Mount Hilgard From Pine Creek

  • Updated: June 16, 2018
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

June 15th to 17th, 2018
Mount Hilgard (13,361')
Day 1: 7.1 miles, 3,800'
Day 2: 11.5 miles, 4,800'
Day 3: 7 miles, 150'

Originally Jen and I intended to lead this officially for the Sierra Club and we'd grabbed a 9 person permit to that end only to realize we'd likely need ice axes and crampons this early.  So instead it became a private outings and our first real trip to high altitude this season with all the associated joyous struggles that that entails.

Our plan was to hike in via Pine Creek and cross Italy Pass to camp at Lake Italy.  Day two we'd climb Hilgard and Gabb and then we'd have day three to hike out.  What happened instead is we camped on the closer side of the pass due to the amount of snow we hit and only got Hilgard but it still made for a great weekend.

We left Orange County around the usual time but after a few hours both Jen and I found ourselves struggling to stay awake.  Since we had a little bit of flexibility we decided to stop early and sleep at the Keough Hot Ditch bivy site and just finish the drive in the morning.  Unfortunately when we got there all the pools were occupied (one by someone blaring their car speakers at 1 am) and the only place we could have slept was right below crackling power lines.  We decided to keep going.

The Pine Creek trailhead is just north of Bishop and consists of a dirt lot off to the left right before you reach the gate leading to the Pine Creek Mine.  We arrived late and just threw bags out next to the car which is something I generally try and avoid out of paranoia that someone even more sleep deprived that me is going to drive in at 2 am and run us over.

We survived the night and woke up at 6 feeling painfully sleep deprived.  I also don't usually feel altitude effects until I'm really high up but for some reason today I could feel them at the trailhead.  It was a rough start.

Since this was still early season and we were going to be heading up above 13k that meant we had to haul in ice axes and crampons in addition to our other camping gear.  I elected to carry my snow boots in my pack rather than wear them the entire way which turned out to be the right call.  Jen unfortunately discovered that in the rush she'd grabbed her ski boots instead of her mountaineering boots so she was stuck with just light hikers for the entire trip.

There are currently no restrooms at the trailhead though interestingly enough there were a pair of porta potties down the road at the unofficial campground.

The trail runs past a pack station which was occupied but didn't seem to be fully operational yet.

After that there's a short section of beautifully verdant forest before the climbing begins in earnest.

The next 2,000 ft are up ft an old road enjoying views of the mine below and occasional waterfalls up ahead.

Interestingly enough the Pine Creek Mine has apparently been attempting to reinvent itself as a hydroelectric power producer though they've reportedly run into some paperwork issues along the way.  This is a place I'd love to get a tour of some day as the mine itself is reportedly massive as you can see from this map of the workings.

Once you reach the top your rewarded by a spectacular view across Pine Lake.

We also had one heck of a stream crossing here (though we found out on the way down there was a log a bit downstream that was easier.)  The water was cold, deep, and running fast so we had to really watch our footing as we crossed.  Jen wasn't a fan.

We had a second boots off crossing at the top of Upper Pine Lake.  There's always water flowing here but usually it's low enough you can hop along the rocks.  This time 2/3 of the way across the water was high enough it covered the remaining rocks forcing us to wade across in crocs.

The third and final boots off crossing was just above Honeymoon Lake and we were swarmed by mosquitos the moment we stopped.  That kept us moving as we were motivated to get up high enough to escape the blood sucking hoards.

Our plan had been to go up all the way to Lake Italy but that changed at around 11,000 ft as we hit the edge of Granite Park.

Lake Italy would have set us up a lot better for the two peaks we wanted to do the following day but the combination of finding this spectacular camp and looking up at the amount of snow still on the ground above this point made it too appealing to pass up.

We set up the tent with a view of the entire valley below and enjoyed some well earned pasta and wine while we watched the sun set.

The next morning we left camp a little after 6 feeling markedly better than the day before.

Not far up we ran into four people who turned out to also be from Orange County.

They were aiming for Julius Cesar which is right above the pass and then planned to hike out that day.  Unfortunately for all of us the pass was still a few short weeks away from being passable without getting on snow.  And what was there was sun cupped and very prone to postholing.

We stuck to the rocks as best we could and tried to ignore the fact that it would likely be a lot softer when we came back out.  (My last trip up here to climb Julius Cesar in 2013 had turned into a nightmare of postholing that I still remember far too clearly)

Eventually we were over and then had a few miles on the far side descending down to Lake Italy.

Lake Italy was about what I expected based on conditions below.  We could have found a place to camp but it would have been cold and barren so we were both quite happy with where we'd stopped.

The climb up Hilgard from the southwest was straightforward just a lot of gain.  2,100' from the lake to be exact.

We made the summit at 12:30 am

According to the register we were the first people up here this year though it had been fairly heavily climbed last season.

We wanted to get Mount Gabb also but looking at the time and distance there was just no way.  We would have had to descend 1500 ft and then traverse for two miles before climbing back up to 13,700'.  Then of course we'd still have to descend and climb back over the pass.

Instead we decided we'd better head back to camp.

We made it back over the pass around 7 pm hoping that the snow would have hardened back up just a bit...

Unfortunately that wasn't the case and everytime we had to get on it even for the shortest of sections we ended up postholing.  Poor Jen didn't have snow boots (having grabbed her ski boots by mistake) so her feet were getting increasingly cold as the temperature dropped and I ended up giving her veggie bags to help keep them warm.

After what felt like a very long day we made it back to camp at 10 pm.  We forced ourselves to make dinner only to find that exertion and altitude were making it almost impossible to eat and ended up bagging most of it to eat the next day.

Day three was going to be relatively easy since we just had to hike out 7 miles and it was effectively all down.  As a result we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until 7 am and enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

We braced to reenter the mosquito zone below our camp but for whatever reason they were completely absent which was fine by us.  We even managed to avoid taking our boots of for the lowest crossing.

We were back down to the trailhead by 3 pm at which point the fact we'd barely been able to force ourselves to eat the last few days finally caught up with us with a vengeance.

It was Jen's first time going to Las Palmas which is my current favorite mexican food restaurant in Bishop thanks to its ample seating and great food.  Plus it's located right next to the Mountain Rambler brewery which also happened to be somewhere Jen had never been.

One taster flight later we were feeling full, hydrated, and ready to face the long drive home.

Next week it's back to the Southern Sierra for one last trip before it gets too warm down there!

You Might Also Like