Franklin Pass

Little Five Lake 10476 to Franklin Lake 10331
(19 miles, +4,800/-4,900 feet).

It was calm and peaceful in my perfect campsite last night.  But in spite of my big day yesterday, I did not sleep much.  My legs still twitched from the cramping yesterday, and I was restless.  By the time the sky started to lighten I was ready to go.

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My perfect campsite
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The predawn light
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A perfect mirror

I made my way back to the trail and came to the outlet for Little Lake 10476.  The trail crosses at a ford where I found a huge dented steel water bottle washed up on the shore.  It looked like it was there from last season, so it was probably garbage at this point.  It weighed about 10 ounces or so.  I deliberated for a moment and then decided to carry it out, hoping that this would complete my penance for the plastic water bottle I gave up to the willow gods when bushwhacking up to Hamilton Lake.

The ford was not an easy rock hop, so I looked around for an alternate crossing, and sure enough right on the lake there was a nice log jam.

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A beautiful bridge!

I made my way down to the next Little Lake where the sun was just breaking over the mountains.

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Good morning sunshine!

I then headed cross-country over a small shoulder and down back to the trail to Big Five Lakes.

I usually hike before breakfast so I can warm up a bit, and so I started thinking about where to stop.  I was out of water, so I set my eyes on the next little ravine, and it did not disappoint.  A cute bridge made a nice place to sit with my milk and cookies.

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Breakfast is served!
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Breakfast meadow

After breakfast it was a short traverse to Big Five Lakes.  Last time I did this trip, we skipped all but the lowest lake.  This time I determined to explore all five (at least it sounds like there are supposed to be five, right?).

Lake 10260 was nothing short of stunning.  This might be my all-time favorite Sierra lake mirror shot.

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Mirror shot or money shot?

Lake 10192 was also pretty amazing (though it’s no lake 10260).

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Lake 10192

You know the crazy thing?  That 11,800 foot mountain behind the lakes doesn’t even have a name on the USGS map.

Next up was Lake 10214.

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Not too shabby
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Lake 10214

Finally, I arrived at the uppermost lake just in time to see (and more incredibly, hear) an avalanche on the far slopes above it.

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Avalanche!
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Uppermost Big Five Lake

The snow did not really start until the last lake, which was also the only one that was still frozen, so I decided to do some cross-country wandering.  First, I wound my way all the way around Lake 10214 where I got some more (snowless) reflection shots.

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Looking south across Lake 10214
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Looking west across Lake 10214

I originally wanted to walk the south side of Lake 10192 but the steep snowfield still sits right on the edge of the lake, so I waded (knee-high) across the outlet of Lake 10214 and proceeded on trail.  The trail ran out at the outlet for Lake 10192 but I continued on granite slabs and then gentle wooded downhill to Lake 9830.  It was nothing more than class 2 the whole way.

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Heading down to Lake 9830
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Crosscountry flowers

Lake 9830 looked so, well, normal!  There was absolutely no snow around, so I circled it cross-country on the south side.  I got this shot of the little cove where Nick, Meredith, and I camped across the lake on the north side the first time I came to Mineral King.

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Memory means seeing things from the other side

The Sierra is so intense.  It was only 10:30am and I had already soaked in enough scenery for a whole lifetime.  It was good to get back on trail and go into autopilot for a while as I headed up and then down to Lost Canyon.

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The Kaweahs loom above the Big Arroyo 
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Needham Mountain above a little tarn at 10,000 feet
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Lower Lost Canyon
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Upper Lost Canyon

When I got to Lost Canyon Creek I ate lunch and took a long nap (oh, and I played on my phone a little bit, too).  I really need to take more of these long breaks….

After lunch the sun was intense but it was not too bad.  The trail down to Soda Creek was in and out of shade.

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Snow plant!

The crossing at Lost Canyon Creek was pretty easy.

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Dry feet!
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Lower Big Arroyo

Soon I was climbing again, and to give me a little motivation I listened to some music.

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Soda Creek Canyon

The ford at Soda Creek looked safe, but once again I found a way to keep my feet dry.  The trickiest thing about the log crossing was getting up on to it from the root ball.

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The ford not taken
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A brand new bridge

The trail up to Little Claire Lake is on a steep north facing slope so I was a little worried about snow, but in most cases I could just do a simple sidestep on the edge of the trail.  It was pretty soft and not too deep at the edges, so the couple of times I had to walk on it I had no fear of slipping.

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Snow on trail below Little Claire Lake

The lake was really pretty, but….  It had been a day of spectacular lakes and the light was not quite right to catch it at its best.

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Little Claire Lake

One thing I absolutely loved about this lake is that it had a rainbow pattern of colors near its shore.  I took a picture but it did not come out well.  I’ll have to come back some time!

At this point I had to make a decision.  It was 4pm.  Four hours of sun left.  Should I head down to Forester Lake and call it a day?  Or press on to Franklin Lakes?  That was about 5 miles and 2000 feet, which I usually do in about 3.5 hours under perfect conditions.  But I had no idea what to expect on Franklin Pass.  Would my legs cramp like they did yesterday?  Would the snow be difficult?

More importantly, what *kind* of snow did I want to deal with?  In the afternoon the snow is soft, so there is more postholing, but steep slopes are less scary and I can just walk in my trail runners.  In the morning the snow is hard so crampons work great but I’m still a little leery of dealing with steep iciness.  In summary, morning would be scarier, but afternoon would be harder.

I chose harder!

So now I was on a mission.

There is a little ridge you have to climb between Little Claire and Forester Lakes, and it was a pain in the ass because it was all wasted effort.  Forester Lake lies 400 feet *below* this ridge, and the trail goes another 200 feet down to Rattlesnake Canyon before starting the ascent to Franklin Pass.

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Ridge above Little Claire Lake

But when I got to the top of the ridge, I turned to the right and saw this:

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Hey, that looks like flat easy cross-country

I pulled out my topo map and saw a huge flat bench leading west right to the pass.  I decided to take a chance and keep my elevation off trail.  And this turns out to be my best gamble of the trip!  Not only did I find an easy boot track where others had done the same thing I had, but I found one of the most beautiful sandy meadows I have ever seen.

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Meadow at 10,800 feet above Rattlesnake Canyon
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Another view

The meadow was ringing with the sounds of frogs in love.

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Hey Kermit!

The walking was so easy, that I frequently lost the track.  People probably take all different kinds of paths through the meadow.  But at the end of the meadow where an outlet spills down into the canyon, there are fewer choices and the trail becomes more distinct.

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Trail at the end of the meadow

The trail then followed the base of a huge cliff, traversing gently down to the Franklin Pass trail at 10,600 feet.  It was ducked, and there were even ancient cuts through blowdowns, making me think that this may have once been a maintained trail.

So I saved about 600 feet of up and down and probably 30 minutes, and I saw an unexpectedly beautiful place in the middle of nowhere!

As it turns out I would really need this bit of good luck (he said ominously).

After a decent break at the trail, I started my 1,000 foot ascent up water-filled switchbacks.  The view of Rattlesnake Canyon below got better and better as I climbed up and up.

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Rattlesnake Canyon

Once I breached 11,000 feet I carefully studied the pass, which was hard because it was right under the glaring sun.

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Franklin Pass

The USGS map and the GPS line created by Caltopo show the trail heading up to 11,800 feet and then turning south on the east side of the ridge.  And from my point of view I saw what looked like a snow line at 11,800 feet which I thought was the trail.  So I prepared to follow that.

Above the switchbacks the trail gets sandy and above 11,600 feet it got snowy, though the snow was shallow and soft.  I walked across the not-too-steep snow fields with my trail runners and trekking poles.

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Not too bad

The problem is that the snow obscured the trail, so I had to rely on my own knowledge of the trail and also other people’s footprints.

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It’s a trap!  Don’t do it!

I got to the 11,800 foot line and saw footprints leading to what looked like a trail.  I checked my GPS and I was right on the line.  So I followed them.

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View from 11,800 feet where I turned
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View back towards the snowfield where I turned

As it turns out (no pun intended), instead of turning I should have kept going up next to the snow field to *11,900* feet.  The USGS map is wrong.  The GPS trail I was following is based on the USGS map.  The trail goes on the *west* side of the ridge, not the east side.  You can see this clearly from the satellite view, which I have on my phone, but I failed to check it in the moment when I most needed it.

My mistake netted some beautiful views.

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Panorama south of the ridge

But it also netted me an hour worth of class 3 traversing in and out of the boulders and steep sandy scree on the east side of the ridge.  At a certain point I could no longer continue at 11,800 feet and I had to drop down to 11,600 before climbing back up to the physical low point in the ridge at about 11,700 feet.  It was exhausting!

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Looking back from the physical pass

From the physical pass, I looked north and saw the switchbacks.  There was no easy way to get to them.  My choice was another hour of class 3 climbing back on the east side or an hour of class 3 climbing straight down to Franklin Lake.

Well, put that way it sounds like a no-brainer.

But that bowl down to the lake is even steeper than Glacier Pass and there was no clear runout.  It was breathtakingly beautiful but it was going to be hard work.

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View down towards lower Franklin Lake from just below the physical Franklin Pass

I started doing class 3 downlcimbs on the rocks and then controlled slides on the snow between the rocks until I got to a point where it was possible to plunge step.

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My route down from (physical) Franklin Pass

I was so so tired as I neared my 20th mile, but the adrenaline gave me focus and added a special tinge to the already surreal landscape.

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Tarn above Franklin Lake

The postholing was really bad here.  I went in up to my waist several times, and sometimes it was a struggle to get back out.  But I did eventually make it around the tarn above Franklin Lake and down to the trail.

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Looking back up at Franklin Pass
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Lower Franklin Lake

I climbed down to the lake to the first nice campsite I could find.

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Home for the night

It was perched high above the water, so I had to climb down another 50 feet or so to refill my bottles and wash the blood off my hand.  Apparently I scraped it pretty badly while sliding with my axe, but the cold snow kept it from bleeding for a while (or maybe I was too tired to notice).  Lesson learned: wear gloves next time!

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The water’s edge, my last climb of the day!

 

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