During an east-west traverse of the Sierra over the top of Stanford N, I had seen the
towering peaks over the Mono Recesses and dreamed of climbing them.
Finally, the opportunity came and my friend Larry and I started out at
Pine Creek trailhead toward Italy Pass for a week. Spectacular
climbing weather turned into significant atmospheric instabilities,
which forced us to adapt our ambitious climbing plans.
Taking it up and away
After we parked our car at the Pine Creek trailhead, it took us a while to assemble everything and get started. At 9:30 am we finally got going, and then were immediately thwarted by our attempt to find the trailhead. Yes, you have to walk into the pack station. Then make a right turn to pass between the paddock to your left and the trailers on your right. There is a sign marking the trailhead, but when we were there it was rather overgrown and really hard to see. The trail winds through some forest to meet an old mining road just above the big Pine Creek Tungsten Mine. There are still old mine shafts, tools and structures to be found in two smaller mines along the old road. I am still amazed the old cars got up that rugged, rocky trail.
Just above where the last abandoned mine sits perched and hidden high above Rovana town, we encountered a friendly dog hanging out on the trail and voices high above. Behold, a doggie guarding the possessions of two climbers high up on the wall! It turns out the area is a good rock climbing spot. Turning the corner, a remarkably striped mountain guards Pine Creek Lake outlet. It looks indeed challenging to climb, although the impressive Geology which does not quite come out in a mere photograph makes it very tempting.
We reached Pine Lake and then a mile later Upper Pine Lake, and around 4 pm we arrived at Honeymoon Lake. We sat down for a snack, talked a bit about staying vs going, and decided to keep on heading toward Italy Pass until we were too tired and/or found a nice campsite. The trail at this point is very easy to follow; we met lots of dayhikers who went to Italy Pass and were coming down to their campsites around Pine Lake. Nearing 3000 m (10,000 ft), we found a flat campsite near the trail and a small waterfall where we put our tent down for the night. We had to hang some food in the trees. As usual, I over-packed on food because I keep forgetting how much the altitude dampens my appetite, especially in the first 2-3 days. Despite my best efforts, I can only eat so much without feeling worse. On the other hand, I certainly carry enough reserves on my body, and my body seems to be quite efficient to draw on those reserves while I am adjusting to altitude without impacting my performance too much.
All Trails Lead to Italy
Well, there was really only one trail. By 8 am we were on it again and slowly wound our way up and back into a gorgeous Sierra valley filled with lakes, tarns, and meadows framed by granite.
And filled with frogs. One had to really pay attention not to flatten any of them while hiking!
The valley is longer than it appears to be. It took us much more time than expected, but on the other hand we were not exactly rushing through either. The unmaintained trail is quite easy to find until it reaches the highest lake. From there, it is well marked with cairns once the snow cover is gone. On the other hand, as the photo below shows the terrain leading from the lake to Italy Pass is quite gentle, easy to navigate and covered with easily hiked granite slabs. One could just forget about hunting cairns and make a beeline for the pass.
A Visit to the Emperor
By noon on our 2nd hiking day, we had hauled our still food-filled packs to the crest of Italy Pass at 12,400 ft. Larry had some altitude issues, so I left him, the packs, the SPOT and my binoculars behind and set off to visit the Emperor Himself via the south ridge from Italy Pass. For the most part, there are sandy ledges making up a use trail for the various alpine-dwelling mammals. The talus is made up of nice granite; solidly stacked and not prone to kicking down rocks should a multi-climber party ascend. I reached a small saddle near the top where multiple routes converge. From there, I found the summit block to be easy, non-exposed 3rd class simply because of the comparative size of the boulders vs. me. I easily located the summit register, signed, and left some Trader Joe Ginger Chews for the next climbers.
I also took a look at the West Ridge, which in Secor 3rd edition is called a classic class 3 climb. No kidding. I thought David Harris’ trip report to be a bit exaggerated at first. On seeing this ridge, I have to agree with David that it is definitely not class 3, or I am a way better climber than I make myself believe! It looked like a solid class 2 to me, and certainly an easier climb than the SW Ridge on Mt Gabb. After studying the route up Mt Gabb, I returned to Italy Pass about 2.5 hours after I started. Not bad for a 2nd day at altitude.
The Home Stretch along Jumble Lake
Picking up Larry and the pack back at Italy Pass, we headed down through Marmot Heaven along the little creek leading to Jumble Lake. There are ducks, but you could go cross-country as long as you catch the sandy trail skirting the east side of Jumble Lake about 200 feet above the lake. I remember being absolutely flabbergasted how someone either build or found this trail through, well, a jumble of rocks! You definitely don’t want to rock-hop here unless you have boundless time or energy. We had not. At the outlet of Jumble Lake, we found the first glimpse of Lake Italy but lost the trail again. We spotted some hikers and their dog near headed our way along Lake Italy and just headed straight for them. Meeting them near the lakeshore around 5 pm, we learned they were aiming to hike all the way back to Pine Lake the same day. They had only daypacks. I wonder what became of them, since they were not hiking very fast and the dog was visibly tired.
We were pooped at that point as well. Maybe a bit dehydrated too, because I was pushing hard and eager to get to the camp for the night, while foolishly not stopping for water. I have a tendency to do that toward the end of a long hiking day; I really need to get rid of this habit. Anyway, there was a group camping east of the inlet from Jumble Lake to Lake Italy. We headed west on the fishermen’s trail toward the outlet of Italy. A few hundred yards before reaching the outlet, there are campsites where folks have build low walls for wind protection. There is one big campsite including kitchen area near the outlet close to the trail. We chose an earlier set of two campsites higher up and away from the trail. We were glad to huddle our tent behind the windbreak wall, because the updraft wind really builds up along the lake in the evenings.