Stanford North WTC Experience Trip Attempt with Too Much Snow

  • Updated: July 15, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 15th & 16th, 2017

Thanks to the heavy snow year regular backpacking trips to the Sierra had been pushed back a bit.  But here we were in the middle of July which is when I'd conservatively hoped the snow would be manageable and it was time to finally start climbing high!

This was also a Sierra Club I provisional for Gracia Plascencia.  I was here to eval which is why I was attempting this peak for a third time.

The first time I turned back 200 ft from the summit with some students who were really struggling and ended up not getting them back to the trailhead until midnight and not getting back to Orange County until 6 am.  The second time I made the summit only to be nailed by a rainstorm which proceeded to soak us for the entire 5 hour hike out.  Then there was this trip where the mosquitos were epic, we nearly lost someone during a stream crossing, and we couldn't summit due to a section of steep snow.

I'm really starting to think this area is just bad luck for me...

This trip was primarily aimed at people who had taken the Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course though once they are given priority anyone with the appropriate skills are welcome to join.

WTC is a 10 week course staffed by enthusiastic volunteers which runs every year from January to April and covers everything from hiking and backpacking basics to rock scrambling and even snow travel and camping all for a low low price!

Once the 10 week course and four weekend outings are over there's a requirement to complete two overnight backpacking trips with significant cross country travel throughout the summer in order to graduate from the program earning a certificate and an awesome patch. Since we typically have 250 ish students pass through the program every year you'll see me lead a fair amount over the next few months to try and meet demand. More WTC related content written by me can be found here and the official website with registration information can be found at

We spent the night at a commonly used bivy spot behind the Sherwin Summit sign on 395 south of Mammoth.  It's quiet, always has plenty of space, and dispersed camping is perfectly legal.  Just don't stay exactly where we did because for some reason it was a large circular platform of deep deer poop.  Unless you're into that sort of thing...

Hilton Lakes trailhead was only about 20 minutes up the road.  It leaves from the Rock Creek road just past Rock Creek Lake itself.  The trailhead has a bathroom and bear boxes and the parking is a bit limited considering how many people seem to dayhike up the trail.

Today the plan was to hike into the lake at the base of the Stanford drainage and spend some time relaxing at the lake.

Unfortunately the mosquitos were on us the moment we got out of the car so we quickly donned head nets and raingear.  We'd be wearing them a lot this trip.

The trail runs north paralleling the road before climbing over a saddle and dropping down to Hilton Creek Lakes about 4 miles in.  It's a heavily used pack trail with all the dust and horse excrement that comes along with that so I was happy when we dropped down towards the lake and things got much wetter.

The trail was slightly hard to follow with the occasional snow drifts and flood conditions and we ended up doing a slightly more difficult stream crossing than we really needed to.  The water above was flowing rather swiftly and came up above the knee so we had to take it slow.  I ended up standing in the middle of the stream to help people across which turned out to be a good idea when one person went down.  I managed to catch them and get them back on their feet though they lost a croc to the current.

It was also really damn cold and I had to take several minutes to restore blood flow once I was out of the water.

We reached our lake and found we had it to ourselves except for a group on the far side.  We set up camp at the very last site along the northern shore which had plenty of camping spots, easy access to water coming from above the lake, and great views of Mount Huntington right above us.

The lake was filled with small trout that would bite at anything that hit the water including sticks and rocks.

A few of us went swimming in the lake and it was damn cold.  It was pretty much limited to jumping in, screaming, then getting out as quickly as possible.  But after a few minutes when you could feel your skin again it was quite refreshing.  It also gave you a few minutes respite from the mosquito bites until your skin warmed back up.

Notable happy hour items included the ever popular barbeque chicken pizza and beer that Victor had backpacked in and chilled in the lake.  

Everyone was tired after the drive the night before and once the sun started to go down and the mosquitoes got even worse we all decided to turn in. 

Day 2: Summit Attempt & Out

The morning started with a bang at 3:45 am.  That's when the thunder and lightning started right above camp and startled us all awake.  On the plus side it wasn't hard to get everyone up...

The plan was to wake everyone up at 4 and be hiking at 5:30.  Sadly the mosquitos were out in force as soon as we came out of the tent so breakfast was eaten in head nets.  And it even rained on us for a short while.

The route up Stanford starts by climbing right behind our camp.

There was more snow than the last time I was there especially as we got above 10,500.

We reached the point right below the saddle at 11,850' and realized we had a problem.  The last 10 feet or so were just too steep to do safely without an ice axe especially considering the amount of rocks in the fall path if anyone slipped.  Also some places were a bit hairy as there was a thick layer of ice right below the snow.

So sadly we had to turn back.

We couldn't glissade but the snow did make for a fast descent and the breaks were gloriously light on mosquitos.

Back in camp while everyone else tore down their tent while I decided to go for a swim.  It was much warmer than the day before so it felt even better getting out of the ice cold water but I couldn't stay in for any length of time.

Hiking out we crossed the lake outlet immediately below the lake.  This required boots off or a very precarious log crossing but was far better than what we'd done the day before.  And no crocs were lost!

There was one more crossing to be done on the route we took out and this was was short enough to jump.  Just barely...

The trail of Hilton Lakes out always feels a lot longer than it should be since you're doing a small amount of climbing as the trail parallels Rock Creek Road and this time was no different.  Still, we made good time.

Afterwards we went to Taqueria Las Palmas in Bishop for the traditional post trip mexican food.  I'd never been there before but it had good food and was really quick which puts it above most of the other options in Bishop.

We'd barely made it through the door when a brief rainstorm hit.  I just wish it had hit earlier as we were sweating our way down the trail.

And then since we were *right* there a few of us ran over to Mountain Rambler Brewery before making the long drive home.

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