High Sierra Tramp Day 3: Climbin’ Criks & Movin’ Mountains

July 20th, 2022

Stocking Lake–Sawmill Pass Trail –> JMT –> White Fork Creek –> White Fork Pass –> Tarn below White Fork Pass (mileage + vert not availale for today)

Last night I could not bear to set an alarm. It was so late, I didn’t want to to be reminded how little sleep I  was going to get. I wake at 5am anyway and then hear the sound of someone else’s alarm. So that’s it, time to get up. I make my coffee and stare out over the boulder field we came through late last night. My gaze drifts up to the ridge and around those gullies off Baxter’s spine evoking feelings of disbelief. How did we do that?

The glory of camping in a boulder field

From where we are this morning we stilll have quite a lot of talus to negotiate before we reach green patches of dirt. We set off at 6am making work of a peaceful morning among the rocks. It may not be ideal to start the day in boulders but it’s a heck of a lot better than doing it by the beam of a headlamp!

And we’re off!
Leaving Baxter behind…

Before too long, the morning walking transitions from large boulder hopping to a soft, pleasant grass and we are in treeline again. I love the austerity of being completely surrounded by granite, but when I get back to the trees, I always feel a certain calm. Trees are truly such a magical presence in the Sierra.

I think the trees are happy we’re here

We pass a camp of people who have clearly packed in with mules. They brought everything but the kitchen sink and they are cooking bacon and have thermoses of coffee, oh my gosh! Of course I automatically think of trail magic and we all comment on the powerful aroma of the food. But it’s not trail magic, so we have to quickly divert our hopeful longings as we won’t be eating a town meal for quite a long while. The coffee I drank this morning at 5am feels like it did nothing for me. I feel wobbly like I have jet lag. My brain synapses are not firing just yet and I begin to wonder if they ever will today? I sure hope so, we have a lot of work cut out for us heading over White Fork Pass this afternoon.

We’ve made it to grass!!

After passing above Woods Lake, we merge with the Sawmill Pass Trail where the contour lines spread out wider. This is absolutely lovely walking through a mix of forest and slabs. It is less than two miles and then we are on the JMT just below 10,000 ft. It is comical how many folks we cross paths with as soon as we hit the JMT. It’s a really long uphill slog for the Northbounders and none of them look happy. Can’t blame them either, their packs are huge and it is really really hot. We are hot and we’re going downhill. Way downhill. We now have to drop all the way to 9,000 ft to White Fork Creek, that’s 2,400 ft lower than where we camped. And, this is only so we can climb back up to 12,400 ft at the pass. We are going to need to start that climb out wet and cool.

Sawmill Pass Trail (note the difference between this trail and the next photo of the JMT)
The good ol’ JMT, aka: the Sierra Superhighway

The JMT follows along Woods Creek for several miles here with plenty of opportunities to get into the water. We scout a perfect spot to dunk and we all three go in with full clothing and shoes on. I even get my hair wet, which is rare since it takes so long to dry. Won’t be an issue today! The water is so refreshing, it’s a small shock to the system that does me some good to wake up my sleepy brain. The rapid drop in body temp leaves me shivering in the shade too. Okay, ready to climb!

Shortly we break away from the JMT and start climbing steeply up along White Fork Creek. At first it’s a little bushwhacky and we are navigating some steep, loose dirt and rock, then we realize since the water level is so low, we can actually walk in the creek bed and get our feet wet anytime we want to cool down. This turns out to be absolutely lovely walking as we are going straight up the waterfalls and climbing atop the tacky white bedrock. The bedrock here is super bleached white and makes this water look so pure like quartz crystal, it is mesmerizing to look at and so inviting.

And we’re off trail again, whoo hoo!!
White Fork Creek

There are so many little pools that entice one to swim and we stop at one such pool for lunch. The lovliest sound of flowing water is music to our ears as we sit silently loading our bodies with calories. There is no shade but the water sure helps keep us cool. I enjoy my lunch food very much today. This week’s lunches consist of half an everything bagel with dijon mustard and cheese, jerkey, chips and gorp. I eat my fill and feel really satiated. A full belly before this massive climb will do me well. And a 2nd coffee ain’t gonna hurt to boot!

Ahhhh that crystalline water!!
Team Lounge

Just before we set off for the afternoon climb, I wet my long sleeve shirt, Christy and Michelle fully dunk in again and off we go. The coffee helps a lot and I finally feel like that jet lag has worn off like magic! Keeping cool also makes a world of difference in my brain function and mood. I am really enjoying this creek climb, when else would anyone get to do this? Normal water levels would not be condusive to taking this particular way up. Though I do not wish for the Sierras to endure any more drought, we recognize how special this is.

Climbing up the creek, literally

We eventually pull up and away from White Fork Creek following a branch that spurs off toward the pass. We stop again to sit in the water and drink up. Eventually, the flat walking is over and we find ourselves sitting at the base of White Fork Pass trying to figure out which one is the exact pass. We pull out all the “tools” for good navigation and start talking and speculating.

This pass is an “alternate” route on Skurka’s KCHBR (King’s Canyon High Basin Route), and we chose it over the primary route which would have taken us into Arrow Basin, mostly since that would have required even more descent along Woods Creek, only to climb up again in the grueling heat. This pass seemed like a pleasant alternate and nicely sets us up for Cartridge Pass trail tomorrow. We pull up our route description from Skurka’s guide and find the nanoscopic description we have of this pass leaves a lot to the imagination. I guess that’s what happens when you take an alternate.

Identifying White Fork Pass from afar
Getting all the water we can
Pleasant walking before the pass
Take in the Beauty
Who doesn’t love a view like this?
About to leave the water for good

Our GPS location that marks the pass and what we see on the maps all contain differing/conflicting information so we have to make our best guess. We can’t put it off any longer so we start making our way up. Within 30 minutes of a steady effort on very steep terrain, Michelle and I pause to look up. We are suddenly so close to what seems to be the pass, could it really be? We are sort of incredulous, it can’t be that easy, it’s like we went through some sort of dimension warp. Something if off. We take a gander about to see where Christy is, and notice the views we are already getting. Wow!

We were just at that water down there!

We check our GPS tracks and sure enough, the pass seems to be about 800 ft to our left, yet we still question if that’s actually it. If so, then how did we get so far off? That’s a lot of traversing to get over there only to find out it’s not the pass but it’s making more sense now that it must be so. Reluctantly, we start making our way over the traverse. Christy is already in the next gully.

We wind up having to traverse across three gullys to get far enough over. It is a lot of work. The rock is embedded with deep sand underneath, so it’s one of those two steps forward, one step back kind of situations. In between the gullies is very difficult, we are slipping and sliding and there is nothing to hold onto and the slope angle is super steep. The gullies are lined by chunky rock that require we make several exposed hands’on scrambles to get over. It’s a little nerve wracking crossing the gullies and it’s difficult to tell if we are really progressing. The rock is not as stable as we would like, but this project is still kind of fun and the promise of success is soon within reach.

Oh hey, just crossing me some gullies up here
You can sort of see a “top” up there

It is critical here that we locate the pass exactly since we will have to deal with what’s on the other side. The only fair warning we have from Skurks’s note is to avoid the Northern angled contour coming down from the pass. We know it is super steep and there are places you don’t want’t to get stuck in.

This is where Christy says “better get out your mojo”. Mojo, well I think I left it on Mount Baxter yesterday, but I’ll try! The second half of this climb to the pass sure is a fair bit of work, and it gets steeper the closer we get to the pass. By the time I am almost at the top I am literally using my hands to dig into the sand to get the upward momentum I badly need. I am grasping at nothing, sand is slipping through my fingers, my feet are sliding out from underneath me, it’s all kind of wild like a moving mountain treadmill. The girls are just up ahead of me and cheer at my arrivval. Whoo hoooo, we made it!!

Clawing at the dirt cuz what else can I do?
Team Lounge, White Fork Pass, 12,400 ft

We take a short break at the pass, get our next Team Lounge Photo taken, and get right back to work focusing with laser attention on how to get down. This is the critical piece so that we don’t end up on a cliff. We aim to descend safely and not encounter any more Crazy Pants situations. We each scout a slightly differen’t way to take the first drop, making our way once again into endless, steep, loose talus. It doesn’t take long at all until we realize across the board that this entire side of the pass is super loose and we are having flashbacks to yesterday. There are so many rocks getting dislodged we spread out so that none of us is in the fall line. This would be where the Mojo is quite prudent.

Top of the pass looking back
We have a fair bit to get our camp

Dang it, we may in truth be dealing with Crazy Pants again, except we should not have to cross gullies so much on the way down this one like yesterday. So there’s that. We once again seem to enter a time warp. There is a large gap in photos taken from these hours. I think we all just became intently focused on getting the job done and we all had strong motivation to get to camp at a reasonable hour tonight, or at least before dark.

Literally the only photo I took on the way down

Meanwhile, the rock is sliding down and tumbling with nearly every move, so much so, that I am starting to get used to that sound now. I don’t know if that’s good or bad? Like yesterday, we each have a close call of some sort or another with these moving rocks, this mountain is literally moving. We are moving this mountain. In the process we each receive new bumps and bruises but we do manage to make it down safely and it is still daylight when we reach the first lake, but there’s no good camping there. Okay, so that was not as harrowing of an experience as yesterday, but it did not help us to restore our faith in the rock. That may take some time.

Not loosing our personalities over this!

Once at the base of the pass, we re-group for a minute. Michelle just took a spill and did like six moves all in one to catch herself. We are impressed! Nevertheless, she has new battle woundsthat will ned some tending to later on. We all do. Now that we’re on level ground, it’s clearly time to eat snacks and drink water for sure.

As we descended we could see a little group of tarns in the distance that looked flat and somewhat green so we hope to find good camping there. Thus, we set our sights wistfully ahead and tally-ho, we push on. From here we are home free, and even though we are still on talus, we have nowhere to fall and when you look out yonder there is grass, hooray! We are well above treeline still, so tonight’s camp will be exposed and hopefully we won’t have rain or high winds.

Rocky Lakeshores are Lovely
That color!!

When we get to the distant little tarns, it’s 7:30pm, quite a lot later then we would have preferred, yet so much better than last night’s 9pm arrival. We still have a bit of the light from the golden hour, twilight time and it’s a very pleasant temperature. No wind. No clouds. There are decent campsites here and water nearby to boot. The views from here are actually quite impressive too, we are good to call this home for the night. Whoo hoo, what a day! We drop our packs with heavy thunks onto the Earth, stretch our limbs, and just like yesterday, we look back to what we just came down and shake our heads in disbelief. How did we just do that? Another one for the books.

And we have found grass…

After pitching my tent and getting my sleep sytem all set up, I walk down to the little tarn below our camp to clean up. I strip down naked and splash water on my beat up body. I really have a lot of scrapes, blood and bruises. Wow. The sensation of feeling the cool water drip on my skin and the air temp with the slightest breeze is enough that I feel chilled and so alive. I filter a couple liters of water for dinner, enjoying the last of the glowing light as the mountains across the valley below shape-shift into dark silhouettes of night.

How can I describe this feeling? I know it well, yet finding it is super elusive. It happens when you are finished with a grueling day, finally all cleaned up, exhausted, hungry, and so elated by all the beauty you experienced in just that one day. It is enough to rip you open. It’s tough to compare how great this feels to anything in the mundane world of civilization. My brain must be flooded with serotonin and other feel-good molecules. It is addictive indeed, yet so fleeting, so ungraspable. Taking in the moment of bliss, I walk back to camp feeling this high, I want this feeling to last forever.

A moment of taking it all in…
White For Pass is now behind us

When I get back to my tent, Christy doles out more essential oils for my battle wounds, which really increased in number after White Fork Pass. We cook our dinners in the evening alpineglow absorbing the silence, the colors, the day. I really want to eat outside and enjoy the last light but the mosquitoes start to swarm as soon as I get all set up out there. I last like five minutes with the muzzies, they are a total nuisance. The girls are already zipped up in their tents, and shortly so am I.

I am amazed I made it up and over that pass this afternoon. Prior to that climb, I was already so tired, physically and mentally (I think we all were) and yet we did it. We are not too far behind schedule here either. I am learning so much out here in just the last two days, I love that. Already today, as sketchy as that pass was, I felt better and more confident compared to yesterday’s shenanigans. I guess we set the bar pretty high! The consensus is that the loose talus on both the mountains we climbed thus far is not the experience we came out here for, it is simply too risky and really not fun when it’s so loose like that, so hopefully those situations are behind us now, but you never know.

Christy has a ton of experience up here in the Sierra’s and re-assures us that nothing else we plan to do on this entire trip is going to be as bad as the last two days. I would be totally okay with that! You know, when I named my blog Moving Mountains I had something else in mind. I always loved the quote “you climb mountains with your feet, you move mountains with your soul”. I think these past two days it has been the opposite, we were moving mountains with our feet, yet we definitely climbed the mountains with our souls.

Sunset for the soul

Crazy Pants, Moving Mountains and all, I am having a great time out here with these strong, gritty, funny ladies. I am so thankful for the opportunity to spend 24-7 in this vast, wilderness, in the mountain range I love most in the entire world and to be in the midst of disovering new places out here. This life is the richest way to spend one’s days. What a gift.

How can you not love drinking from pristine waters all day and dousing that water over your body to keep cool as the mountain sun shines down on you? Our feet touch the Earth all day, and often our hands cling to the steely rocks. We immerse ourselves into nature, we merge with the dust and dirt. We become one with the elements as we move across the landscape. We feel the air on our skin and in our lungs and we roll with the weather rain or shine. We curse the scortching sun, embrace the fierce winds, we worship the clouds and dance with the stars.

6 thoughts on “High Sierra Tramp Day 3: Climbin’ Criks & Movin’ Mountains

  1. Mary Poppins, after your description of grasshopper col I think I will pass on that one. I will just enjoy your pictures. I laughed when you said,” when I named my blog moving mountains I had something else in mind.” Shakespeare would have loved it! When I walk down the trail, the mountains seem to say to me,” get off trail come visit us back here, you have the key!”

      1. Hello, Mary ( the bard) Poppins. It is true you really connect with the reader. People want to feel the dirt, taste the good water and find out which poop trowel is best. The important things. Looking forward to more reports from the high country, Ed

  2. Hi M

    You know, there seems to always be some core kernel of your reports that really resonates, really seems to vibrate with the essence of your experience in the mountains. In this piece…

    It happens when you are finished with a grueling day, finally all cleaned up, exhausted, hungry, and so elated by all the beauty you experienced in just that one day. It is enough to rip you open. It’s tough to compare how great this feels to anything in the mundane world of civilization. My brain must be flooded with serotonin and other feel-good molecules. It is addictive indeed, yet so fleeting, so ungraspable.

    I’ve been there. I’ve known that complete exhaustion that is rivaled only by the total euphoria of dwelling in the paradise that is the Sierra Nevada. You describe it so well, the memories flood back, so much so that I can feel the grit and grime of a long, sweaty day on my skin. Thank you for helping me to remember that remarkable sensation. I hope you feel it again soon!

    1. Hi Tom! Well cool, that’s a great point of feedback, I definitely hope to convey the feeling of it all, the why, what it is that drives us to keep returning year after year, it’s great that you were able to re-connect with that sensation in the memory banks of your soul, nice 😚

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