Monday, December 9, 2013

Sierra High Route, Summer 2013: Third Leg

Section 3: South Lake to North Lake
Theme: Earth
Soundtrack: Black Parade- My Chemical Romance, Ziggy Stardust- David Bowie
Map Part 1 (link)
Map Part 2 (link)

Darwin Bench

Day 13. August 11, 2013
Bishop to Dusy Basin

The hotel beds were nice and as a result, we slept in a little later than anticipated.  After grabbing some coffee in town, we headed back toward the trailhead.  It was Sunday and Parchers was doing a breakfast buffet.  This was perfect as I needed to stop there to grab a resupply anyway.  Maybe it was only because it was the first time in two weeks that I wasn't waking up to oatmeal or Pop Tarts, but I could not have been happier with the spread.  Fresh fruit, bacon, eggs (cooked right, not all weird and soggy), a full on breakfast casserole, and just as I thought I couldn't eat any more, quiche straight from the oven.  Needless to say, we were stuffed when we left.  I grabbed my resupply box and we continued down the road to the trailhead. 

We still had work to do once we parked.  I had some goodies to sort through and a brand new backpack to figure out.  I opened the box and there they were: my maps for the first two legs sat right on top.  Well, at least I knew I wasn't crazy.  Still can't figure out how I made that kind of mistake though.  I was expecting some difficult days over rugged terrain, so I decided to leave a few things in the car.  My sandals, tripod, broken steripen, and trekking poles would be sitting this one out.  That would save me about 8 pounds by my calculations.  North Lake was close enough by road that I could always come back and grab something for the next leg if I was truly missing it.  Once we were ready to roll, Jen broke out a scale.  Including food, water, and camera gear, my pack came in at 56 pounds!  And this was after dropping gear.  No wonder my other pack failed me.  I truly was an ultralighter's nightmare.

Anyway, we hit the trail around 12:30.  It was much more pleasant today.  I wasn't feeling awesome, but I had started on my meds this morning, so I was optimistic.  We strolled at a reasonable pace, slowly gaining elevation on the scenic trail.  At Saddlerock Lake, we enjoyed a nice break, snacking and resting up for the push to the pass.

Saddlerock Lake
It wasn't long before we were on our way again.  I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of energy I had.  With my new pack, it felt like I had about half the weight that I'd been carrying before.  We made the pass in no time.

Heading toward Bishop Pass

We had reached the Kings Canyon border and when I looked into the park, a calming feeling immediately washed over me.  I was home again, ready to continue living the way I had grown used to over the past couple weeks.  Strange that while I certainly appreciated the beauty of the trail to this point, the feeling completely changed when we hit that border.  Much like the Kearsarge trail on day 1, it just didn't feel real until we reached that pass. 

Looking back from near Bishop Pass

We were just here yesterday, but I was in pretty rough shape, focusing on reaching the trailhead .  Now that I was feeling better, I was able to truly appreciate the view into Dusy Basin.  I couldn't help but snap photo after photo as we made our way down the trail.

Dusy Basin

When we hit the lowest lake, it was time to set up camp.  Once again, people were all over the place, but you could hardly blame them for being there.  It was another spectacular spot, right off of the trail, and only a day away from the car.  Now, it was Columbine Peak's time to shine.  I hadn't given him all that much regard when I passed under him a couple days ago because I was so focused on North Palisade.  He wouldn't be ignored tonight.  Even though his loftier neighbors were visible from here, there was no doubt that he was claiming these lower lakes.

Home in Lower Dusy Basin

Jen cooked up some risotto while I played with the little guys in the lake.  I caught the most beautiful fish of my short angling career.  My first ever golden trout.  Not even as long as my hand, but absolutely gorgeous. Dinner was fantastic, but much messier than the boil and rehydrate type meals that I'd been cooking up until this point.

Just as we finished dinner, right on cue, the alpenglow show started.  I was getting used to these and thinking about that made me appreciate it even more.  Then, as I was trying to position the camera, I picked up a rock, only to find used toilet paper stuck to the bottom of it.  That will hurt an experience every time.  From that point on, as beautiful as this spot was, I couldn't help but see it as a bit of a cesspool.  Oh well.  We had a full trail day tomorrow, but by the end of it, we'd be away from the crowds again.

Columbine Peak alpenglow

Day 14.  August 12, 2013
Dusy Basin to Black Giant Lake

Today was a full-on trail day along one of the most beautiful, but busiest trails in the country.  The High Route has three stretches that coincide with the JMT.  I had already followed the first, from Upper Basin, over Mather Pass, and down through Palisade Lakes.  I was so taken with my surroundings that the number of people didn't really get to me.  This next stretch up LeConte Canyon and down through Evolution Basin is the longest continuous trailed section of the route, and is considered by many to be another major highlight of the JMT.  Today, we were hoping to set up camp somewhere around the head of LeConte Canyon.  Another trail day allowed Jen to fully acclimatize before we hit more rugged terrain, though I'm not sure that she even needed it as she was already in far better shape than I was when I started.

We took our time this morning, eating a leisurely breakfast before breaking camp.  I think it was around 10:00 when he hit the trail and most of our neighbors from last night were already gone.  Within a half mile, we found ourselves staring 2,000 feet down into the canyon, a sea of peaks rising on the other side.  I was anticipating a great view, but I had no idea that it would be this impressive.  I threw my arms out and spun around, overwhelmed again by my surroundings.

Jen at the LeConte Canyon overlook

As we were taking photos, another group walked up behind us.  It was fun to observe their initial reaction, to relive what we'd experienced only five minutes earlier.  We took some group shots for them before starting the long descent down to the valley floor.

It takes a little while to descend that far on mildly graded switchbacks, but we had a nice cascade running along side us and the view across the valley to keep us company as we strolled along.  About halfway down, we ran into some folks that were wondering if they were close.  I didn't want to discourage them, so I just told them that they'd be happy they did it when they got to the top.

The view on the descent

When we hit the junction with the JMT, we decided to check out the ranger station.  The rangers were a couple with a baby who were tired of talking to people and ready to get out on the trail.  We didn't have any specific questions, and when we asked for general advice pertaining to our route, they had none to offer.  We took a short break as they walked off.

When we did take off again, we played leap frog with the rangers as we would stop for water, photos, and lunch while they were checking the permits of southbound hikers.  Strangely, they never checked ours.  Just asked a few questions about how long we were out.

Middle Fork of the Kings River

The hike up the canyon was pretty, but hot.  We had descended lower than I was used to and the temperature definitely reflected it.  We were both thinking about a swim, but by the time we reached the lakes near the head of the canyon, the temperature had mellowed out and I was still remembering the consequences of my quick dip into Grouse Lake not too long ago.

Trail through Upper LeConte Canyon

It was beginning to get late when we reached Helen Lake.  The wind was picking up and we took a chilly break along the shore as we contemplated making camp.  We saw people set up at the only obvious (but very exposed) campsite here, so we decided to head toward Black Giant Lake (Lake 11,939). 

We were both happy to reach it quickly.  The area around the lake is pretty barren, mostly just talus.  We found two of the only places suitable for tents and set up right away.  My meds were helping, but today was definitely a long one, another tough "day 2."  Regardless, Black Giant Pass, our gateway into the Ionian Basin, was clearly visible only a few hundred feet above us.  I kept staring at it, just a pile of talus, thinking about where it was about to lead us.  I'd been looking forward to this part of the trip for months now.  It was chilly and we were both pretty tired, so we didn't last long after dinner.

Home at Black Giant Lake

Day 15.  August 13, 2013
Black Giant Lake to Chasm Lake

It was finally time to play off trail again.  It felt like I hadn't had any real solitude since leaving Upper Basin a week before.  Don't get me wrong.  I was loving the country I was passing through, but it was exciting to strike out away from other people again.  We wanted to take our time and enjoy this part of the trip, so we decided on a short day to Chasm Lake.  This also gave us an opportunity to head up Black Giant en route.

The sun got us out of our tents relatively early.  After a Pop Tart breakfast, we quickly broke camp and started on our way.  Almost immediately, we heard voices.  A group of five (the ones from Helen Lake?) were headed toward the pass.  When we intersected them, we learned that they were planning to stay at the first lake on the other side.  One guy told us that it had been close to 30 years since he'd seen Ionian Basin and that it was the most beautiful part of the Sierra.  They hung back for a few minutes, letting us lead the way.  The going was relatively easy and we gained the 300 feet in short order.

Looking back at Muir Pass and Black Giant Lake from Black Giant Pass

We were greeted by Charybdis standing guard at the foot of his lake, acting as gatekeeper to the rest of the basin.  He was inviting us to come down and play, but Black Giant was calling as well, so we dropped our packs on the saddle and loaded up for a side trip.  The ascent went smoothly enough.  It wasn't exactly fun, just a talus slog, but the increasingly fantastic views to the west kept us interested as we gained the 1000 feet to the summit.

Once on top, the world opened up before us.  Again, I knew to expect a nice view, but I was completely blown away.  I especially enjoyed looking into the past, picking out a good portion of my route from the previous leg.  We found the summit register, which had surprisingly few entries.  Given the ease of ascent and its proximity to the JMT, I thought we'd see more.  Regardless, I feel like this is one of those "must do" side trips for anyone that has a few hours to spare while passing through this area.  The reward is well worth the effort.

Summit view
Summit view

Today was a leisurely day, so we kicked it for awhile on the summit, eating snacks, pouring over maps, and just enjoying the scene in general.  When we'd taken in as much view as we could handle, we made our way down, stopping only briefly on the saddle to grab our packs before continuing to the lake.  Once at its shores, I had another strong wave of comfort/exhilaration come over me.  I was back in explorer mode, ready to twist and turn my way through the basin.

Charybdis rises above his lake

The group of 5 had already claimed this place as their home, so we didn't linger too long.  We worked over to the outlet stream and followed it down to the next set of lakes.   We stayed to the right of the stream and found it to be steep, but manageable.  Upon reaching the lake directly below Charybdis, we were happy to stop and enjoy some lunch.

Our lunch lake

We lounged for awhile before packing up and making our way downstream.  We stopped only briefly at the next lake as we were both pretty excited to see Chasm Lake.

More pretty water along the way

We strolled along, mostly on talus and meadow until the lake came into sight.  Another gem.  We picked out the perfect campsite and began a steep descent.  When we got closer however, we heard voices.  It was a group of 6 that had come over Wanda Pass.  We watched as a few of them began setting up their camp at the site we'd been looking at while the rest of their group gradually trickled in.

The Sirens and Scylla above Chasm Lake

As much as we wanted to stay at this lake, we didn't really see a whole lot of other camping options.  Then, we talked to one dude on the lakeshore who was kind enough to mention a decent spot on a ledge above the other inlet stream.  It was about 50 feet above the lake and the view from camp was incredible.

Charybdis was phenomenal.  I was impressed when I first saw him from Black Giant Pass, but now, as he rose above the lake, I couldn't take my eyes off of him.  Today was a short day and it was still early, so we put a little more effort into dinner.  It was essentially a tuna mac with re-hydrated red peppers, but we did it up with olive oil, tapatio, garlic, and parmesan.  Definitely among my favorite backcountry meals ever.  We were up against the western walls, so the sun disappeared relatively early.  We didn't last very long once the temperature began to drop.  Fine by me. Tomorrow was going to be a very full day.

Charybdis and Chasm Lake

Day 16.  August 14, 2013
Chasm Lake to Cove Lake
Fantastic day.  The sun hit the tent nice and early again.  We were beginning to appreciate staying on the west side of these basins.  Not only does it afford the best vantages for the phenomenal evening alpenglow shows, the early sun allows for an easy wake up each morning.  It's a win-win.

As much as I enjoyed this spot, I was eager to get moving.  Today would take us winding and weaving through the heart of the Ionian Basin.  We weren't sure how far we would get and we didn't really care.  Today was all about exploring and getting to know this incredible area.  No specific agenda.  I had mapped out a general route, but had no real idea what to expect as far as terrain.  These are my favorite kinds of days.

We broke camp and said goodbye to Chasm Lake before heading north up its inlet toward Lake 11,592.  We stayed almost directly in the stream the entire way up, making our way along talus and through boulder puzzles.  I'm sure that by angling west, one could find easier going, but I enjoy the constant problem solving that comes with this sort of terrain, each step requiring its own decision.

Charybdis keeping an eye on Lake Awesome

Soon, we were standing at the shores of Lake Awesome. (Someone had given it this name in another trip report.  It seemed fitting enough, so we went with it.) We dropped our packs and took a little break.  I was still all full of adrenaline, so I decided to take a quick trip to the north shore for another view of Charybdis over a lake.  This guy was slowly becoming my favorite mountain so far.  He blew me away when I first saw him standing over the foot of his lake below Black Giant Pass, but I didn't expect to hear much more from him from then on out.  Then, I fell asleep to him rising above Chasm Lake.  Another kind of impressive.  Now, even after saying goodbye to him this morning, he just wouldn't go away, stealing the show once again here at Lake Awesome.

I spotted the route to the next lake and headed back over toward Jen.  Soon, we were on our way again, working up reasonable talus.  Before I knew it, the environment completely changed.  The granite that I'd grown used to over the past couple weeks was all but gone, replaced by sharp, dark metamorphic rock.  By the time we hit Mean Lake (named by Jen for its lack of easy shoreline walking), we were in a whole new world.

Our first look at Mean Lake.  Red paintbrush gets me every time.

After another break here, we started ascending again.  Excitement and anticipation dictated my pace and I was on the saddle in no time.  I was speechless.  The view of Scylla and the Sirens standing behind their lake was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  This was the heart of the Ionian Basin and it was pure magic.  When Jen arrived, she immediately started talking about witches and dragons.  Yep.  Definitely their kind of environment.

Ascending from Mean Lake

As we stood there, Scylla started calling (or maybe it was the Sirens luring me toward her).  I hadn't planned on hitting any peaks today, but now that I was standing in front of her, I couldn't help but consider it a possibility.  I decided to make a decision over lunch.  After heading down, we hung out on the shore for a few minutes before turning the lake and continuing to the meadowy area beyond the outlet.

The Sirens and Scylla look after Scylla Lake

As we made our way, Scylla grew more and more insistent, beckoning me from across the beautiful lake.  It wasn't long before the decision was made.  I quickly scarfed down some lunch and headed back toward the mountain while Jen stayed behind and relaxed. 

The ascent was an enjoyable scramble for awhile as I stuck to the northwest ridge as much as possible.  Mostly solid rock and easy class 2/3 terrain.  It wasn't until the last 200 feet or so that I was forced onto the steepish, loose talus.  The view from the top was worth every step.  The entire Ionian Basin opened up before me.  I could trace our morning route and then look ahead toward the rest of the day.  Mt Goddard appeared a giant in relation to everything else in the area.  I didn't hang out too long though, as Jen was waiting down below and we still had some ground to cover.

Mt Goddard and the lakes of the Ionian Basin
A look down the Enchanted Gorge
Scylla Lake

The descent went as expected and we were soon loading our packs back up.  Next stop: Peninsula Lake.  I'd been looking forward it since first learning that the best route involves connecting its two peninsulas.  Again, excitement dictated the pace as we made the short ascent to the next saddle and continued on to get our first view of the lake.  There it was, peninsulas reaching out toward each other like fingers from opposite shores.  It exceeded all expectations.  I was straight giddy as we stood there taking it all in.  This whole area is easily among the most incredible places that I've ever seen. 

Mt Goddard and our first look at Peninsula Lake

We started down toward the lake, eventually finding a use trail (the first I'd seen since entering the basin) that led us over to the peninsulas and across the lake.  At the crossing, we noticed that the water level actually drops a few feet from one side to the other, though apparently not enough to consider these two separate lakes. 

A look back at Scylla and Peninsula Lake

After another little break, we started up the next saddle, soon finding ourselves overlooking another gorgeous body of water.  We headed down and shucked the packs again.  By this point, we were both getting tired.  Today had been a series of excited sprints to lakes and saddles followed by short breaks at each incredible spot.  We were about ready for the final rest of the day, so we tried to find a decent campsite nearby.  Not a chance.  At least nowhere near where we were sitting.  We figured out our route to the next lake and began heading that way. 

No Camp Lake from the bench above it

We were a little slower now as we worked up to the bench south of the lake.  After following it to the next saddle, we got a look at another lake.  We both immediately knew that we were home.  Packs were happily dropped and tents were set up almost immediately.  We took a quick scouting mission up to Goddard Pass to get a feel for tomorrow before returning and cooking some dinner in our nice protected kitchen right on the lakeshore.

As we were eating, Jen remarked at how a lot of these lakes had a coastal feel to them.  I fully agreed and began to understand the whole Greek mythology theme.  Given the more protected nature of this place, we decided to name it Cove Lake.  After dinner, I took a quick trip back up to the saddle east of camp and stared out at the basin.  What a spectacular place.  Absolutely mind blowing.  After about a half hour, darkness began setting in and I had to say goodnight.

Home at Cove Lake

Day 17.  August 15, 2013
Cove Lake to Davis Lake

Another awesome day.  The plan was to head up Goddard in the morning, then make our way over to Davis Lakes.  Once again, we had very little in the way of route descriptions.  Our route up Goddard was pretty standard from this side, but the rest of the day's plan was a result of finding the path of least resistance on topo maps.  Last spring, when pouring over said maps, I noticed what looked to be a decent route connecting Martha and Davis Lakes.  Rather than go around Peak 12,434 as Secor suggests, I was hoping to head over the saddle northwest of Peak 12,964.  I figured that it would keep us in lakes all day long and drop us down on a nice isolated spot in the Davis Lakes Basin.  I couldn't find any evidence of others following my route, but it seemed worth trying anyway.  If it worked, it would be that much more rewarding, knowing that we worked with the terrain to find our own way.

Looking west from Goddard Pass

We awoke early enough and ate a quick breakfast.  Goddard was calling, so we were on our way fairly quickly.  After dropping our packs on the other side of Goddard Pass, we headed for Goddard Lake Pass and the beginning of our ascent.  Goddard Lake served up the scenery as we worked up the ridge toward our ascent chute.  The chute started out reasonable before growing increasingly loose and frustrating and I soon found that the solid rock to our left proved to be a far better means of gaining the ridge.  A little more scrambly (fun) and much quicker and easier in the end.

Jen cresting the first summit

The ridge traverse was along tedious talus in some crazy wind.  Our perseverance paid off though, and we were soon on the first summit.  By now, the views were absolutely stupendous, but the true summit rose just a little farther ahead and it was calling us.  The traverse over to it proved to be a bit more interesting, involving some exposed class 3 moves along the narrow ridge.  Nothing difficult, but a long look down will make anyone think twice about each hand and foot placement.  We both enjoyed it and were rewarded with views for days upon reaching the summit.

Jen on the summit

We stayed up here for awhile.  I was dancing all over the place, identifying peaks, taking photos, spotting the route for the next couple days, and remembering the route from days prior.  New mountains made appearances, most notably Ritter and Banner, just a couple little horns way in the distance, but so easily recognized.  This was also the first time I noticed Mt Humphreys, who would be sure to show himself regularly for the next couple weeks.  All of my old friends from the past few weeks popped up again.  The Palisades were still prominent, but it was nice to see the Monarch Divide and the Great Western Divide again as well.  I could have stayed up here all day.

View north
Checking out our route for the rest of the day

We still had big things ahead of us, so after an hour or so, we started back down.  We both said one last goodbye to the Ionian Basin from the ridge before plunge stepping our way down the chute (much more enjoyable on the way down).  It was 12:00 when we reached our packs.  I felt good about the rest of the day's route after picking out the majority of it from the summit.  For now, we were on our way to lunch at Martha Lake.

Goddard Pass Lake

The travel down was a bit more interesting than I expected.  The drainage is tight, with snow, chockstones, and large talus to negotiate.  When it opened up above the lake, we stayed to the middle and found it to be cliffy.  I finally found a steep gully that looked like it might work.  It turned out to be a bit more difficult than expected, forcing us to turn around and downclimb, but we made it.  Of course, once down at the lake, the proper route revealed itself (climber's left is a walk-up).  Oh well.  All part of the fun. 

Lunch was short today.  Martha Lake provided us with a whole new kind of beauty.  The wide open landscape, complete with green shores, white mountains, and beautiful blue water were a drastic change from the land we just left.  After 3 nights camped at barren lakes, I was eager to do some fishing, but the wind was ripping and it killed all of my motivation.  No worries.  We still had a little ways to go anyway.

Martha Lake

The walk up to the bench lakes went as expected.  The lakes themselves were surprisingly appealing, and we followed the chain northward, eventually turning upslope and taking another break on the shores of the gorgeous larger lake on the next bench.

Bench Lakes

After fueling up for the last push, we started toward the saddle to Davis Lake Basin.  After seeing the route from Goddard, I was confident that this side would go, but the north side was still a question mark.  Worst case: this lake had some pretty nice campsites if we did get turned around, and we could always re-evaluate in the morning.

Nice spot for a break

In the end, there was nothing to worry about.  After a quick detour to the rubble laden lake directly beneath Peak 12,964 (because we just hadn't seen enough lakes already), we arrived at the saddle to find a very reasonable talus descent before us.  This one felt good.  I was feeling like an explorer again and we danced our way down the talus all the way to our new home on the southeast shore of the western Davis Lake.

Mt McGee and Davis Lakes

On the final descent to the lake, we were greeted once again by an insane wind.  Fortunately, the lakeshore was a bit more protected.  This place felt like it was only meant to be seen by boat.  Even our access (the only reasonable one by land) required a steep drop along a waterfall.  Once down, we found ourselves in this beautiful isolated cove.  Mt McGee provided a spectacular backdrop as he stared back at us from the other side of the lake.  I couldn't help but get the feeling that nobody had been here in a very long time.  This was our third straight day without seeing a trail and our second straight without seeing any people.  It was great to be alone with the earth again.  It was nice to share the experience with Jen as well and I couldn't help but hope that she was appreciating it as much as I was.  As the shadows began to grow, we kept moving with them, chasing every last bit of sunlight until no more could be found.  Then, we packed up in the wind and plummetting temperatures and it was off to bed.

Davis Lake

Day 18.  August 16, 2013
Davis Lake to Darwin Bench

Home on Davis Lake

Crazy wind all night but the little tent held strong.  The view from the door in the morning made it all worth it.  Top 5 campsite for sure.  After altering plans a little bit, we were to have a relatively mild day today, so we kept it leisurely this morning.  I had originally hoped to head over McGee Pass and wander around among those lakes before crossing over to Sapphire Lake.  Unfortunately, we were about two days behind after my giardia issues and it was easy to make one up by cutting directly over Davis Lakes Pass. 

We eventually packed our bags and began retracing our steps back up the steep cascade.  The lakes at the top were nice and we took a second to enjoy them now after more or less blowing by them yesterday.  Then, it was back down again.  When we arrived at the shore, the giant peninsula was too interesting a feature to ignore, so we dropped the packs and wandered around for awhile.  Definitely some great camping here as well.  

Talus land above Davis Lake

Shortly after starting along the shore again, we ran into the first people we'd seen since Chasm Lake, a couple dudes that had just come over Davis Lakes Pass.  Turns out, one of them has a place in Darby, so we chatted a bit about Montana before continuing our separate ways.

When we reached Turquoise Lake (guess how we came up with that name), we took another quick break before heading up to the pass.  I really wasn't worried about this ascent, as it looks incredibly mild on the map, but it proved to be surprisingly trying.  No technical issues.  Just a long slog on talus.  I'm pretty sure that I prefer short and steep over long and mild any day.  It didn't help that we had been talus dancing almost non-stop since starting our ascent of Goddard.  I could see that Jen was definitely getting tired of it.  The trail couldn't come soon enough for her.  I was in a slightly different boat, disappointed to be giving up the freedom and isolation that the last few days off trail had provided us, but crazy excited to stroll through Evolution Basin, a major highlight of the JMT.

A look back from near Davis Lakes Pass

We took another break at the top of the pass to say goodbye to another incredible area.  Looking over to see Black Giant rising prominently beyond Muir Pass, I couldn't help but appreciate that after all we'd seen and experienced the past few days, we were now only about a mile from where we'd spent our second night out.  That was one hell of a detour and I'd take it again and again. This goodbye took a bit longer than most, but soon it was time to move on and embrace the future.  I'd heard so many great things about Evolution Basin and now, here it was, opened up before us, inviting us down.

Wanda Lake and Black Giant rising beyond Muir Pass

From the pass to the trail was a stroll, much easier than the terrain that we'd grown accustomed to over the past few days.  I won't elaborate much on the trail down through Evolution Basin.  I will say that from Wanda Lake down past Sapphire Lake to Evolution Lake, we were spinning in circles the entire time.  We ran into plenty of people and every single one of them had a big smile on their face.  Pure magic.  Those that have been here will surely understand what I'm talking about.  For those that haven't, this area deserves every single glowing review that it has ever gotten.  We were both absolutely enamored with Evolution Lake and happily took a nice break there before the evening's campers showed up.

Upper Evolution Basin
Mt Huxley
Evolution Lake

Next stop: Darwin Bench.  As we headed down from the lake, we began passing more and more people headed up.  Whenever they asked how much farther, I told them how happy they'd be when they got there.  This was becoming my new favorite response, and it's not like I was lying to them or anything.  After Jen talked me out of heading up earlier, we followed the trail down to the first switchback, where we left it and made for the bench.  Definitely the right choice as we came across a well worn use trail almost immediately that led us the entire way.  The flowers grew more and more abundant as we made our way along a continuous cascade.  When we arrived on the bench itself, we felt right at home among the lupine and red paintbrush.  After wandering around for a few minutes, we set our tents up near the large lake.  Not surprisingly, a few other parties were camped nearby, but they had very little impact on our experience.  This wonderland provided the perfect end to another non-stop spectacular day.

Nice view from the kitchen

Day 19,  August 17, 2013
Darwin Bench to Bishop

Morning on Darwin Bench

Time to head out.  I'm rarely happy to leave the backcountry and today was no exception.  This leg had been ideal.  Now that the giardia had been taken care of, I was feeling great.  We were both in shape and had a fairly decent understanding of the landscape.  Route finding was coming easier and our confidence was higher.  Not to mention, after three weeks out here, I was beginning to forget about normal life.  This was normal life.  Wake up, breakfast, wander around camp, pack up, walk for awhile, find a new home, get to know it, eat dinner, sleep.  Up with the sun, down with the sun.  So simple yet so rewarding.  I was doing all I could to avoid conversations about work and school and whatnot.  None of that mattered out here.  I was much happier talking about (or talking to) mountains and lakes and streams and flowers.  Figuring out routes provided plenty of brain exercise while the environment as a whole kept me at peace. 

Fortunately, we still had some incredible country between us and North Lake.  We got an earlyish start in hopes of arriving at the trailhead in time to catch a ride.  We headed up the bench on slabs and meadows cut by a web of clear streams, spinning and dancing most of the way.

Lupine on Darwin Bench

 We were soon greeted by a long view up Darwin Canyon from above its lowest lake.  As we made our way up canyon, we found each lake to be bluer than the last.  The going was reasonable on varied talus including one small boulder maze section that led us to the head of fourth lake.

Darwin Canyon Lake

After a stopping to fuel up, we began the 1300 ft ascent to Lamarck Col.  Nothing difficult here.  Just a long way on talus.  The view down to and across the highest, bluest lake toward Mt Darwin and Mt Mendel kept us in high spirits as we worked our way up.  I did find that I was leading us toward the more obvious saddle east of the correct one for a little while, but after a quick check of the map and compass, we were back on course again. 

Darwin, Mendel, and The Other Guy kept us company on the ascent

Topping out on the col was bittersweet.  We had just taken our last steps in Kings Canyon, my home for the past three weeks.  It had been spectacular and I found it a bit difficult to say goodbye.  At least our final view was a fantastic one. 

One last look into Kings Canyon

During our ascent we noticed that clouds were beginning to stack up in some of the areas nearby.  Now that we were at the top, thunder was starting to rumble a little bit over in Humphreys Basin, urging us to keep moving.  We hung out for a few more minutes before starting down the north side.  Another group was resting at the first tarn.  They were finishing a loop that took them over Piute Pass and Alpine Col.  Talus for days but they definitely enjoyed it.  After a quick chat, we continued on, finding and losing the trail as we went.  It was a long way down, but the threat of rain kept us moving.  I hadn't seen a drop yet on this trip and I didn't want to see any now.  After a couple hours, we arrived at the trailhead, still dry.

Upper Lamarck Lake

Now, the fun part.  It was still fairly early, so we decided that this was as good a time as any to shuttle vehicles, but first, we had to find a ride to South Lake.  In the end, this took 3 hours.  The first ride got us from the trailhead to the North Lake turnoff.  Then, after walking to Aspendell, we finally caught another from a local Aspendellan in a tiny car.  I gave him about a 1% chance of pulling over for us, especially after all the pickups and SUVs that had blown by already, but good people will always find a way.  He got us to a little bar on the South Lake road.  We figured that the last leg would be quick and easy but once again, vehicle after vehicle blew by without stopping.  Finally, a truck pulled over and I hopped in.  When we reached the trailhead, I saw all the folks that passed us.  I made sure to give them all a big smile as I made my way to Jen's car.

When I got back to the bar to pick Jen up, we saw another dude that was looking for a ride down to Bishop.  Nice guy, but when we were just outside of town, he realized that he'd left his phone.  After our recent ordeal, we didn't even hesitate to give him a ride back up, but only after grabbing a burger and a milkshake at the Burger Barn (I'd been craving a shake for weeks and this one did not disappoint).  By the time we got back to town, neither of us was in the mood to shuttle vehicles, so we did some usual town chores, ate some more exotic fruit, and grabbed a hotel.