Evolution Loop FKT

The Evolution Loop is a magnificent route through some of the most inspiring terrain in the High Sierra. Technically the route is not a loop as the start and finish are at different locations (more accurately, it’s a horseshoe) utilizing the North Lake and South Lake trailheads (note: the trail and/or road segment that links these two trailheads would not be fun).  On Sunday I ran the “loop” in 12h15m from North Lake to South Lake, which is a new FKT (fastest known time), starting at 5:01 am and finishing at 5:15 pm. The adventure entails ~55-56 miles and 10,000+ ft elevation gain including three high passes – Piute Pass (11,400 ft), Muir Pass (12,000 ft), and Bishop Pass (11,960 ft). About 25 miles of the route are on the John Muir Trail passing by the famous Muir Hut at Muir Pass. There is no official record of fast times but some inquiry revealed that Phill Kiddoo has a fast time somewhere in the 13:xx hour range. I have been wanting to run this loop for some time and it was great to get on it before the snow flies over the high country. A special thanks goes to a gracious couple I met at the South Lake TH that provided me with a ride back to North Lake. It was surprisingly deserted at South Lake for a Sunday afternoon so I felt lucky, thanks again! The scenery was stunning as expected, and even enhanced by afternoon cumulus clouds that created shade contrast on the granite. I couldn’t resist spending a fair amount of time on photography on both sides of Muir Pass from Evolution Lake to Helen Lake. Complete photo album here.


Overall, I was pleased with my run, but concede that my lack of route knowledge affected performance in some sections. In particular, I didn’t have quite enough left in the tank for the final big climb up from LeConte Canyon to Bishop Pass. I have never done a 3,400+ ft climb after so many miles beforehand so it was unfamiliar territory and I was largely hiking this entire climb. I could imagine higher energy levels on the ascent to Bishop Pass alone would result in 30+ minutes of time savings. I’m also undecided on which direction is faster, but will likely try South Lake to North Lake next time to find out. Regardless, with experience on the entire route, I’m hopeful that the next time I attempt the Evolution Loop it will be faster.

A phenomenal shorter option that hits most of the highlights entails the route up Lamarck Col and down to Darwin Bench. This high col skips the portion in Humphrey’s Basin, Piute Meadows and Evolution Valley resulting in total distance of about 35 miles. Some of the travel is cross country but fairly easy to navigate.



The climb up to Piute Pass in the darkness is very straightforward as it’s a relatively gradual ascent. The descent through Humphrey’s Basin is spectacular although I arrived too early to see rugged Glacier Divide illuminated in sunlight – perhaps next time. Continuing down to Hutchinson Meadow and Piute Canyon is not as dramatic, but there are some nice sections of trail to open up the stride. After a rocky and slow last couple miles down Piute canyon where it reaches a junction with the JMT, the first 4 miles on the JMT are runnable on nice trail. A series of switchbacks leaving Goddard Canyon brings one to Evolution Valley with its pleasant forest and meadow running. At McClure Meadows near the seasonal ranger outpost, The Hermit can be seen towering above the meadow. At the end of the lengthy Evolution Valley, another series of switchbacks brings one to Evolution Lake, commencing the most scenic part of the loop in my opinion. Highlights include Evolution Ridge (with summits of Mount Darwin and Mount Mendel), Sapphire Lake, the Muir Hut and Lake Helen. The first half of the descent from Muir Pass into LeConte Canyon is rather arduous as gravity is outweighed by copious roots and rocks on the trail. Eventually I made it down to Pete Meadow and its smooth trails for a couple miles of enjoyable running. Unfortunately, the accumulation of miles and the taxing descent from Muir Pass precluded any substantial running on the big climb out of LeConte Canyon to Bishop Pass which entails 3,400+ ft of elevation gain. At Bishop Pass I took a break for a few minutes before beginning the final descent to the South Lake Trailhead. Once I was below the rocky upper switchbacks it was smooth sailing for the remaining miles to the trailhead.

Route Information: 

  • I found a nice map of the route online here (although mileage estimates are off in spots)
  • TrailRunner July 2012 article on Fastpacking the Evolution Loop
  • Visit Sage to Summit in Bishop for all your mountain running needs and expert advice

Splits:

Start North Lake TH 00:00:00 (5:01 am)
Piute Pass 01:05:00
Hutchinson Meadow 02:18:02
Piute Canyon/JMT Junction 3:13:44
Goddard Canyon Junction 3:50:59
McClure Meadow Ranger Station 4:49:15
Muir Pass 7:16:41 (left at 7:30)
LeConte Canyon/JMT Junction 9:00:23
Bishop Pass 11:04:33
South Lake TH Finish 12:15:04 (5:16 pm)

Gear: 

  • La Sportiva C-Lite 2.0
  • Ultimate Direction Wasp Pack
  • Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Poles
  • First Endurance EFS Drink Mix and Ultragen
  • Injinji Socks
  • Rudy Project Sunglasses


Complete photo album here.

Desolation Marathon Loop

My second visit to the Desolation Wilderness was in late August for an extremely pleasant loop entirely on trails that hits most of the highlights in the region including great views of Emerald Bay, vistas from Dicks Pass, and gorgeous Lake Aloha. Total mileage according to GPS was just under 26 miles, hence the “Desolation Marathon Loop” name. Complete photo album here.

On the way to the Bayview trailhead I enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over Emerald Bay. The first couple miles out of Bayview are fairly steep but once at the pass between the Maggies Peaks the trail levels off. The trail begins a steady climb before reaching the junction with the Tahoe Rim Trail, and the climb continues all the way up to Dicks Pass. I opted to do the loop clockwise which ascends to the highest point of the loop at Dicks Pass first thing. The descent from Dicks Pass is rocky but I made my way down to Gilmore Lake in good time. I continued along the TRT to Lake Aloha and then split off for Mosquito Pass. This stretch along the shores of Lake Aloha is the most scenic part of the loop, particularly when the trail begins its climb to Mosquito Pass. I stopped at a natural rock balcony below the pass to enjoy the beautiful scenery. From Mosquito Pass, the first couple miles down Rubblefield Canyon are difficult technical trail strewn with rocks making for slow going. The remainder of the trail through Rubblefield Canyon (~ 6 miles) is delightful single track in the meadows and forest. It’s obvious this remote portion of the Desolation Wilderness sees a fraction of the foot traffic as the more accessible regions. The junction with the Velma Lakes trail marks the beginning of the last climb on the route. While the climbing is fairly moderate I was tired from the preceding running and the trail is fairly technical so I walked a good chunk of the climb back to the TRT and up to Bayview Trail. On the way back I stopped at the saddle between the Maggies Peaks to gaze at gorgeous Emerald Bay below. The route took just under 5.5 hours with plenty of photography stops.


Complete photo album here.

Desolation Six Summits Loop

The Desolation Wilderness is the most rugged region near Lake Tahoe with the star attraction being Lake Aloha set amidst the granite slopes of the Crystal Range. Since it’s relatively accessible to Lake Tahoe, it is the most visited wilderness area in the United States per square foot. While there is no shortage of people on the trails on a busy summer weekend, I still found plenty of solitude in this granite playground during two visits to the Desolation this summer. In this first post I’ll cover the adventure run in July which entailed an aesthetic ridge route climbing the six highest summits in the Desolation Wilderness over 11h42m roundtrip out of the Mount Ralston Trailhead. The next post recaps a scenic and logical loop entirely on trails out of Bayview near gorgeous Emerald Bay done in late August. Complete photo album of the six summits loop here.

When looking at the map, a logical route links up the highest points in the Crystal Range from Pyramid Peak to Mount Agassiz to Mount Price. Jacks Peak and Dicks Peak are separated by the relatively low Mosquito Pass but they are close in proximity to each other. After descending to Dicks Pass from Dicks Peak, one can traverse a high ridge to Mount Tallac making for an aesthetic high route linking the six highest points of the Desolation Wilderness that is virtually all off-trail. I parked the car at the Ralston Peak trailhead and ran down Highway 50 to the Rocky Canyon use path. This path is steep and gains altitude efficiently reaching the meadow below Pyramid Peak quickly. The path continues up the last few hundred feet below the summit where there is some large boulder hoping. After enjoying the view from Pyramid and continued down the north slope and traversed over to a small section of rock scrambling. Continuing along the ridge and ascended a couple minor high points and then found myself on the slopes below Mount Agassiz. Mount Agassiz has an interesting summit pinnacle perched above Lake Aloha. From Agassiz, Mount Price is only a few minutes away running along easy dirt slopes. The descent from Mount Price to Mosquito Pass entails some downclimbing to a notch and then a long stretch of walking along slabs. The views of Lake Aloha from here are stupendous, with colors ranging from a deep azure in the deeper portions to turquoise. Eventually down at Mosquito Pass I crossed right over and began the ascent up Jacks Peak. It is on this ascent that that I found the most stunning views of Lake Aloha and the Crystal Range. Moving higher up the slopes, the birds eye view of the Aloha region was magnificent.

Unfortunately, the character of the rock changes dramatically north and east of Mosquito Pass. Instead of solid granite, the rock becomes progressively more fractured and loose. This makes for more arduous travel, but eventually I made it to the summit of Jacks Peak. From Jacks, Dicks Peak looks like a massive rubble pile (which it basically is). Fortunately, it doesn’t take as long as it looks to traverse between the two peaks. From Dicks Peak it was surprisingly time consuming to reach Dicks Pass and the high ridge between Dicks Pass and Mount Tallac proved even more time consuming. While this ridge starts out easy, it quickly transitions to loose shale. This stretch is not without its rewards as there are great views of Lake Tahoe on one side and Gilmore Lake on the other. I finally connected with the Mount Tallac and continued up the final slopes to the summit. I hadn’t seen many people to this point, but the renowned summit of Tallac had dozens of hikers enjoying the spectacular vista of Lake Tahoe. From this point to the finish was entirely on trail including a beautiful run along the shores of Lake Aloha. However, on the climb towards Ralston Peak I became dehydrated with no water available (note: fill up water before departing Lake Aloha).  I was happy to crest the ridge and begin the long descent to the Ralston Peak parking area, reaching the trailhead 11h42m after setting out.  Complete photo album of the six summits loop here.

Along the Ralston Peak trail I was not far from the summit of Ralston Peak, which would make for a seven summit day, but at 9,200 feet it’s substantially than the six primary summits of this route in both elevation and stature. Thus, I left Ralston for the next time I do this loop. Moreover, route knowledge will definitely allow me to go substantially faster on on the other parts the next time I attempt this loop. One major difference would be descending from Dicks Pass to Gilmore Lake on the Tahoe Rim Trail and then climbing back up to Mount Tallac. While this would diminish the high ridge nature of the route, it would allow for substantial time savings and perhaps completion below 10 hours. It is worth noting that water is scarce on the route, particularly later in the season, so plan accordingly.

Complete photo album of the six summits loop here.

High Sierra Trail FKT

Last Sunday I ran the 72 mile High Sierra Trail from Whitney Portal to Crescent Meadow in 15h46m starting at 3:19 am and finishing at 7:05 pm, a new FKT (previous mark was 18h39m). It was a great experience in an immensely scenic region of the High Sierra. A special thanks goes to Joel Lanz who helped with the car shuttle and made the whole adventure possible. Complete photo album here.

The High Sierra Trail is a masterpiece of Sequoia National Park traveling from the iconic giant sequoias to the highest point in the lower 48, and passing through some of the most stunning scenery in the Sierra Nevada Mountains en route. The trail stretches 61 miles from Crescent Meadows to the summit of Mount Whitney. As a practical matter, the trail is 72 miles since it takes another 11 miles to reach the Whitney Portal trailhead from the summit. The High Sierra Trail shares the same trail as the John Muir Trail from Wallace Creek to the summit of Mount Whitney leading some to speculate that the High Sierra Trail ends at the Wallace Creek junction, but the summit plaque on Whitney and the High Sierra Trail sign at Crescent Meadows prove that the High Sierra Trail indeed ends at Whitney’s summit. While the trail is traditionally done from west to east, for adventure running, the preferred direction is east to west due to a net loss of around 1,600 feet, and more importantly, the biggest climb of the day up Mount Whitney (6,200ft+ elevation gain) is completed first thing on fresh legs.

I was lucky to snag two day use permits for the Whitney zone on Friday afternoon so on Saturday Joel and I drove down to Lone Pine and picked them up. In the afternoon we did a short hike to the Cottonwood Lakes (~11,000 ft) below Mount Langley for helpful (albeit brief) acclimatization. It was gorgeous up there and I look forward to returning to explore more of the lakes and summit Mt. Langley. Sunday I woke up at 2:35 a.m. and departed Whitney Portal at 3:19 a.m. I got into a decent rhythm working the switchbacks all the way to Trail Crest. I reached the summit at 6:20 a.m. just as the sun was rising and it was amazing to watch the peaks and cliffs illuminate in orange – Sierra light at its best.

After a few photos and congratulating a couple who had just become engaged, I descended the slopes back to the junction. Oddly, I felt the altitude much more on the descent to Crabtree meadow, but the spectacular scenery was a good distraction. Fortunately, on the stretch between Crabtree and Wallace Creek I was able dial into my nutrition and hydration plan so I started feeling better. I got into a nice rhythm descending into Kern Canyon and then running the 9.5 miles of awesome rolling single track down the canyon. I saw several bears in the canyon, including a mother bear and two cubs that literally jumped right in front of me. This caused momentary panic, especially when momma bear gave me a little grunt and stare, but I made some noise and she calmly directed her cubs up the hill away from the trail.

The steepest part of the route, and the crux in my opinion, is the long climb out of lower Kern Canyon to the Chagoopa Plateau below the Kaweah Range. All told, this climb entails nearly 4,500 ft of cumulative elevation gain and the first part is quite steep on a hot south facing slope. The black diamond ultra light z-poles were extremely helpful on this section and I soon found myself on the plateau with a pleasant breeze. Most of Chagoopa is uninteresting terrain with open forest and no views. It is only until one essentially reaches the top of the plateau does the Great Western Divide and Kaweahs come into view. The scenery becomes more impressive and inspiring on the descent into the Big Arroyo Valley.

Upper Big Arroyo is amazing with a wide open tundra setting in the valley juxtaposed with sharp granite cliffs and peaks in the background. I met Jim Castleberry on this stretch and he was kind enough to take the photo of me immediately below. After Jim’s trip, he sent me a message: “This past Sunday I was hiking on the High Sierra Trail and took your picture on the east side of Kaweah Gap. Because of the remote location, when I heard the sound of feet running on the gravel surface behind me, it was a true WTF? moment. I was too shocked at the time to give you proper encouragement. Hope the rest of your run went well. You seemed to be in good condition when I saw you.”

The panoramic views continue up to 10,700 ft Kaweah Gap, the top of the last major climb of the route. I soaked in the views from Kaweah Gap and then continued down familiar territory to stunning Precipice Lake and Hamilton Lakes. This section is also one of the most scenic in the entire High Sierra and I couldn’t resist making several stops to take photos. While taking over 100 photos certainly cost me some time, photography is a big part of my enjoyment both during and after the adventure run. I felt there was no need to run “head down” the whole way at this stage of the trail’s FKT evolution.

I heard that legendary rock climber Peter Croft was staying at Hamilton Lakes to scope out a new route on the Angel Wings, the biggest rock wall in Sequoia National Park. As I passed by his party’s campsite, they asked me where I was coming from and gave words of encouragement. I wish I got his autograph! While the last 16 miles of the route is not without some climbing, there is also a lot of runnable terrain. I felt decent and was able to run a good chunk of the way from Kaweah Gap covering the last 20 miles in about 3:45 minutes. This was my first run over 50 miles ever and all things considered I felt good at the finish. It was great to see Joel at Crescent Meadows and give the High Sierra Trail sign a hug! Complete photo album here.

Splits:

  • Whitney Portal 0:00:00  (3:19 a.m.)
  • Outpost Camp 0:53:06
  • Trail Crest 2:21:54
  • Whitney Summit 3:01:15
  • Depart Summit 3:06:23
  • Crabtree Meadow 4:45:58
  • Wallace Creek 5:36:57
  • Junction Meadow 6:18:50
  • Kern Hot Springs 7:33:08
  • Lower Kern Canyon 7:56:42
  • Junction in Arroyo 10:53:22
  • Kaweah Gap 11:45:53
  • Bearpaw Meadow 13:41:30
  • Crescent Meadows 15:46:22 (7:05 pm)

Nutrition:

Gear:

Complete photo album here.