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August 13th to 17th 2011: North Lake to South Lake via Lamarck Col

 

Summary

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.

 

Day 0

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 connection.

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.

 

Day 1

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 going.

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.  However, I 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 my throat.

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 decision.

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 Rainbow.

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 needlessly perilous.

 

Day 2

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.

 

Day 3

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.

 

Day 4

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 none-the-less.

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.

 

Day 5

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 the trailhead.

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.

 

Lessons Learned

·         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 sunblock.

·         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 clothes.

·         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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