Mt. Lamarck SPS / WSC

Sun, Sep 11, 1994
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Thu, Aug 12, 2004

I had picked up a magazine earlier in the year, I think it was Outside Magazine, and on the cover was a beautiful picture of McGee Canyon. Inside was an article on Evolution Valley, describing it as one of the more remote locations in the Sierra Nevada of such grand beauty. I knew little of the Sierra High Country at that time, and in a moment of impetuous decision making, decided I wanted to go there.

I was more ambitious than usual in planning this trip, willing to bring anybody who showed an interest. We actually had a meeting with half a dozen people at my friend Ray's home to discuss the trip, the route, and expectations. I have never since repeated this trip-by-committee method. People seem just as happy, often more so, to let me make arrangements and plans, and just come along without having to get too involved in the details. In the planning meeting, I layed out the topo map, showing the route into Evolution Valley by way of Lamarck Col and North Lake. This east side entry seemed to be the shortest route into the area, although it involves a good deal of cross-country travel and a pass at almost 13,000 ft. I tried to stress the difficulty of this route, particularly as we would not be acclimatized, but as usual in the comforts of civilization, a hike across a topo map is not given the same serious consideration as a route actually travelled. I hoped we might be able to climb over the col and down to the first of the Darwin Lakes on the first day, and down to Evolution meadow on the second. Two days in, three days to explore on dayhikes (I had grand plans to climb a number of peaks in the area, including Mt. Goddard), and two days out. Everyone agreed on the plan.

Several persons dropped out a few weeks before the trip, but there were still five of us that drove out from San Jose on Friday evening. Ray and his girlfriend Judy drove in one car, Eric, Terry, and myself in Terry's Truck. We had no Wilderness Permit, hoping to get up early in the morning to be first in line at the permit booth on the road to North Lake. We made camp under the stars in the parking lot where the booth was located. There were a few other cars when we arrived around midnight, but no one was stirring. We bedded down on the hard pavement with tarps, pads, and our bags, and after an hour of nervous excitement and discussion of the big event ahead, we drifted off.

A number of cars came in during the night, waking a few of us briefly with lights and noise before they joined the rest of the sleeping crowd. Terry was first to wake up in the morning, and to his surprise there had been quite a few folks that had arrived in the wee hours. A line of a dozen people had slept behind the booth, and another half dozen were already in line, mostly sitting in chairs, sipping hot drinks, trying to stay warm in the cold morning air at 7,000 ft. We got ourselves in line quickly, but fretted that we may already be too late. None of us had been to this area before, and were unaware just how popular it was. We had expected the crowds to be thin the weekend after Labor Day in September, but we were quite wrong on this account. Keeping our place in line, we packed up our sleeping bags and readied our packs while we waited for the booth to open. Once the ranger showed up to pass judgement on the poor slobs vying for the limited trail slots, things moved along. Watching from the front while Terry kept our place in line, I became gravely concerned as first Bishop Pass and then Piute Pass permits were filled before we were halfway through the line. These had much higher quotas than Lamarck Col, but were taken quickly. When we got to the front, we were pleasantly surprised that not only were there quotas for Lamarck Col available to us, but no one before us had requested any. We would have the route to ourselves today. Should we be concerned? Did we really have such a great plan, or did the others know something about this route to keep them away? Hmm...

After getting our permit, we drove up to North Lake, parked our vehicles and headed out. It was early morning still, around 8a, so it appeared we'd have plenty of time to get up to Lamarck Col. It was warming up quickly as we started out on this cloudless morning. The route follows the regular trail up to Lamarck Lakes for the first 2 miles before leaving somewhere between the lower and upper lakes. Secor's description says to leave before the trail crosses the creek (which we did), but I think there is a place marked with a sign shortly after crossing. This caused us to wandered about for a short while before we happened upon the use trail and were all happy once again.

The use trail was a nice surprise, and it made the route finding rather easy. We toiled for hours. The sun, lack of acclimatization, trail steepness, and the weight of our packs loaded with a week's worth of food all conspired against us. It was becoming clear to all of us just how hard this route was. Judy was having the hardest time of it, and like a good boyfriend should, Ray stayed back with her to keep her company. We waited periodically to regroup, after which we would spread out again. By about 2p we were still a good distance from the col and our plan was beginning to unravel. Terry had begun to drag seriously, falling back as far as Judy and Ray, and then some.

By 3p we were about half a mile from the col but still some vertical distance. We were far above treeline at nearly 12,000 ft and we were near the limit of the grassy vegetation. Eric and I had been observing Terry closely and were both concerned that the altitude was affecting him more than the others. He seemed more than just tired when we talked with him, his thinking was slow and a little confused. Terry denied feeling anything other than tired, but we weren't buying it. We decided to set up camp where we were, primarily to let Terry rest, but also because the trickling stream here might be the last water to be found before we got to Darwin Canyon on the other side of the col. The wind had also picked up, and it was likely to get quite cold once the sun went down behind the crest.

We made a camp as best as we could and cooked an afternoon dinner. Afterwards I decided to hike up to the col to see how difficult the final snowfield would be in the morning. It was a nice walk without the pack, and I enjoyed being off by myself for a change. I reached the last bench at the base of the col a short time before the sun was going to set. The east side of the col was in the shade now, and much colder, so I decided not to continue in that direction. Instead, I climbed a ridge to the south that was still in the sun, a spur off the main crest. It was a nice little perch that afforded me a swell view of the eastern side of the Sierra. The opposite side of my ridge was a steep drop-off, and gave me the willies. The altitude was giving me a headache and the wind coupled that with a biting chill, so I only stayed a few minutes before beating my retreat. Back at camp the others had already turned in to get out of the wind, and I joined them as well by ducking into my own. We didn't make it over the col, but it seemed we were still doing pretty well, considering.

The wind blew hard in the night and shook the tents with a fury. By morning it had died down, although it was still quite cold. Our water source had frozen over, and there was no telling how long it would take to melt again. Ray and Judy came out of their tent rather frazzled. Seems the wind had broken one of the three pole supports in their dome tent and the fabric had whipped about violently through the night. Together Ray and Judy decided that this trip just wasn't what they had in mind, and made plans to return. Only one night and we were losing 40% of our group, not a good sign [Ray and Judy returned to Mammoth Lakes where they rented a condo for a few days and had a rather pleasant time there]. Terry was feeling better in the morning, and both he and Eric were up for continuing on.

While they were happy to continue on to Evolution Valley, neither Terry nor Eric shared my interest in climbing Mt. Lamarck, a short distance north of the col. They encouraged me to go alone, more than anything hoping the extra climb would wear me down a bit. Ray and Judy decided to lounge around abit with the others before heading down. I wished them well, and discussed briefly my plan with Eric and Terry. I would head off up to the col, drop my pack, and climb Mt. Lamarck. I expected that they would find my pack before I returned to it, and I'd find them down in Darwin Canyon somewhere. Terry doesn't move too quickly over the boulder fields, so I figured I'd be able to catch up to them in a few hours at most.

Off I went, retracing my route from the night before. When I got to the east face of the col, I found the snow there rock hard and slippery. We had no axes or crampons (these were the days before I owned such things), and it seemed this might be harder than I had imagined earlier. I found some slight depressions in the slope, indicating where others had travelled before. These proved not only useful, but key to getting to the top. I stepped quite cautiously across this steep snowfield, angled at 25-30 degrees, as I did not want to slip off and slide a hundred feet into the rocks below. There was no way I was going to be able to arrest my fall should I slip. It continued for about 50 yards like this. Once off the snow I felt much relief, and climbed the remaining short distance to the top of the col. Looking over the other side things looked much better -- no snow and series of narrow benches strewn with boulders. It would take a while to get down, but it looked all class 2.

I left my pack as planned and climbed up the south side of Mt. Lamarck from the col. It was again mainly of boulders, nothing of any difficulty, per se. I was still far from acclimatized, and I was beginning to get winded now over 13,000 ft. It did not take more than an hour to reach the summit. I remember little of the views, other than it was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, and I was treated to views of peaks upon peaks in all directions, only one of which I could identify. That one was Mt. Darwin to the south, it's distinct flat top giving it away, its steep northwest face impressive. I wandered about the top of Lamarck a bit before I found the register (the high point is not obvious on this peak). I didn't stay long before I headed back down. I was eager to reach Evolution Valley today.

Back at my pack, I found no sign of Eric and Terry on either side of the Col. They were either a good way behind or a good way ahead of me by now. I carefully picked my way down the west side of Lamarck Col, looking for the easiest way down. It is fun route finding, but not really hard as there are a myriad of ways one can descend here. It took most of an hour to descend the 1200 feet to the Darwin Lakes. Once here, it was hardly the high alpine meadow scene I'd hoped for. All of the lakes in this canyon are quite desolate, almost completely devoid of any vegetation. The possible camping sites were few and bleak looking. Although the elevation level is fairly flat through much of the canyon, the going is slow due to the relentless boulder fields that cover most of the canyon floor.

It was 3p when I reached Darwin Bench at 11,300 ft. To my continuing surprise, I did not catch up to the others, and by now I was firmly convinced they must have been behind me at the col. I could easily have made it down to Evolution Valley with plenty of sunlight left, but I thought it might be better to wait here for the others to catch up. This was a nice area besides, with good camping sites and a swell view perched high on the north side of the valley. Several hours went by while I tried to nap, explore around (leaving my pack in an obvious spot in case they came by), and generally while away the time. By 5p I began to worry. What could possibly be keeping them? It seemed too late now to descend into the valley below, so I set up my tent (I was quite happy that I had decided to carry my own tent), and waited some more. This was quite hard, having little to do, and wondering what perils may have befallen my friends. If one of them was hurt, they would have little choice but to return, unable to contact me. By 7p I decided to find what I could for dinner. I had plenty of food (and the cook pots and fuel, too), but the stove was back there with the others leaving me some cheese, granola, and other snack food for my dinner. I finally decided to turn in sometime after sunset. In the morning I would head back up, all the way to the trailhead if necessary. This trip was looking like a complete bust.

The next morning I got up, ate another cold meal, packed my stuff, and headed back up. After about an hour, somewhere in the lower reaches of Darwin Canyon, I spotted Eric making his way along the shoreline, over the boulders, towards me. I stopped where I was, gave a wave, and waited for him to catch up. We were happy to see each other, but there was little concern on Eric's part. They had climbed up and over the col the previous day, but had decided to call it quits halfway down the Darwin Canyon. They knew I had a tent and figured I could easily do without a stove, and together decided they didn't feel like chasing me down the canyon. Terry showed up about 15 minutes later, slowly picking his way over the boulders. It was clear that he was uncomfortable on such terrain, and felt no urge to move faster than he was comfortable with. Oh well. This would teach me to refrain from getting too far ahead in the future, and to do a better job of communicating plans and contingencies.

It took us much of the day to get down to Colby Meadow where we set up camp. At the mouth of Darwin Bench we had found the good use trail described by Secor and followed it down to where it intersected the John Muir Trail. It took a day longer than expected, but we had finally made it! A ranger from down the valley a short distance stopped by to check on us. He checked our permit, gave us some news, the most interesting tidbit that a mountain lion had been spotted in the area today. That would be an exciting thing to see, as I'd never before seen a mountain lion in the wild. While we were making dinner it began to snow lightly. It was sticking to the ground before we turned in for the night, coming down a bit heavier, and we wondered just how much snow we might have in the morning. So much for the morning's clear weather...

Come daylight I awoke to find three inches of snow on the ground. There were still clouds in the sky lingering about, but much sun was shining down as well. Although it was barely 7a, Terry had been up an hour before me, out in the meadow watching a beautiful (so he told me) sunrise. By now I was chomping at the bit to get out and dayhike up McGee Canyon, my personal goal for this entire trip. In fact I hoped I might be able to make all the way to Mt. Goddard and back before dark. Both Terry and Eric had no desire to join me, and were quite content to lounge about camp after 3 days lugging their packs to get here. So I left them, or perhaps better put, they let me out, much like putting the family dog out for exercise when you don't feel like going along. The sun was out warming things up nicely, and the snow was beginning to melt quickly and looked like it would do little to hamper my planned hike.

My first order of business was to get across Evolution Creek. Even in September there was a good deal of water, but after only a little hunting a suitable log was found to cross it. On the south side of the creek the trees and north-facing slope combined to protect the snow from the suns melting rays. While wandering towards the opening to McGee Canyon, I came across some large tracks in the snow. After ruling out dogs, I concluded they must be cougar tracks! How exciting. I followed the tracks for a few hundred yards through the snow, losing them now and then (there wasn't a consistent snow cover any longer), hoping I might spot the cougar out on a morning prowl. It occurred to me that I knew little about cougars. How did I know it wouldn't find me an interesting target? What if it he pounced on me unexpectedly from atop a rock or behind a tree? Let's see, what did I have to defend myself with? A couple water bottles, a camera, some clothes. Not so much as a nail clipper on me. I decided to abandon the hunt for the cougar.

One travels up McGee Canyon for only about a mile before the forest begins to give way to open meadows, and a more alpine setting. A thin use trail can be found here as well. A massive wall of rock, known as The Hermit rises up on the east side of the canyon. Rated class 5, I had little hope of reaching its summit [later I was to learn that it is only the summit block that is class 5]. It was impressive to look upon. On its western flank I could see what looked like the opening to a large cave high on the cliff walls. Could this be the origin of the feature's unusual name? Years later I found that Theodore Solomons had named it so because it stood alone, detached from the other massive peaks that formed the ridges around it. The hike up McGee Canyon was everything I had hoped. Wonderful meadows, clear blue lakes, savage rock formations rising to great heights on all sides. By the time I had reached McGee Lakes in midmorning, the snow had completely melted. It was an idyllic hike around and about the lakes. There was ample evidence of the popularity of this area for camping, but today I had the place to myself. It felt as if I was the only one for twenty miles around, and even if I knew in my head this was hardly true, I let the feeling sweep over me, and enjoyed it immensely.

As I reached the end of the canyon around noon, it became clear to me that there was no chance of reaching Mt. Goddard and returning before dark. While I still think it can be done as a very long dayhike from Colby Meadows, the route through McGee Canyon is not the easiest way to get there. Once could make much swifter progress by staying on the JMT until leaving it in the vicinity of Wanda Lake. The cross-country route through McGee Canyon adds too much additional elevation in addition to the slower progress one makes without a trail. It had begun to cloud over a bit more, but the tops of Mt. Mcgee, Peter Peak, and the surrounding peaks were still below the cloud level. At the end of the canyon I followed one of the rivulets that cascaded down from the rocky walls to form the source of McGee Creek. It was all desolate boulder fields as I climbed higher, broken only by a series of small lakes that had been formed as an ancient glacier had retreated up the north-facing slopes. I climbed a small unnamed peak a little over 12,000 ft, the high point I would reach for the rest of the trip. From here I had a wonderful view looking east into Evolution Basin and the Pacific Crest beyond, and the Goddard Divide to the south. Far to the southeast at Muir Pass, I believe I was just able to make out the Muir Hut. This suddenly gave me the inspiration to visit this famous stone shelter, and I turned my attention to getting down to Evolution Basin as quick as possible.

I dropped down nearly a thousand feet in something less than half a mile, a pretty good scramble down the western flank of Evolution Basin. I had been hiking almost six hours mostly without a trail of any kind, and without seeing a soul the entire day since I had left Eric and Terry early in the morning. As I came the JMT/PCT, it seemed almost a superhighway, not because I saw anybody, but because the trail looked well-maintained compared to the canyon I just hiked through. More astonishing was that at the very spot I came upon the trail, a man's leather wallet was lying there right in the middle of it, not a soul around. It was well worn, a few tattered papers and receipts, and sixty dollars. How could someone manage to lose their wallet right here in the middle of the trail? The curiosity was killing me. There was no licence, no identification card, no name of any sort inside. I tucked it into my pants pocket and started hiking up towards Muir Pass. After about 40 minutes I had passed by Wanda Lake and Lake McDermand, and began the last 500-foot climb up to Muir Pass. I gained on another dayhiker ahead of me, saddled only with a loosely-filled daypack. He was an elderly gentleman, probably 65-70 years old, and I suspected he may be the owner of the errant wallet.

"Hi there!" I said from behind, startling him out of a trance-like concentration.

"Damn near gave me a heart attack there!" was his reply.

"This wouldn't happen to belong to you?" I asked, producing the wallet from my pocket.

He clutched at the inside pocket of his jacket and then practically snatched the wallet out of my hand. He seemed to think for an instance that I had lifted it from him, but quickly came to realize he must have lost it on the trail somewhere. He was thankful, introduced himself, and we chatted briefly. Henry was on a dayhike from McClure Meadow, about a mile down from our campsite at Colby Meadow. It was well past 4p, and at his current pace it seemed it would be 5p before he reached his destination, Muir Pass. I questioned whether he ought to turn around, but he told me he had a flashlight with him and was prepared to return well after dark. I wished him well and went on ahead.

The weather held out and no thunderstorms developed. At Muir Pass I examined the stone structure which was much larger than I had imagined. I checked out the route down the other side into LeConte Canyon. It looked much steeper and just as desolate as the north side: rock, stone, rock, boulders, and more rock. I beat a retreat long before Henry had reached the top, passing him on the way down. I decided to run the return route along the JMT, about 8 miles back to camp. It was a grand run down through Evolution Basin, an interesting contrast to my more leasurely walk up McGee Canyon. The downhill made it easy to maintain a nice gait without the need to expend too much energy. Had the trail been uphill or even flat, I would not have had the energy left for a jog. I passed a number of hikers going both directions on my return. The first campers I came across were at the northern end of Evolution Lake. I noted the small cairn marking the use trail where we had come down from Darwin Bench the day before, and for the second time in two days followed the trail as it descends steeply over a thousand feet into Evolution Valley.

I was back in camp shortly after 6p, which gave me plenty of time for a nice shower before dinner and sunset. We had a grand campfire that night as we recounted our adventures of the day. Eric had spent the day reading, resting, and doing watercolor. He painted me a postcard featuring The Hermit, an amateurish rendition to be sure [one of his first], but a memento I have treasured ever since. Terry had spent the day lounging, a short hike, and the like. Ray had given us his flask of Southern Comfort before leaving us several days earlier, and we used it liberally in our hot chocolate, just as its owner had instructed, and pronounced it good.

I had been thinking throughout the day how we were going to get back to the trailhead. If it took another three days to return, we would have to leave on the morrow. While that didn't bother Eric or Terry, I was a bit distraught that I might not get a chance to explore as much of the area as I had hoped. So I hatched a new plan that would let the others hike at a more leisurely pace, and would give me the mileage I was looking for. The plan called for us to hike out to the west, down Evolution Valley, into Goddard Canyon, to the mouth of Piute Canyon. Eric and Terry would then hike out to Florence Lake, while I would return up Piute Canyon and back over Piute Pass to North Lake. I would then drive the truck around through Yosemite to pick them up at the Florence Lake Resort. They loved the plan. It would be all downhill for three days, and a hotsprings was known to be in the vicinity of the last evening's campsite. Terry was concerned that I would have too much hiking to do, and asked if I really wanted to "sacrifice" myself to retrieve the truck. Before I could lie about my less-than-noble intentions, Eric was quicker to laugh loudly and explain to Terry that this was what I lived for. There was no denying it as I grinned sheepishly.

It was after 10p, and we were about to call it a night when a stranger walked into our camp, headlamp ablaze. Henry had returned! Only he had wandered into our camp thinking it was McClure Meadow. He was damn tired, but in good spirits. Seems he does this sort of thing a lot. We offered him a seat by the fire, but he declined, wanting instead to get to bed. He bid us goodbye after a few minutes and headed down the last mile to his own camp. Only now did Terry and Eric truly appreciate the story I had related earlier about meeting old Henry out by Muir Hut.

We packed up the next morning and headed out, the finest day we'd had yet. It's a nice walk down Evolution Valley and Godard Canyon. Of particular note were the huge western cedars that dotted the steep eastern flank of Goddard Canyon as we descended. Where Evolution Creek meets the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, the power of the cascading waters can be strongly heard and seen. The trail follows the river down to Florence Lake, so from this point on there is always the sound of the rushing water to accompany the hiker. It was eight or nine miles to the junction with Piute Creek, and even with our leisurely pace we arrived before 3p. We found a nice campsite overlooking the junction of the two tributaries and had a relaxing afternoon. After dinner Eric and I climbed up several hundred feet of the hillside behind us to catch a beautiful sunset to the west.

I was up early the next morning and made breakfast before the other two awoke. I was packed up and ready to leave by 7a, just after they had gotten out of their sacks. I was eager to get going. Originally I had planned to hike out in two days from this point, but I now thought I might be able to cover the 18 miles back to the truck in a single day. I didn't relay this to Eric and Terry as I didn't want them to plan on me arriving a day earlier. This would also give me an extra day for another long dayhike which suited me all the more.

It was an epic hike in the best sense. The trail climbs moderately, rarely steeply, and I kept up a blazing pace. I stopped every hour or so to take in some water, and took a ten minute lunch halfway through as my only real rest. My pack was lighter than before, as I carried little food and no cook pots or fuel as I had earlier. Best of all I was superbly acclimatized and had no trouble regaining the altitude. I saw no one on the west side of Piute Pass. The hike up through first heavy forest, then broken meadow, then alpine meadow, and finally the starkness of Humphreys Basin. Glacier Divide was particularly impressive, walling in the southern boundary of the basin. I passed a few folks going uphill on my way down from Piute Pass. It was much steeper on this side, and I was glad I was heading down instead of up. I felt sorry for the others bearing loaded packs, toiling to climb the steep trail.

I reached the truck at 2p, a bit tired, but feeling pretty good. I drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs where I soaked and rejuvenated my whole self, in every meaning of the word. I never appreciated the hot springs much when I condo-camp in Mammoth Lakes, but after four days in the back country, this seemed as good as it could possibly get.

Continued...


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