John Muir Wilderness
Sierra Nevada, California, USA
The Mono Recesses are four hanging valleys above Mono Creek. At the head of each Recess is a glacial cirque. In addition to being a very scenic region of the High Sierra, they are easily reached via the high trailhead in Little Lakes Valley and Mono Pass.
From June 14 through June 18, 1993 my brother George and I did a fun five-day loop from Little Lakes Valley:
Day 1 – Little Lakes Valley over Mono Pass
Day 2 - Down Mono Creek
Day 3 - Up the Second Recess into Mills Creek canyon
Day 4 - Over Gabbot Pass (12,240+ feet) into Lake Italy basin (with an ascent of Mount Gabb)
Day 5 - Over Cox Col (13,040+ feet) back into Little Lakes Valley.
There was a heavy snow pack that year and we were often up to our necks in water – literally. The creeks were raging. The meadows were flooded. There was snow melt everywhere. Perhaps because of the heavy snow pack that year we did not see another soul during our entire trip. So close to the road yet so isolated, this is a very beautiful region of the High Sierra.
As we descended into Mono Creek, decided to stay on river right. We believed that the creeks pouring out of the Mono Recesses would be too high and too difficult to ford. But that meant we would have to cross Mono Creek itself further downstream in order to get into the Second Recess. Hoping there would be a bridge, we pushed onwards.
Unfortunately Mono Creek was very high, very swift and there wasn’t a bridge. We dropped our packs and went separate ways to search for a way to cross Mono Creek. Fording the creek was out of the question, it was too deep and running too fast. Luckily we found a downed tree over the creek. It looked dicey but it was our only hope. Falling off the tree into the raging creek would be a disaster. Everything went well until we jumped off the tree at the far end. It didn’t look bad, but two steps and the water was suddenly well over our heads!
Once across Mono Creek we climbed up into the Second Recess a short distance before stopping to camp. It was time for a sweat!
The Sweat Lodge
We’re big fans of building sweat lodges during our backpacking trips, where and when a campfire is both permitted and environmentally sensitive. Here is a guide to building your own sweat lodge:
Start a campfire, obviously in an existing fire ring in a permitted location. You need to have a cold stream or lake nearby so you can jump in the water after your sweat.
Build a sweat lodge. This is a tarp or a tent rain fly. We set up our rain fly over a skeleton of tent poles. You can use your ground cloth as a door to seal the sweat lodge.
In the center of your sweat lodge, clear an area of leaves and twigs. Make a hearth of flat rocks in the cleared area. Later you will place hot rocks onto this hearth. (If you lay hot rocks directly on the ground, organic material will smolder and you will fill your sweat lodge with eye-irritating smoke.)
You will also need seats for everyone inside of the lodge. You don’t want to get all sweaty and muddy sitting on dirt. A nice large rock will do. Don’t use your Crazy Creek lounger, it will get soaked with sweat.
Find about eight to ten grapefruit-size rocks and place them in the fire. Do not use rocks that may contain moisture as the steam may cause the rocks to burst.
Heat the rocks for two hours. Keep the fire stoked pretty hot.
Remove the rocks from the fire and place them on the hearth. We use two parallel sticks to carry the hot rocks (see the photo below). Wear your boots in case you accidentally drop a rock.
Fill the cooking pot with water. Dip your hand in the water and splash the rocks to make steam. The more you splash, the hotter it gets and the faster the rocks cool off. I like to get it hot quickly, then back off a bit to make it last.
If you want a really long sweat, get bigger rocks and heat them longer. You’ll also need more than four quarts of water.
If you’re really dirty, rub yourself down near the end of the sweat. You’ll get a surprising amount of dirt off your skin.
When you’ve had enough – go jump in the cold water!
Day 3 - Up the Second Recess
We hiked up the river valley of the Second Recess. The gradient was slight but the scenery was spectacular. Unfortunately we had to cross a lot of downed trees, victims of the winter’s avalanches. It was particularly nasty travel.
Half way up the Second Recess we climbed up into a hanging canyon (Mills Creek canyon) toward the Mills Lakes. There was a large, picturesque waterfall dropping out of the canyon. We continued up into the snow pack and camped between Lower and Upper Mills Lakes.
A cold front had blown through overnight and the temperature had dropped considerable. The sky was clear but there was a stiff, freezing wind. We donned every piece of clothing that we had and pushed up to Gabbot Pass (12,240+ feet).
Once over Gabbot Pass we dropped our packs and climbed one of the southeast ribs of Mount Gabb (13,741 feet). There on the summit we found the original summit register note that had been placed in 1934. It read:
“Mount Gabb 13,701
This register was placed on Mt Gabb on July 15, 1934 by the undersigned participants of the California Alpine Club’s sixteenth annual outing:
Betty Hindshaw - C.A.C.
Edmund Thelen Jr. – C.A.C.
Harvey Mielenz – C.A.C. & C.C.H.C
Came up S.E. face of mountain”