High Sierra Tramp Day 6: Smoky Town

July 23rd, 2022

Trail Junction for Bishop Pass –> Helen Lake –> Black Giant Pass –> Muir Pass –> Evolution Basin

In the morning I have such a hard time waking up, I am feeling really, really under slept. I thought I’d adjusted to this early schedule and now this morning feels less so. I suppose we have been putting in really long days, and I guess feeling tired is sometimes just part of being in the mountains.

I venture out of my tent and into the woods for a pee. It’s still dark enough that I need to wear my headlamp and I try not to stumble over rocks and holes that are under the ferns. I am really not awake yet. When I get back to my tent I can hear the girls making morning sounds now so I reason I need to get a move on. I multi-task by sipping my coffee while getting dressed. It’s only 50F out so this really makes starting the day a lot easier.

Today we have a long-ass walk along the PCT up LeConte Canyon. It’s roughly 7 miles and 3,500 ft of climbing to Helen Lake where we plan to go off trail again, this time heading for Black Giant Pass. From there we will drop into Ionian Basin for the afternoon. Christy is a little concerned about this section for herself. Her lungs and heart have not been happy climbing into the higher altitudes all week and it seems like her condition might be getting worse, though she does not say so. Michelle and I are concerned for her well-being at this point.

Once I have packed up my tent I am dirtier than ever, just absolutely covered in soot, and there is just nothing I can do about it. Hiker trash that I am, I have to embrace it. All of this brings me back to my PCT days, and that’s a headpsace I can hang out in anytime, bring on the nostalgia!

Classic hiker trash
Morning along the Middle Fork

We set off in dusky light. The steep walls on either side prevent the sun from pouring into this enormous valley. We are following along the middle fork of the Kings River and I’m loving the dramatic Yosemite-like walls towering above. I never tire of walking this section of trail, even if it is a long-ass climb. With the backdrop sound of the flowing water we slide into a mellow groove and our muscles adjust to another day of walking. As we gain some elevation we begin to realize there is actually smoke settling into the valley. Wow, didn’t realize we were sleeping in that. It looks pretty bad. Even still, the cool morning air is perfect for our climb, and the sunlight filtered through the haze does lend to something of an ethereal feel.    

Impressive walls lining the canyon floor
photo courtesy of Michelle

The higher we climb, the more we can really see the smoke accumulation below. Are we breathing this up here too? This can not be good for Christy’s lungs, that’s for sure. We really slow our pace now, making sure not to suck the smoke into our lungs. We stop at the top of a giant cascade for snacks and water and look over our route ahead. From here we can really see thick smoke below, it’s really not looking good. We not only wonder what this is going to mean for us but what effect the fire may be having on the communities near them. Year after year there has been so much devastation due to the fires. It’s crazy too, because a big reason I came out here in July this year, was to avoid the fire season.

Wow, crazy smoke down there
Seems to be getting worse

This is a good opportunity to look over the route through Ionian Basin. With how Christy is feeling and now given this smoke, we start to question whether it’s a good idea to push this itinerary. Ionian is the most austere and tedious section of our route. Michelle and I are both also rationing our food and if we go into Ionian Basin, we will have to spend an extra night. This sort of feels like two strikes. It is starting to seem like the writing might be on the wall here.

The Black Giant peeking out above

We finish our break and get back to climbing. I bring up the subject of town food thinking this will motivate us to get this climb done and what it does instead is opens a can of worms. It’s not a good idea to talk town food when you still have almost two days of heavy hiking to do. We talk about eating steaks and salad and I’m craving french bread with butter and a trip to Schat’s Bakkery and we all want real coffee. Man oh man that all sounds so amazing.

Climbing, climbing we are baking in the sun now, and since we are taking freqent breaks, we stop to make snow angels in a little bit of left over snow. The sensation of ice on my skin is such a dramatic contrast to the intense heat of the sun, it almost hurts, but it hurts so good.

Face plant snow angels
Just a few more switchbacks

When we arrive at Helen Lake we are thirsty and starving and there is this most amazing turquoise water and a perfect grassy spot to sit upon. We have found our lunch spot for the day. Christy accidentally drops her O-ring from her Sawyer in the water and I quickly volunteer to fish it out with her trekking pole. The icy cold water feels truly amazing on my fatigued legs.

Helen Lake
How can you not get in it?

We sit, eat and talk for a long time, eventually arriving at the conclusion that going into Ionian Basin is out for this trip. We need to get out of this smoke asap. As much as I was looking forward to getting into Ionian I am truly okay with our decision. Ionian is not going anywhere and honestly I want to feel my best going into a place like that. Christy is apologetic yet I can easily say I have enjoyed this week immensely and there is not a cell in my body that is disappointed. I am seriously so grateful for all that we’ve done and have enjoyed every minute. Plus, this just gives us a reason to come back, right?

Christy comes up with a new proposal that we can’t refuse. Her idea is to hike up to Black Giant Pass this afternoon as a side trip before we hit Muir Pass. From there we will be in a great position to study the route into Ionian, we can practice identifying features from map to landscape and vice versa and generally take in the lay of the land. Michelle and I are down, this feels like a perfect compromise. 

Now that we’ve made this decision, we are totally embracing the Team Lounge attitude, thus stretching out our afternoon break even further. By this evening we will be in Evolution Basin where we now plan to camp. I have to admit I am stoked to camp in Evolution Basin. It’s always been a very special place to me, a sacred place. The more time I get to spend there, the better. With this plan, we are on track to hike out to Bishop tomorrow over LaMark Col.

After this very extended lunch we are motivated to get off trail and hike up to Black Giant Pass. The name in and of itself sounds intimidating to me, and, it’s something that’s loomed in my mind for years. We read over Skurka’s notes and while it says the pass is more diffcult than it looks we just can’t imagine this is the case and think it might be a typo. We pull out our maps and ascertain it’s only about a 400 ft ascent above the little tarn below it. How bad can it be, right?

The Black Giant is calling us and we must go

The best way to the pass is to depart from the trail near the inlet of Helen Lake. We rock hop our way up the slightly angled drainage, embracing the cross country travel. It really is fascinating how instantly your brain needs to switch gears when you set foot where there is no path, everything comes into sharp focus. Soon we have the turquoise tarn that sits just under the pass in our sights and the terrain levels off for a spell. This turns into a lovely rhythmic style of talus hopping that I could happily do all day.

Looking up toward Black Giant Pass

The final 400 ft push offers us several different ways to go and we split apart, each tackling what looks interesting to us. Michelle in her direct style reaches the pass first and takes a seat with a view.

Michelle looks into Ionian Basin from the pass
Team Lounge, Black Giant Pass, 12,218 ft

From the pass we take our packs off and pull out our maps and compasses. We practice taking a bearing from the map and translating that to the field and vice versa. We also get more practice on basic orientation and identifying landmarks such as Charbydis and the entrance to the infamous Enchanted Gorge. We discuss why the skill of dead reckoning is so important, and especially applicable in a landscape as tedious as what we are peering into.

Charbydis in the center, the toute to Enchanted Gorge to the far right

We had calculated a distance of about five miles from Black Giant Pass through Ionian Basin and up to Wanda Pass, figuring that would take roughly five hours of non-stop movement. It is a tough section and I am honestly a little relieved we are not attempting this today. It is going to be a lot of work indeed. Something you want to have your mojo for when you do it.

By now the day is getting on and we still need to retreat to Muir Pass and down into Evolution Basin, it is time to press on. This has been a very satisfying, educational and fun side jaunt and I do look forward to someday dropping into to that asutere world of ancient dark rock.

Heading back toward Muir Pass
Looking back toward Helen Lake

It’s 3:30pm when we leave and do a nice little traverse over the lovely talus, soon intercepting Muir Pass. When we arrive there is a dude in the hut that warns us about the skeeters down at the “second” lake, which we take to be Wanda Lake. We half-heartedly take in his comment, snap a couple photos and move along.

Lounging for a minute at Muir Pass
I think this is my 7th visit to Muir Hut

We tramp downhill at a good clip with Christy in the lead. The smoke is really thick over here and I’m a little bummed we won’t be getting the stellar views you would typically get down in Evolution. We pass a few hikers and campers along the mellow trail and another guy warns us yet again about the mosquitoes so we put on bug juice and Michelle busts out her head net.

We had anticipated finding a campsite above the South end of Wanda Lake and when we arrive, we see there are people in most every possible spot. Mosquitoes and crowds, two reasons I usually avoid the Sierras in July. I’m sure we would have had first pick at campsites in Ionian Basin, haha, but I am not complaining, we’ll find something great I’m sure. I think we are all starting to feel the effects of another long day as we are are all quite hungry and a bit tired. It’s taking a lot of effort to find camping here, we are all being indecisive too and we spend the better part of an hour in search of a place to call home for the night.

Walking through muzzies near Wanda Lake
Looking for good camping

We find one great spot but it truly only has enough room for two tents without impacting the fragile vegetation, so we have to move on. As we walk cross country looking for our campsite there is so much water pouring down crevices and over rocks everywhere that it’s surprisingly difficult to keep our feet dry, but so lovely to see all the water.

Finally, we spot something that looks possible way off in the distance almost like another mirage. We start making our way over there and find it is something we can make work. It takes a little creativity yet we will call this pkace home for the night. Done! Despite the haze from the smoke, we still have incredible views of the Evolution Basin ridgeline. That towering massif is home to several peaks above 13,000 ft and truly never gets old to look at.

I pitch my tent with the door facing this view, so glad to be in camp at a reasonable hour. We all three get to work fetching water, washing up, and then it’s time to eat. I sit outside next to Michelle who is tucked in her tent, I’m super grateful that the mosquitoes are not bothering me here. Yay!

Perfect water near our campsite

We share our concernes about the smoke and wonder if it will affect our plans for next week. We hear through the grapevine it is super super smoky in Bishop. It is also going to be stupid hot there. Dang it. That sounds horrible. It is so hard to think about leaving the mountains. When I’m surrounded by this immense beauty, completely immersed in this landscape, it’s really difficult to accept that it’s suddenly going to be over. I always dread this moment of realization, yet on every trip it’s inevitable.

Tomorrow night we are going to be in a hot, noisy, smoky town. I console myself by thinking about the terrain we still get the privilege of walking through tomorrow. We do still have a beautiful and full day of hiking ahead of us and I’m super excited to hike up to Darwin Bench and LaMarck Col for the first time. And, truth be told, we are all really tired, really, really hungry and Christy needs medicine. I know I have lost a bit of weight too and I need to get some calories in me. Schat’s Bakkery here I come!

Once tucked into my tent I sip my tea and settle into my feelings of gratitude for all that this week has been. In this very moment, I can hear the sounds of a nearby little stream and also a more distant larger waterfall. They flow simultaneously and play off one another. I love the nuances of these differently pitched sounds and how spending enough time in the mountains allows my ear to distinguish this. There is a light alpenglow on the massive wall of rock in the basin forming a perfect last image to take to bed with me.

Home for the night in Evolution Basin

4 thoughts on “High Sierra Tramp Day 6: Smoky Town

  1. I’ve only had a chance to scan the last few posts, but I think this is best set of hiking companions you have ever had! Rob

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