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Sierra '96 - Return to Pine Creek
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Background
This hike was attempted in 1993 and failed utterly. I drove a non-air-conditioned car into Bishop [110 degrees], and discovered that no campsites were available at a higher elevation [the largest campsite was closed]. I spent the night in town [4000'] then drove to the Pine Creek trailhead north of Bishop, where I started at 9 am [7400'] and stopped at Upper Pine Lake [10200'], where altitude sickness struck me down and mosquitoes kept me down. I was hiking alone and had no second opinion regarding my health, so I retreated the next day and left the area in a very down mood. Plans were made for trips in '94 and '95, but ill-timed illness and other distractions kept me off the trail. Scott and I returned in 1996, with a new recruit (Brian), an ambitious schedule and a drastic misunderstanding of Italy Pass...


July 28: After an uneventful drive we arrived at the Sabrina camp, then set off on a quick day-hike to Blue Lake. We waited out a few showers then scrambled up to the 10200' lake for late-day photos before retreating at dusk. The pre-hike night was spent arguing with the host about our campsite payment and listening to drunks yell all night under the full moon. Brian somehow slept through this part, but Scott and I slept fitfully.

July 29: We started from Pine Creek trailhead promptly at 9am (again?). We ground steadily upslope under increasing cloud cover, then scrambled for shelter at Upper Pine Lake (again?!!?) just as thundershowers reached the area. Scott's confidence in the 'typical Sierra weather' was shaken when showers persisted until dusk, and late tent-taps could even be heard overnight. This day was shorter than planned thanks to my exhaustion; at least I wasn't oxygen-starved like '93! I made a brief visit to my gravesite in '93; I was glad to see that I was not there.


view W from Italy Pass

July 30: After hopping rapidly over the creek and through the bugs, we contemplated our upcoming choice of passes while rushing past the Pine Creek junction (Brian, coming behind Scott and me, found it but lost us!). We allowed that non-decision to stand and moved on; this may not have been our wisest move. After Honeymoon Lake we returned to the upslope grind, this time without a clear path to follow. Our pace slowed as we paused to recharge, wondering which gap held the magical Italy Pass. By noon we were getting a bit anxious as the clouds returned and the pass remained elusive. We finally saw our goal and attained the crest at 2:30 -- far later than we expected under any circumstances. After a short rest on top we descended to Jumble Lake, where an evil jumble of talus slowed our march and threatened our shins and sanity. After an endless hour of hopping/bouncing/stumbling we gained gentler ground at Lake Italy, while the peaks to its north held back a potent thunderstorm. With no shelter in sight we turned west, carefully crossing two impressive snowbanks without bobsledding into the cold lake. More thundershowers approached but we suffered no direct hits, allowing us to retreat hastily and wearily to lower reaches where... the trail disappeared. After stumbling down a treacherous slope during a cold shower, Scott shouted to fishermen on the far bank, who confirmed that the trail had jumped the creek and campsites were tree-lined and numerous in the area. We wandered downstream a few hundred yards, then splashed across and immediately made camp. The day lasted from 8:45 to 6:15 with no lunch break to speak of, and we were worn to the edge of exhaustion.


Marie Lake, JMT


dusk at Marie Lake

July 31: We slept in and started late after cleaning our gear and resting our bodies and souls at the campsite. By 11:00 we hit the downhill trail, following the Hilgard Branch of Bear Creek as it meandered, then leapt downslope into sloping meadows beneath spurs of Mt. Hilgard. We crossed a large meadow and met more fishermen, then reached the Muir Trail and spoke with two hardy women heading north. The uphill began again, complete with crossing of Bear Creek and beating of deerflies. Passing the Seven Gables, Sandpiper Lake and Rose Lake junctions, we plodded upward through thickening clouds to an indescribably nice camp at Marie Lake. Dinner was interrupted by showers and large but well-spaced hailstones; the chicken stew was too good to be dampened by the weather. The scenery at dusk was spectacular, and the photos of alpenglow-tinted rain turned out reasonably well (but dim).

Aug. 1: After shooting the sunrise [and noting a weak flickering in the camera-battery readout], we packed up and crossed Selden Pass by 9:30, with views from Silver Divide to the west end of the Goddard Divide. The rockpile above Sally Keyes Lakes provided a good photo-op for the group, and the sunflower seeds provided the spark to keep us going. A fisherman at the lower SK lake showed off his golden trout for the camera, then the serious downhill began. After a short rest my right ankle became unhappy, and its displeasure grew with the mileage. By the time the Piute junction came into view it was screaming, and I was close to tears. Scott finally accepted that Lamarck Col and the 'big loop' was asking too much of our group, and the Piute Pass trail became the best way home. I spoke earlier with a woman who described Evolution Valley as 'Very Buggy' so the loss of that view was ameliorated.


French Canyon below Pine Creek Pass


wildflowers in French Canyon

Aug. 2: After a half-hour of leaving me in the dust, Scott and Brian lightened my load to keep my foot from detonating on the trail. The lighter load was a great help, and the miles to the bug haven of Hutchinson Meadow went smoothly. Swatting and sweating as we turned on the Pine Creek Pass trail, we trudged on with little rest, awaiting the magic elevations above 10000' in upper French Canyon where the bugs would reconsider and relent. After recharging our water, Brian and I met Scott and an older couple (plenty of these in the Sierra!) who were planning to take part of our original loop in reverse: PineCreek- Merriam- Feather- DancingBear- Italy. The big waterfall from Royce Lakes was now in sight, and we found a lovely camp just above the creek crossing by mid-afternoon. A brief and refreshing creek-dip relaxed all tight parts (the ankle stopped at Level 2 Alert, far below the Level 4+ of the previous day), and the clouds stayed away completely for the first time on this expedition! After shooting the sunset and wildflowers from every conceivable angle, Brian and I watched the stars come out and waited for the inevitable Perseids. They did not perform for us, although two delta Aquarid members sped through Ophiuchius. How I avoided looking for comet Hale-Bopp is a mystery, but I did examine other objects in the 8x21 binox before taking my freezing feet to bed. They never quite unfroze, so the sleep was not too comfortable. I awoke at 12:30 and shot the stars setting over Royce Creek falls.

Aug. 3: When everything was fully packed (I took back most of my load), I informed the guys that I would walk out this day rather than taking two short days on the ankle. They wanted to check out the Moon Lake area (so did I, but ...) so they decided to do that and still go for the car by dusk. As it turned out, they came in an hour behind me! The Pine Creek Pass area was very pretty, just a high meadow with all the higher peaks in view. I examined the PC/Italy junction, seeing how easy it was to miss from below on day 2 (if only we had turned left...). The hike was hot and the ankle was unhappy, but by 3:30 it was over. Six days and fifty-plus miles, and the knowledge that I never had to enter the 'great canyon of Pine Creek' again!

Footnote
As my gallery painfully demonstrates, my camera failed me repeatedly on this trip. I cashed it in upon my arrival home. Trips like this do not occur all that often; to have so many underexposed photographs hurt nearly as much as the ankle [and heals more slowly]. On later trips, my knee caused me some pain; my chiropractor demonstrated that the ankle joint was to blame for the sore knee.