I try and get to the Sierra every year for an extended backpacking trip. I have never done the JMT in its entirety although it is on my list of things to do before I die. I have never had enough time off to do it the way I would want to – slowly. So instead of a 2 week mad dash, I have always chosen to visit different areas near the JMT and take the time to explore and see regions without feeling like I needed to rush. My last big trip was 2009 when a friend and I did a section of the SHR from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows. That was a truly enjoyable and very challenging endeavor which ranks right up there towards the top on my all time trip list.
I previously visited the Whitney area in the 80’s on a climb of Mt. Russell’s east ridge – a classic, and still my favorite climb ever. I remember being on top and looking north and west to lakes like Tulainyo, Wallace, and Wales, and wondering what it was like down there. My climbing partner and I did detour to Tulainyo on our descent back to Upper Boy Scout Lake, and I was struck by the desolation, solitude, and sheer beauty of that basin. I also remember seeing people on top of nearby Whitney and actually being able to hear their voices from Russell’s summit. I was sure then that I would be back soon to explore the area further, but it never happened until now.
I had heard and read about Shepherd’s Pass and knew that it was challenging. Steve Roper describes it as “one of the more dreadful east-side approaches in the range. The ascent from desert to alpine zone is an interminable ordeal of dryness and steepness.” This is another trail I had always wanted to do and being almost 60, I thought it’s now or maybe never. I am definitely slowing down physically, and probably mentally as well (at least according to my wife), so I was unsure about how well I would do.
My planned route was to get up and over Shepherd’s, spend some time in the Upper Kern, then return to the JMT and head south to Wallace Creek where I would leave the JMT, explore Wallace and Wales Lakes, then go visit Tulainyo and exit via North Fork Lone Pine Creek. Place names like Anvil Camp, Tyndall Creek, Diamond Mesa, Lake South America, and Bighorn Plateau were calling to me.
My usual hiking partner was in transition this summer and not available to go, so I planned a solo adventure. I will admit that I had some trepidation about going alone, not because I haven’t done so plenty of times in the past, but because I am older and I am a parent. But as John Muir said, “accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands..Few places in this world are more dangerous than home.” And, as I like to say, the most dangerous part of the trip is in the car on the way there. Nonetheless, things do happen so I was very careful, and for additional assurance (especially for family) I rented a Spot 2. I was leery about the Spot but it actually worked very well. See gear comments at the end for more details.
My planning really only gelled a month or two prior, so even though I knew I could get a permit for entry at Shepherd’s, the normal exit route quota over Trailcrest would probably be already full. This was indeed the case when I called, but when I said I would be exiting via North Fork Lone Pine Creek there was no problem. The cross country route from the junction of the JMT and Wallace Creek to Upper Boy Scout Lake was really the crux of the planned trip and I was not sure how it would go. I was a little unsure of exactly how difficult the terrain would be and whether I was taking on too much. In the back of my mind I was wondering if I showed up at Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station and pleaded a case of “too old to go the way I originally planned”, would I be able to get a permit rewrite to return by way of the main trail.
So, with my route planned, time off scheduled, and permit reserved, it was time in late July and early August to get packed and ready. It always amazes how much prep there is for a trip like this. I did actually need a couple of new items, especially new shoes, so there was some gear shopping which is always fun, and of course, the planning of the food. My wife thought I was nuts when I would say no I can’t do that today as I need to keep on track with my packing.
Finally on Friday 8/19 I hit the road at about 6 AM travelling south from Redding to Lee Vining by way of Tioga Pass. Now for me the road trip is also a really fun part of the trip, and I always love the drive though Yosemite. I made several stops along the way including Mexican food in Groveland, then swim stops at Rainbow Pool and Tenaya Lake. I have never seen the park so full of people – there were cars and people everywhere – America on vacation. Apparently, lots of other countries were on vacation there also as I heard foreign languages at every stop. My destination for the evening was the Mono Vista RV Park in Lee Vining where I had made a reservation for a tent site. I love this place. Friends and family have nicknamed it “Happy Camper Land”. In my younger years I was always on the lookout for free stealth camp sites, but now I truly enjoy such gems as this. Views of Mono Lake, the smell of sagebrush in the air, and a flat patch of grass to pitch the tent. The bathrooms and showers are clean, and food and other amenities of town are just a short walk away. With earplugs and a little extra bedding from the car I always get a great night’s sleep and this time was no exception.
Rainbow Pool near Groveland
Beach at Tenaya Lake
My sleep spot in Happy Camper Land
This was get on the trail day but I had some logistics to take care of first. I went to the Forest Service Visitor Center at Mono Lake to get my permit. They went over all the usual reg’s and stressed that North Fork Lone Pine Creek is a Wag Bag required area, but they did not have any to hand out. Back on the road to Lone Pine where I was to meet local Dave Sheldon who had agreed to provide shuttle service for me from Whitney Portal to Shepherd’s Pass Trailhead. I found Dave’s name and number on the Climber.org transportation page. I stopped in Bishop to do a little last minute shopping and some lunch and then continued on to the really nice new Forest Service Multi Agency Visitor Center just south of Lone Pine. I needed to pick up a Wag Bag and also do my final pack and car clean out before I met my shuttle. There is a real bear problem at the Portal and not a good idea to leave food or other fragrant items in your car. I met Dave about 3 PM at the intersection of HWY 395 and Whitney Portal Rd. and proceeded to follow him up to the Portal. What an amazing drive it is, past the Alabama Hills and then up to 8800 feet with huge granite walls towering overhead. The parking lots were extremely full and I had to park on the side of the road well below the overflow lot. No sooner had I put my gear in the back of Dave’s truck and got in front with him than another hiker asked him for a ride as well. He was headed for Onion Valley where he had dropped his girl friend and all their gear earlier in the afternoon.
View of Whitney from Portal Road looking up North Fork Lone Pine Creek
Dave is a great guy and I really enjoyed his service, but he really could use a new vehicle. His truck is a 1984 Ford pickup and it puts the trip back down the Whitney Portal Rd. on a level with some of the thrill rides at Disneyland. We made it to the intersection of Symmes Creek Rd. and Onion Valley Rd. without incident where he dropped off the other passenger and continued on up to the Shepherd Pass trailhead. It was still quite warm and I was very glad to be starting in late afternoon. After saying goodbye to Dave, there I was alone in the desert at 5 PM, hoping I remembered everything I would need for the next 9 days.
The Shepherd Pass trail is really stunning and I see why some like it so much. It begins at about 6000 feet in the desert complete with sagebrush and cacti, and then climbs another 6000 feet to cross the Sierra crest. And so I began my climb. I was soon relieved to be in the shade as the sun was behind the crest and the canyon is narrow. The trail crosses the creek 4 times and then leaves the canyon to ascend numerous switchbacks up the canyon wall. Soon I was walking through trees and just as darkness descended I made it to the first saddle at the Symmes/Shepherd Divide which is about 9000 feet in elevation. There is a stand of Mountain Mahogany here and some decent sleeping spots are scattered about, along with a stunning view of Mt. Williamson which I couldn’t really see until morning. I had consumed a batch of Hammer Perpetuem to get me up the hill and after a Cliff bar for dessert I cowboy camped for the night. Beautiful sky full of stars and the lights of Big Pine were off in the distance. I slept fitfully with a slight case of bearanoia. I had heard that bears sometimes frequent this trail and I had a couple items which wouldn’t fit in my canister, but the night was a quiet one with no visitors.
Early moring view of Mt Williamson at Symmes/Shepherd Divide
I was up at first light to get a jump on the sun and heat. The view of Mt. Williamson was fantastic and I felt like I was really finally back in the mountains. The scale of this place is huge. The trail crosses over at the saddle and then drops 600 feet into a different drainage before continuing on to the pass. I was really glad I started in the evening yesterday. This broke the pass up into 2 days so I did not find this descent as discouraging as some others have described it. I saw a few people going the other way this morning, and I had a nice conversation with 3 guys at the next water stop who were returning from the Upper Kern – glowing reports of perfect weather and solitude, but they did say the mosquitoes were out in force. I soon passed Mahogany Flats, blink and you will miss it, as it really consists of just a couple of bivy spots along the trail. There was a group of 3 women just packing up here and as I was passing I thought I recognized one of them. But, when I asked her name it turned out not to be.
The trail makes some very long switchbacks here. I have heard many criticisms of the trail builders, but as I looked at the terrain and cliff bands I really did see the logic in the route. The sun soon warmed the hill sides and the fragrance of sun-warmed Chinquapin was on the breeze. I did not see any Bighorns but their trails were everywhere crisscrossing up the hill sides at a much steeper angle than the hiking trail.
Before long I arrived at Anvil Flat where I had my lunch. This place would make a good camp spot with trees, water, and a few nice tent locations. There were some determined mosquitoes however, and I used bug juice for the first time. After leaving Anvil Camp the trail climbs steeply again and soon leaves the trees for open jumbled granite and scree as the crest and the pass itself comes into view. Next comes the Pothole which was the old departure point for the JMT in prior years. I recalled a former trip looking down from Junction Pass by way of Upper Basin and wondering what places like the Pothole, Anvil Camp, and Mahogany Flat looked like. While stopped here for a break one of the three women I had passed earlier also stopped. We wondered about how much further to the pass and where exactly the trail went in the rocks above. From below, it is impossible to see where the trail goes as it literally disappears into the talus. She was a little worried that her slower partners were finding this too difficult. They were also headed for the Upper Kern so I supposed I might see them again further on.
I mixed up some Perpetuem and continued on up, slowly working my way up the switchbacks until I came to the remaining snow which was only about 50 feet across. There was a good path across and the snow was soft. Not a good place to slip as it would be a nasty slide down into rocks. I was soon across the top and looking at the “loose herding prohibited” sign I’d seen many times in pictures before. I felt good, there were no signs of altitude sickness, and I wandered slowly down the Tyndall Creek trail taking in the magnificent view of the Kaweahs and the Great Western Divide which was opening up toward the west. Easy walking here, and I soon left the trail to contour cross country toward some lakes just south of Diamond Mesa.
Snow at the pass
Loose herding prohibited
Midafternoon found me at a beautiful lake which sits just under Diamond Mesa at about 11,700 feet where I found a great site and no people. It was quite windy, so I set up my tent and did some reading. I could see a few people descending along Tyndall Creek including the party of 3 women behind me. At one point they left the trail and began to climb up to the lake where I was camped and I think they were quite surprised to find anyone there. They spent some time looking around and finally one of them came by and said they might be camping nearby and hoped I did not mind, which I did not. The evening was pleasant, but the wind continued, at least there were no bugs.
Adult beverage near Diamond Mesa
Some strange high lenticular clouds moved through last night and had me wondering about a change in the weather but they dissipated soon after sunrise. My plan was to contour east, conserving altitude, cross the JMT, and drop into the Upper Kern. The off trail hiking was still easy. At one point I saw an old tin can, then a very tame Marmot, and then, there I was on the JMT. I took a break just uphill from the trail and watched some trail crew members headed up to start their workday – nice commute. I could also see my campmates behind me in the distance headed in the same general direction. I passed over and intersected the Kern cutoff trail, followed it down for a ways, and then left it for a more direct northerly route into the Kern basin. I was aiming for the large lake with 3 bays which sits at about 10900 feet at the mouth of the basin leading eastward from Thunder and Table Top mountains. The terrain became a little tricky as I proceeded. I was expecting to cross the trail to Lake South America which I now know I did, but it was so faint I completely missed it. To add to the mystery there are a few small lakes scattered about which are not on the maps at all. Soon I arrived at my destination and found a beautiful and fairly well protected site near the outlet of the lake. There was still quite a breeze which was helpful for mosquito management and the small trees at my camp provided a useful wind break to help keep my tent quiet. There was even a small lagoon nearby for swimming so I cooled off and got camp in order. There appeared to be no one else around which was nice. I took an early evening walk downstream to the next lake and did find the trail to Lake South America near the outlet of that lake.
Lake with 3 bays in Upper Kern
Today was a no pack day, but I was interested in exploring my surroundings so I packed lunch, sunscreen, and bug juice and headed out. First on my agenda was the basin at the base of Thunder and Tabletop. I strolled around the lake and soon crossed some granite slabs leading up into the basin. This is a truly beautiful place. It reminded me of Bench Canyon on the section of the SHR I had done 2 years ago. Granite slabs, small waterfalls, pools, cascades, and lots of flowers, not to mention the stunning views of the peaks above. I wandered upstream about a mile until just below where it started to rise and get steep. The mosquitoes were constant unless I was moving so this was not a day to hang out streamside and just relax.
I crossed over to the north side of the valley and began to contour up the wooded granite bench which leads to the Upper Kern proper. Apparently, there was a natural pathway through the terrain because all of a sudden I was face to face with other hikers. We laughed about the fact that we had bumped smack into each other in such a remote place. They were a very nice couple from Oakland who had come in from the west over Lucy’s Foot Pass and planned to exit over Harrison. They were camped above and were headed down to explore the basin I had just left. After comparing notes I continued on, walking in a slow clockwise ascending spiral through the huge basin above. Soon I was above the treeline and just kept moving across and up with Lake South America as my goal. I couldn’t quite locate it as I walked, finally taking a lunch stop atop the highpoint just west of where I thought the lake should be. The views were fantastic and I really felt like I was deep in the heart of the range. I could really appreciate the layout of the basin and could see my home lake off in the distance. It always amazes me how far you can travel with a few hours of walking.
Refreshed after some food, I continued on and soon the puzzle was solved – there was Lake South America. It really is shaped like the continent only in reverse. It is high alpine without trees. As I was approaching the lake I saw another hiker in the distance walking along the shoreline across my path. When I got down to the flats by the water he was nowhere to be seen and I started to wonder if I had really seen him or not. Soon after as I was climbing a small rise to get a good camera shot of the lake something really eerie happened. I heard a loud wooshing noise begin and then whip past me, and I could feel it as well. It turned out to be a small but very intense wind devil, but in the moment coupled with the mystery hiker and the altitude it was all a bit unsettling. I left the lake and headed up to the trail junction where I decided to head on up to the pass which leads from the JMT to Lake South America. I got a great view down and back towards where I had been the previous day. Soon I was joined by the mystery hiker who turned out to be an older gentleman without much to say. I think he acknowledged me but I’m not really sure he actually said hello. His pack was huge and looked very heavy which may have accounted for his mood, so I respectfully left him to his solitude, headed back down the trail, and turned left at the junction to head back to camp.
Lake South America
I was tired and it was a ways back to camp. The trail was easy to follow for awhile and then it would fade. About half way I just headed off and traveled cross country back to my base. It was one of those long afternoons traveling alone through the wilderness which I really enjoy. Lots of flowers, lakes, and grand vistas. Did I mention the mosquitoes yet? This is a huge basin with lots of room and even though I saw no one else that day it doesn’t mean they weren’t there. I made it back to camp for a late afternoon swim and some more time reading in the tent before calling it a day.
Time to pack up camp and move on to the next place wherever that might be. I headed down the stream toward the lower lake and the trail. As I neared the lake I could see that some people had camped on the granite bench at its south end, and as I got nearer I could see that it was the 3 women from Shepherd’s Pass. I approached and we compared notes. Now that I was talking with all 3 together, I realized that one of their party was actually a guy with his hair in braids. They were headed back to camp near the pass and then out tomorrow. They had gone from the JMT up and over to Lake South America and come down through the Kern headwaters yesterday. I wished them well and headed down the trail. I soon came to the junction with the cut off trail back to the JMT. Straight ahead was Junction Meadow and and the Kern, to the right was Milestone Basin. So many places, too little time.
At the top of the climb out I stopped to take in the view and was soon joined by the party of 3. One of them had hiked up into Milestone yesterday and said it was beautiful. We had a great time taking in the views and talking. Turns out they had done the same section of the SHR as me (Mammoth to Yosemite), only last year instead of two years ago.
View into Milestone Basin
Continuing on through rolling open terrain the trail soon descends back to the JMT. I watched as the others headed off cross country back up to Shepherd’s and I turned my attention to Tyndall Creek and the JMT. There were a fair number of people in this area, some were fishing, and some were just camped in the trees near the creek. I detoured to the Tyndall Creek Ranger Station but the ranger was on patrol, so I just had a look. I was soon at the Tyndall frog ponds and decided to make that home for the night. There were a few others camped near the trail but I headed up to the second pond for some seclusion. Another afternoon was spent swimming, reading, and exploring the meadows around the ponds. My evening here was strange for some reason and I later wished I had hiked on to the Bighorn Plateau for the night. There was just something unsettling about the place, maybe it was the proximity to the JMT or maybe that I had some noisy neighbors, I am not really sure. Some places are just like that.
Leaving Tyndall Frog Ponds
The next morning I made my way back to the trail and found that all other campers were gone early. At the south pond I found an old section of the JMT which has been relocated away from the meadow and I followed this a bit until it connected back in. The trail climbs up and around Tawny Point before crossing the Bighorn Plateau. When I got to the Plateau, I realized I should have camped here last night – much more open with truly spectacular views. As you move south down the JMT it is like watching a slowly fading slide show where the Great Western Divide fades to the right only to be replaced by the Kaweahs from the left, with views of the whole Whitney area opening to the rear. Just before arriving at the lake at Bighorn Plateau I passed a man with only a fanny pack heading north. He never broke stride as he said hello and told me to be sure not to miss a side trip to the point just west of the lake. I did what he said and was not disappointed – the views were very impressive.
Bighorn Plateau with view point on west side
View west to Kaweahs
Looking back toward Forester Pass and Diamond Mesa
The trail heads down and eventually crosses Wales Creek, then soon comes to the intersection with Wallace Creek. Just before arriving at Wallace Creek there is an overview spot and there were 4 guys there trying to arrange a hero shot with their camera on timer. I was volunteered and gladly took their photo for them. Turns out they were on the last few days of a through hike from Happy Isles. Two of them had started together and the other two had joined in with resupplies along the way at different spots. They were all from Vermont and seemed like they were having the time of their life. I considered the logistics and planning which must have gone into making it all happen for them.
At Wallace Creek I hung a left and immediately found a good use trail on the north side of the creek. The first portion had been recently used by stock and the wet parts through the meadow were heavily trammeled. I came around a corner and ran into an older gentleman who looked like he had been out for some time. We started talking and when he learned I was headed up Wallace Creek toward Wallace Lake he said so was he. I found this really odd as he was walking down the trail in the wrong direction, and when I pointed this out he seemed a little confused. I reassured him that I had only recently left the JMT and that this was the trail to Wallace Lake. He then reversed course and we began moving back up the trail together. As we talked I learned that he had started over on the west side at Road’s End and had been out 8 days. He was headed for the lakes in the basin between Mt. Young and Mt. Hale and his goal for the trip was to swim in 60 different high mountain lakes. At first I thought he said he was headed for 60 Lakes Basin but then I realized that he said swimming. Tunnabora Pk. was mentioned which means he was planning to swim in Tulainyo and then he said he was headed up Whitney by way of the Mountaineer’s Route to call his friend by cell phone for a ride back home. His pace as we walked was much slower than mine, and I am not a fast hiker, so he eventually fell behind. A bit later I pulled over near the gorge-like feature on this trail to take a lunch break, but I never saw him again. I wish him well and hope he found his way. Interesting who you run into on the trail.
Gorge on Wallace Creek
As I moved up the trail the basin began to open up and really began to feel remote. I had originally thought I might travel cross country from near the Bighorn Plateau to Wallace Lake, but the route was full of talus and it looked extremely hot and dry, As I looked at the terrain north of the creek I was glad for the trail and glad to be on it. The trail faded in spots but some intrepid duck maker had spent an amazing amount of time here to be sure no one became lost. They were very frequently placed along the way. Steve Roper has this to say about trail ducks - they have “become an eyesore all over the high country.…. I maintain unequivocally that ducks in the High Sierra should be destroyed.”
I did not even destroy one today and later that evening was very glad I didn’t. There was even one last duck placed very near the water at Wallace Lake to mark my arrival. The afternoon was quite windy so I threw down behind some boulders and spent a couple hours reading and exploring the lake. I eventually found a nice sheltered spot and set up camp. As the wind died the mosquitoes reappeared and when I went to grab the bug juice I couldn’t find it. Oh yeah, I set it on that log back down the trail and it is probably still there, right where I left it. It was now late afternoon and while the mosquitoes weren’t all that bad I did not know what I would find during the days to come, so I decided to go on a recovery mission for my bug juice. I grabbed some additional clothing and my headlamp and headed out quickly back down the trail. I remembered exactly what the log looked like, but was not sure exactly how far back it was. I walked for about an hour and came to the gorge-like feature and knew instantly I had somehow gone too far and missed the log. The daylight was starting to fade so I headed back to camp. Sure enough, I soon passed the log and there was my bug juice right where I left it. It was now really starting to get dark and there were a few spots up the trail which I knew would be hard to navigate. This is where I became really grateful for the markers, and even though I lost the trail a few times, if I carefully backtracked and looked around I always found a duck which guided me back on route. The terrain was a bit complex, and I don’t even want to think about what it would have been like to have gotten lost there through the night. Needless to say, camp was a welcome sight after my little adventure. A good hot meal and I was soon asleep.
Sunrise at Wallace Lake
Today’s route held the most amount of uncertainty for me so I got an early start. I knew the way was passable but unsure about the difficultly. There is a headwall between Wallace/Wales and Lake Tulainyo which I had studied yesterday as I approached. It looked like there was a route on the west end, and as I approached closer I could clearly see a slot near the top which would place me on the easy slopes above. So far so good. The other crux would be Russell-Carillon Pass which is supposed to class 2-3 unless you use creative route finding to make it harder than it needs to be. And, I was not sure how much snow there would be.
Wallace Lake from route to Tulainyo
Clouds were forming early today and they were moving fast, so I moved along. This is truly isolated and rugged country. As I crested the rise just before Tulainyo I could see that I would have to pass over snow to get to the lake but the pass above was completely free of snow. The remaining snow fields were deeply sun cupped, and even though some were thigh deep, travel was not that difficult. I slowed down and placed each foot carefully. Soon I was at a small bivy spot just below the headwall. I had originally considered spending a night here but it was early in the day and I was also concerned about the weather. Clouds were passing quickly overhead and I was thinking this might be the start of some monsoonal days ahead. My preference was to be located in the Lone Pine Creek drainage for easy retreat if it was needed, and so it was onward and over the pass today. I had first tasted the water from Lake Tulainyo on my trip to Mt. Russell in the 80’s. It was probably the best lake water I had ever tasted. Today called for a repeat so I carefully made my way over snow down to the shore and had a long drink right out of the lake. Still good after all these years. The lake is unusual for its elevation and the way it is perched right on the edge of the Sierra crest. There is no inflow or outflow, and some claim it is the highest body of water for its size in the country.
People have hauled scuba gear up here to dive
Others have actually come up to ice skate
Drink spot at Tulainyo
Headwall on north side of Russell-Carillon Pass
As I left I just had to wonder if I would ever make it back. It is truly an isolated place and certainly felt that way to me today. I knew that once I was over the pass I would be back into a much more populated area - the Whitney Zone. The climb up was mostly class 2 with a little 3 here and there to make it interesting. My pack was considerably lighter by now, and I took my time to breathe and stopped often to appreciate the sights. The views just get better and better and the pass itself is an amazing place. The head on view of Mt. Russell’s east ridge is spectacular and intimidating if one is considering a summit attempt. The route up from here is only class 3 but the exposure is daunting. I was glad that I had done this previously so did not even have to think twice about an attempt today. Plan B was to spend the night atop Russell-Carillon Pass as I had seen a snow patch for water up there from Whitney Portal, but it was very windy and the clouds were continuing to build over Whitney. It began to rain lightly about 11Am, which sealed the deal for me, and I started down.
East ridge of Mt. Russell - only class 3 but the exposure is huge
View down to Tulainyo
Whitney from Russell-Carillon Pass. Mountaineer's Route is gully from lower left to upper right
The first 500 feet of the descent is a walk in the park across a high alpine plateau covered by soft cushioning scree and sand. The next 1500 feet are much steeper and the scree is not as consistent. It alternates with rock and scree-covered rock, so occasionally footing becomes a little tricky. The gulley leading down from the plateau is criss-crossed with all the different approach paths and I just kept picking those with the softest looking footfalls.
Scree slog down to North Fork Lone Pine Creek
Tents at Upper Boy Scout Lake
As Upper Boy Scout Lake came into view I could see a few other parties already camped there, but it was not too bad and I found an isolated spot on the north side of the lake, which was sheltered from the wind by some rocks. The area surrounding the lake’s outlet consists of sandy spots separated by car sized boulders so there are lots of nice sites. I got situated and set up and prepared to spend some time in the tent waiting out the rain. Mother Nature did not disappoint today, soon the thunder started, then it started raining, and the skies just opened up. It hailed and rained harder than I had ever seen for about 45 minutes. I was so glad to be here and not on the pass. I actually experienced a bit of “misting” in my Moment and, while it was only an annoyance, I was very glad when the downpour began to lighten up. If it had continued on through the night at that intensity I would have had to perform some creative moisture management. It continued to sprinkle on and off through the afternoon, but never as hard as before, which made for a very pleasant afternoon dozing and reading in my shelter.
I chatted with a guide who was using the shelter under a big boulder near my spot to store some gear and asked him about the weather forecast. Tomorrow was supposed to be about the same as today. He had taken some people up the Mountaineer’s Route earlier today and he reported that it was mostly free of snow and ice. Now all along I had been thinking about attempting a trip up depending on when I got here and how the weather was. Since I was a day or two ahead of schedule and in no great hurry to end the trip I decided to at least make a trip up to Iceberg Lake tomorrow. If I started early I should have a good weather window in the early part of the day for a possible trip up Whitney.
I got up before dawn in time to see the headlamps of a guided party who had camped nearby begin the climb up to Iceberg Lake. I quickly got ready and began my own attempt by headlight. I crossed the outlet and began to move up the slope but I couldn’t find any trail or markers to show I was going the right way. Soon I was in talus and became pretty sure I was going the wrong way. Daylight was not far off so I descended and as things lit up I saw that I had gone just a few feet too far right and had started up the wrong drainage. I soon found a use trail up the proper drainage and began to climb again. It was a beautiful morning with no clouds so far and the scenery in the sunrise was spectacular.
Sunrise on the way to Iceberg Lake
Having made this hike once before a long time ago I had forgotten how far it was to Iceberg Lake. It took me about an hour and coupled with the time I lost by getting lost, I began to think maybe a summit bid would not work out. But, as I walked the summit began to look a lot closer so I just kept moving up. From Iceberg Lake there is a long gully which leads up to the Notch. I had been told by guide Ryan that the best approach was to stay left of the gully and proceed directly toward the East Buttress. This was solid rock instead of scree and was class 2 with a little 3 here and there. I passed two pairs of poles which were stashed and I assumed they were from the guided party ahead of me. There were some people camped below at Iceberg but no one else on the route.
Mountaineer's Route from Iceberg Lake to Notch
Soon I came to a spot where the route steepened and the obvious way was to cross over into the gulley. I crossed and then stayed to the left side where there was more rock and less scree. When I got to the Notch I was actually thinking that I might make it. I could definitely feel the altitude but I felt okay to keep going. I stashed my poles at the Notch and descended a few feet to the base of the class 3 chute leading to the summit plateau. There was a challenging move to get into the chute but I made it without incident and found solid class 3 rock for the way up. I stayed left to avoid water for about 100 feet and then moved to the far right side. There was some snow in the center but by staying on the high right side it was avoided. I heard some voices and looked up to see a man being short roped down. I moved over to let them pass, the man greeted me but the guide was all business and never took his attention away from his client. I assumed they were the same two I had seen back at camp before dawn.
Class 3 chute from the Notch to the summit plateau
Looking over to Mt. Russell from class 3 chute. Just about even now.
Shortly after, I topped out on the summit plateau and began to walk up towards the hut. There were quite a few people coming and going and the total number on top varied between 5 and about 20 while I was there. The attitude is actually a little festive with lots of photo taking and exploration of the hut and appreciation of all the different views. One man did a headstand pose for his photo. I took some photos, tried to make cell phone contact which did not work, and I sent a Spot message out. Even though I was tired and a little spacey from the altitude I took some time to walk around, explore, and take in the different views. Total time on top was about 45 minutes and I knew I still had the task ahead of making sure I got down safely.
View to the south
Iceberg Lake from summit. Russell-Carillon Pass is just left of plateau at upper left
Mt Russell, Russell-Carillon Pass, and sliver of ice on Lake Tulainyo
Warning on door
Looking down the upper chute back to the Notch
I had taken good notice of the chute exit/entrance point for the return trip and began to down climb. It was actually easier than I thought it would be, and when I got back to the notch I was able to relax a bit knowing that the rest was comparatively easy going.
View from Notch out to Owens Valley
As I proceeded down the gully I could see a party ascending below. As I got closer I moved over so I didn’t dislodge any rocks above them. It was a group of 6 or 7 young men with full backpacks slogging up the scree. It looked like miserable work to me, but they were young and on an adventure. They were headed for the top and then descending by way of the main trail, planning to camp somewhere along the way. I hope they made it somewhere sheltered before the weather started in again. The rest of the return was uneventful for me. I did stop by Iceberg Lake and talked with a climber there. His group had been weathered off an East Buttress attempt so they were just hanging out. Back at Upper Boy Scout Lake I experienced another afternoon of rain, lightning, and thunder although it was much less intense than yesterday. I was so happy to have finally summited Whitney and really pleased with the route.
An adventure with full packs
My favorite flower
Today was a little sad as it would be my last day of the trip. After a beautiful sunrise I packed it up and started down the North Fork. This route has been a cross country route for years and it is so well used the way is obvious. There are plenty of large ducks to mark the way over granite slabs and there are good pathways through the willow choked sections. I passed several parties on their way up, some planning on a summit bid of Whitney today and two even headed for Mt. Russell. I finally got to travel through the famous Ebersbacher Ledges which I never found on my previous trip to Mt. Russell. In fact, my partner and I at the time got a little lost and actually made an inadvertent detour up a gully on the south side of the creek on the way to Lower Boy Scout Lake, and on our way back down we bushwhacked down right along the stream.
Sunrise over the White Mountains
A Moment at Upper Boy Scout Lake
Outlet Upper Boy Scout Lake
Lower Boy Scout Lake
Route thru willows, Portal Rd. in the distance
Route thru ledges goes lower left to middle right to upper left
Once on the main trail I was back in civilization in no time. America was still on vacation at Whitney Portal although it was much quieter than the day I had shuttled my car.
Back on Main Trail
The Whitney Zone
America on vacation
Due to the constant mosquitoes and the threat of weather I had traveled faster than originally planned which put me back at my car a day or so ahead of schedule. This meant that I could travel back home in leisurely fashion and I took full advantage of my time to visit all the eastside attractions I had always wanted to visit. I took my time and had two more days to do it. I luxuriated in Lone Pine with a hotel room, cold beer, and excellent Chinese food at Margie’s Merry Go Round restaurant. I began to plot a course home to include all the places I wanted to visit. Some I’d been to before like Keough Hot Springs and Momart deli in Lee Vining. Others would be new. Included destinations were: Alabama Hills, Lone Pine Movie Museum, Manzanar National Monument, Whitney Fish Hatchery, Eastern California Museum (excellent display on Norman Clyde), Paradise Resort, Hot Creek and a couple other nearby hot springs, and the Mammoth Ski Museum. I spent my last night back at the Mono Vista
Trailer Park in Lee Vining after a refreshing and buoyant swim in Mono Lake that afternoon. The next day I traveled back home through Yosemite, and my last adventure was a hike to a secluded swimming hole along Yosemite Creek.
Whitney from Alabama Hills
Whitney Fish Hatchery
Keough Hot Springs - highly recommended
Hot pool in the desert
Mono Lake swim spot
Swimming hole on Yosemite Creek
All in all this was an exceptional trip and I have really enjoyed reliving it while writing this report. I can’t wait to get back to this area as there is so much more to explore. Milestone Basin comes to mind and I would love to travel cross country between Shepherd Pass and Wright Lakes. Other possibilities are Junction Pass or even Kaweah Basin. As I said before, so many places, so little time.
A few gear comments:
Shoes: I bought a new pair of Vasque Breeze for this trip and they worked very well. I had previously had a pair of the gore-tex version which were ½ size too small and painful on long days. They were also very hot, and once the gore-tex failed they no longer repelled water. The new, non-gore-tex ones were cool, and I could actually feel air flowing through the mesh on my feet. They were much more comfortable, and I appreciated their boot like qualities for off trail.
Shelter: Tarptent Moment. I really like this shelter, especially the ease of setup. It worked well through wind, torrential rain, and hail.
Food: A new addition for me this year was Hammer Perpetuem. This is excellent for long days as it provides consistent energy and no stomach upset. For dinners I tried Hawk Vittles which I also really liked. I was able to stretch them a bit by taking two servings and repackaging them into three by adding some whole wheat couscous.
Spot 2 Messenger: A few years back I had the pleasure of being able to borrow a Iridium satellite phone for a trip. This is the ideal way of keeping those at home from worrying. If I had the cash I would purchase one. This year I googled phone and messenger rentals and found a service which rents Spots. I have also considered buying a Spot but since I rarely go solo and due to some of the negative past issues I have never pulled the trigger. I highly recommend renting one from LowerGear.com. The service was exceptional and it worked as advertised. All my messages went through to home email complete with a link to Google Earth showing my position.
Pack: I love my GG Mariposa Plus and have used it for years now with excellent results. At the start of this trip fully loaded with 9-10 days food and 4 liters of water I weighed it in at 42 pounds. The Mariposas carried this load quite comfortably, and by the end it felt really light and really comfortable.