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.   

2014 Adventure Recap

From Big Sur to the High Sierra, 2014 was another tremendous year of adventures. As I did in 2013 and past years (links to past year’s recaps located on right sidebar of homepage), this post lists all of the adventures for 2014 in chronological order with a link to the blog post, where available, or photo album. My most notable adventure the year was completing the John Muir Trail in a new FKT, and in the process holding the FKTs for three of the most famous and iconic trails in the High Sierra at the same time: the High Sierra Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to make these improvements in the FKT/adventure sport in the High Sierra. I also achieved FKTs in the California coastal ranges including Big Sur and the Lost Coast. I have no doubt these times will be lowered in the future. However, much more than any time or split, what stands out the most as I look back on 2014 and my entire portfolio of adventures is the volume of experiences I’ve had exploring wild and rugged places in the mountains. The greatest award or achievement I can find in this sport is not a place or a ranking, but the joy of exploration and discovery of the splendors of nature. Being in the wilderness is a visceral and spiritual experience that is far form the pageantry and commercialization of organized sports. From sea to summit, I hope 2015 finds me on many more adventures!

  1. Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
  2. Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
  3. Mount Mars (January 5, 2014) 
  4. Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014) 
  5. La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
  6. Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014) 
  7. Circular Pools (January 26, 2014) 
  8. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
  9. Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
  10. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
  11. Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
  12. Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
  13. Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014) 
  14. South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
  15. Berry Creek Falls via Waddell Beach (March 1, 2014) 
  16. Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
  17. Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014)
  18. Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
  19. King Range 50, King Range Wilderness (March 23, 2014)
  20. Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak (April 5, 2014)
  21. Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
  22. Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
  23. Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
  24. East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014) 
  25. Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014) 
  26. Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
  27. Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014)
  28. Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014)
  29. Humboldt Redwoods – Bull Creek, Rockefeller, Founders (May 23 & 26, 2014)
  30. Jedediah Smith Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  31. Damnation Creek – Del Norte Coast Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  32. Prairie Creek Redwoods (May 24 & 25, 2014): Fern Canyon; Rhododendron 
  33. Patrick’s Point and Trinidad (May 25, 2014) 
  34. Goat Mountain (May 31, 2014)
  35. Mt. Bago and Mt. Rixford via Road’s End (June 1, 2014)
  36. Granite Balconies (June 8, 2014)
  37. Complete Lost Coast (June 15, 2014) 
  38. Roof of Yosemite Loop (June 23, 2014)
  39. Virginia Peak via Viginia Lakes (June 28, 2014)
  40. Arrow Peak Northeast Ridge via Taboose Pass (June 29, 2014)
  41. Conness Lakes (July 4, 2014) 
  42. Observation Peak and Palisades Sierra High Route (July 5, 2014)
  43. Whorl Mountain & Sawtooth Loop (July 12, 2014)
  44. Mount Davis (July 13, 2014)
  45. Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
  46. Tower Peak (August 2, 2014)
  47. John Muir Trail FKT (August 15-18, 2014)
  48. Pyramid Peak & Window Peak Lake (August 31, 2014)
  49. Electra Loop – Electra Peak and Lyell Fork Merced River (September 7, 2014)
  50. Black Giant, Charybdis & Mini Evolution Loop (September 13, 2014)
  51. Santa Lucia Wilderness (September 20, 2014)
  52. Montaña de Oro State Park Loop (September 21, 2014) 
  53. Andrew Molera (September 28, 2014)
  54. Ericsson & Genevra (October 4, 2014)
  55. Crique Crest Loop: Windy Point & Marion Peak (October 12, 2014)
  56. Red Mountain Basin Loop: Mount Henry and Red Mountain (October 26, 2014)
  57. Stone Ridge and Cone Peak Loop (November 2, 2014) 
  58. Diving Board (November 8, 2014)
  59. Wildcat Point, Cold Mountain & Tuolumne Domes (November 9, 2014)
  60. Pine Mountain Ridge, Reyes Peak and Haddock Mountain (November 15, 2014) 
  61. Cathedral-Tunnel Loop (November 16, 2014) 
  62. Dutra-County Line Loop (November 22, 2014)
  63. Pt. 2866 (Soda Peak) (November 22, 2014) [coming soon]
  64. Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  65. Pico Blanco North Ridge (November 28, 2014) [coming soon]
  66. Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014) [coming soon]
  67. Big Sur Condor Loop – Anderson Peak Direct (December 13, 2014) [coming soon]
  68. Berry Creek Falls Loop via Waddell Beach (December 20, 2014) [coming soon]
  69. Soberanes Loop (December 21, 2014) [coming soon]
  70. Summit Rock-Castle Rock Loop (December 25, 2014) [coming soon]
  71. Big Sur Paradise (December 26, 2014) [coming soon]
  72. Alta Vista and Ewoldsen Loop (December 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  73. Coast Ridge including Twin, Cone, Mining Ridge, Marble and Timber Top (December 28, 2014) [coming soon]

Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak & Bench Lake

Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage.  However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route.  Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area.  GPS route here.

The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail!  While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.

Bench Lake and Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge close-up: 

As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.

After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon.  This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.   

Onion Valley to South Lake

An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.

It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down!  This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.