Evolution ~ February 2016

Evolution ~ February 2016

Lamarck Col - Darwin Canyon - Darwin Bench - Evolution Basin

Every winter I get cabin fever. I start to dream about routes for the next summer and relive past adventures while pouring over photos and videos. After a while I find myself wanting to get into the backcountry but waiting months until next summer is just too long. 

So a few years ago I started embracing the fourth season. After a few seasons a small group of my backpacking buddies started to join the winter crew and before long we had a annual snowshoeing trip. 

But last year I struggled to keep up after barely getting over a nasty cold right before the trip. I watched from behind as everyone else strolled up the 2,000 foot climb the first day. I was the slow guy that my friends politely waited for. I was sure they were really thinking something like, "no problem dude, we'll take yet another break so this sorry slow screwball can catch his breath". 

So this year I resolved not to let the gluttonous trifecta of Thanksgiving - Christmas - New Years get the best of me. I spent hours on the local coastal trails building my cardio base. After countless lunges, squats, crunches and overnights at altitude in the local mountains I felt ready to conquer the High Sierra again.

This trip was supposed to be a training hike for the annual snowshoe trip this spring, but when a long weekend opened up suddenly Alpine Mike from the popular online group High Sierra Topix was able to join me. 

After camping in the Buttermilks the night before (and Mike at the gate above Aspendell) we got started for a four day trip over Lamarck Col and as far into Evolution Basin as possible. 

The winter route over Lamarck Col (click for full size).
A few years ago I got stuck at the top of the switchbacks above Lamarck Lake on the way down from Lamarck Col in the snow (see: Glacier Divide Loop). After that trip I read about a winter route via the Grass Lake drainage that is much easier (and safer) in the winter, so part of the goal of this trip was to investigate this new winter route. 

The road to the North Lake trailhead is closed in the winter, and a road walk from the gate above Aspendell is needed to reach the actual trail. It wasn't long before we reached the trail leading to Grass Lake. 

A few feet of snow near the North Lake trailhead.
The road to the North Lake trailhead. 

We followed some ski tracks through the trees and up to Grass Lake.

Alpine Mike at the outlett of Grass Lake. 

Piute Crags from frozen Grass Lake.

The route up from Grass Lake winds through the trees and starts to hint at the steep terrain ahead.

Climbing out of the trees.

After six hours of breaking trail through 6-12 inches of snow we met a couple on their way down from Lamarck Col. They were finishing the snow survey and were having a great time skiing downhill from the col. They warned of the steep chutes ahead so we decided to call it a day and setup camp at around 4:30 pm.

My winter setup: a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid. 
Alpine Mike with a MLD Duomid above Grass Lake. 

Day 2:

The next day we started the final climb to Lamarck Col. After climbing a series of steep chutes and braving wind blown snow we made it to Lamarck Col. 

Breaking trail on winter route to Lamarck Col. 

Epic alpine scenery. 

Wind blown snow near the top of the final steep chute.

A glimpse into the crazy windy conditions on the final climb: 

 After climbing the steep chutes we arrived at the more reasonable plateau that leads to the col.

View from the Lamarck Plateau.

Lamarck Col. 

The climb up the final wall of Lamarck Col was steep and I was a little concerned that we might destabilize the 30 degree slope. Fortunately it held and we made it to the top!

View from the top of Lamarck Col. Our tracks our visible on the right. 

Alpine Mike happy to make it to the top. 

View of Mt. Lamarck from Lamarck Col. 

Is that dude wearing shorts? Andy at Lamarck Col.
Alpine Mike at Lamarck Col. 
The heavy winds must have cleared the snow off of the boulders near the top because we were able to follow the well constructed use trail for a while on the way down. Soon the slope was mostly snow which made for easy plunge-stepping to the canyon below. 

View from Lamarck Col: Mt. Darwin, Mt. Mendel and Darwin Canyon. 

Frozen lakes in Darwin Canyon.
Easy travel over frozen lakes in Darwin Canyon. 
After six hours we made it to Darwin Bench and setup a base camp for the next two days. We relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful views across Evolution Valley while melting snow for dinner. Alpine Mike generously shared tales of his summer adventures with Rogue Photonic (another member of High Sierra Topix). 

Base camp on Darwin Bench. 
Sunset in Darwin Bench. 
Dinner on Darwin Bench.
Winter kitchen.

Sunset from Darwin Bench. 

Dark clouds rolled in after sunset but only produced a few snow flakes. Nighttime temps got down to about 17 F that night. 

Day 3: 

This was the day I had been looking forward to. An entire day to explore Evolution Basin in the snow. Although the day started cloudy and cold the weather eventually cleared and we got some epic views of the Evolution peaks. We started by contouring around the based of Mt. Mendel toward Evolution Lake.

Clouds over Darwin & Mendel.
Contouring toward Evolution Lake.
View of Evolution Valley from the top of the waterfall/outlet of Evolution Lake. 

Outlet of Evolution Lake was starting to melt. 

Clear skies above Evolution Lake. 

Mt. Huxley while snowshoeing across frozen Sapphire Lake. 

Snow wave. 

Back to base camp below Mt. Mendel.
Sunset from Darwin Bench. 

Day 4: 

I woke to Alpine Mike saying, "it's 10!". It took a while for me to realize what he was talking about. Eventually the fog of restful sleep cleared and I realized he was talking about the temperature. I was relieved to know my winter gear was warm enough to stay comfortable down to 10 F. I had slept like a baby and actually slept through the three alarms I set the night before. 

The reason for my relief was that I had removed about 4 ozs of down from the upper half of my custom (aka: homemade) winter quilt before this trip. Since I brought a warm Montbell Mirage down jacket to wear around camp I figured the extra down wasn't necessary if I used the jacket as part of my sleep 'system'. Fortunately the experiment worked. For details check out my Winter Sierra Gear List ~ 2016

We had agreed to get an early start to allow for plenty of time to get back to our cars before dark. We had about 12 miles to cover, which under normal conditions is a nice half day of hiking, but in the variable snow conditions 12 miles could take 12 hours. 

After thawing out my shoes (they were frozen solid each morning) and quickly packing up we set out to cover some easy ground over the frozen lakes in Darwin Canyon. 

Sunrise over Darwin Bench. 

Easy travel over frozen lakes in Darwin Canyon.

Frozen lake in Darwin Canyon.

The hardest part of the day lay at the end of Darwin Canyon. We started the slow 1,000 foot climb over some steep terrain to the west side Lamarck Col. 

Finally near the top!

After reaching Lamarck Col the rest of the day was downhill. We took advantage of the steep slopes and glissaded much of the way back down the east side winter route. 

Glissading down the east side of Lamarck Col. 

A cool video of Apline Mike glissading down Lamarck Col: 

Easy cross country terrain back down the winter route from Lamarck Col. 

Celebration after glissading down a steep chute. 
Snow covered road back to civilization. 

Most of the way down was easy, but by the end of the 10 hour day we were feeling beat. The last few miles through slushy unstable snow made for some challenging ankle twisting moments. . . as if to remind us that nature was still in charge. 

Many thanks to Alpine Mike for breaking trail and helping to make this a memorable adventure. 

Thanks for reading. 


  1. Nice trip report. I'd love to do something like that, especially 'embracing the 4th season'. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Thanks Drew! It's never too late to embrace the fourth season.

    2. Andy, what an amazing trip! I began with your 2016 trip with alpinemike, and followed to your blog here. Great stuff, we envy you for those nice trips.
      Re. the quilt, do you lie on one half and drape/tuck the other over you? Where di you get the pattern an material to make the outer covering? I have an extra large down bag with blown out baffles that render it pretty useless, but perhaps I could open it up, and rebuild it as a sort of quilt, or just use the feathers with one of your outer coverings. Is there a link to this gear info Andy?
      Again, kudos to you for your great long trips, and you wintery travels too. Ian and Lizzie

    3. Thanks Ian! I would take the down out of the old sleeping bag and make a new one. Just by using updated/lighter materials your diy project should weigh a lot less.

      I first used the quilt kit from Thru-Hiker.com, then eventually made revisions with each new quilt. I like having a closed footbox all the way up to my waist for cold temperature quilts. Zpacks has some great new fabrics that are lightweight and have a good feel. Check it out: http://zpacks.com/materials/breathable-fabric.shtml.

      Have fun! Andy.