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TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2020 2:56 pm
by bulaklakan
Each summer since 2007 my sisters, my daughter, self and intermittently other family members have indulged in a 9-day backpack in the southern Sierra. My sisters and I went on Sierra trips with our parents when we were young, and we’re continuing to enjoy these special mountains. For the past 6 years our core group has been myself (now in my late 60s), sisters Megan and Julia (early 60s), my daughter Tarn and her SO Alex (30-ish). This summer Tarn, Alex and I extended our time in the backcountry to 14 days, meeting up with Megan and Julia on our 6th day.
We started on Aug 18th and came out on the 31st. It was a dry winter of course, so snowbanks were small and wildflowers & mosquitos were relatively rare. We did have smoke – occasionally quite dense, sometimes non-existent, but usually present at low levels. We were fortunate to be in and out of the mountains before the Creek Fire and various closures of the back country.

Day 1. Tarn, Alex and I started from the Sabrina Lake trailhead. Tarn and I had been this way once before, in about 2000, when our 3 families and all kids were horse-packed into Emerald Lakes for about 5 days. Tarn remarked – as we hiked past beautiful Blue Lake, Dingleberry Lake, Topsy-Turvy Lake and the mosquito-ey marshes of Emerald Lakes – that it looks like we camped in the least desirable spot on that trail 20 years ago. I don’t disagree. (I believe that the packer picked it for us.)
Dingleberry Lake

T, A and I hoped to get to Echo Lake for the night of Day 1. We didn’t make it, instead stopping at Moonlight Lake. We were slowed a little by rain during our hike, but mostly we (I) was tuckered out.
The water color of Moonlight Lake is not like other lakes in the area – somewhat gray/turquoise instead of the pure blue elsewhere. Possibly the result of water coming down from glaciers on the nearby divide.
Camp at Moonlight Lake

Day 2. Today our goal was to cross Haeckel-Wallace col, on the crest slightly north of Mt Wallace. The ridge between Moonlight/Echo Lakes and Hungry Packer Lake is smooth granite, so we walked up it, then traversed above Echo Lake to get into the small basins above and west of the lake.
Moonlight Lake

We stopped to snack at a small tarn about half-way and while we were sitting there it began to rain, then hail. We took refuge under a large rock and were mostly protected there. After 20 minutes or so it eased up and we continued on our way. This part of the climb had some granite benches, but primarily we were ascending on scree, and on talus of various sizes. Alex went on ahead with the plan of summiting Mt Wallace. Tarn and I were fooled by a false summit, continued climbing and reached the col, at about 13,100 ft. We waited a short time for Alex who returned from his successful climb.
Looking west from Haeckel-Wallace col

Then down the other side. It was a tedious descent – shallow scree with rocks intermingled, and quite steep. I do much of the descent facing the slope, hanging on to rocks and ribs and sliding step-by-step down the scree. Alex and Tarn are quicker at it, being more nimble and able to step between pockets of scree as they go.
View up towards Haeckel-Wallace Col (from southwest)

It takes over an hour to descend the 1000 ft to the flatter ground near the upper-most lake of the basin. Tired and thirsty now, we walk the length of the upper lake, drop down to the next lake and set up camp at the mouth. Significant wildfire smoke is drifting into our canyon now, and the stars were somewhat obscured overnight.

Day 3. Our morning camp is not the most attractive place – nestled in rocks by a talus-surrounded barren lake. It’s still smoky/hazy, obscuring our view. We do have a morning companion – a pica who checks us out from various vantage points in the rocks 30 ft away. Then makes a number of trips carrying mouthfuls of grass (there isn’t much vegetation around!)
We are now significantly behind schedule. Our planned itinerary called for us to be camped at the lake SE of Muir pass this morning.
Look back towards Mts Haekel & Wallace, and the Col between.

We head down, through a beautiful valley – meadows, lakes, granite (surely infested with mosquitos in wetter times). We emerge on a ridge overlooking Sapphire Lake. Down to the lake, cross at the head of it and climb the other side to the JMT. Tarn suggests a competition to guess how long it’ll be after we step on the JMT before we see another hiker. Our guesses are 15, 20 and 40 minutes. The answer is – zero minutes. Lots of traffic on the JMT. The smoke is lessening. Up the trail for a late lunch by the Muir hut at the pass. We consider our options. Our trip plan called for us to go south from this point down the west side of the Black Divide, cross over the Mt McDuffie shoulder and down to Ladder Lake. We are well behind this schedule, thanks primarily to my slower pace (T and A surely could have implemented this route if they were on their own, but they’re kind enough to generally go at my speed). And we are constrained by needing to be in Dusy Basin in two days to meet with Megan and Julia. We decide to forgo crossing the Black Divide– instead we continue down the JMT and camp near a group of lakes at about 10,600 ft. We have a fine camp, on a ridge above the lakes. It’s a late night – again it’s dark as we finish dinner.

Day 4. South and a little to the east of our camp is a ‘valley’ that runs north-south below (east of) the northern portion of the Black Divide. In 2015 we three descended this valley (going from south to north) after visiting Hester Lake. It looked benign enough on the topo maps, and appeared to be an easy way to get back to the JMT from Hester. However, it turned out to quite difficult and tedious, consisting entirely of a series of moraines and alluvium from the BD crest – talus and rubble all the way. T and A subsequently dubbed it the ‘Green Mile’ after the movie of that name, in recognition of its status of a death march of sorts. (It’s actually probably closer to 2 miles in length.) We had no interest in going that way again.
However, our revised itinerary called for us to now ascend the Green Mile to get up to the Hester area and possibly over to Ladder Lake. Examination of the terrain from our camp revealed that the ridge bounding the GM on the east is a series of granite slabs, getting rockier near the top but looking much preferable to the GM rubble. So we crossed over to the ridge (not too arduous – talus and meadow), climbed up on it and proceeded south. It was a good strategy – ascending the ridge was much more pleasant, and gave us better views besides.
Looking south towards Hester Lake basin. Black Divide to the Right.

The ridge did end before the Green Mile did, still leaving us with a ½-mile of large talus to negotiate. Which we did, bringing us to the highest lake in the Hester Lake area. We had lunch on the shores and once again considered the options. We were not far from where in 2015 Alex had found a piece of airplane from the 1943 Hester Lake crash, and where we had seen a glint of metal higher on the ridge. We also still had the option of pushing south over Ladder Pass to get to (or partway to) Ladder Lake.

Lake above Hester, looking south to Ladder Pass

In light of our tight schedule and weary bodies we gave up on making it to Ladder Lake (for this year anyway). Instead we returned to the scene of the airplane parts (still undisturbed), and Alex spent an hour+ climbing the line (all talus) between the piece that he had found in 2015 and the glint on the ridge. Tarn and I rested. Alex found and recorded additional pieces of metal along that line.
Then we proceeded east – talus fields, down a steep ridgeline towards Hester Lake, then further east down granite slabs and camped above the steep ‘headwall’ that partly encircles a mid-level cirque in the Hester canyon. Fine views from here of the granite slabs around us, the peaks above us and Dusy Basin across the abyss. Once again it was dark by the time we finished dinner.

Day 5. Today we want to get to Dusy Basin so as to be in position to rendezvous with Megan and Julia. The first order of business is to descend the ‘notch’ in the headwall which we know (from 2015) is a preferable way up/down the headwall. It’s a downclimb of about 400’. It’s morning, we’re fresh, we take our time and it’s a unique way to descend those 400’. Then across the cirque (meadows & scrubby trees) and down through forest towards LeConte Canyon. By luck we reach the stream directly across from the Le Conte ranger station. Put on water shoes and ford the stream. The ranger isn’t home but a deer in the area seems quite comfortable keeping an eye on the cabin.
Then over to the junction of the JMT with the Bishop Pass Trail, and we start up the dreaded climb towards Dusy Basin. It’s 2000’ up, lots of switchbacks. It’s hot down in the ‘low elevations’ (8800 ft). An extraordinary thing about the lower part of this trail however is the massive continuous granite slab over which Dusy Creek rushes – must be for 200-300’ of descent. As we get near the top of this slab we leave the trail and walk up the slab to the first pools at the top of it – that’s our lunch spot.
Then on up the switchbacks. Happily some cloud cover arrives and shades the sun. We reach and camp at the mouth of the lowest Dusy Lake, sharing the area with a family of 6 ducks paddling in and out of the lake edge grasses. We have some concern about rain and set up our shelters, but within 2 hours after sunset the sky is clear.

Day 6. It’s a sunny morning. Up and hiking towards Bishop Pass. A little ways up the trail we meet a group of mostly younger guys hiking down and ultimately towards Hester Lake. This is a National Park-approved group carrying an underwater ROV (‘remotely operated vehicle’?) to explore the plane that’s underwater in Hester Lake from the 1943 crash. This trail meeting isn’t a surprise – we had exchanged emails with the group leader in the past month, the exchange being facilitated by a cousin of mine in her roles as (1) professional archaeologist and (2) long-time companion of an affiliate of this group. By happenstance we and they are both visiting the Hester Lake area this summer – first time for both of us since we were both there in 2015. We chat for a while and Alex shares his most recent information about the metal found above the lake.
Then towards Bishop Pass. We three, and Megan/Julia, and M/J’s packs & our food resupply (being brought in by a packer) are all supposed to arrive at the pass this afternoon, but it’s unclear when the parties will arrive and how much waiting will be involved. As it happens we get to the pass just 10 minutes after Megan and Julia (about 1pm) and the packer has already dropped her load. It’s starting to rain a little. We hurriedly eat lunch. T, A and I repack our bear cannisters with new food. We cross-country towards the large upper lake in Dusy Basin that’s just north of Isoceles Peak. The clouds lighten up a bit, we find a find an excellent camp spot near the mouth of the lake and settle in for the night. We do then get some raindrops overnight – I jump up and put a tarp over my self and gear which turns out to be sufficient.

Upper Lake in Dusy Basin. Thunderbolt Col to the left.

Day 7. From here we plan to go southwards over the series of cross-country passes through basins at the west foot of the Palisades. I’ve been wanting to check out these passes for a few years now, as they are an alternate route from Bishop Pass (without descending directly into LeConte Canyon). Some members of our party suggested that they were distracted from examining the difficulty of these passes because of focusing on the logistics of our Day 6 rendezvous, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.
The first pass is Thunderbolt Col, east and south of our camp spot and up against the base of Thunderbolt Peak. Going around the north side of our lake we follow some upsloping ramps to gain elevation quickly, then work our way across and up towards the pass. The morning sky is cloudy and there’s a constant wind – feels like we’ll get rain today. We gain the pass with minimal suffering, and look down into Palisade Basin. Feeling reasonably fresh and ambitious we decide to try to hold our elevation across the top of the basin in an attempt to get to or near to the next pass to the southeast (‘Potluck Pass’). This turns out to be a poor plan – there are numerous ravines and talus slopes to cross at the higher elevation that were not obvious from the pass. Finally we give it up and drop down towards the largest Barrett Lake… we could’ve saved ourselves much time and energy had we done that directly from the pass. There’s clouds, thunder, a few sprinkles as we hike. We end up camping at a tarn and meadow uphill and east of the large Barrett Lake. The threat of rain fades away.

Day 8. It’s a clear morning – apparently the weather has turned for the better. Our hike to Potluck Pass is excellent: meadows, granite benches, past a tarn then up to the pass. Alex takes off ahead of us with the plan of climbing Mt Sill, a 14,000+ peak on the Palisade crest to our north, then meeting us later in the day. The four of us reach the pass and look over the southeast side - it’s a cliff. A steep scree slope to our right/west is not appealing. Working our way east along the ridge we find a promising route down and follow it… it turns out that this route involves downclimbing along a crack for about 20 feet. We negotiate this, then find a ledge that we can follow that leads southwest and down, and eventually to the flatter ground below. (Looking back, if we had continued farther east along the ridgeline we could’ve avoided the downclimbing section.)
We’re now in the small basin drained by Glacier Creek. It has just one large and attractive lake in it. Lunch and wading takes place at the mouth of the lake. As we’re leaving our lunch spot Alex catches up with us – he prudently aborted the climb of Mt Sill on finding that his route was going to involve another 1000+ vertical feet of difficult talus. Mt Sill will have to wait for a day with more time and more focused intent.
Lunch at Glacier Lake. Potluck Pass on the left.

Now we’re climbing towards our 2nd pass of the day – Cirque Pass. It’s just 500 ft up from our lunch spot to the pass, all on granite benches. Then we drop about 600’ on the other side to a nice cirque with a couple of attractive tarns in it. Now we have another 1000’ feet descent to Palisade Lake and the JMT, and online reports suggest that this is steep and difficult terrain. It goes well for us though – we stay west of the creek and find grassy and granite slopes to descend – no downclimbing. We arrive at flatter slopes above the JMT and decide to camp there – it’s been a full day and there’s no need to go all the way down to the JMT and camp near the JMT hikers that we can see inhabiting the area below around the mouth of the lower Palisade Lake.
Lower Palisade Lake from the foot of Cirque Pass

While we’re cooking dinner we’re visited by Ranger Sam - the Bench Lake ranger. We chat for awhile – he checks our permits, and we remind him that we met him in 2018 when he was on his day off and hiking with a woman friend near Bench Lake. He continues up the hill to his favored camp spot near the tarn above us.

Day 9. Today our task is to hike down the JMT and cross Mather Pass. Tarn and Alex crossed Mather Pass in 2015 (going south-to-north), the rest of us have never been over it. It’s about a 1500’ climb from lower Palisade Lake where we step onto the JMT, maybe 4-5 miles.
It’s a steady and uneventful hike to the pass. A sunny day. JMT traffic is moderate – we encounter maybe 8-10 parties on our way up. We reach the pass in early afternoon and have lunch at the top. Then down the south side. We’re now in Upper Basin, and our goal is to position ourselves well for tomorrow’s crossing into the Amphitheatre Lake basin. We leave the JMT and head west across high meadows and rocky terrain, and encounter a group of 6 male deer – all with impressive antlers – grazing in the meadows. We stay on contour and climb a little, and set up camp in the rocks next to a barren lake.

Hiking west across Upper Basin

Day 10. Our pass of the day is ‘Upper Basin Cross’. The pass is immediately west of us, and we have a 600’ climb to the pass and then a 1500’ descent to Amphitheatre Lake. The climb goes well – some meadow, then up over talus that’s not overly steep.
View Southeast from Upper Basin Cross – into Upper Basin

View West from Upper Basin Cross – into Amphitheatre Lake basin.

The west side of the pass is daunting – much more so than we expected from online info. The first few hundred feet are cliffs with some ledges, then another 400 ft of large and steep talus. Alex finds us a route down the cliffs – down a gentle chute, around a corner on a narrow exposed ledge, then another chute with loose but descendable scree. That just gets us down to the talus – more slow going. It takes close to 2 hours to descend all of this. We lunch and wade at the nearest lake, then descend further over benches, meadows and slabs to a lower basin of lakes and then to Amphitheatre Lake. We set up camp near the lake outlet. We have the basin to ourselves (Ranger Sam had told us that there was a frog research group here that has just left). It’s sunny and warm, but sundown comes quickly as there’s a steep and tall ridge immediately to the west of our camp.

Day 11. This is our only layover day of the trip. All 5 of us need it – we’ve crossed 6 passes in the previous 5 days (counting Bishop Pass), and a rest day is welcome. Tarn and I take a morning hike to Cataract Pass. From camp we can see a small bank of snow on the lip of the pass, and we want to see if it’s passable. It is, through a gap in between the west edge of the snowbank and the adjacent rocks. We sit at the pass and enjoy the view of Dumbbell Lakes (surely one of the more remote places in the southern Sierra now that Lakes Basin is on the Sierra High Route). At the pass we’re halfway from camp to the top of Observation Peak, and we could have continued to the Peak as we two did in 2013. But having lunch at the lake below and relaxing for the afternoon is more appealing, so we retrace our steps to camp.
Otherwise none of us ventured far from camp. There was washing, bathing, reading and snoozing throughout the day. During the night the smoke descends on our basin in a big way, obscuring the stars and causing some concern about breathing. A breeze then sprung up and blows it away – skies are quite blue in the morning.
Palisades from Amphitheatre Lake

From Cataract Pass – view South into Dumbbell Lakes

From Cataract Pass – view north, Amphitheatre Lake and the Palisades

Morning at Amphitheatre Lake

Day 12. The first of our three-day trek out of the mountains. T, M, J and I proceed down Cataract Creek. Through the upper part of the canyon we walk down slabs and benches, frequently being near the substantial creek and its waterfalls. Farther down the canyon gets narrow with some serious talus slopes on the canyon sides, and we’re glad to have the old trail to follow along the western canyon wall. Then down through forest to Palisade Creek, find a crossing and hike down the JMT. We stop at a shady campsite about a mile down to eat our lunch and put our feet in the creek.

Down Cataract Creek

Meanwhile Alex took a more circuitous route. From Amphitheatre Lake he climbed to Cataract Pass, bypassing the snowfield as Tarn and I had done the day before. He ascended Observation Peak, noting prominent names in the register including ours from 2013. From there Alex dropped down from the peak, then swung around over the western shoulder of Observation Peak and into the top of the nameless basin to the west of the peak. Descended to the large lake in that basin and navigated its northern shoreline by passing through a ‘tunnel’ in a talus field. Then turned north, over a small saddle, up and over ‘Adventurer Pass’ (as it’s dubbed here in HST) and followed the local drainage down some 2000 ft to Palisade Creek, reaching the creek somewhat west of where the other 4 of us ate our lunch.
Separately we all hike down to the trail and creek junction at the bottom of Palisade Creek – our agreed meeting point. Here is the lowest point of our trip, at just over 8000 ft elevation. Tired, but wanting to shorten our hike for the following day, we hike north along the JMT, pass by Grouse Meadow, and camp by the river across from impressive waterfalls coming down from Ladder Lake. This is also by far our lowest camp of the trip (8400 ft), and we’re in fairly dense forest and in a deep canyon – our view of the stars and moon is minimal that night.

Day 13. We get up ‘early’ this morning (meaning well before the sun hits us), and hike nearly to the Bishop Pass Trail junction in the canyon shade. Up the trail switchbacks. We revisit the pools at the top of the slab waterfalls for a snack break, but it’s too early for lunch. Through the forest, switchbacks, across the bridge, more switchbacks. We find a lunch spot in the shade just downstream from the lowest Dusy Lake. Then continue up the trail, finding a camp spot at the higher lake in Dusy Basin that’s relatively near the trail. We ascended nearly 3000 ft - on trail - this day.
One last night of stars and moonlight shining off the hillsides in a high granite basin.

Lower Dusy Basin, looking south towards Knapsack Pass

Day 14. Up and off towards Bishop Pass – we still have 600 ft to climb. Tarn and Alex are waiting on the pass when the rest of us arrive.
Now the race for the trailhead. Tarn and Alex forge on ahead and take care of car shuttling for us. This year - because the South Lake Road and the Bishop Pass Trail Parking Lot are being repaved - it means hiking an additional mile down to the packer’s outfit (where J & M’s cars are parked), shuttling one car back up to the trailhead, then picking up my car at the Lake Sabrina TH and driving both to Bishop. They have time to get a Vons sandwich and relax in the park before M, J and I arrive in Bishop. We all enjoy showers and a take-out meal from our favorite post-backpack restaurant.

In planning our annual trips, we always explore off-trail areas. We use the JMT when necessary but avoid it as much as possible. Interestingly, but maybe not surprising, it’s now seeming like being on Roper’s high route is a sort of JMT-lite. That is to say, even being off-trail we regularly encounter other parties if we’re on the high route. This year for example we saw no one going over Haeckel-Wallace and no one over UBC & at Amphitheatre Lake. But we passed by 3-4 parties on our Thunderboldt/Potluck/Cirque traverse, all of whom told us that they were doing the high route. Similarly last year we stayed a couple of nights at Merriam Lake and shared it with 2 other high route parties each night. The high route hikers are of course more mountain-savvy and adventurous than typical JMT hikers (no one hiking in sandals!), but still the existence of the high route seems to have given rise to a certain amount of traffic in places that were previously seeming more remote.

Eric J

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2020 10:07 pm
by bulaklakan
Hmmm... it appears that I didn't succeed in having photos show up directly in the trip report --

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:05 pm
by rlown
gotta attach them as jpg files. pdf files will only download which clicked on and not shown inline.

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Thu Oct 08, 2020 4:11 pm
Thanks for posting this TR. I would have really enjoyed some photos to check out along your route but following along on the map was fun. I have not really explored most of this route and a few parts are high on my to do list. I had a trip planned for some of the area you explored your 1st week but the road construction turned me off and then it turned out to be crazy smoky when I was planning on going anyway. Thanks again! :drinkers:

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Thu Oct 08, 2020 7:59 pm
by thegib
Bulalaken we are kindred spirits (read: old). I share the desire to use the JMT as little as possible (and the SHR too now) and just go wherever the map suggests is possible. And then especially your surprise, and goofs, when you get to the top of some pass and clearly haven't done any homework! ie Potluck pass has a use trail on the west side that's much easier than the ledge/crack you (and I) followed on the east side. I always feel I'm cheating somehow when I get specific info on a cross country route, once I know it 'goes' I prefer to leave the details blank. Good for you for not changing your style (incorporating info...) and still getting to it. Bravo!

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Fri Oct 09, 2020 4:22 pm
by Bishop_Bob
Great Write-up! Amphitheater Lake (and sites going there and back) has been on my wish list for years. But I joined the masses on the SHR (or at least part of it) this past summer. But next year....

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Sat Oct 10, 2020 2:17 pm
by Mike M.
Really enjoyed your detailed report. Note that the same photo shows up as a pdf attachment multiple times through Day 9.

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8 Photos I

Posted: Tue Oct 20, 2020 4:05 pm
by bulaklakan
Here's the photos from the TR at the beginning of this post, set I - Eric J
Dingleberry Lake
Camp at Moonlight Lake
Moonlight Lake
Looking west from Haeckel-Wallace Col
View up towards Haeckel-Wallace Col (from southwest)
Look back towards Mts Haeckel & Wallace, and the Col between
Looking south towards Hester Lake basin. Black Divide to the right.
Lake above Hester, looking south to Ladder Pass
Upper Lake in Dusy Basin. Thunderboldt Col to the left.
Lunch at Glacier Lake. Poluck Pass on the left.
Lower Palisade Lake from the foot of Cirque Pass
Hiking west across Upper Basin

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8 Photos II

Posted: Tue Oct 20, 2020 4:16 pm
by bulaklakan
And Set II of the photos --
View Southeast from Upper Basin Cross - into Upper Basin
View West from Upper Basin Cross - into Amphitheatre Lake basin.
Palisades from Amphitheatre Lake
From Cataract Pass - view south into Dumbbell Lakes
From Cataract Pass - view north, Amphitheatre Lake and the Palisades
Morning at Amphitheatre Lake
Down Cataract Creek
Lower Dusy Basin, looking south towards Knapsack Pass

Re: TR: Wallace/Amphitheatre Figure-8

Posted: Wed Oct 21, 2020 10:47 am
by Wandering Daisy
Years ago I went up to Ladder Lake (absolutely stunning) and then north to the PCT. The route was never-ending tedious talus but nothing horrible, just slow. I had always wanted to go down to Hester Lake; thanks for the information on that.

Could you put up a map showing your route from Palisade Lake to Amphitheater Lake? I always wondered how one would do that. A few years ago I fished Amphitheater Lake, but they were gill netting all the higher lakes. Are there still fish in Amphitheater?