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When a trip drives you to drink: August 2013

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When a trip drives you to drink: August 2013

Postby cgundersen » Sat Mar 29, 2014 2:42 pm

THE GOAL: Amphitheater Basin in mid-August 2013
WHY: My wife and I had been up in this area a few years back and it’s absolutely gorgeous (c’mon, with the Palisade Crest staring at you all day long and huge, virtually untrammeled lakes in a gorgeous alpine basin?). Plus, my pal was keen to fish and there are trout in Amphitheater basin.
HOW: We’d thoroughly discussed the pros and cons of trying to get over the eastern crest from Birch Lake (see Kathy W's Birch post from a while back; there are off trail routes north and south of the lake, with Lane Pass being rated a 2 even though it looks harder on the topo maps), and figured that we’d make a last minute decision, when we reached the permit office in Lone Pine.
The reality:
My “old” college roommate arrived at LAX at about 9:30am from the East coast and by the time his pack rolled off the conveyor belt and we got in the car, it was 10am. We were good boys and reached Lone Pine ~1:30pm and decided in the end to forget Birch and aim for Southfork Pass which one reaches via the South Fork trail at the Big Pine Creek trailhead. We made this decision by virtue of the fact that this route starts >1,000ft higher up than the Birch Lake trail, and ever since gazing at Southfork some 25 years ago, I’ve wondered whether it was “doable”.
Background: This was the 4th year in a row my buddy had escaped Virginia for a backpacking trip, and we have had some interesting trips: year 1 we took Kearsarge Pass to get into East Vidette and over Deerhorn Pass and then instead of Harrison Pass, we accessed the upper Kern valley via Ericsson pass, and completed the loop on trail over Forester. Year 2 we went in at McGee Creek, over McGee Pass and then south over Lane Pass to Grinnell Lake. From there, we crossed Mono Creek and up the 2nd Recess to Mist Lake and over the ridge behind Mist Lake to Hilgard Lake, around to Lake Italy and over Cox col and back to McGee Creek via Mono and Hopkins Passes. Year 3 was in at Florence Lake and up to Martha Lake and over Reinstein col to Lake 10212 (on the western fringe of Ionian basin) and on to Finger col (which we mangled) and Cathedral Lake before working our way back to the Florence trail via Lucifer’s Saddles and Mosquito Pass. Thus, we figured we had a decent chance of getting to Amphitheater without the long slog up Taboose that my wife and I had done.
It was unusually hot and muggy by the time we finally hit the trail (an hour later than we’d been hoping for: we had a couple of malfunctions), but we still reached the outskirts of Brainerd Lake before darkness. Because there were other folks parked at Brainerd (a small lake), we camped a hundred yards shy. It was unusually warm that first night and I kept waking up either too warm, or too chilly (when I unzipped my bag). Still, we got going well before direct sun hit us the next morning and worked our way toward Southfork. It’s nothing more than a scramble to the next two, unnamed lakes and we were starting to hit a rhythm that we’d not felt the first day. However, once past the second little lake, the climb got a bit more strenuous, and then one hits the “moraine”. Basically, it’s nearly a mile of boulder hopping until you hit the final steep climb. I’m not quite sure what it was, but some combination of the heat, humidity, poor sleep and endless hopping slowed our pace to a crawl. When the base of the pass came into clear view, I dropped my pack and went in for a close-up. This is about the time we solved a mystery: for much of our approach, we kept hearing weird scraping sounds interspersed with clear sounds of falling rock. The answer: on much of the nearly black permanent snow leading up to the pass, rather large rocks were occasionally coming loose and sliding. Some managed to slide all the way down to rock. I believe this is how moraines are produced (duh!). It was impressive to see this happening in real time accompanied by a sound track. To make matters worse, of the two obvious ways to the ridge, both required one to cross the black snow on which the rocks were sliding. We did not have ice axes or crampons, and this was one of the few places I’ve come across where both were highly desirable (and, perhaps, a suit of armor for the sliding rocks). I have done stupid things before, but this was not one of them. We retreated to the uppermost little lake, took baths and licked our wounded pride.
That evening we devised plan B: we’d backtrack over Contact Pass (into the north fork basin of Big Pine Creek) and head for Jigsaw Pass with the goal of getting over Bishop Pass and into Dusy Basin and beyond. Day 3 came on warm and steamy, but we managed to get over Contact Pass and crash above 3rd Lake. As we were packing up on day 4, little clouds were already appearing over the crest. Well, we were committed, so we took the trail to 5th Lake and then headed west toward Jigsaw Pass. Once again, the last mile leading to Jigsaw is pretty seriously cluttered with scree, talus, boulders (it is almost incomprehensible that shepherds took stock through this area, but that’s what we read in an old guidebook…). Anyway, the closer we got to Jigsaw, the more threatening the skies had become. When we finally got a good look at the final climb up Jigsaw, it was pretty clear that we were not going to get over before it started raining. Well, it’s easier going down than up, so we double-timed it back to a perch overlooking 5th Lake and got our tent (which had remained packed the first 3 nights) set up just before the first deluge and the first peals of thunder. Since we’d managed to get stuck in an electrical storm going over Finger Col the year before, we were proud that we’d been a tad smarter this time. But, it was not great consolation to have two smelly dudes stuck in a tent. The storm waxed and waned, but it did clear just long enough to get out and cook a warm meal before the next rain hit.
We awoke to almost uniformly overcast skies on day 5. Having lost much of day 4 in the tent, and not desiring a repeat, we came up with plan C: head back to the car, and if the clouds had broken by then, aim for the Birch Lake trailhead, and at least see what Birch had to offer (trout, perhaps?). If it was still cloudy, we’d just retreat to a bar. Guess what: the bar won. Since the Still Life Café in Independence was closed (Monday night), we got a room in Lone Pine and visited Jake’s saloon. Several beers later we stumbled into Seasons for a delightful dinner and then passed out. Day 6: in spite of questionable clouds above the crest, we slogged through the awful, gravel/dirt approach to the Birch Lake trailhead (we had a passenger car, it really calls for a sport ute or better) and made it almost to the lake before the rain started. By then, comparisons between nights 4&5 were still vivid, so we ran back down the Birch trail and headed for shelter in Bishop. Margaritas and Mexican food sort of made up for the dearth of trout. But, this was not the kind of mountain experience we were seeking. We’re hoping to do a bit better this coming year.
If I can snare a couple photos of Southfork, I’ll post them later. Jigsaw was covered nicely in a HST post a year or two ago. Bottom line: I’ve done a decent number of off trail passes in the Sierra, and very few have absolutely demanded safety gear. If you’re carrying anything more than a day pack, you’d be well advised to carry crampons/ice axe for Southfork.
Cameron
Last edited by cgundersen on Mon Mar 31, 2014 9:52 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Re: When a trip drives you to drink: August 2013

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sun Mar 30, 2014 10:08 am

I used to carry an ice axe ALL the time, since I did not have trekking poles to deal with. Also, since most of my "backpacking" in the Sierra was really just approaches to mountaineering, I regularly carried crampons and we usually had a rope too. We never gave much thought to being stopped by a pass. Now that I use trekking poles, am older and need my pack to be lighter, I rarely carry ice axe or crampons, deciding simply to retreat if I cannot do it safely with trekking poles alone. The "big" decision used to be rope and anchors or not. Now it is whether to take any gear at all. If you read much about accidents and mountaineering, you find that the conditions at the lower end of "mountaineering" often are the most dangerous. When to "rope up" has always been a very tricky decision. Especially on snow.

Melting glaciers and new moraines are always treacherous. I think we will see a lot more of these as the few remaining glaciers in the Sierra shrink. Information from old guidebooks can be very outdated given today's conditions.

Thanks for the report. It is good to see good decisions being made. You deserved those beers.
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Re: When a trip drives you to drink: August 2013

Postby cgundersen » Sun Mar 30, 2014 12:47 pm

I'll try to get some low-resolution photos appended:
1.png
Approaching the talus field for Southfork Pass
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2.png
Boulder hopping
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3.png
Ridgeline of Southfork Pass
3.png (156.29 KiB) Viewed 211 times

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Another view of Southfork Pass
4.png (161.46 KiB) Viewed 211 times
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