Monday, July 13, 2015

Sierra High Route (Day 6)

Day 6 - Cascade Lake to tarns below Stanton Pass (11 miles)

Sunrise over the 20 Lakes Basin

Another day, another big cross-country pass. From my advanced reading, the next two passes made me nervous - rugged, high difficulty, and very remote. Today's pass was Sky Pilot Col, a tiny notch in the Shepherd Crest at 11, 650 feet. Once over this pass and back into Yosemite N.P., we are in some of the most remote and least visited backcountry in the Sierra for the duration of the trip.

Sky Pilot Col (left end of the lower ridge between the two peaks)

Steep scree near the top
Most of the climb from camp was uneventful. There was a reasonable use trail up the first 900 feet to Secret Lake.  This small tarn sits at the bottom of a glacial cirque with the dominant Shepherd Crest directly above. From there we worked our way up some stable talus and then the final few hundred feet of nasty steep and loose scree. At the top were a couple of young men, accomplished thru hikers who were doing the High Route north to south and only on their second day. They were waiting for three others of their group to summit the col from the other side. Since descending loose scree and talus can dislodge rocks on those below, we stayed at the top for a nice extended break. These five were the only other High Route hikers we encountered all week. With time to kill we chatted, but also search around for the namesake flower of the col - Sky Pilot. Polemonium eximium is a gorgeous ground hugging flower only found above 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada and a wonderful prize for hiking want-to-be botanists like us.

Polemonium eximium or Sky Pilot
View south from Sky Pilot Col including North Peak (center), Upper McCabe Lake (right), and Mt. Dana (left far background)
View to the north including Matterhorn, Stanton, and Virginia Peaks.  We will pass all these mountains in the next 30 hours.

Endless talus dancing
When the rest of their group reach the top we bid our goodbyes and start down. The 1,300 foot drop to the next goal, Shepherd Lake, is a mile-long tedious dance on loose talus where any inattention could result in serious injury. After a good long while we pull up at the shore of a pretty little lake for another well earned break and some food. OK, enough of this resting stuff, we have miles to make and places to see.

Looking back toward Sky Pilot Col
The rest of the day is fairly easy cross-country hiking. We finish the descent out of the canyon with Shepherd lake using Grey Butte across the canyon as a landmark, all the way down to below 9,000 feet at Return Creek, then resume climbing the opposite steep wall of Virginia Canyon to Soldier Lake at 10,600 feet sitting in a perfect glacial cirque. It must be time for second lunch!

Heading down into Virginia Canyon aiming for Grey Butte (right of center)

Bog Laurel

Soldier Lake

We've been staring at Grey Butte for a while, and now will make the final ascent to just below it's summit and some small tarns at the base of Stanton Pass. Stanton Pass sits between the two stately peaks of Virginia and Stanton. Crossing the pass early tomorrow will be the last major hurdle of the trip, although Horse Creek Pass will need to be managed later in the day as well.

Walking along the last stretch to the tarns I kick up a White-tailed Ptarmigan, our first seen for the trip (others heard only). It's a striking male who has little use for us humans and quickly scampers away into the rocky terrain.  We find a lovely campsite between a couple of tarns with the mountains of the headwaters for Return Creek and Virginia Canyon to gaze upon. It is a fitting last night camping spot.  And best of all, we only got a few sprinkles of rain all day, almost but not quite breaking the streak!

Camp below Stanton Pass (left) and Virginia Peak (center)

Sunset from camp
White-tailed Ptarmigan (photo from an earlier trip)
The light fades and we settle in the shelter for rest.  It isn't dark but close enough for tired hikers.  From just uphill of the tent comes the distinctive cackle of an agitated ptarmigan.  And then, like he was shot out of a canon, the bird flew right past the open door of the tent screaming all the way down hill and out of sight.  We have never seen, or heard, anything quite like it.  Over the next hour more cackling and ptarmigan screaming could be heard, and in the darkness birds could be heard flying about - all around our tent.  It was crazy!  At first we thought perhaps it was a lekking behavior, where the males of grouse species collect on a common ground to battle for females.  But my reading afterward has me now thinking that it was more likely a territorial fight between at least two pairs of ptarmigan for a territory, as males of ptarmigan species don't lek but pairs will fight each other for prime nesting sites.  Whatever the case, it was fun!

Bird Lists:

Sky Pilot Col
Shepherd Lake
Canyon below Shepherd Lake
Return Creek to Soldier Lake

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