Trinity Alps High Route Part II: Mirror Lake, Caesar Peak & Thompson Peak

Part II of the three part series on the Trinity Alps High Route fastpack focuses on the section from Sawtooth Mountain to Thompson Peak. Part I of the series including Little Granite Peak, Sawtooth Peak, Alpine and Smith Lake is here. This stretch is probably the most remote and rugged of the entire route, particularly the section from Kalmia Pass to Mirror Pass. After downclimbing the scramble section of Sawtooth Mountain, one is treated to a walk across the peak’s massive east face, which is a gently sloping granite apron. The granite is smooth and the travel is generally easy until one reaches a ridge that separates Devils Canyon from the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. Along this ridge is a small notch called Twin Pine Pass that enables passage to the other side. This pass is quite miraculous since virtually anywhere else above or below this pass would require some technical climbing. Accessing this pass is straightforward if you aim to gain the ridge west of the pass and then drop down into the pass from the ridge. There are a few ways to gain the ridge and most will contain a few scrambling moves.   From Twin Pine Pass, there is a section of talus hoping before one reaches another marvelous section of smooth granite slabs where efficient progress can be made.  Above these slabs is a wonderful glacially sculpted ridge and below the slabs is a tremendous view across the canyon to Mirror Lake and Caesar Peak. As one moves west across this section of pristine granite, Mirror Lake grows larger and the views keep improving. Ultimately, the easy slab walking ends and one must begin an ascent toward Kalmia Pass. It may be tempting to descend from Kalmia Pass directly into the basin between it and Mirror Lake, but this is not advisable due to dangerous cliffs and fields of unstable talus. Instead, there is a broad sloping ledge sandwiched between two cliff bands that provides a relatively efficient and safe route to Mirror Lake. From Kalmia Pass, descend northwest along alp slopes and talus to the ledge and begin traversing across with cliffs above and below. The views along this traverse are stellar and include Sapphire Lake with Sawtooth Ridge towering behind. The ledge is not flat so there is quite a bit of sidehilling and a couple washouts to cross that include steep hardpan so caution is necessary at several points of the traverse. Keep following the ledge for longer than you might assume, generally maintaining elevation and evening ascending a little as Mirror Lake comes into view immediately below and the lower cliff band reaches higher. Eventually an obvious gully comes into view with Mirror Lake directly below. This weakness in the cliffs is the ticket to reaching Mirror Lake without hazardous down climbing through cliffs. Follow the gully down and then move left onto granite slabs and benches for the last part of the descent to lovely Mirror Lake. Aptly-named Mirror Lake is tucked into a granite bowl beneath the grand cirque that forms the headwaters of the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. This lake is a wonderful spot and extremely photogenic. Enjoy the lake since the ascent from Mirror Lake to Mirror Pass is fairly long and arduous gaining 1,400 feet in short order. The main idea is to reach a bowl beneath Mirror Pass that is ~7,800 ft. When ascending the granite slopes and shallow gullies north of Mirror Lake, one approaches what appears to be a headwall but a diagonal ramp leads left to right to a forested ridge that provides access through the headwall and to the bowl. From the bowl, ascend talus slopes to Mirror Pass which is another miraculous crossing where cliffs are present on both sides of the pass but the pass itself is basically a walk over. It seems possible to ascend Caesar Peak via its east ridge from beneath Mirror Pass but this description is for the easier class 2 ascent via the North Ridge.  To gain the north ridge traverse at 8,000 feet on granite slabs and moraine debris. A permanent snowfield once existed here but all that remains is a few chunks of ice beneath the towering cliffs of Caesar Peak’s northeast face. After ascending the glacial moraine the route reaches another pass that separates the Little South Fork Salmon River from Grizzly Creek. From this pass Caesar Peak is less than a thousand feet up. One can stick to the north ridge proper from the bottom or take pleasant granite slopes west of the ridge and use one of the many small chutes to gain the ridge higher up. Caesar Peak features a commanding view of the region including Mirror Lake, Sapphire lake and Sawtooth Mountain to the south, Thompson Peak to the west and Grizzly Lake to the north. The cirque above Grizzly Lake can easily be traversed to continue the route between Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak, but Grizzly Lake is one of the highlights of the route and worth the fairly large elevation gain and loss necessary to reach the shores of the lake. The spectacular lake situated in a rugged granitic cirque with deep blue waters and clumps of firs. One of the most amazing aspects of this lake is its outlet waterfall which tumbles over large cliffs only a few feet away from the lake. Not much water is present late in the summer but this must be a spectacular sight in early summer and worthy of an trip earlier in the season to view this waterfall in its full glory. There are several good camp spots on the north shore of Grizzly Lake with stunning views of the granite cirque including Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. From Grizzly Lake it’s a fairly straightforward climb up slabs and talus to notch on the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak. In the upper reaches of this climb is a faint trail that provides easier passage through the scree and rocks. From the notch in the ridge, instead of traversing into the Rattlesnake Creek basin one can ascend the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak directly to the summit. Where the boulders became large and awkward, move to the south side of the ridge and continue up to the summit with a few class 3 moves along the way, including the summit block which is a collection of very large boulders and some fun bouldering moves. The 360 degree panorama from Thompson Peak is amazing, particularly down to Grizzly Lake and the Thompson Glacier. While the glacier is now only a few acres in size, there still appears to be crevasses and ice movement. Hopefully the glacier makes it through this drought, but I’m not too optimistic about its long term survival. From Thompson Peak the view south is equally impressive and includes much of the remainder of the route across the broad granite face to Mount Hilton, Sawtooth Mountain and the Canyon Creek Lakes drainage. The section from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes will be covered in the last segment of the Trinity Alps High Route series.

Trinity Alps High Route Part I: Little Granite & Sawtooth

This the first of a series of posts on the Trinity Alps High Route, a mostly off-trail loop through the Trinity Alps that covers many of the highlights of this spectacular region. There are numerous variations of this route for the adventurer to consider, and I am sure my itinerary on my next visit will be different, but the route I am sharing is a complete loop around the upper Canyon Creek drainage including summits of the six named peaks surrounding the drainage. Each of these summits offered its own rewards and I highly recommending including at least some of the peaks into any itinerary as the views are breathtaking. While my fastpack took two days with the single night spent at Grizzly Lake, I feel it makes more sense to split up the copious photography and my thoughts on the route into three parts: the first part from the trailhead to Little Granite Peak to Sawtooth Mountain; the second part from Sawtooth Mountain to Caesar Peak to Thompson Peak; and the third part from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes. The Trinity Alps are a spectacular and rugged collection of mountains and ridges tucked deep in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California. Largely overlooked for the neighboring greater ranges in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, these mountains remain a gem where solitude and adventure can be found in a large expanse of trail-less wilderness. In fact, as the Trinity Alps are geographically between the Cascades and the Sierra, the mountains contain a magical blend of both range’s characteristics. The Trinity Alps High Route (TAHR) was conceived by Deems Burton after decades of exploration learning the intricacies of this wild terrain. His photo gallery contains many inspirational photos and ideas for cross country treks. The high route is characterized by ubiquitous white granite, serene alpine lakes, and clumps of picturesque krummholz. It is said that the ubiquitous white granite of these mountains produces an incomparable deep blue sky and I’d have to agree.I started and finished my loop from the Canyon Creek Trailhead as it was the most convenient for me and enabled a complete loop without repetition. There are several other potential trailheads at which one could emabark on a similar loop. My start included the climb up to the Stuart-Bear Divide which becomes quite steep near the top. At the divide, instead of taking the trail down the other side I headed up cross country to Little Granite Peak. With a little bit of mico-navigating, one can avoid the brush at the lower part and the rock outcroppings on the summit ridge. The final hundred vertial includes some some class 3 scrambling to reach the summit. Lttle Granite affords a great vantage to survey the TAHR as the entire Canyon Creek drainage is visible. My favorite view was looking toward the impressive Sawtooth Mountain, with its nearly vertical fang of gray granite rising abruptly from the more subdued white granite slopes below. I enjoyed the early morning view from the summit while contemplating my descent to Alpine Lake. The descent from Little Granite Peak to Alpine Lake was the only section of the route which I had no information. I had scoped out several possible descent routes but ultimately decided the western side of the slope would provide the highest likelihood of successes. The complexity is due to the fact that east and south sides of Alpine Lake are surrounded by cliffs and steep slabs while the west side is a jungle of coarse brush. Care must taken to find the most efficient route down to avoid cliffs and nasty bushwhacking. From just below the summit I utilized a ramp to take me down to more moderately angled slabs. I cruised down the easy slabs for awhile staying to skiers left near the ridgecrest and descended towards the fields of brush west of Alpine Lake. At the brush I found a shallow gully which turned into a dry streambed that provided a mostly brush-free descent to Alpine Lake. As mentioned previously, Alpine Lake is a beautiful spot nestled in a granitic cirque beneath Little Granite Peak and the rugged unnamed summit to the north. From Alpine Lake the next objective is to gain a pass between the Alpine Lake drainage and the Smith Lake drainage. Most of the terrain to gain this pass is efficient travel on granite slabs but the lower part is field of nearly impenetrable brush. I used a dry streambed to avoid the brush and gain access to the granite slopes above, but later I learned that a path has been clipped through the brush avoiding the necessity to scramble in the large boulders of the streambed. I found the scramble to be fun and not very time-consuming, but I’ll probably look for the path next time! From the pass, I was given a tip not to descend directly to Smith Lake’s outlet, but instead traverse high around it’s south side to Morris Lake. This proved to be an excellent tip as the views of Sawtooth Mountain towering above picturesque Smith Lake are among my favorite of the route. Smith Lake is known as the Queen of the Alps, and rightfully so, with it’s deep blue waters carved in a smooth bowl of white granite. This is an awesome and inspirational spot with outstanding scenery. From Morris Lake I used a steep ramp to cross over the southeast ridge of Sawtooth Mountain at a notch. From the notch it was fairly easy travel on slabs and talus up to the north ridge of Sawtooth Mountain. Of the six peaks on my itinerary, I was most looking forward to Sawtooth Mountain. This is perhaps the most remote and difficult mountain in the Trinity Alps with a wild character. Despite not being the tallest mountain in the Trinities (a title which belongs to Thompson Peak), a strong argument can be made that it is the centerpiece peak of the Trinity Alps, and in my opinion it is. Information on the final scramble up the large summit block (the “tooth”) was scarce, but I found it to be fairly straightforward. The first few moves up the ridge are probably the most difficult but go as class 3 if you look carefully. More class 3 climbing continues up along the ridge (generally on its east side) until the climber reaches a spot on the crest of the ridge near the north summit, which is a few feet lower than the south summit. The traverse over to the south summit entails some more class 3 scrambling and micro-routefinding passing over and around a couple gendarmes but the south summit is ultimately not far away and the climber soon finds themselves sitting atop the summit rocks with a birds eye view of the Trinities. It’s an excellent vantage of all of the surrounding terrain including Mount HIlton, Thompson Peak and Caesar Peak with distant views to the Red Trinities and Mount Shasta. Immediately below are Smith Lake and Morris Lake, shimmering in their granite bowls. It’s a grand vista and I spent some time enjoying the scene while eating lunch. After reversing the rock scramble moves up Sawtooth Mountain it was time for a traverse to Mirror Lake which would entail passage through Twin Pine Pass and a traverse to Kalmia Pass and the ledges above Mirror Lake. This segment of the trip, along with the continuation of the journey to Caesar Peak, Grizzly Lake and Thompson Peak will be covered in the next post.  

Conness Peak & North Peak

After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.

To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope.  From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes.  Strava GPS hereHigh on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.    

More Minarets

The Minarets are a spectacular collection of jagged spires in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Usually I like to spread my adventures throughout the High Sierra since there are so many hidden gems to explore and mix up the character of scenery, but I have a particular affinity for the Minarets with repeated visits including July 2009 (Clyde Minaret), July 2013 (Minaret Loop), October 2013 (Tuolumne to Devils via Minarets), and July 2015 (Ansel Adams Loops). There are seventeen unofficially named spires and most are along a single ridge forming an arête. I have only climbed one Minaret, Clyde Minaret, which is the highest and named after Sierra climbing pioneer and legend Norman Clyde. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag a few more spires in the future. While I haven’t stood atop many of them, I have seen them from all different angles and I can’t seem to get enough of the spectacular ruggedness of these spires and the trio of three gorgeous lakes immediately beneath them – Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. While I’m merely an amateur photographer with a lot to learn, attempting to take quality photos is a big part of my personal enjoyment in the mountains. I use the word quality because some trail runners have a tendency to focus more on their watch and braggadocio than the scenery resulting in mediocre photography results at best and at worst, video that is so shaky and random in movement that it is essentially unwatchable. This approach couldn’t be more opposite than the ethos of John Muir. Whether it’s the Minarets or other photogenic gems in the Sierra, I always find it worth the time to scope out the best angles and enjoy the scenery. Each time I have visited the Minarets it has featured different light, snow conditions etc. so it’s fun to compare the results. On this trip, I had the best conditions I’ve seen yet at Minaret Lake with excellent clarity and a few puffs of clouds swirling about the spires. My photography tip at Minaret Lake is to climb a granite outcropping near the outlet of the lake, which provides amazing composition of the entire lake and a turquoise inlet below with the Minaret spires towering behind. This balcony provided such a great view I probably took a hundred photos within a span of 15 minutes (I’ve spared this blog from most of those photos but there are still plenty). It’s one of my favorite vantages in all of the Sierra. It was great to spend some time at Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake and really enjoy the awesome surroundings. To complete the loop I recommend the River Trail instead of the JMT through Rosalie Lake. Both routes are very boring compared to the preceding section beneath the Minarets, but I like the River Trail better as it had less elevation gain and some nice peaceful single track in the forest next to the river that gets surprisingly little use.  Strava GPS route here.   

Brewer and the Guards Loop

My last time on Mount Brewer was nearly five years ago and I’ve been thinking about a return to this prominent summit. Set apart from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada along the northern end of the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer’s lofty perch at 13,570 ft offers an astounding view that was very memorable and I was eager to return. In 2010 the route to Brewer’s summit was a fairly uninteresting as an out-and-back via the Sphinx Lakes region and the Avalanche Gulch Trail. It was in September and there were still snow patches as 2010 was the last above average year of snowfall in the High Sierra. This year there was virtually no snow to be found anywhere. In 2010 there was also a fire in Kings Canyon; the Sheep Fire. There would also be a fire in 2015, the Rough Fire, which was still in its nascent stages at the time of this trip but would later become a much larger and more unpredictable fire, ultimately becoming one of the largest fires in the Southern Sierra Nevada history. This year’s visit to Mount Brewer would include linking up a few additional summits along the northern end of the Great Western Divide – North Guard, South Guard and Sky Pilot Peak – tying it together with an aesthetic loop including Lake Reflection, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. North Guard was particularly intriguing to me with its sharp, rugged profile and reputation for fun scrambling. The loop came in around 36 miles with over 12,000 ft of elevation gain. Strava GPS route hereThe day started out along the familiar sandy path from Road’s End and up the switchbacks to the Avalanche Pass Trail. The ascent is quite steep at first with several sections of rock steps, but overall an efficient trail to get into the high country fast. I left the trail where it crosses the creek and headed up cross country through open woodland and granite slabs to the Sphinx Lakes, which are nice but nothing special my opinion. Beyond the Sphinx Lakes is a section of talus up to a pass but it seemed easier than 2010 or maybe I’ve just gotten used to efficiently moving on talus. Around the corner Mount Brewer finally makes an appearance, but I first curved north toward North Guard. The class 3 route up North Guard requires careful attention to route finding to keep it class 3. The route starts with steepening slabs and then short cross-over into a hanging sandy gully with more slabs up to the west ridge of North Guard. The final stretch of climbing along the West Ridge is classic Sierra scrambling with solid blocky rocks. The actual summit is a large overhanging rock. The north face of North Guard is a sheer drop to the Sphinx Lakes basin. I found the view from North Guard to be just as good as Mount Brewer with excellent clarity on this day. I particularly enjoyed the view to Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall. I retraced my route up North Guard and then traversed to Mount Brewer which is largely a class 2 scramble up its north slopes. I was soon atop Brewer enjoying the 360 panorama once more. To connect Brewer with South Guard one must descend the south slopes of Brewer which start off with cumbersome talus but finishes with a fun stretch of plunge stepping in loose gravel.    From the basin between South Guard and Brewer I took a ramp and class 3 face up to South Guard’s ridge and after a ridge walk I ultimately reached the summit, which is rather nondescript and only slightly taller than surrounding rock outcroppings along the ridge. From South Guard down to Longley Pass is a quick trip thanks to more plunge stepping but I wasn’t done with summits yet. Sky Pilot Peak is located immediately south of Longley Pass and while it’s not a high mountain compared to its neighbors, it has an exceptionally rugged profile when viewed from the east, especially from the Lake Reflection region. As I’ve been to the area many times, Sky Pilot’s striking east face has always been of interest. The peak’s apt name is attributed to the many Sky Pilot flowers growing on its summit ridge. Indeed, I found copious Sky Pilots, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Sierra. Sky Pilot Peak is largely a class 2 scramble until one reaches a notch in the ridge, which requires a class 3 downclimb before resuming the final climb to the summit. I couldn’t find a summit register on Sky Pilot Peak manifesting that this is an infrequently climbed point, but I definitely hope to return in the future since the view looking down toward Lake Reflection is extraordinary. Some cumulus was building overhead creating some dappling on the terrain and lakes beneath the east face which only served to enhance the magic of this special view. After a long stay on Sky Pilot I returned to Longley Pass and then began the somewhat arduous and long descent to Lake Reflection. I did a pretty good job navigating until I got to the shores of Lake Reflection where I got turned around by steep slabs at a couple spots but finally made it to the outlet of the lake where I took a long break and enjoyed the view. Despite the added mileage of descending to Lake Reflection I wouldn’t want to do this link-up as an out-and-back – the scenery around Lake Reflection is that good!  From Lake Reflection it was all trail down to East Lake with views of Mount Bago in early evening and then a trail run on the Bubbs Creek Trail back to Road’s End to complete the aesthetic loop.   

Lake Basin Fastpack Loop

I have been wanting to get into Lake Basin since I looked down into it from the summit of Marion Peak last fall and Mount Ruskin has looked intriguing from the summit of Arrow Peak so I decided to combine the two in a two day fastpack loop and include Bench Lake, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. I started from Road’s End up the Copper Creek trail and it was quite warm. I would have rather started before the sun came up but the necessity of a permit and waiting behind other visitors asking questions precluded that. It was a relief to reach the relative cool of Grouse Lake and start this section of the Sierra High Route to Marion Lake. I was familiar with this stretch after my Cirque Crest loop last year, except this year I had an even better view across the Middle Fork Kings Canyon from Windy Ridge and Gray Pass. This area is simply spectacular with the “Windy Peak Lake” perfectly situated in the foreground of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, Le Conte Canyon and the breadth of peaks surrounding the Middle Fork from Mount Goddard to the Palisades. The clarity on this afternoon was amazing and confirmed my opinion that this is one of the grandest views in all of the High Sierra. I continued from Gray Pass to White Pass and finally Red Pass before descending to Marion Lake in the early evening.  Strava GPS route hereMarion Lake is nestled in a granite bowl with the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak towering above, but what makes this lake so special is its vibrant deep blue color. Marion Lake is the bluest lake I have seen in the Sierra. I’m guessing this is due to the depth of the lake and a mineral deposit from the adjacent white granite cliffs. While Marion Lake was lovely and I took many photographs of its spectacular setting and reflections, it was also infested with mosquitoes so I continued up Lake Basin, passing by several beautiful lakes in evening light before finding a suitable camping spot with far less mosquitoes. My fastpack setup was adequate for the relatively warm temps and I got several hours of quasi-sleep before getting up around 6 am. I traversed through upper Lake Basin and ascended to Cartridge Pass where the old trail can still be followed. From Cartridge Pass I ascended the southwest chute of Mount Ruskin. The lower part of the climb was class 2, transitioning to class 3 in the upper slopes and finally a stout but fun old school Sierra class 3 summit block that had some exposure.   The view from the summit of Mount Ruskin was one of the best I have seen in the Sierra and I’m not saying that because it was a recent summit. I have stood atop many summits over the years and this one was very memorable. The clarity was amazing and the entire southern High Sierra was at my feet from Whitney to the Kings-Kern Divide to the Great Western Divide. The centerpiece view was Arrow Peak and its picturesque north face towering above the Muro Blanco of the South Fork Kings River. The addition of this photogenic arrow-shaped peak makes the view even better than the one I experienced standing atop Arrow Peak last year, which at the time I thought was the best. To the north the view was also breathtaking and included the striking Palisades, the Goddard Divide, the White Divide and the peaks of the Ionian Basin. It was a marvelous 360 degree panorama and the mid-morning light was ideal so I spent a lot of time reveling in the panorama and filling up my memory card. I have been to many places in the Sierra and I must admit that after repeatedly seeing the same general views from slightly different angles and knowing the names of virtually every peak and major feature int the range, there is less “mystery” factor and therefore less excitement than I used to have. However, on this day I was just as excited as on my first trips in the Sierra.  There are still ways the High Sierra can captivate and inspire me after all these trips, I just have to be more creative finding them! After a long stay at the summit, I finally packed up and headed down toward the lakes beneath Cartridge Pass. This is a marvelous area and the lakes are perfectly situated to frame Arrow Peak in the background. A great day seemed to be getting even better as I strolled along the shores of the lake taking multitudes of photos. I picked up the old Cartridge Pass trail (fairly easy to follow) by the lakes and took it down to the South Fork Kings River.  In the lush meadows near the river I spotted a large black bear and I made sure to give the bear plenty of space as I passed. It kept eating and either didn’t notice me or, more likely, didn’t care enough to acknowledge my presence. I crossed the river and headed up steep talus slopes to Bench Lake. I could have taken a use path along the river all the way up to the JMT, but I wanted to see Bench Lake again and this direct route would save time and distance. Bench Lake is a gem of the High Sierra and I was happy to be along its shores once more. After a dip in the lake and lunch it was time for a long trail hike and jog back to Road’s end via Pinchot Pass. In the past I had only seen the area around Pinchot Pass in the dark or under cloud cover so I failed to appreciate the beauty of this region, but I found it to be quite scenic with a palette of rock colors and beautiful Marjorie Lake which also possesses a deep blue (but not as blue as Marion Lake). I enjoyed the entire stretch along the JMT and the descent toward Castle Domes, chatting with many thru-hikers along the way and the backcountry rangers. The final few miles down to Road’s End seemed to go on longer than normal since the added weight on my back resulted in a slower pace than usual, but I still made it back at sunset. This was my first fastpacking experience and it turned out very well. I used everything I carried and didn’t really need anything else. While I can reach anywhere in the High Sierra in a single day, there is something to be said for being at the right place and the right time for the golden hours – sunrise and sunset – and having the time to really enjoy the scenery as I was able to do on Mount Ruskin and Bench Lake.   

Ansel Adams Loop

With awesome scenery and close proximity to the year around resort town at Mammoth Lakes, the Ansel Adams Wilderness is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada.  On any given summer day Thousand Island Lake is more aptly described as Thousand Person Lake. The reality is that Thousand Island Lake has far fewer than a thousand islands (actually only a few dozen) and most summer days people easily outnumber islands. However, the Ansel Adams Wilderness spans 231,533 acres and it’s remarkably easy to find solitude outside of the narrow corridor along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, which includes Shadow Lake, Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake.  I have visited the Ansel Adams Wilderness over a dozen times, each time venturing beyond the well-trodden path to visit remote lakes and peaks including Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, Clyde Minaret, Mount Davis, Rodger Peak, Electra Peak, Foerster Peak and Volcanic Ridge. The Ansel Adams Wilderness never disappoints!  On this day I designed a loop that mostly features places I have already been to in the past (often multiple times), but it was amazing to combine these favorites into one aesthetic loop and see some of the best scenery in this region of the High Sierra. Starting from Agnew Meadows I headed down to the River Trail and then up to Shadow Lake in the pre-dawn hours. I timed sunrise nearly perfectly at Lake Ediza and then found a lovely tarn above the lake (marked on the USGS topo maps) to enjoy early morning light over the peaks and reflecting in the water, in the process taking over 100 photos in about 20 minutes!  This tarn overlooks Lake Ediza for a tiered view and includes the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. From the tarn I continued up slabs and talus to Volcanic Ridge which is one of the best viewpoints in all of the High Sierra. The tremendous panorama includes the best view of the impressive Minaret spires. From the summit of Volcanic Ridge I headed down the southwest slope toward Minaret Lake and then toured the triumvirate of three spectacular lakes beneath the Minaret spires – Minaret, Cecil and Iceberg. Each of these three lakes is stunning and provides a different angle on the Minarets which soar above the lakes like sky scrappers. From Iceberg Lake I traversed the basin above Lake Ediza and then headed up through meadows toward Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The meadows ultimately transitioned to talus, but I was pretty good at avoiding any loose rocks making for an efficient climb to the snow chute leading to the Ritter-Banner Saddle. The steep now chute required crampons and ice axe. From the saddle, Banner Peak is a short talus hop away and soon enough I was looking down at Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake from the high perch. Mount Ritter is more complex. Unlike the past two times I had done the north face route, the snow had completely melted off the ice requiring a semi-sketchy crossing of hard, steep ice in aluminum crampons to reach the ramp for the north face route. This proved to be the crux. Once I was on rock, I encountered no further difficulties on the enjoyable class 3 scramble as I have done this route twice before and I was soon enjoying the view from Mount Ritter’s summit. This might be the year the snow and ice completely melts off and crampons and/or ice axe are not needed for the chute or to access the north face of Mount Ritter. It’s unclear whether the underlying loose rock would actually make the route more difficult. After the summits of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter, I headed down to the Ritter Lakes via Mount Ritter’s west slope. The west slope route poses no technical difficulties, but it’s important to follow the route as it’s fairly easy to wander off into much more difficult terrain. The west slope essentially utilizes two bowls connected by a slabby ramp. Finding and using this ramp is the key. The west slope descent route deposited me at the Ritter Lakes were the only spot I had not visited previously. I had high expectations as I first became intrigued while looking at them from Mount Davis. The Ritter Lakes did not disappoint as the wild and rugged character of the basin was breathtaking. These pristine lakes range in color from sapphire blue to bright turquoise. The uppermost lake beneath Neglected Peak is strikingly turquoise. From the Ritter Lakes I traversed to Lake Catherine which had excellent late afternoon light and then headed over North Glacier Pass and down to Thousand Island Lake for a pleasant early evening stroll along the entire length of the lakes north shore. I completed the loop by taking the River Trail bac to Agnew Meadows.