1997-1998: LAMARCK COL

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Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -


To get from the east side of the Sierra, coming from the Bishop Ranger station, you drive up to the Lake Sabrina parking-lot where options for North Lake and other popular maintained trailheads abound. Parking is forbidden at the trailhead itself, so you have a quarter-mile walk on paved road, past the horse corral, which winds through a campground. As you go by the hill of talus at the horse staging area, you might be lucky enough to see Old Max, the largest coyote you or I have ever seen. The actual entry point is inside the campground at the turnaround circle to the right. It will be warm -- in August -- under the tall whitebark pine shade. Enjoy the shade for it will not last long. The trail begins at 9,000 feet. Asthma and heart patients should not proceed further. It's a good four miles of maintained trail out to Upper Lamarck Lake with scenes much like the image below. The grade is steady, gentle, and pretty much unrelenting.

About a hundred yards from the lake, the trees thin a bit and the walk levels out. Some years there is a sign tacked to a tree indicating where you are to leave the last maintained trail for the next three to four days.

Crossing the stream's several rivulets is relatively easy, with plenty of deadfall and stepping stones. Once over, wend your way around the ridge-end on your right. So much foot-traffic occurs here that in some years a clearly defined footpath can be found. Which is about all the help you are going to need as you take on what one sturdy Austrialian climber termed, "a bit of a grunt". You are at 10900 feet. Within a mile and a half, you will be at 12,000 feet. There are level sections.

Looking back the way you just came, just before popping into the mile-long sandy valley, this is what you see. Say goodbye to trees for the next two days. As you ascend the glacier valley, you will walk along some charming stretches of snow-melt stream, occasionally traversing snowpacks of up to a quarter-mile broad. Winding up a billy-goat track beside the stream you leave the last trace of vegetation behind to see a prospect as seen below on the edge of a shallow 100m broad basin. The way to go is to the left AWAY from this easy-looking cut. Yes, go up the snow hill. You still have a good half mile to go at this point.

As you go up the snow-pack, you should see the following prospect behind you.

Don't try to clamber over these easy-looking spurs only a few yards away unless you really know what you are doing on rock surface. The other side is a sheer drop of several hundred feet. Stay in the "belly" of the narrow valley.

If you come up too late in the day, instead of sunny slopes, you might see this in front of you.

As you clamber over the last snow hummock to the col itself, you traverse 100m of coarse sand into a surreal boulder field. The tarn will supply your water for the last ascent over the glacier. Just to the right the imposing mass of Mount Lamarck appears startlingly close and, from this angle, surprisingly small and accessible. Many people pause for a quick ascent without pack. Usually by August there are two lines of footprints going to two separate crossover points. Either one will do, but the leftmost series of tracks has the easier descent path on the other side. By this point, altitude airlessness will reduce your speed to about 1/2 to 1/4 mile per hour. You could conceivably overnight there, but I am told by people who have done it, that the wind kicks up something fierce after sundown and the glacier freezes up, making a morning ascent somewhat dicey. Best time to cross is about 1-3pm when the snow is soft enough to toe-jam with sturdy boots. Unfortunately, images of this side of the col did not come out well enough to scan. Next trip.

As you reach the notch grab your windbreaker, as the other side of the notch contains the weather of California and you are coming from the air system of Nevada and points east. That is to say, it be a might breezy up there at 13,000 feet. You should see a little sign marking the col as below.

When you pop through, the boulder-strewn slope looks easy to traverse, but every night finds a couple people camping high on this very cold sand, snow and boulder choked area. It is another good hour to the first useable campsite at the bottom. Stick to the sandy areas and avoid walking on the remnants of grasses growing beside rivulets of ice melt.

About mid-way down, pause for photo ops like this one.

As you can see, Darwin Canyon is an austere, chilly place with startlingly harsh beauty. The weather changes quickly as the following image, taken further down, attests.

The water is sub-freezing, but the surface melts clear by about 1 or so because of movement. Because the canyon is quite narrow, getting lost is impossible. There is one and only one way to walk out of here and generations of hikers have worn paths in what little of the soft earth remains. Some people like to camp in here, but obviously, there is no way you can find a site that is more than 100 feet from the water supply. Temperatures drop from daytime highs of about 69 degrees to about 28 or so in August. There is no better natural observatory in the world, however, as in August, you can easily count 20 or more meteors in about ten minutes streaking across the clearly defined swatch of Milky Way.

A better, and warmer place to set up camp is on the Darwin Bench, which shelters an unusually high collection of scrub pines beside picturesque waterfalls tumbling down to grassy alpine meadows flaring with mountain aster, lupine and white "shooting stars". As you clamber over the outcropping at the last of the five lakes, you see the bench and the obvious massif of The Hermit crouching across the unseen floor of the Evolution Valley.

None of the "trails" are unreliable, as many have been made by non-human forms. At first, you will descend on the right side of the bench. Move along the lakes there and get over to the left as soon as possible, for the placid streams you see become uncrossable cataracts at the edge of the bench. There is usually a clearly definable path at the lip of the bench to get you started going down with the stream to your right in stands of increasingly taller lodgepole pine. At the base of the bench you will suddenly come across the maintained John Muir Trail, and you can go either to the right to the Evolution Valley, or undertake the challenging route along the path to the Wanda Lake area for further backcountry exploration.

If you take this path, also in the direction of the John Manure Emergency Hut, you get to view the entire Evolution Range from the opposite side of Darwin Canyon.

You should be aware that once you come out and have passed Evolution Lake, there are few campsite opportunities for about six to nine miles until Wanda Lake. The John Muir Hut is a stone lump set on a hill of shale and there are no "bathroom" facilities in or about the place.