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Pioneer Basin Backpack August 2013

August 22>26 backpacked from the Mosquito Flat Trailhead at 10,130 feet in Inyo National Forest into the John Muir Wilderness. Destination was Pioneer Basin at the headwaters of Mono Creek, that I would base camp at 3 days. Left trailhead 11:15pm Wednesday night 8/21 after picking up my wilderness permit from a night box, carrying about 60 pounds of which about 24 pounds was my camera gear including tripod. Earlier in the evening, a heavy bout of breezy thunderstorms had coursed up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range. By time I left stars were shining through holes in the clouds, with temperature in low 40F degrees. Hiked with my Fenix HP11 about an hour dodging puddles to get a jump on the trail to 12,050 foot Mono Pass on the Sierra Crest.

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Reaching a bench at 10,900 feet on the steep east facing timberline slopes below Mt. Starr, I dropped the heavy pack. Wandering about, quickly found a nice spot away from the trail beneath branches of a large whitebark pine with a moonlight view into the canyon below. All the tentless sleeping gear I needed to quickly set up including my Marmot Pinnacle was on the outside of my Osprey Aether 70 backpack. After just four hours of solid sleep woke up at dawn, packed up, and as alpenglow hit the high 13k peaks in that Rock Creek canyon with the moon about to set, started up the trail.

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Quickly reached the spur junction to Ruby Lake where 3 grey haired backpackers about my age told me about how they had come up late afternoon, making camp just as the storm hit. I continued up some long switchbacks on the east flanks of Mt. Starr. Noticed the broken black trail lines on the USGS topo were inaccurate. Some switchbacks were longer than indicated and there were less than shown. By the end of this day, I would annoyingly also find inaccuracies in other areas that added maybe a mile to the trail distance. Thin clouds to the east muted the early morning sunlight. Image below looks down on Ruby Lake with Bear Creek Spire, Treasure Peak, Mt. Dade, and Mt. Abbot, in the background.

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Along most trail areas the considerable thunderstorm runoff had favored running down the center of trails. Given the trail's heavy pack horse use, the now slightly damp yet firm, freshly clean trail was welcome.

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Below the pass, lingering late season wildflowers like rock fringe, epilobium obcordatum still bloomed below shading boulders.

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On the last switchback before rounding a point to enter the Mono Pass canyon, I saw numbers of gone to seed Lobb's buckwheat, eriogonum lobbii. Hiking slow, stopping a lot on every convenient thigh high boulder as is my style carrying heavy loads, reached the sandy granite pass at about 8:30am. Continued down the west side of the pass to barren Summit Lake, then vectored off the trail to a viewpoint at 11,700 feet at 9:15am where I could see my destination, granitoid Pioneer Basin, a few miles distant in pic below. Note the small lakes at frame bottom are the Trail Lakes while behind the basin rise the colorful metamophic Paleozoic summits of Red and White Mountain, Red Slate Peak, and Mt. Baldwin.

Spent the next 45 minutes exposing two sheets of 4x5 Provia 100F film with my view camera on the distant basin. All shots herein except a couple noted 4x5's, are downsized for web use to 720 pixel dimensions, from my Canon SX130, a 12x zoom 12mp compact digital camera, one of three digital cameras I currently own.

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In the distance I could see Hopkins Lake and peaks behind including Mt. Izaak Walton friend Doug and I had climbed in 1994. Can you see dark Ritter and Banner poking over the ridge 30 miles distant?

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Today's destination, Mud Lake was down there too.

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A good viewpoint for capturing points of interest with my 12x zoom.

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Glacially formed granite ridgelines at crest areas are particularly spectacular like this pyramid on a knife edge erete.

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Back on the coarse granite sand trail, I worked my way down below timberline. Reached the Trail Lakes where I chatted with a pleasant New Zealand couple doing a section of the JMT, enjoying flyfishing. A stone and concrete winter snow survey shelter was there that our forum member John D has likely stayed in.

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Weather all 5 days was cool, breezy, gusty in afternoons, and monotonously sunny with few clouds. That limited photographic possibilities but at least I didn't get any smoke from the monstrous Rim Fire 80 miles to the northwest. On many trips weather doesn't cooperate, however if one gets out enough, simply due to chance, there will be good days. In the case of this basin, my main interest is to return during prime wildflower season in the future that is late July after an average winter. So at least my explorations on this short trip during a very droughty year will allow more efficient use of my time on the future trip.

By mid afternoon after the trail dropped down to about 10,000 feet at the Mono Creek trail junction, climbed up through a lodgepole pine forest to reach my timberline destination, Mud Lake at about 10,335 feet, about 8 miles from the trailhead. The rest of the afternoon I was not too lively feeling like the old man I am becoming. But after a Mountainhouse spaghetti and meat sauce dinner and a dip in the nearby creek, felt a wee bit more life so hiked with camera gear around the lake scouting potential worthwhile shots for my view camera. Before the trip I noticed on the web, photographers had dawn/dusk images taken from the lake but most were rather processed with way too much saturation to be believable to mountain environment familiar people.

A prime interest on the trip was getting some shots of dwarf bilberry, vaccinium caespitosum, the only significant vegetation in the High Sierra with leaves that turn red in the fall. Note the much more well-known aspen groves don't reach any higher than about 10.5k with most at 6.5k to 9.5k. The bilberry carpets the ground densely on well watered and drained flats and open slopes often mixed in with short bunch grass and arctic willow.

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The bilberry tends to grow at the base of larger rocks and in many rock cracks.

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Although I brought minimum fishing gear weighing a couple ounces, floating fly line I might connect up to a stick and a few quality dry flies, I didn't expect to have any time for fishing and indeed never came close to doing any. Shallow Mud Lake did have a modest population of pan sized Eastern brook trout. Several were all milling about in a clump in the small stream still draining into the lake, apparently because the water temperature was cooler and more aerated. Most of the Pioneer Lakes have a lot of trout including golden trout in some.

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Late afternoon a backpack group and then a horse packer group arrived nearby and set up camp but all I could do by then was veg inside my UL1 tent. Didn't expose any film that afternoon. At dawn the next morning Friday, the lake was breezy so I packed up and left for higher areas of the basin. Above Mud Lake, lodgepole pines diminish with scattered whitebark pines,pinus albicaulis providing fine visual complements to the Pioneer Basin lakes and necessary shade for small tents to escape the searing midday sun from.

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Pioneer Basin has several quite aesthetic timberline lakes with a spectacular backdrop of peaks topping 13k to the south. I visited 11 lakes and ponds in the basin over the 2.5 days.

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Friday afternoon view south taken with my 150mm Nikor on Provia 100F 4x5 film from near my camp at Pioneer Lake #4. See image at page top.

On Friday evening, decent sunset light glowed on the big peaks to the south. Here the craggy chutes behind Fourth Recess Lake.

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Each morning temps were down below 30F leaving icy conditions before the sun rose. On Saturday morning a closeup of turf short, frosty, arctic willow, salix arctica, with its catkins.

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And vaccinium caespitosum.

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Along a muddy pond shore, frozen marmot tracks.

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Saturday morning climbed up for some views looking down on lake #4. The lake in a glacially smoothed granite landscape of scattered erratic boulders, surrounded by stunted whitebark pines, an intricate shoreline, deep and shallow areas, a stream fed by small permanent snowfields, a fine trout population, and superb views of surrounding peaks, is one of the Sierra Nevada's finest. A small all year stream draining northern exposures of Mt. Hopkins and Mt. Crocker, flows into the lake. Although not shown on the topo, the stream outlet is at mid lake flowing east where it enters a sizeable shallow lake not shown on the map before joining the stream from the lake basin west of Mt. Huntington.

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After visiting the high barren lake at 11,190, I climbed up onto steep slopes above lake 11026 to expose a sheet of film.

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There were still scattered late season wildflowers about including hikers gentian, gentianopsis simplex, found in most turfy wet meadows and lake shores.

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The most prominent late season species was silver lupine, lupinus argenteus that has hairs on the upper surface of its leaves

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Here lupinus argenteus backlit in a bright patch of vaccinium caespitosum.

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The sun sets early on the Pioneer Basin lakes so one needs to start their afternoon photography early. Saturday evening, David's UL1 tent minus the fly on an open patch of pristine gruss with lupine and drying turf behind.

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Sunday morning took this image of lakes #3 and #2. These two lakes had no active inlet streams and during average summers inflow is likely dry by the end of July. Considerable loose granite sand envelopes the western sides of two lakes including the "beach" between the two where sits a fascinating small round pond. The lower lake #2 where the horse trail ends, had odd yellow hues on its shore lake bottom.

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Packed up by mid morning Sunday, I left then made my way back towards the Trail Lakes. I stopped at the large seep meadow just upstream of the Golden Creek crossing where there are considerable, bog blueberry, vaccinium uliginosum with tasty berries. A fine location for those botony oriented to linger.

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The trail on the USGS topo between Golden Creek and Trail Lakes is considerably longer than shown. The map shows no switchbacks while there are actually 20 above Golden Creek and another 7 between the Mono Creek junction and Trail Lake. It was intensely windy and chilly up high so several groups of backpackers ended up staying at little upper Trail Lake, all rather close together due to the limited tenting possibilities to escape the strong gusts. The ridge above the upper lake has a nice sine curve shape

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About a half hour later as the sun was about to drop behind a ridge a few miles west, had set up my Wisner Expedition with a 210mm Caltar within a group of others finishing their jetboil cooked dinners, to capture the golden phase of late light. The red light phase would have been higher up on Mt. Starr.

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The view west from upper Trail Lake at 11,220 feet is unblocked for several miles. The Sunday dusk sky was rather decent looking west over the ridge west of Lower Hopkins Lake.

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I rose at dawn on Monday and was on the switchbacks as sun began coloring the peak tops. Along the way passed a sandy rock strewn alpine section I'll call the Mars Bench. (:

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Soon reached barren Summit Lake at 11,894 where ice crunched under my feet at the shore. The early morning blue sky was intense.

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Taking a break, I played with some bubble pics in the shore foam.

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Near the pass, the steep west face of Mt. Starr has some fascinating forms of small parallel fractured granite blocks.

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By mid morning I'd rambled all the way down to Ruby Creek where a sizeable equestrian group of mostly teenage girls giving their horses a drink, found my trail worn sight worth giggling over. My two-legged journey was about over, with a long 7 hour Forester drive back over Sonora Pass on SR108 to come, and the next day I would be back looking into an oscilloscope and stereo microscope, debugging telephony printed circuit boards.

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   David Senesac

   email: info@davidsenesac.com

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