Plans for A Modest Adventure
The hardcore will want to click past this TR. I report here a fun, leisurely family outing in the Eastern Sierra Nevada with no 18-hour days or near epics. I picked the Palisades area for the annual backpack that I take with my daughter and youngest son. Rather than pack crampons, I opted to stay away from the glacier area, and decided to visit a place I’d never been to, the area around Sam Mack Lake. Maybe we would climb Mt. Robinson, which is just northeast of Sam Mack Lake.
We drove from L.A. on Sunday, August 12, and picked up our permit in Lone Pine. As an aside, the displays at the Visitor’s Center on Sierra Nevada topics are worth a visit even if you’re not picking up a permit. We then drove to Big Pine and up Glacier Lodge Road. We lucked out and got the last spot at the Big Pine Creek campground. It was nice to be able to build a fire and just sit around talking or staring into the flames. We threw our pads and sleeping bags on the ground and got a good night’s sleep.
North Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek: Singular Beauty
In the morning, we arranged our packs after breakfast. I then dropped Alicia and Daniel, and the packs, off at the trailhead gate and drove back to the Hiker’s Parking Lot to leave the car. I jogged back to the gate where we shouldered our packs and headed off. The day was perfect: mild weather with clear skies. Arrival at Seconds Falls signals the start of the most scenic part of the North Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek. These falls are always breath-taking. From here, the trail begins hugging the creek and passes through an aspen grove known as Cienega Mirth. We stopped at the former Lon Chaney cabin to have a snack and filter some water.
North Fork of Big Pine Creek near 2d Falls
Past the cabin, the next scenic milestone is the dark mass of Temple Crag. No matter how many photos I’ve taken of Temple Crag in the past from this trail, I always have to take another one, or two or three.
Temple Crag from North Fork Trail, 8.13.07
This was Daniel’s and Alicia’s first time on the North Fork Trail and they were duly impressed when we rounded a corner and there was First Lake spread out in its deep hued splendor. You hardly get a chance to recover from the first shock of blue when Second Lake suddenly appears. It is by far the largest of the first three Big Pine Lakes. When we reached Third Lake we noticed that it seemed to the most popular of the three for campers. About a mile past Third Lake, we came to the junction with Glacier Trail.
First Lake seen from North Fork Trail, 8.13.07 Another view of First Lake from North Fork Trail, 8.13.07
Up to now, we’d seen plenty of day hikers. This changed after reaching Glacier Trail. At this junction, we stepped aside for a string of pack horses. After resuming, we found ourselves stepping gingerly around lots of fresh horse doo. This is perhaps the only negative (a very minor one in my view) about this trail.
After dropping into the creek, the trail then began a relatively steep rocky climb. The weight of our packs become more noticeable. As the grade began to ease, the beautiful treeline hollow of Sam Mack Meadow came into view. We had no competition in choosing a campsite because no one else was there.
Sam Mack Meadow, 8.13.07. Me snoozing at right.
Our water source in Sam Mack Meadow, 8.13.07.
We set up camp and had an afternoon of unmitigated relaxation: we soaked our feet in the frigid waters of the creek, read, napped, and explored the perimeter of the meadow. Mack the Marmot also introduced himself to us. It came to pass that he visited us every day we were there. It reminded me to hang the food bag well.
Mack the Marmot, our daily visitor
Sam Mack Lake and the Slopes of Mt. Robinson
Tuesday morning we slept to the obscene alpine time of 7 a.m. and had a leisurely breakfast. We then prepared our day packs and set off to find Sam Mack Lake. Our route began up a large chute at the south end of the meadow. We followed the chute and gained a ridge where we turned left. We followed the ridge further, dropped into a small saddle, and ascended a boulder field to the northern end of Sam Mack Lake.
Looking SE across Sam Mack Lake (11,793') 8.14.07.
Alicia, Sam Mack Lake (11,793') and the Palisades 8.14.07.
After a short break at the lake, we picked a chute on the south slope of Mt. Robinson that seemed to offer the easiest access to getting to a point where we could make the selection of an upper route. Much of the terrain above the bottom chutes looked technical so we would have to chose our route carefully.
Big Pine Lakes looking NE : middle left to right, First, Second and Third Lake, 8.14.07.
It didn’t take long before we encountered a couple of unquestionable 4th class sections. I figured that if there were only a few such sections, I could protect Alicia and Daniel on the downclimb with a belay (I had a short rope and some slings with me). They are both very athletic and good climbers so making a few 4th class moves on the ascent was no problem. However, as we kept moving and I surveyed the scene above, it looked like additional 4th class sections would be difficult to avoid. At his point, I decided that it was too risky to continue. For me personally, it would have been a fun route, but I was not willing to risk harm to my kids just to get to a summit. It might have been a different matter with more time (it was late afternoon by this point) and it would have given me more comfort to have had helmets, harnesses and locking ‘biners for all.
Despite my daughter’s urging that we should go for it, it was not a close call for me to stick to my decision to start back down.
On the descent, we happened to wander near a beautiful little pinnacle whose chair sized summit was at about 12,300’. We decided to go for this summit which was only about a 75-yard 3d class scramble with a single 10 foot section of Class 4. It was a great photo op for everyone to get their turn straddling the summit chair.
Rock Pinnacle (12,300') above Sam Mack Lake which we scrambled up. I straddle chair sized summit of pinnacle above Sam Mack Lake.
On the descent, I provided Alicia and Daniel with a hip belay on the 4th Class section.
I get ready to belay Daniel on the downclimb
We then bounded down the talus back to Sam Mack Lake and retraced our steps back to camp. We still had the meadow to ourselves if you don’t count Mack the Marmot. We played in the creek for awhile. There is nothing like glacier-cold water to soothe hot, puffy and tired feet. Predictably, Mack came to visit us at dinner time.
Burgers ‘n Beer
The next morning came too soon and it was time to pack up and head down the hill. Even bereft of spring flowers, the Glacier and North Fork trails put on a show of incredible beauty with their meadows, groves, deep blue lakes and stunning peaks of the Palisades.
Looking across Second Lake to Temple Crag, 8.13.07.
It was not exactly pleasant to step outside into the oven-like conditions of the Owens Valley, but we had to make a stop at the Lone Pine MacDonald’s to satisfy Daniel’s hamburger craving. My craving for a cold beer had to wait until we got home. And what beer satisfies best the thirst brought on by a wilderness outing? The answer to that awaits in a future SP thread.