Backpacking California: Mount Agassiz in the Central Sierras, and When Defeat Isn't Really Defeat
|Bishop Pass Trailhead at South Lake.|
In the case of our attempt on a beautiful 13er in California's Central Sierras, we still had an amazing trip, saw incredible scenery, and made important decisions as a group that kept us safe. It was my first trip to that part of the country, and one I'll definitely remember.
Thanks to master planner Justin, we had our itinerary planned out long before arriving in California. Our two day itinerary included a 3-4 mile hike along the Bishop Pass Trail the first day and a night at the highest suitable wilderness campsite we could find. The second day, we'd leave gear at the campsite and carry day packs up to the summit of Mount Agassiz (13,891'). Agassiz has been called the easiest peak to climb in the Palisades region, but it's also the 20th tallest mountain in California. Easy is a relative term.
Pre-Trip Acclimatization and FunTo help with acclimatization, we spent the night before at Parcher's Resort (9,290') in the Inyo National Forest. With Bishop Creek cascading down the hill behind our cabin, I felt so happy and at peace. I also felt the familiar slight dizziness and racing heartbeat that comes with being at altitude after coming from sea level. In the morning, we drove back down to Bishop (4,200') to pick up our wilderness permit at the White Mountain Ranger Station. Permits are required for overnight camping in most of the Inyo National Forest and those for popular areas like the Mount Whitney zone go quickly. Thanks to master planner Justin, we had our permit secured for the Bishop Pass Trail, which has a quota of 36 people each day.
|Mt. Agassiz in the Sierras from Long Lake.|
Discussions with forest rangers confirmed what we already knew - we'd have an unusually high amount of snow to contend with. The summer months are best for climbing Agassiz, but the Sierras had more snow than normal this year. To ensure we were prepared, we brought ice axes and crampons with us, some rented from Wilson's Eastside Sports. From Bishop, the Bishop Pass Trail is accessible by taking Route 168W out of town and making a left on South Lake Road. The vehicle climbed over 5,000' on the roads for us! The trail begins at an elevation of 9,755' at the end of South Lake Road and provides a number of day hiking options outside of what our itinerary allowed.
Lots and Lots and Lots of Snow
We set off just after noon on our first day intending to take our time and enjoy the scenery. The first mile of the trail is wide enough for two hikers to walk side by side. The colored blazes I'm used to from the east coast were absent, though it did seem markers were cut into some of the trees we passed. The first junction we came to was the Treasure Lakes Trail and the second came a mile later. We continued on taking frequent breaks to help adjust to the altitude and because we couldn't pick our jaws up off the ground. The Sierras are beyond stunning. We passed beautiful evergreens and aspens with thick, dark colored bark and countless tiny wildflowers growing out of what seemed like nothing.
|Long Lake still partially frozen, atypical for this time of year.|
|Heading up toward Bishop Pass. Lots of snow! |
The Not-Quite Summit of AgassizWhen sunrise rolled around, we packed food, water, a water filter, clothes, plenty of sunscreen, crampons, ice axes and first aid supplies. The temperature was at or below freezing; there were a number of iced puddles on the trail. As we wound our way around Long Lake, snow patches became wider and steeper. We donned crampons an hour into the hike. Keeping track of the trail in the snow became incredibly challenging and we found ourselves making frequent stops to make sure we were still on track. The Inconsolable Range kept the sun off us until mid-morning; we passed the Timberline Tarns and Saddlerock Lake before the sun reached us. We reached Bishop Lake and followed the Bishop Creek drainage up to Bishop Pass. Other trip reports I'd read showed beautifully maintained switchbacked trails winding up to Bishop Pass, almost impossible to miss, but everything was completely snow covered above Bishop Lake.
|What most of the trail up Agassiz from base |
to summit looks like...lots of rocks!
When Defeat Isn't Really DefeatIt's difficult not to feel disappointed when you don't achieve your objective, but in this case, I was proud that our group stuck to the plan and turned around when we needed to. Many accidents and epics I've read about occurred because teams were too summit-hungry and didn't turn around when they knew they should have. In all likelihood, we would've been fine packing up camp and heading out in the dark, but that doesn't mean it would've been a good idea! I started feeling the altitude on the descent and two migraine pills later, I still wasn't myself. By the time we got to the hotel in Bishop, all I could manage was to fall asleep in the room while the rest of the group went out to dinner at Whiskey Creek. Another few hours on the trail would have been incredibly uncomfortable for me.
|Our little posse of proud mountaineers on the descent, |
minus the photographer. (J. Johnsen)
In the end, it was an incredible trip. We finished the five days off with some sport climbing at Clark Canyon and a little bouldering in the Buttermilks. I'll definitely be back at some point, the Sierras have so much to offer! Have you climbed there? Have a story about observing or not observing turnaround times? Tell us in the comments!