The eastern Sierra has some amazing displays of fall color. The season typically only lasts two to three weeks and it’s one of my favorite times to be in the Sierra. As promised, here are some photos of the awesome color on the North Fork Big Pine Creek. On the two prior occasions that I walked this stretch of trail I thought to myself that it would be great to come back in the fall when the aspens were firing. This year I finally got to experience this grove at the height of fall color. The afternoon lighting was perfect and there was a mix of yellow, orange and green. Taken together, it was a magical scene on the single track.
The North Fork Big Pine Creek is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra including a collection of picturesque alpine lakes, the largest glacier in the range, and some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra in the Palisades subrange. I have visited the North Fork Big Pine twice before to climb Mount Sill. This time, instead of taking the glacier trail all the way to Palisade Glacier, I veered off at Sam Mack Meadow for climbs of Mount Winchell and Mount Robinson. Both peaks possess amazing viewpoints of the surrounding region. The biggest surprise of the route was spectacular Sam Mack Lake, positioned in a desolate, ice-polished granite bowl with a stunning view of the Palisades including Mount Gayley, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Mount Winchell and Mount Agassiz. Strava route here.
The route to Sam Mack Lake follows a use path above Sam Mack Meadows to a headwall where one most turn right to avoid cliffs. Beyond the headwall, it’s a straightforward ascent through talus and granite slabs to gorgeous Sam Mack Lake. Beyond Sam Mack Lake I traversed some talus but then found a very efficient route along granite slabs up to the foot of the Winchell scramble. Along the way I passed a high glacial lake tucked in between Winchell and Agassiz with silty glacial waters and some measuring equipment. While the more direct route to Winchell would avoid Sam Mack Lake all together, I feel like you’d be missing out on the great view and also I don’t think it’s any faster since the standard route entails much tedious boulder hoping. The climb up the east arete of Winchell is a fun, straightforward route. The rock becomes more solid as one ascends for some fun scrambling for the last few hundred vertical feet. The summit of Winchell has a spectacular view into Dusy Basin and the Black Divide across LeConte Canyon. The towering cliffs of Thunderbolt, North Palisade and SillI are close at hand. In addition, there are some unique rock formations on Winchell’s west side that are interesting to look at. Retracing my route from Winchell back to Sam Mack Lake, I was ready for the ascent up to Mount Robinson. This class 3 route had more great views the entire way. There are a number of false summits near the top requiring some bouldering work, but I was soon at the high point admiring another spectacular view. For the descent off Robinson I decided to try a different route down the south slopes. This route started out reasonable but turned very loose and steep in its mid section; not an advisable ascent route but ok for descending. Back at Sam Mack Lake for the third time I enjoyed the view and photographed once again before beginning my return through the North Fork Lone Pine. On the way out the light over Second Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra, was amazing and I snapped many photos of the silty turquoise waters with Temple Crag in the background. Below the lakes I passed through a magical display of fall color along the trail that I will feature in the next blog post. An awesome day in the Palisades! Strava route here.
The Sawtooth Ridge region is one of the most scenic in all of the Sierra. I visited this area earlier in the summer climbing Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak in an aesthetic loop – the “Sawtooth Loop.” The highlight view was from Finger Peaks with a complete panorama of impressive Sawtooth Ridge from the south. On this outing I ascended infrequently visited Robinson Peak (10,793 ft) which features the mirror panorama of Sawtooth Ridge from the north. This trip was all about the views and it’s truly a staggering vista with over 5,000 vertical feet of rugged terrain across the Robinson Creek valley. The climb itself is not aesthetic, but it’s a great workout. I started from a small RV park on the east side of Twin Lakes (~7,100 ft) and took an old 4wd road into a canyon until it ended (~1 mile). From here I continued up the canyon to its head and then up steep slopes with prickly sage and other high desert vegetation. This 3,000+ foot climb over only 2 miles from the start finally deposited me onto Sawmill Ridge where the tremendous views opened up. From Sawmill Ridge, it’s another couple miles of easy cross country hiking along the ridge through grass, sage and patches of pine forest to the foot of Robinson Peak. A final 600 foot climb and I was at the top gazing over Robinson Creek and the jagged crest of Sawtooth Ridge, including Matterhorn Peak, Dragtooth Peak, The Doodad, Three Peaks, the Sawblade, Cleaver Peak, Blacksmith Peak, Eocene Peak, and the Incredible Hulk. There was also some pretty fall color on the mountainsides and in the Robinson Creek drainage. In all, it’s only a bit over 4 miles to the summit of Robinson Peak and took me about 1h40m. After 30 minutes admiring the staggering panorama, I headed down the ridge. On the way back, I took a variation staying on the ridge longer and dropping down the entry canyon on it’s east side. While a bit longer, it was a good descent route and I was back to the car in a little over an hour after departing the summit. Strava route here.
Not to be confused with Robinson Peak, the next day I climbed Mount Robinson (12,967 ft) as part of a trip up the North Fork Big Pine Creek to Sam Mack Lake and Mount Winchell. Mount Robinson has an amazing view of the Palisades from Sill to Agassiz. Both Robinsons are among the finest viewpoints in the High Sierra and it was pleasure to visit both of them on the same weekend. The photo immediately below compares the view from the Robinson summits. More on the North Fork Big Pine trip in a future blog post.
Tulainyo Lake sits in a desolate bowl 12,828 feet above sea level nestled between four peaks – Mount Russell, Mount Carillon, Tunnabora Peak and The Cleaver. It is one of the highest lakes in the contiguous United States and impressively large for its altitude. Due to its elevation and shadowing effects from nearby peaks, the lake often remains ice and snow covered well into the summer. In late summer and fall, with the ice and snow melted, the lake reveals a cerulean color with turquoise along its shores. The photogenic setting is stark with the lake’s pure waters set amid granite boulders and cliffs. I have wanted to visit this lake for some time and it did not disappoint.
I accessed Tulainyo Lake via Cleaver Col. I took the North Fork Lone Pine trail to Lower Boy Scout Creek and then headed uphill on easy cross country slopes. As I ascended into the cirque below Cleaver Col, The Cleaver’s immense south face of smooth granite came into view. This amphitheater of rugged granite walls is spectacular. I found the route to Cleaver Col straightforward except for some loose rock and snow in the final chute. After a little over a couple hours I was at Cleaver Col peering over at the broad expanse of Tulainyo lake. While warming nicely on the eastside of the crest, I found a sharp and cold wind blowing over the col and I quickly put on my jacket. It would stay cold and breezy most of the morning, especially in the shade. I descended almost down to the lake shore before heading up to The Cleaver. The Cleaver is mainly a boulder hop except some class three near the top. The summit provides a breathtaking view of Tulainyo Lake framed by Mount Carillon, Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. Coming off The Cleaver I traversed Tulainyo’s east shore and ascended up to Russell-Carillon saddle. From here I made the short hike up to Mount Carillon with its outstanding view of the east ridge of Mount Russell. Back at Russell-Carillon saddle I started my way up Mount Russell’s east ridge. While this route is called the east ridge, it is not possible to stay on the ridge proper without technical climbing and one must drop onto the north side. This shaded north side held new snow and ice from a storm a few days prior. After carefully scrambling through the slippery snow along most of the ridge I got to a point where I did not feel comfortable continuing in the current conditions and I returned back to Russell-Carillon saddle. On the way back to Whitney Portal I stopped at beautiful Upper Boy Scout Lake and then returned down the North Fork Lone Pine Creek. While I did not complete Russell, I achieved my goal of exploring the Tulainyo Lake basin. I will definitely be back to this area to complete my intended route, which includes completing the East Ridge of Russell, an ascent of the North Face of Mount Whitney, and finishing off with a run down the Whitney Trail.
I don’t often visit the Whitney Zone due its long distance from the Bay Area (7 hours) and convoluted red tape associated with the permitting process. However, I’m always looking for new scenery to explore and parts of this region I have never seen. Snagging some last minute day use permits for the weekend, I came up with a couple good routes to tour the highlights of the region. One route was a point-to-point starting at Whitney Portal to Cottonwood Lakes taking me up the Mountaineer’s route on Whitney, followed by a traverse to Crabtree Pass, through Miter Basin, up the west face of Mount Langley, and finally down Old Army Pass through Cottonwood Lakes. For the second route I hoped to tour Tulainyo Lake with summits of The Cleaver, Mount Carillon, Mount Russell and the north Face of Whitney. The first objective (detailed in this blog post) went off without a hitch, but the second route was stymied by some ice and snow on the exposed class 3 section on Mount Russell’s east ridge. Turning around was a relatively easy personal decision as very exposed third class scrambling on slippery rock is out of my comfort zone with no technical gear. No doubt I will be back to finish off the second route, but I accomplished my primary goals of visiting the astoundingly beautiful Tulainyo Lake area (photos and more details in the next blog post) and the spectacular region between Whitney and Langley. Strava route here.
Driving from the Bay Area on Friday night with a short rest outside of Mammoth Lakes left me with little sleep on Saturday morning, but I was pumped and ready to go up Mount Whitney’s Mountaineer’s route departing the Portal just after 8:15 a.m. The N. Fork Lone Pine has largely become a trail, but since this was my first time up the drainage I managed to stray off the best use-path a couple times. Route knowledge will surely allow for a faster ascent next time. As I ascended above Upper Boy Scout Lake, I was particularly inspired and impressed by the massive pillars of the Whitney massif, especially Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak. I passed by Iceberg Lake and continued up rocks on the left side of the chute which merged with the primary chute where the rock became much more loose and tedious. I encountered some snow along the way that I carefully avoided. Once at the top of the Mountaineer’s I traversed across the north face to the summit plateau since the class 3 rock directly above looked slippery with snow and ice. I was at the summit 2h50m after starting; not bad for my first time with lots of photography stops. The Mountaineer’s route is definitely a more efficient route than the Whitney Trail. See the above panorama for an annotation of the sweeping view from Whitney’s summit (click image for larger version). From Whitney’s summit, I went down the Whitney Trail/JMT and then tagged Mount Muir. There are a couple class 3 moves to contemplate, but once you know the route it takes a matter of minutes to ascend the pinnacle. Muir is one of the many “blips” on Whitney’s south ridge, but since it has prominence and tops out over 14,000 feet it is included in the select group of “14ers”, the subject of fixation among many mountain enthusiasts. From Mount Muir I went to Trail Crest and then ascended Discovery Pinnacle. While only a couple hundred feet above Trail Crest, Discovery Pinnacle had my favorite view of the day, including an unobstructed view of Hitchcock Lakes, Hitchcock Peak, the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, the Whitney massif and points south. From Discovery Pinnacle I was expecting a straightforward descent into the cirque above upper Crabtree Lake that would deposit me just below Crabtree Pass, but I encountered a cliff band that required some navigation. Looking back at this cliff band from Crabtree Pass, I now know the most efficient route for next time which descends almost all the way to upper Crabtree Lake and then contours back up to Crabtree Pass. Descending from Crabtree Pass I first encountered some small tarns and then Lake 3,697 meters, a rather large alpine lake in a desolate setting of rock and granite. My route from this lake to Sky Blue Lake requires a bit of a circuitous route to get around a granite headwall. I stopped to photograph the small tarns with incredible scenery along the way including The Miter and the serrated ridgeline that composes Mount LeConte and Mount Corocoan. I was soon at the shores of aptly-named Sky Blue Lake with a tremendous view of The Miter, Miter Basin, and surrounding peaks. Travel from Sky Blue Lake into Miter Basin is very easy as the terrain is almost flat and composed of granite slabs and grassy meadows. A clump of southern foxtail pines is particularly picturesque set against the granite cliffs of The Miter, Mount LeConte and Mount Corocan. I had my doubts about the west face of Mount Langley, but committed to a chute that looked like it contained fairly solid rock. Indeed, travel was efficient up to the west ridge. However, once on the west ridge, the trip up Langley became an arduous slog through unstable gravel. Fortunately,the ridge grew more rocky the higher I went. A long walk across the summit plateau brought me to the breezy and cold summit. After snapping a few photos and signing the register I started to head down to Old Army Pass. Along the way I spotted a group of four Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. They stopped to stare at me and then continued on their way across the desolate plateau; a surreal moment as the sun was beginning to set over the Sierra. I continued down through Old Army Pass and the Cottonwood Lakes and pulled out my headlamp for the last few miles to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. I arrived at 7:50 pm and it was already totally dark, a sign that winter is fast approaching. The Whitney to Langley traverse through Crabtree Pass and Miter Basin was an excellent route. I look forward to climbing Mount Pickering and visiting Iridescent Lake next time I do this route.
Each of the past four years I have run the High Sierra Trail to Hamilton Lakes, Kaweah Gap and nearby Precipice Lake. The rugged beauty of this region never ceases to amaze and inspire, from the sapphire blue of Hamilton Lakes and Precipice Lake to the sheer granite walls of Angel Wings and the Valhallas. This time I decided to head beyond the Kaweah Gap area and across Nine Lakes Basin to the northern end of the Kaweah Range to climb Kaweah Queen and Lawson Peak. These peaks offered unique views into the north side of the Kaweah Range and the remote Kaweah Basin. I also passed through some stunning alpine scenery along a series of rarely visited lakes beneath the towering north face of Black Kaweah. Both Lawson Peak and Kaweah Queen are fairly straightforward climbs with the greatest challenge being the long approach and loose rock in spots. Fortunately, the outrageous scenery en route and panoramic views from the summits make the long distance worthwhile. Strava route here.
I started out just after 4 am from Crescent Meadows with perfect nighttime weather. The High Sierra Trail is an excellent trail for running all the way to the crossing of Lone Pine Creek (~13 miles in) with no major climbs and relatively smooth trail by Sierra standards. Beyond, the trail gains nearly 2,500 feet over the next 7 miles to Kaweah Gap and becomes a bit more rugged. I made it up to Precipice Lake with the first rays of sunlight illuminating the cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak. I reached Kaweah Gap a little over 4.5 hrs after starting and continued on through gorgeous Nine Lakes Basin. Travel through the basin is very straightforward and I was soon at the upper lakes beneath Black Kaweah and beginning the scramble up Lawson Peak. Lawson has great views, particularly the angle of Milestone Bowl and the upper reaches of the Kern-Kaweah River. After Lawson I continued on or near the ridgecrest to Kaweah Queen. Kaweah Queen is arguably the best vantage of the rugged north side of the Kaweah Range with the rugged spires of Koontz Pinnacle and Pyramidal Pinnacle closest at hand. The magnificent panorama also encompasses the elongated Lake 11,692 beneath the sinister north face of Black Kaweah, desolate Kaweah Basin and the Great Western Divide. Across Kern Canyon and Kern Basin I could make out most of the peaks on the Sierra Crest from Mount Keith south to Mount Langley. The descent from Kaweah Queen was extremely loose rock characteristic of the Kaweahs so caution was required. Back at the lakes, it was easy cross country travel back to Kaweah Gap. On the way back I stopped to enjoy lovely Precipice Lake and Hamilton Lakes before completing the run back to Crescent Meadows on the High Sierra Trail. The following photos are in chronological order. Strava route here.