Blackcap Traverse day 4: Blue Canyon Pass to Muir Pass

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July 16, 2014
It was early in the morning, but I had a lot to do. I crawled out of the tent in the faint predawn light and began breaking camp. Everything was still wet from the previous day's thunderstorms. This morning, a few bands of altocumulus castellanus clouds lay streaked out across the sky, indicating an unstable atmosphere. But at least for now, all was calm. By 5:30 am, I found myself back on the ridge rock hopping towards Blue Canyon Peak, which presented itself as a pyramid-shaped pile of black matter rising up to the east. By sunrise, I had reached the summit, gazing across yet another class 2 granite boulder-strewn ridge which connected Blue Canyon Peak to Big Boulder Peak.

Blue Canyon Peak seen from my camp below Blue Canyon Pass

Blue Canyon Peak (11,860 ft) summit register

sun rising over the Palisades

more boulder hopping galore!

summit of Big Boulder Peak (11,946 ft), looking southeast



To the east, the large silhouette of Black Crown stood out against the horizon. This peak would be an out-and-back detour from the main ridgeline. I cached my pack at Libby Pass, which was conveniently marked by a large band of brown rocks cascading down the north and south sides of the pass, and continued following the ridge eastward towards the lowpoint (11,490 ft) between Big Boulder Peak and Black Crown. This ridge was mainly class 2-3 with a short section of class 4 downclimbing just above the lowpoint.

class 4 section

I ascended Black Crown via its class 3 west ridge, which was quite simply a pile of garbage. Most of the clinky metamorphic rocks shifted or broke free, resulting in several rock avalanches which cascaded down the mountain as I ascended.

Black Crown's west ridge

On the other hand, Black Crown contained some amazing views since it hung right off the side of the ridge over Goddard Creek Canyon. From here, one really gains a perspective of the sheerness and magnitude of the White Divide.

Black Crown summit (11,987 ft), looking southeast





After a few minutes of soaking in the view, I carefully headed back down the west ridge, listening to the rock and roll of Black Crown throughout the descent. It sounded something like this: clink clink clink clink clank clank bonk bang crash smash roar boom!

looking down the west ridge

Back at Libby Pass, I gathered up my pack and headed down to Tunemah Lake (11,150 ft). This would be the last reliable water source until Simpson Meadow.

looking south from Libby Pass

Monarch Divide

The next Peak (Turtle Back Peak) was a uneventful class 2 walk up from Tunemah Lake. The highlight for this peak was its great views. The part of the traverse between Turtle Back Peak and Drop Off Peak would turn out to be incredibly scenic.

view east from Turtle Back Peak (11,539 ft)



The ridge over to Grandview Peak was class 2 on clinky metamorphic rock, complete with great views.

view northwest from Grandview Peak (11,824 ft)




Hidden away under a small pile of pebbles on the summit was a small dented can. It contained a tiny pencil and two bits of sopping wet paper.

Getting down Grandview's south ridge involved walking on rock which started out small, but grew larger as the ridge went on. By the time I had reached Tunemah's northwest ridge, I had to constantly climb over large granite boulders which were the size of small cars. Closer to the summit of Tunemah were several thick clumps of whitebark pine which made for a few areas of nasty bushwhacking. The terrain reminded me somewhat of Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California, only with bigger rocks and thicker whitebark pines.

heading over to Tunemah Peak

the summit at last!


I remained on Tunemah's summit for about 20 minutes relaxing, eating, and playing around with the camera. The views from this peak were spectacular. On three sides of the peak lay deep gaping canyons dropping thousands of feet below.

view south from Tunemah Peak (11,894 ft)






To the southeast I could see the two remaining peaks on the traverse. With only 114 ft of prominence, Little Point would not be regarded as a true peak by most people, but I included it due to its great summit views. The ridge between Tunemah and Drop Off Peak would contain more rock hopping and bushwhacking, but it wasnt as nearly as bad as Tunemah's northwest ridge.

views on the way to Little Point

Little Point summit block

view northwest from Little Point (11,309 ft)



a long ways down

view northwest from Drop Off Peak (10,987 ft)


Now came the tough part: getting off the White Divide and down to Simpson Meadow, which lay over 5,000 ft below me at the moment.

From Dropoff Peak, I continued south down the ridge on pleasant sandy terrain for 0.7 miles to a spot at ~10,240 ft elevation. From there, a steep shelf ridge dropped straight down to Simpson Meadow. I had initially planned to take this ridge all the way down to the meadow, but after a few hundred feet of descent, found my progress blocked by a series of sheer cliff-outs. For 20 minutes I scrambled back and forth, desperately looking for a bypass, eventually finding a small sand gully which dropped me into a large gully just north of the ridge. I continued down this gully for less than 100 ft and found myself standing over a 200 ft vertical drop. Darn-it! I moved across several more gullies to the north, bushwhacking through thick manzanita and whitebark pine, only to find each additional gully containing their own 100-200 ft vertical drops. Eventually a great cliff blocked all progress northward. I felt trapped.

start of the shelf ridge

long way to go

steepening terrain

Simpson Meadow still 4,000 ft below

I sat down and considered my options. There was no water anywhere nearby, the heat was intense, and I only had 2 liters of water. I would probably dehydrate pretty quickly if I remained there for a long time. Dark clouds were already building up overhead, so remaining on very exposed, steep, and unstable terrain was not the best idea, eventually running into possible lightning strikes and flash floods. Another option was to go back up to Tunemah Pass, drop down east into Goddard Creek Canyon, and follow it downstream until it intersected the canyon containing Simpson Meadow. The only downside to this was that I would have to drag my tired body back UP the ridge and spend possibly an extra day bushwhacking down into and out of Goddard Creek Canyon.

About 20 ft below me to the east were a few large clumps of manzanita which were so tall that I could not see behind them. To my curiosity, I whacked through them and almost slipped off a 200 ft cliff as they abruptly ended. As I sat there catching my breath, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a narrow chimney which seemed to bypass the 150 ft drop in the last gully. I gradually lowered myself down the chimney, which turned out to be class 4, and let out a "woohoo!" when I found myself below the 150 ft drop.

above the bypass

What now lay below me looked nasty, but doable. I continued down the chute, which was made up of steep, extremely sandy class 3-4 unstable slabs. The descent was somewhat sketchy, and I constantly scanned the terrain to picture how I would position my body in the event of a fall. Eventually the slabs ended at ~8,650 ft, and the remaining terrain looked extremely tedious, but thankfully not dangerous.

The next hour or two found me bushwhacking, slipping, sliding, and occasionally tumbling down parts of the gully, which was full of sand, loose rock, and stinging nettle. There was not the slightest breeze. Except for the occasional tree, everything, including the rocks and dirt, were pure white. The sun beamed down overhead, seeming to boil the gully. My water ran out at ~6,500 ft but that was not a big deal. I was only 600 ft above the middle fork of the Kings River which could be heard roaring loudly below. Eventually I had had enough of this gully, and left it at ~6,320 ft, heading northeast down the slopes of an alluvial fan. Shortly after doing this, I realized it was a mistake. The bushwhacking came thicker than ever. I charged through the brush not even caring which direction I was headed for. Eventually I caught sight of the tops of pine trees to the north, and headed towards them. Pine trees in this part of the Sierra sometimes meant that there was less dense brush growing in their vicinity. Luckily, this turned out to be the the case.

looking back up at all the hideousness

planned and actual routes

The middle fork of the Kings River was roughly 80 ft wide on average and flowing pretty heavily. After spending 10 minutes looking for a crossing spot, I crossed, not bothering to take off my shoes because of the strong current. Once on the other side, I crossed over to the east side of Simpson Meadow (5,900 ft) and intersected a north-south running trail (Middle Fork Trail) sometime around 2:30pm. This trail would head in a general northern direction for 9 miles to the JMT in LeConte Canyon.

I sat down and began eating as much as possible. Even though the remainder of today would be on trails, there was still a long ways to go. I moved at a brisk pace, listening to the sloshing of my wet shoes. Compared to other trails I have hiked in the Sierra, I got to say that this one was very nicely built. It did not contain very many of those super annoying granite steps (which are built for mules, NOT humans) which are so prevalent with the more popular trails, and it seemed to nicely follow the natural topography.

About 30 minutes after I got on the trail, the sky grew dark and began releasing large, heavy drops of rain. Thunder boomed loudly overhead. It was that time of day again. Out came the rain jacket and pack cover. For the next four hours, it rained and thundered steadily. The brunt of the storm seemed to be concentrated somewhere over to the north.

Devil's Washbowl

LeConte Canyon up ahead

It was around 6:30pm as I intersected the JMT in LeConte Canyon (8,070 ft). The storms had cleared, and apart from the nagging mosquitoes, everything looked and felt fresh and crisp.

By this point, I had reasoned that I would not be able to reach Evolution Lake (where I had planned to meet Michael) by tonight, which was almost 18 miles away. My legs and feet were already feeling heavy and demanding more frequent breaks. I settled on at least making it to Muir Pass (11,955 ft) which was 11.4 miles away.

Up I went along the JMT. There were numerous thru hikers camped out along the trail, sitting down and relaxing around roaring fires while chatting excitedly and sipping hot chocolate. I seemed to be the only one still on the trail. By the time I had reached Little Pete Meadow, I took out my flashlight. The next several miles were utterly exhausting. I was half awake, stumbling up a dark trail feeling almost constantly out of breath. My pace had slowed to around 1.5 mph, but it still took all the energy I had to continue moving. I sat down a few times to eat, but that barely helped. What I really needed was rest and sleep. My plan now was to simply reach Muir Pass and crash in the Muir Hut for the night before setting off for Evolution Lake the next morning. I had told Michael that if I wasn't at Evolution Lake by 8:30am, he should just hike out. My mind was set on getting to Muir Pass tonight. I needed to reach that hut!

On and on went the dark trail. Beginning at roughly a mile before Helen Lake, I noticed that sections of trail had been washed out by the previous storms. Large portions of it were submerged under up to a foot of water. I lost the trail several times, and spent more time walking around trying to find it again and again. A bright round moon had broken out of the clouds, illuminating the surrounding granite peaks and reflecting on the still waters of lakes and several babbling brooks. Somewhere to my right, a fish leaped out of the water. Crickets chirped. Up ahead, a large frog was croaking loudly. It was a very tranquil and beautiful scene, but one I could not enjoy due to my condition. I forced myself onward. I could NOT stop! I rounded a bend to see the still, dark waters of Helen Lake which resembled a black hole in the middle of the basin, surrounded by boulders which began to resemble people and places I knew. Let the hallucinations begin.

To the west of Helen Lake rose a long mound of rocks. Somewhere up there was Muir Pass. I was getting close. As I made my way towards it, the song Bohemian Rhapsody seemed to force its way into my head. It sounded so intense like it was real, emitting loudly from the sky and bouncing off the mountains and echoing loudly throughout the canyons and gullies and rivers. The frogs croaked it. The crickets chirped it. Even the jumping fish rang its melody.

"Is this theeeeee reeeeeeeal liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife? or is this juuuuuuuust fantasssssssyyyyyyy?"

Finally came the switchbacks above Helen Lake that would end shortly at Muir Pass. Somewhere not far away (maybe on the next switchback?), I could hear Smokey the bear lecturing backpackers on fire safety. I reached the switchback. Nothing. Somewhere off the trail, there were the voices of campers happily enjoying marshmallows. They were mocking one of their absent friends for heading out on the JMT at such a late hour. Another switchback. Someone was shining the moon in my face. They needed to turn it off. It was getting bright and annoying. Where was that hut? Another switchback. Where? Is? That? Damn? Hut? More switchbacks. WHERE IS IT? Did the storm wash it out? Was this part of some evil game? Was it........YES!!! THERE IT IS!!!!!!!!

I unlatched the door and stumbled inside, forcing off my pack. The interior of the hut had a musty moldy smell to it. Everything was wet. Water was slowly dripping from the ceiling. I was too tired to care about any of this. I dumped everything in my pack out onto the sopping wet floor and grabbed the sleeping bag, throwing it onto a large raised wooden board which seemed to serve as a sleeping platform. I had just enough sense to change out of my wet socks, then quickly crawled into bed. It was around 1am.

go to Day 5

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