Piute and Puppet Pass

Sabrina Basin Parking Lot to Merriam Lake
(15 miles, +4,500/-2,600 feet).

I’ve been backpacking for three years now and I have gotten more and more interested in cross country hiking.  I still like trails, but I really love the challenge of route finding and the feeling of solitude I get when I am just a little bit lost.

The Sierra High Route is a well-known cross country alternative to the John Muir Trail.  Where the JMT dives down into every east-west drainage as it makes its way south over pass after pass, the SHR tries as much as possible to stay above tree line.  It does this by winding through remote drainages that lead to off-trail class 2 and class 3 passes.

I should say that my biggest trepidation about the High Route is class 3 climbing.  Class 2 hiking is scrambling in areas that are off trail but where there is no risk of a serious injury.  It can be a pain in the ass to climb over boulders, hop over talus, or slide down a sandy slope, but none of those are necessarily dangerous.

In contrast, class 3 hiking involves exposure.  A fall will hurt, and it will possibly lead to a serious injury.  R. J. Secor, the author of an amazing compendium of Sierra passes and peaks, likens class 3 hiking to climbing a stairwell that winds around the outside of a skyscraper.  You have plenty of room to stand, the odds of a fall are low, but there is no guard rail!

So to start my High Route adventure, I picked one of the easier sections.  All of the passes in this 50 mile section have a class 2 route (if you can find it!), and about half of the mileage is on established trails, including 6 miles on the JMT.

I’m traveling solo, so the logistics of a thru-hike are a challenge as usual.  Fortunately, this section starts at the Sabrina Basin parking area, which can be accessed by bus from Bishop, and ends at Lake George, which can be accessed by bus from Mammoth.  My plan is to do all the buses at the end of the hike to get back to my car at Sabrina Basin.

After getting my permit for Piute Pass in Bishop, I headed up Bishop Creek and parked at the starting point.  The first two miles of the trip involved a road walk.

Not bad for a road walk

But in the morning there is plenty of traffic, and within 5 minutes I hitched a ride with a snow surveyor who was meeting some friends in the backcountry.  He dropped me near the trailhead where he turned to go to the backpackers’ parking area.

That mile and a half went fast!

Soon I was at the Piute Pass trailhead and then on my way into the wilderness.

Howdy John!
Piute Crags

After about 45 minutes of climbing, the snow surveyor passed me.  He was fast!

More Crags
Even more

The trail up the pass was mellow and gave a nice preview of the sights to come as it passed by two pretty lakes and several tarns.

Loch Leven
A tarn above Loch Leven
Piute Lake
Snow below Piute Pass

By 12:30pm I was at Piute Pass.

Looking south from Piute Pass
Looking north from Piute Pass

I chatted with a group that was sitting in chairs at the pass!  They had apparently arranged for most of their food and gear to be taken by mule to Lower Golden Trout Lake, where they planned to base camp for five days.

I downed some trail mix and water and then started down the trail on the other side.

Summit Lake

About a mile below the pass, I departed from the trail and walked across gorgeous Humphreys Basin.  I wouldn’t see another hiker until I reached camp that evening.

Humphreys Basin
Still some flowers out here
A tarn below Lower Desolation Lake

I chanced upon an arrowhead in the middle of nowhere.  I moved it to take a picture but then put it back where I found it.

I’m not the first one here….
Mount humphreys towers above Lower Desolation Lake
Mesa Lake
Desolation Lake and Wedge Lake (foreground)

It was more strolling than hiking until I got near Puppet Pass.  And the climb up to the pass was not too bad.

Tarns below Puppet Pass
Looking south from Puppet Pass towards the Glacier Divide
Looking north from Puppet Pass towards Merriam Peak

The descent was bouldery, but it didn’t take long to get back down to gorgeous gentle grassy slopes.

Getting lower
Grassy near Roget Lake
Looking south and up towards Puppet Pass
Puppet Lake

At Puppet Lake I could see Pine Creek Pass where Half Cookie and I did a trip last year.

Looking across Puppet Lake towards Pine Creek Pass

I made my way around Puppet lake and past Lorraine, Paris, and Elba Lakes as I descended into French Canyon.

Up French Canyon
Down French Canyon

For about a mile the High Route follows the trail in French Canyon, which took me past Royce Falls.  Alas the shadows made it hard to capture!

Behind the ridge, the elusive Royce Falls

At the next drainage past the Falls, I made a right, following a steep and faint use trail up to Merriam Lake.

Merriam Peak
My camp at Merriam Lake
The beautiful view from my camp

What an amazing first day on the Sierra High Route!!!

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