Sierra High Route Day 24: Iceberg Lake to Twin Island Lakes, It Can All Change in a Second

Total Miles: 8.72

Cumualtive Miles: 244

Elevation Gain: 2819 ft

Elevation Loss: 2948 ft

Camp: Twin Island Lake

Sierra High Route from Iceberg Lake to Twin Island Lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area
Iceberg Lake before we leave camp in the morning.

I watch the helicopter overhead and it reminds me of how quickly and easily something can happen. How what starts off as a fun adventure can turn into a nightmare quickly. The helicopter is headed to a meadow right above Iceberg Lake where we camped last night. It is a rescue operation for a guy we passed this morning.

Helicopter flying to meadow above Iceberg Lake for a rescue.

We didn’t expect to see anyone this morning, and certainly not a person who needed to be rescued. The Sierra High Route heads cross country from where we are at Iceberg Lake, over the passes of Whitebark, Easy Saddle and North Glacier. It is rough territory and not usually traveled. We had only hiked about a mile and a half and it was still fairly early when we came across the party that needed help. There were 5 guys, three of them in their 50s and two guys in their twenties. One of the guys was half submerged in the glacial creek and appeared to be in pain. “It’s his ACL”, said the younger guy who came over to talk to us. “He has torn it and we are calling for a rescue”. The guy who had torn the ACL in his knee, tried to stand up and smile. I think he was embarrassed but out here, you do what you need to survive. Ray and I offered to help, use our inReach to call out, or provide anything else. “We have three doctors here” said the young guy. They clearly had it under control and it was just a matter of time waiting for the helicopter.

Waterfalls above Iceberg Lake

I thought about this the rest of the day (well, at least until we got into a downpour and sketchy river crossing later in the day). We often take for granted that everything will be ok. Or maybe I do. Ray and I carry one Garmin Inreach Explorer between the two of us, figuring if something were to happen to one of us, the other could use it to call for a rescue. The Garmin Inreach Explorer allows you to connect to the Iridium Satellite network and send out emergency messages, or just messages to family and friends. There is often no cell coverage in areas where we are hiking so this becomes an important item for safety.

Glacial chatter marks on a rock above Nydiver Lakes

So far, we have used it for updating family and friends on where we are and that everything is ok. I am still debating on whether we need two units, one for each of us. I think in most situations one unit is ok. The only situation that requires two units is if the person that is carrying the unit falls off an edge or cliff, and the other person has no way of calling for help. It is not out of the question that we could get into this situation, especially on some of our exposed hikes in the Grand Canyon. We may need to relook at this.

Is this enough exposure for us to carry two Inreach Explorer units?

Despite the excitement of the morning, we are soon into “gaze around, damn this is pretty” mode. We hike over Whitebark and Easy Saddle passes. It is definitely one of the most spectacular parts of the Sierra High Route.

Whitebark Pass on the Sierra High Route

We stop for lunch behind Thousand Island Lake. This is a huge lake and the other side of it is very popular for those hiking the John Muir Trail. But you would never know it on this side of the lake. It feels remote.

A view of Thousand Island Lake from the more remote, southwestern side. The John Muir Trail passes by the northeastern side of the lake which is very popular for camping.
The Sierra High Route (red line with “P” for the passes of Whitebark, Easy and North Glacier) is on the opposite side of Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes from the John Muir Trail (dashed line on topo map)

We crest North Glacier Pass after some climbs through a few snowfields and of course more talus!

Ray hiking through a snowfield on the way up to North Glacier Pass. This is a great example of “suncups”, the bowl-shade depressions in the snow, formed as the snow melts.
Ray and I on the top of North Glacier Pass with Lake Catherine in the background.
Lake Catherine with Mount Ritter and Banner Peak in the background. The way to climb these peaks is up the glacier in the middle.

The terrain after Lake Catherine changes dramatically and the pace slows way down. In Walking With Wired’s blog, she talks about it taking 6 hours to go 1.7 miles and getting lost. Roper states “many hikers have been temporarily lost in this section” and to consult your map often. I don’t understand this until we start working our way through the area between Lake Catherine and Twin Lakes. It is slow going as we walk through rounded ridges of granite with drop offs and deep cracks. It is easy to get stuck in a crack on a ridge that requires you to go back up and try the next one. The route finding through here is intense.

Route finding between Lake Catherine and northern Twin Island Lake

By late afternoon we are getting close to northern Twin Island Lake and the one significant water crossing on the Sierra High Route. We have to cross northern Twin Lake right above the outlet before it plunges down the granite into a cascade of bubbly, frothy mess to begin anew as the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. I think about the consequences of slipping and going over the edge. Supposedly the crossing isn’t too bad but it can be deep. Then it starts to rain. Uh, oh. What is the crossing going to be like as we are now slippery as wet rats and it is pouring rain?

Ray crossing the outlet of northern Twin Lakes in a downpour.

The crossing turns out to be fairly uneventful and at the most knee deep, but it is now late in the day, it is pouring rain, and our feet are wet from the crossing. We hang out under a rock ledge for a while but decide to put the tent up. Tomorrow will not be a early start for us. We will need to dry everything out. This area is not for the faint of heart.

Camp at northern Twin Island Lake as the sky clears after a thunderstorm that lasted several hours.

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