The Enchanted Ionian

12 Jul 1995 - by Steve Eckert

NOTE: I re-visited some of these peaks in 2005, on the 10th Climb-O-Rama with an entirely different approach.

Summary: This is a one-way Sierra crossing trip, starting at Florence Lake and going up Goddard Canyon, through the Ionian Basin, past Chasm Lake and down the Enchanted Gorge, crossing the Black Divide just south of Mt McDuffie, reaching the John Muir Trail via Ladder Lake, and ending up at South Lake via Bishop Pass. We went in together on 7/1/95, but only three of us did the one-way crossing that ended on 7/9/95. The report is a bit long, but so was the trip!

For some reason, we had Poet Laureate Schuman on this trip. The result was song fragments of "Like A Reinstein Cowboy" and "Eight Peaks A Week" dancing through our heads in the stillness of the frozen mountains. We got him back with glissading to the dog food tune, however. Phrases like "Warren's Water Nymphs" and "Pack it in, Blow it out" based on story telling extravaganzas were also common, but not as distracting as the dumb tunes playing over and over in our heads.

Even with three last-minute cancellations, there were six of us who were ready to brave the unknown snow for a Fourth of July trip I'll never forget. Rich Calliger, Steve Eckert (leader), Paul Magliocco, Aaron Schuman, Warren Storkman (coleader) and Chris Yager stood around waiting for the ferry on Florence Lake, passing the time by weighing packs on a spring fish scale. Yager pegged the scale at some unknown weight over 60 pounds, while Eckert split his pack in two pieces just to weigh it (around 65 pounds). The others were more reasonable, but hey, we were carrying over 20 pounds of food for a full week with no re-supply possibilities. Snowshoes, crampons, a light rope and the like did not help any.

The $7.50 boat ride cuts over 3 miles of up and down hiking off the start of the trip, but we collectively weighed so much they made us split the group. A late start and some over-anxious people meant that those of us in the tail of the group did not catch the head of the group until lunch. Progress was slowed by downed trees and heavy packs, so we only reached the Evolution Canyon junction (8400') by dinner time. No snow, but some hunting for good stream crossings.

Calliger had some trouble with a small vehicle fire on the way, and was coming down with some sort of fever. He decided he was "becoming dangerously sloppy on the trail" so he left the group to camp above Piute Creek (and the mosquitos). Our first casualty! (All kidding aside, I'd rather have someone drop out on their own before they endanger the group or themselves: It shows good sense and the mountain will still be there the next time.) Either he made it back OK or his computer is sending Email on its own.

Sunday the five remaining headed on toward Martha Lake and a possible late afternoon shot at Reinstein. The snow was continuous above 9000', with thundering waterfalls everywhere. This was my first time in Goddard Canyon, so I wonder what it is like when you can see plants other than trees? We stopped for lunch around 1pm, and decided Martha Lake would be the final objective for the day. Eckert kicked in the afterburners and went ahead to bag Reinstein (12604') while the others found a camp site and set up the tents. Coming down from the peak involved starting small wet snow slides to clear the surface snow, then glissading down in their track. Martha Lake was frozen well enough to walk across at 11000' (in July) but had small patches of open water in places so we did not have to melt snow.

After what turned out to be the coldest night of the trip (15-20 degrees) all but Storkman (who was having shoulder trouble from his pack straps) donned crampons and stomped up the slope to Goddard. The three one-way hikers took full packs, while Magliocco lounged with just a day pack. We dropped the packs at the small 12000' lake south of Goddard, and looped around to the Class 2 east face. We wore crampons all the way to the top of Goddard (13568'), and found the summit covered by snow (no register in sight). Once again, the snow had softened enough that sitting glissades were in order. Magliocco headed down to catch Storkman, while Eckert, Schuman, and Yager shouldered their packs after eating lunch and headed for camp at the 12000' lakes NNW of Scylla.

We got to camp early enough to haul out on some rocks and dry our boots in the sun. Tuesday morning we were up before the sun to crampon up Scylla (12939'). Steep slopes were front-point hard, so we did not have to bother following the ridge. This is a truly great peak, because it overlooks the seldom-seen Enchanted Gorge and still has some of the same views you get from Goddard. Very steep cliffs toward the Three Sirens contrast with the gentle slopes we climbed. It was late enough to take off the crampons as we once again shouldered our packs and hiked down to Chasm Lake. The term "down" is relative in the Ionian Basin, because it is by no means flat. There are either 100' snow drifts, or the topo map has some bad lake elevations!

Ionian Basin is completely snowbound. There are rocks sticking out, but not many. We found one big enough to cook on at the NE corner of Chasm Lake, dropped the packs and headed for Charybdis. It was late in the day, but we had made good time and we felt energized by the Scylla climb that morning. The snow softened to the point of tedium, but we worked around the steeper slopes below the NE ridge on third class rock. Once on the ridge, we alternated kicking steps and rock climbing. The route stays right on the (airy knife edge) ridge except one spot near the top where you drop onto the west side for about 50 feet. We moved the misleading cairn if you are heading that way!

Charybdis (13091') is a very challenging third class climb, made even more fun by the need to kick steps in snow clinging to slabs near the summit. The SRC has stolen the original peak register, and has not seen fit to put even a photocopy back. Only 4 groups climbed Charybdis last year, but we did locate Bond Shands' name in the register. A stunning peak, worthy of a trip dedicated just to reaching it! By the time we got back to camp, the sun had set on Chasm Lake and we hurried to bed long before our parents would have sent us there.

The next morning Schuman wanted a rest day and Yager had blisters on every toe, so Eckert set off for Black Giant (13330') alone. Black Giant's register was covered with snow, but from the top it was clear that the Muir Trail was under snow from Big Pete Meadow up, and the noise of the rivers 5000' below was louder than the wind. It's a big water year, trust me. Conditions were so ideal that there was time to traverse over to Mt Solomons (13016') and still get back to camp before the "come look for me I must be in trouble" return deadline. Mt Solomons is not on the SPS list, so it does not get climbed as much as it should. It's a nice climb with good views of the Ionian Basin and a register that goes back further than most (even if it's not really historic). The return was a loop back past the lake above Chasm Lake, avoiding the cliffs that block a direct return.

Wednesday afternoon Eckert took a short dip in Chasm Lake after knocking the snow off a rock at the shore. STINK OR SWIM, as they say. The others made a different choice, but were kind enough to record the event for a future slide show. We stomped down the Enchanted Gorge, past glacier-rounded rocks but entirely on good snow. We reached the lakes we wanted to camp at in just an hour or two. This portion of the hike is normally a torturous climb up and down huge boulders (from what I hear) so our timing was perfect. No pain AND no gain, we just plunge stepped down to a dry patch and set up camp. The plan was to crampon out of the gorge the next morning, but at just below 10000', the snow never got very hard.

If you want to follow the best route, stay on the floor of Enchanted Gorge until you can see pine trees to the east (past the first lake). We traversed up too soon, and had some steep snow and a few hundred feet drop to the crossing of the stream from the drainage NW of McDuffie (the stream does not show on the 15 min topo, but it looks like an all year stream to me). The best route is within a few hundred yards of the stream, crossing the stream at a bowl around 10400' and continuing up the shoulder south of McDuffie's east ridge. The scree slope by the drainage from the lake south of McDuffie looks doable, but would be better for descending than climbing because it is loose.

We hauled out on some rocks near the 12200' lake south of McDuffie, had lunch, and loaded up day packs for an afternoon peak run. The south ridge of McDuffie is listed as class 2, but has spots that make you think class 3. It's nothing like Charybdis, but it's not trivial. We saw only two PCS names in the Mt McDuffie (13271') register (Ress and Mitrovich), and those were over a decade old. Only one group was on this peak in 1994. Come on, folks, the PCS needs to get out of the two-day-peak habit! Views of Ragged Spur, Enchanted Gorge, and Le Conte Canyon are great from almost any place on the Black Divide. Some wise guy carried a rubber duck to the peak, and unofficially renamed the peak "Duncan McDuckie" instead of "Duncan McDuffie" as shown in the register. The topo does not use "Duncan", but guide books do.

Friday we moved the packs to the Black Divide, then dropped to 11600' on the west side of the divide and traversed over to Wheel Mtn (12781'). Normally a long loose third class climb, we wore crampons to within 100' of the peak. We were on the high point but found no register other than a film canister from last year with one entry. Wheel has four sharp ridges buttresses?) that intersect to form the peak, but the exposure to get from one to the other is very high. Under pressure to get moving, I settled for tossing rocks around where we were (searching for the register) instead of getting out the rope and trying the other high points. It is quite possible the register is on the south spur since the standard route comes from Rambaud pass instead of from McDuffie.

We hit a few slabby cliffs above Ladder Lake, but otherwise the walking was quite easy down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Stay north of the creek out of Ladder Lake, or you will hit more slabs as you exit the U-shaped hanging valley into Le Conte Canyon. Wild onions below Ladder Lake made dinner that night a little less bland than expected. We dug a fire pit and had a small fire of old avalanche debris while watching the moon set. The Middle Fork looked impossible to cross, so we headed south to Grouse Meadow on Saturday morning. We searched for an hour, but even where the stream spreads out into a marsh there is still a strong channel with most of the water. Schuman pointed out that you can't get 10 pounds of water into a 5 pound bag, and there was certainly 10 pounds of water (we WERE talking about water, right?). We found a spot that was about 60' wide for the main channel and waist-high on me (I'm 6'2") but with a slow enough current and gravel bottom that I crossed briefly with our 75' 7mm rope.

Worries about getting the packs wet lead Yager to scout upstream for logs. No go. After further searching, he did find a braided area where you could cross many pieces of the river one at a time, which we did without a rope and without soaking the packs. It's about half a mile north of Grouse Meadow if you are headed that way. While waiting, we were forced to endure F18's dog fighting up and down Le Conte Canyon - I got a picture on one of the passes, so if anyone knows where to complain about this dangerous and noisy prank flying, let me know.

Finally on the Muir Trail, we figured we had it made! Nope. Trees are down across the trail as you approach the Dusy Branch, and one crossing of the Dusy Branch has no bridge and cost us about half an hour. Yager put on crampons and spiked his way across a log under 6 inches of roaring water, Schuman and Eckert found boulders higher up that were large enough the water could run under them. One couple we met roped up for this stream crossing on the trail. (These were the first people we had seen for a week.) We made camp at a small sort-of-dry spot at the base of Dusy Basin (10800') and hit the sack after dark. This was the only night we used flashlights in camp, and we had only climbed 3000'.

Thoughts of bagging Giraud evaporated Sunday morning, as we sat in the tent for the first rain of the trip. About two hours of rain, hail, thunder, and gusty winds were followed by clearing skies but fast moving threatening clouds. We hit the trail and had only wind to deal with as we crossed Bishop Pass. By Long Lake the sun was steady and we were stripping off clothes as we started to see "shore birds" out for a stroll on the trail with their dogs and fresh clothes. A couple of Scout Leaders gave Schuman a ride down to Bishop, where David Harris had left a car on his way to climb Split Mtn.

While waiting on Schuman to return, I had the chance to "rescue" four girl scouts that were headed for Brown Lake from the Rainbow Pack Station but wound up at South Lake instead. We had a little map reading lesson, got out a compass, and generally did what their leader should have done before their trip. Later we stopped at the pack station to let them know the girls were OK, and ran into one of the parents: The girls had indeed found the right trail, and the parent had hiked out to let everyone know not to go looking for them.

Mexican food, ice cream, and lots of driving hours got us back home after midnight. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to be in such a remote place. No people, no trails, and no limits on peaks other than your conditioning and skills. This area has something for everyone, but it's not totally isolated: I carried out a rusty lighter and a bunch of Knob Hill Foods balloons that had blown up aloft after being released. Think about how far they had to drift (from Bishop or Fresno all the way to Chasm Lake?) the next time you buy a helium balloon.

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