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North Lake to South Lake

Day 2 of 7

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Tuesday, August 13th
Piute Lake to Hutchinson Meadow
8.4 miles
560 vertical feet (ascent)
2020 vertical feet (descent)
7:04


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GPX File

At 6:30am I woke up and went outside the tent to find clear skies (as usual). I had been tracking the progress of the Aspen Fire in the couple weeks leading up to our trip. This was a lightning-caused fire started in late July near Huntington Lake, close to where we had car-camped back in June. In fact, the Kaiser Wilderness (where we had done two hikes) was closed. If we had come a week or two earlier, smoke would have been a real problem. But now the fire was over 85% contained and the air was clear.

Piute Lake near sunrise

One of the new things I was carrying on this trip was a personal locator beacon. I had been thinking of buying something like a Spot Messenger or similar device for a while, but eventually decided that I only needed something for true emergencies, and the beacon looked like it was more reliable. Plus, I preferred the idea of not having to pay a monthly fee. Still, I wondered to myself: under what circumstance am I going to push that button? If I was simply lost, I'd try to find my way out. I wouldn't want the cavalry to come out. Even if I was injured, if I could still walk, I don't think I'd push the button.

Being trapped by a forest fire did cross my mind as one possibility, though. You never know what's going to happen out there. So I carefully showed the kids how to activate the beacon in case I wasn't able to. And of course I left our rough itinerary with some people I could trust. Still, I thought it was a very remote possibility that I'd ever press the button.

I'll get to why I just mentioned that shortly. But for now, picture me getting out of the tent, taking pictures of quiet Piute Lake, and then getting breakfast ready as the sunrise started to shine light on the mountains on the opposite (south) shore of the lake.

Before and during breakfast, we noticed a few backpackers going in either direction, mostly toward the trailhead. While we were eating breakfast, one pair of backpackers stopped and asked us if we had a satellite phone. Apparently there was a child with altitude sickness further up the trail. They thought that the child was so sick that they'd have to helicopter the child out of the wilderness. I wasn't sure exactly where the child was, but it sounded like well over the pass, maybe near Hutchinson Meadow, our destination for the day. I mentioned I had the beacon, but it wouldn't help. If I pressed it, they'd come to where the beacon was, not where the child was. Still, I began to think that if we reached the child before help arrived, I'd be obliged to press the button on the beacon on just our second day of the trip. On the other hand, I figured that the backpackers we just saw would probably reach civilization and call for help sooner than we'd get there, if someone else hadn't already.

That was all in the back of my mind the rest of the day. For now, though, we packed up our camp and headed off on the trail around 10:15am. It was hot already. We walked along the lake shore, but it wasn't as pretty as at Loch Leven. After passing the lake, we started to climb, getting better views of the lake and valley behind us.

Looking back at Piute Lake from the trail

Another view of Piute Lake

Pond above Piute Lake

It was only about a 400 foot vertical climb to the pass from the lake, but it looked much more imposing than that. A day hiker passed us on his way to the summit. He was still there when we reached the top of Piute Pass, elevation 11,423 feet. From here, we had a great view of Summit Lake and the desolate granite area around it to the west of the pass. The west side of the pass sat in stark contrast to the east side, which was lush in comparison.

Heading up to Piute Pass

Looking back at Piute Lake from near Piute Pass

Summit Lake

We had a nice break at the pass before heading down the other side. A pack of horses approached from the Muriel Lake area as we left. We soon passed Summit Lake (elevation 11,225), wondering what the signs are that are posted high up on metal posts around the lake. I'm still not sure (the trail doesn't come close to the lake shore).

Pack train near Piute Pass

Summit Lake

As we descended past the northern side of the lake, the views kept getting better and better. The landscape was mostly barren until we approached Upper and Lower Golden Trout Lakes. We had a break here before descending and starting to find some trees again.

Trail near Summit Lake

Ponds to west of Summit Lake

Ponds and mountains

Mountains to the northeast of the trail

Continuing along the trail

Heading toward area above Golden Trout Lakes

Golden Trout Lakes

We basically didn't see anyone else on the trail from the time we left Piute Pass until a bit past the Golden Trout Lakes, when we ran into a solo backpacker coming the opposite direction. He explained how he had come over Lamarck Col and was going to slowly make his way out of the wilderness.

Mountains south of the trail

Tiny remnants of glaciers, perhaps

As we continued to descend, we started to see more grasses beneath the trees. It was interesting to see the complete change in vegetation from the top of the pass to where we were now. After crossing the 10,000 foot sign (signifying no fires above that elevation), we reached the intersection for Lower Honeymoon Lake. The spur trail to the left heads up a steep climb to the lake. I don't know how nice it is, but we had no thoughts of tacking on more miles to our already long trip. Around this time (about 4pm) we heard a helipcopter overhead, probably (I'm speculating) carrying out the child with altitude sickness. So I probably wouldn't be pushing that button after all.

Through the forest

We crossed a drift fence, then rock hopped across some streams. After we crossed the last stream, I knew we had to look for a campsite. We dropped our packs and almost immediately found a great big site right at the edge of Hutchinson Meadow. It looked to be a large site probably used by horsepackers, with a fire ring and ample space, right next to a large outcropping, fairly well hidden from the trail and far enough away from the water. Luckily, there was no one else here. In fact, we didn't detect any backpackers at all in the area (and there were many more campsites that we could see among the sparse trees nearby).

Drift fence

Hutchinson Meadow

After setting up camp, we washed up and then made the short walk across the meadow to dip our feet in Piute Creek. This had been an 8+ mile day; though it had been mostly downhill, we were still tired. After dinner we started to get ready for bed. We started to hear someone shouting as he walked down the trail. As far as I could tell, he was either yelling out to a partner who was well ahead or behind him, or he was possibly yelling to warn bears of his impending approach. In any case, he didn't stop...he kept going right past all the campsites near Hutchinson Meadow. I'm not sure where he was headed, as there aren't good campsites past Hutchinson Meadow until the junction with the JMT, and I doubted he would make it there tonight (it was already about 8:30pm).

Campsite at Hutchinson Meadow

As I was about to enter the tent, I noticed that there were a couple mice running around near our tent. I wonder if they're attracted to horsepacker camps for some reason, as the only other place I'd seen them in the wild had been in a large horsepacker camp in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. At least there seemed to be a lot fewer mice here, and they didn't bother us during the night.

Mouse at Hutchinson Meadow


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