N. Lake to S. Lake via Piute Pass

2009 August 9 to 11

North Lake to South Lake via Piute Pass


While Emily and PJ were in the LA area visiting her parents I took the opportunity to head into the mountains in ultra simple and lightweight style. Specifically, my trip required no advance planning in terms of permits, didn't require a car shuttle, utilized a very simple kit in terms of number of items brought, and consisted of simple no-cook food. Put another way, this was a trip in which I could pack gear and shop for food in under an hour and be on my way! More detailed information about the trip, which starts and ends in the hills west of Bishop, CA is below.

  • 53.8 Miles
  • 47 Hours (12:30 pm Sunday, August 9th to 11:30 am Tuesday, August 11th)
  • 3 days, 2 nights
  • 3 Passes (11,423’ Piute Pass, 11,955’ Muir Pass, 11,972’ Bishop Pass)
  • Spectacular Terrain (Humphreys Basin, Evolution Basin, Dusy Basin)

Day 1

Around 10 am I arrived at the Ranger Station in Bishop, having driven for 5 hours from the Bay Area. To avoid potentially slow tourists I opted to take Highway 108, Sonora Pass, over the mountains, but will probably take Highway 120, Tioga Pass, next time, despite the $20 park toll. At the ranger station, I signed in for a walk-in permit (I was unable to reserve a spot in advance) and was told to come back a few minutes before 11 am. When I returned after getting gas and buying Chapstick the previously empty station was full of people. Shortly after 11 am one of the rangers called my name and 5 minutes later I had a free permit which allowed me to start my hike tomorrow. Instead of sitting around, I drove to the trailhead and started walking.

At elevation 9,350 feet, at 12:30 pm, I left the North Lake trailhead and hiked for 5.0 miles to Piute Pass at elevation 11,243 feet. Despite coming from sea level, I felt pretty good, plus the weather was perfect. Specifically, the skies were a deep blue but snow white clouds blocked the sun which can be brutal at higher elevations.

1:12 pm - Beautiful golden cliffs just minutes from the North Lake Trailhead.

1:27 pm – Piute Pass comes into sight.

1:37 pm – Mommy and baby day hiking and riding, but not my wife and baby however.

2:33 pm – Snow just south of Piute Pass. Later on the trip I started wearing the dish towel around my neck when it was not required on my head due to the sun.

Around 2:30 pm I reached Piute Pass and was blown away by the terrain, certain I had been transported to the high plains of Tibet. For several miles the terrain was wide open and flat with easy walking on smooth packed sand trails so that I could focus on the jagged, snow capped ranges in the distance instead of my foot placement. Why I didn’t take photos at the time is unclear to me.

However, I had to go down, and in doing so entered more forested area that paled in comparison to the plateau and much later, at 6:45 pm, I reach the JMT junction at elevation 8,050 feet. It was a good half day, but I still felt like walking, so I decided to start hiking south on the JMT until I found a nice campsite next to the river at 7:30 pm. After setting up my tent, I rinsed in the river then sat clean and refreshed in my underwear, marveling at the lack of mosquitoes, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before re-dressing and hitting the hay.

4:29 pm – I felt the need to take a picture at this junction.

4:45 pm – Despite being the size of my thumb I could clearly see this little guy's heart beating 200 times a minute.

5:47 pm – A nice place to camp due to excellent swimming options. However, the day was young so I pressed on.

6:47 pm – Flashing the horns in excitement due to a) reaching the JMT and b) finishing the descent from Piute Pass.

Day 2

Anxious to put in another big day, I broke camp around 6 am and headed up to Evolution Valley. I took off my shoes when crossing Evolution Creek, the only time I had to do so on the entire trip, and was glad the cold water only came up to my knees. Around 8:30 am I reached the McClure Meadow Ranger Station and had a nice chat with Ranger Dave from Bonny Doon, a town next to Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I grew up. Dave recognized my Dirty Girl Gaiters and thought my home-made poles were from Gossamer Gear due to their grips. He gets to spend 4.5 months a year at this cabin and gets paid for it!

6:29 am – Crossing the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. I walked from morning to night in the outfit you see here, shorts and long sleeve shirt, and was comfortable the entire time.

6:49 am – Very excited to be headed up into Evolution Basin.

8:40 am – McClure Meadow Ranger Station along with Ranger Dave who thought he was standing out of the frame.

8:51 am – The view from the ranger’s cabin. The peak in the background is the 12,328-foot “Hermit”.

9:55 am – Dirty Girl Gaiters are awesome. This is the first time I’ve used them and I’m a convert. Unlike traditional gaiters which have a strap that goes under the sole of your shoe, these have a latch at the front and velcro at the heel. During my entire trip only one pebble made it into my shoes. They also kept out most of the trail dust.

10:35 am – “The hills are alive…”

10:45 am – I’m officially in Evolution Basin, an area I’ve wanted to visit for many years, and loving it.

10:54 am – Evolution Lake, elevation 10,852 feet, the first of many spectacular lakes in the basin.

10:56 am – Walking around Evolution Lake. I'm not sure how I managed to get so far away from my COTOB (camera on tripod on backpack) with only a 10 second timer.

11:48 am – Strolling through Evolution Basin. This is without a doubt one of my favorite photos.

12:46 pm – Wanda Lake at elevation 11,426 feet.

1:38 pm – Just below Muir Pass, looking north at the trail and basin. Note the lone hiker on the trail for scale.

1:41 pm – Help, I’ve fallen in a sun cup (just north of Muir Pass) and I can’t get up.

Around 1:45 pm I reached Muir Pass at elevation 11,955 feet. At the summit I rested with a few other hikers but didn’t dilly dally too long as I had a date with Helen. Helen Lake that is, just a few minutes south of the pass and 400 feet lower in elevation; the lake provided the perfect blue/green water for refreshing a sore, dusty hiker. That short dip is perhaps my most favorite mountain swim.

1:44 pm – Muir Pass. The woman in this photo asked if I was wearing a dish towel on my head and it I would like her to move out of my photograph, to which I replied "yes" and "no" respectively.

2:13 pm – Helen Lake, elevation 11,617 feet, on the south side of Muir Pass, the site of my most memorable mountain dip to date. The water was clear, clean and cold and I kept it that way as I only added dust to it, having not used any sunscreen or DEET.

While the hike up to Muir Pass was very gradual with few switchbacks, the descent down the south side was extremely rocky and rugged. Indeed, countless times I found myself first shocked by the audacity of the persons who decided to put a trail here and then awed by the work required by the trail builders to create the trail through the rock. As was the case yesterday, descending from a pass meant entering the forest and more ho-hum terrain, and my trip into LeConte Canyon was no exception. By the time I reached LeConte Canyon Ranger Station at 5:45 pm and elevation 8,750 feet I was wasted.

2:55 pm – The rugged descent down the south side of Muir Pass, below the 13,330-foot “Black Giant”. Compare this the ascent from the north side, which can be seen in the photo above taken at 1:38 pm.

5:46 pm – Wasted after the long descent from Muir Pass to the junction to Dusy Basin / Bishop Pass.

5:56 pm – Inspiration from “pretty much the best little guy that their ever was…”, Gatorade and Cliff Bars as I rested, ate, drank, and studied the maps at the bottom of the trail up to Dusy Basin.

My extreme state of being both helped and hurt me. First, about an hour before I reached the ranger station, I met a ranger who asked to see my permit. Given my state of being (along with my light pack), I didn’t have to work hard to convince him that I had left North Lake today, around 2 am, instead of yesterday at 12:30 pm. However, once I reached the sign that indicated the junction to Bishop Pass, where I would leave the JMT, I couldn’t find the junction. At the junction sign, I looked high and low, went off trail, consulted my map, and cursed, yet the trail was not obvious. After a good 5 minutes of frustration I sheepishly, but with considerable relief, realized the junction sign was located about 30 feet north of the actual junction.

Even though I was really tired, having put in my longest day ever, I decided to get a jump on Bishop Pass and began climbing the switchbacks. However, instead of being intolerable, the climb wasn’t that bad since I was using my uphill muscles which had been resting during the descent from Muir Pass. Plus, the views were spectacular. From the switchbacks I could look down into LeConte Canyon and 12,018-foot Langille Peak on the other side. Plus, to the right of the trail was a long, flat, stretch of rock inclined at 30 degrees from vertical, along which ran water from Dusy Basin.

6:26 pm – Amazing cascades during the initial switchbacks climbing towards Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass. This section of flat rock at the slope shown was many hundreds of feet long, perhaps even near 1,000.

I planned on camping at the first place the trail crossed the creek, but found the site occupied. This turned out to be fortuitous as I found a much better site, at least in terms of views. By 7:30 pm I had my tent pitched then headed off to the creek to rinse off. Mosquitoes forced me to make and eat my sandwiches in the tent, and by 8 pm my eyes were closed.

7:25 pm – A long day ends at a rocky campsite with view of 12,018-foot Langille Peak. Without the freestanding pitching option utilizing my trekking poles, it would have been much more difficult to camp here.

Note that I took 22 pictures on this day. You’ve just seen 20 of them.

Day 3

Hiking on my final day began around 6 am and around 7:30 am I entered Dusy Basin, a spectacular plateau above LeConte Canyon and below Bishop Pass. I immensely enjoyed my morning stroll through the basin which ended when I reached Bishop Pass at 9 am. As with Muir Pass, the trail up to Bishop Pass was very gradual while the initial descent down the other side was 100% rocks which once again had me in awe of the trail planners and builders. However, after the initial rocky switchbacks, which went down a near vertical face, the remainder of the trail consisted of beautiful valleys with lakes the entire way down to South Lake.

6:49 am – Climbing up to Dusy Basin with the sun rising on Langille Peak.

7:30 am – Dusy Basin. Bishop Pass is visible in the upper left. Click here for a high resolution image of this photo.

9:05 am – Bishop Pass, elevation 11,972 feet.

9:59 am – A view of the eastern side of Bishop Pass, which is much more rugged than the western side.

10:43 am – Another view of Bishop Pass at one of the many spectacular lakes between the pass and South Lake Trailhead.

11:23 am – South Lake appears, so I know the trailhead is near.

11:34 am – Hooray! But how do I get back to my car at the North Lake Trailhead?

When I reached South Lake at 11:30 am, 47 hours after leaving North Lake, I was able to get a ride immediately down the Highway 168 and then after a few minutes of walking got another ride to my car. After rinsing in the creek and changing into clean, cotton clothes I drove back to South Lake and picked up Will and Nate, two hikers I met on Bishop Pass from upstate New York who were ending a hike from Yosemite and dreaming of burritos. I dropped them off in Bishop, then headed down the 395 towards LA where I would meet Em and PJ at her parents' house in Rowland Heights.


Not counting my food, water, or bear canister (Bear Vault 500), my pack was just under 10 pounds. Here’s what was in it.

Pack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa

  • Carbon fiber stays not used
  • Hip belt cut off
  • Shoulder strap pockets added

Shelter: Tarptent Rainbow

  • Original model without zipper vestibule
  • Ground sheet not used, bottom of tent painted with silicone diluted with mineral spirits instead

Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering Megalite

  • Sleeping Pad: Montbell UL 90
  • Also used Montbell pillow and 1/8” Gossamer Gear foam under legs

Clothing – Bringing quality but minimal clothing is a great way to save weight. In the left photo I’m in my base layer which is a white long sleeve synthetic shirt and synthetic boxer briefs (required for me to prevent inner thigh chaffing). Over the underwear go synthetic running shorts. On my head is a visor and white, cotton dish towel. When its not sunny the towel rides around my neck and is tasked with wiping sweat from my face, cleaning glasses, drying off after dips in the water, etc. Not shown are prescription sunglasses with transition lenses. The middle photo shows my warmth layer which is silk PJ bottoms and a Montbell UL down sweater. The right photo shows my Porepro rain jacket and pants. I could eliminate the running shorts and PJ bottoms next time but don’t like sleeping in rain pants (even though I have). Although I didn't use the raingear, I will always bring it. The only additional clothes I brought are two pairs of Iniji toe socks, one pair of sleep socks, and fleece gloves.

Feet – My feet are protected with synthetic Iniji toe socks, North Face shoes and Dirty Girl Gaiters. The toe socks prevent toe-to-toe blisters while the gaiters keep debris out of my shoes. I’m not picky about my shoes and just get what’s on sale at the North Face Outlet in Berkeley.

PJ, also know as Beppo, proper name William Oliver Han-Shen Bowden, has some large shoes to fill.

Ditty Bag – Top from left to right: 3 or 4 waterproof matches, watch, Imodium, Vaseline, ibuprofen. Middle from left to right: headlamp, compass, spare camera battery, knife with scissors, tweezers and toothpick. Bottom from left to right: toothbrush, chapstick, squeeze light, earplugs, tinctures of benzoin (for blisters). Even though I didn’t use all of this, I’ll bring it all again except for the watch since I can always check the time with the camera. I should have brought a needle for puncturing blisters and will do so next time. Note that I didn’t bring any sunscreen and didn’t miss it due to my long sleeves, visor, and dish towel. Leukotape (for blisters) was wrapped around the shaft of one of my trekking poles. Next time I might also bring nose spray as my sinuses dried out the second night and made getting to sleep difficult.

Potty Bag – I have a hard time measuring out toilet paper, so instead I cut a standard size paper towel into 4 equal squares and then bring 2 squares per day. Via folding, a single square gives two wipes. The lighter is to burn the soiled paper in the bottom of the cat hole and the soap, Dr. Bronners, is for washing up. I also use it to brush my teeth.

Water – I brought two “customized” 1-liter water bottles but could have easily gotten by with only one. For treatment I brought Aqua Mira (chlorine dioxide) but never used it. I love the freedom of drinking pure mountain water directly from the source. As of this writing, September 6th, almost 1 month later, I have suffered no ill effects. I don't like or use bladders due to their expense, difficulty to clean, and the fact that I can reach my water bottle without taking off my pack.

Mosquitoes – I brought a head net purchased Backpackinglight.com specifically for mosquitoes and a 1-ounce pump sprayer of 100% DEET. I used the headset at my second nights campsite but didn’t use the DEET at all. I will always bring these items as mosquitoes can drive me crazy and really ruin a trip.

Skateboarders Knees – On gradual inclines I walked my home-made trekking pole joined as a single unit (see photo taken at 10:45 am on day 2). On steep climbs I would have one pole in each hand. However, on descents, I would generally carry the poles and instead make sure to never land a step on a straight leg. This technique, combined with 2 ibuprofen at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, prevented severe knee pain which has previously troubled me. Note that this descending technique (which I haven’t explained very well) puts tremendous strain on your quads.

Camera - Pentax Optio W30 which is waterproof, has a 3x optical zoon and takes 7.1 mega pixel shots. However, to get good shots while hiking solo I always bring my mini tripod.

Blisters – On the third day I discovered I had one small blister on the ball of my left foot. As I forgot a needle I had to puncture it with my scissors before putting on Leukotape (wrapped around the shaft of my trekking pole). If I was to attempt high mileage days again I would probably pre-tape the areas shown, the balls of my feet certainly, maybe not the big toes. Iniji toe socks are now part of my standard gear as they prevent toe-to-toe blisters.

The only other items I brought were my permit, map, car key, identification, cash, credit card, and cell phone. The last items were due to the fact that, had I gone all the way to Whitney Portal, getting back to the car would have been difficult and involved buses, hitchhiking, etc.


I started the trip with 15,000 calories so I could walk 25 miles a day for 5 days and end up at Whitney Portal. Instead I did the classic North Lake to South Lake loop in much less time so ended up carrying out a ton of food, as the photos below show.

Here’s the food I stared with.

And here’s the 6 pounds, 2 ounces of food I carried out (plus a 2 pound, 8 ounce bear canister). The peanut butter jar and jam jars still had 13.4 and 7.1 ounces of food, respectively.

  • Cliff Bars, 20 bars at 240 calories/bar = 4,800 calories
  • Gatorade (powder for 10 1-liter drinks), 10 servings at 225 calories/serving = 2,250 calories
  • Bread (one loaf Safeway Honey Wheat Berry), 17 servings at 110 calories/serving = 1,870 calories
  • Peanut Butter (one 18 oz jar), 16 servings at 200 calories/serving = 3,200 calories
  • Jam (1 cup or 16 Tablespoons), 16 servings at 50 calories/serving = 800 calories
  • Cookies (one Chips Ahoy 15 oz bag), 16 servings at 120 calories/serving = 1,920 calories

Sum = 14,840 calories or 2,968 calories per day for 5 days. I didn't weigh the food but it's probably around 10 pounds.

Here's what I ate each day:

  • Day 1: 3 Cliff Bars, 2 Gatorades, 1 PB&J sandwich and some cookies.
  • Day 2: 4 Cliff Bars, 2 Gatorades, 1 PB&J sandwich.
  • Day 3: 2 Cliff Bars, 1 Gatorade

Despite eating very little (relative to my caloric expenditure) I was never hungry or lacking energy. Part of this is due to a suppressed appetite typical of not being acclimated to the altitude. I would most certainly bring the Cliff bars (and find them 10 times better than Balance bars) along with the Gatorade again. The PB&J sandwiches were just so-so, and the bread took up a lot of room. I would not bring the cookies again.