The y2k Sierra Tour

the Cast: my brother Larry, veteran of the '97 Mono-Hopkins trip, and his wife Julie. Both of them were with me on the '98 Wind River hike.

the Route: I dangled several options in front of my two companions, and the mention of Evolution Valley sparked their interest. The 'standard' route over Piute and Bishop passes seemed a bit long to them, so Lamarck Col was back in the mix! We settled on a Piute-to-Lamarck loop, which both begin at the same trailhead, and left open possible side-visits to Goddard Canyon and McGee Canyon.

the Plan: this trip had several nice features. Larry and Julie were quite interested in Evolution Valley, having heard of it well before I brought it up as a possible tour-stop. For me, the trip would fill in several stubborn blanks that I had tried to fill in 1993 and especially 1996. My Muir Trail visits had left a hole centered squarely on Evolution Valley; this trip would bind the '96 route to all my southern jaunts so I could claim to my satisfaction that I had been on the Muir Trail from the Italy Pass junction south to Whitney (given my usual disclaimer about taking Cartridge vs. Mather pass). I tried to emphasize to my companions that Lamarck Col is not a simple path! Regardless of how often it's used, it is a long and demanding stretch with plenty of exposure to the elements.

the Commute: we took off Friday afternoon (11 Aug) for Medford and a visit to the brother who wasn't going with us. Tom and Peggy were glad to see us despite our short stay, and we slept comfortably in various spare places in their house and tent/trailer. Saturday was a long drive that ended in a reserved campsite at Trumbull Lake south of Bridgeport, where the 9500' elevation was supposed to prepare our bodies for the thin air we were about to live with for a week. We did not reach Lee Vining in time to acquire our trip permit, so another early morning was scheduled to reach Bishop before our permits would be given away at 10AM.
We reached Bishop with plenty of time to spare, stopping at the amazing Convict Lake along the way. By now it was clear that Julie was carrying extra weight, a cold her daughters had caught the week before. We ate a good breakfast, bought fishing permits and cold medications, and pushed the car up the steep highway 168 toward Lake Sabrina.

Evolution Valley Tour - Day One

We finalized our packing strategy at Lake Sabrina because the view there is well worth a ten-minute detour! We restuffed our packs, pulling out duplicate items and applying our sunscreen. I again boldly chose to go sans tent as in '99, bringing only the rainfly, stakes and poles; this simplified packing a good deal but put me at risk on buggy nights. We drove the last miles to the trailhead, where I dropped off people and packs before driving down to the parking area. Hiking back to the trailhead, I remembered my last visit here a year ago; this was the first time I would begin a trip at the same trailhead I had exited most recently. As usual I was concerned about my conditioning, but more so this time: a bulging disc had laid me low during the off-season, so my preparations were less strenuous than for previous trips.

We reached the trailhead after noon, not an issue considering our short schedule for this day. We wandered casually up the shady trail to the Wilderness boundary, then emerged on the sunbaked slopes below Loch Leven for a bit of work. After a few short but warm hours, Larry and Julie found a very nice camp near the lower end of Piute Lake. A perfect, cloudless day was our reward for the brief hard work we had done. We set up early and ate our dinners well before sunset. I learned the hard way to read labels more closely; while my dinner was quite tasty, the Mandarin Orange Chicken had too much ginger for my system and I could not finish the meal.

As twilight fell, Larry and I headed for the lakeshore for photo-ops while Julie took her cold medication and prepared for bed. The unnamed peak 12600+ glowed brightly and reflected nicely, and was joined shortly by the rising full moon. The altitude was effective in slowing me down, but I felt exhausted enough to sleep well at our 11000-foot camp.

Camp One at Piute Lake

Sunset on peak 12600+

Day Two

It took a great deal of effort to get up on day two! The altitude affected my breathing all night, and I could not get comfortable from any angle. I kept reassuring myself that the next two camps (as it turned out, all later camps!) would be lower down and easier to tolerate; after a while this got me moving out from under my rainfly and back into the world. Julie had fared worse due to her cold, and Larry therefore was also not rested. We groggily packed up under a typical cloudless morning and trudged upward.

As is usual with pass approaches, the views improved with each step. Soon both Piute Lake and Loch Leven were revealed behind us, hovering over the brink of the bench that led back to North Lake, while peaks of the Glacier Divide began peeking over the low lip of Piute Pass. Several people passed us by as we steadily ground out the last mile, confident that the downhill section would follow soon. Among the passers-by was a woman with two llamas: a friend of 'sierramel', she was working her way down so she could support her friend somewhere near Taboose Pass. As we reached our pass we encountered two men relaxing there, 'fresh' from their climb of Mt. Humphreys. That's quite a trophy, and the ragged mass of that peak dominated the northeast horizon while we chatted with them. We finally re-shouldered our gear, said farewell and dropped down to southern Humphreys Basin.

Another cloudless day revealed the Glacier Divide in all its ragged glory, and soon we encountered someone who had just come over it somewhere. He referred to his route as the Keyhole, but that name refers to a spot closer to Piute Pass than his indicated route. Wherever he went, it was clearly spooky and exhilirating! As we dropped nearer the treeline, a line of stones blocked the trail and sent us left toward the Golden Trout Lakes. At the small upper lake we stopped, ate lunch and pulled out maps - the main trail does not go here! We concluded that whoever blocked the route before had some explaining to do; Julie and I headed north and recovered the original trail while Larry went to the lower lake and followed the creek to join us.

The grade steepened and dropped into the trees, and by late afternoon we were hopping over the creek from French Canyon. All the guidebooks that warned me about the tricky creek-crossings must have been written in June, since the trickles did not get our boots wet. The Hutchinson Meadow junction was familiar to me: I had reached here in '96 when my sore leg short-circuited our trip to Evolution Valley and Lamarck Col, and we exited directly over Pine Creek Pass. I remembered that a few campsites could be found farther down the canyon, and I vaguely referred to a gorgeous memory of Piute Creek dropping three times in succession. I wasn't sure any camps were near there, though, so we played it safe and made camp by Piute Creek, within fifteen minutes of the junction. We arrived early enough for me to wash some clothes, and Larry pulled in a gorgeous golden trout that I captured with my camcorder. I had purchased a two-day permit so my time wouldn't come until days four and five, but my brother bought the 10-day and could fish anywhere, anytime - and he did! Our camp was troubled by a few evening bugs, but again my tentless camp was effective.

near Camp Two; Pilot Knob

Day Three
Morning brought some twisted cirrocumulus clouds with it, implying a bit of upper-air instability. We hit the trail about 9:30 and headed toward the Muir Trail along the spectacular canyon of Piute Creek. After passing a stock gate and a nice camp, we came to the stairstep falls that I remembered from the '96 trip - but the view was even more spectacular than my recollection! We took many photos from here, reveling in the great view and the loud roar of the water in its canyon. That was the last decent camp for several miles, as the canyon closed in with steep slopes and very few trees. We literally bushwhacked our way through the manzanita as the canyon fell toward the South Fork San Joaquin. The open slopes and lower elevation combined to make the day warm up in a hurry.

The trail made its last moves along Piute Creek, and we soon reached the bridge marking the Muir Trail junction and our entry into Kings Canyon NP. My memories of this spot from the 1996 trip were of laying flat on a rock looking at the clouds, noting through the haze of pain from my knee that it wasn't going to rain on me that day. We sat in the shade of a huge juniper and ate lunch, then prepared to move south for a few more miles. The heat that had tickled us earlier now switched to a sledgehammer, beating on us mercilessly as we struggled up the gentle trail. A few cumulus clouds had formed this day, but not enough for shade or showers to relieve the heat. After less than an hour of hot work, we dropped our packs and jumped in the South Fork San Joaquin for refreshment, a brisk and thoroughly pleasant decision! A pack train passed by as we relaxed, but they didn't seem to mind our packs by the trail - a good thing since we weren't in any position to move them!

Thus reinforced against the heat, we regained our packs and moved on, soon reaching the middle bridge over the South Fork and plenty of welcome shade. The upper bridge appeared shortly thereafter, and we went further up-canyon in the hope of finding a camp away from the Muir Trail traffic. The best camp was already taken, and the trail began a steep climb, so we retreated and found a spot about a hundred yards above the bridge. Another cheerful fire was soon crackling away, and we went to bed in a good state of mind.

Pilot Knob, Piute Canyon

a GREAT place to soak!

approaching the lower bridge

Day Four
We had postponed a decision on our final route until this point. We knew how the trip would begin and end, but days four and five had several alternatives. Would we head x-c toward McGee Lakes from Evolution Valley? If so, would we pack x-c from McGee over to Sapphire Lake or backtrack to Colby Meadow? Or would we forego those opportunities and continue on the Muir Trail? My two-day fishing permit began today, so the lakes were appealing but certainly not the only fishing-hole in the area. With all that in mind, we returned to the Goddard Canyon bridge, crossed over the South Fork, and ascended into the stunning gorge of lower Evolution Creek. The first stretch was warm and quiet, with great views up and down Goddard Canyon framed by large mountain hemlock trees. Crossing a slight crest, the roar of the creek took over, and the great cascades showed their persistence by the great cavities carved into the hard granite. Each bend in the trail brought new waterfalls into view, and no one falls was superior in its beauty. My favorite stretch, however, was the creek just above the falls, where the stream stepped down foot-high drops and whose gentle murmur was muted by the roar from lower down. In a short while we were at the ford, which was not quite knee-deep at the time. The darkening skies suggested that the level might be rising later in the day, and soon a single clap of thunder echoed off the valley walls as we passed Evolution Meadow. The clouds thickened further, but that single rumble was as close to stormy weather we encountered.
I've noted on past trips that 10AM is the make-or-break point for Sierra rain. If cumulus clouds aren't building by then they rarely produce rain, and these had just come in at the wire.

last quiet stretch on Evolution Creek

We met the local ranger at the next stock fence; he reassured us that the forecast was for improving but cooler weather. Since Lamarck Col was tough enough in good weather, this was very good news! We soon reached the ranger station at McClure Meadow (my brother never never saw the place). The view from the meadow was as just as advertised - spectacular shades of green contrasted against the pale grey of the Evolution Peaks and the darker shades of the clouds. Many small trout darted in the still waters of the creek, and silver snags added yet another shade of grey as they lay in the quiet stream.

Julie was running out of steam, victimized by her head-cold; Larry suggested I move ahead and scout out a camp. My first stop was near Colby Meadow, and the site held great promise until I heard the shout from nearby. I looked across the stream and straight into another camp, where someone was taking a solar-shower; the privacy of this site was clearly compromised! I moved on a little further, but now Evolution Creek was quite a distance from the trail. I waited until we were all together again, then we dropped our packs and searched for a decent site. Larry disappeared for quite a while, then returned to us with news of a great spot. After ten minutes of wandering we found it again, set up a nice camp by Evolution Creek, and discussed our options. We decided our best bet was to stay here a second night, giving us a full day of rest before tackling Lamarck Col. It would be a tougher day to cross the col from this lower camp, but the day off would do all of us good. Larry and I tried the stream for fish, and we caught and put back several small ones before returning to camp for more typical camp food. I found it hard to concentrate on fishing here - the massif of Mendel and Darwin dominated the eastern sky, turning an amazing crimson at sunset, and the outflow from Evolution Lake crashed into the valley a short ways off. The good news was that our 9900-foot elevation allowed us to make use of the plentiful downed wood: a pleasant fire contributed nicely to the ambience, and we turned in for a restful sleep.

clouds over McClure Meadow

across the creek from Camp Four

Day Five
This rest day would not be spent doing nothing! With Larry and I both ready and able to fish, we all decided to day-hike to Evolution Lake and soak some flies. Julie would join us as a tourist, using her skill to cook whatever we brought back. We regained the Muir Trail with day-packs on (my new pack's top lid made a comfy daypack!"> and worked our way out of the valley. At the last switchback I reached a symbolic junction, where my northern and southern Muir Trail adventures were finally joined.

It was great to see Evolution Lake again, but the wind was such that we felt we would have better luck by heading for the peninsula in the middle. We worked our way through abundant wildflowers to the peninsula, passing four younger folks who were on a month-long visit to the high country. We caught the attention of several fish as we worked our way around, but none fell for our clever lines. We had been advised to use green-bodied flies for best results, but I tired of the effort after a while and took a break by climbing to the top of the roche moutonee, the geologic feature that makes up the peninsula. The view was excellent from the top, and I panned from the summit with the video camera. The scenery now included four young skinny-dippers, but I respectfully left the camera on its wide-angle mode. The weather was much improved over the previous day, and it appeared that our trek over Lamarck Col would not be hampered by bad weather.

Returning to the shore, I selected a Renegade fly, a design that has always proven successful wherever I go. I found a deep hole at the north end of the peninsula and went to work. Not for long, though: I caught a 9-inch golden trout on my second cast, and another about ten minutes later! The third one I played with too long, and he spit out the fly and escaped. Several other fish were on in the next hour, but my luck was over. Larry succeeded in landing four fish while losing several others, and we felt that two fish apiece would make for a decent meal. Julie had left an hour or more earlier, so we worked our way back to camp late in the afternoon. Julie worked her magic, and the trout was quite tasty!

Since day six would be longer from this camp, we scurried about during the evening to prepare as many things as possible for an early start. We filled our bottles and packed up as much as we wouldn't need for breakfast. As the sky darkened, the far west went psychedelic: pale pastel clouds remained bright even as the stars came out overhead. It was an amazing display of noctilucent clouds, which I had only seen once before. These clouds form extremely high in our atmosphere and are rarely seen, especially this far south. They are distinguished not only by their appearance long before sunset or sunrise, but also by their opalescent colors. This show had pale blue, pink and even some pale yellow areas; I shot several photos using different shutter speeds to ensure that the colors would come out. they finally faded about 8:30 and I went to bed after a last visit to the warm and cheery fire.

Day Six
It wasn't my best night of sleep, with the bright moon convincing me more than once that twilight was imminent. Larry's alarm finally went off, and shortly thereafter we did too. Several items conspired to make my day start badly - I lost nearly half of my water supply when my pack leaned against the bite-valve on my hydration bladder, I discovered several items were still sitting around the camp, then I crushed my sunglasses while putting on the wet pack. My inner fury over all the mistakes helped to get up the hill pretty quickly, however, and within an hour we were at the Lamarck junction again. This time the link was official: I had now connected my 1989, 99 and 96 trips into one continuous stretch of the Muir Trail... depending on your Cartridge vs. Mather opinion.

We followed the beaten track upstream, with views expanding southeast to Evolution Lake and southwest into the unexplored McGee Canyon. We lost the uphill path in the same place that Scott and I had lost it a year before, then found ourselves at the lowest and largest Darwin Bench lake. I refilled my half-empty water bladder, and while there we noticed several fish that appeared to need dragging from the water. If we'd had more time this day we might have made the attempt, but we were thinking about heading all the way to the car; Julie's head cold was no better, and she had had about enough of sneezing in the wilderness. My brother and I are sensitive guys, and while our original plan of making one more camp would make a great place to eat and fish, we emphasized with her condition and agreed. [By doing this we added two miles on both ends of day six!]

Hermit, Peter Peak, Emerald Peak

At this point I was still deluding myself that I was guiding the trek over familiar terrain, and that my experience would make the exit route easier than the '99 visit. This delusion was quickly shattered as I pointed out the trail along the lakeshore, noting that the 'real' trail must go further right since it passed by our camp last year further east than the lakeshore trail. This led us into large rocks with no path at all, and as we scrambled over this terrain I loudly doubted my sanity. Julie and I returned to the waterside path while Larry remained to the right as we climbed upstream to the first of Darwin Canyon's five lakes (we never did spot the '99 camp, much less another path). Larry joined us just below the lake, where we noted several foot-long trout trapped in a small pool on the stream. These were subsantially larger than our dinner the previous night, and it didn't seem fair that they would show up here!

When we reached the shore of lake one, we took a break and prepared ourselves for the talus-hop around the lakes. The weather was cool but gorgeous, and no cloud would be seen this entire day. Larry and Juile watched me negotiate the first few rocks, and Larry said no-thanks and headed up a slot to the left. Another slap to my guiding prowess for this route, but I didn't like my route either, so I headed uphill with them. After cresting the low hill we could look down to the lakes, trying to find our next direction. The trail below us was less troubled by talus, so I descended to familiar ground while Larry tried to stay high and Julie took a middle route and joined me in a few minutes. The big talus drove Larry down as well, so we all met at the low end of lake two.

The second and third lakes were easily negotiated by the trail, and we rested again between lakes three and four. Here I noted that the route would get ugly for fifty yards or so, but no other route looked any better. We scrambled through the mess of huge rocks, reloaded our water bottles, and headed toward the turn between lakes four and five. By leaving my filter cover by the lake, Larry and Julie got a several-minute lead while I wasted still more time getting set to move. They were a hundred yards or so ahead of me when I shouted instructions as to where the col was on the skyline. This careless comment was costly, as my description was given from a point nowhere near their view; my 'pyramid-rock' guidepost was not the same as theirs and they veered to the left. They hit big rocks and slowed down, allowing me to catch up a bit and ask why they were so far left: their answer clued me in to my careless instruction, and we all swerved back to the right over a rough and rocky ridge. The route continued to be more elusive than the previous year, as good pathways in the sand led to more huge talus, but we continued upward at the best pace we could manage. Two hikers were working their way down from the col, taking a route more to our right; just as we considered going that way we saw them working through a tough stretch and decided to keep on our course. Finally, well after 2PM, the narrow notch that is Lamarck Col greeted us - from here the path would be much more visible!

We had plenty of miles to cover from the top, and the chill breeze was not conducive to a long delay, so after fifteen minutes of dining and photography we were under way again. The permanent snowfield that reposes under the northeast lip of the col was larger this year, and the suncups were impressive; a good twenty minutes was spent carefully sliding down to another high, sandy valley that is much less steep than the side we had ascended. We then shifted into a higher gear, working our way down the long valley toward Grass and North Lakes, now visible in the near distance. The view to the northwest was a psychadelic display, with the rusty red Piute Crags contrasting mightily with the greys and off-whites of nearby ridges and distant Humphreys. We lost the trail once again near the bottom of the valley, but this time I knew that the trail visible to the left was the proper route. Shortly after that came the 'vertigo path', where a brief slip could induce heart failure and a fall would last a long time. We hustled carefully through here, then began down the long switchbacks above the Lamarck Lakes trail. I stopped at the top of the switchbacks to change film in my camera, began to descend, then slipped and skidded to a nerve-wracking stop a short way down the slope; as a result I fell behind the other two. Larry decided to speed up some more and bring the van to the trailhead, saving us a bit of time. This was a good idea gone wrong, as he took the abandoned trail to lower Lamarck Lake and had to wait for us to pinpoint the real trail's location in front of him. He climbed a spooky cliff and rejoined us, then sped off again as Julie and I worked down the switchbacks above Grass Lake.

Darwin, Mendel from Lamarck Col

Humphreys, Emerson, Piute Crags

While my leg was far less damaged than the previous year, the long day was slowing me down a great deal on the downslopes, so Julie put a bit of a lead on me. This final stretch seemed interminable in '99 and if anything seemed worse this time, so I was glad to hear the two of them ahead of me: done at last? I was not alone in feeling this trail had gone on too long: they were resting on the trail, and Larry suspected that we were on the wrong trail. Surely it shouldn't take this long to travel a few short miles! I reassured him that this was the right way, that it seemed infinite but familiar to me as well, and we continued on together. It seemed like only a few short decades later when we reached the picnic-table that Scott had collapsed on the previous year, and soon afterward we reached civilization again. Larry went down to the van while Julie searched in vain for the beer that Larry hid in the creek a week before. The van pulled up, we dumped our gear in back, and Larry found the beer. After that tasty treat we hit the road, pulling into Bishop at dusk. We had just put in a 12-plus-hour day, and we were clearly exhausted - and HUNGRY!

We found a nice motel in Bishop, then sped northward to Medford the following day. We detoured into Mammoth Lakes on the way, then had a quick meal in Bridgeport. I convinced them to take the road north out of town, which would return us to US 395 at the CA/NV border. It was a beautiful route, with the East Walker River and the Sweetwater Mountains showing off along the route. The surprise of the drive was in the middle of nowhere, in sagebrush and scrub willow country: a milticolored black bear loped along the side of the road, setting a good pace as we slowed down and scrambled for cameras. Just as Larry and I got set (Julie was driving at the time), he crossed the road and crashed into the shrubbery. Of all the places to see a bear, this was among the least likely!

We had heard that Oregon was receiving some welcome rain, and as we approached Susanville the clouds appeared, looking more menacing than usual. In fact this was no storm at all, but smoke from a rapidly-growing fire in the Feather River canyon (this would still be burning when I wrote this, a week after Labor Day). The sky turned brown, the sun a shade of crimson - but in an hour we had passed through the smoke and back into the clear.

Peggy welcomed us back to Oregon even though it was after 10:30 when we reached her. Tom had taken Sara to a SF Giants game and was not home yet, so we filled Peg in on out adventures before turning in. Sunday was a tedious but straightforward drive home.

This was a fun hike, a decent workout without the risks of the '99 trip. Larry and Juile are easy to get along with, and our paces are similar but not such that we march through the wilderness in lock-step. Julie's discomfort was tough to watch, and I symphatised with her camera issues (several times her camera refused to shoot, explaining with descriptive notes like 'H3' and 'H5'...). She did as well as any over Lamarck Col, though, so clearly she had the strength to fight through her cold; would I do as well under those conditions?

The fishing was great fun. I hadn't fished in several years, and my technique showed it; nevertheless, it was relaxing and somewhat productive as well. Those golden trout are amazing in their technicolor splendor! All the new gear worked fine, and I lost a bit of unneeded weight by the end of the trip.

And yet...
Something about this trip was less fun than previous outings. Part of it may have been the anticlimax that any trip would entail after the ambitious '99 trip, but I suspect that overplanning was also to blame. Much of this trip could be found in outlines for 1993-4-5-6 trips, so I had visited these places in my mind countless times. I tried not to overanalyze this one, yet our uncertainty up to the last minute kept me thinking about route variations for the middle days of the trip. (Even with all that, our final route was not on my mental map, so plenty of energy went for naught.) Our poor preparation for altitude was also unpleasant, since our long drive immediately before the trip left no time for much exertion in thin air. My disastrous final morning put me in a bad frame of mind, and the continuous irritants from leaky liquid containers was decidedly unpleasant. I also ran absurdly low on toilet paper, which made me all the more agreeable to packing out a day early. Technical difficulties such as these can turn a relaxing and scenic trip in fair weather into a trip where misfortune is anticipated around each bend in the trail.

I still can't understand how the route up Lamarck could be so easy in '99 but so complicated a year later. That was as tough a hiking day as I can remember, going from 9900 feet to 12900 to 9500 in about eleven miles and over twelve hours. I know I've done tougher days, but they have respectfully faded in my memory compared to this.

I can now cross Lamarck Col off my list of things to do, having crossed there in consecutive years. It's bizarre to think that, of all the passes available in the High Sierra, I have crossed Taboose Pass and Lamarck Col twice! I still need to work Bishop Pass into a route, which would complete the east-side entries into the Middle Fork Kings area, but with so much yet to see in the Sierra I can't imagine returning to this particular area soon.