Evolution Tour

2-10 Jul 2006 - by Mike Bigelow

Our group of four met in Vegas on Saturday. Three of us flew in from Hong Kong, another from New Hampshire. I had promised everyone a hard first day and I didn't disappoint. We left Vegas after the long flight from Asia and a few hours sleep at Motel 6. We were in Bishop by 8:30 Sunday morning. Under the circumstances we got a reasonably early 10:00 am start towards Lamark Col. Our goal for the day was Darwin Canyon after a summit hop to the top of Lamark. Mistake number one. Don't plan day one of an eight-day trip to include full packs, jet lag, little sleep, zero to 13,400 feet in less than a day and 4,000 feet of elevation gain. We did not reach the day's goal.

The approach to Lamark Col was uneventful. We left the trail and climbed south at the first stream crossing just west of the inlet to Lower Lamark Lake. The water was high and we had no interest in crossing to the north side only to repeat the process ten minutes later. Just after leaving the trail there was a bit of a scramble on some big talus, but then it was easy to pick our way southwest to the base of the ridge. We hit the first real snow just at the bottom of the switchbacks. The switchbacks were basically snow free and soon gave way to the sandy valley. We only encountered a couple of firm snowfields as we slogged our way towards the col. By 5:00 PM we had only made it to the 12,200 foot level. Even though we were still plugging along, I decided we should stop. I doubted our chances of grabbing Lamark and getting down into Darwin Canyon before dark. We set our first camp and after the howling wind finally subsided, we all slept around eleven hours!

Monday morning under perfect skies we finished the climb to the col. Three of us went on to summit Lamark while Julian rested. Afterward we climbed up the final snowfield in crampons without event. We quickly descended into Darwin Canyon and set up a camp in a perfect spot wedged between a massive snowfield and a protective cliff on the north side of Darwin Canyon. It was a neat little spot just at the inlet of lake 11631. The snow had receded from the southwest-facing cliff and left plenty of room for our two small tents. This became home for the next two nights. Late that afternoon I climbed in snow up to the base of Mendel's northeast ridge route. It was easy to see from this vantage why the ice climbs on Mendel's northface are classic test pieces!

Tuesday my younger brother Nathan and I made an attempt on Darwin. We climbed in snow all the way from our camp to the chock stones in the eastern most notch of the west ridge. We moved onto the rock to the left of the stones. I scouted three potential routes and only found skimpy holds and wet rock. Without the possibility of a belay, I wasn't up to the task. We called it a day around 12:00 and glissaded back to the glacier and were in camp around 3:00. Thunder and lightning started shortly after our return, so even without the route issues weather may have been a problem had we continued.

Wednesday had similar results. Even though I had a good chance on Monday to scope the east face route of Mendel, we couldn't make it go. Julian and I left camp at 08:00 and climbed steep snow to Secor's right leading ledge. Higher up we wound back to a section were we had to climb across 60-70 degree snow to gain a right leading ledge. At this point Julian was too jittery to go on. So, we backed off and headed back to camp. Later in the afternoon we loaded up and had a casual hike down to Darwin Bench. We found a wonderful campsite and all agreed this was one of the most amazing spots in the Sierra we've ever seen. The slightly lower altitude and western exposure were just the right combination to create an outstanding mix of snow-covered peaks, rushing waterfalls, wildflowers, grassy meadows and deep snowfields. The spot was on a wooded bench above the northeast shore of lake 11200. The weather was still cool and windy but no storms in the afternoon. As far as I'm concerned Darwin Bench should be on everyone's places I absolutely must go list!

Thursday morning the trek continued down the use trail to the John Muir Trail then south toward Sapphire Lake. The weather was perfect as we hiked up this remote and picturesque valley. At the south end of Evolution Lake the JMT crosses to the west side of the stream. We found no crossing worthy of the risk so we stayed on the east side of the stream and moved overland to the south. We found a flat sandy spot near the eastern inlet to Sapphire Lake. After getting our camp organized and resting a bit we all made the class 2-3 climb to the summit of Mt. Spencer. We ascended the southwest face to the east ridge. It was a fun climb and we enjoyed great views from the summit. After scouting the possibilities we decided the best choice was to rise early and find a stream crossing above Sapphire Lake where the stream is split into many little branches. This day was also significant because around dinnertime we spotted two hikers heading north on the JMT. This was the first time we had seen any other people since Sunday. We literally had the place to ourselves!

Friday morning we were moving before eight and found a solid snow bridge and then several shallow areas so we made the stream crossing without difficulty or even taking our boots off. By 9:00 we were back on the JMT. When we reached the 11,500 foot level we were in full snow. At Muir Pass I got the impression it had been a very long winter for the marmots! They looked like refuges from a famine. They were skinny, their coats looked awful and I'm sure they were anxious for some grass to appear. The snow was persistent over Muir Pass and down to the 10,800 foot level on the south side. After a long day of slogging in the snow we picked the first spot possible below 10,000 feet. That afternoon, just below the snow line, all of us had filled our boots with water at one deep stream crossing so we built a fire and dried things out. Evening and morning at this camp we had as many as six deer at a time sharing our camp. They were not the least bit nervous around us. This was a great spot to spend a comfortable night after a really tiring day.

Saturday was another long but lovely day. We hiked south to the Bishop Pass trail and made the 3,000 foot ascent to Bishop Pass. We then hiked down to a familiar campsite next to the Timberline Tarns. It got stormy and rained hard during the evening. We retreated to our tents and fell asleep with a wind driven rain falling outside.

Sunday I had plans to climb Picture Puzzle Peak. The rest of the team decided to head down to the trailhead and get the car. I stayed behind and left around 11:00 am for a solo summit attempt. I climbed a snow filled chute towards class-three rock. The clouds were already heavy and dark as I climbed easy class-three towards the summit ridge. Around 1:00 pm I gained the ridge only to see at least two false summits along the ridge to the south. The dark sky and rolling thunder sealed my fate. Another abandoned summit. I down climbed the chute in a mix of rain and ice pellets. I returned to my gear stash and used a tent fly to keep dry and wait-out the storm. Around 5:00 pm I headed down the Bishop Pass trail to within about an hour of the trailhead and set-up a comfortable final bivi spot. Monday morning I rose in time to enjoy a quiet stroll down to the trailhead at South Lake. At 9:00 am the rest of the guys pulled into the parking lot looking all too fresh! They admitted to hot showers and spending the night in real beds in Bishop!

I'm left with real mixed feelings. I trained extremely hard for this trip. Afterward I felt that I'd never worked so hard while managing to climb so few summits. My goals were probably unrealistic given the long trekking distances and deep snow pack, but I was still left a bit disappointed with my performance. On the other hand we had a safe trip, we enjoyed some of the grandest scenery imaginable and really got to know the beauty of the Evolution region. It was also a great joy to be able to share the time with my grown kids and my brother. Special thanks to the three of you for adding to a safe, challenging and enjoyable tour in the Range of Light.

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