Mono Creek to Duck Lake
(16 miles, +5,500/-3,600 feet).
Well things have a way of working out. I slept really well last night not only because I found a beautiful flat spot next to Mono Creek, but also because I was deep in the shadow of the woods and away from the bright moon. Wonderful! So much for camping above treeline….
It’s actually really nice to start a big climb at the very beginning of the day. It always takes me an hour to warm up anyway, so I might as well accelerate that process.
It was only about half a mile up Mono Creek to the turnoff for Laurel Lake.
The trail was easy to find but steep as it switchbacked up through chaparral and into a higher forest.
At around 10,000 feet it leveled out, taking me past some spectacularly serene meadows.
When I got to the lake I was very worried. I initially thought I needed to climb the headwall above the lake, and I could not see a class 2/3 route to do it. But then I realized I was looking at the wrong drainage. The one to the left looked much friendlier.
I climbed up the green chute to the right in the above picture, and it was fine but it would have been easier for me to climb up the wider chute to the left.
At the top of the chute the route flattened out to a boulder-filled plain just below Bighorn Pass.
It was pretty easy to follow a grassy path between the boulders all the way to the top of the pass.
The next bit of the route is a little confusing because you are supposed to make your way to Shout of Relief Pass without dropping to the lake. In between the two passes is a ridge that is a little higher than Bighorn but a little lower than Shout of Relief, and climbing that ridge was actually harder than either of the passes!
The terrain northwest of Shout of Relief Pass was amazingly gentle. For the next couple of hours it was a pure delight to descend into the meadows and wind around all the lakes in the basin.
Once I got far enough in the valley I started to get some amazing views of Red Slate Mountain. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it!
The route eventually took me over a small ridge and into the next drainage to the west where I curved around Cotton Lake
I continued down past Izaak Walton Lake and then had a steep descent to get down to Fish Creek. Some of the walking was on granite slabs, but I kept getting cliffed out so it took some time to find a way down.
The last 100 feet or so I had to do a couple of class 3 moves to finish up down narrow chutes, but they were fine. I just took my time.
And then I was in….. Horse Heaven!
The problem with Horse Heaven is that I had to get to the trail on the other side of what was essentially a big poop-filled boggy meadow. I did okay at first finding my way around on some dry tufts, but eventually I reached a bow in the braided river that I could not cross without removing my shoes. Then on the other side there was no place to sit to put them back on. So I just walked through the muck barefoot until I reached the river proper.
And then there was trail!
At Tully Hole the McGee Pass Trail intersects with the PCT. The USGS map says there is a footbridge, but…. not so much.
The next 6 miles went pretty quickly as I was on an international superhighway. I saw 20 people — more in 3 hours than I had the whole trip!
I was really bonking this afternoon, so I was very glad to finally arrive at the turnoff for Duck Lake. I found a fantastic small spring nearby and collected water for the evening. Then I climbed my last 300 feet up to camp at Duck Lake.
Surprisingly, there were still quite a few mosquitoes flitting about in the leeward side of the trees, but a light wind kept them at bay. I did my chores and then retired to my tent, where I listened to ducks splash landing in the lake. Their muted quacks were the perfect soundtrack for a dimming sky. The only other humans for miles were far across the lake, too far to hear but close enough to see the occasional glimmer of a headlamp. I felt both alone and at one with the universe.