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A glorious sunrise combination - utterly clear skies, Mt. Banner within shouting distance, a slow unruffled creek for reflections, and a Thousand Islands in silhouette - prompted Larry and I to rise early. Since we were going to bed before 9PM, a 5:30 sunrise didn't hurt much, and this one would have been worth an hour's sleep any time! The mornings were not cold by any means - I could not see my breath on this or any other morning - and as the sun rose we swiftly went into shorts and sunscreen despite the clock. After breakfast we were yet again off, following the bouncing stream uphill to its snowy source. The snowfield near the top was split in two, and I had veered left in anticipation of our ascent. When Larry and Scott went right and ascended the other snowfield, I was alone for twenty minutes. Other than one swift 'post-hole' drop in the snow (my left leg sank in to above my knee-brace) the way was smooth, and I reached the final ascent to the pass ahead of the other two. I waited as Larry and then Scott came near, then crossed into the North Fork San Joaquin drainage.

sunrise on Banner Peak

A tremendous and starkly wonderful landscape confronts you here, and on a clear day you won't forget it any time soon. Lake Catherine fills the granite bowl below, a deep indigo color that makes Oregon's Crater Lake seem merely a pretty blue. A slash of ice and snow descends from the gap between Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter, making the summits accessible in theory but not to me. The wind was, to put it mildly, a bit brisk - so we rested and took photos while waiting for the strength to tackle the next leg. Two day-hikers met us at the pass, intent on climbing high on Banner Peak; we wished them well and saw them later as we traversed Catherine's talus shoreline. A small lower lake put a short cliff or two in our way, but we passed them soon enough and found ourselves on the brink. The guidebook mentioned the view from here, but as it was in the Wind River Range with the first sight of Mt. Hooker, it has to be seen to be believed. Words and pictures fail as one tries to capture the disheartening view of a vertical wilderness such as this, and the sight of a small piece of one of the Rock Island Lakes was not in any way reassuring. However, someone made a strong claim that a way can be found, so with their reassurance supporting our own we sought the way, chanting our mantra "whenever in doubt, go right" as we sought enlightenment at every cliff-face. Every fifteen minutes or so we reached one of these cliffs, and with sinking stomach we peered over the edge. Sure enough, if we made a descending traverse to the right we could go another ten minutes to .. another cliff-face. Spooky though it was, it worked: we soon crossed a creek, passed through a gap near some reddish cliffs (mentioned in the guide), and .. another cliff-face. Only a few left, though, and we were at the main flow of the North Fork as it reached the northern Twin Island Lake. Oh, did I say "we"? Actually I lost the other two and reached there first; I must have descended by a different route while they waited for me elsewhere. After an anxious few minutes I reached for the whistle, but then I saw Scott waving from higher up the hill. Relieved and a bit annoyed, I took a nice break waiting for them, only to lose them again when I had to go back to the resting-place for my camera (turned out it was attached to my pack but I couldn't see it until I began removing the pack in search of it). We met again at a wondrous spot, a small cascade mere feet above the level of the lake; we took our sweet time here, drinking our fill and resting in the mist from the short falls. Larry and Scott soaked their feet, but since we were about to cross that same piece of North Fork water below the lake I chose to wait for that moment to provide relief to my feet. We wandered carefully along the eastern shore until we hit the stream, swapped boots for water gear, and just as carefully crossed the stream. Larry's walk kept him at calf level or below, while Scott and I were closer to knee-height at midstream. After swapping back into boots, we clambered upslope to the higher lake, the one we had seen impossibly reposed from the stream below Lake Catherine. We reached it swiftly and rested some more - this had been an amazingly hard day for the few miles we had traveled!

Lake Catherine from the pass

the evil North Fork San Joaquin

It was here that Larry and I each lost a million bucks. At the start of the day and at least once thereafter, Scott had offered us that amount in a bet that we would not see anyone in the North Fork area. Larry and I both believed that to be true and refused the bet. We were all wrong: a family of four was approaching us from the other side of the lake, wearing only day-packs. The matriarch has traveled the North Fork since 1949, so we were more the trespassers than they. After we passed them and circled the lake we began the southward march, planning to reach a presumably beautiful lake a mile or more away. We had not gone more than ten steps in that direction when Larry pointed out a few facts:
* We were exhausted!
* We were standing by a gorgeous lake in stupendous surroundings!
* We were not guaranteed a place of equal merit after another hour of hard work.
Given those obvious facts, we did an about-face and searched for a camp, which we found with little trouble. It had several small spots to sleep, an unbeatable view of the lake, and fifty yards east was a tremendous drop to the North Fork.

Larry and I had lost our millions; now it was Scott's turn to lose. While setting up his tent, a gust of wind sent it airborne as he was reaching for the stakes. With a single high bounce off its springy fiberglass poles, it made straight for the lake! Larry had planned to take a quick dip in the near future, so this event accelerated his plans; he rushed to the lake, stripped and jumped, while I passed over some short cliffs that stood near where the now-sinking tent was drifting. Larry paddled the tent over to me, then unzipped the door so we could lighten its load before handing it to the still shell-shocked Scott. Within an hour his tent was not only dry again but cleaner than it had been in quite some time, while Larry rested on sunny granite slabs to get warm. I again chose to sleep sans shelter, and this night the bugs were quite respectful, allowing me a good night of sleep. Exhaustion was most likely another contributing factor.

family and lower Twin Island Lake from upper lake

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