Sierra Nevada Backpack. New Army Pass to Shepard Pass, 2008


I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the Sierra Nevada. Long before I first visited the range, I was enthralled with the mystique created by writers like John Muir and Clarence King. My first foray into the range was a hike up Mount Whitney in 1972. I had little experience at that time but one trip above treeline and I was hooked on those granite Mountains. I worked for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in 1974 and 1976 and have taken many long backpacks through the range over the years. My 2008 trip with Laurie Durocher was one of the most rewarding of these trips.

The first Sierra Nevada guidebook I bought was a High Sierra Hiking Guide: The book covered the Mount Whitney 15 minute USGS quadrangle. This guide and many more like it were published by the Wilderness Press. These fine guidebooks are still usable today. Each pocket size book came with a copy of the topographic quad covered by the text with all the trails, crosscountry routes and distances marked on the map. This 2008 trip was my second foray over New Army Pass. The route we followed is a classic and well worth repeating.

Laurie and I made arrangements with a Lone Pine, California resident named, coincidently, Cal for a shuttle. Cal was 100 percent cowboy and had worked as a wrangler and extra in Hollywood in his younger years. He provided us with interesting conversation as he drove us between the Shepard Pass and the New Army Pass Trailheads. Cal unloaded us at the 10,000 New Army Pass Trailhead and wished us luck.

The first step.

There are lots of lakes along our route.

New Army Pass is the next trailed pass south of the Mount Whitney Portal and Trail Crest. It is not nearly as popular and offers an alternative approach into John Muir’s “High Sierra.” We planned our first day to cover only six miles and thus, give us a chance to acclimatize to the altitude. Nevertheless, we gained more than 2,000 feet before reaching our camp at the north end of Long Lake. Starting at 10,000 feet and then sleeping at 12,000 feet for a first day is not ideal but other than a restless sleep we came through fine.

Our camp at Long Lake.

Bear containers are required almost every where in the Sierra Nevada. They make packing a lot harder and are not light.

The last lake before the pass.

On our second day we followed a good trail up over 12,200 foot New Army Pass which is the boundary of Sequoia National Park and descended the pass to Soldier Lake. We left the trail at this lake, climbed crosscountry over a small divide and dropped into Mitre Basin. The crosscountry route through Mitre Basin and the Crabtree Lakes basin is a popular crosscountry route and we saw six other hikers along the way. At nearly the top of Mitre Basin we reached Sky Blue Lake which lives up to its name in every respect. Our route that day total seven miles. We had the lake to ourselves.

New Army Pass.

Soldier Lake.

Upper Mitre Basin.

Our camp at Sky Blue Lake.

The next day we were beset by unexpected rainy weather with occasional thunder and lightning. So, we converted day three into a rest day to further acclimatize and enjoy the setting.

One of the peaks above camp.

One of the peaks above camp.

On day four we tackled the trailless pass between Mitre and Crabtree Lakes Basin. The two-mile hike from Sky Blue Lake to the pass is strenuous and the route finding is challenging as you cross granite shelves and grass and flower covered ledges and circled around lakes and ponds all the while dealing with considerable up and down climbing to reach the pass. I would rate the route we followed as Class 3.

Looking toward Mount Whitney.

Laurie on the Pass with Sky Blue Lake in the background.

Looking down to the uppermost Crabtree Lake.

Descending down the pass, the route crosses steep, lose talus. There was a hiker’s trail worn into the talus in many places. At the upper Crabtree Lake the angle lessened and we found ourselves walking on glacially polished granite, following a stream as it cascaded down toward the next lake. Wild flowers and views of the rock, the water and a building storm called for frequent photo stops.

Looking back to the pass.

Looking down the Crabtree drainage.

Crossing the granite floor.

Just as we reached treeline, the building storm broke in a tremendous explosion of lightning, thunder, water and hail. For the next two hours the storm roared in the Crabtree drainage. At one point, there was three inches of hail covering the ground. It took over an hour to find a spot flat enough for a camp. The tent went up in the middle of the tempest. We did our best to keep dry and warm. As suddenly as the storm swept in, it was gone. By 5:30 p.m. the sun was out and by sunset everything was dry.

Our third camp was at Middle Crabtree Lake. The storm has just cleared off.

On day five we hike out of the Crabtree Lake basin and then north past Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station to a link up with the John Muir Trail (JMT) at the point the trail turned east to climb to Trail Crest and then Mount Whitney. At the trail junction we found a sign and plastic bags for collecting your human waste and directions that anyone following the trail up to Whitney was required to shit in a bag and carry it out. We continued north, now following the JMT to Wallace Creek. We encountered a lot of hikers finishing their JMT trek. All were anxious to reach Whitney’s summit and hurried on immune to the incredible scenery. Wallace Creek is a large drainage. We hike up the drainage a half a mile and had the entire area to ourselves.

Be sure to pick up your excrement bag before climbing Mount Whitney.

Looking west from the JMT to the Great Western Divide.

On day six we continued north along the JMT to Tyndall Creek where we once again left the busy trail to head northwest to a small, unnamed lake at more than 11,000 feet. Despite a location only two miles from the JMT, the lake showed little evidence of prior use. A long afternoon, turned into a spectacular evening of moonlight and then a dark sky with billions of stars.

Looking northwest across the Kern River Canyon to the Great Western Divide.

Moving north on the JMT.

On day six we continued north along the JMT to Tyndall Creek where we once again left the busy trail to head northwest to a small, unnamed lake at more than 11,000 feet. Despite a location only two miles from the JMT, the lake showed little evidence of prior use. A long afternoon, turned into a spectacular evening of moonlight and then a dark sky which billions of stars.

Our last campsite.

On day seven we originally planned to hike over Shepard Pass and drop down to Anvil Camp. However, when we arrived at our proposed camping spot we found it infested with large, aggressive mosquitoes and decided to press on. This turned into our longest day as our route took us from over 12,000 feet to the desert below and our trailhead in 13.5 miles. The highlight or should I say low light of this day’s hike was a 1,500 foot ascent midway through our descent. This climb takes you from one drainage to another. For years I had dreamed of hiking up this route to Shepard Pass. After hiking down this trail I was glad that I never hiked up it.

Heading east toward Shepard Pass.

Dropping down to the Owens Valley.

The alpine vegetation is giving way to the desert flora.

After a long, long descent, the trail climbs over the saddle to the west of this rock.

Water froze at our last camp. When they reached the truck, it was 97 degrees. We were ready for a shower and hot meal.