Cross Country Loop Around Mt. Darwin via Haeckel Col & Darwin Col

After finishing a section of the Sierra High Route a few weeks ago I met a guy named Donn while hiking out through Sabrina Basin. We talked nutrition, gear, exercise, footwear and world politics while hiking a few miles to the parking lot. I rarely meet somebody who shares so many similar common interests, including a passion for cross country backpacking in the High Sierra.

I couldn’t believe it when he showed me a map of the cross country passes he had been scouting out for the past week. They were the same passes that I had been researching all winter. We decided to take one last trip of the season together, weather permitting. 

During the next few weeks we had to delay the trip due to the mid October storm, but we lucked out and took advantage of an unusually warm break in the weather last week. 

We started out by acclimating at Midnight Lake the first day. It's only a few miles to Midnight Lake from the Sabrina Lake TH so I was able to leave home in the morning and still get there in time to have dinner at the lake.

Sabrina Basin Trail Head.

There was still some snow on the trail from the storm the week before. 
Cowboy camping on some pine duff at Midnight Lake.

The next morning we got an early start up the ridge between Hungry Packer Lake and Midnight Lake. Secor recommends starting at the very beginning of this ridge, but Donn had scouted a short cut directly from Midnight Lake. 

Mt. Darwin in the morning from Midnight Lake.
The route up from Midnight Lake.
Looking back on our route from Midnight Lake up to the ridge between Hungry Packer Lake and Midnight Lake. 

Soon we reached the base of the large valley that leads to Haeckel Col (12,780 feet).

Looking back on the way through the valley.

I took thie picture below of the west side of Haeckel Col from the JMT earlier this summer. I couldn’t wait to check out the lakes, cirques and mountains in the huge basin above Sapphire Lake, but Mt. Haeckel and the col (see the red arrow) looked intimidating from the west. Could there really be a route up that steep granite wall?

Haeckel Col from the west while hiking on the JMT.

Once we got near the crest on the east side we dropped our packs and decided to try out what looked like it could be the ‘best’ route. We lucked out and found an easy way over the col the first try, with only a short class III climb down the west side.

The east side Haeckel Col from Lake 12,345.

The east side Haeckel Col.
The east side Haeckel Col.
Almost there. 

The views from the top were amazing in both directions. 

Mt. Haeckel from Haeckel Col. 

Andy at the top of Haeckel Col, looking west. 

The scale is difficult to capture. Donn and I are somewhere on the boulders in these pxts. 

Donn at the top of Haeckel Col.  

Andy at the bottom of the boulder field, looking at Lake 11,808.

Mt. Fiske & the Fiske glacier from Haeckel Col. 

Mt. Fiske and Mt. Huxley. Lake 11,808 at bottom.

The view west from the top. From left to right: Mt. Huxley, Mt. Goddard, Mt. McGee.

After a 1,000 foot scramble down to lake 11,808 we followed some more boulder fields and a few granite benches down to Sapphire Lake. By that time we were losing light so we booked it on the JMT to a campsite at the top of the waterfall leading from Evolution Lake.

The view of the west side approach to Haeckel Col on the way down the boulder field down to Lake 11,808.

The west side of Haeckel Col. 

West side approach to Haeckel Col from Lake 11,808. 

Fall colors in Evolution Basin.

Evolution Lake, Mt. Mendel.

We found a great site covered by trees at the top of the waterfall.

The view of Evolution Valley from the top of the waterfall.

 The next morning we headed up to Darwin Bench, with some great views looking back toward Evolution Lake.

Evolution Lake from Darwin Bench.

The color of the lakes in Darwin Canyon was similar to the bright blue/green of Marion Lake on the SHR.

And there were a few sandy beaches.

Beachfront in Darwin Canyon.

We climbed up the boulder fields at the east end of Darwin Canyon on the way up to Darwin Col (13,034 feet).

Looking back at Darwin Canyon on the climb up to Darwin Col.

It was a challenge finding the boulders that were stable AND didn’t have any snow on them. I was just wearing trail runners.

Donn climbing the boulders and snowfields to Darwin Col. 
Footprints in the snow on the way to Darwin Col.

The sun went down as we were climbing to Darwin Col. There were amazing views of Mt. Darwin, Darwin Glacier, Mt. Mendel and looking back at Darwin Canyon and Mt. Lamarck.

Darwin Glacier just after sunset.
Mt. Mendel at sunset.
Darwin Canyon and Mt. Lamarck at sunset. 

Finally we reached Darwin Col with a little bit of sunlight to spare. The east side of Darwin Col is much like the east side of Frozen Lake Pass. We had fun scree skiing down the steep slope.

Donn getting ready to scree ski down Darwin Col. 

By the time we got toward the bottom it was getting dark. 

Some clouds were starting to work their way over the Sierra Crest. This system would bring heavy snowfall in two days. 

We found the nearest flat spot that had a little cover from the wind. It was a cold night at our camp at the base of Mt. Darwin (about 12,700 feet). The wind seemed to come from all directions as it swirled around the end of the cirque. My meager 1/8” GG pad and Klymit Inertia inflatable torso pad barely did the trick insulating me from the cold granite, but my homemade 20 degree quilt kept me toasty on top.

Cowboy camping at 12,700. 

Our water bottles froze solid overnight.

The scramble back down to Midnight Lake was a breeze compared to the previous two days.

Darwin Col from the east side. 

Mt. Darwin from Blue Heaven Lake.

The fall colors on the hike out through Sabrina Basin reminded me that this would probably be my last trip of the season before the first real winter storms kicked in. . . although I’m still hoping for a trip in November.

I found the word "Candy" with an arrow written in the snow on the way down. I knew it must be time to get home to see my wife, her name is Candy. Possibly a note from the mountain gods?

A message from the mountain gods?

About gear, I was using a homemade cuben backpack with a removable internal frame. I took the frame out and cached my bear canister at Midnight Lake after the first night. The 20 degree quilt is also homemade. 

Homemade cuben fiber backpack with removable internal frame
Although I went UL with a base weight of 7.5 lbs (including the bear canister) my hiking buddy Donn was using mostly traditional gear. By the third day he was talking about how he could save 10 lbs just by using a different backpack, sleeping bag and shelter. I think carrying 35+ lbs up those boulder fields was uncomfortable.

If you're interested here's a link to my gear list.

Here is a map of our route: 

Thanks for reading! Andy.


  1. Perhaps a little of my devilish nature...Don't know what possessed me to add a "C" to "Andy".
    ...The Mtn God

    1. You ARE the mountain god. Thanks, it definitely made me smile.

  2. LOL, it did more than that! He booked it for home!

  3. Excellent description, linked to me from High Sierra Topix. Those are two cols I have not been over, in fact. Daunting talus, but fall is so nice in the mountains.

    Back in the early 2000 or so we did Echo to Wallace. Later Lamarck to Alpine, climbing Mendel along the way. I seem to remember a third trip going over Keyhole Plateau and Piute too.