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August 13th to 17th 2011: North Lake to South
Lake via Lamarck Col
In August of 2009 I hiked the
classic 54-mile North Lake to South Lake trail in 48 hours and was blown
away by the scenery, especially in Evolution Basin. After that trip
I became aware of a shortcut which would cut 16 miles off of the trip at
the expense of some off-trail scrambling and a higher pass. Specifically,
instead of first going over Piute Pass (elevation 11,423) we would go over
Lamarck Col (elevation 12,960) and essentially right into Evolution
Basin. After some Internet research I invited my parents and decided 4
days and 3 nights would be a good pace for us. Adan and Dylan, whom I
first met last year at Rae Lakes, also came along.
With the family dropped off at
the Oakland Airport, I met Dylan at the BART station and we headed east.
Working to our strengths, he talked, I listened, and soon we were through
Yosemite and on the eastern side of the Sierra's, a first for the tall
man. After getting our permit in Bishop we zoomed down to Independence
and met Adan who happened to be reading Dharma Bums while sitting on the
sidewalk waiting for us. Stories of cans of beans, forgotten sleeping
bags, and drained crankcases would follow when Pa discovered the Kerouac
After depositing Adan's car at
the Onion Valley Trailhead, we drove back north to the Bishop Creek Lodge
where we met Ma and Pa. After dinner (thanks Ma) we cowboy camped outside
Ma and Pa's cabin. At least Adan and Dylan did, since I slept in the back
of a car. That night, someone woke up Adan. Someone turned out to be a
bear, and it woke Adan up by being so close to his face that he felt the
bear's hot, moist breath. For a few tense moments, which probably seemed
like an eternity, Adan and the bear stared at each other, only inches
apart, until Adan hissed and the bear bounded away with an almost magical
power. Needless to say, Adan didn't sleep much more that night, but he
did made sure Dylan was protected.
After dropping Ma and Pa's car
at the South Lake Trailhead, which was only about 5 miles from the Lodge,
we drove to the North Lake Trailhead and headed for Lamarck Col. The plan
was to climb over the 13,000-foot pass, descend the other side, walk along
the lakes in Darwin Canyon, and camp in the Darwin Bench.
According to my Tom Harrison
map, the official trail ends near the outlet of Upper Lamarck Lake, so
when we neared that point and the trail seemed to disappear we took it in
stride and headed for the col. Even from far away, we could see the snow
field we knew that we had to ascend, along with a man-made diagonal track
across it. None of us had been on this route, and the snow field looked
pretty tall and steep, so early on we decided that we would make our
decision on whether or not to climb the snow after we reached it. However,
what we didn't count on was the effort required to reach the bottom of the
snow field. Specifically, we had to cross fields of car sized boulders
and smaller fields of snow with nothing but running shoes and trekking
poles. This wasn't a problem for Adan, Dylan or myself, but my parents
are 68 and 66 respectively, and this was their first trip into the High
Sierra. They soldiered on admirably, but needless to say, it was slow
We reached the snow field early
in the afternoon, and although no one said it, we all knew we didn't want
to go back over the boulders, so we began an ill-advised ascent.
Actually, before climbing it, while Ma and Pa rested, Dylan, Adan and I
scouted it out. After we each checked out different approaches, we
decided to climb the snow directly to the bottom of the diagonal cut in
the snow, cross the snow via the existing cut, then scramble on the rocks
to the top. Since Pa was gassed due to the elevation (we were around
12,000 feet), I went ahead with his backpack, leaving mine at the bottom.
The climb to the existing cut wasn't too bad, and once reached, the cut
was fairly wide and secure. However, near the end of the cut, an area we
didn't check out before hand since it was so far away, the cut disappeared
and the snow field got really steep. I now had to kick my own steps with
nothing but running shoes. And of course the closer I got to the rock,
the more the snow beneath it had melted revealing crevasses, so now I had
to worry about falling two ways. Upon reaching the rock, it was apparent
that a bouldering expert would be required to climb it, so sketchy snow
down-climbing was required to find a place where the pack could be chucked
up, after which I could haul myself out of the snow.
Safely on the rock, I scrambled
as fast as I could to the top, so I could get back down and haul my own
pack up. I'm not sure if the rock was safer than the snow, or vice versa,
but at any rate, a lot of it was loose, and it was very steep.
made it to the top without incident.
Nearing the top, the slope
changed from near vertical to near horizontal and as I began to walk
instead of scramble the obvious hit me, I was nowhere near Lamarck Col.
In fact, I had just climbed the first of four permanent snowfields, a fact
which is obvious now but eluded us at the time. Without giving it much
more thought, after dropping off Pa's pack, I walked to the center
of the snow field, to the edge of the near vertical drop, sat down and
self arrested down the slope with my trekking poles. Please note that the
slope was so steep I would not have tried this had I not seen someone (a
former professional skier; so he said) heading in the other direction do
it. Twice during the descent, for very short periods I lost control, and
midway down I stopped at the cut to talk with the rest of the group, who
happened to be there. Adan and Dylan put on optimistic faces, but we all
knew if either of my parents fell they would not be able to self arrest
with their trekking poles.
Back at the bottom, I once again
began climbing, this time with my pack. Instead of taking my original
route, I crossed over the bottom of the snow field and began climbing the
rock right away. At first it was easy, but soon I came upon long
stretches of steep, loose talus and dirt. Was the snow a better
option? All I can say is that both ways really sucked. As I climbed I
kept expecting to see the group, but soon found myself at Pa's pack,
alone. I dropped the second pack, and headed down the rock with a lump in
Almost halfway down, near the
location where I first transferred from the snow to the rock, I found the
group making slow and steady progress. I took my Mom's 8-pound pack
(which had been carried by Adan and Dylan in addition to their own packs)
and stuck behind her until we finally reach the top.
The reality had been building
for quite some time, but was suppressed by adrenaline and the focus the
situation required. Now that we were safe, I was overcome and began
sobbing. As my parents consoled me I told them over and over that this
wasn't what I wanted, was not what I planned, was not what someone with
two young children did. Despite the fact that no one was hurt, and that
we didn't even have a close call, climbing the snow field was a bad
After a few minutes to compose
myself, and several deep breaths, we decided to camp on the plateau around
elevation 12,500 feet. It wasn't too late, but I was emotionally drained
and Pa was physically drained (everyone else could have continued
however). This turned out to be the first of many good decisions. We
found a great campsite with pristine water nearby and views all the way
down to Bishop (8,000 feet below). Exploring the plateau, we peered down
into massive snowfields with blue green lakes that may have not seen
humans in many years, if ever. And that night, setting the precedent for
the remainder of the trip, Adan, Dylan and I slept under the full moon
with a gentle breeze while Ma and Pa snuggled in a Tarptent Double
However, before dusk we saw
hikers heading down one of the mellow snowfields we had to climb
tomorrow. Even more alarming, as they came closer we saw that they were
day hikers. How would they get down the insane snow field? As they
descended we headed towards them, only to discover… a trail, which they
would take all the way back down to their car. Our adventures had been
As expected, we ascended two
mellow snowfields before finally reaching the final snow field below
Lamarck Col. The final bit of the snow field was steep, but nothing like
the crazy snow field on the first day, so we soon found ourselves resting
and celebrating at Lamarck Col, elevation 12,960 feet.
A pretty good trail headed down
the other side, which we greedily followed, but soon we were back to
boulder scrambling which was especially hard on Pa. When he was near his
limit, almost out of nowhere, we came upon a small, level patch of grass
right next to gurgling stream, still several hundred feet above the first
lake in Darwin Canyon. Break time was called, shoes were removed,
Gatorade was drunk, and naps commenced.
The rest of the day was spent
scrambling along the right hand shore (heading down canyon) of the lakes
in Darwin Canyon. Sometimes we could follow trail, but it seems most of
the time was spent scrambling over boulders and traversing snow. One
stretch of snow was particularly memorable. It was a short traverse, but
the snow was harder than usual, and slip would send you into the lake.
Luckily as we were scouting from the up-canyon side, a group approached
from the down-canyon side. "Good luck for both of us," I shouted;
"we only have to kick half as many steps". I guess they didn't understand since
while Dylan kicked steps across, and I followed with Pa's pack, they just
waited. Once across, it became clear they were not very comfortable with
the prospect of the crossing, so I offered to take one of their packs
across, since I had to go back anyway to get my pack. To my surprise,
they gave me the lone teenager's pack (the other two were much older) which
had a gold mining pan. Since we kicked the steps and I was carrying one
of their packs I assumed they would let my parents cross first, so it was
to my great annoyance that they began following me across the snow, going
very slowly, but also destroying the steps very methodically. When they
reached the other side, the promptly showed Dylan a gold nugget they found
with said pan, and unloaded pounds of nuts and granola on him.
Unexpectedly, this day turned
out to be nearly as challenging as the first day, and it was with great
relief that we reached Darwin Bench, our campsite. My mom and I had given
ourselves washcloth baths at camp 1, but here we, along with Pa, were able
to fully submerge and rinse out our salty, dusty hiking clothes. As
expected, the magic sierra water rinsed away our worries, aches, pains and
other maladies leaving us clean and refreshed to enjoy another perfect
High Sierra evening on the Darwin Bench.
My parents were over this
"off-trail" stuff, therefore I wanted to get to the JMT as quickly as
possible, so when I saw a trail, I followed it, and soon we were at a spot
where looking down to the right was the wooded Evolution Canyon and to the
right of it was the more open Evolution Basin, both of which had the JMT running
right through them. But that was perhaps 500 feet below us, through
nearly vertical terrain, and the great trail I was following had died out
- what to do? We scouted, but the trail seemed to disappear. After some
serious scrambling ahead by Adan, Dylan and myself, we discovered the
problem. They both thought I wanted to follow the contour we were on
right into Evolution Basin, and avoid any descending/re-climbing. This
was technically possible from looking at the map, but a bad idea. In
reality, my poor communication was the problem, as I was willing to climb
down to the center of the earth, provided my parents didn't need to spend
any more time off trail. With this clarified, we backtracked on the
trail, found where it followed the creek down, and soon, found ourselves
at the JMT junction, perhaps midway between the climb between Evolution
Valley and Evolution Basin.
The rest of the day was smooth
sailing. Dylan was kind to a woman and was rewarded immediately with
extraordinary trail magic. At Evolution Lake we all swam and while the
rest of us napped in the sun, Adan, clad only in his underwear, worked on
his barefoot running technique on the amazing trail around the lake. We
ended the day at Wanda Lake, short of Muir Pass, in high spirits.
The previous night, a decision
was made to start hiking early, and have breakfast at the hut on Muir
Pass, which is exactly what we did. Not unexpectedly, on the pass we met
some great characters (thru-hiker Dirty Tortilla, for example) and Dylan
was even able to give away some food which the gold-panning group unloaded
on him the previous day. The descent down the southern side of Muir Pass
was amazing due to the huge amount of snow; in fact we were in and out of
snow fields all the way to the second unnamed lake where we took a break.
The water looked great, but just as we were about to jump in Dylan noticed
frogs, lots of frogs (at least 30). None of us planned on using soap in
the lake, but we all had varying amounts of sunscreen on, so to protect
the frogs, we went in the water near the lake outlet, a less desirable
swimming location, but the right decision and equally refreshing
After cooling off, it became
apparent Adan was not OK. In fact, despite the heat he had put on his
black jacket and was shivering. For the rest of the day the big guy had a
fever yet never complained, hiked as fast as us, and refused to let us
help him at camp that night which turned out to be right near the rangers
cabin at the Bishop Pass / JMT Junction. This was the only wooded area we
camped during the entire trip, and so as to not deal with mosquitoes, we
all set up our shelters (Tarptent Rainbow's for Dylan and Casey, Tarptent
Moment for Adan, and Tarptent Double Rainbow for Ma and Pa). I must
apologize to the group for calling out distances near the end of the day.
Since I had been here before, I was trying to encourage them, but saying
we only had a 1/2 mile to go, when 2 miles away, makes for a very long,
cranky, end of hiking day.
I thought Ma and Pa would be out
yesterday, so today we again opted to hike before breakfast, since we need
to climb 3,200 feet over 6.6 miles before descending 2,150 feet over 6
miles. Just like the day before, this pre-dawn hiking was magical, and we
made it to an exceptional spot in Dusy Basin for breakfast. From there it
was a dream-like walk through the basin up to Bishop Pass and an awe
inspiring walk down the pass (due to the amazing work of the trail
builders). Then it became a slog. Despite the amazing lakes and views,
the trail was dusty, it was hot, and we wanted to be done, yet the trail
went on, and on, and on.
Upon reaching Ma and Pa's car at
the South Lake Trailhead, we stuffed ourselves in, drove to my car at the
North Lake Trailhead, then rendezvoused at a sandwich shop in Bishop.
After some great food and cool drinks, Ma/Pa and Dylan headed north while
Adan and I went south. The northbound trio dropped off Dylan at Tuolumne
Meadows so he could continue his time in the woods while Adan and I went
back to the Onion Valley Trailhead so Adan could also go back into the
wilderness. Both my parents and I planned to drive to real beds that
night (my parents to their house in Santa Cruz, me to Emily's parents
house in Southern California) but we both succumbed to sleepy eyes. They
got a hotel somewhere around midnight while I simply slept in the car at
In case you're wondering why we left Adan's car at
the Onion Valley Trailhead, we planned on leaving my parents at the JMT /
Bishop Pass junction at the end of day 3 and continuing south on the JMT
for 4 more days. The events of days 1 and 2, along with our slower
than anticipated pace changed the plan.
Do more research about current trail
conditions. I probably could have found out before hand that this trip
would have been too much for my parents.
Double check initial assumptions.
Specifically, I should have known that the first snowfield did not lead to
Lamarck Col if I had only looked a bit more carefully at the map.
When in snow, use sunblock and chapstick
early and often. Butt paste (16% zinc oxide) works really well as
Sungloves would have been nice, and done
double duty as warmth gloves.
The nasal spray worked great at keeping
my nose clear at night, but use as little as possible as it is powerful
stuff and gave me bloody noses in the morning (for me, a worthwhile
trade-off compared to a poor night sleeping).
Do not hike to campsites/destinations.
This leads to people being cranky and tired at the end of the day (see end
of days 4 and 5). Instead, have the flexibility and time to camp anywhere
(see days 1, 2 and 3).
I have yet to regret any instance of
going in the water. Just do it, it doesn't take long.
Cleaning your body (and putting hiking
clothes back on) feels better than sleeping dirty in dedicated sleeping
Jump at any opportunity you have to
backpack with Adan or Dylan.
As we were trudging down into LeConte
Canyon, my parents were upbeat and chipper yet Dylan was down and tired.
That night at camp he remarked, "I'm still pretty upset about that".
Kidding aside, this is the most inspirational aspect of the trip. If we (Adan,
Dylan and myself) take care of ourselves, we have 30 more yearly trips
together to look forward to.
For future trips plan for more exploring
/ lounging and less miles. Why not spend 1 day getting to Dusy Basin, 2
days exploring it, and 1 day leaving?
If anyone wants to hike with me, don't plan a trip that's longer
than 4 or 5 days!
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