Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook- Day 4

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook

Total Mileage- 9.1 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1928 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 918 feet

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 5.03.16 PM

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 5.05.20 PM

Day 4 in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska would take us from Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook. It is nearly impossible to locate names for areas in Wrangell, so I just made up the Iceberg Overlook, being that our campsite for this night faced the direction we would be heading… Iceberg Lake. I don’t recommend doing nine miles of trail-less backpacking in Alaska. Others may disagree, but I find that one mile per hour on difficult terrain is very taxing. And, I am not getting any younger. This particular day was 8 hours and 37 minutes of hiking time. This did not include breaks or lunch time. It was a long day, but one of the most beautifully stunning days we have had on any trip.

The day started brilliantly with exquisite views of Bremner Glacier and once we packed up we headed eastward from craggy rocks into sandy beaches. It was surreal to be in the middle of Alaska and to be walking in the sand in the middle of the mountains. The sand transitioned into a lush green valley floor that we would follow the rest of the day for about six miles.

IMG_4098IMG_4106IMG_4120IMG_4123IMG_4132

There were a few small creek crossings on this stretch. At one crossing we were searching for rocks to hop across (and looking a bit too myopically) and didn’t notice the brown sow with cubs lingering at the same creek about sixty yards from us. Fortunately the mother was pouncing on the ground for some small rodent to notice us. We cleared out of the area, but it didn’t take us long to see where the bears had been before us.IMG_4139IMG_4183IMG_4178IMG_4164IMG_4145IMG_4153IMG_4173IMG_4175

For the most part, the terrain was really straight forward. It was low scrub and soft, mossy mounds that were a little difficult to maneuver through. There was one creek/waterfall that we had to cross closer to our end destination. That is the way it always is in Alaska. I remember that crossing and the jump that had to be made from the last rock to the other side. It had to be a perfect landing… and we all hit it perfectly. The weather was perfect this entire day with highs in the mid to low 60’s F. IMG_4161IMG_4172IMG_4186IMG_4187IMG_4189IMG_4283

The spots where we camped are likely the best spots I have ever had in my life. The ground was soft and spongy underneath with a view that very few will ever see. As you can see from the evening shot above, it was an amazing location. And it got even more epic the next morning. On day five we will do an early morning day hike up to a hidden lake and then make our way toward Iceberg Lake.

Day 5- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake

Advertisements

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook- Day 2

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook

Total Mileage- 8.83 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1475 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 2350 feet

Day two in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park would take us from the Monahan Creek area to a beautiful overlook of the Bremner Glacier, which we would be tackling on Day three. The day started out in classic Alaskan style- gray skies, low hanging clouds, and rain. The goal for the morning was to stay above the brushy areas, but stay below the loose and steep scree areas. If this is done correctly it will be relatively easy trekking across some basketball-sized rocks. The key is to work your way down the valley with an eye toward the Monahan Creek junction and the saddle which you will be passing over. The best advice is to minimize areas of alder while working your way toward Monahan Creek. We had to search for a while to find a spot to cross over the creek, but eventually found some stepping stones that kept us from getting our boots wet. That was a huge win. But you have to keep your eyes open, because much of the area has steep walls to the creek or water moving too powerfully to cross.

Upon the creek crossing we were on our way over the saddle that would lead to Bremner Glacier. We had to make a decision on how far we really wanted to go on this day. If we went too far, we would commit to several hours of dense alders that descended to the glacier. Did we really want to end the day with that kind of battle? If we went into the alder for the remaining part of the day, would there be anywhere to camp without having to commit to crossing the glacier in the same day? Committing close to nine untrailed, Alaskan miles before the alder and glacier seemed like enough for one day. So we knew that the next day was going to be the monster day- alder/glacier. At least we would have the evening and night to mentally prepare for it. Dense alder will make you wish you were back on the dirt trails in Indiana. I have yet to find a fan of alder bushwhacking. Nonetheless, the terrain for this portion of Day 2 was ideal for backpacking, but the boulders heading up to the saddle was a little work.

Once we hit the saddle we could see where the dense cloud cover was coming from- the glacier. And we saw for the first time… blue skies. As I mentioned in the previous post, the Bremner area from which we came seems as if it gets a lot of cloud cover and rain, likely due to the cold air coming from the glacier. Am I no meteorologist, so I am likely wrong, but on subsequent days we would look back and see gray skies and rain even though we were in clear skies. The green in front of us was a beautiful, but I am not sure how to classify it. It was a somewhat marshy area with a mixture of knee-high scrub, longish tussock, and scattered alder. The issue, as you can imagine, is where to set up a tent. If there was a spot clear enough for a tent…it was marshy. To be honest, even though it wasn’t a huge issue, I feel like finding spots to camp throughout the week took some work. It’s not like you can just pop a tent anywhere. Most areas were overgrown or rock strewn or not close to fresh water, etc. On this day we had to make due with a bit of an angle, which made for a cool pic below, but it was really the best we could do. I think the other guys got to the flat spot before us and we got the consolation angle. I slept well regardless.

The next day, Day 3, would take us through the alder and down to Bremner Glacier for one spectacular day.

Day 3- Bremner Glacier Overlook to Bremner Glacier

Preparing for a Wrangell-St. Elias Backpacking Trip

The average person has never heard of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska, even though it is six times larger than Yellowstone National Park, sizing in at a mere 13 million acres. The sheer size of Wrangell-St. Elias makes it the largest national park in the United States and one of the most prized backpacking bucket list adventures in the world.

Preparing to backpack Wrangell-St. Elias can be daunting. The size, the remoteness, the logistics, and the unknown may be too much for a backpacker who is ready to take it up a level in epic backpacking. But let me assure you that, outside of the logistics of planning this multi-day adventure being a bit challenging, you can do a Wrangell trip with the right mindset going into it.

MINDSET

I feel like we had a bit of an advantage, having backpacked for a week in the backcountry of Denali a few years prior. Even though they were relatively different trips, we knew that Alaska could throw any and every challenge and obstacle at you throughout the week. Leading up to this trip I just kept saying, “Backpacking Alaska is 90% mental and 10% everything else.” It may be a little exaggerated, but trust me, you will do yourself a huge favor if you go in with the mindset that there will be times when you will be cold, wet, tired, sore, and frustrated (of course, everyone at different degrees), but you get the point. Go into Wrangell-St. Elias with the right mindset. This is the best advice anyone can give you. If you expect a difficult trip with obstacles, you have already taken a huge step.

LOGISTICS

Before you do anything else, go to the website of Wrangell Mountain Air. They offer a variety of services, but for our purposes, they fly backpackers into the Wrangell backcountry and drop them off at their specified drop point and then pick them up at their agreed upon end destination. Their website not only describes the different backcountry routes, it shows the areas where they have landing strips for the bush plane.  In essence, you will be backpacking from one landing zone to the next landing zone. You choose the route you will take and the number of days you are planning, just make sure you are at your pickup point on time.  After reading the description and discussing how many days we would be able spend in the backcountry, we chose the Seven Pass Route, which is listed as a trip from Iceberg to Bremner. After a bit of additional research, we decided to travel the opposite direction from Bremner to Iceberg. Once you agree upon the particular route you are going to take, I would suggest calling Wrangell Mountain Air and getting on the books for those dates, as it seems the activity in that area has been picking up over the last couple of years. It is an easy phone call. Just give them your info, your dates, and a 50% deposit and you are set. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park does not require any fees or permits. Yes, I know, that is amazing! But it’s true. All you have to worry about is getting there!

We flew into Anchorage, which was easy, but the real question is how to get to McCarthy, Alaska. It is a seven hour drive with the last hour or two on gravel road. I can tell you that after researching all of the options for getting to that area, the most flexible and cost-effective method is to just rent a vehicle, if you are cool with driving for seven hours. You will need to make sure that you rent an SUV with some heavy duty tires and a spare. I wouldn’t really anticipate any problems on the drive, as the roads (including the gravel) were actually pretty good. We didn’t have any situations over the seven hours in which we felt as if our tires would be compromised in any way. There are other ways of getting to the McCarthy area, but we found this to be the method that fit us the best. You may need to check with the rental company to make sure you can drive the vehicle on gravel roads, but we didn’t have any trouble getting a rental from National Car Rental.

We arrived into McCarthy one day before our trip was to start, which meant that we needed to have overnight accommodations. I highly, highly, highly recommend McCarthy Bed and Breakfast. We loved this place so much, we stayed another night after we finished the trip. This husband and wife team have a variety of little cabins that he built himself. For the four of us, we stayed in a two room, four bed cabin. The location was perfect, as well, as it was a ten minute walk to where we would be picked up by Wrangell Mountain Air the next day. Additionally, the bed and breakfast has an AMAZING breakfast consisting of homemade muffins (try the blueberry muffins!!!), greek yogurt, fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, granola, cereal, good coffee, etc. It was the PERFECT pre-backpacking breakfast. All four of us highly recommend this B & B.

McCarthy is a very, very, very small community, consisting of no more than 50-70 people depending on the time of year. It is a simple, single dirt street with a variety of businesses lining the street. We recommend eating at a restaurant called Potato. I think we ate there two or three times. Make sure you order the Rosemary Garlic Fries!

The last logistical element that you need to consider is fuel canisters and bear spray. Being that you can not fly with either on commercial airlines, you will need to figure out how to secure them once in Alaska. To be honest, this was the hardest logistical task for us. We arrived in Anchorage and secured the rental vehicle about three hours before the REI in Anchorage opened and we did not want to waste time waiting for it to open. If you arrive in Anchorage during normal business hours, you can just go to REI. If you end up in a situation like us, you will need to do one of two things. Either order online ahead of time or buy the stuff in McCarthy. BUT I need to tell you that I would not wait until you arrive in McCarthy to but these items. I called a couple of the stores a couple of months in advance and they told me that they did not have fuel canisters or bear spray. But when we got to McCarthy one of the stores did have them. BUT I would NOT depend on them having what you need. Did I mention how small McCarthy is? If I understood correctly, the only have a supply plane bring in goods twice a week… and it isn’t guaranteed that they will have specifically what you need.

We ended up ordering both items online, which was tricky as well.  The ONLY online retailer who would ship fuel canisters and bear spray was walmart.com. Other online retailers would not ship combustible items to Alaska (maybe because they would have to be flown?).  Anyway, we asked Wrangell Mountain Air if we could have the items shipped to them and they agreed. The items arrived there about a month before. It worked perfectly.

GEAR

If you are planning for this trip to Wrangell-St. Elias, you should already be well-versed in how to pack for a trip with variable weather conditions, so I won’t go through the entire list. Here are a few things that you may just want to consider. If your trip, like ours, involves glacier crossings, you may want to consider getting some Katoolah micro-spikes. We did not end up using them, but I also slip one time and bruised up my ribs, so it is up to you. The glacier we crossed was non-technical so it didn’t involve any technical gear. If you are close to needing a new pair of boots, I would recommend going ahead getting new boots in advance and breaking them in before this trip. I had about 600 miles on my boots and the lugs were not as grippy as I would have liked for this trip. The terrain is tough and you really need to have a pair of boots that are dialed in and up to the challenge. Once we finished our trip, I retired my boots and bought some new ones. I can’t think of anything else that really stood out from a gear perspective. Maybe just make sure you have some lightweight dry bags in your pack with a dry pair of socks and thermal layer. If you get cold and everything else is weight, at least you will have some dry, warm gear. We also took an emergency satellite beacon that would check the weather, mark our route online for family, and text out if we needed to communicate. That came in handy for our trip, but more on that in a later post.

Those are the biggies, I think. If you have specific questions, just comment below and I will answer them the best I can. You will not regret this trip. It was definitely one of the top trips we have ever taken.

Here is the details and review of each day from Bremner to Iceberg Lake.

Day 1- Bremner to Monahan Creek

Day 2- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook

Day 3- Bremner Glacier Overlook to Bremner Glacier

Day 4- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook

Day 5- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake

Brandon

Reblog: All Creation Sings

Hey lovers of the outdoors!

I wrote a new post on my other blog entitled All Creation Sings.  I recount a specific moment in Alaska when summiting Mt. Eielson when I saw Denali for the first time.  It is a faith post, so if that’s not your thing you may choose to disregard… but I thought you each would identify with the emotions that I share in the post.

Btw… I am heading to Wrangell St. Elias NP in Alaska at the beginning of August for a week in the wilderness.  New trip reports will be coming then.

Peace…

Brandon

California: John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal- Day 8

John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

Mileage- 14.0 miles

Elevation Gain- 4022 feet

Elevation Loss- 7159 feet

Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit 1Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit

Our eighth, and last, day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Guitar Lake to the Mt. Whitney Summit and then to a Whitney Portal exit… and this day was nothing short of a MONSTER. We knew this day was going to be long and grueling. Mentally we had been preparing for days, but I had never put in 14 miles with a pack nor had I ever tackled over 4000 feet of elevation (especially at the altitude…remember I am from 650 feet above sea level in INDIANA!) in a single hike. I am in above average physical condition and in pretty good hiking shape, but I am also over 40 and I recognize that 40 is a bit different than my 20’s and 30’s. I knew that I would be able pull of this day with no problem, but in the back of my mind I wondered how long it might take me. Once we had our gear prepped and everything in it’s place, we went to bed. We wouldn’t be summiting Whitney early enough to see the sunrise (and we were all cool with that), but we were awake and geared up before sunrise using our headlamps to guide our path.

The first half mile from Guitar Lake is harmless; it’s just positioning you for a series of twelve-ish switchbacks over a couple of miles. While the cool morning air at altitude was crisp and refreshing, it didn’t take long for the perspiration to make it’s first appearance. To be really honest, I don’t like elevation to start my day (hahaha). I prefer to have my morning coffee, which I didn’t get to have on this morning, and to begin with a nice leisurely hike. Anyway, this is not leisurely. It’s five miles of up. Five miles of up to the highest point in the lower 48, at that. But man, the views as the sun came up were something else. It was cool to look down on Guitar Lake and see how it got it’s name. The skies, again, were clear and a marvelous blue.

IMG_1694IMG_1696IMG_1697

At the top of the switchbacks is Discovery Pinnacle, which is the highest rock formation above the switchbacks.  It is close to this location where one can drop some gear and begin the final 1.9 mile climb to Whitney summit.  I took a few heavier items out of my pack (i.e. bear can, etc.) and left them at this location.  I still carried my pack with everything else in it.  I didn’t feel comfortable leaving all of my gear and pack at this location.  There were just so many people passing that a person could potentially pick through your pack.  I didn’t think, however, that they would be interested in my heavier junk so I left that stuff there.  The trail hugs a ridge line with impressive views both eastward and westward.  The jutting rocks formations and the perfectly placed Tetris rocks were equally awe inspiring.

IMG_1708IMG_1713IMG_1716

It is a beautiful sight when the Survey Hut comes into view. This is where you can sign the Mt. Whitney trail registry. The other guys were ahead of us and Ryan and I were a bit winded. We decided to chuck the packs at this point behind some rocks. Our logic was that if someone wanted to steal our heavy packs and lug them all the way out, they could have them. We picked up the pace and headed to the top. My watch had been calculating the oxygen level throughout the previous days and I was really curious to see how it would register as we approached 14,500. You can see the picture below… 57% of the oxygen level that a person would have at sea level. I could feel it for sure.

When I got to the top it was a really emotional experience that I am not sure I can adequately put into words. All of the months of days prepping, studying, and working out. The long, strenuous days that tried us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The inability to see or speak to our families for eight days. The beauty of this glorious creation day after day that left me in awe and completely speechless. The accomplishment, the achievement, of fighting through adversity to top Mt. Whitney. The view from the highest point in the lower 48 with great friends. And then for my phone to hit a signal… and texts and voicemails from my family to begin pouring in… telling me that they miss me… and love me. My God, it all came together and I cried. What a beautiful, wonderful life. I don’t take any of it for granted.

IMG_1744IMG_1718IMG_1720IMG_1729IMG_1735IMG_1737IMG_1742IMG_1743IMG_1747

And as much as I wish our trip ended on top of Mt. Whitney, the reality was that we had close to ten more miles of hiking down over 7100 feet. Did you get that? Do you understand that? 7100 feet! When we hiked Grand Canyon… that was close to a mile (5200 feet) down. This was a gargantuan dive. In fact, there is a series of switchbacks that I called “Death by a Million Switchbacks,” because they never end. I promise you have never done that many switchbacks in your life. All I can tell you is that we got in a zone and just went for it. I took a few pictures, but I was so focused on getting to the parking lot at Whitney Portal I didn’t take any time for anything (except pumping water one time where the trail crosses Lone Pine Creek). If you don’t have an opportunity to hike the entire John Muir Trail, let me recommend this eight or nine day hike from Bishop to LeConte to Whitney Summit. Make it a bucket list trip and resolve to do it while you have the legs. You won’t regret it.

IMG_1748IMG_1751IMG_1749IMG_1755IMG_1762IMG_1759IMG_1765

California: John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake- Day 7

John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake

Mileage- 10.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 2477 feet

Elevation Loss- 2036 feet

Tyndall Creek to Guitar LakeTyndall Creek to Guitar Lake Elevation

Our seventh day on the John Muir Trail in California was supposed to be our “light” day, as our itinerary had us traveling from Tyndall Creek to Crabtree Meadow and only covering 8.6 miles and just under 1600 feet of elevation. But, ever the group to ALWAYS finish our trips a day (or two) early, we recalculated and decided to make our final destination for the day Guitar Lake. By going to Guitar Lake we were making the decision to summit Whitney the next morning and hike out in the same day, which would make our last day close to sixteen miles. But we were feeling grizzled and chiseled and felt confident in our ability to travel 27 miles and conquer 6500 feet of altitude two days! Ha! There were certainly many pros and cons to this idea, but as a group we believed the pros certainly outweighed the cons. And it is a really funny thing how not being able to talk to family for eight days motivates a person. We each had tried throughout the previous week to get a signal, but we never could get one. I believe that each of us just wanted to phone home and let everyone know that we were all doing great and to let them know that we love them. So we pressed on to Guitar Lake this day… and it was a glorious day.
IMG_1614IMG_1620IMG_1621IMG_1625I know I regularly make this claim and I feel like I really mean it when I say it, but this next section of trail is one of my favorites of any trip.  Of course at the very top of my list are Fifty Mountain in Glacier, this sweet spot on the Escalante Route before Hance Creek in the Grand Canyon, a day hike spot on a mountain in Denali, and Mt. Eielson summit in Denali, but I have to add this section to the list.  After climbing out of the boulders and sequoias and passing Tawny Point to the east, the Bighorn Plateau is a very special place.  It has the appearance of a desert with yellow scrub that almost perfectly matches the ground beneath it, all perfectly complementing the spacious blue skies.  I stopped in this vast, open area and just took it all in.  There was this tiny little pond completely out of place, but adding perfectly to the completeness of the area.  I loved this area for many reasons, most of them aesthetic, but there were so many subjective reasons I loved it as well.  I could stand in a single spot, turn 360 degrees, and it was perfect all the way around.  You can even see Whitney towering above everything else in the distance. This is one spot where I shot some video as well.
IMG_1629IMG_1632IMG_1634IMG_1637
From Bighorn Plateau the trail descends below the treeline, where there are some pretty magnificent Sequoias, and makes it’s way down to the junction with the High Sierra Trail. It’s at this point where the High Sierra Trail joins the John Muir Trail to the top of Whitney. It is also at this point where you will be at the lowest elevation (10,435) before summiting Mt. Whitney. It’s all pretty much up from here.IMG_1638 IMG_1650IMG_1649IMG_1647IMG_1675The remaining trail to Guitar Lake took us over diverse terrain and a series of ups and downs.  Even seven days into this hike we are still captivated by the beauty of the Sierras.  Any direction we look could easily be a masterpiece hanging on a wall.  It’s funny as this particular day wore on how we kind of fell into this “hiker’s delusion,” that every turn we would make or every ridge we would approach had Guitar Lake on the other side of it.  Maybe we were tired and just ready to set up camp and get on with our evening routines.  Or, maybe it was our anticipation of summiting Whitney early the next morning.  Either way we just wanted to be at Guitar Lake.  With everything we heard about it and everything we read about it, we were excited to see this lake sitting at 11,500 feet.  It certainly did not let us down.  I included some video below that I took while lying on the grass by the lake.  I think I may have fallen asleep there after I shot the video.IMG_1660IMG_1670IMG_1676IMG_1689
The next day would be our eighth and biggest day… summiting Mt. Whitney and exiting at Whitney Portal.

California: John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek- Day 6

John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek

Mileage- 12.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 4246 feet

Elevation Loss- 2755 feet
Bubbs Creek to Tyndall CreekBubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek Elevation

Our sixth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Bubbs Creek over the monster Forester Pass to Tyndall Creek. On this day we would travel 12.6 miles and conquer over 4200 feet of elevation. And our ascent would be 7.5 miles to Forester Pass. That is a long, long ascent. It feels as if it never ends. But more on that later.  The morning sun brought out the glowing, northeastern face of the East Vidette peak and the southwestern facing  Kearsarge Pinnacles.

IMG_1515 IMG_1520 IMG_1532IMG_1537

Our trek from Bubbs Creek toward Forester led us through the lodgepole pines and whitebark pines in the sub-alpine region and into areas with decreasing vegetation and significant and increasing piles of talus.  At about the five mile mark it actually looks as if you have made significant progress, as you have now left the trees behind and you now only see a trail amidst the broken and fragmented rocks.  But, the final two and a half miles to Forester Pass climbs an aggressive 2000 feet.  The map at the top of this post indicates my pace slowed significantly, as the red line represents a slower pace.  This was definitely my slowest pace throughout the entire trip.  It is hard to believe that the low oxygen level has such a profound effect.  While I will discuss this again on our Whitney summit day, the percent oxygen level going up to Forester was a little more than 65%.

IMG_1538IMG_1545IMG_1546IMG_1547

The benefit of stopping frequently to catch my breath was the opportunity to take pictures and savor the views, which were nothing short of astounding. Maybe I should have said breath-taking, literally (haha). The sloping talus piles of small, crumbly rock turned into massive broken boulders. The trail skillfully navigated through it all. And then there was a pristine lake just above 12,000 feet with the triangular Junction Peak towering in the background.  The epic views lead to a series of seemingly unending switchbacks amidst the scree with Forester at the top.  If you look closely you will see one of our guys at Forester Pass with the rest of our group scattered throughout the scree field heading up.  As a side note, if you happen to use the National Geographic Topographic Map for the John Muir Trail there is an error on the trail profile on page 16.  It shows a significant dip at the 12,200 mark and looks as if you have to go down a couple of hundred feet before going back up.  Well, the dip does not exist.  The trail goes up the entire way without any dip.  Anyway, just thought you may want to know that.

IMG_1556IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1555IMG_1556IMG_1558IMG_1561The view at the top of Forester was the best yet. It was expansive and massive with beautiful blue skies holding the billows of white clouds. This is the point at which one exits Kings Canyon National Park and enters Sequoia National Park. This is also the highest elevation of the trail before summiting Mt. Whitney. We took a much needed break at the top and posed for a few pics.
IMG_1570IMG_1564IMG_1569IMG_3565IMG_1576 The descent from Forester Pass has an aggressive descent down through a series of switchbacks down to an unnamed lake (as far as I know). Patrick was the first one down to it, so I will refer to it as Patrick Lake. Patrick Lake is a real stunner. After taking close to an hour break at the pass, we were FORCED to take another break at the lake because it was just that beautiful. We washed up, lied down on the grass, and just stared at the gorgeousness. Our numbers are probably off, but we tried to figure out how many people actually see this lake each year. We estimated a little over 300 people. Even if we are a bit off, the percentage of the U.S. population that gets to see this lake each year is a infinitesimally minuscule .000086% of the population. I don’t take any of this for granted. IMG_3575IMG_1583IMG_1593 With close to two hours of breaks, we still had between four to five miles before Tyndall Creek. The trail opens up into this wide expanse that we spied from Forester. No matter which direction we looked, it was special. As we pressed on throughout the afternoon, the cloud cover enveloped us. A few times we even felt a sprinkle of rain, but we knew the chances of rain were extraordinarily slim, even though the parks were praying for rain to slow down Rough Fire. Once we settled into our campsite near Tyndall Frog Ponds, the haze of Rough Fire greeted us. IMG_1605IMG_1609 The next day we would leave Tyndall and trek all the way to Guitar Lake, where we would camp, in preparation for our Whitney Summit.

California: John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake- Day 3

John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie)

Mileage- 10.8 miles

Elevation Gain- 2787 feet

Elevation Loss- 2472 feet

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake Elevation

On our third day hiking half of the John Muir Trail we were traveling from Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake area.  That is the “official” permit location of our end destination, but we technically stayed at Lake Marjorie.  Lake Marjorie, which is beautiful by the way, is about a mile passed an offshoot trail that would take you to Bench Lake.  Our day would consist of an early morning 1300 foot march up to Mather Pass, a six-mile descent, and a late day 1000 foot ascent (which I don’t like at the end of a day!).  The morning, again, started off clear with stunning blue skies.  Starting the day off at 11,000 feet in early September is a gift of cool, crisp temperatures that are AMAZING for backpacking.  AMAZING.  And we were expecting some stunning views from the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet.

IMG_1207

IMG_1203

As you would expect, the trek up to Mather Pass was really pretty easy. From our campsite at the second of two Palisade Lakes it was only a 1300 foot climb.  We could see it as soon as we started hiking and were really pumped to get up there.  There was a hesitant optimism that we may have traveled south far enough to escape the eastward winds of Rough Fire.  That wouldn’t be the case on this day either.  The terrain leading southward for the first mile is sandy with old broken granite rocks amidst sequoias and pines.  The trail is easily visible and traversed.  On either side of Mather Pass you can see steep granite wall and saw tooth ridge lines, respectively.  As we gradually ascended I continued to look back.  Palisades Lake was something nice to look at up close, it’s real beauty is in how exquistively it surrounds itself with peaks and passes.  In the photo with me in it below you will see Disappointment Peak immediately behind me with Palisade Lake smiling on my side.

IMG_1211

IMG_1214

IMG_1218

IMG_1223

The approach to Mather Pass is wide open with busted and broken granite bits and boulders strewn about.  The series of switchbacks are easily managed and traversed.  We were feeling really strong on this day.  Between the acclimatization and adjusting to the time zone difference, we were in our element.

IMG_1229

IMG_1231

IMG_1233

IMG_1236

Crossing over Mather Pass was significantly disappointing.  The smoke from Rough Fire was the worst it had been up to that point.  While we enjoyed our conversation the rest of the hiking day, we were a bit deflated.  On my mind was whether or not it would get any better or if this is what we could expect all the way to Mt. Whitney.  We crossed some pretty streams but, for the most part, our visibility was limited.  It was obvious during our short breaks that morale had suffered.  Epic views were veiled by a serious irritant and my sinuses agreed.  As we approached Marjorie, she was beautiful.  It was obvious that she would really dazzle once the smoke cleared overnight.

IMG_1239

IMG_1247IMG_1255IMG_1261

On Day 4 we would be traveling from Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek Trail area.

 

California: John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1

John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon

Mileage- 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain- 2800 feet

Elevation Loss- 3874 feet

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte 1

We arrived in Lone Pine, California late Thursday/early Friday and stayed at the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel, where we got a few hours sleep before dropping our rental vehicle at a Whitney Portal parking lot (our end destination) and meeting our shuttle that would take us to Bishop Pass Trailhead.

We used East Side Sierra Shuttle (Paul Freitheim), who is incredibly knowledgeable of the area and the trail, and who also has a ton of funny stories to share.  He agreed to take us to the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop where we would pick up our backcountry permit.  While two of us took care of the permit, the other guys walked to Eastside Sports to pick up fuel canisters.  Once we secured the permit and fuel we made the short drive to Bishop Pass Trailhead.  We were getting a bit later start than we would have liked.  I think it was after 11am by the time we unloaded our gear and settled up with Paul.  Our estimated mileage for the day from the trailhead to LeConte was 11.5 miles with 2800 total elevation gain.

IMG_1058

IMG_1061

IMG_1062

Our trek from South Lake began in Inyo National Forest/John Muir Wilderness.  Trail conditions were extremely dry.  Two months before this trip we monitored fire activity in the area.  One of the biggest fires in the area, Rough Fire, began on July 31, 2015 and, despite all efforts to contain it, was still continuing to grow when we began on September 4.  This massive fire was approximately 30 miles west of the John Muir Trail and approximately 80,000 acres, which meant that we would deal with a significant amount of smoke over the seven days on the trail, as you will see in many pictures.

IMG_1068

IMG_1071

IMG_1074

IMG_1086

IMG_1087

The great thing about this trail, and then the John Muir Trail, is that there is no guessing where the trail is.  While our Denali trip in 2014 did not have any trails, but was all about route finding and bushwhacking, these trails were incredibly easy to follow.  The greatest challenges for us, even on day one, were acclimating to the elevation and the daily physical demand of distance and elevation gain. At the end of the day, despite all of our exhaustive planning, we are still from Indiana (650 feet above sea level)!  Actually we did just fine.  We trained a ton and I believe everyone took Diamox for a few days to speed up our acclimation to the thin air.  Other than breathing hard on day one, I don’t believe anyone suffered any ill effects.

IMG_1091

IMG_1092

Despite the dry conditions, the stunning beauty that we saw was off the chart.  Even when I am surrounded by what looks like a trail among a boulder field I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.  That is exactly how it was the first 5.5 miles to Bishop Pass, as we crossed into Kings Canyon National Park.  There is certainly a possibility of getting so wrapped up in the mileage and the 2800 foot climb that one doesn’t slow down enough to appreciate where they are or what they are seeing.  People always ask me for advice or perspective on backpacking and the number one thing I always say is, “Don’t forget why you are there in the first place.  Breathe deep and take it all in.”  Pictures are one thing, but remembering how it felt and how it looked with your own eyes is an absolutely priceless experience that a small percentage of the population ever get to realize.  And don’t forget to turn around occasionally to snap a picture of where you came from!

IMG_1097

IMG_1102

IMG_1104

IMG_1106

The biggest drop of the day was around Dusy Basin.  Our eastward view displayed magnificent and hazy views of Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak.  Further in the eastward distance was a beautiful razor’s edge of 14-ers, including Thunderbolt and North Palisade.  As we continued to drop from Dusy Basin into LeConte Canyon, our views boasted of Langille Peak and the Citadel.  Depending on which direction we were looking we could either see the contrast of marvelous blue skies and ridge lines or mountains fading into the smoky haze.  Unfortunately for us, we were heading into the canyon where the smoky haze rested for the evening.

IMG_1108IMG_1109IMG_1111IMG_1112IMG_1118

From Bishop Pass to the JMT junction at LeConte is 6.0 miles and a descent of 3874 feet.  To be honest, it was some really easy hiking that passed through some really spectacular areas.  The smoke was a real irritant, however.  We realized after a couple of days that the smoke would clear out overnight and then usually reappear around 2 or 3pm the next day.  Being that we got a really late start this first day, we battled the smoke a bit more than would subsequent days.  While I didn’t take any pictures of our campsites or set-up, there are quite a few places to camp that are spread out from one another.  While there were others camping at the other spots, we really never felt as if they were too close or inhibiting our experience.  The camp spots are relatively easy to spot, as they are areas that have had quite a bit of usage over time.  Some areas along the JMT provide metal bear storage boxes to put your bear can in for the night.  In other areas, where there are no metal bear storage boxes, one would need to simply put their bear cans in an area away from tents and the eating/food preparation area.

IMG_1124

IMG_1125

IMG_1127

IMG_1132

IMG_1134

IMG_1138

The Day 2 would take us from LeConte along the JMT, through Grouse Meadows, up the mighty Golden Staircase, and then to Palisades Lakes.