Before even completing my last trip out at SEKI, I was already scheming on shorter trips that I could put together to get into the areas of the Southern Sierra High Route that we were forced to bypass on that outing. Since I have passed by Center Basin so often but never visited, the pull to head out there was strong. With treats such as Golden Bear Lake, remnants of the original JMT, and a cool view of Forester Pass that can’t be seen anywhere else, it was an easy call. Along the way we’d go over Junction Pass, which has a reputation for being a nasty piece of off-trail scrambling, and Harrison Pass got thrown into the mix just for a fun, and as a unique way to wrap up the adventure – and an adventure it was!
Destination: Center Basin and eventually East Lake
Trail Head: Road’s End
Distance: ~50 miles round trip, ~14,000 cumulative elev gain
Remoteness: Very few hikers off-trail, usual crowd on JMT/PCT
Motivation: Get to see the OLD JMT and some remote passes that are rarely travelled.
Notes: Permits can be obtained in advance online. Bear Canisters are required. See this info contributed by Brian S. Bear lockers in the backcountry are reserved for PCT & JMT thru hikers. This is a strenuous route with quite a bit of time spent above 10,000 feet elevation. The off-trail sections are extremely strenuous and require navigating loose scree, talus, and snow fields. Both Junction Pass and especially Harrison Pass are routes that will require 100% of your focus and are not suitable routes for casual or inexperienced backcountry travelers.
The Report From our Trip :: Sep 2 thru Sep 6, 2016
Day Zero – Travel Day
I met up with my good friend and reliable hiking pal, Easy-A (Adam, whose report is here) to brave the Labor Day traffic together on the long drive to Road’s End. This ended up being about 9 hours of travel time from the Bay Area. Yuck. But, you gotta do what you gotta do. We rolled in around midnight and slept next to the car.
Day 1 – Road’s End to Golden Bear Lake (~18 miles)
5:30 AM rolls around quickly. We drag ourselves over to the Ranger’s station by 6:00 AM. First dibs! Other lesser-knuckleheads were comfortably curled up in their cars still, hoping nobody would be in line before sun up, but we forced their hand! Haha, sorry guys! It wasn’t long until a line of foggy headed travelers was forming. We ate breakfast as they que’d up.
An hour later, with permit in hand, we started the nearly 18 mile hike up to Golden Bear Lake. This is a long day, and could easily be split into 2 days by staying around Vidette Meadow for the night, then continuing up. We didn’t have time to do that and, you know, gotta keep the Berserker Lifestyle alive and well in these modern times. Somehow we made close to 3 mph on that uphill grind. Moral of the story: when you want to move fast, grab a buddy who has thru hiked the PCT, even if he gives some excuse about being out of shape!
After a few miles, someone alerted us of an upcoming photo op. A bear was ahead, snacking on some berries along the hillside. A few minutes later I nearly walked directly into it! He/she/they (I’ll abstain from gendering the bear) had moved down into a bush, right at the edge of the trail and I startled him as we came around the corner. All of a sudden, a big commotion about 4 feet away, and then… bear up on a rock, right in our face. We backed away… “hey bear, heeeyyyy bear…”. Click! Got his portrait just as it ducked back into the bush. A little close for comfort, but they generally don’t want anything to do with us humans.
After a productive afternoon, we reached the point where the fabled spur trail heads up to Golden Bear Lake. That trail remains a mystery. We saw zero traces of it, so we tramped off trail, moving uphill while keeping the creek within ear shot. We saw very faint traces of a trail a few times, sometimes it would be more obvious, then become covered in rocks. The good news is, the lake was easy to find just by staying near the creek. It was beautiful up there. We were treated to an evening of dramatic views. Clouds were blowing up from the valley all evening and swirling around the jagged ridges that form Center Basin. That night got cold enough that everything froze, including someone’s water filter. Luckily I kept mine in the tent with me 🙂
Day 2 – Golden Bear Lake to Tyndall Creek via Junction and Shepherd Passes (~10 miles)
Due to everything being frozen, we lay in our warm down bags long after sunrise, still under the shadow of the mountain. At last we got going for some off-trail fun. The trail that skirts around Golden Bear Lake is part of the original JMT. Sometime around 1931 it was re-routed over Forester Pass, but it still exists here in this place that sees people far less often now. The history of the JMT is interesting and worth knowing; the early explorers of the High Sierra must have been some hearty souls! Here’s a quick read that tells the tale of how the JMT came to be.
As we hiked along the trail would disappear occasionally. More than likely it’s there, but we just lost it. If in doubt look high to the right and you may find it as we did eventually. The view from the ridge is great; it’s a unique view of Forester Pass as well as Center Basin. We watched a few people (ants, from that distance) making their way up the switchbacks of Forester, then we continued up the old JMT to Junction Pass where all evidence of the trail has been obliterated by rock fall. Here we rested and prepared for the “loose, nasty talus and all manner of crud” that Alan Dixon’s well written report advises of – an accurate description if there ever was one!
Junction Pass is easy going at first, then it changes direction and dives into the drainage, steepening and becoming very loose. The fun part is, it’s not just scree, there are big chunks of talus in play that will readily get moving. Adam and I communicated as we moved down to ensure I wouldn’t send any rocks down onto him. Clear thinking is key here; the person above needs to be patient and the person below needs to be alert. Sending rock down onto someone will result in a really bad day, or a trip to the afterlife.
At the bottom awaits a talus field of epic proportions! Once in a while the old trail becomes visible, and just as quickly disappears. With the mountains on both sides crumbling apart and filling the drainage with boulders, it’s no mystery why the trail was re-routed when the option presented itself. We took a rest at The Pothole on the East side of Shepherd Pass; both of us had got a good working over from the long descent on all that talus. After recovering, we made the (relatively) easy grind up Shepherd Pass, then cruised towards Tyndall Creek. When we were almost directly due East of lake 3490, we went off trail, making a b-line to the creek. We found a nice spot to camp down there for the evening and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon. Harrison Pass was the only real question in this trip, we wondered… how bad can it be?
Day 3 – Tyndall Creek to East Lake via Harrison Pass (~10 miles)
After another cold morning, and another leisurely start, we headed due West and skirted around the South end of the little lake near lake 3490. Here we got back on the trail that leads up and un-named pass over to Lake South America. This is a cool area if you dig the moonscape. From the pass there is a good view of the Kern Basin, which seems like it would be a great place to explore. Put that one in the pocket for another time.
After Lake South America, the trail disappears, but finding the way up to Harrison Pass is not difficult. We stayed to the right of the drainage, using the grassy ramps to make an easy walk of it. Near the top we found a few footprints in the sand and followed them up. At the top there is currently a large stone cairn that’s impossible to miss. As I approached, the scene down the North side of the pass came into view… whoa! Harrison Pass is an avalanche chute that has a notch about half way down, after which it becomes wider. It’s very high angle, and extremely loose all the way down. The top ~40 feet of the pass is the steepest part. There are a couple of ways to get into it, I am not recommending either of them (go at your own peril), but here’s the deal… The first way is to test your luck on some very steep, consolidated dirt that looks slippery as hell. This may work, but a fall here could end up being a fast ride into the scree and talus 30-40 feet down, with freewheeling all the way to the bottom a real possibility. The other way is to traverse a narrow ledge across to the far side at the top, then downclimb about 10-12 feet. There are a couple of class 3 moves here and a fall wouldn’t necessarily be fatal, however if someone were to fall and start freewheeling down the steep slope (which seems likely) that would result in death or, if not, then a bunch of broken limbs. Good times.
We chose the route that involved the bit of downclimbing. It just seemed the safer of the two. However, that rock face is all decayed and some of the hand and foot holds are bad, so if you opt to try this, go very slowly and test everything. That was our approach and we managed to avoid any falls. After that, we traversed back toward the center of the chute, slid down a bit, then back toward the right side and moved down along the rock face as much as possible. Any time we had to venture back into the middle of the chute it was a controlled slide. The bottom of the pass is yet another talus field, and the top of it is very loose, so maintaining focus is still important. Finally it gives way to larger more stable talus and a few high lakes. We went for a dip in the upper lake to flush the adrenaline out of our system and cool our aching legs in the freezing water.
The lakes give way to a nice creek that drops abruptly, losing 3,000 feet of elevation in 3 miles. We picked our way along the left side of the creek. The terrain turns to larger slabs of rock that eventually lead down to the creek level. We crossed the creek and soon found a wider, more open area of nice meadows and pine trees. This would make for an excellent place to camp, if not for the difficulty of ever reaching it! As the descent continues, it becomes necessary to contour around the hill above the creek, else you’ll end up bushwhacking through willow and talus. At some point we found a well marked use-trail and followed it all the way down, fixing up the odd cairn that had toppled since the last visitors passed thru. East Lake finally emerged and all of the real work was now behind us.
Day 4 – East Lake out to Road’s End (~13 miles)
After a wonderful evening at East Lake, we cleared out and booked it downhill out to Roads End. Going down the Bubb’s Creek Trail is a lot more fun than going up, especially when you know that real food is waiting for you! This was a nice way to end the trip since it had definitely included quite a bit of that Type-II Fun that we all know and love.
What Worked and What Didn’t
No gear problems or otherwise on this trip. Everything worked great. I got re-acquainted with my long-unused Echo I shelter, and I’m glad I did. That shelter is essentially a modular tarp + beak + bivy setup and it was just dandy. I also picked up some aluminum trekking poles for this trip, after breaking a carbon fiber pole last time. No problems this time around.
My Gear and Clothing Used
Backpack: HMG Southwest 70L (oversized, but carried great)
Shelter: HMG Echo I system
Sleeping Bag: Enlightened Equipment Revelation 30º Quilt
Sleeping Pad: Therm-A-Rest X-Lite
Ground Pad: Evazote foam pad from eBay
Pillow: Sea to Summit Aeros
Stove: MSR Windburner
Pot: See above
Water Filtration: Sawyer Mini Filter with squeeze bag
Hydration: 2x 1 Liter bottles
Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Trail Poles (aluminum)
Bear Canister: BV 500
Pants: Craghopper Nosilife Lite Trousers
Shirt: Synthetic Northface button up
Undershirt: Smartwool tee x2
Underwear: 1 pair ExOfficio boxer briefs, 1 pair SmartWool boxer briefs
Socks: 1 pair SmartWool PHD, 1 pair Darn Tough
Baselayer Bottoms: Icebreaker 200 weight (for sleeping only)
Baselayer Top: Smartwool 150 long sleeve shirt
Insulation: EB First Ascent Downlight jacket
Rain Shell: OR Helium II jacket / REI Ultralight rain pants
Shoes: Saucony Peregrine 6
Gaiters: Dirty Girls
Hat: Columbia sun hat, fleece beanie
Camera: Sony RX100 (wish I could have brought a better camera system)
PLB: DeLorme InReach SE
Recharging: Anker Powercore 10,000
Food: ~3100 calories/day
What a great trip! Good company, good pace, we were able to achieve all our mileage goals, we had great weather, no bugs, and lots of adventure! Having a chance to explore the original route of the JMT was very cool. I may revisit Center Basin and Junction Pass if the motivation to do a SoSHR thru hike comes along, but probably not. I doubt I will revisit Harrison Pass or the area along the creek there ever again, so having done it makes it special. It is not a route for the beginner/intermediate explorer, but for someone with a little more experience, it’s a very do-able way to see some seldom visited parts of SEKI. Just be ready to work for it, and embrace the talus! -JD