|Cumulative climbing:||1430 feet|
Sonora Pass Peak 11049, September 23, 2021 - Frank and I agreed to meet at Sonora Pass for a short hike in the area south of the pass when we arrived. Since I drive more slowly than Frank I left home slightly earlier than I had planned at 0845, while Frank and Stella got off later than they had planned at 1030. With an hour difference between us we figured we'd arrive at Sonora Pass at about the same time between 1330 to 1400, giving us enough time to take a couple hours' hike. But since I left early and Frank and Stella late, we started with an hour and forty-five minutes difference that made it difficult to synchronize our schedules for the hike.
We wouldn't have enough time to climb Sonora Peak again as Frank and I had in 2013, but we would probably have enough time to get to one of the high points south of the pass. Peak 11049 south of Sonora Pass looked on the map to be a worthy goal.
I arrived at the Pass at 1320, thinking that would give me time to eat a bite of lunch then change into my hiking shoes before they arrived. I even had time to cross to the north side of the Pass to check out a plaque that gave some history of travel over the Pass.
When I checked life360 I discovered that Frank and Stella were still almost an hour behind me, and upon seeing that the first noteworthy high point south of the Pass involved a pretty stiff climb, I decided to start out on my own so that I'd have time to reach Peak 11049 and get back to the van and finish my drive into Mammoth before dark. I felt a little bad about starting early without them, but I monitored our pre-agreed frequencies on my radio so that we could communicate when they got within range.
I started on PCT heading south from Sonora Pass as it climbed a low knoll above the pass. At that point PCT continues down slightly into the upper drainage of Sardine Creek while a more direct use trail leads directly up the ridge. Since I was interested in climbing quickly and staying within good radio contact with anyone at the Pass itself I took the use trail that enjoyed line-of-sight visibility of the entire area.
The use trail climbed easily at first then steeply. Perhaps this was the original PCT route that was later bypassed when it was discovered that the grades would be difficult for someone wearing an overnight pack. I used my sticks, but in a few spots I had to pull up with my hands, borderline Class 3, although the route was always obvious. My breathing labored at the altitude as I was not at all acclimated to hiking at 10000 feet.
After climbing the use trail through a few tough sections I rejoined PCT as it attained the same spot on the ridge, then continued up PCT until I reached the Emigrant Wildnerness boundary sign. Shortly before this point Frank contacted me by radio reporting that they had just arrived at the Pass. I gave them my assessment of the use trail and advised that they avoid it unless they wanted more of a climbing experience than hiking.
I continued on another short use trail that leads up to the summit of Peak 11049 that offers a fantastic view of the Sierra Crest both north and south of Sonora Pass. The view of the peaks of northern Yosemite was particularly impressive in spite of the light smoky haze that lingered in the air. Several low pinnacles topped the long ridge forming Peak 11049, and I climbed to the top of the one that looked the highest. I did not climb the others since the views were no different, and I didn't want to linger too long. The short climb from the Pass was well worth the time and effort.
Frank and Stella both started hiking up PCT in my direction, but Stella decided not to go past the top of the knoll where I had started up the use trail due to some lingering queasiness from the drive up to the Pass. Frank continued up PCT for some distance, and I encountered him as I descended on PCT, not the use trail that I had climbed.
We exchanged greetings briefly before Frank pressed further up the trail while I continued my descent. I encouraged Frank to go as far as the the top of the ridge where he could choose to descend the shorter use trail if he chose to, but I don't know if he got that far.
When I returned to the Pass I found Stella relaxing in the car. We spoke briefly before I changed my shoes and continued my drive into Mammoth.
Although I had gotten a head start on Frank and Stella going into Mammoth I stopped at Vons on the way to the condo to buy some groceries, and we ended up arriving at the condo at about the same time. So, in the end our schedules worked out.
|Cumulative climbing:||1930 feet|
Half Moon Pass, September 24, 2021 - Over the past year I have been browsing amateur YouTube videos on various hikes in the Sierras, looking for new routes and interesting scrambles. One that rose to my attention was a little known pass over the Sierra Crest that is actually a short-cut from Upper Rock Creek Canyon Road into the Mono Creek drainage and avoids the ever-popular Mosquito Flat trailhead. Another bonus was that it was a shortest approach to the Sierra Crest from Upper Rock Creek Canyon.
Half Moon Pass sits on the Sierra Crest immediately north of Mount Starr and south of Mount Huntington, Pointless Peak, and a couple other high spots along the crest near Hilton Creek Lakes and Pioneer Basin. On a longer outing the pass might be used as part of a loop route over Mono Pass, a climb up Mount Starr, or a long out-and-back to Pioneer Basin. Today being our first full day at altitude our goal was simply to scout the route to the pass and back. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.
We (Frank, Stella, and I) parked at the Hilton Creek Lakes Trailhead north of the Rock Creek Pack Station where only a few cars were parked, then proceeded to walk south along the road past the pack station until it reached an old access trail that had apparently long been abandoned and left overgrown. We found the old trail and upon taking it we soon found ourselves at the back side of the pack station. After touching the pack station the trail makes a curve back to the south and eventually joins Mono Pass Trail south of Mosquito Flat. It's clear that the only traffic on this trail these days is from the pack station, which explains why the short spur from the road to the pack station was so overgrown.
We shortly passed what appeared to be a faint use trail heading off to the right, but to be certain we had found the correct use trail we continued up the pack trail a little farther. My research indicated that a small cairn marked the correct use trail, but we saw no cairn. After hiking a short distance it was clear that we were too far south to connect to any likely use trail that would take us to Half Moon Pass, so we returned to the use trail we spotted earlier and turned left. Perhaps someone had knocked over the cairn, something we have frequently seen on off-trail routes.
The use trail was fairly easy to follow at first. Someone had even constructed a small footbridge over the creek draining from the Half Moon Pass area, the first time I had seen such an improvement on a use trail. Just after the bridge we reached a "T". It was clear that we should turn left, toward the pass. But I made a mental note to explore the other direction upon our return.
The use trail continued to be easy to follow for about another mile. But then it continued out over a meadow, and on the other side it disappeared. At this point we would be hiking cross-country (Class 2). I chose a route that I felt offered the shallowest grades, but that meant making an indirect arc to the north before hitting the bottom of the technical part of the climb (Class 3) up to the pass. My route mostly avoided the forest in preference for slabs and other open terrain. But near the pass we ended up getting a little too high on a loose pile of rock and sand that required some care to traverse. Fortunately, I could see the bottom of the technical route and a worn segment of use trail below that, so we were not far off the route.
After we had all assembled at the base of the climb, Stella started up first, climbing a narrow chute. Frank followed, and I brought up the rear. After Stella climbed the first pitch I could hear her speaking with an unfamiliar voice. A pair of backpackers were heading down, having climbed over from Golden Lake. One complained that he had crossed this pass "a dozen times" but was having trouble staying on the route.
The first pitch up the pass was the only true Class 3 part, and it could have been avoided by taking a less direct approach. The rest of the climb was steep but not difficult, more of a hard Class 2 climb. Soon we were all at the pass, looked for comfortable places to sit and eat lunch, but found only pointy rocks.
I thought the ridge to the north might make an interesting scramble out to Pointless Peak, but it looked like we'd be in for more technical climbing that would be time-consuming, especially considering we'd have to return the same way. To the west the ridge dropped off steeply toward Golden Lake and a very smoky Mono Creek. At first we could not see the bottom to the west, and I wondered if this was really a Class 3 pass.
After I finished lunch I decided to explore down the west side to assure myself that this pass was viable in the future. If a pair of backpackers carrying overnight gear had gone over, then surely we with our day packs could do the same. Frank and Stella waited for me, but I took my pack in case I managed to get down but was unable to climb back. I would have the option of hiking back over Mono Pass, but that would probably have had me returning to the road after dark as we had started late, not planning a long outing.
Although the west side of the pass is a steep slab, close examination reveals strategically located ledges, footholds and handholds that allow passage, both down and up. Only at one spot near the bottom of the Class 3 pitch of less than 60 vertical feet on the west side was I unable to find more than a bump in the rock for a handhold while the 14" wide ledge for my feet sloped uncomfortably away from the wall of rock. I would need to face the wall to keep my center of gravity from hanging over the edge, something I thought Frank with his large camera bag at his waist might have difficulty doing, at least on the descent. That was the only place I felt slightly uncomfortable. The rest of the down climb was straightforward when executed with some care.
At the bottom of the wall a well-worn use trail zig-zags down sand terraces, then across a small talus field to the shore of Golden Lake below. I did not continue further since neither Frank nor Stella planned to join me, and I didn't want to have to climb up any more than necessary. I had convinced myself we could traverse the pass from east to west should we plan a future outing.
I found the climb back up to be easier than the down climb, mainly because I could get past the uncomfortable ledge quickly with some momentum. Hand and footholds were otherwise perfectly placed, although I would still rate the climb solidly Class 3. Soon I rejoined Frank and Stella, and after I returned from my little adventure they were ready to start down.
I found myself leading the descent of the east side of Half Moon Pass, followed by Stella, then Frank. We moved carefully, but did not find the descent difficult. Frank noticed some pain in his knee on the climb (one reason he did not join me to explore the west side of the pass) and wanted us not to get too far ahead so that he could easily follow. I decided not to climb down the chute that Stella had practically leapt up earlier but to take a less direct path that avoided any technical down climbing.
Soon we were all on the sandy portion below the pass. From here I took a more direct route down to avoid crossing the loose sand and rock fan in which we found ourselves on the climb. Occasionally I wondered if we'd have to back-track from a cliff top, but there always seemed to be a way down. Shortly we found ourselves back at the meadow where the use trail had petered out. We continued down the trail, but at the fork we continued straight. I was hoping to find a more direct route back to the car, but the trail climbed a bit, then looked to climb ahead a bit more. At this point Stella decided she didn't feel like more exploring, and Frank joined her. I pressed on, telling them I'd meet them at the car.
The trail did climb more as it rounded a couple of tarns. On the other side I could see some people setting up cameras and tripods and figured they must be on or near the Hilton Creek Lakes Trail. When I got to them I found to my dismay that there was no obvious trail leading to their location. I asked how they got there, and they said, "by horseback". I asked then where their horses had gone, and they pointed down to some trees. It was clear they were on a guided outing by horseback and weren't able to give me useful directions.
I continued past them and found a faint trail that became more established as I continued. Along the way I ran into a couple of locals (chaps, spurs, hats, handlebar moustaches) and asked if I was heading the correct way to get back to "the road". They instructed me to keep going then turn right at the next two junctions, and I'd end up at the Hilton Creek Lakes Trailhead.
By now it was clear to me that I was heading away from the car, that my short-cut was anything but. Yet, I pressed on eagerly now that I was on a trail. After following the directions I had been given, I found myself back on Upper Rock Creek Canyon Road.
I continued south on the road and as I approached the car I could see Frank and Stella in the distance a similar distance away from it. We all got to the car at the same time, so none of us had to wait.
|Cumulative climbing:||1720 feet|
Spuller Peak, September 25, 2021 - Yesterday's hike up Half Moon Pass had been harder than its low mileage would suggest. At dinner the night before we discussed how it would be nice to do a plain hike without technical climbing past some pretty lakes and scenery.
The last two days in the mountains had seen moderate to warm weather and a fair amount of smoke from wildfires elsewhere in the state and that this was expected to continue for another two days. Yosemite National Park was requiring reservations, and we didn't want to commit to spending more than one day inside the park, which made the process and cost not worth the trouble, assuming we could get a last-minute day-use reservation. I put my thinking cap on and came up with a hike that avoided Yosemite but was in an area we all love to visit and on a trail we had never hiked.
Mine Creek flows down from the Sierra Crest south of Mount Conness and north of Tioga Pass, past several pretty lakes and the old Bennettville Mine, and eventually into Lee Vining Canyon. Fortunately, a nice trail follows this creek most of the way. Climbing is low to moderate, and grades are easy.
The trail goes as far as the unnamed pass between Spuller and Maul/Green Treble Lakes, a pass we visited several years ago when we hiked a segment of Roper's off-trail High Route† between Saddlebag Lake and Tioga Pass. I noticed a low peak just north of Spuller Lake (that I informally call "Spuller Peak") and set that as the ultimate goal, an easy goal to be sure, but a peak with enough prominence to provide a nice view of the immediate area.
After about an hour's drive from Mammoth we pulled off CA120 onto a small parking area a short distance north of Tioga Pass. One other car was parked at the trailhead.
The hike starts on what appears to be an old road bed, perhaps it was the old Tioga Road. But soon the trail diverges from the broken asphalt and heads into the forest, climbing past a few tarns, then descending into the Mine Creek drainage. (A slightly shorter hike could have started at Junction Campground on Saddlebag Lake Road.)
Our trail continued past the adit for the Bennettville Mine and across a large pile of colorful tailings before descending again to the crossing of a rather slimy Mine Creek. We took care not to dip our feet into the water here.
Once on the other side we continued alongside Mine Creek, joining the trail from Junction Campground and soon found ourselves at the shore of Shell Lake, the first named lake along our route.
As I was not feeling energetic I hiked slowly, and we all managed to stay together over the next mile. We passed a sign forbidding camping and fires in the Hall Natural Area, then arrived at Fantail Lake. The hike thus far had involved only short climbs and descents, but we could see that above Fantail Lake the terrain sloped more steeply up a small valley. Still, it was nothing compared to the climb up Half Moon Pass.
We continued past Fantail Lake and began to spread out. Frank found many things to photograph along the way, including Stella and me ahead of him on the trail.
Once we got to Spuller Lake we stopped for a short sit-down rest and snack. The smoke in the air muted the colors and denied us the clear distant views that one often gets high in the mountains, and I think it affected our maximal breathing efforts. I was happy to be doing a moderate hike today.
After our short rest we continued past Spuller Lake and up to the low pass leading to Maul and Green Treble Lakes. Once at the pass we continued climbing off-trail to the right and we soon found ourselves at the summit of Spuller Peak.
We had been leap-frogging one other party of hikers on the trail up to Spuller Lake, but we saw that they had settled on the far shore of Spuller Lake and showed no interest in climbing to our summit. So, we had the summit to ourselves and enjoyed a longer break for lunch there. A light breeze blew but the air temperature was not cold.
Although I managed to get a bit ahead of Frank and Stella we all descended without stopping until I reached the northern shore of Fantail Lake when I stopped to check our stats and discovered I no longer had my phone with me.
Following a brief panicked search of my pack and its pockets I realized that my phone had dropped out somewhere between the summit and where I now stood, since I had checked it while we were there. At this point I became angry with myself for not checking earlier that I still had my phone. I thought briefly of abandoning it, but after inquiring with Frank what time it was I calculated I would have enough time to return to Spuller Peak if necessary to retrieve it, assuming it had fallen somewhere visible along our route and hadn't already been collected by one of the other hikers we had seen along the way.
I told Frank and Stella that I would like to return and look for it, and they graciously agreed to kill some time at Fantail Lake while I conducted my search.
I returned up the trail, keeping an eye beside the trail for signs of my phone, although I suspected it had fallen unseen out of its pocket when I put my pack on after lunch at the summit of the peak. I walked quickly and with a burst of adrenaline and purpose that surprised me. Where was all the fatigue I felt the first time I did this climb? Too bad I wasn't carrying my phone to record my second ascent. (This also explains why my mileage & climbing is higher than what the GPS recorded. My hiking time is just an estimate as I added an hour to what the GPS shows.)
Once I got to the summit I radioed Frank and Stella giving them an update on my progress. I looked around carefully at all the spots I had been while on the summit. I could not find the phone. Where could it have fallen?
As I started down I decided it HAD to have fallen out somewhere at the summit and that I should return for a second search. Maybe I would discover something I hadn't noticed the first time. Upon this second search I found the phone in its rectangular black case well-camouflaged against some black slate rocks near the summit but otherwise in plain sight. It's hard to describe what a relief it was to succeed in my search and how close it had come to failure had I not chosen to return a second time.
I radioed Frank and Stella again informing them of my status and that I would probably rest for a few minutes to grab a bite to eat since the adrenaline would soon wear off. They told me they would start slowly down the trail ahead of me, that I would probably catch up to them before the end. I agreed that their plan made sense and save time overall, since I usually descend a little faster than they.
On the descent we kept in touch by radio, reporting our positions whenever we reached a landmark. A couple of times I thought I saw them ahead of me on the trail only to discover it was the other hiking group. I did eventually catch up to them where our trail crosses Mine Creek, and from there we hiked back to the trailhead as one group.
Although the hike was moderate, my double visits to the peak, the second one fast paced, made the hike more strenuous for me. Even so it ended happily, and I was in a good mood. I also made the decision in the future to carry my phone in an interior or close-able pocket in my pack, not in an open pouch.
†Roper, S. Sierra High Route, Traversing Timberline Country. Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers, 1997: pp. 194-195, p. 228.
|Cumulative climbing:||2350 feet|
Sherwin Crest, September 26, 2021 - On our third full day in the mountains we decided to hike closer to home. In other years we might have planned a long outing, but smoke from fires elsewhere in the state was still lingering in all areas nearby, and in spite of the relatively easy hikes we had done so far, we were all feeling a bit tired and not up for a long hike this day. Yet, even with smoky air, the weather would otherwise be accommodating for a day spent in the outdoors. We packed N95 masks but never found the smoke thick enough for us to want to put them on.
After some discussion we elected to re-visit Sherwin Crest adjacent to town. Our goal was to climb up to Red Peak Pass, tag Red Peak, head south along the ridge to Pyramid Peak, then return to Heart Lake via Red Peak Pass, basically an out-and-back of modest length mostly over challenging Class 2 terrain.
In 2019 when we had hiked up to Red Peak we were met with gale-force winds, strong enough rip my hat from my head and almost strong enough to rip off my glasses. Today the winds were moderate, though when we got to the pass we found they were still strong enough to have us cinching our hats snugly to our heads.
We started at the relaxed hour of 1000 from the Heart Lake Trailhead near the Duck Pass Trailhead. The one-mile trail was by now familiar as we climbed quickly up through the changing aspens to Heart Lake. We took a short break at Heart Lake to reacquaint ourselves with the climb up to Red Peak Pass.
The climb starts with a bushwhacking adventure through sage and other desert plants on a steep slope to an open forest about mid-way up. From there the plants gave way to klinkers (loose scree) lying at or near the angle of repose. Hiking up through the plants was unpleasant but easier than hiking up the klinkers. The plants acted as footholds and did not slide but they left burrs in our socks and shoes.
Near Red Peak Pass I found a small clump of taller plants behind which I could rest and take refuge from the wind while I waited for Frank and Stella to finish their slog up from Heart Lake. When they joined me they, too, were ready for a short break.
We knew it would be windy and to prevent my losing a second hat I tucked it this time into my pack and used my windbreaker hood as a sun and wind shield as I hiked the rest of the climb to the summit of Red Peak.
Frank and Stella soon joined me, and we took a group photo, ate a snack and added our names to the peak register while enjoying the shelter from the wind behind the low rock wall that had been erected at the summit.
The view of Mammoth Mountain and the entire Mammoth Lakes Basin up to Mammoth Crest would have been spectacular on a clear day, but the smoky air made the nearby peaks feel distant and somehow less accessible.
We descended Red Peak toward its Pass, staying slightly on the lee (east) side of the ridge to avoid the strongest wind gusts, then began our trek south toward Pyramid Peak. The first climb to the next local maximum to the south was on stable scree mixed with occasional white bark pines. We hiked past the top of Yellow Peak (due to its yellow rocks), and continued past a dip and onto the gray klinkers of Gray Peak.
I decided to skip climbing over Gray Peak as it looked to be shorter to traverse on the northeast side to the low point south of Gray Peak.
The rocks in this area were variegated: red near Red Peak and the next ridge to the south, yellow at the top of Yellow Peak (but otherwise red), then gray sharply-broken slate rocks around Gray Peak, followed by white Sierra granite beyond.
While I waited near the sharp transition from gray rock to white granite for Frank and Stella to join me at the saddle past Gray Peak, Stella announced on the radio that she had had enough scrambling on the tippy gray slate and would turn back and find a place out of the wind near Red Peak Pass to await our return.
Frank pressed on, although he was making slow progress around Gray Peak. I checked the time and saw that it was already 1330 and we were only half-way by distance from Red Peak Pass to Pyramid Peak. We agreed that we would turn back by 1500, but upon further reflection I felt this would not leave enough margin of safety for available daylight, should the return trip be as slow. None of us had brought headlamps as we thought we would attain our goal well within daylight. Even if we had headlamps I would not have wanted to be on any of the Class 2 parts of this hike in the dark.
Frank arrived, but I could see that he was not showing his usual enthusiasm for continuing. Yet, the way further south over the larger granite slabs looked easier than what we had just crossed. We pressed on but soon we found ourselves facing some Class 3 down-climbing amongst the larger boulders. Further down the terrain was easier, but the white bark pines were more thickly growing.
We scrambled down to a clearing where we found some comfortable rocks out of the wind and took a short break for lunch. During lunch we decided not to continue. The bushwhacking through white barks looked easier even though it meant losing some altitude, but it was clear we would be hard-pressed to reach the summit of Pyramid Peak by 1500. Moreover fatigue and the clock also suggested we turn back now rather than later. Perhaps the smoky air was slowing us down. If we turned back now we would not need to race the sun, and we might have enough energy to do something the next day. Besides that neither of us felt comfortable leaving Stella to sit huddled high on a windy ridge for a couple more hours.
As a consolation goal I suggested to Frank that we tag the summit of Gray Peak on the return trip. The climb up to Gray Peak was easier than it looked, as was the descent to the low point on its north side easier than the traverse we had scrambled outbound.
At the summit of Gray Peak we took a few photos and enjoyed the view as best we could through the smoke before starting down. In one of these photos the continuation to Pyramid Peak that we avoided looks from the comfort of my desk chair neither too far nor terribly difficult.
Once we got off the gray klinkers of Gray Peak Frank seemed happier, and we made faster progress past Yellow Peak and down to Red Peak Pass where we found Stella waiting next to a critter cam someone from Fish and Game had installed. At first we thought it might be a weather station, but after I heard it click a few times I knew it was taking photos.
The three of us then descended to Heart Lake. On the descent I stuck to the loose scree as much as I could so we could scree-ski our way down, and this led us quickly to a "bench" (slightly less steep spot on the slope) where several trees grew. From here I made a direct line through the brush to Heart Lake, plants that felt thicker and taller than those we had climbed through on our ascent. Frank and Stella made slower progress on this part of the descent, and when I arrived at the end of the bushwhacking I killed some time by picking burrs out of my shoes and socks.
Frank arrived and proceeded to do the same. When Stella came out of the brush she was so done with messy bushwhacking that she wasn't interested in hearing about any more short-cuts and continued without another word to the shore of Heart Lake. Frank and I continued to clean out our shoes for several more minutes while we gave her some space.
When Frank and I moved again we took a use trail that led directly to the Heart Lake Trail, bypassing the Lake itself, the short-cut I had suggested to Stella. At first I thought Stella would surely have started down toward the car and that she would be ahead of us, but apparently she was still at Heart Lake. Fortunately, we have radios, so we soon knew that she was behind us. We waited a bit for her to catch up.
On the way down Frank admired a bright example of spent fireweed (Chamaenerion Angustifolium), the late afternoon sun shining through its leaves, growing next to the bridge over Mammoth Creek.
By the time we got back to the car we were all ready for shower and dinner. We briefly discussed other approaches to Pyramid Peak, one being from Sherwin Lakes on the east side of the ridge. On the map the way we went looks easiest or shortest, but the slope is gentler if longer from Sherwin Lakes. It's clear that until the memory of our adventure fades a bit that we won't be trying the Heart Lake approach again.
|Cumulative climbing:||2270 feet|
Midnight Lake, September 28, 2021 - The prior day we enjoyed a rest day, and we needed it. We hadn't been taking long hikes, but each hike had its challenge, and by the time we had finished descending from Sherwin Crest the afternoon before we were ready for a rest day.
I spent the day mostly indoors relaxing, taking only one outing to Vons to do some shopping. Frank and Stella took a short walk around Twin Lakes near the Tamarack Lodge but otherwise we all spent the day indoors reading, using the computer or otherwise engaging in sedentary activity.
Today we started with renewed energy.
The night before we discussed where we might go. The smoke had mostly disappeared from the mountains the day before leaving fresh air, but in place of warm smoky air we now had cool blustery clear air, with the possibility of rain showers later in the day. I had some peak and/or high ridge hikes on my short list for the week, but the weather was not ideal for spending much of our time in exposed areas. Although we had had a rest day the day before we also decided against an early start, early being 0500 or 0600. In the end we settled on an out-and-back hike in the Sabrina Basin, an area neither Frank nor Stella had visited. It would also give us an opportunity to fuel up the car in Bishop where gas prices were lowest.
We got out the door shortly after 0800 and decided to stop for gas in Bishop on the way out rather than on the way home. It was my turn to drive, so I couldn't check Gasbuddy to see where the cheapest station was today. I suggested we fuel up on the return, giving us more daylight on the trail. We can always fuel the car in the dark more easily than we could hike in the dark. But Frank and Stella thought they'd be tired and prefer to go directly home after the hike.
When we got into Bishop we discovered that Bubble Springs was no longer the cheapest gas in town. That honor went to the stations on the edge of town rather than in its center. But we did not discover this until we had stopped to fuel up at one station near the center of town. In the end it made little difference to the overall trip budget. Soon we were on our way up CA168.
I had been to the Lake Sabrina Trailhead once before in 2007 and recalled that the parking area near the boat landing was inconveniently far from the trailhead that was near the bottom of the dam. Given the weekday and the off-season we had no problem finding parking in the small parking area a few steps from the trailhead.
Soon we started up what looked like an old road that then became a footpath past stands of flaming aspen. The trail is similar to the one climbing from South Lake toward Bishop Pass in some ways but not in others. The Sabrina Basin Trail does not climb swiftly away from Lake Sabrina as does Bishop Pass Trail from South Lake but climbs and descends tediously several times until it nears the southern end of the lake before climbing continuously for 1200 feet over many stairs and switchbacks up to Blue Lake. The climb to Blue Lake felt longer and tougher than I recall the climb to Long Lake from South Lake.
Starting at the trailhead just ahead of us was an older couple who had parked next to us. They moved quickly, but gradually we overtook them. Another couple about the same age was ahead of them, and when we caught up with this second couple I was momentarily confused and thought the first couple had leap-frogged past us.
As we rose above Lake Sabrina the distinctive rust-colored ridge of Piute Crags and Mount Emerson, the high point along that ridge, rose into view.
Near the top of the climb I got a bit ahead of Frank and Stella, but I waited for them at the view spot for Blue Lake, the only confusing part of the route being where to go after crossing the outlet of Blue Lake. "Follow the Brown Stain", I intoned into the radio when I discovered the way, and this line was apparently memorable. After the outlet of Blue Lake the trail crosses a granite slab. The brown stain on the granite marks the passage of feet and hooves and marks the trail that is otherwise not obvious.
We spent a few minutes admiring the view of Blue Lake and the serrated granite ridge behind it while taking a group photo.
From Blue Lake the trail climbs and descends several times around and over some minor ridges to Dingleberry Lake. On the way we encountered a foursome of seniors who had spent the night camping near Dingleberry Lake. When asked how they managed in the wind last night one replied,
"Oh, I loved it, but I didn't get much sleep!", he admitted.
I was amazed that their packs were so small, even smaller than our day-packs, but I neglected to ask them what kind of overnight gear they used. My question was answered shortly when we encountered two laden mule-teams following the elderly foursome. I asked where they had started, and the leader replied, "Dingleberry Lake." We encountered no other hikers or campers until we passed a few arriving to the area as we were returning later to the trailhead.
Soon we found ourselves at the shore of Dingleberry Lake. A cool breeze blew up-canyon making the lake itself a chilly spot for lunch, so we continued beyond to search for a sheltered spot. Not much further we descended a large slab to a meadow through which ran Middle Fork Bishop Creek. Against the southern wall of this slab we found shelter from the wind, and as we sat down on the soft grass the clouds parted and gave us a bit of warmth. The timing couldn't have been better.
During lunch Stella decided she had hiked far enough and would wait for us if we wished to go further. I was still feeling energetic and curious to explore to the end of the trail at Midnight Lake. Frank seemed less enthusiastic, but with a bit of encouragement he summoned the energy to continue with me on this last outbound segment.
Although I estimated that it was 1 mile each way, it ended up being about 2.6 miles round-trip to Midnight Lake from our lunch spot, and after checking the time I knew we could not linger much for the rest of the hike if we wished to avoid returning in the dark. Although we again did not bring headlamps, we did have lights built into our radios and cellphones should we need light.
Frank and I started by crossing a wide, meandering Middle Fork Bishop Creek before climbing over slabs and a couple more streams on the way to Midnight Lake. Although the climb was easy the distance took some time to cover. Frank was enjoying a stroll while I had some urgency in my step due to our time constraint. I found myself waiting for him more than usual. At one spot not far from our lunch spot I could look back and see Stella sitting in the grass by the creek.
Eventually we arrived at Midnight Lake. For a few minutes we stood near the cairn that marks the end of the maintained trail so we could take a few photos of the Lake and the harsh environment beyond it. I was satisfied that we had found the most comfortable spot to eat lunch on the entire trail.
Large puffy clouds rose above the high ridges beyond, although these were not large enough to produce significant precipitation. Once or twice I thought I felt a drop, but we otherwise remained dry. Even so I was happy we were not traversing a ridge or climbing a peak today.
We enjoyed the scenery at Midnight Lake for less than five minutes before we turned around and began the long trek back to the trailhead. Meanwhile Stella had decided to start the return hike on her own rather than to await our return to the lunch spot. We were able to maintain radio contact by reporting our locations when we reached a milestone, although at times the signal was weak when we found ourselves on opposite sides of a ridge.
Later on the way back Stella admitted to us that she had for a time lost the trail, something that is easy to do where it crosses slabs near Dingleberry Lake. Fortunately, she carries a GPS tracking device, so getting lost became a task of regaining the outbound track. By sparing us the real-time report by radio of her misadventure, she likely spared herself a deluge of real-time unsolicited advice.
Below Blue Lake the trail is easy to follow, and I breathed a short a sigh of relief when Stella reported she had crossed the outlet of Blue Lake and was starting the long descent to Lake Sabrina. At that point Frank and I were north of Dingleberry Lake near where she had lost the trail, about 40 minutes behind her.
As we descended Frank and I stopped frequently to snap photos of the ever-changing light of the setting sun on the clouds and mountains. The air was cool but the breeze had thankfully died down. We were on-track to finish our hike near sunset, which was about an hour after the sun had set behind the ridge to the west.
Upon arriving at the trailhead we found Stella sitting comfortably in the warm car. Although I felt energetic after lunch I now felt quite tired. Staying in motion on the descent had kept me warm after the sun went behind the ridge, but now the cold air sapped my energy. I was happy to be done with the hike and happy to be in the warm cocoon of the car for the next hour.
It was only now that I was glad we had fueled the car in the morning as we could go straight back to Mammoth, prepare and eat dinner first thing, then shower and bedtime. It was a fitting long hike for the week if a bit short on the usual thrills associated with scrambling up a peak or ridge, and I was happy we did not have to rise early to check out the next day but could sleep in a bit the next morning, after which we planned a shorter outing.
Frank and Stella's Mammoth 2021 web pages - For a different perspective see Frank and Stella's web pages of the same holiday.
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