This trip is dedicated to my son, Chris.
Driving into Owen's Valley
The first thing I noticed while traveling North on the 395 into Owen’s Valley was the absence of smoke! For five or six years previously, my excitement upon sighting the massive Eastern Sierra escarpment had been tempered by the annoying smell or sight of smoke.
Next stop was Olancha to pick up a supply of jerky to round out my provisions. A quick stop at the Lone Pine visitor’s center to pick up my permit preceded checking in at the Dow Villa for a night’s rest prior to hitting the trail.
I had managed to keep my pack weight under 53 pounds this year. The extra eight or nine pounds over last year’s trip was a product of going solo and my increasing enthusiasm for photography. Five or six pounds of camera gear made drilling holes into my toothbrush handle a moot point! I did however throw out my fishing vest and instead converted a Pacific Whale Foundation multi-pocketed shirt into a lightweight alternative.
High Desert to High Sierra: Taboose Creek Pass
Having done Shepherd Pass last year, I had targeted Taboose for similar reasons. These lower altitude passes provide access into the heart of remote basins within the Eastern escarpment saving an additional day of travel. I also find acclimating to the higher altitudes less a shock to my sea-level lifestyle when starting at the lower elevations as compared to the more popular higher elevation alternative entrances. My goal the first day was to crest Taboose Pass and set up camp along the shores of Bench Lake for my first two nights of what would be a planned seven-day adventure.
After a goodnight’s rest at the Dow Villa, I got up at 4:00 AM and hit the trail by 6:30. This first day’s effort entailed climbing nearly 6000 feet to crest Taboose Pass at 11,300. Having begun medicating with Diamox 12 hours previously, I managed the Pass just shy of 12:30 free of any headache and feeling surprisingly well for the effort. Drinking plenty of water, slowly consuming two Power bars along the way, having a sturdy staff and being psyched up for this adventure rounded out my initial strategy. However, Bench Lake was another five or six miles away, and sure enough, that last mile I dragged my sorry overloaded body along the mountain, Diamox, water, Power Bars and enthusiasm all seemed rapidly to fall short of the mark.
Bench Lake is a beauty. Located on huge bench above the South Fork of the Kings River, one has grand vista of Yosemite-like proportions. I was also aware of the photo-op capturing Bench Lake in the foreground with Arrow Peak in the background. And, I was looking forward to trying my hand at catching what would be my first high Sierra Brown trout purported to be thriving in this lake. And thanks to a black hare’s ear wet fly and some beautiful morning light with clear blue skies, I managed to bag both the fish and the photos.
From Bench to Cartridge
After two nights at Bench Lake, I headed down the slope directly across from Cartridge Pass looking for greater solitude and a chance to explore Lake Basin. Picking my way down the slope with a nearly full backpack found me on my back only one time. I kept reminding myself to take baby steps and to stop moving before taking another look at the grand vista while attempting to maintain a line of sight as I picked my way over slippery carpets of pine needles and less forgiving rocks and boulders. At one point, I spotted three deer crossing the river below. They stopped midstream for a spell, too far away for me to otherwise make out any details.
I used my previously entered GPS waypoint to get me within the vicinity of the beginning of Cartridge Pass. I had studied the terrain from Bench Lake the previous day and it was fairly obvious as to the location of this former JMT pass, but having a GPS has always proved more efficient in making my way from point A to point B. I’d probably have scoffed at the idea of a GPS several years ago, but my 50 year-old knees take no shame in compromising yesterday’s ego with today’s technology.
Cartridge Pass starts near 9,500 feet and tops out at about 11,650. Midway up the pass, one must take the eastern shore of a beautiful lake a couple of hundred feet higher than the neighboring Bench. It is while negotiating the rocky outcrops along the far shore I began to make my way off-trail. I have a habit of refusing gained altitude to find a trail that I would have otherwise picked up had I returned to the shoreline. In due time, near the top of the pass, I once again picked up the original trail. By the time I reached the pass, I had seen one other pair of hikers, one group of 5 or 6 boy scouts, and a couple of peak baggers that had just failed in their attempt to summit Mt. Ruskin without ropes (although they came very close). I was beginning to wonder where all the people were coming from?
South Fork Kings River Valley between Bench and Cartridge.
As I made my way down into Lake Basin, I watched my friendly peak baggers scamper down the mountain with their ski-poled technique leaving me in my own dust moving at a much more encumbered and less agile pace. I used my trusty bamboo staff to slow my pace down these steep slopes, and this descent into Lake Basin was indeed very steep. It would seem whatever switch backs may have at one time existed were a distant memory of this ever-shifting terrain.
Once in the basin, I came yet again upon another party of what I presumed to be a mom and her two sons making their way cross-country as well. They too commented on this rather common encountering of other parties in what we assumed to be a place of extreme solitude. With the preceding dry winter, I figured it must have been the resulting near absence of mosquitoes that was bringing out the swarms of people. I could not help but conclude there was room enough for us all in this grand place and continued moving down into the basin armed with the knowledge that Lake Marion contained yet more parties of campers and immediately scratched it from my list of two potential campsites. My destination was the last lake above Marion, V shaped and at about 10,600 feet. It had one perfect campsite and a view of granite that held some resemblance to that of Half Dome. It was a strikingly beautiful place. I was most content to remove my backpack and pull on my camp shoes.
Upper Lake Basin
Sunset Lake Basin Night Number Three
After setting up camp, I took a hike along the shoreline to see what kind of fishing prospects this lake might hold. It was at this point I began to feel a painful sensation along the inside of my left knee. I figured nothing of it and did my best to deny my body might be falling apart out in the middle of nowhere! My only objective for the next day was to fish and check out Lake Marion while lugging along my hefty camera. One rule for us photography enthusiast is to never leave the camera behind. And it was a good thing as the following morning, while I was sitting on the shoreline enticing a fish with an elk hair dry fly, this weasel looking critter popped out of the ground not more than four feet from where I sat! He was cute and apparently somewhat curious, allowing me time to capture a few photos with my 17-35 mm lens. Had he not been as close as he was, such a wide-angle lens would have been perfectly useless.
Lake Marion, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Yes, it is of beautiful cobalt-blue water enshrined by colorful granite. But it is scarred with campsites and frequent visitors. It is an example of the kind of location I care to avoid.
Headed for Dumbbell Basin
Two more nights found my backpack growing lighter and my knee responding to 600 mg once daily doses of ibuprofen. On day five, I broke camp and headed for Dumbbell Lakes basin. I could practically see Dumbbell pass from my campsite. And as it turned out, the trek up this pass was of minimal effort, necessitating a relatively easy 1000 feet of elevation gain. As I topped the pass, I had apparently forgotten or failed in adequately researching what sort of descent I’d encounter on the other side. It was daunting! There was hard-packed icy snow and two choices for routes. I took the right turn instead of the left, which I would latter learn was a mistake. I found myself descending a granite shoot of truck-sized boulders. When one of these giant boulders actually teeter-tottered beneath my meager weight, I realized the magnitude of potential for danger. I kept reminding myself to take baby steps and to be in no hurry. No hurry, no panic, just take it one step at a time. And I am perfectly serious when I say I was daunted. I’m thinking about the guy in Utah that had to amputate his hand to free himself from a shifted boulder. I’m thinking about my mom and my wife and how they kept telling me how they thought otherwise of my solo adventure deep into the wilderness. But as you might have figured, I made out just fine. One noteworthy tip on descending this pass is to target the western shore of the first lake, as the eastern shore is impassable without a swim, although it looks to be the better choice from the distance. And was this daunting effort it worth it? You read it hear if nowhere else, Dumbbell Lakes Basin, in spite of its name, is one of the most beautiful of all basins in Kings Canyon National Park. And guess what? I saw not one other person during my all-too-brief visit. I had not only a lake all to myself, I had an entire basin. I was like kid in a candy store.
Dumbbell Pass as viewed from Lake Basin
Descending into Dumbbell Basin via Dumbbell Pass
One of two Upper Dumbbell Lakes
Dumbbell Lake 11,108
Dumbbell Pass as viewed from Dumbbell Lakes Basin
I was in Paradise!
And about my campsite! I had the perfect spot near a small waterfall between two of the lakes at about 10,800 feet. My kitchen overlooked one lake and my tent overlooked the other. I was in heaven. The fish were not all that big, the moss was thick and spongy, and I was where I had desired to be for the previous six months. During the night, I was awakened by what sounded at first to be a jet plane attempting to land nearby. Once aroused enough awaken, I came to comprehend I was hearing the roar of a prolonged massive rock fall not far off in the distance. There is nothing like the power of nature. It was only seven days and six nights, but in that short period, I soaked up enough of the wilderness to get me through another year until I can make my next journey over the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada.
Dumbbell Basin stream near campsite
My tent is the orange speck between the two lakes.
On my way out, I had to make fast tracks. Three passes in two days found me back at the Taboose Creek trailhead looking forward to that soft bed and a cold beer. Life is good. But for my Sierra adventures, life will always be more meaningful and fulfilling.
1) MSR Hubba tent
2) Osprey Aether 70 backpack
3) Steripen Adventurer water purifier with one set of CR 123A backup batteries. Original set lasted almost six days.
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 two hot drinks every day.
6) Gecko 201 GPS with one set backup AAA rechargeable Sanyo Eneloop batteries. One set lasted five days.
7) Western Mountaineering Ultralite Super sleeping bag.
8) Nikon D80 camera with two sets of backup batteries (used only one backup set). Lens: 17-35 mm wide angle zoom lens. Two Singh-Ray NDG filters. 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.
9) Winston Boron IIX 8.5 ft #3 rod with a Ross Evolution reel.
10) Leica Ultravid 25 BR binoculars.
11) AKU Utah Light GTX backpacking boots.
12) Handmade bamboo staff.