Hell for Sure Lake & Red Mountain

Fall is a beautiful time in the High Sierra and some of my most memorable experiences have come during this season. This year was no exception with many great outings. On my last adventure run in the High Sierra before the peaks became buried in snow, I explored a region of the range I have yet to see (as hard as that might be to believe) – the LeConte Divide. This often overlooked area west of the Sierra Crest features spectacular scenery and numerous opportunities for off-trail exploration. The LeConte Divide is quite rugged belying its lower elevation compared to it’s neighbors to the east. It’s also one of the more remote sections of the range and therefore solitude can easily be achieved. All of the peaks along the Leconte Divide are guarded by long approaches as some are well over 20 miles away from the nearest trailhead, and that’s just to reach the base of the peaks. These approaches are ideal for adventure running as they are fairly moderate (runnable) and are within the montane forest zone for a large portion (not much scenery to distract). Since the LeConte Divide is so remote, only a handful of peaks have names and the remainder are simply identified by their altitude. The peaks along the divide harbor dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes, tarns and meadows; quintessential Sierra scenery.

For my first trip to this region, I started out at Courtright Reservoir (which features numerous domes for quality rock climbing) and headed to Red Mountain Basin where I ascended to Hell for Sure Lake, over 15 miles from the trailhead and much of that mileage in the forest. I’m curious what is the origin and etymology of the name “Hell for Sure” since this region is simply stunning – beautiful for sure! This late in the season, I encountered substantial snow on the last few miles above 9,000 feet, but it was well worth the effort to reach the lake, which features a backdrop of the sheer north face of Mount Hutton. I continued from the lake up a steep path to Hell for Sure Pass with a perfectly framed view of Hell for Sure Lake below. After a few photos at the pas, I headed up snow slopes to the summit of Red Mountain where I encountered much post-holing along the way. Finally at the summit, I marveled at the 360 degree views including the Sierra Crest, Goddard Canyon, the LeConte Divide, and the Sierra foothills. I could see all the way to the peaks of Yosemite high country to the north and the Great Western Divide to the south. The position of the LeConte Divide to the west of the crest affords great views up and down the High Sierra. The best view of all, however, was Red Mountain Basin immediately below, with at least seven shimmering lakes tucked beneath Mount Hutton and Hell for Sure Lake being the large centerpiece. Back at Hell for Sure Lake after the descent from Red Mountain, I made a diversion to Horseshoe Lake at the foot of Mount Hutton. The route was mainly  along the shores of Hell for Sure Lake over granite slabs and patches of unconsolidated snow. Unlike Hell for Sure Lake, Horseshoe Lake is aptly named with an obvious horseshoe shape. This lake is perhaps the most stunning in a basin filled with spectacular lakes. Horseshoe Lake is situated among polished granite cliffs, clumps of trees and the north face of Mount Hutton towering directly above. I enjoyed this trip so much that it produced at least three new ideas to visit other parts of the LeConte Divide in the future, including Bench Valley and it’s numerous lakes, Mount Reinstein & Ambition Lake, and Finger Peak & Cathedral Lake. Beyond the LeConte Divide, I’m particularly interested in the upper Goddard Creek valley area and lake 10,232, one of the most remote spots in all of the Sierra with no trail accessibility for miles around.  I would also like to revisit Red Mountain basin for further exploration including an ascent of Mount Hutton and stops at Devils Punchbowl, Little Shot Lake and Big Shot Lake. Complete photo gallery here.

Kuna & Koip

At just over 13,000 feet, Kuna Peak is the third highest point in Yosemite National Park behind Mount Lyell and Mount Dana. The summit provides a spectacular view of the Yosemite high country and Ansel Adams Wilderness including the entire Cathedral Range and Ritter Range. To the south lies Mammoth Mountain and the southern High Sierra while the north features Tuolumne Meadows, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and peaks of Northern Yosemite. The centerpiece of the view is from the rugged peaks of Banner Peak, Mount Ritter and Rodgers Peak to the “Roof of Yosemite” including Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure.  The view is not dissimilar from that achieved on Mount Dana, but Kuna is perched much closer to the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range with a direct and unobstructed view into Lyell Canyon.

On this day, several inches of new snow in the high country added to the magnificent setting, but it did not come without work. The first few miles to Mono Pass were virtually entirely snowbound  and snow continued beyond, but we were relieved to find the final approach to Parker Pass mainly snow free. The switchbacks up to Koip Peak Pass were also largely snow free and we surmised that strong winds during the preceding storm had literally blown the snow off these barren slopes. On the traverse and final climb to Koip Peak, we encountered more unconsolidated snow that proved a bit arduous. Upon reaching the summit of Koip Peak, I was amazed to be comfortably in shorts and t-shirt on a late October day with no wind to speak of. Continuing on to Kuna Peak, I encountered some more post-holing in the drifted snow, but eventually made my way to the summit and enjoyed the 360 degree panorama taking many photos. Kuna Peak is a few feet higher than Koip and features more of an unobstructed view so it’s well worth the efforts for the short out-and-back. On the way back to the trailhead, we stopped to take many photographs, including a photo session from a point with Mono Lake as the backdrop. Complete photo album here.

Finger Lake

Finger Lake is a Sierra gem beneath the towering walls of Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. The aptly named lake is flanked by granite cliffs and features a glacial turquoise color emanating glacial remnants above. The route to Finger Lake starts at the Big Pine Creek Trailhead and follows up the South Fork Big Pine Creek. The first part is a high desert with sage and even cactus. There are clumps of aspens near the stream that on this day were brilliantly yellow. At the headwall of the South Fork, the trail switchbacks beneath an imposing cliffs and at the top of the climb it is as if you enter a new world of peaks and alpine vegetation. A small valley is crossed with a junction for Willow Lake before more switchbacks resume up to gorgeous Brainerd Lake with its amphitheater-like setting. From Brainerd Lake, the way becomes a loosely defined use path to Finger Lake. At the beginning, follow near the north shore of Brainerd Lake before following cairns alongside a talus swatch to the upper path, eventually popping out at stunning Finger Lake. On this day, I ventured onto the cliffs to the south of Finger Lake with great panoramic views of the lake and Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. To attain these summits, cross Finger Lake at its outlet and head up granite slabs and talus to the base of the remnant glacial ice and rock. The standard route up Middle Palisade is a sustained class 3 scramble while Norman Clyde features some 4th class. Complete photo album here.


Tour de Dusy Basin

While I have made the trek from South Lake to Bishop Pass and into Dusy Basin several times, the magnificent views of the Palisades never cease to inspire. Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell, and North Palisade collectively form a wall of granite that towers above the basin filled with numerous alpine lakes. Aptly named Isosceles Peak is especially striking from the southern part of the basin and perfectly frames the Palisades “wall.” Columbine Peak and Giraud Peak complete the 360 panorama of rock and ruggedness. On this day, the concept was to do a loop through the upper part of the basin, a “tour de Dusy” and hit some of my favorite photography spots in the process. Complete photo album here.

The weather on this autumn afternoon was perfect – a light breeze, sunny skies, and excellent clarity. We made it up to the foot of Bishop Pass in good time and negotiated some snow and ice over the trail on the final rocky switchbacks to the Pass. The south side of the Pass was snow-free and we ran into the Basin and headed cross country for the highest lake, which also happens to be the largest, but conspicuously tucked in a bowl underneath the Palisades and not visible until you crest a minor ridgeline. Additional scenic lakes lie just below with Isosceles Peak towering above. We completed the tour by passing around a few more lakes lakes before returning to the Bishop Pass trail. Complete photo album here.