North Lake to South Lake – Part 1 (Lamarck Col and Evolution Basin)

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Some would call me a masochist. I beam a special grin after a three-hour run. Endorphins rush through my body after a full day’s worth of cross-country hiking. I like to make people think I’m hardcore. I like it when people think I’m crazy. To be honest, though, it’s no sense of courage, stamina, or even self-punishment that drives me into these grueling, overly-ambitious outings. It’s simply poor planning. I’m a perennial overestimator. Such was the case for this trip with Nick and Tyler out of Bishop into the High Sierra.

Start

Nick, me, and Tyler at the beginning of the hike

We had one car and two trailheads. Our exit, South Lake, was twelve miles away from our entrance, North Lake. Without a shuttle, and with only a mile of hiking to do the first day, I decided the best way to hook these trailheads together would be a run. Nick and Tyler waited at the North Lake trailhead with our backpacks, while I drove the car out to the South Lake trailhead.

We had driven up from the bay area that morning, and so now, starting a half-marathon at ten-thousand feet, I was struggling. Even running downhill I could feel my heart pounding to maintain cadence. Each mile, each landmark, seemed to go by in slow motion. After an hour or so, I turned onto Highway 168. The uphill started, and my body fell into a steady rhythm. The going was slow, but I could see my progress. As I ran into the North Lake campground, Tyler met me and we ran through to the trailhead together. It took two-and-a-half hours of doubt and exhaustion, but I had made it.

After a rest, we set off to Grass Lake, a marshy pond about a mile into the John Muir Wilderness. We arrived an hour later without incident, set up camp, and I rolled into the tent and went to sleep. Running at altitude took a lot more out of me than I thought it would. I woke up briefly to pack my bear canister and dry some clothes, then I went straight back to sleep. Perhaps Grass Lake was a sight to behold at sunset, but I wouldn’t know.

Trail View

A view of the hills near Grass Lake

Grass Lake Camp

Our camp at Grass Lake

We woke up early the next morning. The goal for the day was to hike over Lamarck Col, through Darwin Canyon, out into the mouth of Evolution Basin. On the map, it looked to be a long day, ten miles or so over cross-country, but doable. And it was doable, once we got past the fact that it was terribly difficult. The climbing began as soon as we left camp, and it wouldn’t let off until we hit Lamarck Col. Views into the desert became hazier and hazier with the smoke from the Aspen Wildfire. We hiked past Lamarck Lakes, and here the trail became much steeper and spotty at places. Sections of the trail seemed to wrap around the near vertical sides of hills, and as we got higher, the trail branched out in multiple paths across talus fields and bare rock.

Early Climbing

Climbing early in the morning on the way to Lamarck Col

Lower Lamarck Lake

Lower Lamarck Lake

East to Nick

Nick climbing up the trail to Lamarck Col

After a few hours of grueling climbing and false summits, we finally reached the ridge over which Lamarck Col crosses. Unfortunately, we climbed it a bit too far to the left, and found ourselves standing over the wrong drainage. The ridge was steep and technical enough that the best way to get to the actual Col was to climb down half the ridge, then climb back up. After another exhausting half-hour of scrambling, we got to the Col and could see down into Darwin Canyon. We took a quick break then proceeded down into the Canyon.

Crazy Trail

The trail wrapped around the side of this impossibly vertical hill

Other Basin

This basin drained East. We needed to traverse to the right to enter Darwin Canyon

Arriving at Lamarck Col

Nick hauling his pack over Lamarck Col

Darwin Canyon

Darwin Canyon

The downclimbing off Lamarck Col was just technical enough to exhaust our minds and knees. Rocks were just tall enough that we had to use our hands, and the sand was just thin enough that we couldn’t scree-ski our way down without slipping. Eventually we made it into the base of the canyon, where we thought we’d find an easy use trail out into Evolution Basin. Much of the way through, though, was over talus field and glacial moraine. It was now late afternoon, and we took a dinner break at one of the lower lakes. By this point we were all exhausted, and we knew we still had a few more miles of cross-country to go before the sun set.

Lower Darwin Lakes

Looking down Darwin Canyon toward the lower lakes

Mount Mendel

Mount Mendel

Darwin Lake

One of the Darwin Lakes

Nick Along Darwin

Nick walking along the bottom of Darwin Canyon

After our dinner, we continued on past the lakes onto Darwin Bench. From here we could see down into Evolution Canyon below and across the slopes into Evolution Basin. This area was the first in hours that we could walk freely one foot in front of the other for longer than a few hundred feet. We wrapped around the lower slopes of Mount Mendell into the lip of Evolution Basin. It took another hour of bushwacking down these slopes until we hit the John Muir Trail. We hiked along the trail for another fifteen minutes before making camp at the first pool of water we saw. We made camp right around 8:00, just in time to catch Mount Mendell and Darwin bathed in alpenglow.

Darwin Bench

Darwin Bench

Into Evolution Basin

Looking into Evolution Basin from Darwin Bench

On the JMT

We finally made it onto the John Muir Trail

Sitting at camp, waiting for the sun to go down, we had to laugh. What looked like a long hike on the map was really two days worth of hiking combined into one. Only a handful of times have I ever had to take a dinner break on a hike, no less on a hike that started at eight o’clock in the morning. Regardless, though, we had made it safely to our destination, and we had an easy four-mile hike the next day. This was an accomplishment.

4 thoughts on “North Lake to South Lake – Part 1 (Lamarck Col and Evolution Basin)

  1. jerryengel

    Great Blog post and photos — thanks. Made it up onto Darwin Bench one of my three or four time through that way on the JMT. I had always been curious. Thanks for sharing. PS I also did the hike to close the loop to start the hike — but I walked it :-)

    Reply
  2. Claire N.

    I Googled Larmarck Col, my curiosity drawn by its name etched upon my newly arrived map, and came upon this blog! Wow, what an epic hike. I think you’ve convinced me to stay on trail when solo. One question… Would you have done this route in reverse, starting in Evolution Valley?

    Reply
    1. tyler4588

      I could see doing it in reverse. If it’s a first time trip, I think doing Lamarck Col first is important, since that could be a no-go. But if you’ve done it before, I’d do it in reverse.

      Personally, I do like the progression as you go upwards in Evolution Basin, from Evolution Lake to Wanda. I’ve since gone the the other way along the Sierra High Route, and that was really fun too. It’s cool to climb up out of Evolution Basin.

      Reply

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