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Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col
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Andy Duncan
(bluewater) - M

Locale: SoCal
Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 03:45:15 MDT Print View

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.

sabrina basin th

There was still some snow on the trail from the storm the week before.

snow on trail

Cowboy camping on some pine duff at Midnight Lake.

midnight lake camp

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.

mt darwin

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.

route to haeckel

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?

from the jmt

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).

haeckel col from lake 11,808

Almost there.

donn on approach to haeckel col

East side approach to Haeckel Col.

east side of haeckel col

The views from the top were amazing in both directions.

mt haeckel and the sierra crest

view to the west

The scale is difficult to capture. Donn and I are somewhere on the boulders in these pxts.

donn on the west side

lake 11,808

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.

haeckel from the west

Fall colors in Evolution Basin.


We found a great site covered by trees at the top of the waterfall.

camp at evo

evo valley

The next morning we headed up to Darwin Bench, with some great views looking back toward Evolution Lake.

evo lake

The color of the lakes in Darwin Canyon was similar to the bright blue/green of Marion Lake on the SHR.

darwin lake

And there were a few sandy beaches.


beach 2

We climbed up the boulder fields at the east end of Darwin Canyon on the way up to Darwin Col (13,034 feet).

east end of darwin cyn

It was a challenge finding the boulders that were stable AND didn’t have any snow on them. I was just wearing trail runners.

snow and boulders

Darwin Glacier just after sunset.

darwin glacier

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.

scree slope

By the time we got toward the bottom it was getting dark.

approaching storm clouds

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.

cold camp

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.

darwin col east side

Mt. Darwin from Blue Heaven Lake.

mt darwin from sabrina basin

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.

Ike Jutkowitz
(Ike) - M

Locale: Central Michigan
re: Darwin on 10/25/2012 04:04:38 MDT Print View

Cool route, Andy, and a really interesting read. Thanks for putting this up.
Looks like you did a great job on that quilt by the way.

Chris S
(csteutterman) - F

Locale: Tahoe
Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 10:37:57 MDT Print View

Nice report and pictures, Andy. I like the red lines/arrows you added to the pics and including the map saved be a bit of time when trying to follow along. Good stuff!

Andrew F
(andrew.f) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 11:00:58 MDT Print View

Hey Andy,

Nice trip. It's great to see some snow up there for a change. Haeckel Col looks pretty improbable from the west side... I'm not sure that I would think there would be a way up there from Sapphire Lake if I didn't know better. That whole area from Goethe to Wallace seems to have a disproportionate share of talus. It's got to be one of the most rugged areas in the whole Sierra.

I'm impressed by how light you went, especially in the shoulder season. At this time of year I usually start bringing a more robust shelter and extra insulation just in case a freak storm comes through. Most of your stuff is lighter than what I use in August!

Did you post a TR anywhere of your time on the High Route?


Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 11:48:35 MDT Print View

Great trip and fantastic photos/report. Makes me want to go seek out a little snow if not for work. Thanks for sharing.

Casey Bowden
(clbowden) - MLife

Locale: Berkeley Hills
Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 12:58:52 MDT Print View


Andy Duncan
(bluewater) - M

Locale: SoCal
Re: Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 13:42:09 MDT Print View

Thanks for your comments Ike, Chris, Andrew, HK and Casey.

@Ike, the quilt is a copy of the zpacks 20 degree quilt. I used the green quantum pertex for the shell and some SevenD I had left from last year for the liner. That thing is super warm.

@Chris, I'm glad you could see those red route lines, I wasn't sure if they would be visible. If you are ever considering the route I have some close up shots of the final approach. We shot for the large white triangular boulder that is visible from both sides.

@Andrew, I agree there is a ridiculous amount of talus in that area. I tried to stay as light as possible (w/out going "stupid light" ala Skurka) for the climbing days. One thing that has saved a lot of weight is transitioning from a smaller tarp & bivy to a slightly larger tarp and a quilt with more down and slightly heavier shell material. After reading the recent article on BPL about tarp camping in bad weather I brought more guylines and stakes just in case. Those storms can get crazy. Candy & I made it through a bad night of thunderstorms while camping exposed by Wanda Lake during the August monsoons this summer. Fortunately we had a shaped tarp (SMD cuben Haven). I'm still working on the TR for the SHR, coming soon!

@Casey, your trip earlier this summer through Evolution/Ionian/Goddard was a big inspiration for this trip. Thanks for the TR's on your website!

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 16:08:25 MDT Print View

"Great trip and fantastic photos/report."

I'll second that! Thanks for posting it, Andy. I'm saving a link to this one for next season!

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Cross Country Loop around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 16:08:42 MDT Print View

Excellent stuff! Sounds like a awesome trip in a awesome area.. That entire area is spectacular. Winter is almost here-Darn!

Andy Duncan
(bluewater) - M

Locale: SoCal
Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 20:32:15 MDT Print View

Thanks Tom & Jay. Coming from two people with the Sierra experience you guys have it really means a lot. Still hoping for a long weekend w/ good weather in November. . . Andy.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/25/2012 21:41:45 MDT Print View

Cool trip.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: Sierra XC on 10/26/2012 09:26:43 MDT Print View

That looks fantastic.

Andy Duncan
(bluewater) - M

Locale: SoCal
Re: Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/26/2012 13:32:54 MDT Print View

Thanks Craig & David. . .

Edited by bluewater on 10/26/2012 13:35:03 MDT.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/27/2012 08:07:48 MDT Print View

wow that looks sooooo cool! Thank you for posting this. One of my fave areas of The Sierra

John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
Echo Col/Pass? on 10/27/2012 18:13:32 MDT Print View


Your report leaves me very sorry I didn't get one last trip in. Good photos and accompanying comments. It looks like you hiked over Echo Col? If so would describe the difficulty of the west side? Thanks again. John

John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
wrong canyon on 10/27/2012 20:22:48 MDT Print View

I read the map wrong, sorry.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/27/2012 20:29:11 MDT Print View

Very nice indeed!

Andy Duncan
(bluewater) - M

Locale: SoCal
Echo Col on 10/28/2012 11:51:25 MDT Print View

Thanks Ken, John & Ken.

I went over Echo Col while exiting the SHR earlier this summer. Here are a few photos from the west side approach to Echo Col. I'll add some more about the east side approach later. I wasn't able to find a lot of detailed descriptions of the west side approach while researching the route, hopefully this will help:

The first climb from the JMT. It's just over 400 feet.

west side approach

The view back toward the JMT and Black Giant.


Once over the first climb there is a large plateau with lake 12,428.


Looking back at lake 12,428 from the ridge above the lake.


The first close up view of Echo Col. The notch is hidden from view.


Echo Col. The route is visible here.


Echo Col.


The final boulder field to Echo Col.


The class III climb to the top. This is barely class III, especially if carrying a light pack.


Looking to the left while climbing the final boulder field. It gets steep with lots of loose talus.


Looking back from the top of the boulder field, but before climbing to the top.


Looking straight down from the top.


The northeast approach to Echo Col. The wall is not as vertical as it looks from here. There are use trails/pathways that make it easier to find a good route to the top.


A map of my route.

map 2

This area is probably partially covered with snow by now, but the ice field on the east side was almost completely melted out in late September. I found the remains of a 30 year old plane crash at the bottom of the cirque.

More later. Andy.

Edited by bluewater on 10/28/2012 11:56:32 MDT.

James Winstead

Locale: CA
Re: Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col on 10/28/2012 16:33:53 MDT Print View

Andy, fantastic trip and thanks so much for such thorough photos. Haeckel looked so intimidating from sapphire lk when we went by. Seems true (per your photos) here as it is for so many of those passes though, looking improbable for afar but sure enough there is usually a way through.


John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
Echo Col on 10/30/2012 14:42:11 MDT Print View

same with Echo Col peering over to the west from the JMT hiking up to Muir Pass just below Lake Helen. It looks like a vertical wall. But Andy's pictures make it look manageable. I have hiked up very near to the pass itself from the east and found it doable but always intimidated for a western approach by both the map and what I have seen from the west. Additionally attempts to find encouragement regarding the west side have gone unanswered.