“No excursion can be made into the Sierra that may not prove an enduring blessing.”
The whirlwind of life has finally slowed just enough for some photos to be edited and a long overdue post on the blog…
Last month, in late May, a group of us set off on a five-day excursion into the High Sierra on a classic loop, The Evolution Tour. The tour leaves Lake Sabrina, just west of Bishop near North Lake, and climbs up through the Inyo National Forest. Nearing Clyde Spires and passing over Echo Col, at 12,450 feet, the route enters Kings Canyon National Park. From there it follows the PCT and John Muir Trail for some time, passing over Muir Pass, Evolution Lake and turning back in a northeasterly direction, climbs up to the Darwin Bench. The giants of the group, Mt Darwin and Mt Mendel are passed as the route climbs to its highest elevation at 12,900 feet on Lamarck Col, then descends nearly 4,000 feet back to North Lake.
The Evolution Basin was explored by Theodore Solomons (1870–1947), American naturalist and writer. As an early explorer of the area, he became instrumental in the creation of the John Muir Trail. In 1895, while developing a new map of the High Sierra and exploring with Ernest C. Bonner, they encountered the mountains of the Evolution Group. Solomons went on to name this group of peaks based on the most notable evolutionary scientists of the time, the highest of the peaks given the name Mt Darwin. Some of the other peaks of the Evolution Group include:
Mt Solomons – 13040 ft
Named after Theodore Solomons himself, standing tall over the Muir Shelter/Muir Pass.
Mt Darwin – 13831 ft
Just barely the tallest, named after Charles Darwin (1809-1882), British naturalist, originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection.
Mt Lamarck – 13417 ft
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), French naturalist, proponent of evolution on the basis of acquired characteristics.
Mt Mendel – 13710 ft
and of course, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), Austrian botanist and geneticist.
Not to mention a few others of the group: Mount Haeckel, Mt Wallace, Mt Spencer, Mt Huxley and Mt Fiske, to round out the Evolutionary bunch.
After climbing to Muir Pass relatively early in our second day, we decided to drop some gear at the shelter and head back to the summit of the Black Giant. One member of the group opted to stay behind and rest, he wasn’t feeling too great…
After a smooth climb we had incredible views of peaks beyond peaks in all directions. You couldn’t help but appreciate just how far removed from civilization our legs had taken us. We ripped turns down from the Black Giant, and made our way to Wanda Lake. We were perfectly situated for a pre-dawn alpine start with our next objective of Mt Goddard, a summit known for its remote location, deep in the High Sierra.
Upon waking on our third day, one member of our party communicated to us just how lethargic and generally poor he was feeling. He is an experienced mountaineer who had travelled from sea level up to the Bishop area just prior to our ski. He relayed to us his little ability, thus far, to keep any food or water down with worsening nausea as well. Our objective of skiing to Goddard quickly shifted as we recognized just how high and deep into the mountains we had isolated ourselves.
As the day progressed our partner’s condition rapidly deteriorated. We weighed our options, our location and a narrowing weather window. We recognized we needed to get our buddy down in elevation for his condition to improve. Unfortunately, to do that we needed to get back up and out of the Evolution Basin, we were relatively trapped by high ridge lines with some fairly technical climbs to surmount before one could think of descending.
Looking at maps, our only other strictly down hill option would be to take him approximately 15 miles out towards the west side of the Sierra to Muir Trail Ranch, and hope the spring had melted enough for road access. We also recognized cloudy weather and an increasing chance for precipitation coming the next day – weather became a focal discussion point as we realized we might need to call a helicopter to get our friend to safety and the time for that may be NOW.
By noon our partner was unable to move more than a few hundred feet under his own power; he was unable to keep down food or water with worsening nausea and vomiting. The Delorme Inreach proved to be worth it’s weight in gold as we were ultimately forced to contact the Park Service for an evacuation.
Our entire afternoon was spent securing a landing zone and coordinating evacuation efforts with the Park Service via rather tedious texts with “Ranger Tom”, our hero in the whole debacle. Just before dusk, with tension and cloud cover building, we heard the welcome sound of chopper blades cutting through the quiet of the mountain air. We confidently held out our orange tent as a marker of our location, pulling it in and ducking down as the helicopter came into sight of our camp…
…Then the helicopter continued past us… up the next canyon…. over towards Darwin Bench… the helicopter blades disappeared out of sight and out of ear shot… our spirits crashed in the silence… this could be a very long night. Just as we had time to fire off 2-3 concerned texts to Ranger Tom, the helicopter triumphantly banked around the corner and came directly back to our location. “We saw another group up there before we saw you guys”, said the pilot. Must have given them a surprise!
The remaining four of us climbed the knoll over Evolution Lake, where we had set up our impromptu landing zone and reflected on the day… We had planned on heading further into the Sierra for Mt Goddard on this day, and now we watched the most amazing sunset as a group of four rather than five. The stress of worrying and wondering how we would get our buddy out of there with the narrowing weather window and his rapidly deteriorating condition left us feeling elated that all was well. Everyone was safe and I was exhausted, ready for my sleeping bag. It was a peculiar feeling pushing on deeper into the wilderness having just sent one of the group out in a helicopter.
Our partner was evacuated to the Bishop Hospital where he was found to be experiencing later stages of Acute Mountain Sickness by way of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) meaning he had fluid building up on his lungs. There is certainly much to be learned and discussed regarding our speed of ascent and acclimatization schedule, but given where we were, I am confident that we made the right decision to get him out to safety when we did.
The next morning we moved up Darwin Bench and toured over the high alpine frozen lake, looking up at the infamous Mendel Couloir. As we followed the bend of the basin Mt Darwin came into view and the “Darwin’s Finger” line had good-looking snow to the top. We dropped our overnight gear at the base of the peak and made our way up; the snow was in great condition as we climbed.
We decided to sleep atop Lamarck Col at 12,900 feet for our last night of the tour. We planned to watch the sunrise and ski 4,000 feet back to North Lake the next morning. Both the sunset over Darwin Basin and the sunrise the following morning were breathtaking.
And just like that, five days later, we were back at the truck, a group of four instead of five. We quickly received news that our partner was recovering well and had been discharged from the hospital. We grabbed some burgers and headed for some hot springs to soak our weary legs!