Not recommended for stock

12-19 Aug 2007 - by Debbie Bulger

What could be more fun than a grand circuit in the John Muir Wilderness with lots of crosscountry, including climbing two wonderful peaks? I had planned to climb both Gemini and Hilgard on previous trips, but rain had intervened. Our route would let us explore more of the headwaters of fabulous Bear Creek than I had seen on previous trips to Marie Lake (2001) and Sandpiper Lake (1988).

Starting from the Bear Creek Diversion Dam south of Lake Thomas Edison, Richard Stover and I hiked the 10 1/2 miles to the PCT, then south to the East Fork of Bear Creek. We camped at the first Seven Gables Lake, climbed directly to Little Bear Lake, then Big Bear Lake, and White Bear Lake. Tackled the talus descending to properly-named Jumble Lake, ultimately camping at Lake Italy. From there we hiked back to the PCT via the Hilgard Branch of Bear Creek. We took eight days.

If you haven't hiked from the Bear Creek Diversion Dam, you are in for a treat. For the first 5 1/2 miles you hike through the forest beside dancing water. Waterfalls, cascades, and riffles greet you around every bend. Mature aspen tower over part of the trail. Then you start to climb, and granite replaces forest. Giant incense cedars grace the way.

Most of the flowers we passed were ripening their seeds. In a few seeps yellow monkey flowers grew and Bigalow's sneezeweed nodded its bulbous head among the asters which were expected in August. At camp overlooking the PCT, a noisy chickaree scolded us, flaunting its racing stripe.

The next day, we shouldered our heavy packs and trudged up the 2000 feet to the first 7 Gables Lake following an old trail. It may not have been the easiest route. At one point the unmaintained trail was high above the creek. We had to take off our packs and hand them down. At another point the trail went up a hillside. It appeared to look easier to stay on the slabs near the creek. Our campsite, hidden from the trail high above the lake, was filled with smoke from the Santa Barbara fire in the evening.

Our climb of Gemini, which was about 2 1/2 miles away, included a long hike over Seven Gables Pass then a descent and traverse to the base of Gemini. As we passed the lower Seven Gables Lakes, we spied a Spotted sandpiper characteristically teetering. We stayed on the nose of the ridge rising east of Stub Lake following first a series of grassy ramps then continuing on slabs. At one point we discovered exquisite quartz crystals and geodes.

The smoke was getting thicker. It was like a day in Beijing. We were trying not to breathe too deeplya difficult task when you're climbing.

Gemini itself consists of a very stable pile of rocks. The summit feels like what I imagine a Mayan Temple to be like. Very steep steps, perhaps 50 degrees. You just walk up. Unfortunately, the smoke blurred the view. Even majestic Seven Gables was not clear. Bummer.

Then, back to camp. We flushed a white-tailed Ptarmigan pair as we came down the pass. Our attention focused on the birds which slowly moved to the east. Our photos show what appears to be a chick, hidden in the rocks. Smart birds protecting their brood. During the night, I was awakened by what sounded like an alley cat standoff, but at a much lower pitch.

We slept in the next day and then climbed directly to Little Bear Lake instead of first passing by Vee Lake. It saved us a lot of distance, but we made up for that by climbing too abruptly at first ending up on a cliff. We had to backtrack which cost us 45 minutes.

Our leisure day included a luxurious private bath at Little Bear Lake. At Big Bear Lake we discovered about 5 pounds of breakfast foods dropped, we believe, by the boy scouts who passed our camp at the first 7 Gables Lake. So engrossed were they in conversation, they never saw us. Bet they missed the 2 pounds of blueberries for their pancakes!

The monkey flower display was spectacular, as were the owl clover and gentians in the wet meadows between Little Bear and Big Bear. Rarely seen Smooth grass of Parnassus was in only one spot at the lake that we could see. Sargents's catchfly nodded gently. We camped on a bench overlooking Big Bear Lake leaving the rainfly off so we could see the meteor shower.

The morning brought more smoke and worse, my back went out. I wasn't sure if I could even carry my pack. We must get to Lake Italy today. Time for lots of Tylenol. There is a steep scree slope leading up to White Bear Lake, then a series of rocky ramps to the summit tarn, which this year was all dried up. I took it slowly, and couldn't contain my delight to see, in the wetlands below the high water mark at White Bear, tiny baby elephants head.

Our entire route was made easier because of the low snow year. The lakes were all down enough to afford easy passage around inlets and outlets. An additional aid were the enormous ramps. These, according to geologists from Stanford and Italy whom we met on the PCT, are the remains of ancient earthquake faults now revealed by millions of years of erosion. The geologists had been studying them in the Seven Gables Lakes vicinity in order to ultimately increase our understanding of earthquake processes. The Italians expressed regret that they would have to go home without visiting Lake Italy.

There was serious talus, very difficult with a full pack, down to Jumble Lake. With cliffs on both sides, it was important to choose the right route. It was tedious and painful. Several times Richard carried my pack. At one point, he lost his balance and fell, luckily without injury.

It was, however, perfect pica habitat, and we saw several little cuties. They negotiated the talus much better than we did.

From our camp by Lake Italy, we climbed Mount Hilgard the next day. We began at a scree slope on the north side of the lake a short distance east of the outlet. On the map it is shown as a creek, but there was no surface water this year. There must be water underground, because there was an unexpected willow making a perfectly round green dot about 200 feet up. We proceeded up easy rock to a prominent knob about 500 feet from the summit. From there we entered the huge scree chute, which ultimately narrowed as we approached the summit. Our ascent was marred only by the trail of a clueless climber who had repeatedly trampled Hulsea (Sierra gold) on the last 200 feet. This glorious flower grows only at very high altitude.

Miraculously the wind had shifted, and it was a fine, clear day. The view is amazing. From Ritter and Banner to the north to Whitney to the south, the Sierra stretches before you. Distinctly-colored Red and White to the north; Mt. Tom dominates the west; uniquely-shaped Mt. Humphreys thrusting up to the south; Julius Caesar, Mt. Abbot. We saw the twin peaks of Gemini beyond Ursula Pass. And, off course, Seven Gables itself. We stayed a leisurely hour drinking in the fine weather and endless views.

On the descent, the scree was just too tempting. We glissaded 1000 feet ending at the small tarn shown on the map. Our problem then became finding the break in the cliffs to get us down the remaining 1000 feet. Easy enough from the bottom, but much more difficult looking down. If we had only gone to the right (west) of the tarn, we would have found the ramp, but we went east.

After trying a few ramps that ended in cliffs, I traversed about 100 yards on a ledge and found a steep break that connected to the main ramp. We had to hand our packs down a few times, but we didn't have to backtrack. Back to camp at sunset.

We had intended to hike halfway out the next day, but after a late start, we set up camp early at a place that just called out to me as we walked by. There was a high sunny slab for a kitchen, a quiet pool on the creek, and a roomy granite chaise to relax on after our bath. Couldn't resist. Apparently others couldn't resist either. We found three illegal fire rings which we destroyed.

Some trails are surveyed, engineered and well maintained. The trail along the HiIgard Branch of Bear Creek is neither. The map says, not recommended for stock. An understatement. The good news is there is no horse poop on the trail. The downside: we spent extra time handing down our packs and downclimbing some of the steeper sections. This was particularly frustrating because there appeared to be easier routes on the other side of the creek. Granted, there were cliffs on both sides at times, but if I were to hike it again, I would choose the trail-less south side of the creek.

On Sunday we continued down this great glacial valley. Ten thousand years ago, it was filled with over 1000 feet of ice as evidenced by the highly reflective glacial polish on the canyon walls high above. Did the person who thought up polished granite counter tops hike in the Sierra? There are great slabs of polished rock underfoot as well, making hiking treacherous in places.

After eight days, tired of eating over-sweetened bars, we hiked 15 miles to the trailhead and real food, arriving after dark.

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