Backpacking … Florence Lake – Alpine Col Loop

2015-07-08 11.01.16

Additional pictures

On this outing, we covered more than 50 miles of trail.  So I had lots of time to puzzle over just how I would structure this post.   We saw amazing views and it was such an experience… there’s so much to talk about and so many pictures… Is there any way to capture this in a mere WordPress post?… or even just give a taste of it?  What to do?  What to do?

No idea if this will be effective at all but I decided to focus mostly on pictures… with some captions to help orient you.  And wrap it in enough text to offer some structure.  This will please all you ADD types out there (and you know who you are… )… and I’m not gonna lie… It’s easier for me too.  And admit it, you all don’t read the text anyway…right?   But you might read some of the captions.  Then over time, I’ll fill in with more pictures, and work on the text a bit too.  This will be good if anyone actually is interested in going here some day.  When I was doing the research for this trip, I found the photos taken by others and the trip reports to be very helpful.  So maybe someone doing a search will trip over this and it’ll do some good.

So to dive right in… First –  What was the goal of choosing this route… AND… What was the route?

Alpine Col Trip

The goal was to figure out a loop where we’d get into Evolution Valley on a five or so day trip and only use one car.  What’s so special about Evolution Valley?  Well I had been told by a number of people that it was unbelievably beautiful, and so it became a mission to experience.  But it wasn’t easy to put together a trip.

Of course there are a number of ways to do this.  And… as I found out during our junket,  turns out that there are better ways than what we did.  But live and learn, right?

The route we (I) choose was to start at Florence Lake, take the ferry (water taxi) across the lake, hike to the JMT (John Muir Trail) via the Florence Lake trail, take the JMT into Kings Canyon National Park, and continue along the JMT through Evolution Valley to Evolution Lake, then leave the JMT and hike cross-country up to the Darwin Bench and over the Glacier Divide via the Alpine Col.  After crossing the col, we would proceed through a series of lakes to the Piute Canyon Trail to Hutchinson Meadow… At which point we would decide whether to continue down French Canyon back to the JMT and then  on to Florence Lake Trail and our awaiting van… OR go up French Canyon, up the Merriam Lake trail, switch back to cross-country mode again, climb over Carol Col, then descend to Seven Gables Lakes… from there we’d rejoin the JMT, go over Selden Pass, stay at Sallie Keyes Lake then last day boogie down the JMT, to the Florence Lake trail and out into the world again.

As it turns out, despite our intentions to include the Seven Gables Lakes branch into our itinerary, because of weather and more difficult than expected terrain, we decided to save that trip for another day… sigh…

Okay… there’s the route… and the reason for the route… Now some comments about the route itself.  On paper it looked really good. However… despite all my research, when we actually got there, we found the terrain to be quite a bit more difficult than expected.  The problem was an endless field (literally miles) of Volkswagen Bug sized talus boulders that Donna and I had to make our way through from Lake 11910, over the Alpine Col, and down past Goethe (pronounced Gate-ty) Lake and then beyond the next lake down from Goethe… on the particular day that we crossed the Alpine Col, we spent 7 1/2 hours and only covered about two or, tops, three miles.  That totally killed the daily mileage average we had to maintain to finish the trip within our planned timeframe.   We needed to average about ten miles per day for that.  The other problem was the weather.  I’ll no doubt carry on endlessly about that later, and inject probably way too much  drama… but it was a bit scary… and it definitely put a crimp on how much ground we could cover.  Briefly, we had lotsa thunder and lightning, hail, wind, rain, sleet and several inches of snow.  If this were a trail, we could just put on our ponchos and tough it out… but we were traveling cross-country so all that precipitation meant wet, slippery rock.  Any fall would be serious so when the rock was wet, we were stopped.  This was worst on the third day when we were forced into our tent after only two hours of hiking by driving rain and hail… and of course the always scary (and loud) electrical storms that accompany that kind of precipitation.  .

Okay okay… enough of my babble… on to some pictures…

Our first day of hiking… We covered almost 14 miles and climbed just shy of 2000 feet spending the night in Evolution Valley.  This was awesome cuz it put us ahead of schedule… and Evolution Valley is amazing.

On our second day, we covered 8 miles and climbed another 2000 feet (or so… that night when we set up camp in a hail storm, we were at 11,200 feet).  That day we left the JMT and began the cross-country part of the trip spending the night up on the Darwin Bench.

Our third day turned out to be pretty much of a bust.  That morning at about nine, a solo woman hiker blasted by us on her way to Lamarck Col.  She barely slowed down to talk and later we found out why.  We started hiking about ten… Yeah… embarrassingly late but hey, we’re on vacation right?… But I guess we shoulda gotten started earlier cuz around noon, the weather hit us… and by the end of the day we had been slammed by thunder/lightening, rain, hail and lots of wind.    We found a tiny flat spot at 11,850′ to pitch the tent (I remember it well because there was a sharp rock on the ground on MY side… but I’ll see if I can write this without sniveling about it) which we were lucky to find since the terrain was primarily large talus at a steep angle.  It was a short distance (maybe 50 feet of elevation) below the last lake along our route before the start of our final climb up to the col.  From our site we felt the thunder and watched as the hail and snow built up on the tent.  We had to periodically beat the top of the tent to knock the slush off as the weight pulled the roof down on us. Donna took some video that I hope will eventually be included here…   Long day in the tent though.

The fourth day… We started out as early as we could get it together after waking up… We were just below Lake 11910.  Just a note… when a lake doesn’t have a name, it’s referred to by its altitude.

Today we were possessed by a sort of grim determination because we simply had to get over the col and on to the trail system on the other side.  We thought it was further back to a passable trail than it was forward.  Because of the day before, we were very wary of the weather and the weather so far, despite the blue sky, wasn’t filling us with confidence… however no precipitation… yet… Gotta keep moving.

We did what we started calling the Talus Tango along the east shore of Lake 11910 then began the climb from lake level up the last 450′ to the col itself.  An actual route was kinda hard to figure out.  So we just made it up as we got higher.  We sorta picked our way directly up north end of the lake for say 300′, then as the rock became awful, we traversed about 100′ to the highest point of a rock ridge.  From there we simply scrambled the last 100′ or so  up to the col on easy rock.

The view from the col, like everywhere else up there was  of course astounding.  But no time to dilly dally.  The descent looked awful and the weather was obviously precarious.  So down we went… And bam immediately we encountered an endless field of HUGE talus blocks all in a jumble.  Ahead of us was a couple of miles of one IQ test after another… I could carry on about how difficult this was but it would be tedious… I mean really tedious.  But that’s how we spent the next, say five hours… navigating this field of boulders.  If you’re reading this hoping to learn something about this route, I think the best thing I can tell you is… Pick another route… unless you enjoy boulder hopping…. if you do then this is the promised land.  However, just to give you an idea of what it was like… consider the rock next to the water on a harbor jetty… not the top where it’s smooth but down by the water where it’s all just a jumble… now multiply the size of the rock by say a factor of two… then imagine walking over two miles on that with an occasional cliff to make things interesting.  That will put you in the ballpark of understanding how this route is.

We got down to lake level of Goethe (pronounced Gate-ty) Lake and thought the torture would end there… or at least die down to a dull roar.  But that wasn’t to be… it went on the entire length of Goethe Lake, and then onto the smaller lake beyond it.  We proceeded along the eastern shores of each lake… but it didn’t look any different on the other shore.  It was just bad everywhere.

The views continued to be awesome though… but the weather was right on the edge of bad.  FORTUNATELY, it hadn’t started to R-ail yet (our word for the rain and hail combination… yeah we were getting a little dingy from the rock hopping).  Then when we had almost come to the end of the last lake to traverse, we were on a particularly difficult group of very large rocks; we had our ponchos on cuz it was railing again; and this time it wasn’t stopping so the rock was getting too wet for our feet to have traction… We thought we were screwed.  We were doomed to spending the night on these rocks in our ponchos.  But the weather let up just enough for us to figure out a way down from the rocks.  And we made our way to a ledge overlooking Muriel Lake… Looking down, it seemed like the promised land.  We saw in the distance, grass, trees, level ground, bushes, creeks… OMG!  Heaven!…

We dropped down to the lake as fast as we could, found a flat place to set up the tent and began to relax.  We did it!  The rest of the trip would be easy… right?  The sense of relief that we both felt was awesome.  We set up the tent, cooked dinner and went to bed.

The fifth day… Almost eleven miles… After yesterday, we kinda thought that we’d now just hook up with the Piute Canyon Trail and boogie on outta here.  Once we find the trail, while it could be unpleasant, we can cover ground no matter how much precipitation there is… right?  After waking up to lightning and thunder, we thought there’d just be a little rain to deal with as we descended… sigh… so naive… adorable…

After the day before we weren’t feeling too much urgency about breaking camp so I made breakfast and just generally dilly dallied. We finally left our camp site around 10:30… Why do we keep doing that?

As we made our way around the west side of Muriel Lake, we could hear thunder in the distance… then the hail started… then this kinda small hail but almost snow… we called it sleet… began to come down.  Then it was unmistakable, the sleet was now snow.  Then the snow began to build up… Donna pulled her poncho on… then after a while, I did too… it got thicker and thicker until we could barely see where we were going… Good Heavens!  This wasn’t in our play book!  Heavy snow… in summer?!  I checked the GPS; we were still on course despite all the  mayhem around us… so at least we’d find the trail soon… then bam!… we came upon this pretty big stream… maybe you could even call it a river…. and it was between us and the trail we were trying to find.  So we had to cross it… of course there was lots of drama here as we searched for someplace to cross.  We even came upon our own footprints in the snow.  It was funny cuz we both pretended not to notice them.  I could draw this out further but I’ll spare you.  Of course we finally found a place to get to the other side.  And yes, we eventually even found the trail.  Actually, as we later learned, it wasn’t the trail we were looking for but this unknown trail eventually joined the Piute Canyon Trail which WAS our trail… so it was all good.

Once on the trail we picked up speed.  We descended along Piute Creek (which seemed bigger than a creek like I said…).  After around three days of not seeing anyone we started running into people down around Hutchinson Meadows… The snow turned to rain and eventually that stopped too… so the hiking was pleasant as we descended.  Our plan was to stop and set up camp at 6 PM and that’s what we did… Camped right next to the river near some falls…

Our final day… day six… Donna woke up and started carrying on about how nice it would be to make it out today… Despite all our adventures, I wasn’t quite ready to reenter what feels like my train wreck of a life… But it was fun to think about sleeping in a bed again… and taking a shower… and even just checking my text messages… besides, we didn’t know if the boyze would call out the National Guard to find us if we were late getting back.  I admit that I hadn’t filled them in on what to do if we were overdue.  I mean like that could happen… really?  So despite my misgivings, I took up Donna’s challenge to get back to Florence Lake in time to take the ferry today.

Again, I thought it would be easy… we didn’t even eat breakfast that morning… just packed up and hit the trail (if only it were actually that easy).  I thought our camp site was pretty near to “The Bridge”… HOWEVER… we were actually about three miles instead of the one and half that I was estimating… AND… that three miles pretty much sucked… It was constant up and down over horrible trail.  Note to anyone making trail plans reading this… the first three miles upwards from “The Bridge” of the Piute Canyon Trail is a nightmare.  There I said it.  Donna pretty much ran out of Snickers bars to feed me as we descended so I had one meltdown after another.  Yeah yeah, I can be kind of a baby sometimes.  But damn!  My feet hurt… and it wasn’t just like they kinda hurt a little… they really hurt.  I was limping with both feet.  Actually my right foot hurt more than my left, but my left was in pretty bad shape too.  And like I said, the trail sucked and we still had miles to go… The trail was going through another glacial moraine so there were rocks everywhere.  It went up and down as it descended. If it sucked this bad descending,  I can’t imagine what it would feel like to climb it… Okay… I’m going on about this too much maybe… but I can tell you that I was totally disappointed.  I expected that with our now light loads (most of our food eaten) and gobs of oxygen after being hypoxic for the last three days, that the miles would just fly by effortlessly.

Now then, a word about breathing… I just realized that I haven’t even mentioned this throughout the entire post.  That’s totally unlike me since it’s definitely something to whine about.  So I’ll say it… There’s just no goddamn air up there.  When we arrived at Florence Lake, we got out of the car and could immediately feel the altitude as we moved around… and it was only 7,328 feet.  I thought that if we hiked up from there, we’d acclimatize as we went.. no problem.  Oh my God!  That was a total fantasy.  As we climbed breathing got to be a bigger and bigger factor.  Even laying in the tent at night I would often wake up gasping.  And it was routine for Donna and me when hiking, moving around the camp or just talking to pause occasionally and quickly say “breathing” or “need to breathe” and the other one of us would wait patiently until the breathing was under control again.  It was amazing… We did get better and better but not nearly as fast as I thought we would.  However, after three days I noticed that we could do some rather spirited climbs occasionally on the trail.  Was fun cuz it felt like we had super powers.  And now that I’m down here at sea level again, it feels like I don’t have to breathe at all.  Enough air is available to me just through osmosis.  Of course this is another fantasy… but fun.  Anyway… I just couldn’t go through this entire post without saying something about it.  It was one of the biggest issues of the whole junket.

Okay okay… on to the pictures for the last day.

Okay… better wrap this up I guess…

In conclusion… yes… Evolution Valley is definitely gorgeous… However, I was  far more amazed by the stark grandeur that we found  higher up… say the Darwin Bench and beyond… Also, even though we couldn’t see much, the Humphreys Basin area was an unexpected surprise.  I want to go back there and see it under sunny skies.  It’s easier to get to and looked pretty amazing.  However, my favorite area was the high altitude lakes…

Later, Donna will be weaving in some of her photos/video and maybe her commentary as well.  But for now…

That's all Folks