Click , the camera snapped in front of me.
Not exactly a normal phrase to utter while in the backcountry, but given the sketchy 62 degree grade we were traversing with 5 feet of snow underfoot and a frozen glacial lake below to catch your fall, it seemed appropriate.
I refreshed the white-knuckle grip on my ice axe and took another kick step into the crunchy snow. Was that a solid step? Is my weight distributed evenly? How do you self-arrest again? Insecurity crept in.
“We’re almost there!” my photographer boyfriend shouted back at me. Ever the mountain man, he was taking a break to photograph Duck Lake below us, and, to my chagrin, my terrified face.
48 hours earlier we had been in a completely different ecosystem on the edge of Southern Utah hiking the Kaibab Plateau in Utah. After a couple of days in the unforgiving Utah Summer heat we decided to make the 10 hour drive up and over to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range with tentative plans to squeeze in as many backcountry miles into 4 days as we could before returning home.
Prior to setting out on our road trip, we had heard of the dicey conditions in the Sierras and the nightmarish river crossings plaguing early season thru-hikers on the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
The unseasonably wet and stormy winters that filled California’s aquifers were making Summer backpacking trips in the Sierras sketchy at best and life threatening at worst.
When we arrived at the Bishop Ranger Station to inquire about conditions and permit options, we were virtually laughed out of the place. “Everything above 10,000 is completely covered in snow. Your best bet is to do a couple of day hikes.” We pressed further, “What about crampons and ice axes? We can rent them here in town right?” After some reluctance, the ranger duo granted our permits for a 4 day trek through Duck Pass.
We spent our last night in civilization stuffing our faces with delicious BBQ meats and enjoying the Jacuzzi at the Holiday Inn before repacking our backpacks and turning in for the night.
We made it to the trailhead by 8am and saw about half a dozen hikers headed in the same direction. The trail was not well defined but with other hikers on the path, we made good time and only had to consult our map and compass a handful of times before stopping for a mid-morning break at Lake Skelton.
After a quick snack we continued a couple more miles until we reached Barney Lake at the base of Duck Pass. By this point, all of the other hikers except one had peeled back or stopped somewhere along the way.
We looked up at Duck Pass, a sheer white wall of snow, pocked with uneven rocky outcroppings. At 10,400 feet, the pass was intimidating, and steep was putting it mildly. We strapped on our crampons and readied our ice axes as we began the climb. It took us almost two hours to reach the crossing, but the view on the other side made the tough climb 100% worth it.
We were welcomed with a picturesque view of a colossal glacial lake spread out 500 feet below us, and framed by sheer, white-capped, spires reaching towards the clear blue sky. The lake stretched westward for at least a mile where it gave way to a sloping valley just out of eyesight.
After taking in the incredible view, we continued downwards attempting to pick up the trail. The mountainside was littered with sun cups 2 feet deep and a foot and a half wide. Traversing across them was both time consuming and physically exhausting.
We had lost all trace of other hikers, and there was no semblance of a path or footprints anywhere. We reconvened on a large chunk of rock jutting outwards hoping to get a better view and spot the trail.
We finally spotted a solitary set of footprints 200 yards away on a steep snowy face. We consulted the map and determined that must be the trail. With renewed energy, we trekked onward. Though once we arrived at the footprints, it became clear why there was only one set of footprints on this side of Duck Pass. The trail had been wiped out by a steep wall of snow and ice. Queue white knuckle grip and feelings of terror.
The rest of the downward trek to the mouth of the lake was comparably easy. We made the quick river crossing and set up camp on the other side of river, looking down on a partially frozen Duck Lake.
We had the entire valley to ourselves and enjoyed the solitude and sounds of the frothing river below. Over hot tea that evening, we consulted the map and agreed to modify our plans. The snowy conditions had impeded our travel more than we had anticipated and we had only made it 7 miles after a full day. We opted to set up base camp and do a day hike the following day to Purple Lake, forgoing the plans to make it to Isabella Hot Springs.
The three mile hike out to Purple Lake was mellow and after dipping into the valley below Duck Lake, we met up with the PCT/JMT trail and headed South. We were fortunate to run into a few thru hikers and shared trail beta for the few heading into Mammoth for resupply.
Once we reached Purple Lake, we were tempted to continue on to Virginia Lake, but thought better of it after some rough reports from backpackers coming through that way.
Instead, we set up our hammock at the edge of the beautiful lake and caught some afternoon z’s. After a relaxing nap and a Bald Eagle spotting, we headed back to base camp.
The next morning we got an early start to maximize ideal snow conditions for the trek back through the pass. This time, it was much smoother than our decent into Duck Valley.
We were back down at Barney Lake by late morning, our return journey expedited by a few stints of expert-level glissading.
We didn’t need to get back in to town until the following afternoon, so we look the time to pick a perfect campsite and hammock hangout. We spent a few hours exploring the spin off lakes of Barney and hiked to the top of a ridge opposing Duck Pass to catch a beautiful sunset over Mammoth Valley.
We woke up the next morning feeling refreshed and relaxed. We were back at the car by 10am and headed straight to Schatz’ Bakery, a Mammoth staple. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a pastry so delicious in my life. And, since it was still early, we rounded out the trip with a visit to Mammoth Brewing Co. and had our fill of delicious local beer.
All in all, what started as a difficult PITA trek filled with unexpected snow and ice, turned out to be the perfect trip. I got out of my comfort zone, and there was plenty of time spent lounging in the hammock. I can’t wait to try this trail again in a year or two when it’s completely thawed and we can make it all the way to Isabella Hot Springs.
The incredible photos taken of this journey are courtesy of Jameson Schultz Photography