Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sierra High Route (Day 2)

Day 2 - Lake Catherine to Blue Lake (10 miles)

The second day of our journey broke mostly clear and sunny but that unfortunately would not last.  The creek leading out of the tarn we were camped near gave us our first indication of what was to come as it disappeared over the edge of some unknown cliff. I knew from my advanced reading for this section that this would be one of the toughest route finding days of the entire trip. For the next few miles it would be critical that we followed the written description and several waypoints stored in my GPS very carefully to avoid being "cliffed out" or stuck on a steep descent.  This is the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River starting at the Ritter Glacier above Lake Catherine just a stone throw from our campsite.  After packing up we took a quick side trip to see the Ritter Lakes a short distance away.

One of the Ritter Lakes

Return from Ritter Lakes

In the next couple miles we would descend over 1000 vertical feet before traversing and climbing a cirque wall to the perched Twin Island Lakes.  But first, we had to find our way down the wall...

Descending the wall

Previous night camp was at the top of this waterfall

Waterfall on the wall

Looking back up the wall part way down

Looking back across the valley at the wall we came down.  I'm still not sure how we did it.
The alpine habitat brought the expected birds including a couple of calling White-tailed Ptarmigan and numerous displaying Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. Rock Wrens were so numerous along the cliffs and talus you had to almost kick them out of the way!

At just below 10,000 feet elevation we started a relatively easy traverse across to the brief climb to Twin Island Lakes. 

Traverse to Twin Island Lakes

North Fork San Joaquin River far below from cirque wall near Twin Island Lakes

Ascent up to Twin Island Lakes

Lower of the Twin Island Lakes
The route from the lower to higher Twin Island Lakes was straight forward but impeded often by granite domes and cliffs along the lower lake edge. Progress was slow but steady.  Between the two lakes we came upon some of the best flower displays we've ever seen in the Sierra.



Red and White Mountain Heather
Once at the south end of the upper lake we had a mile-long talus traverse at 10,500 feet across to Bench Canyon. You can't race across talus like this, but race we must as the rain man was knocking on the door. It was close and we made it to a relatively level pitch after a short descent from the talus traverse into Bench Canyon just as the sky opened up. Luckily there was a creek and nice level area just ahead allowing us to throw the shelter up quickly and avoid the worst of the rain.

Talus traverse.  North Glacier Pass (where we started the day) in the middle background.

Talus traverse to Bench Canyon
Bench Canyon hideout
Hiding out in the rain

The rain had started around 4:30 PM and we didn't have the miles in we had hoped for. The objective for the day was to get to at least Blue Lake at the head of Bench Canyon, just below Blue Lake Pass (the Yosemite NP boundary).  We were still 2 miles short of that goal. At 6:30 the rain finally let up so we cooked some dinner.  With a couple hours of light left we decided to throw the stuff back in the packs and make for Blue Lake.  We arrived right at sunset and had some beautiful views of the fading light back to the Ritter Range and Minarets.  It was a fine end to the day.

Bench Canyon after the rain looking back at the Ritter Range

Fading light on Blue Lake
Sunset on the Ritter Range and Minarets from Blue Lake

Bird Lists:

Lake Catherine
Twin Island Lakes
Lake 10290
Bench Canyon

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