TR: Circling the K-K Divide, Climbing along the Muir Crest

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TR: Circling the K-K Divide, Climbing along the Muir Crest

Post by Harlen » Wed Aug 26, 2020 9:50 pm

Leading up to this trip, I wrote this post:
I'm headed on a long circle from Onion Valley over the K-K Divide, and then on to the Muir Crest.  I haven't been hitting my goals with any accuracy lately, and this trip may be another of my big-eyed, but ill-planned routes, we'll see.  I'll give a sketch of the so called plan via the passes, and see how it evolves as I age along the trail:
Onion Valley (8/9) Kearsarge Pass- Thunder Col- Russell-Carillon Pass- Whitney-Russell Pass- (*maybe) Discovery Ridge to Trail Crest- Rockwell Saddle- Shepherd Pass- Junction Pass- North shoulder of University, ... return to TH on 8/19.
As I had hoped in my earlier post above, this time I did manage to haul my now actually 60 year old self along on the long route I had planned.  Rough weather put just a small dent in the distance to be traveled.  I subtracted the "Discovery Ridge to Trail Crest" day hike, which was going to include a climb of Mt. Muir on the way,  but I got to climb Mt. Muir anyway, by tying it in with the Mount Whitney day.  I stuck to backcountry areas for much of the way, and so, I was happily alone for eight days of the twelve day journey.  I climbed  one new peak, and three new routes that I have long desired.  Also, I finally caught up to our native golden trout again, and 3 other trout species, whom I gratefully ate to keep me going.   Besides the four climbs, new passes, and the fine fishing, the highlight of this long trip was all the wildlife I saw as I passed through these wild and empty places.  I carried a good set of binoculars on my chest, and I'll never  be without them again.  I had so much fun and fascination watching creatures- from those elegant mountaineers-- the Sierra bighorn sheep, to the outrageously energetic and playful alpine chipmunks!  Having the binos changed the tenor and the pace of my trip. Hoping to see animals, I would stop at every new rise to glass over the land for wildlife.  When you see something first with your eyes, and then put the binos on it- say, a pika, it's great, but it's a different and even more amazing experience to glass slowly through a seemingly empty valley, and suddenly find some great, antlered deer in your vision!  This happened to me three times up in the Tyndall and Center Basins.  Up in the Williamson Basin I found the bighorn sheep I sought, and another time the barren rockscape of Arctic Lakes Basin beneath the sharp side of Mt Russell was brought to life by a pair of prancing coyotes, cruising the lush creekside for errant marmots.  One marmot hopped up on a rock not 30' away, and began shrieking at them.  

A favorite quote that I carry with me in the backcountry goes something like this:  "Nature without wildlife is just scenery."*  That idea inspires me to find the local wildlife that brings a place to life.   And so, the trout; the ever-present birdlife; squirrels, snakes and frogs; and the few big, exciting animals I got to see, really made my trip wonderful.

*George Schaller.

I arrived in Onion Valley in the evening  (8/8),  and was so keen to get off that I hiked into the night with the old headlamp.  People were all in camp, so I passed almost no one on the way up.  By 10:30 I was 3 miles in, and perched above Heart Lake.  My night-time photo efforts are shite, so I've got nothing.  I did see darkling beetles, aka "stink bugs" on the night trail, followed by a 3" black centipede, then the weird eye-shine of a .... it was a big bloody wolf spider!  I guess 8 eyes make for good eye-shine even in a tiny creature.  Other than that, I saw the usual bunch of bats.  At 8 A.M. next morning I was up on the first pass- Kearsarge, for the something-teenth time, and still in love with the view of the Great Western Divide.

Here I am as light as (I) can be: 35lbs. for 12 days, including No Water; but 8 oz. medicinal brandy, and 4 oz. olive oil and soy for future fish meals.

K.pass in the late summer.   I entered, and unwittingly, exited via Kearsarge Pass.  Kearsarge Pass lies above the town of Independence on the eastside, and is just 4.7 miles from the TH at Onion Valley.  

carl book 018.JPG
Below is a comparison of the same spot from my ski trip in May of a very snowy year.

A great sight on the far side of the pass-- the magical mountain East Vidette seen in late summer, and below in spring. 

carl book 026.JPG
No friendly dog companion this time; the trip was nearly all in SEKI National Park.  (On the spring trip Bearzy here followed me into the Park, even though I told him "No!")

Blue Grouse, now called the "Sooty Grouse."  I saw 8 during the whole trip, some with chicks.

Flowers are still about; here is the sunflower Helenium, and the purple monkshood below.


 I soon got to East Lake, which is so beautiful that one of you should build a hidden cabin on it... or a pit house, or live up in a tree, and send posts to us from there-- What a great place to be!

Here's the outlet, near where I camped.  There's a busted bear box that I made to work, and nobody else- the beginning of 3 days and nights alone.

 I fished in the A.M. on the east side of this paradise, looking up at the peaks, and catching enough of these to eat for breakfast-- are these the Brown trout you told  me about John?  They're not very brown; why not call them: "Spotted yellow trout?"
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Last edited by Harlen on Fri Feb 19, 2021 9:41 pm, edited 12 times in total.

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Post by Harlen » Wed Aug 26, 2020 10:15 pm

East Lake is surrounded by cliffs and mountains; this is above the outlet end.


South Guard and Mt. Brewer are west of the lake.  Brewer is a fun climb with a great summit view.

Goodbye East Lake, on my way to Lake Reflection, 2 miles up valley.  There is a rough trail between the lakes.

Lake Reflection feels deeper into the mountains, at the edge of the real backcountry.  I saw a doe just off the trail on the way, and have also seen porcupines here.  

A beautiful marmot showed up too.

Above Lake Reflection, looking at some wild weather coming-- anybody else suffer on Monday the 10th of August?  Clouds over Longley Pass and the fine, unnamed peak to the south.  

 Wild weather arrives.  Thunder and lightning right in the basin! I am up at the "Thunder Lakes,"  well above treeline, and camped stupidly in a trench where all the water in the world will soon collect!  I had a 4" slush puddle right against the tent opening, which I propped up to let the water flow under.  There was 4" of the same hail-slush piled against the edges of the tent by the time the storm passed.  I built a sort of berm diversion, but basically just lay perched on my inflated pad, trying to keep my one feather thick, ultralite (useless when wet) 35° down bag dry.

Luckily it dawned clear and beautiful.  This is the view from the first of what I am calling "Thunder Lakes"-- 4 lakes that line the valley NE of the mountain, and at each lake the view is dominated by Thunder Mtn.

The next lake up has an awe-inspiring view of the peak.

Past the lakes the route continues over a choice of snowfields or boulders, to at least 3 choices of crossing points.  Above, I made it harder and higher than nec. by choosing to cross over at the far west end of the saddle.  cgundersen, where is the best pass?  I got into very steep and hard ground, with sketchy boulders to balance on.  

A picture looking back down that scary upper section at the top of the crossing  I used.  The circle marks a lower crossing point that looked sketchy from below, but easy from this angle
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Post by Harlen » Wed Aug 26, 2020 10:30 pm

I am feeling really excited here.  I have always wanted to try to climb Thunder, which looked impossible the time I viewed it in snow from the east.  It is meant to be a bit of a challenge at the top, and so it was for me.

 Look in the lower frame, right of center--  a chirping pika who came out to tell me to keep my cool. (click on image twice to enlarge)

Top of mountain where things get interesting.  I chose to stay high, rather than dropping down to use broken rock. I thought about calling it good at the middle peak, but then found a good path to the top.  

Here's the summit.  To get to the very top you have to commit to a natural chockstone-- which really is solidly wedged in the crack.  A pull and a mantle up- dragging and bloodying your leg if you're now 60 years old, and you're there. 

The view west was best.  Table Creek below, with the little lakes, and the Whaleback of Cloud Canyon, with Glacier Ridge beyond-- remote Sierra country.   Not 3 minutes after arriving a Golden eagle flew right under the peak, disappearing into the mass of Table Mountain-- Amazing!  I could see the outline of the outer primary feathers as it flew by.

Down from Thunder Col, I camped at big Casper Lake.  I was told to hunt for fish in all the lakes in this area.  Still nobody about, and I thought the view west from Casper was fantastic.

Caught enough rainbows for dinner and breakfast; note the lack of anything for scale, this is because the fish is of such great size, and I am trying to be humble about it. 

Lovely hiking on the way south past meadowy lakes.  This morning I spied a LOT of raptors!  Peregrine falcon, Cooper's Hawk, and a Sharp-shinned hawk.  With the binos, I got to see them well, both flying and perched.  These are bird eating specialists, and probably after all the young songbirds bumbling about.  

Crossing east on the Kern Cut-off Trail the land took on a very different character.  Sharp rocky pinnacles were replaced by soft ridges and plateaus like Diamond Mesa and Tawny Point.

 Heading briefly down the JMT, on the trail to reach the giant, beautiful lakes of Wallace Creek.  I stopped at this fascinating lake to see what 40 some odd ravens were hopping around about?  It was a grasshopper feeding frenzy!  Every step I took would send up as many as 50 hoppers; it was like parting a yellow sea of insects, and for the ravens it was all you could eat!

Besides the nature scene (enlarge to see about 20 ravens on the banks), this warm, shallow lake was a perfect swimming hole, with a view! On the skyline are the three mountains I was hoping to climb next- Russell, Whitney, and Muir.

I made it the ~12 miles from Casper Lake to the upper basin of Wallace Creek in changing weather.  The beginning of that creek is marshy green, above is a granite paradise.
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Post by Harlen » Wed Aug 26, 2020 10:54 pm

  "Red sky in morning, sailors (and mountaineers) take warning"   It packed-in earlier than usual the first afternoon, and again clouds began really coming on in the morning.  I waited a second day, hoping for perfect weather for the airy climb of Mount Russell's east ridge, which I held as the highlight of this trip. 

 Since Wallace Creek was also the fishing highlight, it was easy to rest there.  I caught these with pretty small Mepps spinners- both silver and gold, and wonder if I would have caught bigger fish had I used my larger kastmasters, or ???

 I had a blast fishing for these, and returned most to the lake (I flattened the barbs on the spinners), and kept 5 goldens that lasted me for 3 full meals.  Much bigger fish than I am used to-- largest being at least 14."

 I wonder if folks (Lee? John?) have figured out how to create good field sushy, or even smoked trout?  Even with my rough cooking, these tasted great.  I brought a lot of olive oil and soy, and seasoned bread crumbs.  For a change, one meal I added a packet of ramen spice, which may be a sacrilege to a fish chef like Giantbrookie's son Lee, but I did it anyway.  :smirk:

The hiking up and out of upper Wallace Creek leads past some truly amazing sights, such as Tulainyo Lake. I also caught sight of both a Bald and another Golden eagle in the upper basin.

I am nearing the Carillon-Russell Pass, which bears scrutiny before choosing a route.  For the second damned time, I made it harder than necessary.

Mt Russell from the east. That's the lake you want to avoid landing in from the route above.

This trip being my 60th birthday present, I wanted to make it memorable.  Three of the four climbs were ones I had long desired, and the East Ridge of Mt Russell was the one I looked forward to most.  [some of you may remember this favorite video of it that I posted awhile back, which inspired me:]  I stuck to the top of the ridge, though not with quite the same casual style seen in the video.  I was gratified that my nerves seem to have aged better than some other body parts.   

The exposure at times is terrific!  Often on both sides.  


Looking east from the summit  Between the East and West Summits the going is easier, but still great.

Camp for the night was to be Iceberg Lake, seen here below, left of center.
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Post by Harlen » Wed Aug 26, 2020 11:38 pm

 Iceberg Lake Camp.  Never been here before -- the view is simply awe-inspiring!  It's akin to the feeling one has at Minaret Lake, gazing up at Clyde Minaret, but it's even more immediate. 

I used the approach route to the East Face to avoid the ice and the soft talus fan, crossed over to the ledge that leads up to the Mountaineer's route.

I had it to myself and took my time. I enjoyed trying to avoid the talus and trailed-up parts, staying on the far left side of the gully.

I raced down Whitney, and a mile and a half down the trail to get to Mt Muir.  I had heard good things about the summit, so I decided to try to climb it too, and that worked  out. I also scrambled to the top of Day Needle on the way.

The Needles and Whitney from Mt. Muir.  These La Sportiva "Boulder X Approach Shoes" are the one new piece of gear for this trip; they are a great hybrid between a hiking boot and rock climbing shoes. 

Sunrise at Iceberg Lake, Mt Muir in the distance.  The reason I was back for a 2nd night was due to a wild night of thunder and lightning, hail and more!  I had planned to cross Whitney-Russell Pass late in the day, but had been pinned down for 2 hours under a giant rock overhang, trying to wait out the storm. It looked bad, so I reluctantly returned to the lake and reset my tent exactly where it had been.  And luckily, because it just got worse and worse till dark, and on. Late at night a huge rockslide set off from high up between Whitney and Keeler Needle and raged down slope for a minute or more.  I just listened to it in the tent, but my neighbor, an international mtn. guide, thought to look out at it, and said that he could see a cloud of dust rise up, and green sparks lighting the near 1000' path of the rockslide.  Other climbers woke up and thought to run for it.  The mountains really do appear to hang over Iceberg Lake. 

In the end, it was great; I got to see another brilliant sunrise in an amazing place.

 Whitney-Russell Pass is dead easy.  It is trailed-up by the number of climbers who go across it to reach the classic climbs on Mt Russell.

Arctic lakes are stark, but the lowest is lush with greenery, and full of happy marmots.  

I found a pair of coyotes who came up to visit the marmots, you'll find one of them at the bottom of the frame.

From Iceberg Lake I made it to the wild and untraveled Bighorn Plateau in Wright Lakes Basin, the beginning of another 2 day solo stint.  

 Wright Basin has some marshy lakes lined with tall sedges. 
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Post by Harlen » Thu Aug 27, 2020 12:04 am

 I fished for my food, and revelled in all the animals.  Lots of marmot, pika, and a couple rabbits, and wonderful birdlife, including another Golden eagle close-up, and a family of Kestrels catching songbirds, and a family of Mountain bluebirds trying to avoid being caught... and many rock wrens, rosy finches, and more.    

Descending Rockwell Saddle, Tyndall Basin below.  On this 10th day my circle is closing.  Thunder Mountain is just right of center, on the distant skyline, and tomorrow I'll cross Shepherd and Junction Passes, putting me one day away from the sad end at Onion Valley.


I crossed into Tyndall Basin via Rockwell saddle, and was greeted by these great big bucks! (click to enlarge)

I set up camp early, and my lightweight and flimsy B.A. Fly Creek tent barely held up to the wind.

Because of the threatening weather, I decided to search the Williamson Basin for its Bighorn sheep rather than climb that afternoon.  

 Williamson's western gullies are a route I am leery of.  They look to be filled with "objective hazard" in the form of loose rock missiles.  Think I'll save it for when I'm younger. I found 5 Bighorn ewes on the crest of a ridge, and though my photos show only sheep dots, with the binos I had a great view of them.

Looking back south-east to Shepherd Pass from near Junction Pass.  In the farthest distance, between Mt Tyndall and Trojan Peak, is that wild skyline ridge of Mt Russell where I was perched four days back. 

View north from atop J. Pass, the blue line shows where I was meant to go to find the crossing Giantbrookie advised; instead I went too high, then too low, (red line) then went down the wrong bloody drainage!
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Post by Harlen » Thu Aug 27, 2020 12:21 am

Alone again in Center Basin.  What a great place!


I found 9 bucks, and some does lower down. These 2 let me get close enough to hear them chewing willows!

Center Peak, and a last beautiful lake as I begin my traverse toward the shoulder of University Peak.  I am off to a new crossing of the Main Divide, following the advice of Giantbrookie to avoid the heinous boulders of Uni Pass, and instead as he wrote:
... if you want to finish off-trail...  going over the shoulder would certainly be finishing with a fine flourish! 
 Well why not?  Such a fine trip deserves such and end... But %&*#%&@(&!!!, instead of a flourish, I finished with a fine fluckup!

What am I doing over here amid the Kearsarge Lakes?!  I'm supposed to be at Bench or Matlock Lake on the other side of the Divide.  What the??? So here is a raft of excuses-- see if it floats:  As I said before, I first went too high, then cut downward toward the correct crossing, and way down there I spied a party of 4 climbers standing right on the ridge.  Great, that must be the spot.  I cruised down to them, and they asked if I had summited (Uni Pk), and I said "No, I have been trying to get to your pass here, and went too high."  They had backed off near the top, and were returning, and I assumed (heavy on the ass part) they meant down to Onion Valley.  They generously said, "Why don't you go down first?"  And as I was keen to move, I said thanks, and started leaping and boot-skiing down.  It had a snowfield and a lake at the bottom- just like the route down to the Onion Valley side-- however, the small difference was that one path went northeast, and the other went northwest.  I just didn't take a good look around me, being so flustered by all the humans.  So, a rookie mistake on my 60 year old guy birthday trip-- Hey, can I now claim dementia as yet another excuse?  

So I used the extra miles to look hard for bears (no luck), and to carve a new path above the lakes to meet the K.Pass trail a half mile below the pass.  I enjoyed the extra hours-- I really did not want this nice long trip to end.  Good luck out there, Ian.
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Re: TR: Circling the K-K Divide, Climbing along the Muir Crest

Post by austex » Thu Aug 27, 2020 4:21 am

Ian, first of all Happy Birthday. All I can say is wow what a trip. Enjoyed as usual your narrative. I must say you ate like a king! The fish especially the Wallace area are a great draw for me to that place. No matter how you season them; they ALWAYS taste better up there' even poached/steamed. Just think in 2 yrs you can get your Lifetime Sr. Pass and can go nilly-willy through the National Parks and half off National Forest Campgrounds. I'm enjoying the heck out of mine in the first year of ownership. Too bad Bearzy is banned. He would of been an asset on the trip up to the point of seeing the Bucks. Keep on trucking.

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Re: TR: Circling the K-K Divide, Climbing along the Muir Crest

Post by freestone » Thu Aug 27, 2020 8:22 am

Gorgeous report Harlen! Do I sense correctly a budding interest in fishing for trout? If so, welcome to the club, you certainly caught some fine fish in the best the High Sierra has to offer!
Short cuts make long delays. JRR Tolkien

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Re: TR: Circling the K-K Divide, Climbing along the Muir Crest

Post by Rockyroad » Thu Aug 27, 2020 10:07 am

I enjoyed your TR, especially your narrative and beautiful photos. You make a fine argument for bringing along binoculars, which I've often considered but haven't yet. I was in the same general areas (but nowhere up high along the crest) a week before you and also observed a golden and bald eagle. Maybe I'll bring binos next time. Congrats on a wonderful trip and happy birthday!

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