Sierra '96 - Return to Pine Creek
This first part of this hike was attempted in 1993 -
and failed utterly. I drove a non-air-conditioned car into Bishop [110
degrees], and discovered that no campsites were available at a higher elevation
[the largest campsite was closed]. I spent the night in town [4000'] then drove
to the Pine Creek trailhead north of Bishop, where I started at 9 am [7400'] and
stopped at Upper Pine Lake [10200'], where altitude sickness struck me down and
mosquitoes kept me down. I was hiking alone and had no second opinion regarding
my health, so I retreated the next day and left the area in a very down mood.
Plans were made for trips in '94 and '95, but ill-timed illness and other
distractions kept me off the trail. Scott and I returned in 1996, with a new
recruit (Brian), an ambitious schedule and a drastic misunderstanding of Italy
July 28: After an uneventful drive we arrived at the Sabrina camp, then set off
on a quick day-hike to Blue Lake. We waited out a few showers then scrambled up
to the 10200' lake for a few spectacular late-day photos, reaching camp at dusk.
The pre-hike night was spent arguing with the host about our campsite payment
(payment wedged in the payment pipe & stuck!) and listening to drunks yell all
night under the full moon. Brian somehow slept through this part, but Scott
and I slept fitfully.
July 29: We started from Pine Creek trailhead promptly at 9am (just like '93). We
ground steadily upslope under increasing cloud cover, then scrambled for shelter
at Upper Pine Lake (this too!!) just as thundershowers reached the area. Scott's
confidence in the 'typical Sierra weather' was shaken when showers persisted
until dusk, and late tent-taps could even be heard overnight. This day was
shorter than planned thanks to my exhaustion; while I wasn't oxygen-starved
like '93, I was still uncomfortable stayine here with the ghosts of my previous failure!
I made a brief visit to my presumed gravesite in '93; I was relieved to see
that I had not in fact died there.
July 30: After hopping rapidly over the creek and through the bugs, we
discussed our upcoming choice of passes - while rushing past the Pine Creek
junction (Brian, coming behind Scott and me, found it but lost us!). We allowed
that non-decision to stand and moved on; this may not have been our wisest move.
After Honeymoon Lake we returned to the upslope grind, this time without a
clear path to follow. Our pace slowed as we paused to recharge, wondering which
gap held the magical Italy Pass. By noon we were getting a bit anxious as the
clouds returned and the pass remained elusive. We finally saw our goal and
attained the crest at 2:30 -- far later than we expected under any
circumstances. What took us so long?!?
After a short rest on top we descended to Jumble Lake, where an evil jumble of
talus slowed our march and threatened our shins and sanity. After an endless
hour of hopping/bouncing/stumbling we gained gentler ground at Lake Italy, while
the peaks to its north held back a potent thunderstorm. With no shelter in
sight we turned west, carefully crossing two impressive snowbanks without
bobsledding into the cold lake. More thundershowers approached but we suffered
no direct hits, allowing us to retreat hastily and wearily to lower reaches
where... the trail disappeared. After stumbling down a treacherous slope during
a cold shower, Scott shouted to fishermen on the far bank, who confirmed that
the trail had jumped the creek, and that campsites were tree-lined and numerous on
their side. We wandered downstream (more precisely, downcliff) a few hundred yards,
then splashed across and immediately made camp. The day lasted from 8:45 to 6:15
with no lunch break to speak of, and we were worn to the edge of exhaustion.
July 31: We slept in and started late after cleaning our gear and resting our
bodies and souls at the campsite. By 11:00 we hit the downhill trail, following
the Hilgard Branch of Bear Creek as it meandered, then leapt downslope into
sloping meadows beneath spurs of Mt. Hilgard. We crossed a large meadow and met
more fishermen, then reached the Muir Trail and spoke with two hardy women
heading north. The uphill began again, complete with crossing of Bear Creek and
beating of deerflies.
Passing the Seven Gables, Sandpiper Lake and Rose Lake junctions, we plodded
upward through thickening clouds to an indescribably nice camp at Marie Lake.
Dinner was interrupted by showers and large but well-spaced hailstones; the
chicken stew was too good to be dampened by the weather. The scenery at dusk
was spectacular, and the photos of alpenglow-tinted rain turned out reasonably
well (but dim).
Aug. 1: After shooting the sunrise [and noting a weak flickering in the
camera-battery readout], we packed up and crossed Selden Pass by 9:30, with
views from Silver Divide to the west end of the Goddard Divide. The rockpile
above Sally Keyes Lakes provided a good photo-op for the group, and the
sunflower seeds provided the spark to keep us going. A fisherman at the lower
SK lake showed off his golden trout for the camera, then the serious downhill
began. After a short rest my right ankle became unhappy, and its displeasure
grew with the mileage. By the time the Piute junction came into view it was
screaming, and I was close to tears. Scott finally accepted that Lamarck Col
and the 'big loop' was asking too much of our group (his
pain was eased in '99), and the Piute Pass trail became the best way home.
I spoke earlier with a woman who described Evolution Valley as 'Very Buggy' so
the loss of that view was ameliorated.
Aug. 2: After a half-hour of leaving me in the dust, Scott and Brian lightened
my load to keep my foot from detonating on the trail. The lighter load was a
great help, and the miles to the bug haven of Hutchinson Meadow went smoothly.
Swatting and sweating as we turned on the Pine Creek Pass trail, we trudged on
with little rest, awaiting the magic elevations above 10000' in upper French
Canyon where the bugs would reconsider and relent.
After recharging our water, Brian and I met Scott and an older couple (plenty of
these in the Sierra!) who were planning to take part of our original loop in
reverse: PineCreek- Merriam- Feather- DancingBear- Italy. The big waterfall
from Royce Lakes was now in sight, and we found a lovely camp just above the
creek crossing by mid-afternoon. A brief and refreshing creek-dip relaxed all
tight parts (the ankle stopped at Level 2 Alert, far below the Level 4+ of the
previous day), and the clouds stayed away completely for the first time on this
After shooting the sunset and wildflowers from every conceivable angle, Brian
and I watched the stars come out and waited for the inevitable Perseids. They
did not perform for us, although two delta Aquarid members sped through
Ophiuchius. How I avoided looking for comet Hale-Bopp is a mystery, but I did
examine other objects in the 8x21 binox before taking my freezing feet to bed.
They never quite unfroze, so the sleep was not too comfortable. I awoke at
12:30 and shot the stars setting over Royce Creek falls.
Aug. 3: When everything was fully packed (I took back most of my load), I
informed the guys that I would walk out this day rather than taking two short
days on the ankle. They wanted to check out the Moon Lake area (so did I, but
...) so they decided to do that and still go for the car by dusk. As it turned
out, they came in an hour behind me! The Pine Creek Pass area was very pretty,
essentially a high meadow with all the higher peaks in view. I examined the
PC/Italy junction, seeing how easy it was to miss from below on day 2 (if only
we had turned left...). The hike was hot and the ankle was unhappy, but by 3:30
it was over. Six days and fifty-plus miles, and the knowledge that I never had
to enter the 'great canyon of Pine Creek' again!
My camera failed me repeatedly on this trip. I cashed it in upon my arrival
home. Trips like this do not occur all that often; to have so many underexposed
photographs hurt nearly as much as the ankle [and heals more slowly]. On later
trips, my knee caused me some pain; my chiropractor demonstrated that the ankle
joint was to blame for the sore knee.