M&M on the Great Western Divide

27-30 Aug 2010 - by Will Mollandsimms

The previous few days had been the hottest of the summer so as I began my hike on the High Sierra Trail to Bearpaw Meadow I feared I might turn into a puddle before reaching my intended destination. Lucky for me this day, August 27th, was only slightly above average so my hike left me thoroughly sweaty, but not too much worse for wear. After 11.2 miles of relatively flat, yet at times maddeningly undulating, terrain I arrived at Bearpaw in time to enjoy some fine cuisine and watch the sunset.

The morning of the 28th dawned much cooler than the previous day with a bit of a west wind picking up and a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms according to the weather report. My intended goal was Elizabeth Pass so I had no need to leave at the crack of dawn. Instead I lounged about in the morning and left for the pass at around 2:30 in the afternoon. I went on the "over the hill" trail which, as the name implies, goes up a hill about 800 feet in elevation before going down the hill 600 feet in elevation to a trail junction at Lone Pine Creek. From here the real climb begins with the pass a mere 3.2 miles away, but almost 3400 feet above you. Up, up and up I went going by switchback after switchback towards the pass. The last half of the trail is a bit hard to follow but the local trail crew has built massive stone cairns, some 4+ feet high, marking the way. At about 5:30 I reached the pass where I was greeted by a fierce wind. I scampered down the back side of the pass and found a flat spot to camp at about 11,000 feet. Not wanting to spend too much time in the cold wind I set up camp, ate dinner and was in my sleeping bag by 7.

I awoke just before sunrise the next day to find everything I had frozen solid and a thermometer reading of 18 degrees. Just 4 days previous it had been 110 degrees in Fresno but on this morning, at 11,000 feet, it was anything but toasty. I decided to stay in my sleeping bag until the sun found me rather than freeze in the pre-dawn air. At 8 I was eating breakfast and marveling on how pleasant it was in the sun. At 9 I headed off towards Copper Mine Pass and Cloud Canyon. The old Copper Mine Pass Trail has been abandoned for a long time, probably over 75 years, but because of the its extreme elevation and the lack of plant growth the trail itself is still quite easy to follow in most places. I headed almost due east from my camp below Elizabeth Pass on a rocky, debris filled shelf toward the obvious pass below Copper Mine Peak at the highpoint to its west. At the base of the pass I was able to find the old trail and follow it up past an old mine complete with copper ore, tin cups, old mining equipment, etc. to the pass. From here the trail is obvious and more or less follows the ridge all the way up to Copper Mine Peak.

There is a register on the peak which I signed before heading down into Cloud Canyon. The best way to drop into Cloud Canyon from Copper Mine Peak is to head over to the second notch west of the peak. It is steep and loose, but only perhaps 150 from top to bottom. Once down it is not terribly difficult to, once again, find the old trail. If you pay good attention and keep an eye out for the odd cairn along the way it is not too difficult to follow the old trail down the steep hillside past an old ore bucket, mule gravesites, meadows and standing trees to a flat spot just above a small tarn in upper Cloud Canyon. Once I was at this spot I headed down stunning Cloud Canyon with the Whaleback to my right and Glacier Ridge to my left. I stayed on the left side of the creek until I was a few hundred yards above the trees at the base of Cloud Canyon. Here, the left side of the creek gets very brushy so I traversed to the right hand side, walked beside a nice waterfall, and then found myself in the forest trying to find the path of least resistance. After only perhaps 5-10 minutes of forest romping I found an old campsite with a hitching rail, many rusted out cans, and a log that had been carved into a bench. I had a seat at this bench and had a ponder. It was 12:15. My goal was to climb Milestone and Midway tomorrow but the forecast called for a 30% chance of snow showers above 10,000 feet and a low of 22 at that elevation for tonight. I rationalized that if it did snow, and possibly even if it didn't, the route would be very icy in the morning and I may not be able to pull it off. At my current position in Cloud Canyon I figured it would be 3 hours to the summit of Milestone, an hour across and two hours back down which meant I had plenty of time to get the summits before it got dark. I had a hot lunch and decided to go for it at about 1.

The trail up towards Colby Lake from Cloud Canyon is very scenic. It winds its way up out of Cloud Canyon and into a stunning unnamed canyon to the east of the Whaleback. It then keeps ascending through forested terrain before getting to Colby Lake. Colby Lake is one of the more beautiful lakes in the Sierra. It is flanked on 3 sides by huge granite peaks and its iridescent water is mesmerizing to stare at. I wish I could have stayed at this spot longer but the peaks were calling and I had to keep going up. Near the far side of the lake there is a stream which flows into Colby. I climbed some steep slabs and brushy stuff to the left of this inlet for a few hundred feet to where the terrain mellowed and became more open. I kept to the left of the creek and continued walking uphill for nearly a mile until the creek made a right turn towards the large unnamed lake at the base of Milestone and Midway. I followed the creek to the lake and then marveled at the stunning scenery once again.

My intended route was the Northwest face of Milestone. After staring at pictures and descriptions for a few minutes I determined which chute was the correct chute to climb. While standing on the far side of the lake it is the second chute to the right of the summit which does seem to have an "S" shape to it. It also has a blackish brown waterfall stain at its base and most likely has snow at its base a good portion of the year. On this day, the 29th of August, there was still a decent amount of snow at the base of the chute, but luckily there was enough rock on the left and right side of the route to avoid it. Once above the snow the real fun began. For about 3/4 of the climb this route cannot be beat. It is all easy 3rd class climbing with good holds, little loose rock and really a lot of fun. The route vaguely follows the "S" you can see from far below until you get near it top. At the top the rock becomes less stable, the climbing more loose 2nd class and the route not quite as fun. Just before the ridge at the top of the route you come to a large gendarme on left side. I passed below this gendarme and immediately saw the summit block of Milestone just a hop and skip across the ridge from me. I traversed over on the top of the ridge and followed a series of cairns over fun 3rd class terrain to the summit of Milestone. It was 5 pm, a full hour later than I wanted to arrive but the route was wonderful so I had no complaints. The summit itself is quite cool, everything drops away straight down except for the route you came up on and the views are stunning. By this time the clouds were rolling in and it was getting hard to see so I quickly signed the register and headed off the summit block to start the traverse to Midway.

Once off the summit block of Milestone I had to lose about a hundred feet of altitude until I could safely get into a small chute that leads to the small saddle/notch directly to the north of the Milestone summit. Once I was at this point I had to do a couple tricky 3rd class moves to get to the stable ground below and then began the trek north to a very obvious notch in the East Ridge of Midway. The traverse to Midway is not that difficult, it is just annoying because none of the terrain is flat. You side hill down a boulder field, cross a snowfield and then keep traversing on broken talus and scree that is relatively, but not completely, stable until you arrive at the obvious notch in the East Ridge. Once through this notch it is an easy 2nd class cruise to the top of Midway which I reached at 7 pm. Again, it took an hour longer to do this portion of the climb than I thought it would. Oh well... Also as I reached the top of Midway my Camelback tube froze and it would not unfreeze during the rest of my trek back to camp. I signed the register, took pictures of the clouds which were now almost all around me and started heading down towards the lake at the base of the climb. Luckily, most of the route down is on sand which made the going very fast and easy. I was quite thankful for this as the sun was setting and I was still a long way from camp. I got back down to the lake as the last light faded away and completed the rest the trip back to camp via headlamp. The first miles back to Colby Lake was not too tough but the trail from there down was quite a pain. Not only is the trail hard to follow because it is so faint and poorly marked, but there was also a cloud in the trail for most of the walk which made visibility almost zero. Probably half a dozen times I stopped and did a circle thinking I was lost only to realize I was still on the trail. I finally arrived back at my camp at 10:30. It had, once again, talked me an hour longer that I thought it would to complete the last part of my journey but at this point I did not mind. I ate a quick snack and fell asleep quickly after a 13.5 hour day.

I awoke the next morning with more frost and frozen belongings so I lounged about as the sun warmed everything up. I left my warm camp at 11 and got back to Bearpaw at about 5:30 following the old trail over Coppermine Pass and then down through Elizabeth Pass. I managed to complete my trip a day early and still manage to fit in all the goals. Overall Milestone and Midway are fine peaks with splendid climbing in a very scenic and remote area.

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