Unnamed peaks on the main divide just south of Kearsarge Pass
Looking west off the top of K. Pass,
Bullfrog Lake far right- middle; East Vidette Peak far left- upper middle, Mt. Brewer split by my ski.
I just returned yesterday, Tuesday 5/24, from an all too brief, but beautiful journey on paws, boots and skis. Bear and I passed through a stunning corner of the southern High Sierra, crossing the King’s-Kern Divide on the standard John Muir Trail - Forester Pass, which surprisingly, had melted out just enough to balance along the wonderfully airy summer trail.
North side of University Peaks seen from my first camp.
Bear with K. Pass overhead.
The first point to note though is that the winter’s damage to the road up to Horseshoe Meadows Trailheads will not be cleared till about Memorial Day; so my original plan to ski over New Army Pass into Miter Basin, and on up Whitney had to change. The road to the top of Onion Valley, out of Independence, is wide open to the trailhead at 9,185.’
Kearsarge Pass holds a very special place in my heart as it was the scene of my first entry into the Sierra world. Back in 1976, I had the great good fortune to have had a Sierra-loving tennis coach who took a bunch of the team into Onion Valley, and few of us up to Kearsarge Pass. At the pass I asked Coach Wahl the name of the area beyond the pass, because I dreamed of one day returning to explore deeper into the range. This trip marks the 10th time I have crossed and re-crossed the range from Kearsarge Pass, so at least some dreams come true.
Okay, so after an 8 hour drive from the Santa Cruz Mountains, I arrived at the town of Independence. In 10 minutes of cruising the streets, I had found a likely looking stranger who happily agreed to find my car up at the Onion Valley trailhead, and drive it around with his son to drop it off at the Symmes Creek trailhead for me. Sixty dollars spent, a new friend made, and a 13 mile walk / hitchhike back to Onion Valley saved! So far things were going very well indeed.
By 7:30 PM I was camped at 11,280 above Heart Lake, just one long mile from the pass. Firm snow for boots and paws all the way up- 3 hours that would have taken a lot longer on my heavy skis. A few boot and snowshoe tracks, including mine, follow a steep and direct route up to the right, just north of the summer trail, ending at the bowl that flattens out a ½ mile due north of Heart Lake. The route through this bowl lies between the contours of 10,800 and 11,200, and the only small hazard you will encounter is the ~40° slope at the top of this bowl. The safe line to take is high to the right- northwest- away from the rocky area below the slope, and then angling back west to the last level ground, about 400 ‘ above Heart Lake. I only mention this small hazard because a line of boot tracks (not mine) would put one above this dangerous rocky area, where a slip might not leave you a mangled corpse, but you would almost certainly break something important- skis, teeth, knee-caps?, and have to hobble down and out.
This hazard can easily be avoided by taking the route below, which leads straight to the shore of Heart Lake, and then ascend toward the pass from there. Dry, rocky campsites can be found on that flat area above Heart Lake, at 11,200’, which is where I stayed the first night.
Looking west from the top of Kearsarge Pass
Looking down Bubb's Creek, with Mt Gardner in the distance.
From above Heart Lake skis were fine all the way to the top of Kearsarge Pass, though I chose to let the slopes soften up, leaving camp at 9:15. This will be a recurring question for me, and my snowy Sierra loving friends, as it is for many of this community too I’m sure- please speak up Paul, “Limpingcrab,” “Davela,” et. al. …… That is, when to use boots - crampons - and snowshoes, and when to bring the skis ( and which skis?!).
I would be very interested in this question and a longer topic of discussion- has it already occurred?- but for now, let me admit that for this trip, I would have quite happily traded my heavy telemark setup, and ice axe, for my mountaineering boots, and the lightest of my crampons, axe, and snowshoes. My main reasons being first, to avoid the need to wait each morning for the snow to soften before setting out on skis- I love to be out in the dawn light!, and secondly, the comfort and versatility of the other gear choice- so much better for climbing in! An endless topic, of course, with so many other gear options, and many personal reasons and goals for each trip.
The west side of Kearsarge Pass is currently rocky trail for about 200 yards, and skiable after that all the way to Bullfrog Lake. However, all the country west of the divide here is Sequoia-Kings National Park land, and I sadly informed my best friend that he was not allowed in, and would have to return home from here. Bear said that he was perfectly willing to risk the hefty fine, since it would be my money anyway, but for his part, he’d be happy to carry all of his own stuff, and to leave the park people and wildlife alone. So I skied, and Bear ran all the way down, southward through the lower Kearsarge Lakes, with the stunning Kearsarge Pinnacles hanging over us. Met the John Muir Trail (JMT), still hidden under the snow, below Bullfrog lake and then booted all the way down to the valley floor at Vidette Meadow. I held a vision of East Vidette Peak dancing in my head, and then there it was, as striking and symmetric a solitary giant as I had remembered. (* that last sentence was for the alliteration guys.)
The wildlife so far was pretty scarce, mostly the tracks of rabbit and squirrel in the snow, along with an assortment of dying insects. The birdlife was the usual friends: Clark’s nutcrackers, juncos, crows and ravens, and then one brilliantly clad yellow-rumped warbler! A beautiful song I couldn’t place- probably a thrush species. The trees are more dependable wildlife, and there were a few beautifully sculptured foxtail pines mixed in with the ubiquitous lodgepoles. The forest floor though was pretty humpy and broken terrain all the way up the valley till beyond the east flank of East Vidette Peak, and I used boots only for 90% of the way down the JMT, to my second camp at 10,000.’
I cooked over small, legal fires set right on the snow, saving my fuel, but requiring a penance to be paid later in summer.
I was able to ski all the rest of the upper valley of Bubb’s Creek - South Fork of the Kings, skinning up the elegant rises to my third camp above the big lake 11,500, beneath Forester Pass. No evidence of recent avalanches, all safe slopes so far. The east-facing slopes above, that lead to Forester Pass are all avie terrain, but not severe due to their relatively low angle, and right now they are very firm due to the freeze-thaw cycle. All nights were below freezing- perhaps 20° to 25° at this high camp, so there was good, solid snow all morning, though in some of the flats the PCT boot hikers I met complained of “post-holing” more often than they liked. Bear and I slept under my opened up, zero degree down bag, which we shared as a big blanket. I bring extra foam pads, and a small blanket to put under Bear, and I use a Thermarest prolite plus under me, and we both sleep warm.
A fantastic gray-purple storm sky moved slowly in that evening, and finally dropped perhaps a half inch of wet snow on us. We were alone for the second day and night in a high and wild feeling basin.
I was surprised to hear boots crunching the snow outside our lonely high camp at 5:30 the next morning. It was a group of three young PCT through-hikers- one from Washington State, and the others Europeans from Spain, perhaps the other was Austrian by the accent, and his trail name of "Mozart." They described the upcoming pass as fine going, though they mentioned another party who withdrew and fled back south, saying that they thought they were going to be killed! Not too keen on heights was their best guess when I asked why. These intrepid young guys were all using micro-points, and said they were "just barely good enough" for the steep bits. I very happily unloaded about five pounds of excess food onto them-, which they quite happily accepted; mostly a lot of chocolate, cliff-bars, and various other bits of trail mix I had over-packed in my haste to be off. They advised against going up their descent slide-route, and concurred with my choice of the slope up via the summer trail area, which is down the same ridge a few hundred yards. They shot off, and a few hours later were followed by a second set of PCT'ers, four partners who included two Bavarians from the mountainous corner of Germany- a man and wife, and one Swiss, and another lone local guy from Arizona. Strangely, I know the countryside of the Bavarian couple, and the Swiss much better then I know Mesa Arizona. We had a nice chat about the Lechtaller Alps and the Engadine Valley, and then they were off. It's interesting that five of the seven through-hikers were from Europe. These four older hikers carried real crampons and snow shoes, while the earlier young trio had only their micro-spikes. The young guys said they travel so early, and even at night, just because of their lack of snow shoes, to avoid the energy and will-sapping trial of "post-holing," which is a horrible ordeal with a full pack, as I'll bet most of you know from hopefully long past experience. I should have told the trio about the great second-hand mountaineering gear store in Bishop.
Ascent route up the summer trail slope, faintly seen below rocks.
The photos should show the various Forester Pass route choices. The PCT through-hikers all descended- most using what to my mind was pretty conservative "sitting glissade" technique down the steep slope between the left-hand rocks, and a few carving ski-tracks showed faintly to the left of that, closer to the pass, but these are the best way down, not up the pass. Note the summer trail showing through in the photo of Bear. The best ascent route without crampons is to begin at the summer trail, and angle up from there. It is the shortest way to the top of the soft, flattish ridge, which can then be followed all the way up to the beginning of the final easy traverse to the pass, which is very much like the final traverse to Kearsarge Pass This easy ridge is the summer route too, as shown on the maps.
The rounded ridge above Bear is a nice ski route to the pass; note faint ski track in the upper left.
4 PCT hikers below the steep descent route between the rocks. Great ski descent to the left- the beginning of a 2 mile run!
There are brilliant mountain views from the ridge on the north side of Forester Pass, and it would be an epic ski descent for the more highly skilled skiers among us. One of those guys or gals could ski a full 2 miles down the eastern side of the ridge, to the valley bottom, or the shorter, but intensely steep route down the western side of the same ridge. Luckily for me, the south side of Forester pass is much tamer downhill stuff, and after the passing over the very airy trail down, I found a manageable ski descent by traversing the wide bowl below the pass in a huge half circle, first west, then south back toward the base of Diamond Mesa. Poor Bear was miles behind me, as for once, I was the faster. Without wanting to, I ran him pretty ragged, though I would stop to let him catch up and rest over and over again. Not that he showed any physical signs of wear, but he was perhaps psychologically worn out by the trauma of seeing me disappear into the snowy distance again and again.
Back to the way down the south side of Forester- the side that some apparently feel they could have been killed on. The photos will show the barely melted out summer trail, that is worth using if one is not paralyzed by their fear of heights. The small problem is that only about a quarter of the 3 to 4 foot trail terrace is melted out, and some places none at all. So one needs to either balance on the sloped snow, or prance along the thin outer edge, which really does have great, vertical drop-offs here and there. (I recall reading some history of the building of this famous trail that mentioned the sad fact that a few trail builders died in the making of it.)
It is not too bad really. Much of the deeper snow sections are boot-holed, and some of the melted out portions were stable enough to trust. It didn't bother me, other than to worry about Bear taking a miss-step, or meeting a marmot in the wrong place, and going over the edge. I tied him to me with my standard short rope, and he did fine. Crampons would definitely make it safer as long as one knows the pitfalls of bad crampon technique- the various ways they can trip you up.
Note the partially melted out summer trail, and the second option- the steep ~40°gully straight down.
Looking back at the south side of Forester Pass. Note the faint summer switchbacks both sides of the central gully.
If one is not comfortable along the thin edges, then the second option- which would have been the only option in winter- is to descend the snow gully / couloir that goes straight down from the pass. It is only steep (~45°) for the first 150 feet. Easy with an ice axe and crampons, pretty difficult without. It is hard to carve steps downhill, so the ice axe alone is not fool-proof. The main advantage of having the axe with you is as an uphill placement to anchor you to the slope, and, of course, to protect you in case of a fall.
I had planned to ski tour all over the upper Kern country, but out of concern for Bear's state of health, I decided to camp early to keep an eye on Bear's fluid intake- there had been no standing or running water to be had for days!
There are dry islands of rock and sandy soil perfect to rest our eyes, and to dry out gear. The ski touring was nice, only slightly uphill to Shepherd Pass. Shepherd is an odd Sierra pass in its "one-sidedness." That is, you walk on very gently rising ground, and then there you are, on top of an eastern precipice! Is there another like it in the Sierra?
We saw a lot of interesting wildlife around us, again, mostly marmots coming up out of their burrows, dying insects crawling, or slow melting into the snow surface, and the song birds who were putting the insects out of their misery. The main insect species were inch-long moths, ladybird beetles, light green lacewings, green beetles, a spidery crane-fly like insect, smaller moth species and various flies. The birds after them were mainly rosy finches and water pipits, and then the big black crows, were doing the same, and occasionally cawing loudly. Probably the crows were also trying to locate nests for the eggs and nestlings. I saw one small falcon high up in the blue sky- may have been a merlin. That bird predator would help to explain the next morning's carnage on the snow.
The "carnage on the snow" was a songbird- probably a water pipit- reduced to wings and feet, bloody at the ends. The pipit and rosy finches feeding on the dying insects then become prey to the falcons. Interestingly, I often came across replicas of the torn up little bird in the form of torn-up big moths that the songbirds (and crows too) were tearing apart, leaving the wings scattered about- "Nature red in tooth and claw" ...and little beak and talons too.
What a fine pre-dawn dawn sight to gaze on the cooly-lit east sides of all the peaks of the Great Western Divide, among them the obvious favorites- Milestone Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and the whole Kaweah Peaks Ridge! I lingered on a long while, but finally left to begin the long passage down first Shepherd and then Symmes Creeks.
On the way, the wildlife sights took a turn for the bigger. I had high hopes of seeing some bighorn sheep of the Williamson Herd, and there they were- four of them, on the skyline of small pass that leads over to the base of Mt. Williamson. At more than a quarter mile away, they looked just a little too tall for rocks, so I stopped to watch for movement, and yes, those tall rocks were walking! I did the right thing, or at least, less of the wrong thing- already with my dog in the National Park!, by consciously choosing not to move toward the sheep for a better view. I have seen a lot of wild sheep in my life, and didn't want to stress them with a dog. (you'll recall that it was HIS choice to come along.) The closer up animals that morning were fine enough, with more rodents than I had yet seen on the trip. I saw alpine chipmunks, a Belding ground squirrel, four marmot, and hare, and tiny mouse-sized tracks and scats in the snow. No recent signs of human animals in the snow; I had seen no one since the far side of Forester Pass.
The descent on the east side is the small challenge of Shepherd Pass, but with my usual mid-morning start, I had a pretty easy time kicking deep steps into the slope. At the very top of the route down the recently shaded snow up against the rocks was still hard, and I left Bear and my heavy pack above, and carved big bucket-steps across the still hard snow with the ice axe. I returned for my pack, and put Bear on the short rope again, moving ahead of me. It went well, but I had no desire to try a ski descent down this messy old avalanche path; in fact, all the way down I saw evidence of pretty large, old avalanches from the heavy snowfall of the past winter season. It was ski boots down the first 500 feet- no, it was in fact, about equal parts boot stomping, and one super-fast, "sitting glissade," (doesn't that make a wild "butt-slide" sound European and elegant?).
Lower down, Bear and I avoided many of the endless switchbacks by descending the firm snow of a 700 foot avalanche path. It had torn all the way down into the manzanita and chinquapin shrubs, and uprooted some of the rugged Mountain Mahogany trees. Many bits lay scattered about, but it made for easy walking. I soon switched to my light runners, and now packed the entire 20 pound load of tele gear!
All the greenery looked and smelled especially fine after the paucity of color and small green things up high. And when the first blue Stellar's Jay flew by, it seemed a small feathery miracle! And then a green towhee, with its brick red forehead, and one of my favorite birds- the western tanager, with its glowing sunset orange body! Such great birdlife in lower Symmes Creek. It felt like Spring again.
The last of Bear's adventures were the many crossings of Symmes Creek, which between 4 and 5 PM was flowing like a crazy cataract! Not one of the 6 or 7 crossings did I remove my running shoes for, and I had to help the powerful swimming dog with a pull on his pack-strap to be sure not to lose him downstream! These were all very short in length, averaging 12 feet, but really flowing strong.
Down, down down, past 12 deer whose tracks filled the trail through the diverse Symmes Creek forest, which surprisingly, contains conifer species from the pinyon pine, to stunted versions of the white fir, with a few healthy Jeffrey's Pines in between. Deer and squirrels, then big desert hares, and finally, the blue-bellied lizards. I entertained myself through these last long miles by pouring over the landscape with my eyes, desperately hoping for my first sight of the mountain lion, who just had to be lurking around so many fat deer! No luck there, but a wonderful journey for Bear and I.
Feel free to ask for any additional route detail while it's still fresh in my mind. a few more photos coming soon I hope, Harlen.