The first day of our third week began above 10,500'. From this point on we were going to be in the true "High Sierras." We would be sleeping well above 10,000 feet every night and hiking at an average elevation of 11,200 feet. Thank goodness we were acclimatized by now!
Even with two weeks of altitude acclimatization behind us, we still had our challenges getting over the passes and through the valleys of our last week, including sore feet, blisters, and tired muscles. We were also starting to reach a point of calorie deficit, where we couldn't quite take in enough food for the calories we were burning.
The first section of trail that morning took us alongside and then above Lower Palisade Lake. As we rounded the south-eastern edge of the lake we were treated to views of Upper Palisade Lake and the bowl below Mather Pass. I wasn't entirely convinced of the location of the pass, as it looked more like a notch in a ridge line that would be impossible to get to.
Dan found this pass to be his easiest and most successful. He was also spurred on by a fellow hiker who let him pass then used him as a rabbit to reach the pass. Meanwhile, I found the pass to be quite challenging. I trudged along, stopping for short breaks to catch my breath and take in the scenery. Joe & Kristie did an awesome job, reaching the pass not long after me. They particularly enjoyed seeing all the wildflowers growing in such barren conditions.
From the pass we dropped down the switchbacks of the slope. We then left the trail to hike a quarter mile or so across the sandy, bouldery slopes to reach "Lake 3535" at the base of Split Mountain, which I went on to rename "Split Lake." We reached the lake well before lunch, having completed about 5 miles of trail.
Seeing as I didn't get to experience the hike to the summit, I asked Dan to write about his adventure that afternoon (which includes a big fish story!):
As the group was looking for a suitable campsite I took the opportunity to see if the lake had any fish in it. I crossed the outlet of the lake and was amazed to see close to a dozen fish far bigger then anything we had caught to this point!
As we enjoyed our lunch in the shade Joe and I discussed our plan for summiting Split Mountain. We decided it was best to relax during the hottest part of the day and depart camp around two. This was perfectly acceptable to me since it gave me time to fish!
The last time I had fished I had just thrown all my gear into a bag in a rush to clean up and now I had to pay for my laziness. I was excited to catch one of these meal-worthy fish, but when I pulled my tackle out it was a tangled mess. I tried for at least 30 minutes with no success and in my frustration I had to walk away. Lisa was kind enough to take over and was able to untangle my gear and unleash me upon the lake.
I started casting into the lake and was rewarded with several bites, but nothing landed. Before long I had my first hit and was rewarded with about a 10-inch rainbow trout. I spent the next hour or so working the lake shore and outlet. As Joe started making his way over to tell me to wrap up, I finally landed another fish. This one was slightly bigger then the last and I could depart on my trek a happy man!
We followed the shore along the south side of the lake and made our way up the saddle below Split Mountain. The first part of our climb took us up a soft grassy slope and as the terrain became a little steeper the grasses turned into fields of shooting stars. Eventually we left those behind and made our way up the rocky slope to the saddle. From there we turned south towards the summit.
We picked our way through the loose rocky slope, slowly working our way to a snow patch just below the summit. As we climbed higher we realized that the barren rock slope we had seen from below was actually littered with purple sky pilot flowers. The quantity and quality of the blooms as we climbed was really quite amazing.
About two thirds of the way up we stumbled across something that resembled a trail. Our pace had slowed due to the altitude, but this trail helped to make up the difference. It was a tough steep climb at the end, but we made it to the summit in a little under 2 hours.
Joe had lugged up his massive DSLR camera and with his telephoto lens he could find our campsite below. After taking in the impressive scenery we looked around the summit and found a small metal box with some notepads inside that served as the summit registry. We signed our names to the list with our date of summit and then made our way back down.
The trail we had found on the way up extended farther down from where we had found it and it made for a much easier decent. Even with that we were delighted to make it back to the grassy section which felt like pillows under our feet. As we came over a small crest into camp our timing was perfect as dinner was about to be served.
It was another awesome day among friends, wrapped up with an amazing sunset over Mather Pass.