Friday, August 18, 2017

Bears and Gables

And what a day it was! We are back in an area we passed through before a few years ago on the Sierra High Route. We knew then that another visit was in order to explore more thoroughly. It's a long way from anywhere to the Bear Lakes Basin so hiking in today was a lot of work. We started at the Pine Creek trailhead at an elevation of 7,300 feet early in the morning to beat the heat on this exposed climb. Before the day was over we would top out at Italy Pass at 12,300. Five thousand feet of elevation gain - ouch!

The long climb out of the trailhead gave views of the old tungsten mine. Part of the trail was an abandoned road to the Brownstone Mine. At just short of 10,000 feet we hit Pine Lake and the high country. From there the views just kept improving.

We had lunch at Granite Park, a lovely Meadow and granite cliff complex. Continuing up we reached the cross-country turn for Granite Bear Pass, the quickest way into the Bear Lakes Basin. But the lingering snow from our record winter clogged the chute making it impassable for us normal hikers.

Second choice was finishing the climb to Italy Pass and traversing a slope to Dancing Bear Pass just above White Bear Lake. There is still much snow on the traverse but was more in line with our skills. We slowly made the mile long crossing without trouble.

White Bear Lake is a wonderful spot and our first choice for a camp. But the terrain made it hard to find a flat spot so we continued a few hundred yards toward Black Bear Lake. Home for the night with outstanding views of Feather Peak and the surrounding mountains.

Pine Creek Tungsten Mine

Scarlet Monkeyflowers!

Giant Blazing Star

Pine Creek as it spills down the canyon

Lower Pine Lake

The first of many stream crossings

Upper Pine Lake

Granite Park

Approach to Italy Pass

Italy Pass at 12,300 feet is in the low saddle on the right

Almost there

At the pass

The traverse to Dancing Bear Pass (saddle in the distance). Still much snow.

Snowfields we need to cross

Jumble and Italy Lakes below

The small pond at Dancing Bear Pass

White Bear Lake, Seven Gables, and The Gemini

White Bear Lake

Day 2

Black Bear Lake at sunrise
Some excitement to start the day. Just at dawn we had a White-tailed Ptarmigan fly past the tent barking out an alarm call. We didn't see him but the sound was something we rarely hear and very cool.

Not a lot of miles today but some great country. There are no trails in this area so cross-country it is. And there's an amazing amount of snow still present. We picked our way down to the outlet of Black Bear Lake, descended and contoured to Big Bear and Ursula Lakes before crossing a ridge that would give us access to our goal for today - Vee Lake.

Once a campsite was found we dropped all our heavy camp gear and extra food for a day hike all over the basin. We visited Den, Claw, Tooth, and Gruff Lakes - all with great views, especially of Seven Gables. It was an easy day as we were back in camp by 2 pm for a relaxing afternoon.

Lots of alpine birds today including Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco. We saw some ptarmigan feathers but didn't find any wandering about.

Seven Gables at sunrise from White Bear Lake

Nothing like an icy snow descent first thing!

Big Bear Lake and Seven Gables

The outlet from Black Bear Lake

Lots of snow on the way from Black Bear to Vee Lake

Vee Lake below

Vee Lake basin

Den Lake

Den Lake outlet

Just a few large talus blocks to navigate

Gruff, Tooth and Claw lakes in the upper basin retaining a lot of ice

Owl's Clover at sunset

Day 3

Vee Lake and Seven Gables at sunrise
Wow, today kicked my butt. Not in the way of a 20+ mile PCT trail day, but in a really hard cross-country kind of day. Before we even started there was some apprehension about our route for the day. There is so much snow remaining above 11,500 feet that we were worried our pass would be impassable.

From our camp at Vee Lake we had only a few options that didn't include backtracking the way we came in. We could go back up to the Bear Lakes and cross the Class 2 Feather Pass, but we've been over that one a few years ago. We really wanted to make it down canyon to see Seven Gables Lakes and exit through that canyon. So off we went.

The descent from Vee was easy enough but once in the Seven Gables basin the going got a lot tougher. Talus, bolder hopping, icy snow fields, water crossings - we didn't make great time. It was pretty though with the peaks surrounding us.

Eventually we were at the head of the canyon with two passes to climb and choose from. Merriam Pass was out as it is rated Class 3 with plenty of steep snow and cliffs to navigate. That left the nearby Ruskie Pass as our only option. We climbed the thousand feet to the pass in a mixture of boulders, grass ramps, and snow fields. It was steep and tiring but not terribly difficult. Once on top we surveyed the descent and about turned around immediately. The entire descent gully (book rated as Class 2) was completely snow covered as far down as we could see. And the top was STEEP! Just to get on the snow required navigating a 10 foot Class 3 drop and an up climb out of the snow moat. We had our shoe spikes and ice axe poles with us for just such an occasion and decided to go for it.

The snow consistency was actually perfect for such a descent, firm underfoot with a couple of inches of mushy snow on top for traction. We zigzagged our way down the steepest part at the top then glissaded on our rears for a while to get off the top. From there it was an easy drop to the bottom nearly a thousand feet below on mostly steep walkable snow. With a hundred feet to go we hit dirt and made it to the lake. Yippee!

With no other plans for the day we dropped our packs and climbed to the unnamed lake below Royce and Merriam Peaks. It was a fun adventure even if the lake scenery was a little disappointing. The 90 minute and 800 feet elevation excursion left us pretty worn out so we grabbed the first flat spot in the canyon. The wind was whistling up the canyon pretty stiffly and it took four tries to find a protected site. We have a nice view of Feather, Royce, and Merriam Peaks and plenty of water nearby. That'll do it.

Inlet of Vee Lake with Seven Gables beyond

Seven Gables

Seven Gables Lakes basin

Seven Gables Lakes

Moving up toward Merriam and Ruskie Passes

The approach to Ruskie Pass isn't quite the class 1 that the Secor book describes

Snow actually eases the bolder hopping approach

The view down from Ruskie Pass. The first little bit is class 3. Then up on the snow for the rest.

Looking back up to the pass.  Once off the rocks and very steep 
snow at the top it was pretty straightforward

Looking down toward the Merriam Lake basin and our destination

Finally we are nearing the bottom and back to dirt and rock

Upper Merriam Lake basin

Looking back up toward Ruskie Pass

A short excursion took us to the unnamed lake below Merriam and Royce Peaks

Camp at the unnamed lakes above Merriam Lake. Feather Peak is on the right.

Panoramic view up canyon from camp

Day 4

Sunrise view toward Merriam Lake
We are two days ahead of our plan and have seven days of food. We need a new place to go! From our camp there is little choice but to head down to Merriam Lake and on to French Canyon. Our first thought was to go to Royce Lakes. A quick look at the map showed the French Lake area with many new lakes to see.

We made quick work of the descent to French Canyon, picked up the trail, and started up toward Pine Creek Pass. A cross-country turn near the head of the canyon got us on our way to French Lake.

Once there we set up camp and headed off to explore. We made it to all the lakes in the basin - Little French, Lower and Upper Petite, and La Tete. All were backdropped by the massive Four Gables. On our return we climbed a ridge with an excellent view of Steelhead Lake, French Canyon, and many other lakes of the upper reaches.

The weather threatens a bit tonight but it looks like we will get away with a dry one.

Merriam Lake below as we continue down canyon

Merriam Lake

The view to Merriam Pass (class 3) that we avoided

A beautiful large meadow below Merriam Lake

Leichtlin's mariposa lily

It's still spring in French Canyon

The south face of Merriam Peak from French Canyon

The outlet waterfall from Royce Lakes on the shoulder of Merraim Peak

Upper French Canyon with Four Gables beyond (our destination for the day)

Looking down French Canyon

French Lake and Four Gables

French Lake looking toward Merriam and Royce Peaks

Lower Petite Lake and Four Gables

Steelhead Lake

Fleabane Daisy?

Paintbrush and French Lake

Camp looking at Four Gables

Day 5

Sunrise in French Canyon
We didn't go far but had some grand views. The traverse from French Lake to Royce Lake took us across Pine Creek Pass with incredible views down French Canyon and to many mountains north and south. It was easy walking up to the Royce Basin so we ambled over to start our tour with the lowest Royce Lake. Then it was up into the basin proper where we passed by two more lakes before finding a camp spot at the fourth lake.

On the way we finally found some ptarmigan, a mom and three youngsters. As is he case with this species they were very confiding and allowed us great views and lots of close up phone photos. Very cool.

After setting up camp we boulder hopped out way to the highest lake for a look. It's amazing to think that these upper lakes won't melt out this year. 

Traversing to Royce Lakes

Looking south across French Canyon. The Evolution group is in the distance.

Merriam and Royce Peaks


Lowest Royce Lake below

Still lots of snow in the Royce Lakes basin

A lower Royce Lake

The north buttress of Merriam Peak directly behind Susan

Momma Ptarmigan


A pair

Upper Royce basin

Merriam Peak (L), Royce Peak

From Royce Pass you can see all the way down Pine Creek to the Owens Valley

The highest Royce Lake

The storm clouds brew...

Day 6

Fresh ice on the lake
There is fresh ice on the lake as we break camp on our last day. We take Royce Pass to exit the basin and drop toward Honeymoon Lake in the valley below. But the map shows an obscure lake tucked in a ridge that has a name, Golden, so we must go see. 

There is quite a lot of snow remaining in the descent from Royce pass so we grab our spikes and take it. Travel on firm but not too steep snow is easy walking and avoids slick granite and boulder hopping. Once we reach the Golden Lake elevation we head that way. It's some interesting route finding and scrambling at times but soon enough we find this tiny gem. 

From there we choose to continue east to one more pond then off the ridge to the Pine Creek Pass trail. The drop is precipitous but we find a steep notch of mostly dirt between the granite cliffs and make the descent. In minutes we find the trail and start the long walk to the car. 

Our little shelter tucked in the rocks

Alpine Columbine

One last look back down canyon to Merriam and Royce Peaks

Time for some more snow walking

Our descent route from Royce Pass

Coming down from Royce pass is a mixture of snow and rock

Tiny Golden Lake

Golden Lake

From here we can see all the way to Italy Pass (just left of center)

Sierra Daisy

The way home

Looking down Pine Creek Canyon. The car is down there somewhere

One more shot of the lovely Scarlet Monkeyflowers