John Muir Trail, 1971, 3rd week, South Lake to Onion Valley

3rd Week: South Lake to Onion Valley

Conrad and Steve were pissed that the whole group except them had gone down the road to a cafe, and pigged out on wonderful food.  To make it up to them they were promised a free breakfast and shower at the café the next morning, but they still felt betrayed. I guess if we were thinking we would have brought them something the night before. God it was good to be full of good food. What a peaceful sleep we had!


1st week: Tuollumne to Reds

2nd week: Reds to South Lake

Day 15: Conrad and Steve left early for their promised breakfast and we all slept in at our South Lake camp. The Peca brothers arrived early, accompanied by Madelyn, Nancy, and Wendy’s brother Clay. Madelyn was going with the Pecas on a two day trip, then would rejoin us the next week at Onion Valley. Mike was still out of it, besides, we had lost one of his boots in getting him off Silver Pass.

The Peca’s, about six of them, planned to go over Bishop Pass, on over Thunderbolt Pass, a cross country route, and camp at the Barrett lakes on the other side. This was a very hard trip for his group of young boys and 3 girls. They charged off with our best wishes, and we leisurely set about our food packing over watermelon and trail lunches. We planned to go over the same route, Barrett Lakes via Thunderbolt Pass.

During the packing, Conrad went off to buy something at the store down by the dam, and when he returned Beth was with him, much to my surprise. At Yosemite she had said that the drive over would be too long and she wouldn’t be able to make it to South Lake. I agreed that the southern food drops were too far to drive from Modesto. She had driven up anyway and arrived that morning. It was a good thing she had met Conrad at Tuolumne so they recognized each other.

She joined us for lunch, as did Ed Alcott and his wife, and we finished up packing food and rearranging cook groups. Beth and I walked down to her car and got her little rucksack together for an overnight camp. She would accompany us to Saddlerock lake for the night, then she would hike back to South Lake on Sunday, and drive home to Modesto.
Letter from Mike:

Bob: Made it out to the phone at Shaver lake—41 miles. Hiked 7-10, hitch-hiked the rest. Aggravated blisters on pavement hike—pretty bad now. Sue came Wed 12:00 and picked us up, home again by 6:30. Mom and Dad due next week. I’ll be up Onion Valley if I can coerce Ken into taking 2 more people (Madeline and I). Big troubles with Peca expedition, but it you get this, they’ve been worked out. Gaad! Never again!

$150 cash left—with $60 owed to Y, plus Powell’s van and other little trips. Not very unlikely we’ll need another $5 or $10 a head to cover it, but don’t know for sure yet. $150 in Y’s Hikers treasury we might have to dig into.

First day home was a blast. In prep for Mom I had to vacuum rug, clean up, do dishes—I’ll make some girl a good wife.

I enclosed what extra food I could find to beef up your post hell week. Not much, but it will help.

Mom and Dad bought 10 acres in Palisade, near Bedford’s they wrote. The three month stay in Colo lasted 2 weeks, they’ll be home soon. They went back to Kansas, Grandpa’s, Billies, The Carlton picnic and all.

Peca leaves tomorrow night (Fri) for S. Lake, and I’m gonna attempt to help get things in order here—so, see you at O. Valley. Sorry I couldn’t make it up there, but I couldn’t hike far with you and Peca looks pretty cramped for room (and I bet someone’s coming back from your group. am I right?

Your clean and full bro.


We left the parking lot in the afternoon, reaching Saddlerock Lake after a leisurely hike up. Beth was really hard put to make it, no matter how slow she and I went. We got to camp an hour behind the first groups and set about making fires as the sun went down. Beth, Nancy, Chuck and I ate together at a camp in trees by the lake shore. Beth and I slept in a stand of trees near camp after a short fire at the other two groups’ camps.

We had a long day ahead today, so much as I would have liked to spend the day with Beth we had to be off. The others took off before me, and I walked Beth down partway to South Lake. After leaving her, I charged up Bishop Pass, hoping to catch up to the Mob by noon. On the way I passed the Peca’s, strung out and wiped out. They had been unable to cross Thunderbolt Pass the day before, and had bivouacked below it. No wood, no water, no grass to sleep on. The group had eaten cold food and two of the young boys were quite tired and cold. Madelyn apparently had been one of the strongest of the group, an overweight girl being the main hindrance. They would camp the night at Saddlerock, then hike down to South Lake.

Looking up at Bishop Pass and Mt. Agassiz, from near Saddlerock Lake.

Letter from Bob to Mike:


Everyone OK here. Madelyn sure surprised me at South lake. How’s the leg? Hurry back. I’m going crazy with this bunch of nuts.

Thanks for the food, send more. No real problems in the Evolution Valley, but lots of hard work. Got to go, Beth is here. Thank God! See you at Onion Valley.


Letter from Beth to Mike, July 4, 1971

Dear Mike: I told Bob I would drop you a little line. First of all, I’d like to devote a sentence of two to my observations of the trip. I have never seen Bob so edgy and uptight. He has always been easy going and level headed. He said he hoped you would be well enough to join the trip at Onion Valley or at least come up for a visit on the food drop. I believe he needs a little of your brotherly companionship. This is not what I am supposed to write so I’ll get down to other things.

The group needs more dried milk. Conrad and Steve tried to buy some at South Lake but other packers had bought out the general store. So they are going to do without for awhile.

Susan might like to know that Robert had written a letter to her. But when he lost his Starr’s Guide at South lake the letter and notes and everything else was also lost. So she is not forgotten. He really appreciated the candy. And, he appreciated your dividing up the cheese. It did save them time.

Well, enough’s enough. I’d hope your leg is OK, Mike, and Susan’s job is going well.


Beth Millerman

I caught up with the group at the top of Bishop Pass, where they were eating lunch. Chuck was just leaving with three others to climb nearby Mt. Agassiz, a climb of 2000' to the 13,891' summit. Wait a minute, were we on speed in those days?  Who needs that kind of workout after reaching the top of a 12,000' pass?  The rest of us had a leisurely lunch before we started on the cross country jaunt over Thunderbolt pass to Barret lakes. This pass is not in the climbers guide but is a good shortcut to the Barret Lakes, avoiding Dusy Basin and Knapsack Pass, which we had used the previous year on a 9-day trip.

Above: the Mob on Bishop Pass.

Above: the Mob on Bishop Pass.

Above: From the top of 13,891' Mt. Agassiz, looking at North Palisade and (right) and Sill (left).

Above: From the top of 13,891' Mt. Agassiz, looking at North Palisade and (right) and Sill (left).

Nancy was really having a hard time keeping up and we stopped to rest quite a bit. Those of us who had been hiking steadily were getting in pretty good shape, with all the 10,000' passes and heavy packs. On the top of the pass were three packs and the camps of some climbers. We waited here for an hour and a half, snacking and waiting for Chuck. We finally saw them coming much higher than we had come from, and they acknowledged our yells.

At their approach we packed up and headed down the ice fields toward Barrett Lakes, romping down and sliding all the way. Above the lake I stopped to guide Chuck and crew to the camp. John and the others went on to pick a good camp site. I was enjoying the sunshine and being alone until Chuck showed up on the pass. I flashed them with a mirror and they homed in on me, then we went on down to what we thought would be a camp.

Barrett Lake, looking up at North Palisade.

At the lake we found it clear of ice and dry ground around its edge. We began gathering wood before dark. By then the woodpile for my group was waist high and growing, our fire burning higher than I usually have a campfire.

We had lots of food tonight. Chuck, Conrad and I talked around our fire until late into the night. I am truly thankful for Conrad’s constant tranquility. He is never up tight, always helpful, and always one to be counted on in an emergency.

Day 17: Chuck and I set off to climb the peak next to North Palisade, Polomonium Peak. A quick breakfast for Chuck and I, then off we went for the U notch, a notch in the ridge between North Palisade and Polomonium Peak. From this side, the south side, it was mostly scree and talus climbing until the upper third, then onto some more solid rock and talus. At the U Notch we met some other climbers, a group of three Sierra Clubbers climbing North Palisade, and a pair of hot dog rock climbers who knew little about mountaineering.

Below: taken from around the top of the U notch, looking down at Palisade Glacier.  Whoa Baby, that gave me butterflies!

At the U notch we had a good view of the Palisade Glacier, since from the U notch to the north was about straight down to the Palisade Glacier thousands of feet straight down. From there we would climb below and upon the ridge of the Palisades to the east, to Polomonium Peak. The first pitch looked reasonable so I led it, hoping to give Chuck the fearsome appearing second lead. The pitch was quite exposed and after 80-90 feet I anchored with slings and belayed Chuck up. Then he did a pitch about the same as the first, with fairly easy moves and solid handholds, but very exposed. The third pitch took me over a jagged notch and to a very small belay spot on a blank wall, very exposed. Chuck followed and a few feet before reaching my belay spot climbed up a crack for 10 feet, then up some 3rd class for 20 feet. It’s a good thing he’s climbed this route before, because the route is impossible to find by using the climbers guide. The crack Chuck led was definitely 5th class and exposed, though he used no protection, and anchored himself with ‘biners and slings. From here I led through house sized boulders, over the tops and between them, to within 20 feet of the summit. Chuck led the last move onto the summit block of Polomonium Peak, and we rested. The summit block was dining table sized, and flat, one side vertical to the glacier below. I definitely didn’t hang my feet over the edge, and could barely peek over the edge.

We watched the rock climbers 400 yards to the west, on the other side of the U notch.

“What’s the big peak over there?” they asked.

“That is North Palisade. It’s only a scramble from where you are. You ought to go climb it.” They had already done the hard part of the climb, climbing the glacier and the wall of the U notch. They sure didn’t know much about the area if they didn’t know they were on North Palisade, the most dominant and difficult peak in the area. Mike and I had climbed it last year, so I preferred climbing a peak I hadn’t climbed before, like Polomonium. One of them repelled down to the U notch. When he was down the guy who was left called down to him for instructions on how to rappel. Oh boy, that is a very dangerous thing to do with no practice. I guess they weren’t so experienced at rock climbing after all.

We had a short snack on the windy summit, then crossed a fluted snow field (8” fluting) and began the down climb of a notch in the ridge. This was definitely 4th class and exposed, and coming down last and without protection was uncomfortable. From the bottom of this notch we continued with 3rd class scrambling below the crest of the ridge, galloping to the summit of Sill in 30 minutes or so. It was really great to be climbing hard at 14,000 feet and not being really tired, just breathing strongly. On the peak of Sill we opened the register and what the Hell? A book but no pencil! A quick assessment showed us having as writing materials: water, powdered tea, chocolate, coffee powder, and hard candy. One letter at a time I wrote the date and our names with water, then sprinkled instant coffee on the wet letter. The effect was rather distinctive, looking like curdled, dried blood.

From Sill we bombed down to the east in the large bowl created by Sill and the peak we named Sucker Peak when we had climbed it a few years previously with Wally, thinking it was Sill. Then we traversed around the shoulder of the rock to the south, and came around at a point to the east of the Barrett lakes. Here the snow was soft and we could tell that our planned route over the cross country pass of last year's 9-day trip would be very hard with the snow cover of this year. We sloshed our way back down to the Barrett Lakes and had supper before dark. A conference concerning routes resulted in a change of plans. Because of the snow cover at this elevation, we would bomb straight down and rejoin the Muir Trail some 3 miles below the Palisade Lakes rather than stay high on the cross country route that had been so nice last year.

Day 18: to Palisade Lakes.  We all got up early for a change and got a good start. We stayed together in the morning, hoping to reach the Muir Trail by noon. In midmorning Chuck and Wes got separated from the main group and went bombing away. We got together above the trail and had a quiet rest and lunch on Palisade Creek. I left early after lunch and hiked alone almost to the Palisade lakes, where I stopped to write letters as the others passed. This trail is really beautiful with flowers and flowing water, perhaps the best country covered on the trip so far.

Looking back down the valley of Palisade Creek, toward the peaks of the Black Divide.  This was at the start of the Golden Staircase, I believe.

We reached the Palisade Lakes at mid afternoon and spent an afternoon in the sun, writing letters and sleeping. Camp was open, spread out, protected and lovely in a stand of pines. Cheesecake for dessert but not enough food to fill us. We had a good campfire into the night talking about fencing and swimming then went to be bed hungry. The trouble was, I couldn’t bitch about the food because I had planned it. Sorry about that folks. The moon tonight was so bright you could actually read a book by it. A very lovely view of the lakes and the moon. Hungry as hell.

Below: Palisade Lake, with Mather Pass on the ridge behind.

Day 19: We hoped to make much mileage today, if possible crossing both Mather and Pinchot passes. We were on top of Mather by 10:00 and the Mob bombed off toward Pinchot Pass as Chuck and I split off to climb Split Mountain.

below: from near Mather Pass looking back at Palisade Lakes.

From the top of Mather Pass looking toward the Kings River, Lake Margorie, and Pinchot Pass.

Above: from the south side of Mather Pass, looking north to where we had come over.

Above: from the south side of Mather Pass, looking north to where we had come over.

I wasn’t going to climb Split since I had already climbed it twice, and had broken my foot on it the previous year when a loose rock rolled down and smashed my foot. Split Mtn was a big pile of loose rocks, with no solid sections like the granite of the Palisades. I waited at the lake below it and spent 3 or 4 hours napping, waiting for Chuck. At 2:00 I talked to some climbers coming down and they said Chuck had jogged past them on the way to Split and then was on his way down before they reached the peak. Last seen he was bounding toward Split’s sister peak, Prater.

Chuck returned to my lake an hour or so later, and we left for Pinchot Pass at 4:00. We steamed across the high plateau and didn’t stop until we reached the Kings River. Here Chuck stopped to eat and said he was really wiped out. I don’t why, I was feeling just fine. Crossing the Kings River required a ford, below.

From the river we climbed out of its gorge and on toward Pinchot Pass. We would not make it before night and would possibly have to camp on this side of it the way things were going. We planned to stop and rest at Marjorie Lake below the Pass and when we saw the world-famous Tuolumne Mob there we blessed them and dropped our weary butts for a rest.

Apparently Nancy had been wiped out on the climb out of the Kings River and Conrad had decided she wouldn’t make it over the pass and down to camp on the other side before dark. They had left the King’s River at 4:00, and made camp at 5:00. We arrived at 6:00. We had enough food to eat tonight, and Chuck, Nancy and I made two far out fruit cakes with chocolate topping. We raided our trail lunches for raisins, peanuts and chocolate for the cakes. This lake is very high and beautiful, but with very little wood. I wouldn’t camp here again if I needed a wood fire. There are lakes a bit lower which have plenty of campsites and wood for fires.

Day 20: We left Lake Marjorie and tore over Pinchot Pass like a pack of anemic turtles, with Steve and I bringing up the rear. On the top of the the 12,500' pass pass we watched a pilot buzz the Woods Lake area in front of us, again and again. He was mostly below us in elevation. Chuck and I went from the Pass to climb 13,500' Pinchot Peak.

After climbing Pinchot Peak,  Chuck and I headed down Woods Creek, and up the South Fork of Woods Creek, past Twin Lakes, past Dollar and Arrowhead Lakes, and toward the Rae lakes. It was a long ways and we became exhausted. The scenery around Woods lake is quite lovely and we moved slowly. On the climb toward Rae lake we started moving out and flew on as dusk deepened. At the lakes we didn’t see our people, but the hordes of scouts kept pointing us on toward the spit of rock dividing the lakes. We almost missed our group, which was camped on the top of a hill in the center of the isthmus. The mosquitoes were bad, but got fewer as evening deepened. We had fires late into the night with puddings for dessert and Chuck burnt our popcorn by trying to cook it on a Primus gas stove. Below: Rae Lakes, and Painted Lady.

Day 21: The plan for today was to get up before dawn and have a sunrise breakfast on the first pass of the day, Glenn Pass. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? The motivation was Onion Valley, where we looked forward to food, showers, and, refreshment. For the first time Chuck and I were the last out of the sack, last to break camp, etc. We got up at our usual time, shortly after dawn, and by then most of the group was packed and leaving. We got up and headed for Glenn Pass, all of us arriving at 8:00 or so for a breakfast cooked on Primus and Svea stoves. The side of Glenn Pass which we came up was partly covered with snow, and for the exercise Chuck went straight up the snow rather than on the trail. After a short breakfast we bombed down Glenn Pass and headed for Kearsarge Pass.

Looking up at Glenn Pass, from the north.

We ambled through the dry wooded area and explored some side trails. We had agreed to meet at Bullfrog Lake for lunch before hitting the pass, and everyone gathered there at 2:00 or so except Chuck. Lunch was very leisurely, but no Chuck as of 3:00. The others left and I stayed to wait for Chuck, since several people had seen him behind us during the day. At 4:00, no Chuck, so I started back, jogging the 4 miles to the top of Glenn Pass. I jogged back and at our lunch spot where I had left my pack I met some hikers who bore a message from the Mob. Chuck had gotten ahead of us during the afternoon and everyone was on route to Onion Valley. That was a relief, but I had just jogged 8 miles in addition to the days mileage. Below: Bullfrog Lake

By now it was dark and I was tired. By the top of Kearsarge Pass, I was really tired and nearing total exhaustion as I drifted down the other side. Chuck met me when I was half way down, on his way up after me. At our camp in the campground at Onion Valley we had been rejoined by Madelyn accompanied by two of her friends. They brought beer and a party was in progress. We cooked supper and consumed as much food as was possible, then everyone drifted over to the Onion Valley store - a rustic log building with a dining room and small store (it was torn down sometime in the 70's and the foundation is all that is left). Inside were the cowboys who ran the pack outfit, and we sat around telling lies about the trip and drinking beer. As the night wore on the refreshment flowed, and the cowboys sang a few cowboy songs. Kevin was becoming friendly, in a 15 year old way, with the 16 year old waitress. The height of the evening came in the chug-a-lug contest. John and Man Mountain Steve drank against three cowboys, and Steve shut them all down.

At that we left, all but Kevin, that is, who stayed for a few minutes to talk with the waitress. After 5 minutes I went in after him and we went back to camp, swaying all over the road. I had visions of Kevin’s parents showing up, and wondering what the hell kind YMCA trip we ran. I had a feeling that some parents might show up tomorrow to resupply clothes and food. As Kevin and I staggered toward camp, a car pulled up that looked suspiciously familiar. A window came down and my Mom’s head came out and said “Hi, Bob.” I tried very hard to talk rationally and not with any slurs, and got in the car to talk for a while. Kevin went on to camp and beer cans there were hurriedly collected and stashed. Back in the car I chatted with Mom and Dad. They had returned from Colorado where they had bought property. Mike was coming back on the hike for the last week, his groin muscle apparently doing better and with a new pair of boots supplied by Kelty.

Ken Primmer was also on his way to join us for the last week. Jim Lawrence and Roger Bell were coming for a weekend backpack in the area.

John came down from camp and said hi to my folks, then I went with him back to camp. Kevin’s parents were on their way, we learned, and would have a cow if they found their 15 year old son drunk. I told him they were coming and to start thinking of getting sober. Actually he had only had four beers over the course of the evening, but that was more than he had ever had, and he was definitely tipsy. We were all in bed by 11:00, and just as I was getting comfortable lying in the desert sand between sagebrush bushes, a figure was over my head whispering “is this the Muir Trail group from Lancaster?”

“Yes” I said as I slid deeper into my bag. “Where is Kevin Anderson?” The air was silent except for a wind in the sage around us. “I think he’s over that way,” I directed him. It was Kevin's Dad, and he found Kevin and talked in low tones for a few minutes before he left.

“Hey, Kevin, what did your Dad say?” someone asked.

“He said my Mother and brother are here and will have breakfast with me in Independence tomorrow.”

“Is that all?”

“Yeah. I don’t think he smelled my breath. He didn’t say anything.” (I'm sure our body odor was stronger than any smell of alcohol)

We finally got settled down again and I let the wind off the desert take me off to sleep.