North Lake to South Lake via Lamarck Col
I’ve had my sights set on a big loop in the Sierra for a while now, and it seemed like the pieces were lining up for Labor Day weekend. My wife was heading out on a backpack from Mammoth on Monday, and her brother and our nephew were going to be camping on the East Side. I had been hoping to connect North Lake and South Lake in a single push since doing it as one of our first ever backpacks decades ago. The traditional route goes over Piute Pass and down through Humphreys Basin, taking a long time before turning the corner and climbing up to Evolution Valley. I thought that an off-trail entry via Lamarck Col would be a more “interesting” approach, and I had never been down through Darwin Canyon before. Thus, before sunrise on Saturday September 6th, I headed up through brilliantly clear smoke-free skies to 12,960 foot Lamarck Col.
The week leading up to our trip didn’t go exactly smoothly, and our journey to the East Side began by feeling a bit like a dying dream that we would give anything to hang on to. Re-entry from our five week, off the grid hike on the John Muir Trail had been a bit rough on all of us. The kids were back in Zoom classes all day for school, barely propping their eyelids open by the time 3:30 PM rolled around. Maureen had been planning a solo backpack out of Mammoth, and our scheduled rental car had been canceled not once, but twice. Good problems to be having, no doubt, and we eventually piled into the cars and headed through horrific traffic in a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra. We had a campsite down at South Lake, but we didn’t make it there, puttering out at Lee Vining Mobile, where we parked next to Maureen’s brother and the other #vanlifers and crashed in the parking lot for the night (literally Therm-a-rests on the pavement).
I had decided that I was going to wake-up for an early alpine start and drive down to North Lake to begin my circuit. In the end I decided on starting at North Lake and going in an anticlockwise fashion, so that I could get Lamarck Col out of the way in the freshness of the morning. I had never been over that col before, and while it is technically off-trail, Mo assured me that there was an established use trail all the way up and over. After a few hours of questionable sleep I busted out at 3AM to begin my journey in the car. I made good time and was on the trail heading up to Lamarck Lakes by 5:30AM – not bad considering that I had fully started in the wrong campground (Sabrina) miles down the road a half an hour earlier.
The climb up from North Lake was the first time I tested my fitness level since the summer. I was feeling strong after five weeks of walking very slowly through the mountains with a heavy pack, but my cardio fitness had been lacking while I was actually running. I was going to try to play this to my advantage on this trip – this, combined with the altitude, would force me to go slow, and I was okay with that. I had eyeballed about 12 hours for the loop in my head, but I knew that could drift up quite a bit if anything went wrong.
The use trail was so established that it was even reinforced and supported in some spots with small sections of dry masonry on the climbs. While the grind up to Lamarck Col was steep scree at points, it was far from off-trail, and for me that was a welcome relief. The trail hiked up at a steady grade before settling out in a wide, sandy basin below Mount Lamarck. I had read on the internet to “aim for the Muir Hut looking rock” and that advice was surely sound. I could even see the Kings Canyon sign from the base of the final climb, so I knew exactly where I was headed to go up and over. The view from the top was ridiculous, with Mendel and Darwin looking you directly in the face from across Darwin Canyon, and deep blue lakes dotting the drainage like a string of marine pearls. I had decided I would make the call as to proceed or not from the top of the col after a careful examination of weather, smoke, and overall feeling. The air was the cleanest I had seen in weeks and there was not a cloud in the sky. I was tired, but feeling good, my head showing no signs of any issues with the altitude. I sent an In-Reach text to Mo to give her the update – I was dropping in!
Like any good adventure, it felt very committing weaving down the sandy slope of Darwin Canyon. All of the tales of how beautiful this canyon was were certainly true. The lakes were a brilliantl deep dark blue and turquoise mix, and the near-14’ers soared high above immediately to the south. The going was slow for me here, as I kept losing the trail and being forced through sections of huge, stable talus. It was fine but I was being cautious, not wanting to jostle a block loose and ruin my whole day. I ogled at the large Golden Trout in the bottom lake before turning the corner and heading toward Evolution Valley.
I was excited to get to Evolution of course – It’s literally one of my favorite places on this planet. We had enjoyed it so much in previous backpacking trips that we purposefully planned on slowing down this summer as we passed through on our SOBO thru-hike. We spent one night at Evolution Lake, perched next to the waterfall under a sea of stars and even a comet. We wandered slowly up canyon the next day, stopping at the far side of Sapphire, weathering a storm and catching a record number of small, pretty trout throughout the evening. And then we took our time climbing out over Muir Pass the next day, meandering up and over past Wanda to stop on just the other side. On this day, I gleefully jogged around Evolution, enjoying the smooth, flat path and the amazing scenery
The trip was taking on a special meaning as I realized how many vivid memories were now connected to the JMT. As I passed through the same spots as I did with the family there were uncanny memories along the way, souvenirs of conversations we had in that exact spot, fish we caught there, or even people that we chatted to in passing. It was a wonderful way to recall the joy of our summer, and I even ended up stopping in many of the same places where we had stopped as a group. I managed an icy cold dip in Wanda Lake, which we avoided in July as we were swarmed by gnats, and then clicked off the final bit to the top of Muir Pass.
The trail had been remarkably devoid of people so far, and I was enjoying the quietness that was not as evident on the trip with the family. There was a couple from San Francisco on the pass at the same time as me and another on their way down. The obvious topic of conversation was the massive clear and white mushroom cloud on the horizon to the northwest. It was stunning because it was the only cloud in the sky, and so unbelievable large and high in altitude that it was tricky to even comprehend the scale. The guy on the pass hypothesized that it was the result of firefighters water-bombing a new fire somewhere. What we were really seeing was a pyrocumulonimbus cloud from the giant Creek Fire near Shaver Lake, which had already forced hundreds of campers to evacuate and was getting hotter and hotter. I regret not even taking a picture of it from the top – I clearly was not as alarmed as I should have been if I had full understanding of the situation.
I lost hold of the mental edge as I sat on the top of the pass, devouring a share-size bag of peanut M&Ms. In my mind I had decided that Muir Pass was halfway, but when I started doing the trail math it wasn’t working out. My watch was at mile 16.5, and it looked like I still had about 21 miles to go. The depressing numbers spun my head a bit as I began the long descent into Leconte Canton. The trail is seriously rocky at parts as you go through a contact zone between granite and blacker volcanic rock, and I couldn’t muster the energy to run much of it at all. I knew I really just had to make to to Leconte and regroup, and so I made sure to keep moving, even if I was only walking some sections. By the time I emerged into the immaculate white granite alongside L’Aguille peak, the temperature had really started to rise and the canyon was turning into an oven. I willed myself to simply ignore the heat, although I was becoming dehydrated and slowing down. I was strangely excited to hit the Dusy Switchbacks, but before heading up I found a nice shady spot at the base of the climb, took my pack off, pounded some water, and laid down on a rock for a few minutes.
Despite feeling like the descent from Muir took forever, I was making pretty good time and headed up to Dusy Basin at 2:45 PM. At this rate I felt like I could finish before sunset, and that became the new goal, knowing that my 12 hour rate was a bit optimistic at this point and time. It was really hot now, and I gave myself full permission to simply power hike the switchbacks and enjoy the view on the way up. The climb was steep but surprisingly comforting, and I thought a lot about how proud I was of Devin when he was crushing that a month earlier. It was here that he finally yelled at us, hollering “Leave me alone! I just want to hike and feel bad at the same time.” If that ain’t the #UltraSpirit, I’m not sure what is.
I crested out on top of the 2500 foot climb and kept on moving down the trail, my running become more of a shuffling at this stage in the game. Dusy Basin was gorgeous in the early evening light, and I was a bit regretful that I didn’t have a bit more gear because I likely would have plopped down and spent the night. I gazed across at Knapsack Pass, remembering Maureen breaking her two fingers and then our crew still setting off on the off-trail section the next day. I was hurting as I climbed the long switchbacks up to Bishop Pass, but I was also extremely stoked as I got up there, finishing the first 50k with 10,000 feet of vert and knowing that it was downhill the rest of the way.
I ate the rest of my second Chocolate Payday, now officially sick of all the salty, chocolate snacks I had brought along. Two climbers on their way up hollered at me to “Finish Strong!” and that was the kick I needed to fully lock in and enjoy the last two hours of my day. The sun was setting and the air was still crisp and clear, a welcome relief after weeks of smoke in Berkeley. I ultra-shuffled as fast as I could down the trail to South Lake, picking up Devin (and tearing him away from his fishing) for the final quarter mile as we ran it in together to the South Lake parking lot. I finished in an elapsed time of 14 hours – not bad for never really pressing and taking lots of pictures.
All in all it was a magnificent day in the high mountains, one that was challenging enough to constantly hold my focus, yet never unmanageable or dangerous. What the route lacked in length it made up for in solitude and commitment – once I dropped in over Lamarck Col, the best way through was always to keep moving south. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a remote and adventurous high altitude loop. (I also have an idea to connect Lamarck and Echo Col, resulting in a short, tight, and technical trip through Evolution Valley.)
The Creek Fire kept on raging, and we woke up Sunday morning to a completely socked-in Bishop Valley with an AQI of 449. The fire season keeps getting worse this year, and I am sending strength and endurance to the firefighters fighting the Creek fire and all the other hot spots around the state. They are literally fighting on the front lines to defend our space, and we owe them the biggest heaping of thanks and support that we can muster.