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TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

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TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby cgundersen » Fri Jun 14, 2013 2:31 pm

Hi folks,
I'll start by inserting a route map and the verbal description, but I'm slow with photos, so be patient.
mcgee1.jpg
Silver Divide Loop


McGee Trailhead Eastern Silver Divide Loop (5/29-6/8)
With the low snow this year, my wife and I aimed to avoid the main mosquito bloom by getting out right after Memorial Day. We stayed in Mammoth on Tuesday evening (28th) and were greeted with steady rain on Wednesday morning. The good news is that it was supposedly a short-lived storm; we could see sunshine over 395, and there were great rainbows popping up with each shower. Since our first day’s goal was Big McGee Lake, a pretty easy jaunt even with 11 days worth of food, we took our time before heading to the McGee trailhead. Even so, we were getting wind-blown mist as we packed up and clouds were still breaking up in the west. There was just one other vehicle at the trailhead. The McGee trail is in great shape, and it starts in high desert that was just beginning to bloom. The contrast between the vegetation and the mix of volcanic and granite peaks makes for a great distraction while one acclimates to the load on the back. About the time we reached the first creek crossing, we met the two guys who were responsible for the other vehicle. They’d been at Steelhead Lake and had not been expecting the rain: nevertheless, they were pretty cheery. It was hard not to be, as the storm clouds receded and gave way to a gorgeous morning.
I’ve never seen the beaver(s) responsible for the McGee creek beaver pond, but the dam and hut were in great shape, and a few trees showed signs of gnawing. As we made our way up the trail, it was clear that there was still plenty of snow in the backcountry. We’d noticed a gradient coming north, with the peaks down by Whitney having almost nothing, but a steady increase by the time we reached Bishop. As we approached ~10,000ft, most of the trail was covered with snow. However, it’s still easy to follow the route, and footprints indicated that at least a dozen folks had been up the trail the preceding week- weekend. Our first night was spent on the south facing ridge above Big McGee Lake which was still partially frozen. Day 1’s tally was 2 mosquitos and spectacularly clear skies in the aftermath of the rain.
Our goal on day two was to get over McGee Pass and head for Cotton Lake, but the views coming down the western side of McGee Pass were sufficiently compelling that we pulled over early. It’s also worth noting that even though we spent a languid morning waiting for the sun to warm the snow fields covering the trail up to the pass, we still hit some icy patches. The final canyon before McGee Pass is pretty well enclosed and I’m guessing it’s early afternoon before the icy patches disappear. Still, we took our time, and managed to avoid any unintentional butt sliding. If anyone else had been over McGee Pass this Spring, they left no signs of their passage. However, this is a route that would be great for ski touring!
Night 2 was the coldest of the trip. Water bottles froze solid and my Marmot Pinnacle barely kept me warm. But, awakening to views all the way out to Ritter, Banner & the Minarets was sensational. Our day 3 goal was Mace Lake and even with ~70% snow coverage on the terrain above Tully Lake, it was pretty smooth trucking. We left the trail at Tully and traversed past Cotton and Izaak Walton Lakes and headed to the ridge that juts north from Mace Lake which has great views up the Fish Creek drainage and overlooks Hortense Lake. Although it had gotten downright toasty near Tully, the bug bloom was still on hold. Fish inventory to date: meager if any in Big McGee; healthy specimens in Tully; Cotton was still mostly frozen; Izaak Walton was open, but we saw no trout. Mace is too shallow, and we saw no fish in Hortense.
Day 4 began the theme for the rest of the trip: hop a ridge and stop. In this case, we hopped the ridge between Mace & Warrior. We’d done this route ~15 years ago with almost no snow, and it was definitely more challenging with snow. However, we’d previously used a more-direct descent to get to Warrior, and this time we used a FAR easier loop west and then curled around (essentially, following the gentlest contours) to reach Warrior. I’ll aim to post photos of this in the off-trail pass inventory. However, what is sad for me is that while I was scouting the “preferred” descent, my wife was treated to a flyover by a massive golden eagle. It’s been at least a decade since we saw a really big bird in the Sierra, so this was a treat! For her. Fortunately, later that day, I spotted what may have been this “guy’s” spouse. It was a smaller eagle, but impressive nonetheless. We looked hard for signs of a nest around Warrior, but spotted nothing.
Warrior was still mostly frozen, but it did have good-sized trout. We managed to swat a few flying insects (no mosquitos!) and fed the fish. They were not interested in crackers or cheese!
As I noted, the rest of the trip was geared to ridge hopping and our goal the next day was to begin heading back east along the southern side of the Silver Divide. There is a ridge northeast of Warrior (north of peak 12221) that leads into a broad basin with two tiny lakes in the western branch and two small lakes in the eastern segment. Surmounting this ridge was no more difficult than you’d predict from the contours on the topo map, and even though the tiny lakes below us were frozen, we still managed to find a great campsite. In addition, we’d now swung around to a point where we had a stunning panorama stretching from Mts. Hooper & Senger in the west through Seven Gables, 1st Recess Peak, Hilgard, Gabb, Abbott et al. Dave Senesac had waxed poetic about these views during his sojourn in the Silver Divide last year, and I won’t attempt to match his efforts. The one bit of foreshadowing that occurred was a few late afternoon clouds, the first we’d seen since the storm dissipated on day 1.
What we’d wanted to do on day 6 is amble into the eastern arm of the un-named basin and traverse the ridge to Bighorn Lake. As we approached this ridge, it was the usual mix of sand, gravel, snow and rock that we’d become accustomed to the preceding couple days. The only difference is that once we reached the ridge, the other side was a gulp. Even though the contours on the topo map do not look that daunting, I could not find a descent within my comfort zone. The main impediment is that the rock ledges ended in nearly vertical snow fields, and we do not carry technical gear. I’m guessing that later in the summer, this route may be feasible. For us, it was not. The other decision-maker was that during my scouting mission, we’d seen puffy white clouds turn precipitously darker, and it was clear that we were headed for rain and more. We retreated several hundred feet and managed to get our tent up just as the lightning show began. Between hail and thunder coming a second after each lightning strike, we got a rollicking show for the next hour. The storm finally relented by late afternoon and we got a chance to enjoy sunset on the incredible panorama up there. This perch had great views up into the 1st and 2nd recesses and beyond……….
With our original passage to Bighorn obstructed, we thought about dropping low to the main trail and then catching the spur up to Mott Lake. But, as we were heading down, I decided to check the north-south ridge that separates the un-named canyon we were in from the Mott-Bighorn-Rosy Finch canyon. Even though the map implies a harsh descent on the eastern side, my scouting mission revealed that it was appreciably better than the northern route we’d checked the day before. Yes, it was a bit messy, and there were some unforgiving patches, but it saved us gobs of walking. More importantly, we did hit mosquitoes below Mott Lake (our traverse led us into the Mott trail about a quarter mile below the lake), and I suspect that they would have been appreciably more ferocious down lower. Moreover, just like the preceding day, clouds were building relentlessly. For the record, Mott is pretty, and clearly gets lots of action (no obvious fish!), but if you’re looking for an easy escape from Lake Edison, it would do the trick. We were keen to avoid bugs so we kept going until we approached Bighorn Lake and got the tent up 5 min before the next thunderstorm. The storm eased off by suppertime and we got a great light show that evening and every evening the rest of the trip.
Since we’d abandoned the direct route to Bighorn, my wife was curious how bad the offending ridge looked from the Bighorn side, so we started the next day by looping most of the way around Bighorn to take a look at the beast. Frankly, in the morning light, it did not look impossible, but I’m still glad we backed off the route, because we’d have been blasted by the storm, even if we’d managed to do it. Bighorn was still mostly frozen, and the only campsites were near the outlet. In contrast, Rosy Finch was clear of ice and it was an easy traverse from there to the next canyon that holds Grinnell Lake. In my book, Grinnell is one of THE spectacular lakes in the Sierra. Plastered against the striking geology of Red & White Mountain, it is an imposing body of water. I can’t wait to get back! Anyway, our pattern of early afternoon storms persisted, but we managed to do a little wandering after the clouds lifted. If you’ve never visited Grinnell, I highly recommend a peek.
From Grinnell basin, we circled to the eastern isthmus of Grinnell and ascended to the ridge overlooking Hopkins basin. This climb had a few cranky moments, but in the end it was OK. Twenty years ago, we had traversed from Hopkins to Grinnell via a slightly more southerly route. Although that route was easier going up, it was decidedly harder going down. All-in-all, if you want to get from Grinnell to Hopkins, I’d recommend ascending from the isthmus. Once in Hopkins basin, we began noticing the occasional mosquito, but by the time we reached the uppermost small lake, we were in the clear. The clouds that had gathered produced almost no rain, and our penultimate dinner was bathed in alpenglow.
Our “hop-a-ridge-and-stop” routine finished with a short ascent to Hopkins pass and although most of the usual use trail was under snow, we got there late enough in the morning that the snow was mostly compliant. Mostly. We did hit one pitch that raised the adrenaline levels, but otherwise it was essentially an un-groomed ski run. We spent a final evening above Big McGee Lake and then walked through an area that had been largely encrusted in snow 10 days earlier. The melt rate was impressive. Yes, bugs were starting up in McGee canyon, but so was the flower bloom, which at lower elevations was magical. Indeed, of the half dozen other vehicles at the trailhead when we returned, most belonged to locals we’d met in the flower fields. Great way to end a trip………..

A few musings: this part of the Sierra has pretty reliable rock and the type of ridge hopping we did can be re-configured into any number of variations For instance, one could cut off the main trail to reach Red & White Lake as a means to reach Grinnell via the back door. Or, one can use Shout of Relief Pass (or the ridge between Izaak Walton and Bighorn) as other options for crossing the Silver Divide. It’s a neat area to test out your off trail skills without too much chance of running into trouble. Plus, the mix of rock colors is beguiling in the changing light.

cg



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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby cgundersen » Fri Jun 14, 2013 4:33 pm

And, a few photos; since 10 is the maximum, I'll attach a few more below some of the early comments!:
008.jpg
Twighlight above big McGee Lake

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Little McGee Lake ascending McGee Pass

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Fish Creek Basin from McGee Pass

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Upper Fish Creek: Red & White Peak in center

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Mace Lake

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Red Slate Mt & McGee Pass from Mace Lake area

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Hortense Lake; Ritter & Banner in distant background

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Mace-Warrior ridge is the right saddle

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Fish Creek Valley from Mace-Warrior Ridge

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View of Warrior Lake from Mace-Warrior Ridge
Last edited by cgundersen on Sat Jun 15, 2013 12:19 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby Rockchucker » Fri Jun 14, 2013 4:56 pm

Awesome report ! Thanks. I love Hopkins pass.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby SweetSierra » Fri Jun 14, 2013 10:37 pm

Cgundersen: Thank you for the trip report and the photos! I've been in this area several times but not over some of the ridges that you describe. Grinnell is stunning. I've been there twice and would go again in a heartbeat. It has an otherworldly feel. And it's huge. I haven't been to Mott and can see how the mosquitos would be more troublesome there (lower, in the trees). I admire you tackling the McGee Pass trail in the snow. I love Shout of Relief Pass and Bighorn Pass.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sat Jun 15, 2013 8:05 am

Great report. What is really amazing is how little snow there was considering it was the end of May! I am amazingly envious; while you were out there enjoying a unique low-snow early season, without mosquitoes, I was babysitting three grandchildren under the age of 6 for 10 days. Oh well, in 10 years it will be "pay-back" time- those grandchildren are going to backpack with grandma and carry my gear!
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby LMBSGV » Sat Jun 15, 2013 8:31 am

A great trip report. It's hard to believe the lack of snow. Years ago, my wife, son, and I went over McGee Pass around August 1 and it looked a lot like your photos with Little McGee being frozen.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby cgundersen » Sat Jun 15, 2013 12:29 pm

A few more photos of the part of the trip as we began heading back in an easterly direction overlooking Mono creek and the Recesses:
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Warrior Lake with Peak 12,221 at sunset

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Western Silver Divide from the ridge northeast of Warrior

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Mt. Gabb left of center with Hilgard, 1st Recess Peak and 7 Gables right of center

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Unnamed basin east of Warrior; Mt.Gabb center left

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Clearing storm over 1st recess peak

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Unnamed basin east of warrior; Peak 12221 at left with access saddle to right

155.jpg
Early view of Mott Lake during traverse from unnamed basin

159.jpg
Mott Lake
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby tomba » Sat Jun 15, 2013 2:22 pm

Thanks for the trip report. I was thinking of doing similar loop, perhaps a bit smaller, in 4 days, around this time (before mosquitoes). However, unsure of the passes and snow, instead we did a different trip last weekend - we accessed southern part of this route from Mono Pass and scouted out some of the passes for a future trip.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby venturefar » Mon Jun 17, 2013 8:55 am

Thanks for the TR. Nice photos. I love the high country when there's still snow on the ground.
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Re: TR: Big McGee and eastern Silver Divide Loop 5/29-6/8

Postby cgundersen » Mon Jun 17, 2013 10:11 am

Hi Folks,
Thanks for the comments;
Daisy: with your track record, I'm sure you'll get your fix of granite pretty soon; I'm just glad we had the flexibility (and good luck) to time this pretty well to avoid most of the bugs. From Tomba's report, and from what I'd have guessed coming out on the 8th, they were kicking up big time and should be making lots of hungry trout very happy.

LMBSGV: yep, I'm not sure I've even seen little McGee without ice (OK, once); it's pretty well enclosed and probably is among the last lakes in the Sierra to thaw.

Anyway, as tomba's report and this one should have made clear, this is a great area to test out one's off trail skills. There are gobs of different routes one can hatch, and most of them will work if you're patient. That said, like tomba, I've walked up to the Pioneer edge of Stanford col a couple times but never dragged a pack over it; still, it does not look so bad from the Steelhead side, so I'm aiming to take a crack at it someday. Has anyone out there given it a whirl?
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