Monday, August 26, 2013

High Sierra Fastpacking: Toulomne Meadows to Catharine Lake via High Route

The Sierra never cease to amaze me with new wonders every time I explore up there.  This trip was no different.  In particular I enjoyed Vogelsang Lake area, Lewis Creek, the ridges overlooking Lyell fork Foerster peak area, and Lake Catherine.  But the finest of them all was Twin Island Lakes.  Simply amazing.

Toshi, Sachin, Marc and I set out on a mission to climb Banner and Ritter.  Well, they were on a mission to climb the two peaks, I was content with the journey to get there.  The climbing would involve some gear and skills that I am unfamiliar with and am not that keen on acquiring anyways because of the risks involved.  It turns out that the journey to get to the two peaks would involve enough uncomfortableness learning how to handle some new mountain travel challenges.

The loop began from Toulomne Meadows, following the Sierra High Route (SHR) to Catharine Lake. Catherine lake sits at the base of a glacier that leads up to the saddle between Banner and Ritter.  Then the SHR is followed to Thousand Island Lakes where we would then follow the north shore up to the John Muir Trail (JMT).  We would then take the JMT back to Toulomne Meadows.  The SHR is not necessarily a trail.  It follows some trails sometimes, but more often than not the SHR is a red line on a map that is basically someone's idea of a good way to travel around the Sierra.  There is a lot of off trail travel over challenging terrain that requires decent navigation skills.  We were off trail from mile 15 to mile 35 of our trip.  The loop we ended up completing was likely around 55 miles.

We started from Toulomne Meadows at approximately midnight on Friday after driving from the bay area after work.  One of the first things we noticed was the prominant haze in the air which was smoke from the Yosemite fires hanging around the Meadows.  I was a little worried about the air quality that we were going to get and how the smoke was going to affect the trip.  The worries quickly dissipated though as we climbed up towards Vogelsang and out of the valley where the smoke was drifting.  There was a bright moon out and the sky was clear, which allowed us to put away our headlamps and do some moonlight hiking.  It was wonderfully peaceful.

About four miles up we decided to make camp for the night.  We bivied up and got about 3-4 hours of sleep before awaking to the sun, packing up, and heading on our way.  Before we reached Vogelsang Lake we came across the High Sierra Camp.  This is a fancy semi-permanent camp up in the mountains.  There are tent cabins set up and tore down for the summer months.  When we dropped by to refill our water people were having breakfast in the dining tent.  It was quite posh.  I think they have a five star chef up there cooking for them.  We saw the menu: all kinds of fancy fare that I don't even get at home!  Marc decided to see if he could procure himself a cup of coffee.  Apparently when he entered the tent with his Western States shirt someone approached him and talked passionately about helping out with the race.  Marc walked out of the tent with a free cup of coffee - Score!

Vogelsand lake and it's surroundings were the first "Wow" moment for me this trip:

Vogelsang Lake with Vogelsang Peak in the background

Sachin and Marc approaching Vogelsang Pass

Views on the other side of Vogelsang Pass

We saw several of these cool waterfalls that just run down the side of giant rock faces.

Half Dome stands in stark contrast to it's surroundings.

View of Lyell fork.
Our first attempt at following the SHR was a total fail.  We knew we had to leave the trail and head east at some point, but we had the toughest time figuring out exactly when.  We theorized about this or that stream or dried up creek bed that might have led from the lake that we were trying to reach to get our bearings for the next move, but ultimately we just picked a stream and followed it up the hill until we got to an open meadow.  This is where Toshi explained his "dried up lake" theory, the first of many to come.  So we assumed we were standing in a dried up lake and then studied the map for our next move to get up to Foerster Pass.  The lines that we were studying didn't make much sense to us, so we just picked our own route to the top.  It turns out that we were not actually at the lake and if we were, the SHR as shown on the map would have matched up pretty close to the line that we picked.  We found the lake as we were nearing in on the pass...a little too late.

Foerster Peak is the big mountain.  We had to make up a route to get to the pass to the right of the peak.

Looking down at the valley as we climbed to Foerster Pass.

Sachin was being a trooper fighting some pretty pronounced altitude sickness symptoms.

The plumes in the distance emanate from the colossal forrest fires in Yosemite. 

Just a couple of dudes climbing mountains.
Lesson one was learning how to use the maps to follow someone elses route.  Lesson two was making up our own route to achieve the main goal of getting over the pass.  These navigational challenges were all new to us and we were learning on the fly.  It was fun.  Lesson three was learning how to climb and descend a talus field.  What is talus?  From Wikipedia:

Scree is a collection of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffsvolcanoes or valley shoulders that has accumulated through periodic rockfall from adjacent cliff faces. Landforms associated with these materials are often called talus deposits. Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form, while the maximum inclination corresponds to the angle of repose of the mean debris size.

If you stick to the well beaten path, that is, a maintained trail of some sort, you will probably never have to deal with travel over talus.  Well, it is different from hiking, it is different from running, it is it's own movement.  Lots of hopping, skipping, explosive jumps followed by concentrated steps.  It is a disjointed, jerky type of movement, but like all things, you get better with practice... Travel over talus is actually quite exhilarating when you can count on the solidness of each footstep.  It becomes nerve-wracking when the rocks move from under your feet, or when you cause miniature landslides.

Toshi is in his element studying maps at the top of Foerster Pass.  That's Foerster Peak behind him.

Views down to Blue Lake on the other side of Foerster Pass.
 In the picture above it looks like a pretty uniform field of rocks down to Blue Lake.  Not true.  If you were to try to take a direct line down to the lake, hopping from rock to rock, you will most assuredly come upon a cliff whereupon you will hopp to your death.  Another interesting thing to learn about talus hopping is recognizing the various obstacles to efficient travel and creating a line that gets you safely to your destination.  More fun stuff.

Joanne liked this pic of the evening views of Bench Canyon.
As night was descending upon us we found ourselves on top of a ridge after some pretty strenuous talus climbing.  I started to get nervous about what we were getting ourselves into that evening.  We needed to set up camp pretty soon as off-trail travel would be pretty treacherous in the dark.  Up on the ridge with no nice place to lay a bivy and no water was not promising.  I was getting even more nervous when Toshi pointed to more fun rock-hopping to contour around to the next ridge, there was no evidence that we were going to find a suitable place to sleep.  But we soldiered on and actually stumbled upon pretty much the most idyllic campsite I can think of.  We came around one of the ridges and then traveled up this tiny valley where we came upon this beautiful high-alpine meadow with a little stream running through it.  Toshi thought we had reached Twin Island Lakes and that they were just dried up like the last one.  In retrospect it is absolutely hilarious to think that this little place would be confused with Twin Island Lakes (as you will see in pictures following).  Anyways, we all bivied up and enjoyed a luxurious 10 hours of sleep, then waking up with the sun, and moving on...
Toshi's setup for the night.  No bears up here!
Credit: Sachin Sawant
 The problem with assuming that this little valley was Twin Island Lakes was that we began looking at the landforms around and planning our route up to Lake Catherine.  The landforms just didn't look right, but we made a bad assumption and then rationalized all of the incongruities and then picked a route.  We ended up high on this ridge and as we went around and up and over we discovered this beautiful lake that didn't make any sense to us because we couldn't find it on the map.  Until we did find it.  And that is when we realized our mistake.  But it was all in good fun because we were having a blast exploring an incredibly beautiful place.  And it was just us.

Cool Peak with no name (on our maps).

Traveling along the ridges with Ritter Range looming in the background.

This is what we were up against...
Credit: Sachin Sawant
Special lake that we pretty much stumbled upon.

Ritter Range was evil looking.  Reminded me of Lord of the Rings.

Twin Island Lakes, lake #1
 Cresting another pass and looking down at Twin Island Lakes was a glorious moment.  The scale of everything around us went up a couple of notches.  It was simply amazing.  I wish I could communicate the scale of the things around us better with the pictures, but the pictures fail.

Marc and Toshi are reviewing our options of climbing to that pass that you can barely see in the top of the picture.  Notice the awesome waterfall?

Lake #2

Alpine Meadow looking up at where we are going next.

The ledge along the mountain that we traveled before following the waterfall to the left.  Pretty scary cliffs on either side.

Looking down from the waterfall
The climb up to Lake Catherine was the sketchiest part of the trip for me.  Cliffs, ledges and steep scree fields all presented ominous signs of the danger that we were facing.  After climbing some pretty normal talus (the not normal thing was screwing up on that talus as you might be able to see in some of the pics), we crossed the waterfall and then started climbing some steeper talus up to a point were we pretty much had three different choices to continue.  Through door one, on the left was some rocks that looked like some pretty technical mountain climbing.  Door two, in the middle, was a crack that looked like you could use handholds on the sides to propel yourself upwards.  Door three, on the right, was a steep scree field.  We went with door number two.  There was no turning back at this point because nobody wanted to go back down that stuff we had just climbed.  Also, there was nowhere to go!  We were in the middle of nowhere and the only way we knew to get out was to backtrack all the way we came, or to get to Lake Catherine.  When Toshi tested out the crack he explained that the rocks were loose and there was a little water flowing down making stuff slippery.  Great.  So the guys got their helmets on (some of that fancy gear that they brought along for the mountain climbing) and I went up first (since I had no helmet).  It was nerve-wracking.  Every handhold had to be backed up because you couldn't rely on the rocks.  You had to be careful with where you put your feet, you didn't want to send a bunch of rocks down on your buddies who were following.  One little screwup and you are toast.  Man, I was nervous.  In the picture below the two little specs up ahead are Toshi and me as we found a way out of the crack onto some more solid rock.

The Crack, and I don't mean Marc's.
Credit: Sachin Sawant

The first of the "Ritter Lakes" that we saw after doing some scary scrambling over the pass.
After we crested the pass we were presented with yet more incredible scenery.  A network of lakes at the base of giant glacier laden peaks.  It was paradise.

Finally reaching Lake Catherine.  Two happy guys at the base of Banner and Ritter.

After reaching Lake Catherine we had to make the tough decision to put off the summit attempt of Banner and Ritter.  The awesome SHR travel ate up a good chunk of our time and we just didn't have enough of it to bag the peaks and get back to work on Monday.  After the decision was made we descended through North Glacier Pass down the last of the great talus fields for this trip.  This led us to Thousand Islands Lake were we sat down to eat lunch.  It was at this time that Marc proposed that he run back to the car over the twenty miles of JMT we had left and take a nap so he could be fresh for our drive back to the bay area.  This sounded like a pretty good idea at the time because Sachin's altitude sickness was not allowing for very fast travel and we knew it might be late by the time we got back to the car and then we still had 4.5 hours of driving to get home.  So Marc took off.

The gang
Credit: Sachin Sawant

Ridges on the north side of North Glacier Pass.

Toshi and Sachin with Thousand Island Lake in the background.
 After Toshi, Sachin and I finished our lunch and packed up we made it around the lake to the JMT whereupon Sachin explained that he was getting worse.  At this point we made another decision to get Sachin to the car with as little travel as possible.  So Toshi and Sachin set out for Silver Lake, a 7.2 mile hike from the junction with the JMT.  I ran the JMT back to Toulomne Meadows so that Marc and I could drive the car over to Silver Lake to pick up Toshi and Sachin and go home.  I knew that the thing that determined when we would be arriving at home that night was how fast I could cover the twenty miles with an 11000 ft pass thrown in.  So I challenged myself to push the pace pretty hard.  I hiked hard on all of the climbs and ran the flats and downs.  I left the lake at 2 p.m. and reached Toulomne Meadows at about 7, a 5 hr split seemed pretty good to me.  Until I found out that Marc covered it probably about 15 to 30 minutes faster, incredible!  What was even more incredible was what was awaiting me when I approached the car.  Toshi come running towards me with a beer in one hand and slice of pizza in the other.  Really?  Apparently they got to Silver Lake and then hitchhiked to a convenience store and then hitchhiked back to Toulomne Meadows.  After some awesome munchies, we got on the road and in an efficient manner slipped into town just before Midnight.  Basically we used every minute of our weekend to experience a new mountain adventure.  Perfect.

The quintessential shot of Banner behind Thousand Islands Lake from the JMT. 
Video Compilation:

Gear Review:

  • Olympus T-320 camera: Grade: A.  Still capturing beautiful vistas and taking a beating.
  • SOG Flash I Knife: Grade: A.  Sharp and light.
  • Jetboil Sol Stove: Grade: A.  This thing has seen some heavy use.  It had no problem boiling water for all four of us to cook our meals with.  It is just so fast.
  • Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon: A+.  Although I heard about a titanium version...
  • REI Minimalist Bivy: B.  Seen a lot of use, taken a lot of abuse, and is still good to go.  Could be lighter.
  • ThermaRest Neo Air X-lite: A.  I love this thing.  A little spendy, but you pay if you skimp on this one...
  • Zissou Lite Nautical Long Sleeping Bag: A. Still trucking.
  • Gossamer Gear Gorilla Pack:  B+.  Has a few rips from some off-trail adventures, but still performs.
  • MSR Hyperflow water filter: A.  It is aging gracefully, but I have had my eye on the Sawyer Squeeze filter...
  • Outdoor Research 10 L dry sack for sleeping bag: A.  I used to use the stuff sack that came with the bag and then put a trash bag around it to protect it from moisture (if your sleeping bag gets wet, you are screwed!).  But this option cuts out the failure prone, clunky, trash bag. And removes one more packing step...
  • Adventure Medical Kit UltraLight: A.  Have never used this thing since my first trip when I explored it's blister kit.  I suppose that is a good thing.
  • Black Diamond Ultra Distance Hiking Poles: A.  Still the best, but have not aged gracefully, the locking mechanism seems to have rusted shut.  Oh well, still work.


  1. Wow, what a great report, Jeremy, less than 24 hours after being back into civilization! Very refreshing video. Rocks, falls, lakes look very much like the Alps. Wonderful shots! And thanks for the navigating tips and geology lesson. I'm still not decided though, I'll keep playing with the ribbons for now... ;-)

  2. Ya, this is pretty much blog-reporting with Pommier timing. ;)
    Wonderful pics! Suspenseful story with the rocks--glad you all made it back safely. And for the record, I liked all the pics. :)

  3. Love the color of the water in the lakes!

  4. I'm going to have nightmares about talus fields just from reading this blog.

  5. Hey Jeremy, it was nice to meet you (and Marc) on the JMT! Cool reading about your adventure! Check out Titanium Goat bivy's. They worked well for our JMT trek. -Toby