Ski Mountaineering

Granite Park and Bear Lakes Basin

July 18-24, 2018

Reiner Stenzel

The middle of summer is supposed to be the best time for visiting the Sierras. A small group got together to visit the beautiful Granite Park area in the John Muir Wilderness. It was Bill Lutz, May Adachi, Bruce McVicker and myself. I had suggested to make day hikes in the remote Bear Lakes area west of Italy Pass but that did not materialize due to the weather. Tropical moisture created thunderstorms every afternoon, such that half of the days were spent in tents. Beyond Italy Pass the terrain is mostly cross country with numerous passes, thus not exactly an easy stroll. I had proposed a seven day trip, the others could not afford that much time, so I started earlier and we would meet two days later at Italy Lake and set up a basecamp. But best-laid plans of mice and men can go awry...

On Tue, 7/17, I drove from the Bay Area via Sonora Pass to the Eastern Sierras. At Mono Lake I picked up a wilderness permit, then drove to the Pine Creek trailhead beyond Rovanna where I car camped. Next morning, Wed, 7/18, I started early for the 5000' climb to Italy Pass. The backpack was loaded with 7 days of food and fishing gear. I stopped at the lakes on the way for a dip to cool off. Mosquitoes were not too bad. Clouds produced shade from the intense sunlight. But they also billowed into thunderstorms which was a warning sign for crossing the exposed Italy Pass. Thus, in the afternoon I decided to detour to the Chalfant Lakes to make camp. Spent the rest of the day fishing, watching the thunderstorm west of the Pass, and relaxing.

On Thurs, 7/19, I hiked up toward Italy Pass. Met some hikers who came back from the Bear Lakes. Since the distance was short I took it easy and had a late start. Jumble Lake lived up to its name, requiring boulder hopping with a full pack. By midday I set up camp at Lake Italy, roughly at the middle of this long lake. The thunder rolled in and my plans for fishing, swimming, etc were cut short. I noticed a black vertical streak of a dark cloud approaching and shortly thereafter learned what it was: Half inch hail balls bombarded the tent as lightning and thunder broke loose over Lake Italy. The timing between flash and thunder were as short as a second, meaning strikes within 1000 feet, not very comfortable. But after a few hours the show was over. The sky and mountains lit up in the evening sun, a delight for taking pictures.

On Fri, 7/20, I was anxious for my day hike to the Bear lakes, but the clouds covered already half of the sky in the morning. I explored the trail around the lake. The map shows a trail along the south shore, but mother nature covered it with a large steep snow field down into the lake. In the morning the snow field was too risky to cross, thus one has to climb XC high up to detour the snow field and smooth wet slabs. When I reached the west end of Lake Italy the clouds were menacing again. I met a solo woman hiker and saw four men hiking on the opposite shore of the long lake. Remembering the hail balls from last night I returned by midday. This was a good decision because in the afternoon it was deja-vue again: rain, lightning and thunder.

On Sat, 7/21, the sky was clear in the early morning. This was my chance for a day hike to the Bear Lakes! I got up before sunrise and hiked when the first sun lit up the mountain peaks, my favorite time of the day. I repeated the high route along the lake, then turned south toward Teddy Bear Lake and Brown Bear Lake. The lakes have beautiful green-blue water, nice sandy beaches, but ice cold water supplied by remnant snow fields. Nobody was visible at these lakes. After some picture taking I continued since time was ticking. I climbed XC an 800' slope up to reach White Bear Lake. A big snow bank hung into this small lake, possibly suggesting its name. There was a great view of Seven Gables reflecting in the lake. A small climb from the NE end of the lake led to a relatively flat valley with view down to the large Black Bear Lake. I would have enjoyed to visit the next lakes, Big Bear, Ursa Lake, Bear Paw Lake, but caution prevailed because of the thunderstorms. So I turned toward Jumble Lake and descended a 500' chute, jumbled along the talus fields of Jumble Lake and finally descended to Lake Italy. Timing was almost ok, since it started to rain on the final descent to basecamp. I looked around for my three companions who were expected to meet me at Lake Italy, but it was obvious that the weather prevented it.

Sun, 7/22, I decided to hike back over Italy Pass to find my companions. When I reached the Pass three persons were hiking up the trail. It was Bill, May and Bruce. What a perfect time and place to meet, the 12,400' Pass. We celebrated the reunion and discussed a trip modification due to the weather. Day tours into the Bear Lakes region require at least 6 hours of dry weather, barely doable. We decided to do day hikes from a basecamp in Granite Park. Bill knew nice campsites, I recalled pretty lakes near Feather Peak, and we agreed to this variation. We hiked down to a campsite SW of Chalfant Lks, nearby the trail and a creek, just in time before the rain started.

On Mon, 7/23, we relocated a short distance down and set up camp on a scenic plateau with flat sandy campsites. We fished successfully in streams and lakes, hiked some ridges and took pictures until the afternoon thunderstorms began. This one was a major thunderstorm, starting with thick hail balls, followed by a seemingly endless downpour. Our campsite developed snow patches, then water puddles, small lakes and unforeseen drainage streams. Since water filled the tents everyone had to relocate. Only May's wine and a trout appetizer lifted the spirits.

On Tue,7/24, the group split again. The group of 3 stayed for another day, I decided to hike out, having experienced six days of thunderstorms and having a long drive to the Bay Area through smokey Yosemite NP. Left early at sunrise, hiked down 4000', started to drive by 1pm, home around 7pm.

This trip was full of surprises. The wild weather was unusual for a summer trip. It produced great sceneries, wonderful wild flowers, kept the crowds out, and taught survival skills. It was fun to share the adventures with a fine group. The pictures below will keep memories of this fine Sierra trip.

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