Camp: Birch Lake. Inyo National Forest.
The Peaks We bow to thee ~ The Thumb a magnificently shaped piece of granite, (although its namesake is not the summit), and home of the gods 13,602. And Birch Mt. 13,665 Yes, a pile of metamorphic on granite (yes, a roof pendant), and a bit of a slog but still a great peak with fabulous views from the summit.
Day 1: Birch Lake TH 7200' to Birch Lake 10,800 5.5 miles and 4400 feet.
Day 2: Camp to Southeast Slope approach to The Thumb 2.0 miles and 2800 feet; Thumb to Birch 2.0 miles and -1300 feet, then + 1600 feet, then down to camp -2850 feet and 1.6 miles.
Day 3: Hike out to the Trailhead, drive home
DAY 1: August 3rd, 2007: Our merry band of adventurers gathered at the Big Pine junction early in the morning of August 3rd, 2007. With us were Bob Suzuki, leader, Louise Wholey, co-lead, Jim Wholey, Lisa Barboza, Eddie Sudol, Bob Evans, and Alex Sapozhnikov. Our goal was to climb Thumb, make the traverse from the Thumb Col to Southfork pass, and then climb Disappointment, and hike out.
Finding the Trailhead to Birch Lake Steve Eckert has a good description on climber.org, and there is a waypoint list as well. But here are the directions. From Glacier Lodge road, turn left on McMurray Meadows road; drive about 5.75 miles on the gravel road. Just past Birch Creek, look for a right hand turn on your right It is a 4WD road, although a 2 wheel drive, low clearance vehicle can go up it for about 1/3 mile and there is space for 1 car only at that point. After that 1/3 mile, it's a true 4WD road, with several large rocks. Bob Evan's 4x4 actually bottomed out several times and we had to back up and make a high-speed (like 10 mph) go around one particularly large outcrop where he was spinning his wheels.
There is 1 parking space on the Trailhead road (a RHT off the gravel road) where a car could park, and then a short walk probably 1/3 mile, to the actual TH. The TH has a sign indicating "Birch Creek TH", and is quite official. We parked at the TH, where there is parking for about 4 vehicles.
Note that Normal passenger vehicles will not be able to get to the TH. Recommend that you park a vehicle up the McMurray Meadows gravel road an additional .9 mile and park next to the McMurray Meadows corral. There's a big flat spot there for parking.
Once at the Trailhead, Finding the Trail You will innocently follow a trail through a (wet) meadow, that seems to be the right way to go. The trick is to find the turnoff to the right. Head towards Birch Creek on the trail, but DO NOT go up the Birch Creek drainage. The actual trail is one drainage north, we marked the turnoff with a large cairn, and it appears to the right as twin tire tracks for a short distance. There was running water from a creek (even in a dry year August) about 1 mile up the trail. But you're best advised to tank up at the TH. Most of us carried 2-3L of water.
Warning: If you go up the creek, you'll be faced with a lot of sidehilling, brush, and an eventual climb over the ridge to get to the drainage north of the creek. There is a use trail there but don't take it.
The trail proceeds through high desert, sagebrush, rabbit brush, and climbs for about 4400 feet from the TH to Birch Lake. Towards the end, the trail disappears into a set of willow thickets that abound near the streams heading down the mountain, trending southeast. These are spring fed and run all year round. The trail after going x-country. It's best to go high, above the willow. By doing so, you will avoid most of the bushwacking. Otherwise, should you choose to go through them, you can do so, but there really is no trail through them that we could find. Bushwacking through the thickets is interrupted often by precipitous falls into small streams that appear out of nowhere.
Birch Lake, judging by the appetite of the numerous Golden Trout, Rainbows, is seldom visited (at least by fisherman). Jim was able to catch a fish every 5 minutes (Oops! There goes the fishing). We camped at the NE side of the lake. There is a large (10X20 gravel spot, with 1 other spot for a tent as well that don't trample meadowgrass or other vegetation. Tent sites are scarce, but there is also room for about 5 bivi sacks in isolated sites. This is also quite a windy spot as the cold air drains for the mountains at dusk.
DAY 2 August 4th, 2007:
Climbing Thumb/Disappointment: We left at 6AM for our attempt to climb Disappointment. We contoured around the north side of Birch Lake (Counter clockwise), staying close to the lake surface. We went up the mountain at a small cliff defect and climbed the slab bands, which lead into the bowl that yields to the Southeast slope around Thumb Peak. The Thumb, a near vertical granite peak with a wide chimney crack that runs To reach the bowl, we climbed up a defect (the obvious route) below the no name peak between Birch and Thumb to the large bowl below The Thumb. We arrived at the col, about 800 feet SSW of The Thumb, where we had intended to down climb to SouthFork Pass, too late in the day. We had exceeded our turnaround time, and discretion won the argument over valor. As a result, we decided to climb Thumb, and then, a smaller party would climb Birch. Thumb is an obvious climb from the saddle, but if you are at the saddle, you're advised to keep it to CL2 by going around the right hand (east) side of the false summit. The left hand side might go at CL3. There is a bit of CL3 near the summit, but it's easy. There's a great view of the Middle Palisades from the summit I personally could have spent about a year up there! (Back in my treeplanting days, I was a member of the Thumb Crew, in Eugene, Oregon, and I was present at the Mt. St. Helens eruption, witnessing the event from 10 miles away!)
The View from Thumb Col
Cimbing Birch South side, CL2. We (Alex, Eddie, and I) traversed over the glaciers and moraines, after downclimbing from the Thumb Bowl. A sad sight. Wanting for water, we dug a small hole in the ice to procure some. Little did we know that we would be confronted with rivers of the stuff. As we progressed closer to the Lane Pass saddle we found at least 5 glacial creeks. These were 2 feet wide, a foot deep and running cold and fast. It as though the glacier was melting before our eyes, and another objective evidence of increased global temperatures, likely from anthropogenic influences. Pretty scary from a GW perspective (that's Global Warming, not W Bush).
Once past the glaciers and moraines, we went over "Lane Pass", at the saddle between Birch and the unnamed peak to the west. In this subnormal snow year, there was no snow in the saddle. The saddle chute is 2nd class if you pick the right route, although you could probably get into CL3 if you tried. We observed proper climbing rules as there is significant rockfall on this loose chute. Then, we traversed the south side, until we found a chute that went to the summit. The summit is a few 'bumps' over.
Downclimbing Birch - we went about 300 yds west of the summit on the north face of the peak along the ridge, found an obvious chute down, and promptly went down about 1200 feet. It looks like there is a cliff at the bottom but it does go. Ours had rock ribs on the right hand side, but the rock was quite loose, so be careful. But it's a wide chute so you can go down in parallel. We went down a sandy chute just above the south side of the lake. I wouldn't want to go up that way, and recommend the counterclockwise route described previously. The route on the lake shore is straightforward. To get back to camp, you have to cross the lake outlet which- you guessed, is obscured by willows. There is an invisible rock bridge (human built) across the stream outlet, and quite camoflaged by dense willows. You're advised to find it, and use it to cross the outlet stream. By the time we were down at lake level, the wind was blowing close to 30 knots, and we spent a windy, but comfortable night.
Day 3: August 5th, 2007 The Hike out those of us who were tired of bushwacking chose a higher route, and were quite satisfied. The others became very intimate with the species Salix lasiandra, Yellow Willow (in fall). The scientific name for the willow genus, Salix, is thought to come from Gaelic words meaning "near water." And how true! We hiked the 5.5 miles out in about 4 hours. And a good time was had by all!