Sierra High Route Day 4: Over Frozen Lake and Mather Passes

Day 4
Total Miles: 11.8
Cumulative Miles: 57.2
Elevation Gain: 3456 ft
Elevation Loss: 2506 ft
Camp: Lake Below Cirque Pass
Sierra High Route Day 4, past Marion Lake, Over Frozen Lake Pass and Maher Pass
Today we tackle one of the most difficult parts of the Sierra High Route: Frozen Lake Pass. There is unstable, vertical steep talus to climb up to get Frozen Lake Pass and class 2-3 slope going down that Roper states is “unstable rock and is difficult to avoid instigating small rockslides”. I know I am a strong hiker and can scramble with the best of them but this is one of the hardest passes on the Sierra High Route. Ray is also a strong hiker and scrambler so I think we will be ok. But today will be the true test of whether we are up for this route.
We will get to Frozen Lake Pass fairly early as we are camped about 3.5 miles below the pass. After we go over Frozen Lake Pass we will cut cross country for about a mile, then join the John Muir Trail for about 6 miles as we go over Mather Pass and past Palisade Lakes. The Sierra High Route then leaves the John Muir Trail to cut up and over Cirque Pass. Our plan is to at least get past Palisades Lakes so that we can be off the John Muir Trail and back in the more lonely high country.
The morning is bright and clear and I feel pretty strong as we start up through the Lakes Basin.
Crossing the Lakes Basin

There is a lake at 11,616 feet below Frozen Lake Pass. We stop for a break and discuss what route to take to the pass.

Frozen Lake Pass is the notch in the middle of the photo

The talus pile is huge with boulders mostly the size of small cars. There is a cliff and ridge towards the top that looks like a good place to traverse the last part to the pass. Ray and I spread out and take our own paths up towards the top. That way we at least avoid sending large boulders down on each other.

Climbing the infamous talus of the Sierras on the south side of Frozen Lake Pass
The best route up the south side of Frozen Lake Pass is along the cliff that takes you up to the notch. You can see me in this picture partway up along the cliff.

I am glad that my pack is lightweight and snug to my back. With only 2 days of food left for this section, and one liter of water, my pack probably only weighs 21 pounds or so. It is saving me right now, I think to myself as I take another 5-foot jump across from one Subaru-sized rock to another the size of a Volkswagen bus.

And then we are there! The top of Frozen Lake Pass.
ON the top of Frozen Lake Pass
Looking down the north side to the not so frozen lake below Frozen Lake Pass

It is beautiful at the top; the sparkle of the “frozen” lake below which is not so frozen anymore. And the rockpile – my God, we have to go down that?? Luckily there is still a sizable snowfield so once we get past the steep, unstable rock, we can slide our way down to the lake.

The sky is a bluebird sky and I wish I could fly like one but instead we claw our way down to the snow and slide on down to the lake. 
Hiking across the snowfields on the north side of Frozen Lake Pass

Made it. It wasn’t so bad after all. I quite enjoyed the snowfield!

The north side of Frozen Lake Pass
Great photo by Ray of the moon peaking over the rocks

By afternoon, we are on the John Muir Trail working our way to the top of Mather Pass. It is easy back and forth switchbacks to the top. After this morning and Frozen Lake Pass, I think any trail is easy. At least you know where you are going and don’t have car- and house-sized boulders to climb over. 

Back on the John Muir Trail on Mather Pass

There are lots of people on the trail, many with heavy packs. A ranger at the top of Mather Pass checks our permit. He also tells us that they have closed Yosemite because of the fires. The last part of our hike is through Yosemite so Ray and I start to wonder if we can complete our hike. We will have to see what happens over the next few weeks.

We hike past the Palisade Lakes and leave the John Muir Trail to start up over Cirque Pass. 
Climbing up cliff bands towards Cirque Pass

We have to climb up several ledges that are a little tricky but eventually stop at a small lake about 400 feet below Cirque Pass. A whiff of smoke is in the air as we drift off to sleep.

Unnamed lake below Cirque Pass and camp for the night



  1. The pass is so smooth and rounded (not withstanding the boulder field) with such steep sides. Like a circus tent. It makes me wonder why they call it “Cirque Pass?”

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