Mt. Fiske

18-25 Aug 2011 - by Debbie Bulger

After snow conditions precluded our climbing Mt. Fiske in July, Richard Stover and I just had to try for it in August. This time we decided to hike from South Lake, since I had never seen the section of the John Muir Trail between the LeConte Canyon Ranger Station and Muir Pass.

We were also in search of the unusual Roundleaf Sundew, a carniverous plant that grows in mossy bogs. This easily overlooked plant traps insects to provide nutrients not available from the soil.

Normally I avoid the JMT, so I was amazed at the constant stream of hikers of all sorts flowing both ways on the trail. I imagined myself a Native American watching settlers stream across the wilderness. People just kept walking by. There were hikers young and old, tentative folks with satellite beacons, people in running shoes, some in jeans. One with fishing reels bolted to his treking poles. Then there were the kayakers who resembled snails with colorful shells-red, yellow, blue. They were headed for the Middle Fork of the Kings River and Fresno. Despite their loads of 80-100 pounds, they sped up the trail faster than I.


We hiked over Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin the first day. It had been 11 years since we last went over this pass which had been rerouted because the trail is subject to frequent rockfall. At the pass we met Erika Jostad, Park Supervising Ranger and lucky-for-us, Sylvia Haultain, the Sequoia/Kings Canyon Plant Ecologist.

"Where might we find the roundleaf sundew?" we inquired. She told us.

The next morning we continued on our way to Muir Pass stopping near Big Pete Meadow to look for the Sundew. We took off our packs and searched among the sphagnum moss and muck for at least 30 minutes. No luck. Those little buggers are hard to find! But the real bugs (mosquitoes) were busy chomping on us as we searched for their predators. We decided to continue on and look more carefully after climbing Fiske.

Having dropped to 8750' we ended up camping at 10,000' that night as we worked our way back to higher elevation. Both Bishop Pass and Muir Pass are at 12,000'.

On Day 3 we were thrilled to pass hundreds of endangered Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs and tadpoles. This seriously cute frog has disappeared from more than 90% of its former range. Threats to its survival include introduction of non-native trout, disease, and probably pesticide drift from the Central Valley.


After reaching Helen Lake we proceeded over talus to the north shore where we camped on a bench about 40' above the lake. Early the next morning we set out for Mt. Fiske. Hard snow covered the bowl south of Mt. Fiske. It's hard to believe it's almost the end of August. There is still a lot of snow everywhere. From Helen Lake to Muir Pass the trail is mostly obscured by the snow.

Once we started climbing, however, most of the snow was gone from this southern route. We climbed fun blocks on the southwest ridge and descended on the much easier south face.


The view from the summit is superb. 360 degrees of peaks including massive Darwin, bristlely Haeckel, dark brooding McGee, and towering Goddard. What a view!



Below in the bowl, the rocks were covered with watermelon snow, a pink coloration caused by the presence of an algae, Chamydomonas nivalis. Apparently there was red carotenoid algal pigment left on some of the rocks after the snow had melted because our hands became stained pink as well.

Rising late the next day we moved our camp to a small lake south of Helen Lake and set up our tent just in time to protect us from the rain and hail. The photo below shows us the next day at supper with Mt. Fiske behind Debbie to the right.


We'll save Black Giant and other peaks in the vicinity for another time. But I just had to visit the Sierra Club Hut on Muir Pass.

This hut was built in the 1930s at a cost of $5,800 before the establishment of Sequoia National Park using a design based on shelters found in Italy. More than half the expense was for packing in the building materials.


Returning to Big Pete Meadow the next day our search for the Sundew was successful. The small plants are not apparent at first, hidden among the taller vegetation. And then, we saw them, tipped off by the long red petioles and red glandular hairs on the leaves. The tiny white flowers on a stalk that rises 6-8 inches above the basal rosette are almost invisible. We fed it one of the mosquitoes that were feeding on us.


Further down the trail a Blue Grouse chick on a boulder caught our eyes. The well-camouflaged other birds became apparent as we watched. There were four fluffy chicks following their mother nearby. As Richard started to snap photos using his flash, the mother grouse started clucking softly. One by one the chicks obediently gathered and hid under her puffed up body. We stopped harassing them.

Then we almost lost Debbie to the dreaded Sierra Rockasaurus.


Luckily she escaped, and we scampered back to the trailhead.

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