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TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

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TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby frozenintime » Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:24 pm

this site has been so helpful to me, and since a lot of the reports here are by high level sierra magicians that have spent decades exploring every nook and cranny, i thought i'd offer one from the other side. this was my second trip to the sierra.

as a new yorker, most of my friends are city people who wouldn't spend a night in the woods if you paid them in free metrocards. my wife has been my only backpacking partner. but as of four months ago, she's also the mother of our lil daughter. despite this amazing, new, and time-consuming addition, she understands my mountain obsession and agreed to let me slink off for a week while she visited her parents in the bay area.

this meant either hiking alone or with people i didn't really know. i've done some solo backpacking and don't enjoy it as much as traveling with a friend. in addition, wifey wasn't super keen that i go solo (though i did rent a delorme inreach to stay in touch with her and baby).

it was under these conditions that i found myself early in the morning of september 1 getting into a car with two of my wife's san francisco friends that i had never met before, had never been on a backpacking trip of this length, nor spent time at sierra-like altitude. hey what could possibly go wrong?!

day -1 and 0

it turns out that absolutely nothing could go wrong. my companions and i hit it off like old friends from the jump. they were in great physical shape for the mountains. and the north lake / south lake loop did not disappoint.

traffic was bad getting out of town, and with a couple of stops it took us a full 8 hours to get to the bishop ranger station. this was my first time over 120, though, so i wasn't complaining.

stan kot, the permitting ranger, was a character. his extreme enthusiasm must be well known to some of you, no? when we laughed at his antics, his fellow ranger told us to stop, as it would only encourage him more.

we picked up heaps of rotisserie chicken at one of the schat's places (the secret ingredient is salt) and headed up. we were prepared to stop at one of the earlier campgrounds but figured we'd give north lake a shot first. to our surprise, at 5 PM on the thursday before labor day, the campground was half full, and we had our run of the place.

north lake campground

we stayed there for two nights, adjusting to altitude (the campground is at 9300 ft), dealing with the south lake hitch, and dayhiking to lower lamarck lake. we were huffing and puffing on the way up, but the sight of the huge lake - windless at noon, with granite walls rising sharply from the calm surface - was worth it. we took a long, quiet lunch on a rock halfway around the lake. as someone that lives on the opposite coast and had been planning the trip off and on for months, i was so happy to finally be back at the shore of a profound alpine lake.

my friends dealt with the hitch (a local who moved to bishop from DC 15 years ago when her partner's mother got sick, and never left). in their absence i struggled to text my wife with the rented inreach - a recurring theme of the trip. eventually i just hiked up the piute trail for ten minutes and it finally worked.

day 1: north lake to humphrey's basin

the trail from north lake up to piute pass was nice and mellow - it must be one of the easiest ways into the east side.

piute pass trail

it was the saturday of labor day weekend and we came across all manner of day hikers, climbers and backpackers. at the pass we met a nice local woman and her two dogs. the clear morning had slowly transitioned to full, windy cloud cover, and we stood debating what It All Meant. the local said she'd seen afternoons like this on most of her recent dayhikes, but that it never seemed to actually rain. but it sure looked dour.

we dropped into humphrey's basin and passed a man that was packing up. he seemed a bit shaken and said it had been very cold the previous night. by now the wind had kicked up and the sky was looking more ominous, but we found our way to a nicely sheltered site, and the clouds gave way to a beautiful sunset. we were cold and happy.

humphrey's sunset

and another

the wind died down to nothing and after spending two nights next to a burbling creek, the absolute, enveloping silence overnight was amazing. the thin scratch of my pencil on a sheet of paper seemed loud. i briefly wondered if my friends could hear it in their tent.

day 2: humphrey's basin to piute canyon via carol col

it was cold overnight. how cold i can't say, but i was aware at some point that the difference between the temperature inside and outside my quilt was bordering on profound. in the morning our water bottles had nice ice floes rolling around inside and the condensation on my skyscape was all frost. anyone know approximately what temperature that would happen at?

free ice

while the plan was to do the north lake/south lake loop, first we planned to veer off into humphrey's basin to work up some off trail sierra skills via a tiny section of the sierra high route over carol col and down to french canyon.

today was the day, and i was excited. on my first visit to the sierra, my wife and i had attempted to ascend whitney creek from kern canyon to a horse packers camp. the internet made it sound fun and easy. it was not, and we gave up after 30 minutes of scratching and clawing through manzanita and steep gravel. anyone i've mentioned this to afterwards said that it was perhaps not the finest example of a first-time off trail excursion.

our morning walking through humphrey's basin was the highlight of the entire trip for me. i'm not the first to notice, but humphrey's might actually be perfect. it's practically a fairytale. up and down we went over small boulders and mellow grasses, the terrain rising and falling indifferently. the sun was just warming the basin. i saw a jackrabbit. it was heaven.

humphrey's iz heaven

we went up, down, hopped across outlets and picked our away up grassy ramps.
seemingly any spot that looked remotely forebidding and rocky had a nice grassy ramp hidden somewhere if you took a second to take stock.

follow the ramps

reaching the top of the pass was a surprise. i had done all the research, read all the forums. this was an "easy off trail pass." but it sure didn't look it. in fact, it looked like a near-vertical jumble of rocks. there were no more grassy ramps, only empty air and angry boulders.

i have to give serious credit to my two companions who definitely did NOT spend their winter researching the sierra, and just took my word for it that if we dropped down a few feet into this highway to hell, we could hop over to that nice wall to the right, and walk on down to puppet lake.

it turned out that the internet was not wrong. the talus was generally quite stable and we got down pretty quickly. it was not without a few zingy jolts of mild terror, but the next thing we knew, we were eating lunch at paris lake and happily recounting the descent.


so, if you are also interested in but unfamiliar with off trail travel in the sierra: this was a good way to start. from my limited experience, this stuff tends to look kind of easy in photographs (i can definitely do that), impossible up close (hell no), and doable once you get going (ok i see what they were talking about).

getting down to french canyon followed a similar pattern. i had not researched this route at all. i suppose i figured it was straightforward, though it was actually a jumble of terrains, angles and bushwacking. it wasn't hard, but required just as much attention as the pass.

i now see the obvious appeal of this kind of hiking. while walking is pretty "meditative" on its own, heading off trail in the wilderness is a fast shortcut to a total mind clearing. my only thought for the several hours we spent between trails was "where do i put my foot now?"

when we finally made it down to the dusty french canyon trail we were thrilled to have a few hours of mindless walking ahead of us. but within 30 minutes were already fantasizing about heading off the trail again, and looking at the landscape differently...

we found a nice spot just off the trail in piute canyon, a mile or two after its intersection with the hutchinson meadow trail.

piute canyon

day 3: piute canyon to (almost) colby meadow

we had a nice time descending piute canyon in the early AM (and didn't see a single person). once we hit the JMT bridge and turned south, the views were breathtaking.

this was my second brief stint on the JMT and while there were a ton of people, they were nice and seemed happy to be hiking. that said, no one had heard of any of the places we were going that weren't directly on their trail. that seems a shame, like being a led zeppelin fan but only knowing their fourth album (the one with 'stairway to heaven').

at the evolution creek crossing (barely ankle height in early september), we ran into a lovely pair of santa fe mom's in matching zpacks gear. they were having the best time on the JMT, loved all their gear, and wanted to tell us all about it. at the crossing i was also able to help a hiker who needed to tell his whitney portal ride to come a day later than scheduled - my rented inreach finally put to good use.

the rest of the afternoon was my first stroll through evolution valley, which deserves it's reputation as very beautiful and very impacted.

evolution valley

we passed a JMT tent village or two but found our own spot just shy of colby meadow. we were visited by a family of deer who feed on the abundant hiker leftovers. they were content to graze on the periphery of our area, as opposed to the more demanding, take-your-sweaty-shirt hamilton lake crew.

after burning my wet shoes a bit while 'drying' them next to our fire, it was time for sleep.

(to be continued...)

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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby frozenintime » Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:37 pm

day 4: colby meadow to big pete meadow

we skipped breakfast to get a quicker start, which landed us at the top of the evolution switchbacks and quite hungry. fortunately, this was a really nice place to eat granola.

granola mountain

from there, we passed the beautiful and busy evolution lake before continuing up into the world of rock.

rocks w/ person

muir pass was crowded, but everyone was in a good mood, including the horse packers who stopped to have their picture taken in front of the hut - was this really a first time visit for those guys?


just after helen lake we ran into a friendly trail crew dude who confirmed my sinking suspicion that the mileage i'd calculated from a random gpx track on caltopo was off. the track probably underreported the dusy basin/bishop pass switchbacks, and unless we wanted a final 17-18 mile day over bishop pass, we needed to push past 'starr camp' to big pete meadow this afternoon. that would make something like two 14-15 mile days instead of a 12 and an 18ish mile day. (i should've paid more attention to the harrison maps.)

thus motivated, i had a great time racing ahead of a horse tour, whizzing my way down through beautiful leconte canyon in the late afternoon light. i'll have to come back here in less of a hurry.


day 5: big pete meadow to south lake

big pete meadow was perfectly serviceable, and there was only one other quiet and possibly surly guy there. it was our warmest night yet, and we skipped breakfast again to set out early through the cool, dark canyon.

leconte morning

we were quickly at the base of the dusy basin switchbacks, watching people begin to stir in their tents by the leconte ranger station. up we went, a never ending Up that wound across the deep v's of long switchbacks as the canyon fell away underneath.

by the time we were into dusy basin proper, the flat noon-ish sun was baking down. i wasn't as taken with dusy as i thought i would be. perhaps the harsh light and inevitable sense that our trip was practically over was to blame.

mid day dusy

at the pass we ate lunch and ran into a massive group of friendly climbers just setting out from bishop to "tackle some pretty gnarly routes" in the palisades.

the descent down the other side towards south lake was great. saddlerock and long lake were as gorgeous as anything on the kings side of the pass.


i was out ahead of the others for most of the afternoon, and had plenty of time to look back on the trip as a whole. spoiler alert, i loved it.

when i arrived at 5 pm, the parking lot was silent. i laid down on a bear locker and stared at the sky. my friends showed up 20 minutes later after a final dip in long lake.

after a night in bishop, three or four meals and another long drive, i was back with my family.
until next year, sierra.

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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby balzaccom » Mon Oct 03, 2016 9:56 pm

Great report! Thanks for posting it.

Sounds like you had a wonderful where's the next trip?

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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby Ska-T » Tue Oct 04, 2016 1:08 am

You hit the jackpot, frozenintime! Great scenery, a new off-trail experience, and compatible new hiking partners. Doesn't get any better than that.

Isn't it great the way that route obstacles seen from a distance are magically solved by ramps, benign talus, and other fortunate features when you get near?
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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby rlown » Tue Oct 04, 2016 11:05 am

I have nothing to say.. :) Great TR!!
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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby frozenintime » Tue Oct 04, 2016 12:49 pm

ska-t, you're right, i got very lucky!

balzac, i have no idea where to next. too many ideas and not enough time.

i loved humphrey's and spending more time roaming the various beautiful sierra basin's sounds great.

after spending time in sequoia and kings, i'd also be curious to check out (northern) yosemite on the matterhorn/kerrick loop, though i'm not sure what fun off trail options are up there.

also hoping to do a couple days in desolation wilderness with my wife and (then to be) 1 year old.

we'll see!
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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby maverick » Tue Oct 04, 2016 1:29 pm

after spending time in sequoia and kings, i'd also be curious to check out (northern) yosemite on the matterhorn/kerrick loop, though i'm not sure what fun off trail options are up there.

Slide Canyon down to Doe Lake, Rock Island Lake, and Tullalah Lake areas. :nod:
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Re: TR: north lake, south lake, and carol col

Postby frozenintime » Tue Oct 04, 2016 2:26 pm

thanks maverick, i'll check it out :)
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