Written by Wendy Fisher —
As a lifelong wilderness enthusiast at heart, I have been exploring the Sierra on foot for well over 20 years. When I am not out exploring, gardening, or parenting my lovely twin girls, I am proud of my day job working as a plant/wetland ecologist with Live Oak Associates.
Live Oak is an Oakhurst based ecological consulting firm providing land-use guidance to developers, city, and county governments for issues related to wildlife, botanical and wetland resources for the preparation of documents for CEQA and NEPA compliance.
Click on images to enlarge (credit Wendy Fisher)
I have keen interest and expertise in the native flora of California and am a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture.
I graduated from the highly acclaimed Humboldt State University (HSU) in 1996, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Ecology, and minors in Botany and Forestry.
During my time at HSU, I developed friendships of a lifetime to share the love of exploring the Sierra wilderness.
Each year for the past six years, these wonderfully knowledgeable and experienced wilderness female hikers and I engage in a week long wilderness adventure, hiking between 40-65 miles in Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Ansel Adams or John Muir wilderness areas.
This year the four HSU alumni ladies (myself, Shaylin, Kristyn and Heather) decided to tackle the majestic North Lake to South Lake route, a 53 mile shuttle route out of Bishop. The route lies in the heart of upper watersheds of southern San Joaquin and northern Kings Canyon, and climbs three alpine passes en route, each just shy of 12,000 feet in elevation.
Piute, Muir and Bishop passes each offered majestic views of the glorious Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in all of its splendor. These majestic views were not achieved without many years of experience and significant blood, sweat, and tears, however.
At the start of a six-day adventure, the hikers ventured out from the 9,000 foot in elevation North Lake trail head, 22 miles east of the scenic small town Bishop.
Heading first to Piute Pass, the ladies endured a huge, somewhat grueling climb (carrying 6 days of food, might I add) while enjoying the most amazing mountain scenery along the way.
The first night was gratefully spent in the amazing Humphreys Basin, way above tree line. Mt. Humphreys in all of its glory reflected the most amazing dusk and dawn light.
We were lucky enough to encounter a federally threatened Yosemite toad along the hike. With her experience doing back country surveys for amphibians, Shaylin is a master at visually finding these highly camouflaged, relatively quiet native toads of high elevation.
Previously, she instigated a successful search in high elevation Ansel Adams lakes, found to be full of mountain yellow legged frogs in the Ansel Adams wilderness. Mountain yellow-legged frogs (federally endangered) and Yosemite toads (proposed federally threatened) have disappeared from between 50 and 90 percent of their historic localities.
Numerous factors, separately and in combination, have contributed to the species’ decline. Introduction of non-native fishes, pesticides, ultraviolet radiation, pathogens, acidification from atmospheric deposition, nitrate deposition, livestock grazing, recreational activities, and drought have all been identified as potential factors impacting this species and its habitat. A fungus known as a chytrid is easily spread through watersheds.
The two nights we camped in this habitat we removed all sunblock from our bodies prior to entering the water body, as everyone should.
Contributing to these species’ decline was not part of our plan for the trip, so we took the measures necessary to help protect the pristine alpine environment.
Next, we traveled downhill, cooling off in one of the many shallow creek crossings along raging Piute Creek. Several of us had severe blisters by the end of day two. The views were worth it.
Our second night we rested at the junction of Piute Creek and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. To my surprise, roaring Piute Creek over-passed the South Fork by the amount and intensity of flows.
Evening swims are a big priority each day upon finding our campsite. Heather, the gregarious director of the Klamath Region Nature Conservancy office, is usually the first with enough courage to immerse herself in cold waters of unknown depths.
The third day included a meandering climb along the South Fork to the noteworthy Evolution Valley. After a knee-high ramble across the South Fork — the only submerged creek crossing, of many, during the hike — astounding views of amazing granite waterfalls surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks kept my interest peaking.
This part of the hike was joined by the many hikers of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, which changed the dynamics of the experience a bit. Occasionally you would hear folks calling at each other from across the trail, trail names like “Tweety Bird,” or “Blondie.”
As in previous trips, significant afternoon thunderstorms hit just as we found a decent campsite in Colby Meadow. A visit with the Ranger in McClure Meadow helped with our decision of an early start the following day in hopes of the 40 percent chance of afternoon showers predicted for the following day.
Day four we got up at 5 a.m. and left the campsite by 6 a.m. in order to cross Muir Pass prior to the next round of storms. We passed incredible high elevation lakes including Evolution Lake, Sapphire Lake, and Wanda Lake, with stunning views of the impressive 13,568 Mt. Goddard, and the occasional glimpses of the Palisades.
Sure enough, we were able to appreciate the massive dedication of the beloved John Muir at the Muir Hut and travel several miles down the backside before the storms hit. Essentials like waterproof pack covers, a tarp, and rope, and lightweight waterproof rain jackets assisted with a relatively pain-free enduring of the storms, for us. Others were not so lucky, or prepared.
Absent afternoon thunderstorms, day five was the most memorable, as we assisted with the medivac of two boys, 16 and 17.
Leaving the Middle Fork of Palisade Creek (northern tributary of the Kings River) from the Le Conte Ranger Station up the incredibly steep Dusy Basin trail, twisted juniper trees of krummholz form lined the exposed switchbacks on the north, while a spectacular granite slide of expansive height and measure was to the south. The view changed when we came upon a heat stroke victim in dire straits. Four others were already there assisting the large boy, who was shaking uncontrollably. Use of a satellite phone by one of the mountaineers ensured a helicopter would be on its way.
After about an hour and the brief reassurance from the two nurses on the trip, Shaylin and Kristyn, we were sent to inform the boys’ leaders. When the helicopter arrived, hours later, we happened to be bathing in the creek. We were called over to assist with the landing of the helicopter: a delicate maneuver was required in this steep, rugged, rocky alpine habitat above 10,000 feet.
The medivac would involve the medic dangling precariously from a 100-foot rope, strapped to the litter that would carry the victim back from the steep rocky trail side spot where he was in and out of consciousness, being nursed for the last four hours by the four bystanders
The helicopter safely landed the dangling medic, the patient on the litter, and itself in the small landing zone. IV fluids and anti-nausea medicine were administered to the boy as he continued to recover.
Meanwhile, we were surprised to witness a second patient being carried on the back of an injured JMT hiker. Oxygen was immediately given to this unconscious limp teen, who had to be carried into the helicopter, as well.
Luckily light enough to not overtax the weight capacity on this little chopper, both boys were taken to Bishop Hospital where their parents would be called to meet them.
It was obvious that neither boy was suitably hydrated, geared-up, or acclimated for this challenging high elevation trail. The importance of training, knowledge, careful packing, map reading skills and endurance cannot be overstated in order to have a safe, enjoyable wilderness experience.
Our final night in Dusy Basin offered incredible views of mountains surrounding Bishop Pass. The final pass, Bishops Pass, was reached after climbing three steady miles from the campsite, followed by a decent crossing mini-snow fields and Bishop Lake, Saddleback Lake, Long Lake and finally, South Lake.
We greeted our car with significant cheers, smiles, and dreams of toasting to another successful wilderness adventure at the nearby Mountain Ramblers Brewery.