Sierra High Route - Snow Tongue Pass to Frozen Lake Pass 9/6-9/13
This is a trip that had been at the top of my list for the past 2 years, but always seemed to get postponed due to logistical hassles and lack of a partner with the temperament and skill set necessary to do the route safely. From a logistical standpoint I did not want to be in the position of trying to get back to Road's End in KCNP from the Bishop area, or vice versa. It was just something I didn't feel like dealing with. As for hiking partners, my limited group of compatible candidates just didn't have the type of experience that would make for a safe trip. This spring the situation finally resolved when it occurred to me that I didn't have to start or finish at Road's End to put a nice route together, and a serendipitous encounter with the new girlfriend of an old climbing buddy put me back in contact with a very qualified partner. I ran the route by him, he was more than ready, and it was "game on". We decided to go in over Piute Pass, begin our SHR section hike at Snow Tongue Pass, and end it in Lake Basin with an exit via Cartridge and Taboose Passes.
Day 1 - Snow Tongue Pass to Lake Frances
We used a shuttle service to pre position our car at the Taboose Pass TH and deliver us to the Piute Pass TH. We started hiking around 10:30 AM in decidedly "iffy" weather, with the intention of bivvying near Muriel Lake if the weather didn't improve. By the time we got to Piute Pass things had improved just enough for us to decide to continue. We took the use trail to Lake Muriel and then contoured across the slopes of lower Wahoo Lakes Basin and on into the upper Wahoo Lakes basin, where we intersected the SHR. As Roper mentions, the approach to Snow Tongue Pass is rugged but straightforward, with a lot of tedious talus hopping. The actual pass itself is a cruddy combination of steep, hard packed soil covered with a thin layer of debis, and protruding blocks of weathered, often fractured talus which required very careful evaluation before committing to them as handholds/footholds. It was slow going, but mercifully brief, as the section was quite short, perhaps 200' vertical. The only evidence of a "snow tongue" was a small, dirty, patch at the foot of the final steep section. The going on the other side of the pass was much easier, involving only a short section of talus before easing into much easier going on the way down to Lake Frances. We got to the lake around 5 PM and settled in to a very nice campsite on a grassy bench a few hundred feet from the lake. All in all, an auspicious start to the trip.
Snow Tongue Pass
Humphreys Basin from the pass
Looking down the ascent route
The pass from the south side
Day 2 - Lake Frances to Wanda Lake
We awoke to a beautiful, sunny day and got off to the usual old men's late start around 9:30 AM. Our goal for the day was to negotiate the benches above Evolution Valley and put ourselves into position below Muir Pass for a hike down to Lower Peets Meadow in Leconte Canyon the next day, for reasons to be explained below. Roper cautions that it is difficult to find the proper place to begin hiking the benches above Evolution Valley, but we did not find that to be true. We used Fred's altimeter to enter the bench system at almost exactly 10,900', and encountered no particular difficulties in negotiating the benches. It was a delightful exercise in micro route finding on a picture perfect fall day in the Sierra. We came out the other end right after we crossed the use trail connecting Darwin Bench with the JMT, at around 10,800'. From there it was a relaxed hike past Evolution and Sapphire Lakes to Wanda Lake, where we were treated to a beautiful sunset as we ate dinner and prepared to settle in for the nght.
Entrance to the bench system above Evolution Valley
Uh...maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all?
Sunset over Goddard Divide
Day 3 - Wanda Lake to Lower Peet's Meadow
Our goal for the day was to position ourselves about a mile north of the Bishop Pass Trail leading up into Dusy Basin. We were not using bear canisters and wanted to get up into Dusy Basin early enough in the day to be able to convince any inquisitive ranger we might encounter that we would be over Knapsack and Potluck Passes before nightfall, thereby avoiding a night in the "canister required" zone. We spent the day hiking up over Muir Pass and down thru beautiful LeConte Canyon, arriving at a campground in the vicinity of Little Peet's Meadow around mid afternoon. We were disheartened by the TP flags much in evidence around the campsite and ended up establishing our own campsite a few hundred feet above the regular campground. Out of sight out of mind was our intention, but we only half succeeded, as it was still in our minds. It was, at least for me, the low point of the trip. We turned in early, as we anticipated considerably more strenuous hiking the next day.
Descent into LeConte Canyon
Little Peet Meadow
Day 4 - Little Peet's Meadow to Barrett Lakes
We got on the trail early, anxious to get up into, and out of, Dusy Basin as quickly as possible, in hopes of minimizing our chances of encountering an unsympathetic ranger. In the event, we were spared that potential ordeal, and were soon headed up to Knapsack Pass, clearly visible on the horizon to the south. Following Skurka's advice to contour high above the lake to avoid boulders and brush, we soon picked up a use trail that would eventually lead us all the way to Knapsack Pass, with a few very short sections where we were on our own. We got the distinct impression that a lot more than SHR hikers had been using this trail, which was borne out when we encountered 2 parties of 6 heavily loaded backpackers with fishing rods much in evidence in Palisades Basin. The weather had begun to deteriorate as we topped out on Knapsack Pass and, just as we arrived at the second largest of the Barrett Lakes, the skies opened and we got hammered with a violent hail storm, effectively ending any thoughts of continuing on over Potluck Pass that afternoon. We hastened to set up our tents in the deluge, and proceeded to settle in for the night, content to take our chances with any hapless ranger caught out in the storm. As the sun set, the weather cleared, and we were treated to another beautiful sunset over the peaks that form the northern boundary of the Ampitheater Lakes Basin to the southwest.
Middle Fork Kings River from Bishop Pass Trail
Knapsack Pass from lower Dusy Basin
Knapsack Pass up close
Sunset from Barrett Lakes
Day 5 - Barrett Lakes to Palisade Lakes
We got off to another leisurely start and negotiated both Potluck and Cirque Passes with little difficulty. Both involved easy ascents and descents of bench/ledge systems, with a little debris thrown in occasionally, just to keep things from getting boring. Until the 300' cliff just above Lower Palisade Lake, that is. Roper says there are several routes around the cliff, the most often used being a ramp/ledge system off to the right. Fred took a look at the alternatives and found them unappealing, mostly for me, as I am unabashedly at a point in my life where exposed Class 3 holds little attraction. So, we took a closer look at the terrain off to the right which, at first glance, offered no obvious line. We moved carefully across a very steep, grassy slope for a closer look and, to our relief, there was a ledge system that appeared to offer a possible way down. We moved onto it and, sure enough, it led easily down to a jumble of huge talus blocks that dumped us out onto flat, grassy terrain about 100 yards from the JMT, just below Lower Palisade Lake. We still had a couple hours of daylight left, so we hiked on past Upper Palisade Lake and found a delightful alpine campsite in a grassy meadow with a stream, about halfway between Upper Palisade Lake and Mather Pass. We were well satisfied with the day's progress, for we were now perfectly positioned to be at Frozen Lake Pass between noon and 1 PM the next day.
Atop Potluck Pass
Cirque Pass(below dark peak in distance)
Exit from 300' cliff bypass below Cirque Pass
Camp below Mather Pass
Day 6 - Above Palisade Lakes to Upper Lake Basin
Another gentleman's start put us on Mather Pass around 10:30 AM. After a brief break to enjoy the views, we headed down and then angled across Upper Basin toward Frozen Lake Pass, now clearly visible on the southern horizon. As we ascended toward the steep final section, we encountered quite a bit of large talus, alternately steep and horizontal. It made for slow, careful going. Roper says the final steep section is extremely loose and difficult to negotiate without triggering rockslides. If one stays to the right, where there is a well worn track covered with debris, that is probably the case. We decided not to try our luck, choosing instead to climb carefully up the steep talus field to the right. It proved to be a wise choice, as we reached the pass without dislodging any rock at all. The south side of Frozen is very similar, with a well worn pathway hugging the east side of the descent route next to a near vertical wall which offers numerous handholds that can be used to stabilize oneself while descending the loose, slippery pathway. It seemed preferable to staying on the talus, which Roper warns is unstable, and that is exactly what we did until forced onto the talus after about 300', where the slope fortuitously eases considerably. At this point we angled diagonally downward to some slabs about 200' feet below, and soon found ourselves on much easier terrain which led us down to the lakes in Upper Lake Basin visible in the distance. We found an excellent campsite by one of the lakes and relaxed into the evening, well satisfied at having completed the SHR section of our trip. All that remained was our exit over Cartridge Pass, clearly visible about a mile to the southeast, and a short off trail section to the JMT. From there we would be on main trails all the way to the car.
Frozen Lake Pass from Upper Basin
Upper Frozen Lake Pass
Frozen Lake Pass from upper Lake Basin
Sunset from upper Lake Basin camp
Day 7 - Upper Lake Basin to Upper Taboose Pass Trail
We started up Cartridge Pass around 9 AM on another beautiful day. The weather was finally starting to stabilize. Cartridge Pass has a nasty reputation, but we did not find it particularly so, at least on the Lake Basin side. It ascends steeply and directly up out of Upper Lake Basin on a well worn path thru stable talus for about 600' before topping out. The vista to the south is truly beautiful, with Bench Lake and Arrow Peak clearly visible across the chasm of the South Fork Kings River Canyon. The trail down to a beautiful lake on a bench above the north wall of the canyon is also pretty mellow. The drop down to the South Fork Kings River is another story, however. As most reports indicate, it is a nasty piece of work, with very short switchbacks dropping steeply down ~1600' a very loose slope. The trail peters out just before reaching the river, but the use trail heading east to the JMT is easily acquired by casting back and forth a few times while heading upstream. It leads shortly to the first of 3 talus fields that all accounts I had read indicate must be crossed. We crossed the first without incident and soon found ourselves at the beginning of a much bigger field. Some instinct led me to glance to my right, in the direction of the river. There was a thicket of slide aspen that seemed on first inspection to be impenetrable. I looked a little closer and spotted what seemed to be a tunnel, faintly visible thru the canopy, where there should have been intertwined trunks and limbs. We went over to take a closer look and darned if there wasn't a clear path thru the aspens with a well defined trail that allowed us to avoid the second talus field. It soon turned into a really well defined trail, complete with occasional piles of horse manure, which circumvented the third talus field as well. From there on it was smooth sailing all the way to the JMT, about 150 yards north of the South Fork Kings River crossing. We crossed the river and hiked on up to the trail which would take us to Taboose Pass. We had planned to bivvy for the night about a mile west of Taboose Pass, but it was only 4 PM when we arrived at the bivvy site, and we were both feeling pretty good. So, we decided to continue on to another bivvy site about 2.5-3 miles east of Taboose Pass, where the trail crosses back to the north side of Taboose Creek. The upper 2-3 miles of the Taboose Pass Trail are quite rough, and we were definitely ready to call it a day by the time the bivvy sites came into view as we were plodding down the last set of switchbacks before crossing the creek. Just then, Fred spotted a bear nosing around the bivvy sites about the same time he spotted us. He hightailed it downstream about as fast as I have ever seen a bear go, which was a good indication we weren't going to have bear trouble that night. Nonetheless, we ate cold food and took extra care in sealing our odor proof food bags, just in case.
View south from Cartridge Pass
Day 8 - Upper Taboose Pass Trail to the car
The night passed uneventfully and, after a leisurely cup of coffee in the morning, we were on our way by 7:30 AM and back to the car by 10 AM. An hour later, we were in Bishop enjoying a cup of real coffee and an oatmeal scone at the Looney Bean, while that indescribable sense of euphoria and fatigue that a really good trip generates slowly settled over us.
Dawn from Taboose Creek bivy