Sierra High Route Day 11: Elba Lake to Brown Bear Lake, It’s a Mental Game (Mostly)

Day 11

Total Miles: 9.4

Cumulative Miles: 135.4

Elevation Gain: 2767 ft

Elevation Loss: 2702

Camp: Brown Bear Lake

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Map of Sierra High Route Day 11 from Elba Lake, over Feather and White Bear Passes and down to Brown Bear Lake

“Wow, what you are doing is really hard” said Jean, “I couldn’t do it”. I stared in disbelief, mainly because I really think she COULD do it. We had just met Jean and her friend Ginna at the top of Feather Pass, an off-trail pass of medium difficulty. We had watched them from the top of the pass pick a good route coming up the way we were about to start down. Through the snowfield, up a crack, along a ledge they came. I could tell that both women, in their 50’s from California, were experienced. That became even more clear after talking with them for several minutes. Both had been hiking for 20-30 years in the Sierras and were comfortable with off-trail travel. They also seemed to be in good shape.

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Feather Pass is the low saddle in the middle of the picture. Perhaps the pointed peaks behind the pass look like feathers?

Our conversation with them highlights what I haven’t been able to wrap my head around. In California (and maybe elsewhere), the Sierra High Route has a reputation as being an extreme endeavor. It has been called the hardest hike in America and people have said it requires super-human endurance and extreme skills in off trail navigation. Would I have hiked it had I known more about the “reputation” of it? How much does fear itself hold us back? A lot, I think, but then there are also the limits of what each of us can do physically, especially as we get older. But so much of this is mental….

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Hiking down Feather Pass on the North side through a snowfield

I think about this as we pick our way down Feather Pass following the general route we saw the two women take. I can do this because I believe I can. But there is no doubt it is an extreme mental and physical challenge.

Today’s hike, so far, has been straightforward, at least as far as route finding. We left Elba Lake and dropped down into French Canyon where we hike the Pine Creek Pass trail for about 2.5 miles.

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Waterfalls dropping down into French Canyon from Royce Lakes

Then we leave the main trail and take a faint use trail which climbs mostly straight up 800 feet in about a mile to a meadow and then up a steep slope to Merriam Lake.

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Hiking up slope from French Canyon to Merriam Lake

Merriam Lake is beautiful and I slip it onto my mental checklist for places to come back to. Pointed granitic peaks curl around a lake that reflects back like the shiny glass cover on my phone. There are great camping spots here.

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The beautiful Merriam Lake

The rest of the day is spent going over Feather Pass and then onto White Bear Pass. It is fun navigating through this section by using our own skills and following Roper’s directions. We find a great chute to the right that takes us up past a rock pile above LaSalle Lake and below Feather Pass. I love these passageways defined so well by a geologic page, a sentence describing a crustal fracture formed during a plutonic uplift. Now it is a path we take.

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Finding a route through a chute that is better than a rock pile above La Salle Lake

Roper cautions about drop offs below Feather Pass but we followed the route we saw the two women come up and had no problem.

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Feather Pass

White Bear Pass is next and this is an unusual pass with a deep lake at the top.

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White Bear Pass with a lake at the top

We ponder how the lake got here (there is no drainage basin above it) and then work our way down White Bear Pass to the right along steep willow and grass ramps on the north side. The left side is all cliff and not the way to go. It is so easy to take the wrong route out here; every step counts. We work down towards Brown Bear Lake.

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Coming down the north side of White Bear Pass

There is a starkness to this area; the gray granite seeps into the lakes and sky and there are no other rocks besides the granite to speak their story. It is getting dark and it looks like rain. We hear thunder and it starts to pelt rain on us as we near Brown Bear Lake. Although it is only mid-afternoon, we throw the tent up, and jump in. Sometimes it is better to stop and keep dry then to keep going and get wet hiking in the rain.

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Our camp spot at Brown Bear Lake. There were great reflections in the evening. White Bear Pass, which we came down in early afternoon, is the saddle behind the lake

After a half hour, the rain blows on through and we enjoy the evening by the lake with soft reflections and sharper edges from a clean sky. Ray follows an American dipper, or Water Ouzel, around taking pictures. Ray ducks and runs and I cannot help to think he is bopping up and down just like the bird.

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John Muir loved the American Dipper, or Water Ouzel, so much he devoted an entire chapter to them in his book “The Mountains of California”
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John Muir on the Water Ouzel: “He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me up so much in my lonely wandering”.

Video of the Day: Brown Bear Lake Looking Toward White Bear Pass

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