on the JMT hike with a friend who had to back out. But she went anyway. Although, she was a little lonely, she was having a great time and very upbeat. Steve and I gave Rose a lot of great trail advice and she was really excited about the big passes ahead when she left for the night. I hope she had a great trip and made it to Whitney.
Day 5 - Marie Lake to Vermillion Resort – 9/3/2011
A great day we flew down the trail getting in at 2PM for the 4:45 ferry, but instead of a long wait the ferry was pulling away from the dock as we ran up. Steve jumped aboard with me right behind him. We were drinking beer 15 minutes later at the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). We met long time Sierra mountaineers Mike and JR who were familiar with our proposed route. JR old us that even though he found trophy size golden trout in the Tarn just downstream of Upper Mills Lake that the approach to Gabbott Pass from the Second Recess was the last place he would go again. It was very steep and had heavy willow brush and was a long hike from the nearest trail. More good news, we had another beer.
The shower and laundry was also great. When the afternoon ferry arrived we met the crew of south bound JMTers, Ron (Chicago), Tom (England), François (Quebec Canada), Fred (Netherlands)...all great guys.
Day 6 - Second Recess (Mono Pass Trail) to Upper Mills Lake (just below Gabbott Pass) – 9/4/2011
Today was our day to start on the High Route. We had a nice breakfast at VVR with the JMT crowd and went on our way east on the Mono Pass Trail for several miles until we saw the trail sign for the Second Recess. The trail was good at first but faded after a couple of miles to a use trail where we began the make the turn south east up the first 1000’ vertical climb up to the tarns below Lower Mills Lake. We think that we stayed too high after the use trail met up with the stream causing us to have to descend through some heavy willow brush over steep terrain with limited footing. Once we got to the tarn the terrain and vegetation became more manageable and we made it to Lower Mills lake in time for diner. So far the SHR was not too bad. There was a party of four who planned on camping there for the night. After dinner we made the quick work of the climb to Upper Mills Lake, our camp for the night. Gabbott Pass was out of sight and about 1000’ higher than our camp. We took a brief hike to scout the route and read Ropper’s description of how to approach the pass and hit the sack early to say stay warm and get ready for our first SHR Pass.
Day 7 Upper Mills Lake over Gabbott Pass & White Bear Pass to Bearpaw Lake
Today was the day we had been waiting for. We started the climb staying to the left behind several granite mounds and found a nice route up the drainage. Soon we were in a valley leading to the pass and put on our micro spikes to get a grip on the icy snow field that lead toward the pass. We noted foot prints of two climbers and a dog, who must have climbed the pass the previous day. The dog took a great line and we were surprised how efficient he was at making for the pass. Follow the dog was our mantra. The hike toward the pass was beautiful. Large snow fields sweep down from the high peaks and we only had a short scramble on rock to make the pass. The trip up took about an hour and thirty minutes.
From Gabbott we looked down on a tarn at about 11,800 where we soon heard a dog bark. We had found the crazy mountain dog. That group including the dog broke camp before we could descend and made for Bear Creek Spire, we presumed to climb or cross over the pass, so we never got to meet the dog and his pals. We descended around the north shore of Lake Italy and by early afternoon were climbing toward the base of our second pass of the day, White Bear Pass. This is the pass that took Tim’s Party six hours to descend. After a short lunch break at the south end of Brown Bear Lake we started up the rocky pass.
The climb of 700 VF took us less than one hour. Soon we were at White Bear Lake and amazing place that sits at 11,900’ and is surrounded by peaks and ridge lines on all sides. We decided that approaching this set of passes from the north was working out perfectly for us since we could climb the steep side and descend the flatter southern side. Also, being able to see the route while approaching, we were not trapped on the many cliffs that one could be caught out on while down climbing. Additionally, we made quick time using our micro spikes on Gabbott in the morning while the snow was icy. The spikes were not effective in the afternoon when the snow softened, so morning ice was best for us. It was a tiring day but we made camp by five, eat diner and took sunset pictures in the Bear Lake basin. The sky turned dark and spit a few rain drops as we turned in for the night.
Day 8 - Bearpaw Lake over Feather Pass to Puppet Lake
The night was cold and windy but morning broke clear. No problem we were warm in our bags. The approach to Feather Pass is in a narrow snow filled canyon so we made good use of the micro spikes again. We estimate that we walked about one mile on a snow field before the last short rock scramble to the pass. This was a great pass, maybe the most interesting one yet.
We made our way past Lake Marriam to Puppet / Paris Lake for the night.
Day 9 - Puppet Lake over Puppet Pass over Piute Pass back to the North Lake Trail Head
It was our last day on the trail. We had seen no one who was traveling the SHR while on trail. We did glimpse a few people from a distance. As we descended from Feather Pass we ran into a guide who has taking a woman and all her gear into the Bear Lakes Basin. This was the great thing about the SHR, I just felt so all alone out there. It was just the two of us in those great spaces. No one on the passes it was just a great experience.
Puppet Pass took an hour to climb in the morning and we were at Parchers Resort having a beer by early afternoon. We had covered 95 miles, about 30 off trail. No problems, no injuries and as per our plan.