Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sierra High Route (Day 7)

Day 7 - Below Stanton Pass to Twin Lakes (16 miles)

Stanton Pass between Virginia and Stanton Peaks
Our final day, assuming we can manage two cross-country passes and hike the miles. After being "serenaded" by the fighting ptarmigan last night we were up early and out the gate by 6:30. First up was Stanton Pass (11,170 feet) a short distance from camp. The approach was straight forward and we were at the summit in no time. The view from the top was excellent, with Whorl Mountain and Matterhorn Peak dominating to the north and west.  Spiller Creek was directly below and our next objective. 

Climbing to the pass

View northwest to Spiller Creek from pass.  Whorl Mt (center) and Matterhorn Peak (right)

Going down...
Again, advanced reading of the route down the north side of this pass told a mixed story.  Roper warned, "the descent from Stanton Pass can prove tricky if the hiker does not find the easiest route possible." This is followed by more dire warnings and ambiguous route suggestions. Thankfully I had read and stored on my phone a trip report from another hiker who suggested ignoring Roper and moving to the left side of the pass at the summit where some manageable class 3 chutes could be used to descend the first 100 feet to more reasonable footing. As we gazed down the wall I wondered how in the world I would get Susan and her pack down this section that required a good deal of balance and hand work...  It was time to relieve Susan of her pack and let her deal with the class 3 chutes unencumbered.  We slowly worked the chutes, first Susan and then me with her pack in one hand, the other grabbing the hand-holds on the wall.  Since I am writing this I suppose it is reasonable to assume we survived. As Susan says, "it's either a story or an obituary," so this must be a story!

Down, down, down

Looking back up at the class 3 chutes
Susan didn't get through unscathed
More talus, granite ramps, and grass slopes and we were down in the Spiller Creek Canyon far enough to turn north and begin the ascent toward Horse Creek Pass.  Whorl Mountain and Matterhorn Peak towered above on the left while Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks kept watch from the right. The canyon was replete with springs all trickling down slope to join the creek.  As had been the theme for much of the hike, flowers carpeted the canyon floor at this elevation of 10,000 feet.  A couple of miles later we reached the head of the canyon at Horse Creek Pass, elevation 10,650 feet, directly below Matterhorn Peak. 

Spiller Creek Canyon looking north toward Horse Creek Pass
Lemmons Paintbrush
Elephant's Head

Alpine Penstemon

Narrow notch at the head of Horse Creek Pass
This pass is unlike any that we have been over in nearly 150 miles of the Sierra High Route. It is a cleft in a rock wall, leading to a snow tongue and multiple glacial terminal moraines to work around and over. Several relatively steep snow fields and lots of talus require careful navigation. As we are descending the first half mile of the narrow canyon I keep thinking I'm hearing voices from behind. But that can't be, there were no other hikers in Spiller Creek.  Weird... Then I happen to glance up and behind me toward the summit of Matterhorn Peak and see 4 young men cruising down the talus slope of the mountain. These guys intersect our canyon well below us so I don't have a chance to speak to them. A few minutes later a man and his daughter follow the same path down and come up from behind us.  I ask and it is confirmed that we have intersected the class 2 day hiker route to the top of Matterhorn. This becomes fortunate for us as now we have a marginal use trail to follow as we continue down this very steep talus choked canyon.


Ice field below the pass.  The pass is in the tiny notch on the right.

More giant talus
Snow fun!

It's steep!
Mountaineering use trails can be steep, and this one is exceptionally so - no switchbacks here, just go straight down!  We finally shed enough altitude and the canyon begins to flatten out; the trail becomes more reasonable and the hiking gets pleasant.  Just a handful of cruiser miles to the car...  Boom, boom, BOOM!  Thunder roars from the crest as the afternoon storm clouds raise their ugly heads and chase us down from behind.  Splat, splat, splat; the first big raindrops fall and we fear a good one coming.  Quickly donning our waterproof ponchos, we just beat the torrent and continue down canyon.  The path is good but the wet vegetation hangs over the trail like the brushes in a car wash.  It wouldn't be normal if we weren't soaked from the knees down anyway!  The flowers are insanely good in this last few miles so we have that to keep us entertained as we finish the distance in steady downpour.  





We reach the Twin Lakes Resort campground in the late afternoon, the hundreds of 4th of July campers not looking too happy about having their holiday drenched.  Navigating the campground roads we find the bridge across the creek and finally have our staged car in sight.  On to Lee Vining for some real food!

This section of the incredible Sierra High Route challenged us quite a bit.  Compared to the middle section we did last year, this was more difficult and occasionally frustrating.  There was plenty of Type 2 fun on this one, that is certain.  As much as we would have liked better weather, it could have been much worse as real snow fell over much of the route just a week later.  The crazy weather continues...  But, in any other than this severe drought year, even thinking about this route at the end of June would have you digging in the gear closet for the ice axe and crampons.  This is normally an August route. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to do it when flowers were at absolute peak in the high country. 

One more section to get, the southernmost - bring it on!

Bird Lists:

Tarns below Stanton Pass
Spiller Creek Canyon
Upper Horse Creek Canyon
Lower Horse Creek Canyon

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