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. 

Mount Julius Caesar

A week prior to the trek through Bear Basin to Seven Gables and Gemini I got the opportunity to climb Mount Julius Caesar.  The easiest route to the summit is via the Pine Creek trailhead and entails passage through aptly-named Granite Park, with its lovely alpine tarns and lakes set amid clumps of pine trees and granite spires. Once through Granite Park, one ascends to Italy Pass and then a straightforward 800 vertical foot talus hop commences to the summit. Located on the Sierra Crest, Mount Julius Caesar has a commanding view of the surrounding region, including neighbors Bear Creek Spire, Mount Dade, Mount Abott and Mount Gabb. At 13,220 ft, the peak is a few hundred feet lower than these neighbors but seeing the surrounding peaks at eye level makes them even more impressive. The summit has a great angle of Lake Italy which bears a striking resemblance to the shape of the namesake country from this vantage. Julius Caesar also has a great view of Granite Park and especially the colorful Chalfant Lakes. The trio of Royce Peak, Mount Merriam and Feather Peak are prominent to the south. In the distance Mount Humphreys rises above Humphreys Basin and Seven Gables towers above Bear Basin.  It’s a stellar view. GPS route hereOn this day there was some lovely afternoon cumulus to add contrast and character to the panorama. As a straightforward out-and-back this route makes for a nice 21 mile outing with a great turn around destination. Starting at around 7,400 ft and topping out at 13,200 feet means there is 5,800 feet of net gain, a stout climb. Since the elevation comes over 10+ miles it’s actually a fairly well graded climb with a nice runnable section between Pine Lake and Honeymoon Lake. The first part of the trail near the trailhead entails a fairly long and exposed climb that can be hot in the middle of the day making it a relief to reach the pine forest and cool alpine breeze above the canyon headwall. This happens to be the spot where one officially enters the John Muir Wilderness and the ugly view of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mill is left behind for good. While the early part of the Pine Creek trail can be a grunt, the trail accesses some amazing scenery, including the Royce Lakes, Bear Basin, Granite Park, and Humphreys Basin so well worth the effort.  

Seven Gables & Gemini via Bear Basin

I have looked over Bear Basin from several high peaks near the Sierra Crest and it always seemed like an inviting region I wanted to check out someday but it took until a few weeks ago to finally make my way into the basin. Seven Gables is the centerpiece feature of the region with its instantly recognizable rugged east face resembling the namesake house of the Seven Gables.  Within Bear Basin are numerous beautiful alpine lakes to explore, most of which are named after bears. While the bear theme is endearing, I did not see any bears (or humans) on my trip through the basin. Along with climbing Seven Gables I thought it would also be feasible to combine the outing with an ascent of Gemini, one of the more remote summits in the High Sierra. Both summits featured incredible panoramic views, but the tour through magnificent and pristine Bear Basin to reach the peaks was the highlight. GPS route hereI accessed Bear Basin by starting at the Pine Creek Trailhead and ascending through gorgeous Granite Park. The park has numerous small lakes and excellent views of the Sierra Crest including the towering east face of Feather Peak. Granite Bear Pass proved to be an efficient and technically easy pass from Granite Park into Bear Basin. In fact, the west side of Granite Bear Pass is a quick run down gravel and sand slopes to the lakes in Bear Basin. I stopped to take an absurd amount of photography as I passed the lakes, including Black Bear Lake, Ursa Lake, Big Bear Lake, Little Bear Lake and Vee Lake. The morning light over the lakes with Seven Gables in the background was breathtaking. I could have stayed in the basin all day exploring the numerous nooks and crannies but I continued down the basin toward Gemini passing through the Seven Gables Lakes valley and then heading up friendly granite slabs to a saddle between Gemini and Seven Gables. The route up Gemini from the north via the saddle was largely a talus hop with a couple hundred feet of scrambling near the top. The views from Gemini are outstanding and encompass Desolation Basin, Humphreys, Glacier Divide, Goddard Divide, LeConte Divide and virtually all of the Sierra Crest in the vicinity. To the north was the next objective, Seven Gables, which looked like a rather arduous climb from Gemini’s vantage. After a nice break atop Gemini enjoying the views I retraced my steps to the saddle and then traversed over to the south slopes of Seven Gables. Most of the south slope was a straightforward class 2 slog through gravel and talus blocks. However, near the top things became much more vertical and exposed. The climb is rated as a Class 3, but it seemed more difficult and exposed than most class 3 climbs I have done in the Sierra. I have learned that class 3 can often have a large spectrum and sometimes the more remote class 3 routes can be sandbagged. At any rate, the final summit block entails climbing a chimney for several dozen feet. The holds are good, but there is some exposure and it’s nearly vertical. The view from Seven Gables is incredible and includes Bear Basin to the east and a lovely lake-filled basin to the west including Three Island Lake, Medley Lake and the large Marie Lake. Above these lakes is the pyramidal shaped Mount Hooper with its impressive east face. After another long break on the summit I descended the north slope of Seven Gables which is the far easier route to gain the summit and goes as mostly class 2. Between Seven Gables and its northern summit lies a broad saddle that funnels into a narrow and steep chute. This chute is mostly sand at the steepest part enabling efficient access back down to Seven Gables Lakes. The sand transitions to a section of talus and then granite slabs down to the bottom of the valley. From here I rejoined my route from the morning and retraced steps back through Bear Basin and over Granite Bear Pass to Granite Park. I stopped to enjoy the lovely afternoon views at Vee Lake and Ursa Lake, my favorite spots along the route.    

Red, Merced, Ottoway

The Clark Range is a sub-range west of the Sierra Nevada crest in one of the more remote regions in Yosemite National Park. The range divides Illilouette Creek from the main stem of the Merced River and forms the western side of the Merced River headwaters. As the range is set apart from the other high peaks in the region, the views are spectacular and include the entire Cathedral Range and Ritter Range to the east. The view includes a panorama from domes and spires of the Tuolumne Meadows region to the roof of Yosemite on Mount Lyell to the impressive Mount Ritter to the chiseled Minarets. The primary summits in the Clark Range are Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Of the bunch, Mount Clark is the only one with more technical scrambling and the others have class 2 or 3 routes available. For my first visit to the Clark Range I made a tour of the southern end of the range via Mono Meadows with climbs of Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. I started with Red Peak and then traversed the Ottoway basin to Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Views from all three summits were spectacular. I especially liked the view to the rugged Minarets group, which are always impressive.  It was nice to see the peaks coated in late season snow, and especially when some afternoon light found its way under a layer of high clouds. Upper Ottoway Lake was still frozen but Lower Ottoway Lake had melted out and was especially pretty on my return trip in the evening. Total mileage ended up being 37.5 miles so it’s a long ways in, but a good early season route and many of the trail miles are runnable in pleasant montane forest. GPS route here