SHR Day 12 – July 14
Merriam Creek to Frazier Lake
Big Bean Dinner Camp to Double Alpenglow Camp
Passes: Puppet Pass, Snow Tongue Pass
The morning was bright, though cool by the time we got moving around 7:20am. The mosquitos were still asleep for at least a few more minutes, so SpiceRack and I could just enjoy working back into our bodies for the day. In just a few minutes, we were on a light trail, taking us steeply down to the bottom of French Canyon far below. Protected from the sun and breeze in the trees, the mosquitos came out in full force and it took a cloud of DEET to save our sanity.
Shortly, we met the trail up French Canyon and took a left. We followed it for a couple miles through a lushness that we hadn’t felt all trip so far. The air was dense and heavy with cool moisture. There was green life all around. Almost too much life. There were even a couple of deer kicking around.
At yet another junction, we took a right, headed out of the canyon. Soon we were hopping around the shore of Elba Lake and with other French-themed lakes. Spice asked me what animals different people in our lives would be in their next life. This conversation put me in a somber mood, and provided sharp contrast to the amount of life surrounding us. Birds chirping, marmots blobbing out, pika screaming at us, flowers all around.
We left trail to hop over a hump to Puppet Lake. The views from up there were incredible. Though our route behind is was mostly hidden behind walls of granite, familiar peaks dotted the horizon. Bear Creek Spire was particularly menacing in a friendly sort of way. We dipped our toes in the inlet to Paris Lake, then pointed ourselves towards Puppet Pass, a wide cliff of broken boulders about one mile away.
On the approach, it was unclear where to paint our footprints on such a wide canvas. The entire width looked doable, but not particularly pleasant or easy. The guidebook gave us no specific instructions, which was both reassuring and frustratingly unhelpful. Fortunately, our map gave us a clue that sticking left next to a cliff was a good idea. After a short water break where we discussed our options, we pointed up the talus towards a hippopotamus sized and shaped rock. Our choice proved fortuitous as a viable route through the chaos unveiled itself. Section by section, we worked our way up, and within 20 minutes, I followed Spice over the last ledge.
In front of us was the impossibly wide Humphreys Basin, a titanic arena of undulating sand and cliffs with blue lakes, big and small, tucked into these folds of the earth. Mount Humphreys’ presence was oppressive in an ‘impossible not to stare at’ kind of way. Standing alone in the east, the jagged ridge of red rock was both imposing and inspiring. To the west was the perhaps even more imposing Glacier Divide. The dark ridge of cliffs cut for miles across the distant horizon, with small dirty glaciers dotted below. Unlike Humphreys, I couldn’t write off this feature as merely something to look at. Nope, our next obstacle, Snow Tongue Pass would somehow get us across that vertical fin. We scanned for our route, but it all looked so impossible that I couldn’t be totally confident in any one place. We would need to wait and see.
We had a great swim and lunch along the sandy shores of Mesa Lake, then continued the easiest of cross country travel towards Paiute Creek. From there, we identified with certainty our pass. Man, it looked scary. We were ready for our biggest challenge since Sky Pilot Col, but that didn’t make looking at it any less intimidating. The crumbly pile of sand and boulders looked darn near vertical. We knew to expect a mess of very unstable material, which would make for some unnerving travel. Even the approach to the hard stuff looked arduous. A couple miles of boulder hopping would test our ankle flexibility long before we even got to the good stuff. There wasn’t anything left to do, but go for it.
We took a final break to refresh our beta after many boulders hopped. It was actually fun going, though slow. I appreciated how the effort took my mind off the obstacle ahead. While we rested, another pair caught up with us, the first fellow SHR SOBOs of the trip. They churned ahead and gave us a good show as we watched them take on the final 200ft of the pass from the boulders below.
Our guidebook said go left, but they went right. Spice and I watched intently as the moved one by one up a mixture of sand and talus. It seemed sketchy for sure, but they did a good job, making it up safely in 15 minutes.
The wait hadn’t helped my nerves at all, and now I was farting up a storm of stress farts (I actually don’t think that’s a real thing, but I was farting a lot and that’s my excuse). We made our way to the base of the climb. Beta be damned, we decided to follow our friends up the right side. I took my first tentative steps on the sand. Loose, loosey goosey. I grabbed a solid looking rock. Not solid at all. It pulled out a few inches with gentle coaxing. I put my trekking poles away. They wouldn’t be helpful here.
The lower third was the worst. Spice and I took turns climbing 30ft or so to the next stable place before waiting for the other to move forward. Treading carefully, we tried not to start any rocks tumbling and were mostly successful. An unnerving traverse, clinging to a loose pile of crap, got us to relatively stable rock at the base of a cliff. Looking back at SpiceRack, with the consequences of many feet of air below her, knowing how tenuous the holds were, was a pretty unwelcome feeling. But she made it up like a pro, stoic in her concentration.
The final two thirds required care, but was more stable and less sandy. 30 minutes after starting, I hauled myself over the lip of the pass, into the bright evening sunshine. We hugged and tried not to look back the way we came. Fortunately, the way down on the other side looked straight forward, just some classic SHR benches. Far below, and looking beautiful was Frazier Lake, our stopping point. I gave Snow Tongue one last terrible look, then followed Spice down.
The gentle stroll down the valley through fields of purple flowers was just what we needed to calm our frayed nerves. While I gathered water, Spice found the best campsite in the whole wide world on our bench above Evolution Valley. We set up to cowboy camp were treated to not one, but two alpenglow shows on the peaks of the Evolution group. A lot of beans and Oreos for dinner to celebrate being alive and handling one of our biggest obstacles with style. Life feels a little brighter.