High Sierra Walk – Episode 2

In theory, our route from Evolution Basin should have climbed east back onto the face of Mount Darwin by a wide ledge at 3300m, exposed to the full force of the weather. We had been looking at the exposed pathless nature of the next couple of days (and the time we had been making over the roughest terrain) and in view of the weather, had decided that we should downgrade the next section of the walk and follow the John Muir Trail. Steve Roper’s guide holds out a very low opinion of this section of the JMT, which lacks the splendid mountain scenery of his above-timberline journey. However, we were just two, a long way from home, and what good are splendid views shrouded in hill fog ?

The disadvantages of the JMT were that it travelled lower country, entailing some significant river crossings (cold and high with snowmelt this early in the season), and it ventured off the edges of the maps we had bought for the High Route.

We were now in an entirely different catchment, and followed the South Fork of the San Joaquin River for some distance to a camp where we knew there were hot springs. This area is close to an escape via a ferry across Edison Lake (often used for resupply by those walking the JMT), so we met a couple of other parties during the day, one of which was using the hot spring camp. However, the hot pools proved to be on the far side of the ice cold river, reached using a single wire suspended across the river for security. We reckoned we could cope with this to get across (with a hot bath to warm up), but really didn’t fancy an ice-cold dunking to come back.

The other group had abandoned a large potato on our side of the river, which we eyed up enviously, having eaten nothing but dehydrated food for several days. Overcome by honesty, we ate our noodles sat round our fire (another advantage of descending below tree line). Next morning we saw that the other group had gone home, leaving their big potato behind, but by now we weren’t prepared to carry such heavy food to our next camp !

Even lower down on excellent marked trails, river crossings weren’t always straightforward!

We weren’t quite sure what trail led where from here (as we were off our map), but relied on the John Muir Trail (and the Pacific Crest Trail with which it coincided on this section) being well marked. At one junction there was no sign, and Andy dropped his pack for a quick scout along both routes before deciding we ought to stay high and cross a spur to the next catchment. This proved correct and we were soon climbing again, to an attractive area known as Sallie Keyes Lakes from where the trail continued to Selden Pass, above treeline at 3320m (quite high for a low-level alternative!) The view ahead from here showed the trail passing left of Marie Lake, but also showed us that the high country we were bypassing was well and truly in the cloud. Below Marie Lake, we crossed West Fork, Bear Creek on some very precarious remains of a decaying log bridge, then Hilgard Branch of Bear Creek via stepping stones which were almost covered. Our next camp was close to Bear Creek, once again in the forest (at 2780m) so we had another fire.

Campfire just off the JMT by Bear Creek

To rejoin the high route we must cross Mono Basin, but first we must cross Bear Ridge, which proved to be a longish but easy ascent to a pleasant trail through Fir forest, with a bare, dry soil. Dropping down the other side, we soon entered a much more lush area with many flowers, where the conifers were replaced by mature aspens, all, for some reason, leaning towards the hill. Clearings with bright Indian Paintbrush gave us glimpses across Mono Creek to the Vermillion Cliffs then a more open area with bare granite and scattered Jeffrey Pines. From the crossing of Mono River, we followed Silver Pass Creek, climbing steeply and very scenically up towards Silver Pass where Silver Pass Lake, close to the top, provided us with our next camping spot, at 3170m.

An exposed camping spot at Silver Pass Lake – but the weather had improved

This meant that we were over Silver Pass itself, at 3322m, quite early the next day, dropping past Chief Lake and Squaw Lake (Brave Lake remained out of sight) and into Cascade Valley via the South Fork, turning right up the north fork (Fish Creek) to reach the broad meadow of Tully Hole. Here, having missed eighty kilometres of the High Route, the latter joined the JMT, eschewing complex route-finding and difficult but uninteresting terrain close to the Sierra Crest, so we continued on the well used and marked trail. Another steep climb up reached a sort of plateau with a series of lakes in drainages west of the crest. Lake Virginia was passed on its upstream side, Purple Lake at its outlet, and we traversed round to reach the large Duck Lake, where we followed the shore far enough from the outlet to be away from the small “no camping” area close to the trail.

The first task next day was to cross the creek just below Duck Lake, at 3185m, by rock-hopping a wide shallow spot – hard work with packs still very heavy despite having eaten ten days’ worth of food out of them. We soon reached Duck Pass, and then climbed to a col to the west at 3425m, marking the start of our first and only venture on to the Sierra Crest itself.

We now followed a sandy plateau with much loose rock, in contrast to the monolithic granite we had been travelling over for much of the route so far. Descending to Deer Lakes west of the crest once again, the terrain was more subdued, perched high above the San Joaquin valley away to our west. As we crossed Mammoth Crest, views opened up ahead to the north, into the Ansel Adams wilderness and the marches of Yosemite National Park, our final destination.

The next section of the Mammoth Crest Trail was more like the interior ranges than the Sierra, with barren sandy soil, patches of late snow, and the snags of Whitebark Pines blasted clean by the wind. As we dropped down, the rock changed colour dramatically to a rusty red of recent lava, followed by a change to pumice as we entered the forest on our descent. This can be a very disorientating rock, as it floats on the occasional puddle on the trail.

The descent ended at Red’s Meadow and our first contact with civilisation for twelve days. There are hot springs here which feed free showers, where we intended to soak for a long time. To avoid being thought antisocial by hogging the facilities, we chose to share our shower, apparently to the shock of a group of teenagers also on the campsite. We were well past caring.

What we did care about, however, was the existence of a restaurant and we were very disappointed to learn that large steaks were available – but only to those who arrived early enough in the day to have ordered them in advance. We didn’t qualify. However, we did have an excellent meal of real solid food – enough that Mary couldn’t finish her Apple Pie ! Relaxing with something alcoholic back in the campsite (another novelty) we had concluded from the open skips and general lack of warnings that this campsite didn’t have a problem with bears. Thus the appearance of a large black bear right in the campsite, nonchalantly emptying one of the skips whilst occasionally glancing out, came as a slight shock. The rangers came to shoo everyone with cameras to keep their distance, whilst they themselves, relatively secure in their truck, drove right up and started taking pictures.

After a bit of restocking (with distressingly heavy food – no lightweight dehydrated stuff in the store here) we set off through Devil’s Postpile National Monument, with a fairly unspectacular cliff of columnar basalt above a vast talus of fallen pillars. We followed the JMT for only a short way (in forest, as this is a very low elevation part of the route) before deviating to the west up the Beck Lake Trail. Over the next several kilometres we regained the timberline and solitude. Shadow Creek formed a series of attractive cascades as we followed it up to Ediza Lake. Being a very attractive setting, less than a day from a road, this has in the past been a high-impact area, and camping is banned along much of its shoreline, but at the far upstream side, away from any trail, is an area where overnight occupation is still allowed, and here, with a fabulous view of the serrated peaks of the Minarets, we stopped.

Setting off from our campsite at the back of Ediza Lake

A faint and unmaintained trail leads back from Ediza Lake towards Mount Ritter and once above the treeline again, we met Blue Grouse and White-tailed Ptarmigan. Crossing into the cirque above Garnet Lake we were close under the steep slopes of Mount Ritter, 4010m, rising almost 1000m above us as we passed a bleak little tarn still surrounded by snow among the rocks. We now traversed spectacular open terrain above Nydiver Lakes, climbing towards Whitebark Pass, marked by an unusually large and isolated Whitebark Pine at 3215m.

The descent from here was problematical, as there was a large and steep snow slope. However, a gully among steep cliffs at one end provided secure footing and we soon arrived above the main basin of Garnet Lake. As this is all off-trail, it’s probably a good moment to show the map again – this time you’ll need to zoom in to the northern half.

Looking back over Garnet Lake Basin to Whitebark Pass, where we had dropped down left of the big snow slope

Skirting this we crossed to the next col, at 3080m, leading to the head of Thousand Island Lake below Banner Peak, 3946m, and one of the most photogenic spots on our journey. From here, the High Route takes an intricate and isolated route as it avoids some steep and loose slopes, and leads to a section of trail I had done previously in 1981. In our initial planning, we had chosen a shorter route to Tuolumne, to save a day on our schedule, so we now trekked along the northwest shore of Thousand Island Lake, enjoying the views as we returned to the John Muir Trail.

Banner Peak (Mt. Ritter behind, and the Minarets to the left) over Thousand Island Lake

This was a very well-worn trail in this area (almost everyone who sets off on the JMT gets at least as far as Red’s Meadow, and this is only a day or so from roads in either direction).

The trail climbs to the boundary of Yosemite N.P. at Donohue Pass, 3370m, from where we looked forward to almost all downhill walking. Mount Lyell, 3997m, dominates the skyline, and has one of the Sierra’s only tiny remnant glaciers facing northeast. Looking ahead, Lyell Canyon carries the infant Tuolumne River through meadows and forest towards the Tuolumne Pass road. We dropped down to the first meadow, at 3095m, and made camp. The next day was almost all pleasant walking beside the river as it alternated between rapids over bare granite, and slower meanders through alpine meadows with willows and Mule Deer. The day ended at Tuolumne Meadows where we used the backpackers campsite, but intended to eat at the restaurant attached to the lodge. They informed us that hot showers were only available to residents, but since we had booked a meal, they took a close look (and sniff) at us and decided that as a courtesy to the other clients, we had better be entitled to free showers, too !

There was no escaping the fact that we were now getting close to the tourist mecca of Yosemite and nowhere again would we be far from a road, although it was still a two-day walk to the valley. We started with a moderate ascent, to Cathedral Pass, a mere 2966m with a view dominated by the vertiginous spires of Cathedral Peak 350m above. Echo Peaks (which I’d climbed from my walk along this same section of trail in 1981) and Matthes Crest were perhaps even more impressive, with the still snow-clad north faces of the Clark Range as backdrop. Somewhat off our route is the serviced Sunrise High Sierra Camp and we had to step off the trail to allow the passage of a long train of mules carrying gas bottles and other heavy supplies. Following Sunrise Creek on the JMT, we were now getting lower and found new vegetation, such as the Western Azalea and the dazzling red Snow Plant which grows without chlorophyll soon after the snow melts in deep forest humus.

We found our final camp spot below big pine trees in this area, with other campers nearby. As a popular area, this also has a high incidence of troublesome bears, and we sorted out our food-hanging branch early and especially carefully. This proved interesting later in the evening as a bear appeared and looked up at our bags hanging in the tree. We knew that there was no food in them, as we had only just finished eating and had all our stuff next to our fire, but the bear shinned up the tree with astonishing rapidity and tried to make its way along the branch. Our choice proved a good one as it proved too unnervingly thin for the bear to reach our hanging cord and it departed in search of easier prey. We hastily inserted all our remaining food into the bags and balanced them hanging a good 4-5m above ground.

The next day was to be our final descent to civilisation, but first we had an appointment for a half-day walk with light packs, to the summit of Half Dome. This bare granite peak was first ascended by drilling holes in a long and exposed climb which would have been about VS standard, but is nowadays accessible to anyone with a head for heights by means of steel cables which are installed for the summer season each year. First the trail ascends steeply over bare granite slopes high above Tenaya Canyon before an open level spot gives a clear view of the task ahead. Past warning signs advising not to be anywhere on the mountain if lightning threatens, the climb starts quite steep and rears up to close to 45 degrees, with a couple of small vertical steps which I recalled having been quite difficult in 1981 when I was climbing with gear for an overnight stay on top.

The view from the top is well worth the effort, as the summit overhangs the 600m vertical NW face, with another 900m of very steep terrain below, to Mirror Lake at the head of Yosemite Valley itself. Definitely the best spot for your first view of this most famous valley – remote from the traffic jams and crowds which assail anyone arriving by road. Mary was more concerned with getting photos of itinerant Marmots and Ground Squirrels which kept hiding under the rocks every time she pointed a camera.

Back at camp by lunchtime, we snacked, packed and set off down Little Yosemite to the lip of Nevada Falls, a 180m drop carrying a lot of water as the Merced River makes its way rapidly to the meadows below. The trail has to detour some way to find a route down, providing good views back across the fall and to Liberty Cap, a steep granite dome which towers above it. The Mist Trail was closed by rockfall in 1981 on my previous visit, so it was my first chance to get close to the lower Vernal Fall over which the river next plummets. Below the falls, in a deep forested canyon, the vegetation is luxuriant, watered by a permanent spray from the ledges and boulders at the foot of the cataract. Both trail and river continue to descend steeply until the road is reached at Happy Isle. After 17 days of wilderness, Yosemite valley is something of a culture shock with up to 60,000 visitors on any summer day all compressed into a few square kilometres. We soon fell into the pattern of souvenir and present shopping and even a beer or three after finding a walk-in camp and taking a shower. Bus, train and taxi took us back via an overnight hostel in San Francisco and a long flight home.

This was Mary’s first experience of multiday backpacking – a bit of an ambitious start perhaps, but as she passed the test (ie. was still talking to me) I thought I’d better marry her 🙂 Our next visit in 1996, with not-quite-two-year-old Sarah, was a very different affair !

For more photographs than it’s easy to include in a blog post, there is a web page which includes all the images used in my slideshow for the Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team (220, including maps) at a rather larger size (1024 pixels) than the ones above. There are even more scanned, and it must be getting near time to remaster the slideshow to work with a 1920×1080 projector…