Little Lakes Basin

Easy access on the East Side

Summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the East Side. I wanted to go somewhere new and had never been to the Rock Creek area. There are a handful of campgrounds nearby and some high peaks and many lakes within striking distance. It seemed like a good plan, but every good plan needs an accomplice or two…

Finding some hearty souls to join me on these East Side adventures is never easy. The 5-6 hour drive from the Bay Area is generally off-putting — I think that’s mostly because folks don’t understand what awaits them! Then there’s the altitude; which is understandable. For a lot of people, anything above 6,000 ft is “the mountains,” and these trips tend to begin around 9,000 or 10,000 ft. It doesn’t agree with everyone. Experience is also a major factor. I tend to only invite people I know who have some experience with off-trail travel in the mountains. Generally, these folks know what gear to bring and already own it. I’m stoked when someone speaks the language too, like what class-3 means, or knowing the difference between scree and talus and how it affects the way we’ll move across those types of terrain. Lastly, it’s summer and people are on vacation with their families or their own plans. So, year after year, my list gets narrower it seems.

July 26-28, 2021

I invited the usual suspects this year and my reliable buddy JV was in until his car blew up. Something about the best-laid plans? I decided to do something I never do and branched out to invite a couple of people who would be new to this sort of thing. My friend Carolyn ended up joining me.

Carolyn scrambling up Patricia Peak
Carolyn scrambling up Patricia Peak
Looking toward the lakes basin
Looking toward the lakes basin

Carolyn is a capable runner and has run some legit mountain races, such as The Rut. She’s got a place in Bozeman, which adds to her cred, ha! Going into the mountains on your own isn’t the same as running a race in the mountains though. In fact, it’s a completely different ballgame when you’re off-trail, without any support, in places that nobody will pass by on their day hike. Something as simple as a twisted ankle can instantly change the situation from fun to very serious. We wanted to avoid anything like that of course, so I told myself to set aside any expectations and focus on making the trip safe and successful for us both. We would do whatever the mountains would allow for us to do, as a team.

At the summit of Patricia Peak
At the summit of Patricia Peak
Mt. Morgan in the Distance
Mt. Morgan in the Distance

My original plan was to follow the trail to Francis Lake, then venture off-trail into higher country, culminating with a climb of Broken Finger Peak (13,080 ft). According to Secor, it would involve scrambling up a loose col where class 3 and 4 climbing awaited toward the top. This would have been iffy even with an experienced partner, so I suggested we attempt to summit Mt. Morgan instead (13,780 ft), which would involve a more doable hike over class 2 and some steeper class 3 terrain that could involve some scrambling. From there, it would be possible to surf down a steep scree slope into the lakes basin, where we could run back on a decent trail, or we could return via the same route. To suss out how Carolyn would mange with the off-trail travel, she and I decided on a mini adventure up to Patricia Peak first (11,900 ft).

Patricia Peak is not often summited but is a relatively short effort from Pine Creek Campground. A use trail leads to some class 2 then some easy scrambling over some talus fields and steep scree fields. Carolyn was game and handled herself really well (despite carrying a handheld, which gets in the way when climbing). We made it to the summit, which was a fairly large, sprawling area of large boulders. I looked around for a summit register with no luck. Finally, I climbed on top of the largest boulder and looked around, then I saw a small pile of rocks on another boulder that looked out of place. Sure enough, a small medicine tin was stashed there with the register inside.

The Summit Register
The Summit Register

The register is one I will not forget. The first entry was from 12-31-1999 and was titled “The Last Day of the Century.” It’s always a treat to find a register that’s been up there for more than 20 years, but it was awesome that particular day was the first entry. I imagined the person who left it looking out at the same view we were, in the solitude of winter.

We browsed some of the other entries and a very touching memorial that was left by a husband whose wife and climbing partner had passed away. We were both feeling a little emotional, I started to read aloud the poem he included with his message but couldn’t stay composed enough to finish it. The clouds settled over us and it started to rain lightly. We were both feeling a little wonky with the altitude and decided it was a good time to start back. I made a bad decision to take a more direct route, forgetting about the cliffs we had skirted around earlier. So, Carolyn learned the meaning of “oh, we can downclimb these pretty easily!” We got down ok, but it was a slow and sketchy ordeal and a reminder to just stick to the routes I had carefully planned using topo maps and satellite imagery.

Based on how things went with Patricia Peak, we decided to save Mt. Morgan for another time. Our pace and the altitude seemed to suggest that was the smart move. Instead, we ran and hiked up the lakes basin, then explored cross country from Gem Lakes. I wanted to visit Treasure Lakes, but I turned us into the wrong drainage (due to failure to check the map) and neither of us felt like scrambling back up a bunch more huge talus only to face a lot more of the same on the way to Treasure Lakes. So we headed down to Chickenfoot Lake, then back down the trail, and then turned on the trail upward to Ruby Lake, which sits below Mono Pass.

Streams and Lakes in Little Lakes Valley
Streams and Lakes in Little Lakes Valley
The Gem Lakes
The Gem Lakes
Between 1000 rocks and a hard place
Between 1000 rocks and a hard place

It wasn’t quite the long run that either of us planned for, but that was ok. Although we had to modify our plans a couple of times, the trip was a success. Carolyn got into the high country and got to see what that was like. She handled herself fantastically and I was happy for the company. Now, I have a new name in my list of “approved people” to invite and I know she is already thinking about doing some peakbagging when she returns to Montana. I call it a win! -JD

“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” ~ Winston Churchill

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.