After finishing a section of the Sierra High Route a few weeks ago I met a guy named Donn while hiking out through Sabrina Basin. We talked nutrition, gear, exercise, footwear and world politics while hiking a few miles to the parking lot. I rarely meet somebody who shares so many similar common interests, including a passion for cross country backpacking in the High Sierra.
I couldn’t believe it when he showed me a map of the cross country passes he had been scouting out for the past week. They were the same passes that I had been researching all winter. We decided to take one last trip of the season together, weather permitting.
During the next few weeks we had to delay the trip due to the mid October storm, but we lucked out and took advantage of an unusually warm break in the weather last week.
We started out by acclimating at Midnight Lake the first day. It's only a few miles to Midnight Lake from the Sabrina Lake TH so I was able to leave home in the morning and still get there in time to have dinner at the lake.
There was still some snow on the trail from the storm the week before.
Cowboy camping on some pine duff at Midnight Lake.
The next morning we got an early start up the ridge between Hungry Packer Lake and Midnight Lake. Secor recommends starting at the very beginning of this ridge, but Donn had scouted a short cut directly from Midnight Lake.
Mt. Darwin in the morning from Midnight Lake.
The route up from Midnight Lake.
Soon we reached the base of the large valley that leads to Haeckel Col (12,780 feet).
Looking back on the way through the valley.
I took this picture of the west side of Haeckel Col from the JMT earlier this summer. I couldn’t wait to check out the lakes, cirques and mountains in the huge basin above Sapphire Lake, but Mt. Haeckel and the col (see the red arrow) looked intimidating from the west. Could there really be a route up that steep granite wall?
Once we got near the crest on the east side we dropped our packs and decided to try out what looked like it could be the ‘best’ route. We lucked out and found an easy way over the col the first try, with only a short class III climb down the west side.
Haeckel Col from lake 12,345 (on the east side).
East side approach to Haeckel Col.
The views from the top were amazing in both directions.
The scale is difficult to capture. Donn and I are somewhere on the boulders in these pxts.
After a 1,000 foot scramble down to lake 11,808 we followed some more boulder fields and a few granite benches down to Sapphire Lake. By that time we were losing light so we booked it on the JMT to a campsite at the top of the waterfall leading from Evolution Lake.
The view of the west side approach to Haeckel Col on the way to Sapphire Lake.
Fall colors in Evolution Basin.
We found a great site covered by trees at the top of the waterfall.
The next morning we headed up to Darwin Bench, with some great views looking back toward Evolution Lake.
The color of the lakes in Darwin Canyon was similar to the bright blue/green of Marion Lake on the SHR.
And there were a few sandy beaches.
We climbed up the boulder fields at the east end of Darwin Canyon on the way up to Darwin Col (13,034 feet).
It was a challenge finding the boulders that were stable AND didn’t have any snow on them. I was just wearing trail runners.
Darwin Glacier just after sunset.
The east side of Darwin Col is much like the east side of Frozen Lake Pass. We had fun scree skiing down the steep slope.
By the time we got toward the bottom it was getting dark.
We found the nearest flat spot that had a little cover from the wind. It was a cold night at our camp at the base of Mt. Darwin (about 12,700 feet). The wind seemed to come from all directions as it swirled around the end of the cirque. My meager 1/8” GG pad and Klymit Inertia inflatable torso pad barely did the trick insulating me from the cold granite, but my homemade 20 degree quilt kept me toasty on top.
Our water bottles froze solid overnight.
The scramble back down to Midnight Lake was a breeze compared to the previous two days.
Darwin Col from the east.
Mt. Darwin from Blue Heaven Lake.
The fall colors on the hike out through Sabrina Basin reminded me that this would probably be my last trip of the season before the first real winter storms kicked in. . . although I’m still hoping for a trip in November.
I found the word "Candy" with an arrow written in the snow on the way down. I knew it must be time to get home to see my wife, her name is Candy. Possibly a note from the mountain gods?
About gear, I was using a homemade cuben backpack with a removable internal frame. I took the frame out and cached my bear canister at Midnight Lake after the first night. The 20 degree quilt is also homemade (thanks to all of the people on the MYOG forums).
Although I went UL with a base weight of 7.5 lbs (including the bear canister) my hiking buddy Donn was using mostly traditional gear. By the third day he was talking about how he could save 10 lbs just by using a different backpack, sleeping bag and shelter. I think carrying 35+ lbs up those boulder fields was uncomfortable.
If you're interested here's a link to my gear list
Here's a map of our route:
Thanks for reading. Andy.