SY00856-00892-2x1v  6500x6000 pixels  2 frame 37 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 30mm
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Rock Creek Backpack
Rock Creek Backpack
Rock Creek Backpack
Rock Creek Backpack

Rock Creek Backpack

Following up the earlier days of this 7 day road trip with a backpack, as a light sleeper, I tend to wake up several times each night between sleeping that makes getting up at dawn without an alarm clock usually probable. Another odd reality of the electromagnetic phenomenon of my brain is every moment I am sleeping, I dream, not just during REM sleep like others. Thus sometime before 5am woke up on Monday August 3, 2020, and within my Forester back bed sleeping setup, put on the clean clothes I had ready for my trip that included my usual Levi 505 blue jeans and since it was rather chilly still, a long sleeve cotton t-shirt beneath my thin nylon front zipper shell. By 5:20am or 40 minutes before astronomical sunrise, was moving south feeling strong up the wide Morgan Pass Trail with a carrying weight of maybe 58#. Items I decided to leave out versus during my Convict Creek trip that reduced weight about 4 or 5 pounds were my SEL55210 telephoto and fishing gear, as well as less food.


The easy to hike trail has 3 significant up then downs along the valley that add an additional 300 feet to what is otherwise a modest 700 foot absolute elevation gain over 3.2 miles to the Gem Lakes/Morgan Pass junction. The upper Rock Creek basin is named Little Lakes Valley that has many more small bodies of water than one will see from the Morgan Pass Trail that is due to the nature of how glaciers scour out granite geology leaving features like domes and depressions.
caltopo USGS 7.5m map

In this era, another useful website that now uses hikers GPS tracking to more accurately measure both distance and altitudes versus the topo is at alltrails dot com that has recordings made by individuals so one can compare those made by different hikers resulting in more believable accuracies. A good example of how valuable that is, is to look at the Shepherd Pass trail recordings along the notorious route with 51 switchbacks up to the 9080 foot Symmes/Shepherd Creek saddle at the 4.0 mile waypoint of the 10.7 mile route to the 12k pass. There is now a nifty function that besides a DEM topo map allows moving a marker along the route profile that provides distance and elevation information as it moves along the red topo map GPS recorded line. There are many drawn trail routing inaccuracies on USGS 7.5m topographic maps, mostly minor, that can now be seen though this Morgan Pass trail has always been rather correct.

A bit before 8am I had reached my intended camp zone that although less than 200 yards from the main trail was in a zone I immediately noted few others visit, much less site camps at. That is a common experience I have most everywhere as someone that regularly seeks out more natural camp sites with solitude that reflects how little the majority venture out beyond trails, use routes, and lake edges whether when they are looking for camp spots or day hiking afterwards. By 8:30am I had found a wonderful spot near large talus and a large boulder within whitebark pines plus a view of Chickenfoot Lake. I had to level off some duff matter beneath the pines that is a usual minor chore. With sunlight just then beginning to reach the east side of this north to south trending canyon with tall peaks blocking sunlight for early and late periods each day, there would have not been any reason to have arrived any earlier.


Before 9am I was working the first images. I had been to Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Mono Pass, and Spire Pass in the past so was already familiar with some features of this zone, however these areas are vast so there would be much new I would experience. An up canyon breeze had arrived that made a couple lake reflection subjects I worked mediocre and other subjects I found were rather ordinary. So within a couple hours was back at my camp to make an early lunch. A bit later set out again to explore areas of Gem Lakes I might work the next morning. By mid day those areas had a few tents set up and groups of day hikers were arriving regularly. I spoke with one dad with his son about camping 20 feet from the shore by first quietly smiling and noting how wonderful the area was and then asking if he had a wilderness permit which he acknowledged. I then related the policy of being so close to lakes, why that is so, that there were plenty of places to camp further back if one explored about a bit, and feeling embarrassed he was quick to relate he would move.

The only subject I captured this first day I'm displaying in this report is the view southward of Chickenfoot Lake at page top across an expanse of large talus at the foot of a steep granite cliff below the west rib of peak 12782. A fine example of large talus that is particularly difficult to go through with a weighty backpack. Chickenfoot is the most popular camping destination within Little Lakes Valley. In the enlarged vertical slice view one can make out a pack horse with rider against white rock a bit to the lower left of the lone tree on the peninsula against the slice edge. The rest of the afternoon I worked a few modest subjects then retired early to my camp where I spent a couple hours with sleeping bag, pad, and food at the brink of a bedrock ledge behind my camp boulder with a view.


SY01175-01205-6x1v  17800x6000 pixels  6 frame 6 column 1 row 31 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 60mm
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After a pleasant night of sleep, I was up again at dawn Tuesday August 4, 2020, then headed out towards Morgan Pass a few hundred feet higher. By time I reached the pass, the first sunlight was brightening spectacular peak 12744 known as Rosy Finch Peak just south of the pass. I climbed up about 200 feet on the rib to the south to set up some photos of the impressive peaks to the west with my 60mm lens. Before the sun had lowered enough to illuminate enough of those landscapes, I relaxed in some whitebarks where a noisy chickaree aka Douglas squirrel wasn't so sure he wanted me around. When I went up to set up my tripod, I was quite surprised to see a pine marten poke his head up from behind a boulder just 15 feet away, curiously looking at me a few seconds before making an exit. Wow, that was a rare sighting! This first shot above, a 6 column single vertical orientation row stitch blend of 17800 by 6000 pixels, shows peak 13268, 13600+ foot Mt Dade, 13704 foot Mt Abbott, and 12920+ foot Treasure Pk. Indeed a large panorama that would take 4.5 4k UHD screens to fit across in 3 rows or 14 total displays. Take a look at the enlarged vertical slice view to see how sharp this is throughout the frame as my Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN lens is a prize. The broad dome frame left with a snow patch at bottom is the impressive cliff behind the larger Gem Lake most visit.

Actually because of the infinity distance for all shots, such frame are not actually focus stacked but rather at 100% pixels, I choose which shots for each frame look sharpest because either with auto focus or manual focus one is likely to see slight variations between shots even if they all focus on the same point that is beyond simple possible vibration issues.


The above is a 50% pixels downsized crop from the above SY01175-01205-6x1v.jpg image showing where I would be climbing up with heavy pack mid morning as related below and then a day later on the way back. This shows the crux of that route gaining the notch on the ridge that then leads about 70 feet easily down to the northeast Treasure Lake. Those climbing up have gone up the steep slope of about 150 feet of vertical in several ways while the route I show in red is the least ornery. Note trees block some views where one would actually be stepping. Although many probably climb directly up from the largest Gem Lake, the more gradual route starts just before the trail crosses the outlet creek well downstream at 10920+ that climbs up a short rib and passes the south side of the 2 northern small ponds. From there one drops to the north end shore of the bowling pin Gem Lake passing around at the water edge then climbing up another small rib to move a wee north before starting a long made to order fun diagonal up towards TN. Where one sees a streamlet with dense willow and chinquapin a bit lower, don't go down into that unpleasant bushwhack, but rather traverse up and around to gain the base the 11120+ bench. Route finding using the least effort is such a fun game.


SY01206-01218-3x1h  12700x3800 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 13 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 60mm
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The above 3 column single row horizontal orientation stitch blend of 13 shots of 12700 by 3800 pixels shows topo peaks 13188, 13125, 12921, and beyond the notch of Mono Pass, the southwest end of Mt Starr. Particularly impressive from this angle were the fluted column of the Ruby Wall, a favorite of Galen Rowell. At 100% pixels, I can actually see the Mono Pass trail at 11720+ where it rounds the corner of the rock of the peak at the top of the scree slope.

Most of my panoramic stitch blended images use a vertical aka portrait mode camera/lens orientation because that is the orientation my manual panoramic head and any others are designed to use. However occasionally I will use a horizontal orientation as was done above though I have to do so visually via the electronic viewfinder and trying to keep the rotated head level.


After climbing down from Morgan Pass, I did work a few modest images that will not show herein. A breeze came up that again discouraged any water reflection subjects. Thus went back to camp, packed up, then set out for my second day's destination atop the Dade Lake plateau. Climbers targeting Bear Creek Spire or those looking to reach Spire Lake beyond Spire Pass must pass along the east shore of Dade Lake. For those without a heavy pack, the long slog up through continuous talus from the larger Gem Lake is a reasonable alternative.

After I gained the saddle my route described above then went south to gain the top of Dade Lake plateau that at first is just modest slabs before reaching the steeper nose that I turned around the west through whitebark openings that went well. At the north end of the plateau, as expected given the dry conditions, all the topo tarns were dry except one with just a bit of water. From there to Dade Lake is more work than one might expect though on my return a day later found the optimal route. The issue is on the west are dense krumholtz whitebark pine areas while to their east is much talus. The smallest talus is just on the east lee of the pines where there are also areas of soil.

Sometime before noon after much exploring for shots the next morning on my way south on the plateau, I reached Dade Lake then spent another while looking for a camp spot. Unless one goes far from the lake, there are not any sites down within trees offering shade but rather maybe a couple dozen rockworks walls out in broiling sun obviously built by generations of climbers that have a habit of doing so in such alpine areas in order to block wind that is common. I eventually set up near one of the largest flattish boulders that had enough of an afternoon shading overhang that I was able to hide beneath atop my pad to pass time including working down my considerable food supply during the bright hours of the day. It was modestly breezy in the afternoon. I did take a dip in the lake then got my dose of vitamin D in the sun drying off.


SY01296-01358-3x1v  9600x6000 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 63 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 30mm
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Just before shadows from the towering heights west crossed my frame, I did work a few subjects with the above a representative landscape towards peak 12782, known as Little Lakes Peak that is south of Morgan Pass. Many peaks in this zone have impressive avalanche chute fluting. Note how dry all this exposed to sun and wind landscape looked this year. This was a key reason I was so intent on getting out quickly after the Convict Creek backpack as greenery even at highest elevations would be drying rapidly. Can you see my tent with its light green mesh? If not, look at the enlarged vertical slice view. After the sun dropped below the big peaks to the west, I didn't spend any time outside the tent and recall eating my cooked meal while inside.


SY01497-01527-3x1v  9200x6000 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 31 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 SELP1650 @27mm
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When sun hit the top of those same peaks at sunrise on Wednesday August 5, 2020, I was too impatient to stay in my tent though it would take time for the sun to rise up above the 11.5k to 13.7k Wheeler Ridge that towers above the east side of broad Rock Creek Canyon. The canyon areas are not locations someone interested in early or late light would find much interest. I did go down to an outlet stream pool to shoot a reflection of the orange light on the high peaks but have shot enough of that type of subject to know those images with broad areas of shadows above and below warm color are always mediocre. Oh some do seem to revel in such images and use HDR to raise the shadow brightness levels however not for this person. Instead I was soon on a ramble to the north a half mile to work the one drying tarn that still had water. Dade Lake itself had an expected night breeze of cold sumping air coming off large north facing snowfields above that I expected might calm up mid morning. Otherwise air was calm away from that flow as would be the situation at the tarn. The hike also had use in clarifying the exact route I ought use on my way out. Upon reaching the tarn a bit after 7am PDT that was indeed dead calm, I first set up to capture the above 3 frame stitch blend with Mt Dade, Mt Abbott, and Treasure Pk. There were actually still a few blooming little elephant's head flowers within grasses just above the tarn. Also worked a landscape towards Bear Creek Spire but there was a long shadow cast from peak 12840+ aka Pyramid Pk, just to the east of Spire Pass that grates on my aesthetic sense and another landscape bit right that suffered from my 30mm lens focus issues.


SY01618-01634-2x1v  6100x6000 pixels  2 frame 2 column 1 row 17 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 30mm
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I moved west for a modest view down towards the Treasure Lakes for this next image above. I actually had another frame to the left on the panorama set, however the 30mm lens focus issue was impossible. Although it appears there are plenty of trees to camp within at Treasure Lakes, the reality is most are atop the ridge line within very rocky piles of boulders because whitebark pines, pinus albicaulus, in timberline landscapes tend to only successfully grow where snows are not deep allowing long enough exposure to sun during the short summer growing season. That is why on such landscapes one see treeless areas in hollows with trees only on the hills and domes around such. Otherwise they colonize steeper slopes where winds and avalanches cannot get too deep and if branches do poke out of mean snow depths, they are pruned away. Cone seeds of these trees are also the favorite food of the loud raucous Clark's nutcracker that is plentiful everywhere in the upper canyon. The two west lakes are supposed to contain golden trout while the two east lakes also brook trout and I wonder if the former is actually true. Because fishermen don't mention these lakes much, I'll guess the fish are small. All the lakes have very limited spawning for golden trout during the short several weeks of snow melt.


SY01635-01647-2x1v  6700x6000 pixels  2 frame 2 column 1 row 13 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 60mm
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I also tried a frame using my 60mm lens but after just a couple frame at 7:45am decided instead to hurry back to Dade Lake. This perspective does offer nice perspectives of the interesting terrain above the lakes.


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A half hour later at 8:15am, I was along the east shore where a couple groups of climbers just passed by. The lake still had a minor sumping breeze across it though appeared it would likely calm up a bit better. I worked the above 3 column reflection, however the 30mm OOF lens made the left frame mostly unusable. Of course I didn't know that at the time haha. The lake does not seem to have any fish that helps reflection quality in lakes. It would be a lake only eastern brook trout might be able to spawn in so no loss on that count. In any case yet another of ,a long list of places I have reasons to return to under better earlier summer conditions when the tarns have water and the limited vegetation is greener.


SY01702-01722-3x1v  9600x6000 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 21 image focus stack stitch blend  A6000 30mm
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The lake did calm up more as I worked the above nice aesthetic split bilateral mirror reflection, also using the 30mm lens that could be better on a mid morning with clouds that tends to be uncommon in the Sierra during summer mornings except when monsoonal weather is strong. But the exposed high plateau with little cover is not a wise place to be at in such weather if one has any understanding of such phenomenon haha. There are times when high cirrus does drift over the range at any time of day and that would be ideal however if such happened after sunrise, I'd likely head to one of the tarns because Dade Lake is likely to always be wavy early due to sumping cold flows except at times during monsoonal weather. When such lakes do calm up like the above, it is because the up canyon breezes due to warm expanding air in valleys far below have at least for brief periods balanced the opposite flows. And that is why lakes in such locations even during those periods of morning are usually not very calm. Lakes in topography out of such flows where cold air sumps down capping any air movements above and then stabilizing as a cool pool, is where one will more often experience calm conditions. In any case additionally, the smaller a body of water, the more easily surfaces are likely to be calm.


SY01727-32  4000x6000 pixels  1 frame 3 6 image focus stack blend  A6000 30mm
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My final image in this zone is the above single frame shot of the melting snow banks at the south end of the lake. There was a lot more of that snow out of view above below Bear Creek Spire that guaranties the sumping flows even into late season. Additionally any north facing slopes with significant zones of large talus are another source of cold sumping night flows as there are myriad shadowy depths below the surface boulders plus far enough down is likely a frozen ice world and reason such rock zones form rock glaciers that usually have much buried glacial ice one simply cannot see. Note the small water ring in the foreground that was likely some aquatic insect.

I went back to my rock corral camp and by 9:30am was on my way out. Going down class 1/2 routes are always much more pleasant with a large pack so that effort did not take long. By 11:30am I had located my next camp spot near where the Chickenfoot fork of Rock Creek enters a large grassy marsh in the drainage east of where people walk the main trail. The zone has some no name bodies of water and during early summer is likely teaming with mosquitoes. The meandering creek through the marsh is full of small as in 4 to 6 inches, eastern brook trout. The largest I've seen therein has only been about 7 inches. By noon for my third and last night's camp, I was cooking a meal then taking a dip in the stream. Then spent some of the afternoon exploring nearby areas for what I might work in the morning.

I did find someone's bonfire spot atop a rock dome that they'd apparently been using for years. A place they could do so on evenings where no one would be able to see the fire light or smell the fire since the smoke would drift down this stream branch. I was not in the mood to deal with it after the hike on such a balmy afternoon, I decided to return in the early morning shadows of coolness when a bit of exercise would be more thorough.

After the sun left my camp spot and began climbing the slopes above, I did shoot avalanche slopes about 7pm in modestly warm light of 13748 foot Mt Morgan using a single frame shot at F5.6. The top of this peak, the highest in the zone, was about a half mile distant while the bottom gabbro granite with whitebark pines at a half mile. Interesting how the lighter granite fills the chutes into the darker area below. Secor rates those long chutes as class 2.


SY01876  6000x4000 pixels  1 frame 1 image  A6000 60mm
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A half hour later in shadowed skylight using my 60mm and a 10mm extension tube, shot this section of a whitebark pine trunk that weathers out a surface form of fluted vertical channel xylem lignin cell wall structures.


SY01882-11  3700x4800 pixels  1 frame 30 image focus stack blend  A6000 60mm extension tube
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My last image this day was a family of roseroot, sedum rosea, with already gone to seed flowers against granite also using a 10mm extension tube on the 60mm lens. This is another image where looking at the image at 100% pixels makes a significant difference in the aesthetic, thus look at the enlarged vertical slice view. I did clone out an OOF twig at frame bottom though would never use this image commercially as I have other better images.


SY01927-51  5200x3900 pixels  1 frame 25 image focus stack blend  A6000 60mm
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By my fourth morning, I was looking forward to getting back home. As sun began moving down the tall peaks to the west on Thursday August 6, 2020, I got up in the chilly dark, packed up gear then moved the pack to the west side of the Chickenfoot branch creek. As I had a fair amount of time before sun reached the grassy pond I would first work, I set out to take care of the bonfire works I'd found the previous afternoon. The top image shows the stone firepit and wood stack before I destroyed it. Note the firepit had black coals on top that appeared to have been made this year. Also the image doesn't show how deep the stone works were from this angle because it was down in a granite crack. Much of the wood stack was tossed over a 10 foot or so rock drop out of view in back of the top image's camera position. The firepit rocks were just rolled over the bedrock haha. Although it looks like a big mess, a thunderstorm or two will take care of that. I hope the pyro perpetrator enjoys his angry fit. As a rare backcountry user that explores considerable remote places few others would bother to walk at, over decades I've found then destroyed numbers of such bonfire works where those with these same attitudes have secretly been setting up firepits with wood supplies.


SY01956-02002-3x1v  9500x6000 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 47 image focus stack blend  A6000 30mm
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I hiked to my first pond reflection location up on a boulder above the shore and then worked the above modest 3 column stitch blend. Part of Mt Starr is at frame right. I did hear numbers of frogs croaking at night as this large marsh is ideal.


SY02003-02051-4x1v  12700x6000 pixels  4 frame 4 column 1 row 49 image focus stack blend  A6000 30mm
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This second more aesthetic reflection with calmer water shows Dade, Abbott, Treasure, and Mt Mills in the background and in the reflection. This is a 4 column stitch blend of 12700 by 6000 pixels.


SY02052-02103-3x1v  9100x6000 pixels  3 frame 3 column 1 row 52 image focus stack blend  A6000 30mm
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I chose this view to show the marsh Chicken Lake branch fork of Rock Creek that was full of small brook trout with Mt Starr at frame right.


SY02106-02242-5x2v  14600x10000 pixels  10 frame 5 column 2 row 137 image focus stack blend  A6000 30mm
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My last image of the trip was also the largest, a 5 column 2 row 10 frame 137 shot for 14700 by 10000 pixel with my 30mm. My tripod was atop a tricky location on a rock dome against a tree trunk in order to have a view across this expanse of marsh grasses. At frame edge right is half of Bear Creek Spire, then peak 13268, Dade Pk, Treasure Pk, Mt Abbott, and Mt Mills.

Normally I don't bother to make images this large even though I could because it takes quite a lot of time but more practically because there won't ever be a reason to display, much less print in high detail all but the most impressive images at such sizes. After buying the A6000 in the spring of 2014, I used a heavy Gigapan EPIC camera setup to make large images but came to understand that lacked valid purpose thus moved to the present Nodal Ninja 3 MK2 manual panoramic head that besides being much lighter, also has more flexibility in structuring subjects by frame elements. An advantage of using the small 14 ounce APS-C A6000 with that head is otherwise heavier full frame DSLR cameras would also require much heavier panoramic heads thus forcing this old guy to carry heavy gear again that I needed to move away from.

A second backpack trip this pandemic year of 2020 with mixed results with 3 strong images where the loose glass in my 30mm lens had some impact, though the more general issue was the less aesthetic dry conditions. Given the ease of access to Rock Creek areas, it is one basin I am more likely to manage a return trip into. In fact, backpacking all the way up to the Dade Lake plateau in a single day is well within my capability while carrying over 40% of my body weight. Given the dry less aesthetic conditions I am not likely to get out again with my pack this year.

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