Sierra Wandering ~ 08/24 - 08/30/2013

Sunset on Darwin Bench.
"Two guys said they could see the fire from New Army Pass today". . . 

I had no idea that the Fish Fire had started the day before I left for this trip. I could smell smoke at the Cottonwood Pass trailhead the first night, but it didn't seem too bad. The next morning I woke to clear skies and what appeared to be another beautiful summer day in the Sierra. . . but the conditions took a turn for the worse in the afternoon.

By the time I reached Miter Basin the smoke and ash made it unbearable. I met a hiker who told me, "two guys said they could see the fire from New Army Pass today". New Army Pass was only a few miles away. The fire was in Kennedy Meadows, less than 30 miles south, and it was heading toward us.

By 2:30 pm there was a dark amber haze over Soldier Lake, so I turned around and hiked back to the car. This made for a long first day, hiking over 22 miles round trip with a full pack. 

Cottonwood Pass trailhead.

The view from the top of Cottonwood Pass was clear early in the day.

By 12:00 smoke was already visible from the PCT.

Ouch. The smoke created a dark amber haze over Soldier Lake. By 2:30 I headed back to the car.

On the drive back down to Lone Pine I could see the smoke filling the Owens Valley. Even Mount Whitney was barely visible due to the thick smoke and ash. The Rim Fire in northern Yosemite was still mostly uncontained so I wasn't sure about the conditions anywhere in the Sierras. I drove north to Bishop hoping that things would clear out the following day. 

Fortunately the next morning brought clear skies. It looked like the fires in the Southern and Northern Sierras were both a safe distance away. After a seemingly endless wait for a permit at the ranger station in Bishop I was on my way to Plan B. 

I still had five days left so I decided to cross the Sierra crest at Lamarck Col and explore the Ionian Basin.

Route overview map.
I followed the Lamarck Lakes trail out of the North Lake area and before long I was setting up camp above Lower Lamarck Lake. I found a great spot behind the shelter of some trees and rocks and made dinner overlooking the Owens Valley. I was trying out a new 2.5 ounce kitchen setup made up of a B.G.E.T. (Brian Green) titanium esbit stove, Evernew 400ml Cup + Sidewinder Ti-Tri Bundle by Trail Designs and Ruta Locura carbon fiber lid. Since I usually only boil a few cups of water to cook freeze dried dinners or to make coffee this little stove setup was just right.

The weather forecast called for a good chance of thunderstorms so I was using a Mountain Laurel Designs cuben fiber Solomid for the 360 degree wind and rain protection. I would be happy to have a good shelter later in the trip.

The beginning of the Lamarck Lakes trail.

Camping below Upper Lamarck Lake.

Simple 2.5 ounce kitchen.

Due to some problems with my SPOT locator beacon I had to hike back down to Bishop the next morning and didn't get back on the trail until 12:30 pm. I hated to go back down the mountain but when solo hiking I didn't want to take any chances. By the time I got back to Lamarck Lake I was definitely acclimated for the rest of the trip.

I followed the use trail up to the ridge above Upper Lamarck Lake. I had a lot trouble finding the way down from this ridge in the snow last winter so I was anxious to see the real trail. The view from the top of the ridge was beautiful. 

Following the use trail to the ridge above Upper Lamarck Lake.

Switchbacks up the steep ridge.

Switchbacks up the steep ridge.

The view of Lamarck Lake from the top.

Piute Crags from the top.

Owens Valley from the top.

Panoramic view (click for full size).

Once I reached the top of the ridge I followed the very narrow use trail that traverses the steep east ridge on the other side. This trail was completely covered by snow when I was here last winter and the ridge was just a dangerous snow and ice chute. It was a nice change of pace to just follow the trail this time.

There were a few use trails along the way to the Lamarck plateau and all seemed to provide easy hiking. Getting to the top of Lamarck Col required some creative scrambling but nothing difficult. 

After two low snow years in a row the snow field at the base of Lamarck Col was almost gone and the little tarn at the bottom was almost dry. Photos from just a few years ago show a much larger snow field. 

The 'trail' that traverses the steep east ridge. 

he 'trail' that traverses the steep east ridge. 

Looking back toward the Owens Valley on the way to Lamarck Col.

Lamarck Col.

The route to Lamarck Col.

The view to the east from Lamarck Col.

The top of Lamarck Col. Mt. Darwin and Mt. Mendel visible in the background. 

After reaching Lamarck Col I scrambled down to Darwin Canyon and in another hour I reached Darwin Bench to camp for the night. I got there just in time to enjoy the sunset from the very edge of the bench. I made dinner on a ledge overlooking Evolution Valley and watched the alpenglow light up the surrounding peaks. I could see people using their headlamps while camping by Evolution Lake, but soon they all went to sleep.

It was clear so I cowboy camped and fell sleep watching the stars fill the night sky. In the middle of the night I could smell smoke that must have finally made its way to Evolution Valley, but it was gone in the morning and never returned.

Mt. Darwin and Mt. Mendel on the west side of Lamarck Col.

Darwin Canyon on the west side of Lamarck Col.

Minerals from the Darwin Glacier create the beautiful blue water.

I made it to Darwin Bench just in time for the sunset.

Evolution Lake from Darwin Bench.

Alpenglow on the west side of Mt. Mendel.

The next day I arose to a stunning view. I had camped right at the very edge of Darwin Bench and I had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, valleys, lakes and waterfalls. A nice way to start the day. After a leisurely breakfast I started down toward the junction with the JMT. The clouds brought a little rain and it continued to look threatening the rest of the day.

On the way through Evolution Basin I ran into a couple that I had passed the day before. It turns out we had a similar itinerary but the threatening clouds had all of us reconsidering our routes. While lazing beside Evolution Lake we had lunch and talked about long distance hiking, the PCT thru-hikes they had done, homemade gear and just life in general. It turns out that they had also made their backpacks and much of their other gear. I always seem to meet the coolest people while backpacking. After lunch they headed for the safety of the lower elevation in Evolution Valley and I decided to take my chances higher up.

By the time I reached Wanda Lake the cloud cover was getting worse and I didn't want to risk getting stuck on top of Wanda Pass during a thunderstorm. I decided to skip Ionian Basin and explore Davis Lake Basin instead. Davis Lake Pass is at a much lower elevation and the basin itself is lower.

I think it was at this point that I surrendered any planned route and started to enjoy wandering the Sierra.

My original seven day route had been smoked-out (so to speak) and any plan of going into Ionian Basin was now off the table. I was familiar with much of the surrounding area and although I had picked up a map in Bishop I really didn't end up using it much anymore. I found wandering the Sierra to be a whole new way of doing things. Total flexibility. I just slept wherever I finally got tired at the end of each day and started new each morning.

Camp on the edge of Darwin Bench overlooking the Evolution region.

Picasa automatically made this strange panorama of my camp. 

The junction of the JMT and the use trail to Darwin Bench.

Storm clouds over Evolution Basin.

Panorama of Wanda Lake.

Lunch in Evolution Basin.

Storms in Davis Lake Basin.

The view of Mt. Goddard from Davis Lake Pass.

Davis Lake Basin. 

Mt. Goddard from Davis Lake Basin.

Puffy grass and meandering creeks. 

Ready for a stormy night in Davis Lake Basin.

I was ready for a stormy night in Davis Lake Basin. At first I was startled by what sounded like huge boulders routinely tumbling down the nearby glacier. Eventually it became just another part of the night sounds in Davis Lake Basin. I slept like a baby.

The next morning the basin had been transformed. The color of the lake was emerald green from the minerals in the nearby glacier. The large glacially scoured basin was mostly boulders and the rest of the lake was mostly bound by rocks. . . and more rocks. It took most of the morning to get across the basin to the outlet into North Goddard Creek.

Morning along Davis Lake.

Crystal clear water and skies in Davis Lakes Basin.

Waterfall on the land-bridge in Davis Lake.


Davis Lake.

Looking down on the outlet of Davis Lake into North Goddard Creek. My route contoured high above the creek.

Last winter while looking over topo maps of the Ionian Basin I noticed a large bench just to the west of Mt. Goddard. From the maps and photos on Google Earth it looked like a beautiful remote spot with several large alpine lakes and waterfalls. I couldn't find information on this area online, which made it all the more interesting. . . I decided to wander toward this mostly unexplored area.

From high above the outlet of Davis Lake I followed the contour at 10,800 feet above North Goddard Creek and eventually made my way to the other side of the ridge. Although this seemed like the best route at the time Secor recommends climbing to 11,200 feet and following a different bench at between 11,400 - 11,600 to get around the ridge. It turns out my route was longer and less direct. . . and required climbing a few steep talus chutes and a short Class III wall. (Map below).

My route along North Goddard Creek to the bench below Mt. Goddard.

Talus climb to 'Goddard Bench'.

Class III wall on the right. 

Near the top.

Finally at the first lake on the 'Goddard Bench'. 

The view from the bench to the west across Goddard Canyon.

This dark fractured rock seemed totally out of place, surrounded by the lighter granite shoreline and peaks.

The northwest face of Mt. Goddard from one of the many lakes on the bench.

The light came out just as I was passing these waterfalls draining from the many lakes on the bench above.

Waterfall draining from Goddard Bench.

Low water levels in late season made for easy cross country travel.

Waterfall draining from the bench.
By late afternoon I reached Martha Lake at the south end of the bench. It was a relief to see some easy terrain. I found some trees below Martha Lake and made dinner before heading down Goddard Canyon in search of a place to camp.

Eventually I found a nicely contoured spot on some pine duff and fell asleep looking at the stars through the trees. The sound of the wind blowing through the canyon and the waterfalls below made for a restful night.

The view from the south end of the bench: Lake 11,184, Martha Lake, Mt. Reinstein, Peak 12,212 and the LeConte Divide.

Mt. Reinstein from Martha Lake.

Marth Lake panorama (click for full size).

Martha Lake panorama (click for full size).

A momentary clear view of the west face of Mt. Goddard.

Last light in Goddard Canyon. I camped in the trees farther down on the left.

The next morning I enjoyed some granola with blueberries and mangos for breakfast and finally hit the trail at 10:00 am. As I appeared from the trees I must have startled a few hikers on their way down from Martha Lake but after a short chat we all headed down the easy trail through Goddard Canyon. Along the way I couldn't help but stop to check out the waterfalls. One looked like it had a green jacuzzi tub in the middle! Could this be for real?

I made it to the JMT junction in about two hours and took a break under the bridge over the San Joaquin River. I was not looking forward to the first few miles up the Piute Creek trail. I had hiked down the trail a few years ago and I remember the steep stairs and switchbacks. I filled up with water and headed up. Fortunately just as it got really exposed and hot the difficult part was over. Soon I was taking a break along the waterfalls and swimming holes higher up the creek.

I was starting to run out of steam by the time I reached Hutchinson Meadow so I took a dinner break and felt better immediately. I am always surprised at how depleted I can feel after a few days hiking if I don't eat enough. But no problem, after dinner I was good to go.

Emerald waterfall in Goddard Canyon.

Piute Creek.

Pavilion Dome above Piute Creek.

Piute Creek waterfalls. . .

By 7:30 pm it was getting dark but as I climbed higher the trees were thinning and I could finally see some light on Mt. Humphreys. While chasing the last little bit of light I realized that I was almost out of water. By 8:00 it was completely dark but fortunately I could hear water nearby. I filled up at a creek crossing and put on my headlamp.

Almost instantly the smell of the surrounding trees and flowers became much more noticeable. I think with the limited light my sense of smell really kicked in. While hiking in the dark I felt rejuvenated and more in touch with the surroundings. I wasn't afraid but I was definitely paying attention. I felt close to what a friend calls that "just heart and lungs working place". 

By 8:30 pm I had reached a plateau in upper Humphreys Basin and I decided it was time to make camp. I couldn't really see far enough to pick out a site so I just stopped, turned left, walked 100 yards and setup my groundcloth, sleeping pad and quilt. It wasn't hard finding what the rangers call a "durable surface" to sleep on as most of the surrounding area was just crushed granite and boulders. 

Another night sleeping under the stars, but this time there was nothing to obstruct the view. I could see planes flying by, satellites, the milky way and a few flying stars. There's nothing like falling asleep facing the vast universe to create some perspective and humility.

Last light on Mt. Humphreys.

Finding water in the dark.

The universe is difficult to capture with a Canon S95 and a 15 second exposure. 

It turns out I had camped in the middle of Humphreys Basin with a great view of the Glacier Divide at sunrise. My last day was devoted to exploring Humphreys Basin with no particular plan. I found the use trail to Desolation Lake and eventually took a break on the rocky shoreline.

I wandered up a large meadow toward Mt. Humphreys and as I passed Forsaken Lake I noticed a ridge that looked like it might lead to Humphreys Lakes. Polished granite slabs made for an easy climb and soon I was standing high above an emerald green alpine lake. One of the nearby lakes had it's own granite recliner conveniently facing east for viewing the alpenglow on the huge west face of Mt. Humphreys.

After rambling past a series of ridiculously large cairns I found a use trail that eventually took me to Piute Pass. I stopped at the snow-survey shelter on the shore of Piute Lake and caught some good light on the Piute Crags at sunset. Just as it was starting to get dark I made it to the car with plenty of time for a cheeseburger on the way home.

Morning from camp in Humphreys Basin.
Lower Desolation Lake.

Lower Desolation Lake and the Glacier Divide.

The Glacier Divide from Humphreys Basin (click for full size).

Humphreys Basin panorama (click for full size).

Desolation Lake.

Meadow below Mt. Humphreys. I climbed the ridge on the right to Humphreys Lakes.

Looking back from the pass. Forsaken Lake below.

Cross country hiking around the base of Mt. Humphreys.

One of the emerald colored Humphreys Lakes.

The 1,400 ft. west face of Mt. Humphreys.

A lonely granite recliner for watching the sunset on Mt. Humphreys.

I almost walked over these sun bleached bones.

A ridiculously large cairn leading the way in the backcountry.

One of the many hidden gems in Humphreys Basin. This one has a sandy beach.

The lighter granite appears to erode more quickly than the darker metamorphic rock.

Last view of Mt. Humphreys from the cross country route to Piute Pass.

Looking back toward Humphreys Basin from the cross country route to Piute Pass.

Piute Lake from Piute Pass. 

Snow-survey shelter on Piute Lake.

Sunset on Piute Crags.

Obligatory UL scale photo. Under ten pounds including trash from five days.

Route map.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Absolutely gorgeous photos and good commentary as well!

  2. Looks like a great trip, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Adam. I enjoyed your review of the Zpacks Arc Blast. No more sweaty back!

  3. Wow Andy, Great job documenting and sharing the story. Awesome stuff. - Greg G

  4. Awesome journey and pics,
    Like it n thanks for sharing with us... Andy...;-)

    1. Thanks Rahul! I appreciate your comments and it's good to know someone is actually reading this stuff. . .i can't wait it get back on the trail.

  5. Can't imagine how great it is to haul only 10 pounds, dude. When Lisa and I tramped all over New Zealand, I'm sure I had 45+ lbs.

    Great pics!

    1. Thanks Rob! It's a bummer you were carrying so much weight, but on the bright side you were in NEW ZEALAND!

  6. Thanks for the vicarious trip, Andy!

    1. Right on Greg! Thanks for you comment.