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.

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.   

Goddard & Reinstein Fastpacking

I joined Joel for a two day fastpacking adventure to one of the most remote and incredible regions in the High Sierra.  The route included Mount Reinstein, Mount Goddard, Ionian Basin, Goddard Creek, Finger Basin, and Cathedral Lake.  We accessed from the westside via Courtright Reservoir/Maxson Trailhead which entailed many trail miles. On the way in, we approached via Guest Lake and Blackcap Pass (easy class 3).  Beyond the pass, we traversed through gorgeous Lightning Corral Meadow with streams, tarns, wildflowers and views to the White Divide including Mount Reinstein and Finger Peak. We ascended Mount Reinstein via its easy class 3 southwest slopes. Reinstein provides a fine vantage including Goddard Canyon, the White Divide, Martha Lake, Ambition Lake, and Lake 10,232.  After enjoying the awesome view from Reinstein, we descended class 3 slopes on its northeast side and skirted an extremely loose chute to end up near Reinstein Pass. From there, I continued on to Martha Lake and Mount Goddard via its west chute and southwest slopes. This climb was striaghtforward and proved to be a good workout with 2,600+ gain and inspiring views the entire way. As I had remembered from my climb of Goddard in 2007, the summit’s position west of the crest provides a panorama of the high Sierra that is simply spectacular and among the best.

Descending off Goddard I passed through desolate Ionian Basin with it’s numerous lakes. Travel through the basin is not technically difficult, but tedious with numerous impediments. After a tour through Ionian Basin, I continued down to Goddard Creek Canyon and Lake 10,232. The waterfalls on the granite slopes were amazing. I must have been distracted by these falls as I descended a bit too far into the drainage where there is a deep chasm where the water flows into Lake 10,232. Fortunately, I was able to climb out of the chasm without too much trouble and complete the descent to Lake 10,232. The lake was quite mosquito infested, although still beautiful. This is impressively remote country with essentially no evidence of human impact. I wonder how many make it into this remote canyon each year.  The following morning my expectations were blown away on our ascent through gorgeous Finger Basin, which contains a chain of spectacular alpine lakes that reflect the rugged granite walls of Finger Peak. We made our way up the basin taking many photos and ultimately arrived at Finger Col, an improbable window in an otherwise solid cliff band. Descending from Finger Col is tedious on massive talus blocks but we we arrived at Cathedral Lake in due course, another highlight spot of the loop. From Cathedral Lake, the most straightforward route to Portal Lake is to head north to Chapel Lake and descend easy slopes to a use path heading to Pear Lake. We had initially tried to descend directly to Portal Lake from Midway Lake but found the down climbing tricky without seeing the route from below.  After Portal Lake, we began a long trip back to Courtright Reservoir. After being ambushed by mosquitoes in the upper part of the canyon, the bugs tapered off and the miles clicked off quickly. Overall, a great fastpacking experience and I’m already looking forward to more. The photos below are some of my favorites from the trip.  Route on Strava here (missing last 10 miles).