I had this grand idea of doing a traverse of the Pioneer Basin peaks, 8mi and 4k elevation gain of ridgeline. Followed by going over Hopkins Pass, making our way out to Duck Lake in Mammoth Lakes with peak bagging along the way. Then the plan hit reality and things were more difficult than I had hoped… (the proposed route)
My friend Jen and I started our trip out of Rock Creek (i.e. Mosquito Flat), hiking up and over Mono Pass. We opted not to bag Mount Starr because of the high winds and suspect clouds that day. The gain to Mono Pass was gradual and fine for a bag loaded up with five days worth of food, weighing in at 32 lbs. This was early June and the pass contained some snow that was mostly firm enough to walk upon but obscured the trail.
After the pass we dropped down into a river valley and then turned right towards Pioneer Basin. There was a trail up to the Western lakes, but the trail to the Northern Lakes where we had planned to camp was part cuts and part no trail. Arriving in the Pioneer Basin Lakes, we set up camp in the most secluded place we could fine, but that didn’t stop the wind from breaking a pole on my friend’s tent. This caused us to retreat down to a lower lake in a hollow of trees.
The next day was our Pioneer Basin Traverse day which was supposed to bag Mt. Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins. All 12,000+ ft tall peaks. We started gained the ridge to Mt. Huntington hiking off trail to the East an then going up a moderately steep section of loose dirt that turned into trees. There was minimal snow on this low snow year. Gaining the ridge we stayed East and then crossed over a rocky section that was 3rd class rock / loose scree traversing before transitioning West on the moderate sides of the slope. Finally we reached the summit of rock blocks and signed the register.
I checked out the rest of the traverse and had Jen double check me, since I don’t like getting close to the edge, to see if it went. It looked like spindly 4th class to me, which was not the 2nd/3rd Class I was looking for so we returned to camp the way we had come.
Back at camp around 1pm, we decided to head towards our next campsite instead of crossing the basin again to do what looked like a loose slog up the easy Western side of Mt. Stanford. There was good trail in the Mono Creek river valley and up the Hopkins Creek river valley until the turn off to Hopkins Lake. If you look on the map, the trail towards Hopkins Pass goes through a lake… There was no trail through a bog and afterwards despite our best effort to try to find one. Off trail hiking we gained Hopkins Pass with tired legs making this something like a 5k, 13mi day with a 5 day backpack.
At Hopkins Pass, we saw the trail-less decent down loose scree that turned into a snow field that extended quite a ways. This was the steepest part of the pass and without an ice axe to self arrest and wearing a backpack, we decided to back off. We descended a bit to get out of the wind, ate dinner and spent our second cold night out.
Having been blocked from Hopkins Pass, our option was to return over Mono Pass which we did in great time. The climb to Mono Pass was hard on tired legs, but we made it and the descent was tame.
This trip was a great exercise in adventurous planning of a trip and a reminder that the High Sierra is wild. There are not trails everywhere and even the ‘trails’ on a map doesn’t mean they exist. Passes are not guaranteed to be chill and even if we had gone over Hopkins Pass, its likely we’d have a lot of steep and loose off trail hiking to gain our next pass. In all a great lesson of how reality meets your best plans.