Day One: Headed for Darwin Bench via Lamarck ColAt the northern reaches of Kings Canyon National Park, it was 20 years ago I did the South Lake to North Lake loop through Evolution Valley. I knew some day I’d return. Always looking for a new perspective, I chose to remain above tree line during this mountain foray. Remaining at a higher altitude not only shortens the mileage, it also greatly expands the scenic views within the region.
I had an unscheduled domestic obligation preventing my usual routine of staying at the Dow Villa in Lone Pine the night before hitting the trail. Instead, I left San Diego at 2:30 AM, September 4, picked up my permit in Lone Pine after breakfast at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant, and it was not until 11:00 AM I hit the trail for Lamarck Col. I would have much preferred a departure closer to 7 or 8. I figured the going would be steep not to mention the altitude gain from 9,300 feet at the trailhead to over 12,800 at Lamarck Col. With my backpack tipping the scales at 59 pounds, I was hoping to make Darwin Bench in time to have dinner before dark. Before heading up the mountain, I enjoyed reading a quote by John Muir posted on the trailhead sign: John Muir once said: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I managed dinner before dark, but it was not to be on Darwin Bench. It seems every year I enter these mountains, I have yet to comprehend the magnitude of topographical-map contours until confronted on the spot with map in hand. Everything is always so much bigger than my map-viewing imagination can comprehend.
After some three hours and around 11,000 feet with Lamarck Col coming into view, I felt a second wind. In my enthusiasm and newfound energy, I spotted what I assumed to be a couple of people on the Col and headed right for them. As I reached what I assumed to be the Col, my GPS showed over 12,900 feet! Peering over the precipitous other side, I pulled out my map only to find I was south of the Col by some 400 feet! I felt humiliated for having been such a fool in being so far off the mark. It was already 3:30 PM and it took another exhausting 40 minutes traversing the ridge northward over rugged and snow-covered terrain to a point where I could begin a safe descent into Darwin Canyon. And as I began descending, my second wind rapidly evaporated and I found picking my way down the mountain was every bit as exhausting as had been picking my way up… I was growing weary and weak, nothing new to me these first days in the mountains. In a word, I was bonking.
As I picked my way along the steep terrain, I sighted down a couloir within which I could descend to Lake #2 (~11,625 ft). Farther picking my way down the scree covered couloir, secure footing was not always within reach causing me to slide on occasion along with the all the other rocky debris until my extended foot could gain purchase on a firmly embedded piece of granite. There I was, slipping and sliding my way down this narrow gully, something along the order of 65 degrees, rocks down my boots, thirsty for water that refused to flow through a kinked hose, and my right knee twisted and made a popping sound. It was a sharp pain but gone as fast as it had come. I stood up and felt fine, I checked my knee’s extension and flexion, and I found full weight bearing to be without discomfort. But I knew SOMETHING had happened to my knee.
Upon reaching the lake, I did not bother to take off my pack to retrieve a cup. I simply dropped down onto my hands and slurped up the tasty cold water. I sat back up and did some more checking on my knee before continuing a lakeside descent for Darwin Bench. As I came to Lake 11,592 at 6 PM, I spotted a perfect campsite near the northeastern shore. After debating whether or not to continue only one more mile for Darwin Bench, my weary body had a moment to soak in the day’s fatigue and I settled for camping on the spot. I’m glad I did as I had camp set and was eating dinner by 7 as the sky turned orange over the mountainous backdrop beyond Evolution Valley. I was completely spent as I crawled into my sleeping bag at 8 not to emerge until 7 the following morning.
Day Two: Still headed for Darwin BenchAs I emerged from my MSR Hubba tent, my right knee experienced sharp pain if I allowed any twisting motion. I still had full flexion and extension confirming an absence of excess fluid as I assumed would be had with a more serious injury. Full weight bearing was without discomfort. I was reasonably confident I had only sprained the inside ligament of my knee and all would be fine. However, negotiating Snow-Tongue Pass in another 6 days had me fearing a possible need for a change in plans. I figured time would well enough dictate my options as I broke camp and headed the short distance remaining to Darwin Bench. Prior to departing, I dubbed the beautiful un-named peak immediately south of lake 11,592, Twisted Knee.
It was already past noon by the time I reached Darwin Bench. I had taken my time breaking camp and had come upon two other pairs of campers along the way. In one pair, a young couple, we found our enthusiasm for the area overflowing in conversation. They tipped me on a nice camping spot not only on the Bench, but another site near Lake 11,092 below Snow-Tongue Pass.
And indeed, the site I found on the Bench was spectacular! I had a tremendous view with Evolution Lake within Evolution Basin to the South and McGee Lakes Basin directly across Evolution Valley to the west. The more distant and darker colored Le Conte Divide highlighted Peter Peak, The Hermit, and Mt. McGee.
My campsite was secluded within a tree-covered knoll 65 feet above the largest tarn within Darwin Bench. I enjoyed watching other hikers come and go through the area as well. Two or three groups would come through each day proving Lamarck Col to be a surprisingly popular route during September when the snow was no longer an obstacle (Unless, of course, you happen to be me). With camera, fishing rod, and the breath-taking views, I could not ask for more.
On day three, I did explore lake 11,540 east of Mt. Goethe. There well may have been fish in that big beautiful lake, but either my technique was off or the time of day was too late as I had not a even a nibble on a variety of wet flies. The lowest of the Darwin Lakes did produce some pretty Golden trout, but they were all fingerlings with an appetite that betrayed better judgment.
Returning to my campsite, I enjoyed the luxury of consuming one of my two daily rationed Power Bars while being entertained by the numerous Clark’s nutcrackers. These nutcrackers sound like a jay with contrasting black wings against a light gray head and body. They are very noisy and conspicuous as they use their long black beaks like a pickaxe to pry whitebark pine seeds from the secure confinement of a cone. Had I a good telephoto lens, I could have gotten some terrific shots!
Day Four… Time to Move OnWhen descending Darwin Canyon two days earlier, I could see smoke arising from the western side of Le Conte Divide. The morning sky would be clear, but as the day progressed, the smoke would rise and begin obscuring the peaks of nearby mountains. By day four, I could smell the smoke and the aforementioned views were fading within a flat gray canopy. Time does bring change. I clearly recall back in the 1980’s, the Sierra sky was frequently a navy blue color, a color so dark that today, not even a camera’s polarizer can bring the same depth in saturation. Today, as fires in the Sierra are the rule and no longer the exception, the skies are still beautiful, but they are different, too.
My target on day four was a large grassy tarn at 10,900 feet just under a mile west of Lake 11,092. The objective was to maintain an elevation of 11,000 feet as I traversed over the shoulders of Mt. Goethe. Breaking camp at 1:00, I slowly made my way northwest having consumed 600 mg of ibuprofen alleviating any stiffness in my right knee. The mountain was always pushing me down towards Evolution Valley, but with the aid of my GPS, I reasonably maintained an 11,000-foot traverse and by 3:30, I made it to Lake 11,092. Thinking back, I was surprisingly exhausted at this point. I was feeling fatigue similar to day one. Somewhat disoriented and without a waypoint to find my targeted tarn, I ended up hiking for another 2 hours in my pathetic attempt at navigating by the seat of my pants. It was not until 5:30 did I locate campsite 3. First thing I did after pitching the tent was to mosey on down to that tarn and take a dive. COLD it was, and refreshing, too.
My views from this location were every bit as stunning as those from Darwin Bench. I could still sight up the throat of McGee Lakes Basin and now I enjoyed the added privilege of a spectacular view of Emerald Peak across McClure Meadow. From my campsite, looking out over the grassy tarn at Emerald Peak was like looking over one of those designer swimming pools where land vanishes beyond water across a gulf of space into the distance. It was a view to die for… a photographer’s paradise.
Day Five… My Dream Fish?It was time to go fishing again. I headed up to Lake 11,092 with all of my camera and fishing gear only to find another beautiful campsite every bit as spectacular as the tarn below. I unloaded my toys and headed back to the tarn retrieving the remainder of my gear to establish campsite 5. As where it took me nearly two hours to find the tarn from Lake 11,092 the previous day, I could now make the commute within 20 minutes… so much for my mountain navigational skills. I was continuing to have reservations regarding Snow-Tongue Pass. First it was my knee, now it was my confidence.
After establishing camp 4, it was 3:00 and I figured the fish to be enjoying a Sierra siesta. Three o’clock in the mountains is like five o’clock in San Diego. “How about a shot of Citron lemon vodka”, I said to myself. But to my astonishment, the vodka was missing! NO. I figured it must have fallen from my pack between camps. Knowing three o’clock in the Sierra is really three o’clock in San Diego, I figured karma was having its way and I would have to hunt down my missing libations the following day, but not after first thoroughly upending every possible hiding place within camp.
The fishing that evening was good, not great and not the dream fish I had in mind, but I did snag a couple of 14.5-inch rainbows and one fatty that went almost 12 inches. I ate the fatty. She (I’m am sorry it was a she) was delicious! And cooking her up was a challenge as it was well after dark and my headlamp had failed me back on day one. I could not even see the water boiling as I took up my bother’s advice on boiling the fish instead of frying. Using my best tactile skills, I managed to debone and then pick the chunky morsels or meat away from its skin imitating Gollum as he finds the ring. I believe that night was my soundest as goes sleep.
Day Six… Lost but FoundOn the day-six morning the fish slept in or I struck out. Regardless, I still had my camera. It was a good day as the smoke was fading and the sky was becoming all the more interesting with increasing cloud formation. The mornings up to this point were surprisingly warm without the usual frost for which I am more accustomed during previous Sierra excursions. And I’ll be damned if I was not going to find my vodka. I had already suspected the fisherman that had made a brief appearance earlier in the day of having absconded with the missing material. Off I went, camera in bag, retracing my previous day’s steps from camp 3, scanning the ground for the clear platypus bag containing the aforementioned vodka. To my disappointment, the search proved fruitless upon reaching the previous day's campsite. I thoroughly combed camp 3 before taking one final photo opportunity at this beautiful grassy mountain tarn. On my way back to camp 4, I once again scoured the grounds for my missing libations only to fail yet again. “It had to be that fisherman”, I’m thinking to myself.
Upon returning to camp 4, I took a siesta myself. After about an hour of rest, I emerged from the tent, took a seat and gazed out over the view that never ceased to inspire verbalizations laced with all sorts of adjectives. I have not the words to express the beauty and I can only hope my camera did a modicum of justice.
It was while gazing over the horizon, I glanced down at my blackened toenails to spot a previously overlooked nook and cranny behind a boulder where just perhaps my bag of vodka had fallen. And there it was! Another fit of laughter was to be my pleasure. I laugh a lot in these Sierra Mountains.
Day Seven… Snow-Tongue PassI had my usual dream when battling insecurity. My insecurity was in knowing Snow-Tongue Pass was the day’s objective. My dream is of the first day in school, be it college or high school, and I can’t find my schedule yet alone the classroom.
It was by far the coldest morning and I noticed the wind had changed direction. Previously, the winds had prevailed out of the south and now they were out of the north. Frost was on the ground.
Off I was, 9:30 in the morning, headed for Snow-Tongue. The west side of Snow-Tongue looks challenging but it is not. However, once at the top and peering over the other side… I get dizzy thinking about it! It is a steep and impossible drop. One has to work his way to the right some fifty feet south of the summit pass before a descent can be had. For an acrophobic individual, such precipitous terrain is more than adequate cause for dreams rooted with insecurity. I made for a notch I had read was the point where a descent could be had. It was steep and I was nervous. After reaching the notch, I could see the scree and talus littered floor of a very narrow couloir, two to three hundred feet long, with a pitch estimated between 60 and 70 degrees. At one point as I picked my way down, I came upon a three foot diameter slab of four-inch thick granite that had become lodged in the center of this couloir, effectively forming a dam behind which had accumulated a large volume of scree. It looked to be less than stable, so I scrambled my way around this obstruction wishing not to cause any more rockfall than was already occurring. Something about rocks tumbling down a slope only adds to my fear of potentially taking a similar out-of-control tumble myself. Once beyond the granite slab, I had to take a heaving step to one side of the couloir and without thinking, I pushed off the granite slab with my right hand. Only there was no push because the slab came loose! My step accelerated into a jump as the granite raked the back of my right calf. And there it went, the slab of granite and all of the decomposed granite and dust dammed behind. It was loud and the subsequent dust clouds blew back up the couloir into my face. For a few long seconds, I could not see a thing yet alone breath. My only thought: “That was far too close”. More frightened than angry, my calf bleeding only slightly, I continued my downward descent. I lost track of time and I dared not to bother taking any photos. I wanted down and out of there.
Upon reaching the boulders that entomb the Wahoo Lake Basin, I found boulder hopping a pleasure as compared to descending the couloir. It was tedious and not without risk, but I had no irrational acrophobic barriers clouding my judgment and balance. Muriel Lake was had by 2:30. I set up camp on another knoll with trees along the western shore at the south end of the lake. The view of Muriel Peak was outstanding. I set up my tripod in anticipation of the fading light and subsequent photo opportunity. With my back to Humphreys Basin, I was suddenly in the midst of a violent snowstorm! The winds were easily gusting at 50 MPH. It was very exciting. I put away my camera, put on every layer in possession, and went outside to enjoy the first violent weather I had experienced in the Sierra in over the past 15 to 20 years. Periods of calm were interrupted by violent wind and snow throughout my final evening. That night, I could hear the winds rush through Piute Pass two to three seconds before my tent would begin a violent burst of shaking. To add to an already sleepless night, my Therm-a-Rest had sprung a leak. The ground was hard and cold and morning came none to soon. It was an easy hike out the final day. As John Muir might say: “It was time to go back out”.
Equipment List1) MSR Hubba tent
2) Osprey Aether 70 backpack
3) Steripen Adventurer water purifier with one set of CR 123A backup batteries. I did not use my purifier when retrieving water from lakes above 11,000 feet.
4) MSR Simmerlite camp stove.
5) Two 375 ml MSR canisters of white gas. One canister lasted 5 full days. Use included hot breakfast, hot dinner and one to two hot drinks daily.
6) Gecko 201 GPS with one set backup AAA rechargeable Sanyo Eneloop batteries. One set lasted five days.
7) Spot GPS Messenger
8) Western Mountaineering Ultralite Super sleeping bag.
9) Nikon D700 camera with two sets of backup batteries (used only one backup set). Lenses: AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 IF-ED and an AF Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/208D. Two Singh-Ray NDG filters (#1 and #2). Kasemann heliopan circular polarizer. B&W Pro UV filter. Gitzo G1058 graphite tripod with a Giottos MH 1302 ball-head. Tamrac Digital series holster camera case (over 10 pounds in total camera gear).
10) Winston Boron IIX 8.5 ft #3 rod with a Ross Evolution reel.
11) Leica Ultravid 25 BR binoculars.
12) AKU Utah Light GTX backpacking boots.
13) Handmade bamboo staff.