Pinchot Pass (Plus Three!)

Bull Lake to Taboose Pass
(14 miles, +4,600/-2,900 feet).

Today is a day I will never forget. It was really hard. It was maybe even harder than my solo trip over Forester Pass in the Spring of 2017.

But it was way less scary. I knew what I was doing this time.

Even so, it was exhausting!

I think I hit the snow at exactly the wrong time. It was extremely hot today (100+ in the Owens Valley) so by 10am I was postholing up to my waist. And finding water was surprisingly hard (streams I thought would be open remain solidly closed). Two weeks earlier and the snow was probably firm. Two weeks later, and a lot of the snow will probably be gone.

It was really beautiful. But it just wasn’t worth it to me to continue in these conditions. I originally wanted to end up in Upper Basin to do Mather Pass tomorrow and Bishop Pass the next day, but I could not bear the thought of another day of swimming in snow. Also, although Pinchot Pass went well, I am a little bit afraid of Mather. I hoped to see some JMT/PCT thru-hikers today but I saw NO ONE. Not even in the distance. I’m apparently the only fool out here, so probably not a good time to take on what some describe as the scariest pass on the PCT.

I started my day at the edge of the snow line right below Mule Lake on the Sawmill Pass Trail. I strapped on my crampons to take advantage of the crispy 5am snow.

Hello sunrise!
Mule Lake
Indian Rock

The climb up to Sawmill Lake was quick and uneventful.

Outlet of Sawmill Lake
Sawmill Lake
Reflection shot!

There was a steep bit above the lake, but nothing to worry about with my great traction.

Steep ascent above Sawmill Lake
More ascending
Beautiful bowl below Sawmill Pass

By 7am or so I was at Sawmill Pass. The views from the top were stunning (almost worth the 6,760 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead)!

Sawmill Pass
Acrodeetes Peak and Mount Baxter
Mount Cedric Wright

I originally planned to head down to the PCT/JMT through Woods Lake basin, but I took a quick look at my topo map and noticed that there was a class 2 backcountry pass to the east of Mount Cedric Wright called Colosseum Col.

It would save me 500 feet of elevation gain on the PCT, but it would cost me 500 feet of elevation gain to the pass, so kind of a wash. I was spent from my climb to Sawmill and couldn’t bear the thought of a continuous ascent later in the day, so I opted for the route less traveled.

I tried to keep my elevation, but a talus field made that kind of annoying, so I descended to about 11,100 feet and contoured towards the pass.

Colosseum Col (low point on the right)
Woods Lake basin
Mount Cedric Wright
Lake 11360+ east of Mount Cedric Wright

The climb up the pass was not bad, but it was 9am and the snow was getting pretty mushy. On the plus side, the north slope was pretty steep, and I was able to glissade just using my feet to pile up snow to brake.

Looking north from Colosseum Col

The cirque west of Colosseum Mountain was really pretty, and I descended between the highest lake and the one right below it.

Highest lake west of Colosseum Mountain
Second highest lake west of Colosseum Mountain

Now the drudgery really began. It was 11am and the broad open basin between Twin Lakes and Pinchot Pass was pure slush. I counted to 30 and paused. Sometimes I counted to 20. Sometimes to 10.

I postholed to my knees frequently. To my waist a dozen times. Twice I couldn’t feel anything but a cavity below my foot in the snow! Once, the impact on my pack broke the loop attaching my crampons, and the resulting tumble scraped my arm and dotted my sleeve with blood. Every time I had to pull myself out, my other leg cramped with the effort.

It was so beautiful. But it is really only after the fact, as I write this now, that I can truly appreciate it.

Crater Mountain
Basin below Pinchot Pass
Pinchot Pass!

I was a little worried that the snow was so soft that it would not support my weight on the last steep bit below Pinchot Pass. But if anything it made my work easier. I carefully kicked steps slightly uphill of existing steps, backfilling them with enough snow to make them stable. Unlike on Forester Pass, I was not afraid here. Just weary.

By 1pm I was at the top. My third pass of the day.

View south from Pinchot Pass
View west from Pinchot Pass
Lake Marjorie

By the time I reached Bench Lake I realized I needed to change plans. I was hoping there would be some dry ground there for camping, but there was not.

Sunburned, dehydrated, and bleary, I decided to head for Taboose Pass instead of Mather.

Bench Lake
Route to Taboose Pass

I made an important mistake when I started the climb from Bench Lake. Rather than getting water at the lake, I decided to wait until I crossed the creeks on the way. But they were all completely frozen over! I could hear the occasional trickle in a tree well, but it would have been a pain to collect water there.

Peak 12851

Soon I was once again on a sea of slush, the broad plain between Taboose Pass and the South Fork Kings River.

Mount Ruskin above South Fork Kings River

When I got my first view of Taboose Pass, I was thrilled to see open ground in the distance. I was hoping to find good water and good camping. I followed some ski tracks in the snow, which helped me to avoid postholing so much.

Ski tracks towards Taboose Pass
Basin below Taboose Pass
Lake 11120+ southwest of Taboose Pass

And then finally, after 13 hours of the most arduous solo hiking I have ever done, I arrived at my fourth pass of the day. A nearby opening in the cliffs gave me beautiful water, and a perfectly flat and dry spot atop the pass gave me perfect camping. At last I was done!

Today made me really rethink my choices. I’m not sure how interested I am in hiking as an endurance activity. It’s hard to be in the moment when I am so focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I definitely want to keep doing this. I love it. But I need to do a better job choosing time and place.

My Spring trips should probably be planned to keep me on dry ground at least half the time, and ideally that half will be in the afternoon while the snow in the other half melts!

View west from Taboose Pass
To bed, perchance to dream

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Dad says:

    I hope we learn from what doesn’t (quite) kill us. This one was really scary.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. James Fowler says:

      I never felt in danger this time. Just tired.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jawbone says:

    “Twice I couldn’t feel anything but a cavity below my foot in the snow!” OH MY GAWD!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mark says:

    What brand tent is that? looks like a Z but not sure.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s