Sunday, August 31, 2014

A piece of the Sierra High Route: North Lake Trailhead to Lower Desolation Lake

The day doesn't have the most auspicious start: greg walks out of the motel room (in a different motel than planned, since ours had a fire last week; good thing for us that they transferred our reservation!) in the morning to load the car and notices that he left the running lights on. Ooops. Maybe the car will start anyway... they are just the running lights, they can't draw that much power. Nope... Quick thinking, some cursing, and then into the breakfast room to see if anyone has jumper cables. Luckily there are people up early and someone does have cables and the guy parked in the spot next to ours is there and willing to move his truck. 10 minutes later and the problem is solved. Yay! Would have really sucked to miss our taxi pickup.

We're both fully awake at this point! We leave the car running and have a quick breakfast and then head out to drive to the Pine Creek trailhead. We get there a bit early, admire the scenery, put on our boots and hang out until the taxi shows up, right on time. Our driver Simone has lived in Switzerland (explanation for the punctuality? ;-)) so we have a  fun conversation during the beautiful drive to the North Lake/Piute Pass trailhead (~2800m). Here we say goodbye, put on the packs and head through the full campground towards Piute Pass (start: ~8:30).

The trail takes us gently up through the trees, climbing and switching back and providing loads of great views oft he valley in front as it opens up. The packs are heavy but not oppressively so and we're up above 3000m pretty quickly, so we aren't moving real fast. Slowly and steadily we climb until we get to our first lake: Loch Leven. There are a couple guys fishing here and a woman with her dog, but it's wonderfully quiet anyway. We take a snack break under a big tree at the end of the lake before continuing onwards and upwards.
Loch Leven with Piute Pass in the background
Not much risk of getting lonely on this trail: it's a long weekend and there are plenty of dayhikers and fishermen out as well as groups of backpackers coming down (yay!). Though some of the smaller lakes are sad and empty, there is definitely water in the bigger ones, that's one concern down! Onwards and upwards, past Piute lake, which is another real gem, and on and on towards the pass. After about four hours we hit Piute Pass (~3500m). There are a couple groups in the broad, shallow pass, but there's plenty of space for us to find a quiet, wind-sheltered place and do some lunch and view-soaking-in. Now it's a gentle, slow descent and then the trail takes us around to the right, past some trees, over a stream where we pump some water (first of many, many water pumpings), and then across the plain of the Humphrey Basin. After a bit we realize that the path has taken us too far down and to the South, so we head North cross-country until we spot Lower Desolation Lake (~3400m). The number of very nice campsites we see while approaching makes the "should we stay or should we go?" decision really easy (end: ~14:15). We pick a super spot, pitch the tent, pump some water, wash, rest, do dinner and then enjoy the sunset (the evolution of color and shadows on Mt Humphrey is amazing). And then I reached the end of the notebook page...

Dinner: chix noodle soup with chipotle and cumin. Mashed potatoes with salami and garlic.

campsite at Lower Desolation Lake
pumping water at Lower Desolation Lake

Mt. Humphrey at sunset


A piece of the Sierra High Route: Overview

This was a six day backpacking trip along a part of the Sierra High Route that Roper calls "white bark country". We started at the North Lake trailhead and finished at the Pine Creek trailhead.

The days:
  1. North Lake Trailhead to Lower Desolation Lake
  2. Lower Desolation Lake to Puppet Lake Basin via Pilot Knob
  3. Puppet Lake Basin to tarn below La Salle Lake
  4. La Salle Lake to Black Bear Lake
  5. Black Bear Lake to Granite Park via Mt. Julius Caesar
  6. Granite Park to Pine Creek trailhead
Most of our information about the route was from the book "Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country", which I'll just call "Roper" throughout.

Some notes:
  • Due to the number of lakes on the route, we never needed to have more than a liter of water apiece with us. We just stopped when necessary to pump water and refill our bottles. What luxury!
  • Doing our usual lunch strategy for 6 days wasn't going to work, so we tried an experiment: we took lots of snacks (nuts, dried fruit, gorp), some cheese, some salami, and Clif Bars (one each per day). We tend to not be super hungry during the day while hiking anyway, so this frequent-snacking strategy ended up working pretty well.
  • One 230g Primus four-season gas cartridge lasted through the entire trip. It was starting to feel empty towards the end, but we had no problems.

Pack contents
  • Greg:
    • Clothes: three t-shirts, three pairs of socks, hiking pants, three pairs underwear, long-sleeve shirt, long underwear top and bottom, gloves (thin and thick), stocking cap, sun hat, softshell, gore-tex, sandals, boots
    • Bear cylinder
    • Food:
      • three salamis (6-8 oz each)
      • cheese (about 250g)
      • two mashed-potato portions
      • three cous-cous portions
      • two freeze-dried meals
      • 5 oatmeal portions
      • 10 Clif bars
      • snacks: 400-500g each trail mix, peanuts, cashews. 250g each apricots and prunes (those quantities are guessed; neither of us remember the size of the bags and TJs doesn't have an online product list)
      • instant espresso, tea, powdered milk
      • two bars of chocolate
    • Sleeping bag + 2 therma-rests
    • Jet-boil cup, stove, and 100g spare gas cylinder (Andrea carried this at the beginning), Jet-boil skillet (we transferred this to Andrea at some point), kitchen spices
    • 1l water bottle
    • trekking poles
    • orange shovel
    • toiletry bag: lip balm, aloe, lotion, toothbrushes, toothpaste
    • small stuff: leatherman, first-aid kit, fuel cell (never used it), 5m Reepschnur, pak-towel, extra straps, sunscreen, sunglasses, head lamp, watch, iphone, wallet, passport
  • Andrea:
    • Clothes: two t-shirts, long-sleeve shirt, bra, five underpants, three pairs of socks, hiking pants, long underwear top and bottom, fleece, insulated jacket, gore-tex, sandals, hiking boots, stocking cap, gloves, sun hat
    • Kitchen bag: two each bowls, cups, sporks; cutting board; wooden spoon; folding knife; soap; two dish towels
    • sleeping bag
    • tent
    • gas cylinder (243g)
    • 1l water bottle
    • water pump + iodine
    • trekking poles
    • maps (1 A3 print-out per day + overview) and Roper's route description
    • small-stuff: pak-towel, camera+spare battery, mini-tripod, head lamp, sunglasses, contacts stuff, toilet paper, iphone, wallet, passport

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Brisen traverse

We finally got a weekend with decent weather (at least in parts of the Alps). After cancelling the hochtour we originally had planned (Greg cut his finger while cooking on Thursday and it wasn't ready for climbing), we decided to do a nice ridge hike instead.

Starting in Wolfenschiessen (an hour later than planned because of technical problems with the train from Basel), we took the small gondola up to Brändlen and then started heading up. up, up, following the signs for Haldigrat. It has been raining, a lot, so the path is pretty muddy and we spend a fair amount of time trying to pick our way through without going ankle deep in mud (not always successfully). It's a very nice path, with great views, but it is very muddy.
are there boots underneath the mud?

Eventually, after a good amount of climbing, we hit the ridge at Gigi, where we stop for a snack and a short break. Then it's onward along the ridge, enjoying the views, seeing a few other people now, fortunately less muddy, until we hit the Bergstation Haldigrat. Here we do a lunch break, enjoy the views, and watch the guys getting hang gliders ready to fly (you don't see many hang gliders in the Alps, but there's a big group here, must be an event). After lunch we continue our way along the somewhat muddy ridge, climbing up, up, towards the Brisen.
along the ridge towards the Brisen

Now there are plenty of people around (unsurprisingly). Up top we manage to find a place to sit (not easy with the crowd!) and enjoy the amazing views. We can see many of our past tours (Gitschen, Nünalphorn, Stanserhorn, Buochserhorn), some that we still need to finish (Uri Rotstock, Rigi Hochflue, Glattigrat, Arvigrat), and some that we don't even know about yet. ;-)
crowds on the top of the Brisen
After a short rest we continue on our way. Opting not to do the hairy bit out to the Hoh Brisen (next time), we head down and along the path to the Northeast. At the fork in the path we make the obvious decision to stay on the ridge and head to the Glattigrat. This is a nice ridge with a good path; the part that turned us back when we were on snowshoes four and a half years ago is no problem now.
along the ridge towards Glattigrat and the Risetenstock
We take a break at the Risetenstock and then head down, down, down to the gondola station at Klewenalp and the crowds down there. The gondola takes us down to Beckenried were we, once again, catch the boat back to Luzern.

Nice trip! Track:

Friday, August 01, 2014

Up the Gitschen

A few years ago we noticed a very appealing looking mountain while looking out the window of a train heading along the Urnersee. Of course we whipped out the phone and fired up the map to identify it as the Gitschen and realized that it was even more impressively prominent than we had thought: the peak is more than 2000m higher than the lake below it. Awesome! The obvious next step was checking to see how tricky it is to get to the top. Verdict: doable (~T5) but, at the time, probably on the edge for us. It's also high enough and far enough away that it requires some planning. Ever since then the Gitschen has been on the list for a weekend (or long weekend) trip.

On Friday the Gitschen hit the top of the list. The weather has been dodgy, but the forecast was for a sunny day with rain/t-storms in the late afternoon/evening. Saturday's forecast was similar. We hoped to do the Gitschen on Friday, stay in Musenalp, and then do the Uri Rotstock on Saturday if the weather played along. So we were on the 5:30 train from Basel on Friday morning. A few changes later and we caught the bus from Altdorf to Istenthal. This is a fun bus ride: the road from the lake up to the hanging valley is very narrow, winding, and exposed.

From Isenthal we set out on foot up into the Chlital. After a bit on road, a bit on path, and then a bit more on the road (with plenty of cars passing us... definitely not going to be lonely today!), we hit the bottom of the gondola to Gietisflue. After a short wait we took the small gondola (very nice views of the valley from the gondola!) up to Gietisflue. From here it's up, up, up through a rain-saturated field and a bit of woods until we hit the saddle above Hinter Wang. Turning right and more up, up, along a blue-white path that takes us to the hut at Oberberg. There's a good-sized group sitting outside the hut already. We take a break to enjoy the views and have a snack and then continue our way steeply up the slope, stopping occasionally to "wow" at the views towards and along the Urnersee, until we get into the rocks under the peak. Now the path leads us around the corner and under the East face of the Gitschen. This is a nice, very exposed, path with quite a drop off the left side. Greg gets to enjoy a nice elevated adrenalin level for much of it.
The trail under the Gitschen
Looking back on the band under the Gitschen with the trail barely visible
Towards the end we pass a group of nicely setup bivouac sites that have been occupied by a large group of locals who are preparing for tonight's Bergfeuer (it is, after all, the 1st of August!). Past the bivouac sites, the path leads us around the corner and then steeply up to the saddle between the Gitschen and p2540. On this bit we cross two groups heading down (yay!). From the saddle we follow the ridge towards the peak, crossing another couple heading down (yay!). There's an interesting short descent with a cable to secure it, a traverse with a steep and long drop below (more adrenalin!), then up a steep chute to the broad peak. Amazingly, we have the place to ourselves! We find a good place to sit, eat a bit, soak in the views, and take some pictures. Greg's gets a bit of the shivers from the wind and the adrenalin wearing off, but that wears off once we walk around a bit more. As we're eating another group comes up, but they head off further along the peak, so it's like we're still alone.

After lunch we head back to the saddle and then continue along the ridge up the other side. We're now following a faint, but well marked trail that leads us along and down the north face of the ridge. Very, very nice walking with fun views made mysterious by the clouds that keep coming in and then receding.
View of the Uri Rotstock and our way down
At p1989 we hit the path coming down from the Uri Rotstock and stop to eat a bit more, say "hi" to the couple of groups coming down from the Rotstock, and then head on.
More nice, narrow, path along the cliff face, a fun crossing of the Firnbach (even without the water being particularly high, it's nice that they have the cable here), and then more nice path leading us down to the Musenalp. We sit down, order some cool beverages, and relax. It's fun to look back at the wall at the end of the valley and try to pick out our route. :-) At some point it starts raining, so we finish our drinks inside, take a nap, have a nice meal, do a bit more enjoying the views (the rain has stopped), have dessert and a digestif, and then head off to bed. The fireworks don't really wake us up.

The weather on Saturday morning is dodgy: plenty of clouds over the mountains with rain forecast for the early afternoon, so we opt to skip the Uri Rotstock and head out early. After a nice walk down to Isenthal we catch the first bus down and are back in Basel before lunch.

Sub-optimal weather, but a great tour. We definitely need to go back to repeat the Gitschen tour and do the Uri Rotstock.

An aside. Many mountains have very different faces depending on the angle you see them from. The Gitschen is no exception:
The Gitschen from Flüelen, from behind (the "skull view"), and from Musenalp.

The track: