Returning to the Sierra: High Passes and a Hurricane
We are so fucking back. Returning to the Sierra has felt like the triumphant capstone to what has been such an incredible adventure, and now that I’m in Mammoth and past the high passes I can (quite literally) breathe easier.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a brief second to applaud Waffles, seeing her determination to reattempt the high passes after her nearly hike-ending bout with altitude sickness is one of the bravest and most inspiring things I have ever seen. To see her conquer the high passes has been truly incredible, and I couldn’t be more proud.
But! For those of you curious about the conditions down here, I hope this article sets your mind at ease. Bottom line up front, conditions are near perfect and everything is doable.
Since our return to the Sierra we’ve successfully completed each of the high passes between Cottonwood and Mammoth, including the side trail over Kearsarge.
More vert, more fun! There really wasn’t any obstacles worth discussing on the approach, there is still some snow surrounding the lakes but a truly insignificant amount. The infamous cornice has melted out and is fully clear of snow. The North face is still holding onto some snow above 12,500ft, but again is easily navigable. I’d recommend staying high on the ridge to bypass most of it rather than plunging straight to the switchbacks below.
Steep as Hell, almost no snow.
Beautiful exit point overlooking bullfrog lake, saved our ass evacuating for Hurricane Hillary. No snow.
Honestly not that memorable, little to no snow. Beautiful views into the bowl once your crest the ridge.
This was by far the sketchiest pass of the entire stretch. Lots of fresh rockslides on the approach and a few tricky snowfields with “no fall” or “high consequences for failure” zones. They’re all pretty short sections and I didn’t feel the need to use either my Ice axe or microspikes, but I have a high risk tolerance on snow. A Southbound JMT hiker we met at the top called it his Vietnam, your experiences my vary.
This pass was by far my favorite, but depending on the way you navigate around the South Fork of the San Joaquin (which I’ll discuss later) you might miss it. If you choose to take the Bishop/Piute Passes reroute you’ll miss this one, which I cannot in good conscience recommend. That said it was also by far the snowiest pass so if that’s not your thing that may be the best course of action for you. There’s about 1.5-2 miles of snow walking on the approach but again none of it is difficult or requires technical gear. Be warned, the crossing of the outlet of Helen Lake will redefine being cold.
Another truly beautiful pass, nothing difficult to report.
Unacceptably rude not to make the pass the high point of this climb. However there is a fun (optional) glissade on the decent, so that’s cool.
The short version of this is that none of them have been a big deal yet. There was nothing fast moving that reached higher than my knees, and the deeper (waist height at 6’0) crossings were all slow moving. The biggest obstacle here is just that the water is cold. Oh well.
South Fork of San Joaquin
This is the only crossing of note so far, and it’s been a common topic of discussion among hikers since before most of us even started.
Based off of the pictures I’ve seen, and the hikers I’ve talked to, I honestly would have probably attempted to cross the damaged bridge if I had been hiking alone. It certainly wouldn’t have been the world’s smartest choice, but to me it looked doable. Before arriving at this crossing Waffles and I had agreed it wasn’t worth the risk, and had planned to take the Skurka reroute, which I’ll discuss later. That said, even if we wanted to cross the bridge it would not have been an option. I can confirm the rumors are true, and that the day before we arrived the Forest Service blew up the remaining structure. The river is now completely impassable at this point. You CANNOT ford the river at this location, having seen the river I cannot imagine any attempt to cross it that does not result in a fatality.
Andrew Skurka Reroute (Moose Juice’s Version)
Rather than take the Bishop/Piute reroute we elected to take the off trail route first proposed by Andrew Skurka, and having done it I would recommend this option.
The JMT website has a map of the course you’ll take along with (very bad) step by step instructions. The map, even when downloaded, is very low quality and the instructions are overly simplistic and in some cases misleading, so I’ll do my best to clarify that here. Fair warning, if you’re not experienced with back country navigation I would not attempt this route as it bypasses approximately 6.5 trail miles and adds a lot of elevation change.
Headed north I would recommend starting directly behind the McClure Meadow Ranger Station. From there climb to 10,800ft following a straight line with the ranger station and the western most point of Lake 11106 (as labeled on the USGS TOPO map) as the two vertices. It’s a steep climb, but if you try to add large switchbacks into your route you’ll likely find yourself cliffed out. From here traverse along the 10,800ft contour line to what the JMT has labeled as “Knob 1”. It’s just below the point of prominence on the spur to your west, clearly visible from a distance. This is where my suggestions begin to differ from the JMT instructions. It’s my belief that the easiest route from this point is not to traverse all the way to “Knob 2”. If you think of the point of prominence above you as the center of a clock, with your location being the 6 o’clock position then you should traverse with slight elevation gain to approximately the 11 o’clock position. From here you should find a break in the cliff face with easy access into the large meadow below. From there it’s a straight shot to “Knob 2” which is the saddle to your west. Again it’s extremely visible from a long way off. Once you’re at the top of the saddle at approximately 11,000ft you begin to descend while continuing to travel west. Attempt to hit the first marked creek at 10,200 ft. There’s a few water sources before this, but stay the course. The stream you’re looking for is relatively large in comparison. Continue west while descending until you hit the first draw. It’s subtle but reasonably clear on a map. From here on the decent is a bit of a nightmare. I could not find an easier route than the one mapped my the JMT organization, and to be clear that route sucks. It’s extremely steep rock scrambling down a creek bed. Go slow and carefully and you’ll be fine, but it won’t be fun. The draw soon becomes a creek you can follow alongside all the way to the bottom. A little sketch, but very doable.
Experiencing a hurricane in California was not on my Bingo card for this hike, but honestly not much of what I’ve experienced was. We rode out the storm comfortably in Bishop, and patiently waited for the highway to reopen so we could get back to trail. We resigned ourselves to the road walk up the now closed Onion Valley, but luckily found a hitch with no respect for traffic closures. Interestingly enough I also found myself illegally (a term I use loosely here) getting a ride up a closed road on my Appalachian Trail thru, time really is a flat circle.
Damage from the storm on trail was minimal. There was evidence of some flash flooding and rockslides, but nothing crazy.
I feel extremely fortunate that it looks like with only 250 miles left Waffles and I will be able to hike every inch of the trail this year. I think we will be among the very few 2023 hikers who can say that. My heart goes out to all of you suffering from the fire closures up north, I can’t imagine your disappointment. The trail will still be there in future years once those segments reopen, but still, I am so sorry.
In closing I’d like to take a moment to address the hikers who have “finished” or those that are not planning to return to the Sierra this year. I know it’s a very popular choice this year, but I firmly believe you are making a mistake. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and has been one of my favorite stretches of the entire trek. If you’re running out of time on your Visa, prioritize this section. I promise you it’s worth it. Hike your own hike, but don’t cheat yourself of this experience.
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