Red Mountain Basin Loop

I visited Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake around the same time of year in 2012 and had an awesome time so I was looking forward to returning. This time I would ascend Mount Henry at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide with a striking vantage into Piute Canyon and the rugged section of the Sierra Crest in the John Muir Wilderness. As I wrote in 2012, the Le Conte Divide is an often overlooked area west of the Sierra Crest that features spectacular scenery and numerous opportunities for off-trail exploration making this region particularly suitable to adventure running. The divide forms the boundary between the John Muir Wilderness to the west and Kings Canyon National Park to the east. Geographically, to the east is the impressive Goddard Canyon and to the west is a series of spectacular granitic basins with dozens of pristine alpine lakes including Red Mountain Basin, Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. The peaks on the divide are quite rugged, especially on their north and east sides, which belies the fact that these summits are only around 12,000 feet in elevation and higher neighbors to the east are well over 13,000 feet. Once again, elevation is not everything. The Le Conte Divide also one of the more remote sections of the range and therefore solitude can easily be achieved. The region is guarded by a long approach most often reached from Courtright Reservoir with a minimum of 15 miles on trail just to reach the basins. The long approach is ideal for adventure running as they are fairly moderate (runnable) and are within the pleasant montane forest zone for a large portion. Since the LeConte Divide is so remote, only a handful of peaks have names and the remainder are simply identified by their altitude. The basins to the west of the divide are quintessential Sierra scenery with dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes, tarns and meadows. GPS route here.

On this trip I covered familiar ground for the first 12 miles to the junction with the Hell for Sure Pass Trail. Instead of turning right I continued straight covering new trail to Indian Lakes. From Indian Lakes I headed off cross country through forest that transitioned to grassy benches and granite slopes that led to the West Ridge of Mount Henry. Staying on the crest of the ridge yields some class 3 scrambling. An easier route that I took on the descent is to utilize a chute to access the West Ridge further up. Either way, all of the scrambling is on the lower part of the West Ridge as the upper part transitions to easy talus hopping. Mount Henry’s position at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide provides a stellar view of surrounding mountains, especially looking west into Piute Canyon and the range of peaks from Seven Gables to Bear Creek Spire to Mount Darwin.  I would put htis view up among the classics, with incredible relief from canyon to peak and lots of intricate layers in the terrain. Moreover, remote Lake 10,223 provides makes for a beautiful subject in the foreground. I spent a lot of time photographing and enjoying the marvelous vantage. On the descent I veered off the west ridge at its low point via a loose chute and then easy grass terrain down to aptly-named Turf Lakes with an expansive chunk of tundra between the lakes. From Turf Lakes, I embarked on an easy cross country traverse to Davis Lake and up Red Mountain. On Red Mountain I took the north ridge which had some fun solid scrambling instead of the loose west slopes which looked like a real slog. Red Mountain had the same great views I remembered from 2012, especially looking up Goddard Canyon to Mount Goddard and the Hell for Sure Lake Basin. A use path exists from Red Mountain down to Hell for Sure Pass and from there it was all trail back to Courtright Reservoir. In the future I hope to revisit the Le Conte Divdie for explorations of Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. 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. GPS route here

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.