Friday, February 28, 2014

Sierra High Route, Summer 2013: Fourth Leg

Section 4: North Lake to Mammoth Lakes
Theme: Water/Wind
Soundtrack: Flowers-Talking Heads, It is Time for Stormy Weather- Pixies
Map Part 1 (link)
Map Part 2 (link)

Roscoe hangs out near Lower Mills Creek Lake.  If you see him, say hi for me.
Day 20, August 18
Bishop to above Loch Leven

It was a fitfull sleep in the hotel bed.  By now, no bed could be as comfortable as my short thermarest and no home could bring the same kind of peace as my little blue tent.  I was ready to get back into the backcountry, but first, a bit of a road trip.  Since this would be our last access to Jen's car, we figured it would be best to grab mine and run it to Tuolumne Meadows, our end point.  I figured that if we got an early start, it was possible to hit the trail at North Lake by lunch time.  Definitely underestimated that one.  Everything seemed to take longer than usual that morning and by the time we picked up my car at Onion Valley, drove north, grabbed lunch in Lee Vining, waited in line at Tioga Pass, parked, rolled back down, picked up resupply packages at Cardinal Resort, and drove to the trailhead, it was after 3:00.

We'd been watching the clouds roll in all day and now that we were ready to go, they decided to empty themselves on us.  After sorting and packing our resupply packages, we figured our best move was to kick it in the car and wait out the storm.

We got our window around 6:00 and decided to make for Piute Lake.  As we were gearing up to leave, a couple from Bishop, soaked head to toe, came strolling back to their car.  They were tired of near 100 degree temperatures in the valley and decided to come out and play in the rain.  Judging by their smiles, I'd say they found exactly what they were looking for.  As we headed up the trail, we passed a few other humans on their way out, all soaking wet and all in good spirits.

Rolling thunder provided a soundtrack as we headed up the trail.  Somewhere above Loch Leven, the rain began to fall again.  I was hoping to get to Piute Lake, but we were losing light and the rain had no plans of letting up any time soon.  Though it was clearer to the west, the clouds above us were going nowhere.  This did make for some beautiful lighting and one of the most vivid rainbows that I've ever seen.  It was dark by the time we set up camp and we ate dinner in the rain by headlamp before heading back to the tents.  Not the ideal conditions that I'd grown so used to, but it was great to be back out again.

Gold at the end of the rainbows

Day 21, August 19
Above Loch Leven to Paris Lake

The sound of the rain and the comforts of the tent made for some incredible sleep.  Our sheltered site meant that morning light was a little late in reaching us, but we were still out by 8:30.  Apparently, about 20 hikers blew by us while we were sleeping.  I now know that they were participating in the Sierra Challenge, where mountaineers go from a trailhead to a different major summit every day for 10 straight days.  Today, they were headed for peaks on the Glacier Divide.  We had slightly lesser ambitions, figuring we could get to Merriam Lake and call it a day.

Piute Lake

The stroll up to Piute Pass was scenic and enjoyable and we were both surprised to arrive at the top as quickly as we did.  Humphreys Basin opened wide in front of us.  Much different than the country that we'd grown accustomed to in Kings Canyon.

Summit Lake in Humphreys Basin

After about 15 minutes on the pass, we started down the trail into the basin.  We somehow missed the turn to Desolation Lake, so we waited until the trail began a steeper descent into Piute Canyon before leaving it to turn northwest.

Mt Humphreys

This was easy, wide open strolling all the way to Mesa Lake, where we had originally planned to sleep the first night.  It's a nice enough spot, but it felt kind of barren and dead to me.  It lacked that comfortable, inviting feel that so many other campsites possessed.  We took a short break, but neither of us had much desire to hang out for very long so we were soon on our way again.

Mesa Lake

The going was reasonable as we made our way up the inlet stream toward the two small lakes at the base of Puppet Pass.  Here, we ran into a dude rolling solo on a sort of JMT/SHR hybrid hike.  When we told him we were doing the High Route, he got all excited and before we knew it, packs were off and maps were out.  This was characteristic of human encounters on this trip.  When seeing other hikers on the JMT sections or near trailheads, usually we just exchanged a quick hello or a head nod as we passed each other.  On other trails, the interaction was a bit more involved, usually a pleasant five minute conversation, usually about the beauty of our surroundings or general itineraries.  Off trail encounters were a whole different deal.  If someone was seen at a distance, we let each other have space, but if we ran into each other, a full conversation would ensue.  Each party was genuinely interested in what the other was doing way out here, genuinely interested in getting to know the person that seeked out these types of places.  In this case, we hung out for about a half hour under darkening skies before shouldering our packs again and continuing on our separate ways.

Jen nearing Puppet Pass

Puppet Pass was only about 300 feet above us, but for some reason, its ascent proved to be a bit more taxing than it should have been.  Fortunately, that all went away when we were greeted by the splendid view down into Puppet Basin and beyond.  It was still relatively early, but the clouds were beginning to stack up in front of us.  The surrounding areas were looking even darker and rain was already falling to our north, but we figured we still had a little bit of time before it would hit us, so we hung out at the top for a few minutes.  When the thunder began to roll in the distance however, we knew that it was time to start down.

Puppet Basin

A bit more care was required of us as we descended the west side of the pass.  Quick cliffs and ledges at the top gave way to a steep, loose boulder field.  Fortunately, I'd read other accounts that mentioned following a cliff wall to the north partway down.  Upon spotting said wall, we plodded on over to it before easily working the rest of the way down to Puppet Lake.

The storm arrived just after 1:00 as we were strolling between Puppet and Paris Lakes.  We knew it was going to be a good one, so we hunkered down under some scrubby trees and watched as it made its appearance.  Growing up in the Midwest, I've always appreciated a good thunderstorm and this one did not disappoint.  Tons of lightning and echoing thunder, a nice downpour, and a bit of hail sprinkled in here and there.  After a little over an hour, it began to ease up, but the rain never fully stopped.  We kept waiting for a window, but none ever came.  Looking toward Merriam Lake, all of its surrounding mountains were completely shrouded by charcoal colored clouds.  Not exactly inviting.  As much as I wanted to continue on, it just seemed like we'd be wasting good country by trying to blow through it in these conditions.  By this point, we were both a bit cold and soggy anyway and after finding a couple decent spots near Paris Lake, we decided to call it a day.  We passed the time playing cards and pouring over maps.  I eventually fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the tent.

A soggy home

Day 22, August 20
Paris Lake to LaSalle Lake

I feel like it rained most of the night, but when I awoke around 7:30, it was nothing but clear blue skies.  We were both in great spirits as we ate some breakfast and admired our surroundings.  Then, I took a look at Pilot Knob.  Prior to yesterday, I would not have even been able to tell you where Pilot Knob was.  After spending some time with maps though, I noticed that given his location, views from the summit had the potential to be outstanding.  Now, as I watched him reflect in Paris Lake, I knew that I had some new morning plans.

Pilot Knob

It was 8:30 when I started up.  Jen hung back, relaxing and drying out gear.  It was pleasant strolling around Paris and down to Alsace Lake, a gorgeous body of water offering some nice reflecty views of its own.  Then, the steep ascent to the ridge.  Nothing crazy here as the route was clearly visible from the bottom.  Just a bit tiresome.  Upon gaining the ridge, I took an extra minute to remember the proper chute for the descent.

Merriam Peak and Alsace Lake

The ridgewalk proved to be much more interesting than expected.  I tried to keep to the top as much as possible, making enjoyable class 3 moves on cliffs and giant boulders most of the way.  The ascent took a bit more effort and time than anticipated, but the views from the summit were every bit as spectacular as I'd hoped.  Gorgeous in all directions.  Puppet Basin was impressive again, as was the look back up into Humphreys Basin.  Merriam Lake, Feather Pass, and the rest of today's route made themselves visible to the north and Ritter and Banner made sure they could be seen as well, peeking back at me from beyond a saddle in the same direction.

Looking ahead toward Merriam Lake.  Ritter and Banner can be seen popping up beyond the saddle in the center.

At 12,245, this isn't the tallest mountain in the area by any means, but it is positioned perfectly, and as a result, I spent a bit longer than expected taking everything in.  I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that had it not been for the rain yesterday, I would have never gotten to experience this.  Always interesting when you pay attention to the way things come to pass.

Puppet Basin

After far too short a time, I had to start back down.  We were finally going to make it into Bear Lakes Basin today and that meant that we had a little bit of ground to cover.  The descent was straightforward as I stayed more to the south side of the ridge until reaching my chute.  By the time I got back to Jen, it was already after 11:00, a bit later than expected.  I broke camp quickly though, and we were on our way by 11:30.

Merriam Peak beyond Cheveaux and Alscace Lakes

After a quick drop to Elba Lake, we began the forested decent into French Canyon, admiring the Royce Creek Falls the entire way.  The grade was mellow and the trees were perfectly spaced.  Nice, easy going and we soon found ourselves on the valley floor right at the base of the falls. 

After following the trail downstream a short distance, it was time to gain back all of the elevation that we'd just lost.  We took off toward Merriam Creek and found the steep trail almost right away. I immediately slowed to a snail's pace while Jen took the lead.  I'm pretty sure that this is my among my least favorite kind of terrain.  Ascents are tiresome by nature, but when on a trail in wooded areas with no opportunity for a view, it feels like I'm just blindly following an upward path.  Ascending for the sake of ascending.  No means of gauging progress and no end in sight.  It was only about 600 feet to the meadows above, but it felt like twice that.  We made it though, and of course it was all worth it when we could see again.

Merriam Lake

After a bit more time and effort ascending the beautiful meadows, we arrived at the shores of Merriam Lake, a perfect place to enjoy some lunch.   We hung out for a little while, appreciating another idyllic spot.  By now though, the clear blue skies that we'd awoken to had begun to give way to stacking storm clouds.  When a good one crept its way over the ridge to the south and began growing above us, we knew it was time to go.

Looking back

We packed up and continued on, starting with a quick ascent along side of the inlet waterfall.  Roper calls the terrain between here and LaSalle Lake "gentle terrain."  I call it a euphoric dance along a perfect stream with a perfect backdrop.  Imminent storm or no imminent storm, I found myself stopping every few steps, laughing and spinning in circles.  Absolutely perfect country.  I really don't think it gets much better than this.

Ideal country

Looking back
Had I skipped Pilot Knob, scarfed lunch, and blown through this wonderland stretch between the lakes, we likely would have beaten the storm to Feather Pass and finally made it to Bear Lakes Basin (our original goal for night 2 of this leg).  Obviously, even knowing that, if I could relive today, I wouldn't change a thing.  As it was, the skies grew black as we were traversing LaSalle Lake and we found a fairly sheltered area at the base of some cliffs near the inlet just as the rain began to fall.

LaSalle Lake.  Feather Pass is slightly left of center

Once again, it never seemed to completely let up.  Whenever we had a lull, we thought of continuing on.  Then, we'd be put in check again by a couple impressive lightning strikes in our destination basin.  Also, we weren't exactly sure what to expect from the north side of Feather Pass, and wet rock can drastically change the difficulty of any descent.  In the end, we made camp, a bit disappointed to be stopped short again. 

Still, we were in a fantastic place, and it seemed as though the weather was much nicer to us than it was to all of the surrounding areas.  We set up our tents on the ledges above the lake and called it a day.

Home again

Day 23, August 21
LaSalle Lake to Big Bear Lake

What a day!  Easily top five best of this trip, and maybe of all time.  After two straight days of getting shot down by weather, we finally made it into Bear Lakes Basin today.  Sadly, we were now only able to spend one night here, but by camping early, we were definitely able to make the most out of the rest of the day.

It started earlier than normal.  I awoke the first time around 6:00 to the sound of rain still hitting the tent.  I didn't even hesitate to go back to sleep, surprised and disappointed.  After tossing and turning for another half hour, I decided I needed to get out of bed, that we would not be deterred today.  One way or another, we were going to make that pass and see what the next basin had in store for us.  Fortunately, the rain came to a stop and the sun came out by 7:00.  After the usual morning routine, we were on our way up to the pass shortly before 8:00.

Morning above LaSalle Lake.  We ascended a cool little slot below the cliffs in the foreground

The ascent was straightforward and before we knew it, we were standing at the top.  It was pretty cloudy and windy, but we were still able to appreciate the views.  We were both ready to immerse ourselves in the basin though, so we only lingered for about 10 minutes before continuing down.
Mt Hilgard rises prominently beyond Bear Lakes Basin

We managed to find a perfect route down, zigzagging along ledges and stable talus until we arrived on the basin floor.  From there, we simply followed the path of least resistance down to and past Bearpaw and Ursa Lakes before arriving at the shores of Big Bear Lake.

Descending Feather Pass

As we walked along its north shore, we spotted a great place to take a break and figure out a plan for the day.  After about 15 minutes in this magnificent spot, we realized that there was no reason to carry our packs any farther.  We were already home.  It was just after 10:00 when we set up our tents.

Seven Gables and Big Bear Lake

The first side trip I ever planned, years ago, was an ascent of Seven Gables, so I was certainly looking forward to this moment.  We got our first glimpses of her after arriving in the basin today, but now, here at our new home, she decided to fully present herself to us.  She was unlike any other peak that we'd seen so far.  So sleek and clean.  Incredibly dominant, but unique in style and demeanor.  Even under the foreboding skies, I couldn't help but get the impression that she was inviting us to come a little closer.  We knew we were at the mercy of the weather today, but I just couldn't deny that kind of invitation.

We decided to go for it, figuring that even if storms kept us off of the mountain, we were at least able to explore this incredible area.  By the time we sorted out camp and flash packs, it was around noon.  Off we went, first to Little Bear Lake, where we marveled at its perfect composition of colors.  The grasses and water were beautifully complimented by white and orange rock nearby, while a much darker Seven Gables loomed beneath the gray sky in the distance.  Another scene I will never forget.

Little Bear Lake

After turning its shore, we found ourselves in one of the most ideal corridors that I've ever come across.  This was a sign of things to come, as these would become a very common means of travel for the rest of the trip.

An ideal corridor

This particular corridor proved to be a direct route to our next destination: an incredible overlook of Vee Lake.  Seriously, this may have been my favorite viewpoint of the trip, and we weren't even on a peak or a pass.

Pond en route to Vee Lake

Vee Lake spread across the entire floor below us.  We both stood there for awhile, trying to take it all in before ambling down to the lakeshore for a break and a quick weather assessment.  No real change, so on we went.

Descending from Vee Lake

We took a direct route down a wide gully to the next lake where we rewarded ourselves with a bite to eat.  It was just after 1:00, and after the last two days, we couldn't help but keep glancing at the sky as we enjoyed our lunch.  Now, we had to be careful.  After a couple close calls with lightning in the past, I always try to make sure that I don't stuck in precarious positions in the event that it does occur.

Our lunch lake.  It was a straightforward ascent to the notch.

Still no change in the weather though, so we started up toward the notch between the main peak and her north summit.  I was curious about what would greet us once we gained the ridge, but I figured if it was bad, we could always duck back down the chute for protection.  It was a bit of a slog from the lake as rocky green slopes gave way to stable, then progressively steeper and looser talus near the top of the chute.  As usual, an increasingly spectacular view, this time back toward Bear Lakes Basin, provided all the inspiration we needed and we were on the ridge before we knew it.

Looking back toward Bear Lakes Basin

Time for another weather check.  A jet black shroud over Mt Humphreys and increasingly darkening skies over Bear Lakes Basin and our camp, but nothing too crazy blowing into us.  The mountain was keeping us in check as she gave another green light.  We knew that all hell could break loose at any time, so we decided to stay a couple hundred feet below the ridge as we made our way up, just to be safer.  Once directly below the summit, we made one last weather assessment, got one last green light, and pushed for the top.  I must admit, I welcomed the little bit of route finding and class 3 work on the summit block after spending most of the climb slogging up talus.

Southwest view from the summit ridge.  Another area to add to the list.

Almost immediately upon reaching the summit, thunder began rolling above all of the surrounding areas.  It was 3:00 now and I knew that we probably had no business standing on the highest point in the immediate area, but at the same time, I actually felt rather safe and comfortable.  We weren't here to conquer this mountain.  We just hung out with her all day, periodically making sure she was happy to have us.  We were incredibly respectful, always paying close attention and appealing to our surroundings, and in the end, after repeatedly being urged to continue on, we were rewarded with a magnificent experience.  Today, we had about as strong a connection to our environment as I have ever felt.  We were entirely in tune and it was magical.  Of course, the views were superb, but today was about so much more than that, something that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life.

View southeast

While we appreciated our miracle window, we knew better than to overstay our welcome on the summit, so after about a half hour, we started back down again.  We followed the same route on the descent, staying off of the ridge on the way to the notch, then making our way back down to our lunch lake.  The rain and hail hit just after the grade began to mellow at the bottom of the chute.  I couldn't help but laugh.  We knew that it could happen any time today (and probably should have happened earlier) but for some reason, it decided to hold off until we found a  mellower, more protected area.

We got intermittent showers until around the time we began to traverse Vee Lake again.  It was getting later, so we took a direct route (via another awesome corridor) back to Big Bear Lake, but not before passing a large group (maybe 10 or 12 people) huddled under a tarp listening as a dude in a poncho read to them, as if giving a sermon.  It seemed awfully fitting as today had provided me with a full on religious experience as well.

Ascending above Vee Lake

By the time we reached camp, the sun was setting and we were both pretty beat.  We cooked and ate dinner in the last bit of daylight before running for the tents and our sleeping bags.  I fell asleep quickly with a smile on my face.

Big Bear Lake

Today was a milestone day, a turning point of sorts.  Until now, it seemed like I was always either learning how to read my surroundings or coping with issues that were being thrown at me.  Today, it finally felt like this place and I truly understood each other.  We had a relationship now.  We were completely in tune and communication was effortless.

Big Bear Lake

Day 24, August 22
Big Bear Lake to Lower Mills Creek Lake

I was still reeling from yesterday when I awoke this morning.  Leaving this area was the last thing that I wanted to do, but after our prior setbacks, we were forced to break camp and continue onward.  It was a little extra cold and windy this morning and for the first time this trip, I was a bit chilly even in the tent.  I was anticipating a longish day though, one in which we'd have to focus somewhat on covering ground, so I forced myself to unzip the door around 7:00.  All discomfort disappeared upon getting that first look outside.

Seven Gables and Big Bear Lake

We kept it casual, but efficient this morning, enjoying our surroundings as we ate and packed up, and we were on our way shortly after 8:00.  We began by heading up to Black Bear Lake, ascending next to its outlet stream the entire way.  It proved to be a nice warm up and we were both constantly looking back over our shoulders to see Seven Gables rising steadily with us, showing off in the morning sun.

Black Bear Lake was certainly appealing, but we didn't linger long at its shores before turning up toward White Bear Lake.

Black Bear Lake

This proved to be an enjoyable ascent as we danced along through corridors, occasionally scrambling up small cliffs and ledges.  We eventually found ourselves in one last corridor (only fitting in this land of corridors) that led slightly up, then back down to the lakeshore.

Corridor to White Bear Lake

Here, we had to take a little break.  Our last Bear Lake and it didn't disappoint.  We kicked it near the shore for a short time before locating the pass across the lake and only a few feet above.  After a quick and easy traverse over to the pass, we took our obligatory break at the top.  The views here weren't overly expansive or anything, but I always appreciate the look ahead.  Passes are more than just a viewpoint.  They are natural boundaries between different environments and when they are crossed, everything completely changes.  They mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.  Here, we were saying goodbye to Bear Lakes Basin, one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen, an area to which I'd developed a strong connection in just a short time.  Now, we were about to hang out with massive (and I mean MASSIVE) Mt Hilgard for awhile on our way to Lake Italy.

A look ahead from White Bear Pass

But first, we had to get down from the pass.  This proved to be much more trying than anticipated.  It seemed as if there was no rhyme or reason to the terrain.  Steep slabs, unsorted loose talus, and slippery green patches all jumbled together in no particular order.  Nothing could be trusted and the going was brutally slow and tedious.  Easily the worst descent since Frozen Lake Pass.  Fortunately, we made it down though and were soon strolling along the shores of Brown Bear and Teddy Bear Lakes on our way toward Lake Italy.

North side of White Bear Pass

The terrain quickly became especially pleasant, a slab and meadow stroll all the way up to the outlet of the giant lake.  In his book, Roper calls this lake "fundamentally ugly."  I can't help but disagree here.  It may not be the wonderland that Bear Lakes is, but I think it earns points on color alone, a blue unlike any we'd seen since Martha Lake.  About halfway around the lake, we took our lunch break.  Unfortunately, it was short lived as the wind had never really died down today.  In this open area, we were completely exposed and it showed us no mercy.

Lake Italy

Our next objective, Gabbot Pass, rose 1,000 feet above us but the grade appeared to be fairly mild.  Rather than traverse the entire shoreline as Roper suggests, we began angling upward about a half mile from the head of lake on mellow terrain.  We took our time here admiring the increasingly extensive views and the ascent proved to be relatively painless.  Strangely, upon reaching the pass itself, those views disappeared behind us.

Jen strolling toward the pass

The view ahead more than made up for it, however.  Of course Ritter and Banner made sure they could be seen, but of much more interest was the giant plume of smoke rising beyond them.  At first, I was merely disappointed that another fire had started (and this wind had to be fanning the hell out of it), but then, as I looked closer and thought a little more about it, I realized that I had more to worry about.  Judging by the direction and my perceived distance, I was pretty sure that fire was in Yosemite.  In fact, the more I thought about it, that plume could very well have been rising above my car in the Tuolumne Meadows parking lot!


Of course, we had no way of knowing what the situation was and even if we did, we obviously couldn't do anything about it.  We weren't going to be back in civilization for another 5 days and a lot could happen between now and then.  I figured, we would just have to hit up the ranger station when we rolled into Mammoth.  I just hoped we weren't going to have to call it a trip when we got there.

At any rate, even on this relatively sheltered pass, the wind wouldn't let us linger long.  Fortunately, the descent from here proved to be much easier than what we dealt with earlier in the day and we were soon down at the beautiful milky tarn directly below.

Below Gabbot Pass

From here, we descended to Upper Mills Creek Lake along slabs and steep talus to the left of the stream (Roper says to head right for easier terrain but we neglected to consult him before determining our route here).  The going wasn't great, but we made it ok.  From here, the rest of the descent was enjoyable and straightforward.  I tried to stay high on slabs in order to get a good view of Lower Mills Creek Lake, our home for the night.  When looking for campsites, I always try to scout from about 100 feet up.  It's high enough to get the necessary bird's eye view, but close enough to key in on the details.  In this case, it seemed pretty obvious that home was somewhere near the outlet.

Lower Mills Creek Lake

Upon arrival, we found a perfect environment and tents went up quickly.  It was only 4:00 and for the first time in days, the skies were clear, so I took off on a little stroll to nowhere in particular.  This was another very beautiful, very comfortable environment and I enjoyed it for an hour or so before heading back to camp and putting the fly rod together.  We were both in the mood for fish tonight, so I set off to catch us some dinner.  Of course, the wind picked up again shortly after my first cast and though I got a few strikes right away, I never managed to land any of them.  Oh well.  We still ate a good dinner and the alpenglow show was spectacular once again.

Evening on the lake

Day 25, August 23
Lower Mills Creek Lake to Grinnell Lake

Cannibal tree

I assumed today would be similar to yesterday.  Focus on covering ground during the day and we'd be rewarded with a spectacular new home by the end of it.  I really wasn't too excited to drop all the way down to Mono Creek, only to head back up again on the other side of it, but it had to be done, and by the end of it, we'd be enjoying the Silver Divide, another area that I'd been looking forward to for a long time. 

It was another cold, breezy morning and we awoke with the sun as usual.  We were both a bit chilly and we methodically went about our morning routine before saying goodbye to this wonderful setting.  The stroll down Mills Creek was enjoyable enough that it woke us up a bit as we ambled along, periodically finding and losing the trail as we went.

Mills Creek

When it was time to descend into Second Recess, we were on the left side of the creek.  Once again, rather than consult Roper, we simply began our descent along what appeared to be reasonable terrain (steepish slabs).  To be honest, I found that determining our own route was much more interesting and rewarding than consulting someone else anyway.  I was comfortable making my own assessments and adapting as necessary along the way.  Unfortunately, this time our decision forced us into a bit of a bushwhack when we were unable to cross the cascading creek.  It didn't last too long though, and we were soon on the trail.

Our steep slab descent

Now, I must say that Second Recess was a huge surprise.  While I appreciate trees in general (who doesn't), I was here primarily for the constant uninterrupted views and trailless country.  That's kind of the whole idea behind this route.  I figured when we hit the trail here in this timbered valley, we'd just kick it up a gear and make some miles.  I was mistaken.  Immediately upon reaching the valley floor, I felt a wave of calm come over me.  Over the course of this entire leg, our environment had constantly imposed itself upon us.  Between stark, vivid basins and talus strewn passes, serious storm clouds, and raging winds with little chance for escape or cover, we had immersed ourselves in a fantastically dramatic setting, a constant overload of the senses.  Here in Second Recess, however, all of that became much more muted, replaced with a much simpler beauty, an idyllic stream winding its way among perfectly spaced timber and green undergrowth, all with a nice soft trail to guide us along.  I couldn't believe how much I appreciated it.  I kind of just wanted to give the entire valley a big hug.  I didn't even bother with photos here.  No photo could ever convey the feeling I got from this place anyway.  We just kept a mellow pace, strolling along quietly, basking in the comfort and tranquility of our environment.

Of course, all good things must come to an end and in this case, it happened when we got our first view down to and across Mono Creek toward our next destination.  Dream time was over.  The trail took us down to the creek, where we found a dry crossing a little ways upstream, and when we reached the Laurel Creek trail, we took a quick Snickers break in anticipation of another steep trail back up.  Surprisingly, this one wasn't so bad.  Steep for sure, but every so often, we were treated to a view back across the valley.  With each look back at Second Recess, new inspiration arrived and we soon found ourselves in the next hanging valley.

Looking back across at Second Recess

Maybe it was our timing, but the first stretch up Laurel Creek felt like something out of an old scary movie.  Brown grasses, dead trees and plenty of deadfall to negotiate.  I have to admit that I kind of got into the eeriness of the whole thing.  This didn't last long though.  Upon reaching the second tier of the basin, we found ourselves in another green meadowy wonderland, this one backdropped by Red and White Mountain and his unnamed neighbor to the west.  Satisfied with the time and place, we took a nice lunch break here, watching the thumb sized trout dart around in the stream as we ate.

Laurel Creek

It was early and we were already fairly close to our destination, so we made sure we were fully rested and satiated before leisurely making our way up the basin toward Laurel Lake.  Upon reaching the lake, we took a few minutes to consider our route up to Grinnell.  Not much to consider, as an ideal corridor to the northeast jumped right out at us.  A 500 foot ascent led us straight to the shores of Grinnell Lake. 

It was still early once we'd set up camp, so it was time to get to know our home.  First, I took a short stroll to the foot of the lake, where I was rewarded with a nice view back down the valley.

Laurel Creek Valley

Grinnell Lake outlet

After I got back, Jen was ready to explore a little so we decided to take a walk up to Little Grinnell Lake for a look at Red and White Pass.  The walk itself was pleasant enough and it afforded us a nice view back down to camp, but neither the lake nor the pass proved to be all that appealing, so we headed back down, content to stick to Roper's route tomorrow.

Back in camp, it was business as usual.  Another great dinner, some fun with the lake dwellers, a bit of alpenglow, and then off to bed.  I suppose there are worse ways to spend an evening.

Home at Grinnell Lake

Day 26, August 24
Grinnell Lake to Hortense Lake

Great day.  After back to back destination oriented days, it was about time to wander around and explore again.  Today's itinerary: a tour of the beautiful lakes of the Silver Divide.  We didn't have far to travel and we had all day to enjoy it, so we took it nice and easy this morning.

We began by heading west from our lakeshore camp, ascending at first on mellow terrain before dropping back down to a nice bench above Laurel Lake.  From there, it was a scenic meadow dance all the way over to the base of Bighorn Pass.

A morning stroll
Laurel Lake and beyond

The ensuing ascent was steep, but quick and we soon found ourselves on the saddle staring down at Rosy Finch Lake and across to Shout of Relief Pass, our next destination.  Roper says to traverse around from here, but after a look at the seemingly tedious terrain in that direction, we decided to drop to the lake and ascend its inlet instead.  It resulted in an added loss and gain of about 500 feet, but we were rewarded with mild terrain the entire way as well as a show from some nice sized trout as we strolled along the lakeshore.  In the end, including our short break at the lake, we took about an hour between passes.

View south from Shout of Relief pass

From Shout of Relief, we got our first view down to the north side Silver Divide Lakes.  As excited as I was to get down there, I just couldn't resist the urge to traverse west to get a quick look at Bighorn Lake.  Fortunately, Jen was very understanding and she patiently waited for me as I took off on yet another little side trip.  I must say, the quick jaunt was well worth it.

Bighorn Lake

As expected, the lake offered plenty in the way of beauty, but beyond that, by moving just slightly west to the next saddle, I allowed Red Slate Mountain to fully show himself for the first time.  Until now, I hadn't really given a lot of thought to this guy.  I knew he was unique, but I wasn't expecting to find such beauty in him and for the rest of the day, he seemed to be the center piece of all of my favorite views.  When I returned to Shout of Relief, we started down.  The entire basin is dotted with lakes, and we made sure to try to check out every one of them.

Red Slate Mountain and one of the many gorgeous lakes in this basin

When we reached Tully Lake, we found a family with a couple dogs.  Great to see, as we usually have a couple of our own tagging along on these kinds of trips.  Sadly, given the national park sections and the general ruggedness of some parts of the route, those companions had to be left behind this time.

So, after hanging out with the pups (and their owners) for awhile, we continued on, connecting blue dots back up to Cotton lake, another winner, before heading over and down to Isaac Walton Lake.

Today's lunch lake.  One of my all time favorites

This descent was a bit more interesting than expected as we found ourselves downclimbing a few short cliffs, but we made it ok.  From the bottom, it looked like we'd have found a better route had we traversed south a little bit towards the other inlet stream.

Isaak Walton Lake

I really enjoyed walking the shore of Isaac Walton and we definitely took our time to appreciate it, but we still had a little bit of work to do to reach our destination, and we'd kept it nice and chill all day today, so on we went.  After a quick look at Mace Lake, we started up the ridge above the east shore of Hortense Lake.

More pleasant country

We were planning on staying in the middle of the lake, and on the map, it appeared that our best route required ambling along the ridge before dropping directly down to our destination.  Unfortunately, the ridge proved to be a bit more cliffy than the map showed and we ended up backtracking to the head of the south lake, then easily following the shore the rest of the way.  Once again, the wind was ridiculous, but we were pretty used to that by now.  We quickly found our tent sites and made it our home.

Hortense Lake

I had to go check this place out.  Hortense was just inherently beautiful.  Of course, the surrounding mountains offered plenty in the way of aesthetics, but it was the lake itself that held my focus.  For most of the past few weeks, I'd been spinning in circles, eyes towards the skies, absorbing everything at a grand scale.  As I wandered around here though, all I saw were bays and peninsulas and islands and coves, flowers near my feet as I walked these crazy shorelines, fish swimming along next to me in this beautiful blue water.  The rest of the world completely disappeared.

Hortense Lake

When I finally made it back, the wind decided to let up for a minute, so I decided to break out the rod again.  Caught a couple very healthy, very edible brookies.  A little extra treat after an incredible day. 

Day 27, August 25
Hortense Lake to Deer Lakes

Long day today.  I suppose I knew that we'd be covering some distance and elevation, but I may have underestimated the work involved since we'd be traveling along the JMT most of the way.  Not to worry.  Once again, we were rewarded handsomely for our efforts.

Another reasonable wakeup and breakfast.  Another great place to spend a morning.  We loaded up and headed to the foot of the lake, where we couldn't help but drop the packs and run for one last great view of our recent home.  Another goodbye.  Now, we had to focus on finding a way down to Tully Hole.  Aside from our little bushwhack on the way down into Second Recess, we hadn't really dealt with timbered travel in awhile.

One last look

In the end, we had nothing to worry about.  The terrain presented itself almost exactly as the map indicated that it would and we reached the Tully Trail about 100 feet from its junction with the JMT.  Perfect.  Tully Hole had a nice feel to it and we immediately saw a few other folks relaxing just off the trail.  Couldn't blame them one bit for being here.

The descent

The rest of the day provided us with a mix of long, steady ups and downs, rounded mountains, large lakes, and a number of quick conversations with other hikers.  I asked a few different parties what they knew about the new fire in Yosemite, but each group offered different information.  Kind of funny.  I figure it's like a game of telephone when we were kids.  The further we were from the original source of information, the more skewed the facts became.  One party said the fire was in the far northeast and we had nothing to worry about.  The next said that Tuolumne Meadows was already evacuated.  Another just said that the Tioga Road was closed.  Still another didn't even know that there was a fire.  All of these parties were heading southbound on the JMT.  For my own peace of mind, I chose to believe the ones that said it was in the northeast and posed no threat.  It was better than thinking about my car being torched as we spoke.

The trail was long and dusty and it seemed like we were walking long distances without actually getting anywhere.  I suppose that we'd just been spoiled by the type of travel that we'd been encountering over the course of the rest of this leg.  In truth though, we were still in amazing country.  Upon rising out of Tully Hole, we were treated to a fantastic view back to the Silver Divide.

The Silver Divide from the JMT above Tully Hole.

At Virginia Lake, we contemplated detouring up to Glen and Ram Lakes, but decided that we just wouldn't have enough time to fully appreciate them.  Another spot to add to the "next time" list.  For now, it was on to Purple Lake.  Upon reaching the saddle above it, we appreciated the view and the fact that we would soon be arriving at its shores.  Then, the trail took over, leading us back and forth on absurdly mild switchbacks, seriously dragging out an otherwise rapid descent.  After reaching the outlet, we took off along the southeast shore, said hello to another dog (and maybe his owner?), and found an ideal spot to grab some much needed lunch.

Purple Lake

We hung out for around 45 minutes before beginning another long slow climb out from the lake, this time traversing out above the Cascade Valley.  Again, fantastic views presented themselves to us as we strolled along.  Upon reaching Duck Lake, we never really stopped.  Just kinda took it slow as we traversed its shores making our way up toward its namesake pass.

Duck lake

From here, it could have been a quick walk down to a trailhead and civilization, but we weren't quite done yet.  We ditched the trail again, taking off along the Mammoth Crest toward Deer Lakes.  This proved to be a gentle, albeit crazy windy stroll the entire way over to the pass above the lakes.

Deer Lakes

The route down from here was a bit steep, but a use trail proved effective and we were soon at the head of the highest lake.  Great campsite, but it was already inhabited by other humans, so we continued on down to the next lake where we found a suitable home near its outlet.

Our Deer lake

Day 28, August 26
Deer Lakes to Mammoth Lakes

Short one today.  Good thing too, because we actually had some things to figure out when we got into town, namely how that fire was going to affect our plans.  Another windy night, but we were getting pretty used to that.  Another earlyish wake up.  Another efficient but enjoyable morning.

Turns out, our camp was pretty close to our exit trail, and we were soon following it back up to the Mammoth Crest.  We enjoyed the views and the gentle terrain for awhile before shooting off down the trail that would lead us to Lake George and our first civilization in 9 days.

Mammoth Lakes

We arrived at the trailhead by lunch time and found people scurrying around everywhere.  Hikers, bikers, boaters, dog walkers.  People sure do like to play outside in these parts.  We eventually found our way to the bus stop, where we waited only about 15 minutes before being picked up and taken into town.  That would be the longest we'd wait for a bus the entire time we were here.  There's a lot to be said for efficient public transportation, especially when it's free. 

After grabbing a room at the Motel 6, we began running errands.  First stop: post office.  My good buddy back in Missoula had sent a package.  I opened it up to find some killer jerky from the local butcher, some short stories about the Yaak (Northwestern Mt), and some flies from a local shop.  Hell yeah!  That Johnny's a good dude.  He told me later that he wanted to make sure I had a little bit of Montana with me.

Thanks Johnny!

After that little surprise, it was off to the ranger station and the moment of truth.  Could we keep going? Had my car already been reduced to ashes?  Turns out, we were looking at the Rim Fire from Gabbott Pass that day, a fire that would grow to be the largest ever recorded in the Sierras.  Strangely, it wasn't in any of the areas that hikers had mentioned on the trail.  We were assured that Tuolumne was in no immediate danger and that the rest of our route was perfectly reasonable.

Now that we had that figured out, our usual town chores were finished in good spirits.  Good lunch at a bar up the road, a trip to a couple grocery stores (no resupply packages this time), phone calls to family, a quick stop at an outdoor store for a replacement sleeping pad for Jen, a beer store with an absurd selection right across the street from the hotel, laundry (of course), and all capped off by some margaritas and decent Mexican food with a PCT thru-hiker we met in town.  I must say, while we were certainly busy, this was my favorite experience in civilization.  Mammoth is a pretty awesome town.  Beautiful, comfortable, good, like minded people, and of course, a giant playground right at your fingertips.