Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mount Gabb, 13,741', Via Lake Italy and Granite Park

Essence: Remote Mount Gabb is the highest peak along the lengthy Mono Divide. Many approaches lead to the standard route which is suitable for moderate scramblers on excellent rock. The backpack described begins on the Pine Creek Pass Trail northwest of Bishop, CA. Most of the sojourn is above timberline beginning with a string of lakes in Granite Park. Walk among the Sierra's finest granitic features: minarets, razors, flatirons, slabs, and jutting fins. Backcountry permits are required for overnight visits in the Inyo National Forest, John Muir Wilderness. 
Travel: From Bishop, drive ten miles north on U. S. Route 395 and turn left/west at the sign for the mining camp Rovana dating to the 1940's. Its name is an amalgam of Round Valley and Vanadium Ranch. To confirm, there is a yellow sign for the Pine Creek Trail. Drive headlong into the mountains for 9.2 paved miles and park in a large dirt lot at the Pine Creek Pack Station. There are bears in the area so do not leave food in your vehicle. No water or facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 32.6 miles, 9,700 feet of vertical
Time: Three to four-day backpack 
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; southwest ridge of Mount Gabb is Class 3 with mild exposure; long portions of the trail are not maintained--must have good map reading skills.
Maps: Mount Tom; Mount Hilgard; Mount Abbot, CA 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Climbed: August 24, 2016
Historical Note: In 1862, Josiah Whitney, chief of the California Geological Survey, appointed William Moore Gabb the paleontologist for the Whitney Survey. Born in 1839, Professor Gabb died in 1878 from malaria he contracted in Costa Rica.
I am the boiling stone of cauldron earth,
I am the cracked mirror of icy eons,
I am the shattered glass of the sun,
I am what endures,
I am the Sierra.
Thomas Holt Ward

Mount Gabb, 13,741', seen from the shoreline of Lake Italy after a hail storm.

Route:  From the Pine Creek Pass Trailhead, 7,420 feet, ascend west on good treadway to the junction with Pine Creek Pass and Italy Pass trails. Continue west passing through Granite Park and over Italy Pass to Lake Italy. From the lake, climb north off-trail then west to Saddle 12,900' at the base of Mount Gabb's southwest summit ridge. From the crest, retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Alternate Routes: From the east, Cox Col north of Bear Creek Spire enables excellent climbers to summit Mount Gabb in a day. From the west, access Lake Italy via the Hilgard Branch. Or, ascend the Second Recess to Upper Mills Creek Lake, go over Gabbot Pass and intersect the described route. Be wary of climbing the northeast ridge from Gabbot Pass. There is a note in the peak register from a man who described it as a "sphincter clincher." South slopes are steep but viable. 

Day One: Pine Creek Pass Trailhead, 7,420' to Granite Park
Walk under the gate for the Pine Creek Pack Station, established in 1934, and locate the sign for the Pine Creek Pass Trail. Walk toward the spiked granite headwall on a pleasant trail through woods dominated by sugar pine, the tallest and most massive of all earthly pines. Within 500 feet of elevation the venerable giants give way to a stand of fluttering aspen.

In one mile, break out of woods with a clear view of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mine surrounded by dramatic stone prominences. The mine operated intermittently from 1916, extracting tungsten from scheelite to make steel alloys. The mill was the largest producer of tungsten in the country through WWII. It was decommissioned in 2001 and most of the structures have been removed. Activity at the mine today is associated with a reclamation project. The curious round structure is an ore bin.

The crushed granite trail utilizes an old mine track with a business-like grade, switchbacking up the sunny, north-facing slope vegetated with rabbit brush, sage, and manzanita. The only shade afforded is from old-growth Sierra juniper. The generous corridor was cleaved into a precipitous mountainside, and remains south of Pine Creek while holding a westerly bearing.

At 2.7 miles, 9,160 feet, an abandoned road veers left to the Brownstone Mine, an outlier of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mill. Note the holes bored into the vertical wall, tailings, and scattered rusted debris and lumber. The trail mounts broad stone steps with stunning views of the Pine Creek cascade and banded, black and white Point 12,245'. Pine Lake resides at its base.

At 3.6 miles, 9,760 feet, enter the John Muir Wilderness and note the sign specifying no fires above this elevation. At 9,900 feet, cross Pine Creek on a sliced-off log and reach Pine Lake at 4.3 miles. The lake is blue here, emerald there, deep and mysterious. The north shoreline trail traverses through impossibly black rock suffused with shiny crystals and banded with skinny to thick lines of dazzling white quartz. (THW, photo)

There are some nice campsites off the trail on the far side of Upper Pine Lake. Four threaded streams converge to form the broad, watery inlet which is crossed on 37 carefully placed granite stepping cubes! At 10,420 feet, arrive at the signed junction of the Pine Creek Pass and Honeymoon Lake (Italy Pass) trails. This is the halfway point to Lake Italy, 5.8 miles. Of the 5,300 feet of elevation gain required to reach the lake, 3,100 feet is accomplished. (THW, photo)

Within 0.1 mile of the right turn, a sign points left to Italy Pass. A well-worn spur trail off to the right leads to plentiful and excellent, early-morning-sun camps on the northeast rim of Honeymoon Lake. Proceeding toward Italy Pass, at the southern end of the lake, follow cairns up stone blocks and cross an inlet. Keep an eye out for the trail as it traverses an appealing broken sheet of granite. Above Honeymoon Lake the secondary path is sparsely traveled. After crossing the second of four inlets, the track stays on the north side of the creek until it enters Granite Park.

At 11,000 feet, the path levels off and crosses the creek twice before staying on the north side of the string of lakes through two-mile long Granite Park. The route from here to Lake Italy is unmaintained, often marked by fallen-over cairns. Read the map and take the time and effort to identify the trail. We had no problem ascending through Granite Park but on the descent we went from on-track to "lost" in less than a minute.

Ascend a series of jumps from one spectacular lake basin to another, each rimed with glacially-sheared peaks. Climb to 11,300 feet before giving up a hundred feet. From this perch, there is a clear view of Granite Bear Pass (the east slope covered in snow, shown below), one of the more challenging routes into the Bear Lakes Basin. Granite Park is unrivaled in the Sierra Nevada for sensational beauty and this large area bears exploration on its own.

Find any number of spur trails to camps nestled in scattered pines. At 11,440 feet, pass a wildcat trail to the biggest lake in Granite Park under the flatiron Point 12,470', pictured.

We found a superb camp in an open expanse at 11,560 feet at the base of Point 11,749' after 8.4 miles and 4,450 feet of elevation gain. Our weather forced us into the tent early but it would be possible to make Lake Italy in one, long day.  For those camping here, climb the knoll for a look at tomorrow's quest, Italy Pass. Peer east into the Chalfant Lakes basin which parallels Granite Park. In the morning, a lakelet reflects sentinels, gendarmes, and vertical flatirons jutting from gleaming, granite spires. This is the wordless wild. (THW, photo)

Granite Park over Italy Pass to Lake Italy:
The trail is decidedly more obscure from upper Granite Park to Italy Pass with threaded tracks. However, upon topping the low, east-flowing ridge at 11,900 feet, there is a clear view of the pass and nothing tricky stands in the way. The route moves southwest at 12,040 feet to get around obstructions in the center of the pitch. It crosses to the right side of the headwall before shifting back to the low point. The Class 2 climb is playful pleasure. There are ptarmigans (grouse family) on both sides of Italy Pass but it takes a sharp eye to spot the camouflaged birds.

Italy Pass, elevation 12,420 feet, is just shy of ten miles from the trailhead. Flat, glaciated granite blocks provide an ideal viewing platform on this quintessential Sierra pass. The standard south ridge scramble up Mount Julius Caesar, 13,220', begins from the pass, shown.

Looking west, Jumble Lake is image-center. To its right is Mount Hilgard and Mount Gabb is image-right. The trail on the Mount Hilgard quad no longer exists. There are multiple viable options for descending. We found it best to bear west-northwest while dropping 400 feet to intersect the northeast tributary of Jumble Lake at about 12,060 feet. This route utilizes green ramps. (THW, photo)

Walk southwest on the south side of the stream where you will find fragments of a social trail, shown below. Cross the brook at 11,960 feet amongst an abundance of shooting stars. Descend a sandy slope on an established zigzag leading onto an essential trail on the north side of Jumble Lake. This welcome trail stays 140 feet above the lake while weaving through an intimidating mass of mammoth boulders.

Lake Italy comes into view at 11,600 feet (pictured with Mount Gabb). The topo indicates a trail leaving at 11,500 feet, crossing the inlet and going to the lake. Sure enough, we found that trail. But to reach the best camp on Lake Italy, use the social trail that stays on the east side of the stream.

After 5,300 feet of climbing and 11.6 miles from the trailhead, the camp is on a weathered granite buttress adorned with a solitary boulder. It is located east of a puzzle rock estuary which goes on for a considerable distance. Rivulets thread between naturally flat stepping stones and patches of tundra. This is one of two principle inlets for pristine Lake Italy.

We got there midmorning and intended to day hike to Gabbot Pass but we were lucky to circle the lake (3.3 miles), before a four-hour pelting hail storm threatened to shred our tent. This image shows the sodden camp and Mount Hilgard, 13,361'. (THW, photo)

Lake Italy to Mount Gabb
Roundtrip, the climb is 9.4 miles with 2,850 feet of vertical. It will take six to seven and a half hours. You can circle around to the north side of the lake in either direction. It is only 0.6 mile east from camp to the inlet where you may begin the climb. It took me 40 minutes to negotiate the boulder jumble. Some of the gigantic chunks are tenuously perched so take care.

This description goes the long way around. Head west staying close to the south shore through talus and tundra. Cross the Hilgard Branch at 1.1 miles, shown. It took us one hour to walk the 2.5 miles to where we launched our climb just past an incoming side stream.

Climbing north, there are a hundred ways to go up through friendly terrain. It is possible to primarily stay on green patches to 11,400 feet, while aiming for the tan-colored ramp left of the knob southwest of Gabbot Pass. This route works beautifully; it couldn't be any easier with excellent footing up the ramp.

As soon as you are past the minor cliffs emanating from Point 13,000', at about 12,040 feet, leave the ramp and start mounting the Giant Steps of the Sierra to the west.

Then work your way left/southwest to the orange rock slope. Follow this swath to Saddle 12,900'. Looking at my GPS track above, we over-climbed on the ascent; the lower route is optimal. The final climb up the center to the saddle is easily done on gravel and small weathered boulders.

Reach the saddle at 4.2 miles. It is wondrous and exhilarating with an incomparable vista. Point 13,000' is just a stone's throw south.

Allow one hour to climb Gabb's 0.6 mile southwest ridge. Upon reaching an exposed gravel slope, bypass in the boulders to the southeast. Stay as close to the center of the spine as possible but when forced off, favor the right side. The ridge of blades is an open lattice of giant stones. The rock is mostly solid but some huge slabs are delicately perched and will teeter underfoot. Fun, Class 3, full-body moves are big and there is no break in the super jumble.

We bypassed these two pillars on the way up.

But some people live for this stuff and we went between them on the descent. (THW, photo)

Crest Mount Gabb, 13,741', at 4.8 miles. The peak is comprised of huge slabs and wedges of rock. To the east are Mount Mills, Mount Abbot, and Mount Dade. Mount Abbot may look taller but when you are up there, Mount Gabb is clearly the mightiest of them all. (THW, photo)

Mount Gabb is commonly climbed from the Second Recess and Upper Mills Creek Lake, shown.

The peak register is located at the south base of the summit slabs in an ammo box, seen below.

Return as you came but leave the ridge at about 13,100 feet to make the most of a ridiculously easy plunge descent. Then head back into the orange rock before angling northeast at 12,400 feet to avoid the cliff band. In the image below, sastrugi was utterly remarkable. Cox Col is left of Bear Creek Spire, left of center, and Mount Julius Caesar is to its right. (THW, photo)

Lake Italy to Pine Creek Pass Trailhead
The return is a reasonable day covering 11.6 miles and climbing 1,550 feet. Simply retrace your steps finishing in shady, sugar pine woodlands.

Personal Note: In 1934, the Mount Gabb peak register was placed by the California Alpine Club. My father signed the register on August 24, 1955, shown below. In 1982, I climbed the peak from Upper Mills Creek Lake and took a photo of his signature. Seventy years after it was originally placed, the register was still on the summit, likely the oldest one in the range. On the 61st anniversary of my father's climb, I returned to the peak. Sadly, the 1934 register had been removed. However, I wish to thank Tina Bowman for lugging up an ammo box with a beautiful new book. Her register dates to July 2, 2014 and eight parties have signed since then. I am confident that some day my son's name will appear in the Mount Gabb register.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Sharkstooth Trail: Kennebec Pass Trailhead to Sharkstooth Pass

Essence: On the beautifully engineered Sharkstooth Trail traverse high-basin country spanning two passes nearly identical in height. Peaceful and easy, this trail of solitude is surrounded by luxuriant, shoulder-high wildflowers and Engelmann spruce. Luscious water is everywhere with little waterfalls above and rivulets to hop across. This is a section of the Historic Highline Loop, designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with good clearance, from the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Zero-out your trip meter. There is a brown, US Forest Service sign with mileages right after the turn. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. At 12.1 miles the road splits. Proceed straight on FSR 571 toward Kennebec Pass. Park in the large parking lot at 14.2 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.4 miles; 2,850 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 9, 2016
Quote: As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens. Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping

Hikers look over to Sharkstooth Pass from Bear Creek Pass.

Route: From the Kennebec Pass Trailhead walk west on the Colorado Trail to Taylor Lake. Go south on the Sharkstooth Trail and then west to "Bear Creek Pass." Circle the head of Bear Creek Basin. Climb west to Sharkstooth Pass between Centennial Peak and Sharkstooth Peak. Return as you came.

Kennebec Pass Trailhead, elevation 11,600 feet, is located at the head of La Plata Canyon and near the northern terminus of the La Plata Range. The Colorado Trail, having just traversed Indian Trail Ridge, passes through the parking lot on its way to trail's end in Durango. The San Juan Mountains are pictured to the north.

Walk west on the Colorado Trail which holds the contour to Taylor Lake. Mid-summer, corn husk lily, little sunflower, delphinium and osha are tall bloomers. American bistort, rosy paintbrush, and Coulter's erigeron are bountiful. 

At 1.2 miles there is a well-signed junction. Leave the Colorado Trail and take the left branch onto the Sharkstooth Trail. It is just a few steps further to oft-visited Taylor Lake.

Walking south is an ever-evolving vista of the western La Platas. At 2.0 miles, the trail switchbacks and starts uphill while swinging west around the base of the southern terminus of Indian Trail Ridge. The Sharkstooth Trail is part of the Historic Highline Loop system, a testament to the heyday of trail building. Beside our trail is a hand-carved sign, "Warning Unstable Rock."

Diorite Peak, 12,761 feet, is just over a mile southwest.

The remarkable trail maintains a dirt surface as it threads through a substantial talus field, home to pikas. Whipple's penstemon and fireweed grow in the cracks. Bear Creek Pass is tucked in a grassy, flowery hillside.

Surmount the pass at 2.5 miles, elevation 11,920 feet. It is on the divide between La Plata Canyon and Bear Creek Basin. Directly across to the west is our goal, Sharkstooth Pass, a mere 16 feet higher. Looking at the image below, the mountains at skyline, all La Plata peaks, are: Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, Hesperus Mountain, Centennial Peak, and Sharkstooth Peak. To the northwest the La Sal Mountains are visible and so is Lone Cone, the westernmost peak in the San Juan range.

Point 12,117' Option
If the full trek seems too daunting, before turning around, consider tacking on Point 12,117’. It is less than 0.2 mile south of the pass with 200 feet of climbing. A social trail transitions to a stable talus field. You will be rewarded with an incomparable view of Bear Creek Basin and a ring of summits. Roundtrip totals: 5.3 miles with 900 feet of vertical.

To continue on to Sharkstooth Pass, switchback into the basin on an impeccable dirt trail with stones piled up on either side. At the base of the talus passage, the trail turns southwest descending to 11,000 feet. (THW, photo)

In spite of all the markers, it is easy to lose sight of the trail in Bear Creek Basin. When it disappears, scrounge around for it in the foliage. Over-sized blazes grew up with Engelmann spruce. Walk from blaze to blaze or massive cairn.

This basin is lush with water everywhere. Pass left of two tarns at 11,580 feet. The trail has water running on it and occasionally goes through spongy bogs. Cascades tumble over walls. We counted 17 stream crossings in the basin. Thirsty monkshood grow beside brooks.

While moving west, Diorite Peak/Mount Moss ridge is always in view. In this image, arrowleaf senecio is in full flower.

The path takes direct aim at Centennial Peak and initiates an uphill grade at 4.2 miles. It crosses a burbling stream hidden under rock and elegantly cuts through talus run-out zones. (THW, photo)

Bear Creek Trail #622 joins from the right at 4.6 miles, 11,200 feet. For information on how the Bear Creek Trail links with the Highline Loop please see Indian Trail Ridge. We saw an exotic amanita mushroom at this junction. A clear view of the pass opens at 5.2 miles. Plow through another humongous boulder field on carefully laid stones akin to a patio. The treadway switchbacks to get above a minor cliff band. In August, you will find arctic and alpine gentian beside the path.

The headwall climb initiates at 11,450 feet. Switchbacks mitigate the incline through flower heaven, the slope covered in columbine. The route stays south of the drainage rivulet. I can't think of another pass with a trail this smooth and a climb this easy.

Attain Sharkstooth Pass after 6.2 miles and 1,500 feet of vertical. A weathered sign lists the official elevation as 11,936 feet. [This sign was missing in 2021.] Passes always reveal a whole new world and Hesperus Mountain dominates the window to the west. Further off are the Abajo Mountains.

Two mountains tempt from the saddle. Centennial Peak is but 0.8 mile away to the south adding 1,126 feet of climbing. The climb is pleasant and straightforward but a rugged contrast with the hike thus far. A shorter add-on is Sharkstooth Peak, shown. It is only 0.4 mile with 526 feet of vertical. However, the mountain is deceiving, even dangerous. Rock is at the angle of repose and large talus tends to get rolling underfoot. The safest route is over on the west face. Do not attempt to climb directly up the south ridge from the pass. (THW, photo)

Return as you came. Looking east, locate Bear Creek Pass, image-left, an extension of Indian Trail Ridge.

Marmots scamper in the rock piles. Deer forage in the woods. In August, 2007, I saw a herd of elk 100 strong in upper Bear Creek Basin. Regain the pass and the familiar eastern massif of the La Plata Range takes over. In this image Lewis Mountain ridge encircles Columbus Basin.

Beyond Taylor Lake, repeat the pleasurable traverse through the wonderland of flowers. Once back at the trailhead, Cumberland Mountain, 12,388 feet, is a short climb away. Or, walk up the 4WD track to The Notch.