TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

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Stanley Otter
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TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Fri Feb 28, 2020 4:51 pm

Because the Taboose Fire messed up my original plan to hike the southern third of the Sierra High Route and exit with some Scimitar Pass and Palisades goodness, and because I had been stymied by the terrain in my attempt to reach Brewer Pass from the south on my initial trek along the GWD, I decided to use my entry permit for Onion Valley/Kearsarge Pass to approach Brewer Pass from the north by way of Sixty Lake Basin, Gardiner Basin and the Sphinx Lakes.

On the first day of the three day interlude between hikes, I satisfied my jones for austere western landscapes by wandering through the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine which I had never done before. Beautiful rock formations in their own right accentuated by the abrupt wall of the Sierra just to the west. The accompanying soundtrack? Don’t Skip Out on Me by Richmond Fontaine. Yeah, they hail from the green lushness of Portland and the music was composed for a story about boxing, but still. Mournful harmonica, twangy steel guitar, and occasional trumpet calls. To my mind, a perfect match. I spent the other couple days driving up to Bishop to replace the boots that had simply disintegrated over the final 40 miles of the previous hike, getting some new maps printed, trying to clean both body and clothes, and generally lounging about.

Day 1 — September 14
This was a Saturday. I did not know how crowded the Onion Valley Trailhead could get on a beautiful late summer weekend. I do now. I had to park the van well down the road with the right-side wheels nearly in the little creek that runs down the valley. When I came back a week later, it was all by its lonesome with orange hazard cones thoughtfully placed fore and aft.

I had never been over Kearsarge Pass, and I was quite taken with the scenery and enjoyed the moderate grade. Lots of people, of course, and even a Forest Service crew member on the far side finishing up the erasure of a switchback in the talus — lots of boulder tossing going on. A quick scamper led up and over Glen Pass with barely a pause at the top since I had just been there last year, and then blissfully off trail again over Rae Col and down to Lake 3353 where I made camp. Being loaded down with nine days of food and additional warm clothing made my knees unhappy during the day’s descents. Hot in the sun until it went below the ridge and then suddenly quite cool. Glad for the extra thermal layers overnight. 11.4 miles

Day 2 — September 15
Dawn came with lots of sun but it clouded over as the morning wore on. I picked up the 60 Lake Basin trail for a short stretch to the northwest and quickly abandoned it to head southwest to 60 Lakes Col. (The use of “Lake” vs “Lakes” in connection with the number 60 in this corner of the Sierra drives me nuts, so I’m just gonna use whatever version comes flying off my fingertips as I type, consistency be damned…) There is a definite “grain” to the ledges leading up to the col, and I foolishly fought against it in an attempt to cross the middle, lowest point of the col. This failure of common sense micro-route finding technique led to bouts of frustration both going up from 60 Lake Basin and coming down into Gardiner Basin. Hindsight clearly shows it would have been best to climb directly for the southernmost point of the gap and descend from there. Longer in distance and higher in elevation, but almost certainly shorter in time.

Upper Gardiner Basin is an austere rockscape, and it was a bit of a slog over talus and boulder fields to reach the northwest corner of Lake 3477 where the USGS topos indicate an unmaintained trail ought to exist. I never did find any sign of the trail other than a few cairns here and there as I negotiated the many ledges and ramps down along Gardiner Creek. Other than two crossings, I generally stayed away from the creek to keep clear of brush. Nevertheless, I had an encounter with my nemesis Old Man Willow at the lower crossing where he definitely bested me. On the far side of the creek I found the incredibly steep trail leading up to Lake 2906 where I gave into exhaustion and set up camp. 10.2 miles

Dennis
01 Alabama Hills.jpeg
02 Alabama Hills.jpeg
03 Alabama Hills.jpeg
04 Kearsarge Lakes.jpeg
05 Bullfrog Lake.jpeg
06 Fin Dome.jpeg
07 Upper 60 Lake Basin.jpeg
08 60 Lakes Col.jpeg
09 Upper Gardiner Lakes.jpeg
10 Middle Gardiner Lakes.jpeg
11 Lake 3214 & Mt Gardiner.jpeg
12 NW Ridge Mt Gardiner.jpeg
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Stanley Otter
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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Fri Feb 28, 2020 5:06 pm

Day 3 — September 16
Although the skies cleared overnight, clouds moved in again during breakfast, so it was a rather gloomy trek up to Gardiner Pass. I will have to return sometime for some sunny day explorations — the pool lakes on Gardiner Creek and the little lakes in the basin west of Mt Gardiner have a remote feel and deserve some dawdling. The trail up to the pass comes and goes and generally is not worth hunting around for because the goal is clear and there are many equivalent routes. There is, however, a fairly well defined use trail for the final steep 175’ climb to the pass. There are some short sections of loose gravel, but mostly its climbing up among boulders — Class 2 hiking. From the pass, the views south to Mt Brewer and the classic U-shaped hanging valleys of North Guard Creek and Cross Creek are impressive.

The south side of Gardiner Pass was easy walking through loose gravel and sand. My plan was to pass close by the base of Charlotte Dome and take a cross country route down Charlotte Creek to Bubbs Creek. The first part of this worked brilliantly — there was no need to try to follow the old trail down from Gardiner Pass, and even when I entered the avalanche zone beneath the pass it was simple matter of following a dry stream bed through all the downed trees. Further down there were social trails leading across the open wooded slopes to Charlotte Dome that I assume climbers use. Below the dome is where my brilliant route turned into a rout, if you know what I mean. I lost track of the use trail I was following and ended up in an hours-long bushwhack down the west side of the Charlotte Creek ravine. The terrain eventually forced me to ford the creek whereupon I rediscovered the use trail on the east side. Even that was a mixed blessing, consisting as it did of steep sections through boulders, brush and short cliffs. I eventually reached the confluence of Charlotte and Bubbs Creeks with trembling limbs and a certainty of mind that it would have been easier and quicker to walk all the way to Charlotte Lake and come down Bubbs Creek via Lower Vidette Meadow. I ate a snack at the large camping area nearby while reviewing my 4100’ descent from Gardiner Pass and then hiked another mile and a half down Bubbs Creek to a more secluded spot to make camp. Just as I was about to pitch my tent beneath a friendly looking tree, a cone the size of a loaf of bread thudded to the ground at my feet. Message received. 8.2 miles

Day 4 — September 17
A fairly amusing encounter to start my day: Shortly after packing up and heading down the trail, I see a young packer on his horse riding toward me. I step to the side of the trail but he does not see me because he is fussing with his hair and his hat, and it appears to me that he is looking down at the ground. The horse is leading three mules and when it draws abreast of me it abruptly stops of its own accord, which causes the packer to look up and finally notice me. It is at this point that I see he is looking down because he is fumbling with his phone which is resting in a cylindrical leather holster attached to his saddle. It dawns on me that he has the phone in selfie mode and that he is prettifying himself in preparation for meeting a client somewhere up the trail. I say something about texting while driving and he apologizes and kicks the train into gear again.

My goal for the day was to approach Sphinx Pass and possibly cross over if time permitted. The trail up from Bubbs Creek toward Avalanche Pass is another of the trail-engineering marvels that I have to admire when I see them. The amount of effort invested in just the short stretch of trail that goes up past The Sphinx must be enormous. Notwithstanding the awesomeness of the trail, at the appropriate point I abandoned it and headed up through steep forested slopes east of Sphinx Creek. I made slow, steady progress and it was all good — a sunny afternoon spent sauntering past beautiful lakes in lovely settings. I decided to stop in the mid-afternoon at Lake 10962, about 1000’ below Sphinx Pass, because I had already come up 4700’ and I wasn’t sure of finding a suitable campsite close to the pass on the other side. I also had a housekeeping chore to attend to: my sleeping pad had developed a slow leak and I was determined to find it using the ice cold waters of the lake. Success! Frozen feet! I badly misjudged the location of my camp and ended up in shade very early at 4:15 PM, so the pad did not dry before bed! (Everything is dramatic by this point in my day.) A coyote trotted by, and I hoped for a serenade later from it and its brethren. Didn’t happen, but the silence was pretty okay, too. Went to bed wearing everything and was still cold… 8.8 miles

Dennis
01 Gardiner Pass Basin.jpeg
02 Gardiner Pass.jpeg
03 Gardiner Pass Basin.jpeg
04 Mt Brewer.jpeg
05 Charlotte Dome.jpeg
06 Charlotte Dome.jpeg
07 The Sphinx.jpeg
08 Sphinx Creek.jpeg
09 Sphinx Lake 10000.jpeg
10 Sphinx Lake 10514.jpeg
11 Sphinx Creek & Sphinx Crest.jpeg
12 Sphinx Lake 10962.jpeg
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Last edited by Stanley Otter on Fri Feb 28, 2020 11:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Fri Feb 28, 2020 10:53 pm

Day 5 — September 18
Had another panicky night of sleep — I woke up feeling like I could not breathe, but after a few deep breaths everything was okay and I could drop off to sleep again. Seemingly moments later, though, I was awake again and hyperventilating. This had been going on for days at high and low altitudes, in moist air inside my van and in dry air up high in the mountains. Disturbing and exhausting. Perhaps a psychological component? For a well-balanced individual such as myself? Who knows? Onward! At the top of Sphinx Pass by 9 AM. Nothing too challenging going up or down, Class 2 hiking all the way. From the meadows surrounding Brewer Creek, I made my way up to Cinder Col, the meadows and heather eventually giving way to rocky ledges. I decided to attempt Brewer Pass despite misgivings about what might await on the eastern slopes. The approach along the tarns west of the pass is a long boulder hop followed by a few hundred vertical feet of loose gravel and rock. As I feared, there was snow in the chute on the east side, so after taking in the spectacular views for a while I retreated.

The next option for crossing the Great Western Divide was Longley Pass to the south, and I spent a lot of time negotiating ramps, ledges and snowfields as I tried to contour east of South Guard Lake. I eventually reached a steep, gravelly slope that gradually gave way to a shallower sandy trudge up to the pass. A cornice stretched across the entire pass, and I had read enough trail reports on this forum to approach with fear, uncertainty and doubt. I was pretty much resigned to turning around and crossing Colby Pass for a third time this season, but I decided to take some photos first. The north side was obviously not an option with Class 3 climbs down cliffs well beyond my comfort zone, so I followed the snow field up and around the south side. And lo! A ledge was exposed below the cornice that appeared to go all the way back to the north end of the pass where a Class 2 descent on loose gravel began below the cliffs. The sketchiest part was the first section along a ledge only six feet or so wide with yawning nothingness to the right. Some minutes of controlled breathing and positive self-talk later, it was just a matter of the usual ridiculously steep slopes on loose gravel to contend with. I made my way down to Lake 3496 and made camp while the wind whipped up and blew loose gear about. 7.9 miles

Dennis
01 Sphinx Pass.jpeg
02 Sphinx Lake 10962.jpeg
03 Tarn below Sphinx Pass.jpeg
04 Sphinx Pass.jpeg
05 Tarn below Sphinx Pass.jpeg
06 Sphinx Pass.jpeg
07 Brewer Pass.jpeg
08 View east from Brewer Pass.jpeg
09 South Guard Lake.jpeg
10 North side of Longley Pass.jpeg
11 South side of Longley Pass.jpeg
12 Lake 3496 from below Longley Pass.jpeg
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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Harlen » Sat Feb 29, 2020 9:51 am

... and then??? I am following along with you again Stanley, vicariously enjoying your loooong journey, after my painfully short one last week. We both began by wandering around in the Alabama Hills, and from then on our trips couldn't have been more different. For the first time in my life I managed to travel less than 10 miles, and you are still going and going! I am following your progress on the maps-- what a great route! Please continue your story. Ian

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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Sat Feb 29, 2020 4:13 pm

Ian,
Here's the final installment. I could've used some of your experience with snow, for sure.

Day 6 — September 19
A cold night with the wind blowing. Spent several hours wide awake in the middle of the night. Finally started the long trip down to Lake Reflection after the sun warmed me a bit. Steep and rocky in parts, slabs elsewhere, and boulder fields, too. A terrain type for all tastes. I tried to contour around the north end of the lake, but ended up too high and had to negotiate some cliffs and one spot where I lowered my pack on a line. Had a hell of a time finding the “trail” to Harrison Pass and eventually gave in and headed up the steep wooded slopes while trying to avoid the worst of the brush lower down. Turns out there are multiple cairned routes, none of which is comprehensive. More slabs and ledges and boulder fields along the stream lead finally up to the “arena” at the top, which consists of small tarns, gravel piles, talus and moraines. It’s a real mess. By 2:30 PM I am standing beneath Harrison Pass and I can see a snowfield that goes across the top with steep rock to the east and I don’t know what to the west. I should have gone up to take a look, but I didn’t. I was cold and tired, so I turned around and headed back down. The wind picked up and it snowed for a bit. I camped near the lake below Ericcson Crags. 9.5 miles

Day 7 — September 20
Bail out day — I had had enough. Very cold overnight — water bottles froze solid and my tent was crunchy with frozen condensation. Boots so cold it took two hours for my feet to warm up. Found a version of the use trail that led at a moderate grade well down East Creek, which was why I could not find it yesterday. Grand views of Mt Brewer and its Guards as well as Mt Bago. Met two rangers just below Lower Vidette Meadow who confirmed my suspicion that it had been colder than average. They were interested in my observations of Harrison Pass, so I emailed them my photo. Verdict: “Not too bad”. Grrr — should have brought microspikes along at least. Back over Kearsarge Pass. Drove to Mammoth Lakes. Beer from Vons, John’s Pizza to go, awful Bruce Willis movies on BBC America while lounging on my comfy warm bed at the Cinnamon Bear Inn. The cognitive dissonance created by the experiential contrasts of the day made my head explode. 13.8 miles

Dennis
01 Lake 3496.jpeg
02 Lake Reflection.jpeg
03 Lake Reflection.jpeg
04 Lake Reflection & Mt Jordan.jpeg
05 Mt Brewer.jpeg
06 Below Harrison Pass.jpeg
07 Ericsson Crags.jpeg
08 The Minster.jpeg
09 Harrison Pass.jpeg
10 Mt Sanford.jpeg
11 East Lake.jpeg
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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by torpified » Sat Feb 29, 2020 7:09 pm

Thanks for another vivid and edifying (even sobering---Harrison Pass looks so genial on the map!) report. Also: what a summer you had! What are you planning for an encore?

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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by wildhiker » Sat Feb 29, 2020 11:09 pm

Thanks for posting another great report! I was in this area in the 1970s - maybe it's time to go back again? You said you found no trace of the supposed trail mapped in the Gardiner Basin, just some cairns. We had the same experience in 1970, except back then, the map did NOT show any trail, nor did Sierra South (my guidebook of the time) suggest there was one. I think this mapped trail is actually imaginary. In 1970, however, there was a good trail from Charlotte Lake over Gardiner Pass and down the west fork to Gardiner Creek, at which point, we found only ducks heading up Gardiner Basin.
-Phil

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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Sun Mar 01, 2020 2:56 pm

torpified wrote:
Sat Feb 29, 2020 7:09 pm
Thanks for another vivid and edifying (even sobering---Harrison Pass looks so genial on the map!) report. Also: what a summer you had! What are you planning for an encore?
Thanks for the note. I did indeed have a good summer -- I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job so I could go walkabout and be the weird dude living out of his van for a few months. Next summer I am hoping to go on a grand tour of the canyons of northern Yosemite and then maybe poke my nose into Ionian Basin, which makes Wandering Daisy's recent thread quite timely. Closer to home and in the remotest part of your fine state, I may finally try to have lunch on the biggest island in the biggest lake on the biggest island in the biggest lake in the world. Less cryptically, I want to take one of my kayaks out to Isle Royale on a ferry and then paddle and portage to the big island on Siskiwit Lake for lunch. But then I remember it's Superior and I come briefly to my senses and turn my attention back to maps of the Sierra. Do you have plans/dreams for the coming season?
Roaring in my ears,
the mountain temple's silence.
Nobody else here!
-- Edith Schiffert

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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Stanley Otter » Sun Mar 01, 2020 3:07 pm

wildhiker wrote:
Sat Feb 29, 2020 11:09 pm
Thanks for posting another great report! I was in this area in the 1970s - maybe it's time to go back again? You said you found no trace of the supposed trail mapped in the Gardiner Basin, just some cairns. We had the same experience in 1970, except back then, the map did NOT show any trail, nor did Sierra South (my guidebook of the time) suggest there was one. I think this mapped trail is actually imaginary. In 1970, however, there was a good trail from Charlotte Lake over Gardiner Pass and down the west fork to Gardiner Creek, at which point, we found only ducks heading up Gardiner Basin.
-Phil
Well, if the trail didn't exist even in the 70s that certainly explains its elusiveness last summer. The trail on the south side of Gardiner Pass is still there, at least up to the avalanche zone which is as far as I followed it. Given how well-defined the use trails to Charlotte Dome were that I saw further down, I would bet the trail to Charlotte Lake is in good shape. It's certainly the way I will come next time...
Roaring in my ears,
the mountain temple's silence.
Nobody else here!
-- Edith Schiffert

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Re: TR: Great Western Divide + Extras Pt 2 9/14-9/20 2019

Post by Harlen » Sun Mar 01, 2020 5:02 pm

Another Great report! And congratulations on your big summer-- sorry your head exploded. We're looking forward to the next Trip Report from weird guy in van with 'sploded 'ead. Cheers, Ian.

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