Monthly Archives: July 2014

High-altitude Heaven (Days 1-2): Mammoth and Mono Pass

Quick on the heels of our mosquito-ridden adventure from Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows, Bill, Eric and I decided to head for Pioneer Basin. It’s a spectacularly beautiful area Bill identified on the Eastern side of the Sierra, one that offers a fast and relatively easy entry to the high country, good fishing, and a number of epic day hikes.

Here’s the quick summary of our adventure:

If you want a little more detail, keep reading. In the entry below and the one that follows, I’ll break down our journey day by day; I’ll also share a few odds and ends from the experience. It’s really one I’ll never forget…Probably the best five-day camping trip I’ve ever done.

Day 0: San Francisco Bay Area to Mammoth

The trailhead at Mosquito Flat (where we’d start our adventure) is a bit above 10,000 ft in elevation. On top of that, the drive from the Bay Area to the Mosquito Flat trailhead is about 6 hours (not including stops). Combine these two facts, and an overnight in Mammoth the day before the trip starts to make a whole lot of sense. It gave us the chance to acclimate a bit (since Mammoth is around 8000 ft), and also meant that we could hit the trailhead early on our first day. An early start was critical, since the initial ascent up to Mono Pass is on an exposed trail with Southeastern exposure; a late start would have put us in the sun, unprotected, for more than two hours. Bill gets really cranky when he gets hot, so the die was easily cast, and we stayed a night in the village in Mammoth.

Bill and I hit the road early, leaving Oakland around 8:00am; Eric planned to meet us in Mammoth later that day. Sadly, the drive in to Mammoth was less than ideal. The Rim Fire had been burning for roughly three weeks, which meant that CA 120 was closed and the entire area north of Yosemite was shrouded in smoke. Bill and I crossed over Sonora Pass via Hwy 108, dropped through Bridgeport, then grabbed a quick lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli (aka Tioga Gas Mart) in Lee Vining (at the CA 120 / US 395 junction). Visibility was terrible; Mono Lake was nearly hidden from view, save the Western shore. Even so, we had a nice lunch surrounded by some intrepid high-altitude runners who had braved the smoky conditions to run in Yosemite.

After lunch, we blasted down to Mammoth through the high-altitude valley, with no signs of the smoke abating even as we drove south away from the fire. We stopped at the Mammoth ranger station to pick up our backcountry permit (which basically just noted our entry and exit dates and location), then tried to get information from the rangers about conditions down in Pioneer Basin. They couldn’t really say much; about the best we got was, "Well, all this smoke could either blow away or stick around. It all depends on the wind." With that helpful insight, we headed over to Mammoth Mountaineering Supply, where I picked up the 7.5-minute 1:24000 USGS topo for the Mt. Abbot area.

Bill and I tried to check in at The Village Lodge, but our room wasn’t ready, so we decided to head out for a brief drive around the Mammoth. It’s a beautiful area dotted with lakes, surrounded by epic Eastern Sierra peaks. Our little loop drive up Lake Mary Road took us past Twin Lakes (and Tamarack Lodge), Lake Mary (shrug), Lake Marnie (with overlooking Wildyrie Lodge), eerily desolate Horseshoe Lake (see below) and Lake George (a beautiful spot…need to check out Woods Lodge for possible future stays there). Bill and I took a quick hike around Lake George before heading back to The Village, where our room was finally ready. We checked into our fabulous two-bedroom suite, and just as we started to muck with our gear, Eric showed up right on queue.

It was a beautiful, warm, late-summer day, so we decided to make the most of our last few hours of civilized luxury by having a few drinks and snacks outdoors at Gomez’s, followed by dinner at Smokeyard BBQ (both of which weren’t too bad). It was with full bellies, then, that we returned to the room and started the camping trip. For our crew, the first step of every trip is to spend time poring over maps, holding forth authoritatively about places you’ve never been, talking smack about previous trips, optimizing gear, and trying to glean as much as possible from guide books before hitting the trail. With a head full of topographic images and stories from intrepid mountaineers, I tried to go to sleep. I never sleep well the night before a big trip, but I still managed 4-5 hours of fitful rest, filled with plenty of tossing and turning, fueled by anticipation (and maybe a little trepidation about the ascent we would follow the next day).

Day 1: Mosquito Flat to Mud Lake

We woke around 6am the next morning, packed up our gear as best we could, then headed out for breakfast. Fortunately, The Good Life Cafe opens early and serves good food, which meant a hearty, calorie-packed meal to fuel our first day of hiking. A quick drive down 395 brought us to Rock Creek Road, then a 2-mile drive in landed us at Mosquito Flat, our trailhead and entry point into the John Muir Wilderness and our adventure in Pioneer Basin.

As with every trip, we spent about 30 minutes doing last-minute gear optimizations and preparation at the trailhead (which I described a bit for the last trip). (I’ve got a separate post brewing related to gear, where I’ll talk about this stuff in greater detail, so stay tuned; gear is a pretty deep topic.) So, with packs tightened down, water bottles filled, and boots strapped on, we were ready to make our ascent. The conditions were near perfect (clear blue skies, ~60 degrees), and we were all fired up to get up the mountain before it got too hot.

Map geek note: The graphic below is an illustration of the hike we took on the first day; I’ll provide a similar graphic for each day of the trip. Data is collected using a Garmin eTrex 30, which captures real-time data about the precise path we took. When we get back, I use Garmin’s Basecamp software on my Mac, export each Garmin track to a GPX file, which I then import into Google Earth. Perspective is rotated to provide a sense of the terrain (although it can occasionally be tricky to assess, since satellite image data may be slightly out of date). The legend at the bottom of the graphic shows both elevation (pink line, scale at left) and ground speed (blue line, scale at right). Note also that the Garmin GPX file can be imported into Lightroom, which allows me to match GPS data with all of my photos (useful since my Panasonic Lumix LX-5 doesn’t have GPS).

Ok…Enough preamble. Let’s get on with the trip!!

Rock Creek trailhead to Mud Lake

Mosquito Flat trailhead to Mud Lake (Click for full-size image)

  • Garmin GPS data
  • Elevation gain: 2503 ft
  • Elevation loss: 2326 ft (loop trek)
  • Distance: 9.77 mi
  • Max elevation: 12,014 ft (Mono Pass)

Part of the reason I had a tough time sleeping the night before was anticipation of this first day (shown above), which promised to be the hardest. Winnett’s Sierra South guide characterized our planned route as "a tough hike into Pioneer Basin," and given that these books are often prone to understatement, I was a little concerned, even though I’d done some training before the trek. As it turned out, my worries were misplaced, geographically speaking: what I thought was going to be really hard wasn’t too bad, and what I thought wouldn’t be too bad turned out to be really hard. So, on balance, I’d say "tough hike" is a pretty fair assessment.

The trail out of Mosquito Flat follows a relatively straight, slow ascent along the beautiful Little Lakes Valley. After 0.9 miles, we branched right onto the Mono Pass trail, and continued our steady, slow ascent to Ruby Lake (roughly 1 hour of hiking over 2 miles and 900+ feet of elevation gain). Given our early start, the sun wasn’t yet baking the Southeastern slope of Mt. Starr, which was to be our next segment, so we pushed on without much of a break, all feeling pretty strong. The trail out of Ruby Lake steepens significantly and heads into a series of dry, dusty switchbacks heading up towards Mono Pass.

The best thing to counteract a relentless, muscle-burning, sweat-inducing set of switchbacks is a breathtaking view, and the Mono Pass trail didn’t disappoint. It didn’t matter what direction you looked; every view offered it’s own version of the Sierra at her finest. Jagged peaks with near-vertical granite faces, the verdant Little Lakes Valley dotted with dozens of azure oases, the series of 13,000+ ft peaks to the South…Take your pick. I was hot and tired, and my calves were on fire the closer we got to the pass, but none of it mattered.

After 3.5 miles and almost exactly two hours, we reached barren Mono Pass. At slightly over 12,000 ft, we had left treeline behind long ago, hiking amidst sand, boulders, and steep, craggy peaks. The pass itself is a shallow saddle, beyond which lies Summit Lake and an expansive vista of mountains to the North.

As we walked through this gap in the mountains, Eric remarked about the silence, and this is the thing I’ll remember most about Mono Pass: absolute, deafening, dead silence. The air was nearly still, and we were alone as we walked along that desolate stretch of trail in this high-altitude moonscape, wrapped in the grandeur of our surroundings. No birds. No animals. No people. No planes. No wind in non-existent trees, missing bushes or invisible shrubs. No babbling brooks or streams. Nothing. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that living in a city, living just about anywhere, you almost never experience absolute silence. We’re constantly bathed in noise, at the very least the ambient hum of our grids and cars and houses, or the wind through the trees. To have that comforting blanket of noise stripped away is both amazing and a bit unsettling.

Our transit of the pass was brief, and the silence ebbed as we began a long descent towards the valley that holds Mono Creek. A bit past Summit Lake, we dropped our packs and took a brief scouting detour to look down on Golden Lake, then resumed our journey. From this point, the trail follows a small ridge above Needle Lake (mismarked on the USGS topo as Neelle Lake, oddly enough), which offers a startling vista over Pioneer Basin and distant peaks.

And this is where things started to get interesting. The descent to the head of the Mono Creek Valley (where Mono and Golden Creeks intersect) is significantly more challenging than you might think. Exhausting is the word that comes to mind. Through a series of dusty, rocky switchbacks, you lose nearly 1500 ft of elevation over two miles…the lion’s share of what was gained coming up over Mono Pass. The trail is steep and heavily traveled by horse trains carrying people and supplies into the backcountry, which makes for a one-two punch: (1) a heavily rutted, uneven trail and (2) a whole lot of horsesh*t. By the time we reached this point it was around noon, and given the trail’s west-facing orientation, we were baked in the sun for most of the 1.5-hour descent, along with all the dung we had to sidestep on our way down.

Eventually, we reached the Golden Creek junction, and after a quick water break, we continued down the valley to the trail junction that would lead us into Pioneer Basin. The descent had pretty much sapped the strength in my legs, and by the time we reached that junction, I was more than happy to dump my pack, sit down, and have a bite of lunch. We rested for maybe 30 minutes, then donned our packs and pushed on towards the lowest-elevation lake in Pioneer Basin (aptly named Mud Lake).

I’m not sure what it was, but the last push killed me. I had felt pretty strong all day, and had been keeping a solid pace, which may have been my undoing. I might have benefitted from taking it easier on the way up (and down). Whatever it was, I had to do everything I could to keep putting one foot in front of the other over this last set of switchbacks, which led us back up roughly 400 ft over the course of 0.75 miles. Eventually we entered a clearing and spied Mud Lake, what was to be our home for the next three nights. We made our way around the West side of the Lake, and after a bit of searching, discovered a small outcropping above the lake that yielded a spectacular view to the South. We’d found our basecamp, and after scouting for flat spots, we set up our tents and took a bit of a rest; the view from my vestibule was probably the best I’ve ever had.

After a rest that could have lasted another hour, we got moving and set to the task of getting water, which proved more difficult than we’d planned. Running water was very hard to come by at Mud Lake, given the time of year and the fact that we’ve been in a drought. No running water meant scouring the muddy shoreline for a spot deep enough to offer a clear patch of water, which is pretty much the last thing you want to do after hiking all day, but there you go. Once we had enough water to last us through the night and morning, we set up our kitchen and cooked up Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd’s Potato Stew and Kathmandu Curry (both gluten-free and quite tasty after a long day). With dinner done, we went through our evening rituals (clean up kitchen and dishes, brush teeth, secure gear, switch into warmer clothes), then pulled up on the rock overlooking the lake and watched the glorious sunset (see below and blog header):

As dark enveloped the camp, we sat out on our rock overlook and watched a million stars come out, along with the Milky Way and a smattering of satellites. Talk turned to camping, astronomy, life…you name it. And in between the talk came occasional silences, bringing back echoes from our epic day crossing up and over Mono Pass into Pioneer Basin.

Coming next…

Day 3 of our Pioneer Basin expedition will stay in my memory as one of the best day hikes I’ve ever taken. Stay tuned!