Day 4: Sabbath Layover in the Ritter Lakes Basin

I’ve been hiking with my friend Daniel, almost yearly, for a long time. Today (Friday) is always a special day on our treks. Since sunset marks the beginning of the Sabbath and a layover day with a two-night camp, it always comes with a great deal of anticipation to see where we end up. Today we had no idea where we’d settle in for the Sabbath, and that was exciting to me – I was eager to see how the day would unfold.

We left our island paradise at Thousand Island Lake around noon after enjoying the morning sun, and writing, reading, and fishing for the lake’s healthy and hungry rainbow trout.

Not long after the leaving the island, I saw a movement on the ground on the western lakeshore of the big ocean: a frog! It was exactly as the Frog Man described and in the exact spot where he said to look. It made me feel like Frog Man Jr., and I hope to write him when I get home to tell him about my encounter.

A beautiful walk through lakeside meadows, hemlocks, and tundra took us up the drainage leading to Glacier Lake Pass (i.e., North Glacier Pass). We met a grandpa napping behind a giant boulder, having a great time while waiting for his son and grandson to return from their scramble to the col. It was neat to see three generations traipsing through these mountains together, and it reminded me of fond memories of fishing and camping with my dad, brother, and grandfather on the Chehalis River in Washington when I was a kid.

Shortly after our encounter with Gramps, we met up with a hen grouse and her three chicks. She clucked sweetly at them, and kept them close. We miss mom.

After leaving the tundra, we ascended Class 2-ish talus along the north side of the drainage and suffered disconcerting bouts of balance disruption owing to the gusty winds. The travel tempo would go like this:

– scurry over talus for several steps when the wind howls moaned above;
– find a good spot to brace yourself;
– hold on while the gust blew by;
– repeat.

Eventually we arrived at the col at close to 11,000 feet on the Sierra Crest, and due to the gale, promptly began a diagonal descent towards Catherine Lake’s north shore. We stopped for a break in a tiny patch of grass (the only patch of grass to be found at this altitude) at the outlet to eat, drink, and fish.

From this vantage point, the wilderness traveler enjoys what may be one of the finest vistas in all of the High Sierra: a deep, dark blue lake enshrined in a temple of glaciated high peaks featuring the domineering northwest face of Mount Ritter.

We spent a bit of time here taking it all in, and by the time we had our fill, the late afternoon sun reminded us that we had best start looking for a camp, which would pose no small challenge in this environment of rock and water.

We spent a fair bit of time scouting almost the entirety of the Ritter Lakes basin, which offers so little in the way of camp comfort but so much in the way of scenic drama. After a circuitous scramble through the basin, I finally stumbled upon a grassy oasis in a bench overlooking one of the unnamed Ritter Lakes, the perfect place for a Sabbath layover: stunning scenery and off the grid.

Our camp feels like it’s at the end of the world – we just came through dramatic mountains, which are behind us, and we are looking down on a lake with its far shoreline protected by steep cliffs that plunge to a massive valley 1,500 feet below. We cannot see the valley, of course, so it looks like the edge of the flat earth has been reached.

Daniel is pitched on a flat tundra bench, and Chase is perched in a small bit of grass hidden between two massive boulders at the top of a cliff plunging to the lake below. I’m opting for a Louis L’Amour style of camp, far back from the lake at the base of a rock wall, in a tiny patch of tundra. A scramble is required to reach my camp, which should keep the visitors down while I exercise my introversion. My stone grey Cuben Fiber shelter blends in with the cliff, and it’s as stealth as you can get in the alpine while preserving a view of everything below.

Tonight we celebrated the Sabbath with fried pasta and an Israeli Pinot noir and the joy of knowing that not only are we encamped at one of the remotest spots in the High Sierra, but that we’re in a hidden tundra oasis that few travelers of even the Sierra High Route will ever experience. This is a special spot.


– Daniel trekking up towards Glacier Lake Pass, Thousand Island Lake in the background.

– Panoramic of the scene from our rest break at Catherine Lake, with Mount Ritter and the Ritter Glacier.

– Nighttime scene from our camp in the Ritter Lakes basin, looking towards the west, where cliffs below the lake drop 1,500′ into the headwaters of the San Joaquin River.


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Day 3: Island Time

I awoke again early (but no alarm this time) to sunrise alpenglow on the peaks surrounding our camp. I lazily shoved my camera out my tent and randomly snapped a few uncomposed photographs, and then went back to sleep.

The sun’s warmth once again woke me up so I threw my quilt to the side, stripped my down jacket off, and started a brew.

With Mount Ritter high above us, I reflected on its first ascent. Fittingly perhaps, since Ritter may be the Sierras’ most dominant peak, it was climbed by John Muir in 1872. During that weeklong trip, he was reportedly carrying little more than “a blanket, biscuits, and tea.” I feel a little ashamed that I’m carrying much more than a blanket, biscuits, and tea! But today we will have the opportunity to stash some gear we won’t be needing for the next several days, so we’ll see how much I can pare down.

I spent the morning journaling and recording some notes about the gear and supplies I packed for this trip, with the optimistic hope that I will refer to them again so that positive changes can be made.

In contrast to Minaret Lake, the animal sounds here are noticeably absent. There are no birds chirping, squirrels chattering, or marmots whistling. The only sounds are the gales howling through the Minarets above, and the background hissing of a small waterfall descending the cliffs separating our camp from the tundra bench above.

This morning’s breakfast was a new recipe for me: tsampa with chopped pecans, coconut flakes, dehydrated currants, and dry whole milk. As a hot cereal with a little brown sugar added, it’s an exceptionally good morning meal and kept me satisfied until noon.

We left our camp and climbed through a forest of large, old hemlocks on a faint path to the tundra beneath the Ritter-Banner col. A giant ribbon of water cascaded down from the remnant glacier adorning Mount Ritter’s northeast aspect, falling several hundred feet through black cliffs, disappearing in the talus below.

Our route meandered upward through talus and tundra to a small pass overlooking the barren landscape housing the starkly beautiful blue waters of the Nydiver Lakes. After a stop to drink, snack, and rest, we began our ascent to Whitebark Pass via a diagonal traverse upward towards the pass’s namesake stands of whitebark pines.

The highest of these pines, situated only a few dozen vertical meters below the pass itself, is an old denizen with a tangled mass of divergent trunks and a clear pattern to the orientation of its branches and vegetation indicative of the incessant winds at this col. Upon our arrival, the breeze was stiff enough to motivate us onward.

The descent from the pass involved loose scree and steep talus – blocks large enough to inspire a false sense of security because they are small enough to roll topsy-turvy, taking your ankle with you. We completed the descent, which involves a few Class 2 moves, with only one slip-and-slide with little more collateral damage than a broken trekking pole and perhaps a slightly bruised ego.

On the way down to the meadows above Garnet Lake, we met the Frog Man.

The Frog Man is a California Department of Fish and Game biologist who travels through the high country for a living. He carried a frog net on the outside of his pack, and seems, as best as I can gather, to dip it into ponds here and there to see if he can capture some rare hopping Sierra amphib with a yellow tummy.

After we exchanged Good Lucks and parted ways, Chase and I looked at each other, and exchanged the knowing glances, nods, and smiles that reflected our synchronous thoughts: “We want THAT job!”

Above Garnet Lake, we stopped to cache gear and supplies that we’d plan to pick up in six days on our way back to Mammoth. It reminded me of the ritual often observed at Neel’s Gap, Georgia, the first major resupply point for northbound thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail: jettison as much as you can, and all of what hasn’t been used, to save weight. We did exactly that, saving several pounds off our pack weights. It felt good to be hiking with a pack that I could lift up with one arm.

We reached the upper end of the aptly-named Thousand Island Lake and found a respectable camp nestled amongst the scrub pines that inhabit one of the larger of the islands. Low water levels allowed us to cross a high and dry shale bridge to the island, and it feels exotic to be surrounded on all sides by water!

We tucked into a tiny bay beach to escape the gusty winds for our dinner time meal, when Chase discovered that his spork was AWOL. I took this as an opportunity to be a Hero Dad so I whittled him a tri-pronged fork from a willow branch – a real work of art I might add. He was not amused. “It tastes funny,” he said. The kids these days, I tell ya. Not appreciating my servanthood, he invoked higher powers: “Dear God, where is my lost spork?” The light bulb went off, he hurriedly scampered to his tent, rummaged around, and emerged with his long lost friend, apparently misplaced in a moment of absentmindedness this morning. The cut willow was this relegated to a life of decay and uselessness.

The wind is gusty here but the view of Banner Peak, the vast size of Thousand Island Lake, and the waves lapping the shore give an otherworldly feel to this location, one of our best camps so far.

As we close our third day, we feel our bodies and spirits synchronizing with the natural rhythms around us. Wilderness living is becoming the new routine, and we’re glad to finally be on island time.

Tomorrow, we cross the Sierra Crest.


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Day 2: In the Shadow of the Minarets

I awoke to a light breeze whistling its tune across the peak of my little pyramid shelter sometime in the middle of the night. I peeked out the open roof created by having both doors rolled open and saw a zillion stars along with the creamy smudge of our galaxy in the sky. Content to hear the wind and the little brook dripping near my bed, I dozed back off into my Sierra neverland.

Some time later I heard a sound that one might hear if they pitched the tent at the end of an airport runway: the jet-like howl of a west wind powering its way through the narrow notches of the Minaret crest. Moments later the gale buffeted my pyramid tarp. I stumbled out of my cozy down quilt, reset two stakes, crawled back inside, zipped the doors shut, and burrowed back in.

I set my watch alarm for a too-early time so I could photograph the morning alpenglow on the eastern faces of the Minarets. It was worth it. The matamorphosed volcanic rock of the Minarets reflects a uniquely complex suite of rusty alpenglow hues quite unlike the granite and limestone alpenglow I’m used to in the northern Rockies.

After a brief photo session from the top of a talus gully above my camp, I scrambled back down and returned to bed.

I awoke to a dream.

In my dream a friendly Yosemite black bear was shining a thousand-lumen light into my eyes, crunching on pilot crackers that he had stolen from me, and politely asked me if he could borrow a coin to unlock the bolts on my bear canister to retrieve another serving of biscuits.

I sat up in a panic. The thousand lumen light ended up being the blinding sun to the east and the crunching sound came from Chase’s footsteps circling my tarp. “Hello?” I asked, still a bit confused and wondering where I had placed my coin. An enthusiastic “Good morning!” reply from somebody I recognized snapped me back into a more peaceful reality.

My morning routine on lower-mileage trips like this is rigid, and starts with brewing a pot of coffee on my Jetboil stove while remaining in my sleeping bag. Once the first cup has allowed my mind to fully synchronize its perceptions with what is being delivered to me by my natural surroundings, I’ll ease out of my bag and sit in my camp chair outside my tarp to begin a journaling session.

This morning, warm temperatures and a remote location gave me the glorious opportunity to enjoy writing in the sun while sitting only in my skivvies, bandana, and sunglasses. A can of PBR and some street traffic might have given the scene a full on front-porch-redneck-quality to it, a thought that made me giggle a little as I felt the sun warm my near naked body.

As the day warmed, the local bird life shouted an asynchronous and unconducted symphony of squaks, chirps, and shrills, joined by the chatter of squirrels and whistles of marmots. I’m thankful they didn’t start this cacaphony at 4 AM!

A pine marten joined us during the breakfast hour on the lakeshore. It brought a mouse for its meal, but didn’t share. As cute as these creatures are, its tearing of the sinewy rodent with its sharp teeth, and its blood-stained whiskers, are a reminder that nature’s social customs are different than ours. I vow to eat a trout with only my fingers and teeth at some point on the trip. I’ll keep you posted.

After a leisurely morning spent decompressing, we left Minaret Lake very late and made our way up the talus and tundra towards Cecile Lake on one of the most scenic and popular cross-country routes in all of the Sierra: the Minaret-to-Ediza traverse.

The crux pitch comes just a few hundred feet above Minaret Lake: an infamous “slot” that requires a Class 3 climb on sparse but stable holds up a nearly vertical rock wall. Climbing it with 50 pound packs that threatened to pull us backwards as we looked up for the next set of holds gave us some trepidation, but Chase and I scrambled up, fully loaded, without incident. Dan opted to leave his pack at the bottom and climbed the slot unweighted. I climbed back down and retrieved his behemoth McHale P&G SARC and brought it up to him. I was thankful to have been wearing approach shoes (Scarpa Zen) instead of trail runners, which made climbing secure.

We traversed along the shore of Cecile Lake, right underneath the Minarets, now close enough to appreciate their mass and to have to crane my neck dramatically to bring their summits into my field of vision.

We met a group of two families and their four young daughters, the youngest of whom was not even five years old. They were on a five day trip that included the Ediza-to-Minaret traverse, downclimbing the Class 3 slot and all. There is hope in the world after all, and I congratulated the parents accordingly.

After a fishing stop along the shore of Cecile for brookies, we descended a rowdy and loose scree gully to the east of the “Diagonal Traverse” along the normal Roper High Route, to the talus along Iceberg Lake’s southeast shore.

We stopped for a long time at Iceberg’s outlet to eat, drink, let the afternoon sun moderate a little, exchange stares with a curious coyote, and fish for the plentiful pan-sized brookies that inhabit this drainage.

In the early evening, we departed this idyllic spot and continued moseying along the High Route to the meadows above Ediza Lake and directly below Ritter Pass. In the incredible basin, surrounded by the Minarets along with the hulking masses of Mounts Ritter and Banner, we are encamped for the night.

The Minaret Winds returned this evening, but now from the north. The sunset sky was golden brown, accentuated by wildfire smoke blowing into our area.

Tomorrow: north, probably. We’re just sort of taking it day by day!


// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at and receive updates at:

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Day 1: Minaret Lake

Late this morning, my son Chase, my friend Daniel, and I left Devil’s Postpile packed with 10 days of provisions and started making our way towards the Sierra Crest.

The temperatures were hot, winds were unrelentingly absent, the trail was dry and dusty. That is to say that the summer Sierra forest, replete with towering ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, was in fine August form.

Eventually the big trees gave way to granite slabs and thousand year old whitebark pines with stories to tell, and we found ourselves 2,500 feet above the tourist and thru-hiker village of Red’s Meadow and on the quiet and remote northwest shore of Minaret Lake, where we are now camped.

The Minarets rise above us more than two thousand feet, with the dagger-like Clyde Minaret dominating our view. I cannot resist the urge to look up at it, often, and wonder if mountains had souls, would this one be a friend or foe? Its beauty and symmetry are striking, but its serrated ridgeline and imposing silhouette are haunting, too. I can’t get the famous words of 1920s-era climber Charles Michael out of my head: “There is no friendliness about the Minarets…they wear a black and sinister look.”

Tonight we are deeply exhausted, as we begin the process of decompressing from a week of little sleep, long work schedules, and the fatigue of walking from well below the timberline to within rock throwing distance of the mighty alpine of the High Sierra’s jagged crest.

Tomorrow we’ll make our way north along Roper’s version of the Sierra High Route, through the cliff band leading to Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake, below the imposing shadows of the northern Minarets.


// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (
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Introduction: Navigating the High Sierra


In less than a week, I’ll be leaving for a 10-day trek through the High Sierra south of Yosemite. As we plan route options, we do so first by looking at the Sierra crest, then by looking at weaknesses across that crest. Our route will criss-cross through those weaknesses.

We hope to stay off trail (other than the first and last days) and find exceedingly remote high basins seldom visited by others, and off the main drag of the Roper High Route.

Follow along as I blog and post photos via Twitter @bigskyry, my public page at Facebook, here on the blog at the #highsierra2015 page, and if all goes well, Instagram @bigskyry. I may be testing a new broadband satellite rig that may give me access to Instagram as well as posting hi-res photos (and who knows, maybe a video clip or two?) – we’ll see how it goes!