JMT Section Hike: Bishop Pass to Sawmill Pass (1970)

Itinerary: Sat to Saddlerock Lake

Sun over Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin, climb Mt. Agassiz

Mon to Palisade Basin, over xc pass climb North Palisade

Tues to Palisade Lake, over xc pass climb Sucker Peak (Jepson)

Wed over Mather pass, climb Split

Thurs to Twin lakes

Fri to Woods Lake climb Cedric Wright, Coliseum

Sat over Sawmill pass to Sawmill Meadow

Sun to cars and home.


aug day 1 Sawmill Group Photo 1970.JPG

Our 1970 Sierra Backpack was a spontaneous trip, I realized when we left town with no particular itinerary.  On the drive up the Owens Valley we pooled our knowledge of routes, and selected to go to Bishop Pass, and exit via Sawmill Pass. None of us had ever been over Sawmill Pass, and didn't realize it involved 7000' of elevation loss.

In those years we didn’t typically carry a backpacking stove[1]. We divided up into cooking groups of three or four, and each cook group would have two pots that nested and had a frying pan cover, a grill for cooking over wood, and food. Each breakfast and dinner for a cook group were in one bag, and were dry foods such as macaroni and cheese, or a rice dish.  Lunches were individually packed and consisted of a baggie containing a chocolate bar[2], raisins[3], a powered drink[4], jerky[5], and crackers[6]. Dinners might have an extra like a pudding for dessert[7], and people brought extras to add to the menu, like a bread or cake mix.  We took some extras for seasoning, like a fresh onion, bell peppers, maybe a slab of bacon to slice into the meal. For tents we carried plastic tube tents, which could be strung up between trees if it rained.  The weather in the Sierra was so mild that we seldom got rained on.  We usually just spread out tube tents on the ground and used them like a ground cloth, and slept under the stars.  We all had external frame packs[8], with Keltys being the preferred pack[9].

[1] Ironically, we made camp fires and backpacking was in fashion amongst college kids; now that the campfire is all but illegal, and there are fewer backpackers.

[2] The chocolate bar was a heat-resistant variety called Hershey Tropical, so that it wouldn’t melt under a hot sun, and was almost brown wax.

[3] “Grand Old Raisins and Peanuts”, called Gorp, including M & Ms for energy.

[4] Optional, and generally pink lemonade.

[5] “Chipped beef”, a canned, salted variety, not actually jerky; cheaper, and less costly.

[6] I don’t’ recall crackers; I do recall cheese, cheddar generally, wrapped in cellophane.

[7] Or, jello was popular.

[8] I don’t recall any internal frames on the market at the time; they were at least somewhat rare.

[9] We preferred Kelty, but REI had a good line of packs, and some had hardware store brands were all right.  We also generally wore “orange crusher” hats, pixie-like hats made of felt.  We tended to dress a lot alike.

We arrived at South Lake in the afternoon amid hundreds of Boy Scouts and uncountable fisherman and campers.  The road was blocked by cars and busloads of Boy Scouts so we just dropped off some people and all the packs and Ken, John and I started back down to the other end of our trip, Sawmill Pass.  There we left Johns car and we started back to South Lake in Kens. At South Lake we were met by Byron and Wendy, who had waited for us while Mike led the others up the trail.  While talking to members of other groups o there at the trail head we discovered that several groups of over 15 hikers had planned the same trip that we had, except that we also planned a cross country jaunt to the Palisades Lakes.  This change in route caused us to avoid the horde and we had relatively little contact with them.  The five of us started hiking at five PM and went at a fairly steady pace to join the others at Saddlerock Lake.  We passed several small lakes on the way and met some interesting folks.  Below Saddlerock Lake we passed Ron Bisio and his group of Scouts whom we had seen earlier at Olancha and who planned to come out at the Onion Valley trail head.  We also passed a pair of guys who had started at Tahoe and hoped to get to Whitney but ran out of food here.  They had covered a lot of miles and they looked pretty beat up.  But what a trip they must have had. They said it took twenty-two days. 

Sunday morning we struggled out and over Bishop Pass. The pass is very easy and compared to the passes we would cover in the next few days was almost downhill.  On the top of the pass several of us dropped our packs and split off to climb Mount Agassiz.  Mike, Ken, Kevin and I were soon on the peak and were surprised by a fantastic view of the Palisade crest and the inner Sierra that we would be covering. The view from the peak is shown below. Having done Bishop Pass recently in my mid 60s, I am amazed that we just dropped our packs and headed up this peak as if it were nothing.  Aw to be young and stupid. 

aug day 2 002 Palisade Pks.a.jpg

Sunday we camped in Dusy Basin, and Monday headed the Barrett Lakes Basin. This side of the pass was a fairly evenly sloping rock slab that then dropped off on the other side much more steeply.  The other side had an unmaintained trail that was much eroded but usable. In the basin below we had lunch in the sun on a patch of meadow and then went over to a small lake for a swim.  We were basically at the foot of North Palisade, the highest peak of the Palisades and the most difficult.  

We decided to give it a try (climbing North Pal)  and looked over the route.  It looked like an easy shot to the U notch, and the route description I remembered from the Climbers Guide said that we hung a left just below the U notch.  Our “easy shot” turned out to be very tiring scree and talus that usually slid under our feet.  As we neared the notch I saw a likely looking route to our left, and we decided that it was probably the one described.  It looked like third class but we found that it began as third and very quickly graduated into fourth.  We kept going till it was too steep to go back and then were stopped cold by a sheer wall with very much exposure.  We backtracked and on one step pitch I kicked a two fist sized rock that caught Mike square on the head.  It put a dent in a Nixon button[1] he had there but didn’t draw blood.  We finally got down to the coular again and continued toward the notch in the ridge.  At a very clearly marked ledge we cut left, and did some very difficult 3rd class toward the peak.  By this time the sun was lowering and we were in the shadow of a knife edge ridge.  We climbed over some cold, cold chimneys and hopped some giant boulders near the peak, and finally arrived at the summit block, a huge cube of granite surrounded by five sides of air. 

            The view of the glacier below was fantastic and we could see the entire Sierra range around us.  We only spent a minute on the peak since we had not carried up any extra food, clothing, or water.  We were becoming tired and weak and could think of nothing better than food, water, and rest.  On the way down we did some iron crosses in the chimneys and on one I just didn’t have the strength to hold it, sagging down and finding a foothold just when I really needed one.  Mike was braced in the chimney below me and was watching with extreme interest.  If my foot hadn’t found the foothold I would have come down right on top of him and taken us both out.  Once more in the coular we went as fast as possible and headed directly for the nearest water. At the first pool we dropped down and filled up with water.  We walked to our packs where Kevin was waiting for us and creaked over a rise to the camp.  The supper was waiting and Wendy and Ken had made fruit bars, but I was too tired to eat much.

[1] I, Mike, collected campaign buttons, and had a string of them on the band of my hat.  I can’t say Dick Nixon never did anything for me, since here he spared me a concussion.


aug day 3 007 mike.jpg
aug day 3 028 climbing down xc pass.jpg

Tuesday. We got off to a late start again and climbed a small cross country pass.  Mike and Ken and I were to climb Sill from the top of the pass, but Ken decided not to go. At the top we decided the best route would be to go down the other side of the pass and have lunch together before Mike and I split off for the peak.  The other side of the pass was very steeply sloping slabs of rock that made the descent interesting to say the least.  We all ate lunch on a rocky moraine with a stream under the rocks before Mike and I left for Sill.  The others headed toward the Palisades Lakes over another cross country pass. Mike and I played a great joke on ourselves by climbing the wrong peak. The register of Jepson, rename “Sucker Peak” by Mike, showed that the first ascent in the 40’s and almost all ascents were by people who thought they were climbing Sill[1].  After the first disappointment it was really pretty funny, especially after climbing North Palisades in an afternoon.  We descended back to our lunch spot and started for Palisade Lake.  It was late afternoon by the time we started for the pass and near evening when we finally were on top.  We tried to follow ducts down but they were very misleading and after a while we more or less gave upon them and just began going straight down the valley towards the John Muir Trail.  Our route was probably faster then the ducted trail but we ran into some cliffs at the bottom that gave us some trouble in getting down. By the time we got down to the Muir Trail at the bottom of the first Palisade Lake it was getting late and we were very tired, but the Muir Trail seemed like a highway after the high route we had taken.  We skirted the lake and found the others at a camp above the highest Palisade Lake just at dusk.  We had a fast supper and then watched the beautiful could formation on the western sky.  Wendy had made a nice flat place for bags while we were climbing and she I slept there and the others found places near the fire area.  The stars were beautiful and the full moon lighted the cliffs on the other side of the lake and turned the clouds a cold silver against the black of night.  We had beautiful time talking almost till dawn. 

[1] The problem was that there was a deep gorge between our peak and the real Mount Sill, so that there was no way to go from here to there without basically climbing the peak again; we were too tired for that.

aug day 5 021Palisade Lk.a.jpg

Wednesday: We all got an early start today, hoping to beat some of the scout groups around us to the pass. We took off flying but soon Tom began to slow down.  Wendy and I stayed back with him and were overtaken by Ron Bisio and his Scout group on the switchbacks h[p[ggoing up Mather Pass. We regrouped on the top and talked with Ron. Mike had talked John into climbing Split with us that afternoon, but I didn’t really feel like it. One group, the smart ones, took off down the other side except Wendy, myself and Tom.  I told Mike and John to wait for us at the bottom before they left for Split.  We came down later and by the time we caught up with Mike and John, I was ready to go with them to climb Split.  We left our packs in some rocks and I gave Wendy the food they would need that evening, just in case we got back late.  After Wendy went on toward camp with Tom, we three started for Split.  At its foot we had lunch at a deep blue lake and then tackled the treacherous talus of the 14 thousand foot crap pile.  By this time Mike and I were in good shape for altitudes like this and we waited for John a good deal.  He did very well, though, and we had a snack on the seemingly fragile spire of the peak.  The view was much impaired by haze over the Owens Valley and even some haze in the inner Sierra.  On the descent of the peak I was struck by a rock which hurt my foot that caused some pain.  I thought I had broken a metatarsal or something, which is what it turned out to be: a broken foot. Back at the packs my foot seemed OK and we hiked down to the river in misty clouds and some rain.  We found camp at the King's River and rested a while before starting supper.  Since we had time to spare this day, I did some laundry and general housekeeping before dark, and we had a campfire into the night to cook popcorn and listen to John’s sometimes-earthy jokes.  He really was having a good time and pretty happy about climbing Split.  We thought his ears might have plugged at high elevations so that his brain was lightheaded at these lower elevations (8000) and we might have to take him up again to unplug him.

aug day 5 024 Kings River.a.jpg

We got another early start and overtook several groups of scouts below Pinchot Pass.  John was going slow today but did not seem to be hurting from the climb of yesterday.  I stayed back with him and we were the last from our group to reach the top of Pinchot Pass.  We rested a long time there in the sun before starting down toward Twin lakes.  Just above twin lakes I twisted my foot severely and hobbled down to the lower lake.  We had lunch and John gave us a karate lesson before we went to the upper lake for camp.  Soon after we got settled in it began to rain, as predicted by our weather prophet Mike.  And the short shower was very refreshing.  Below: fish killer Kevin Anderson. 



I talked to some scouts camped near us and they found out that I had just hurt my foot climbing Split. They almost carried me and my pack out, on the spot.[1]  I told them that if we needed help we would call them be we thought we could get me out okay.  This camp was an elegant site, with a stream and lake close by but not much wood.  One advantage of being a cripple is that you don’t have to fetch firewood. That night we had all the fish everyone could eat thanks to Kevin and Tom, and we mooched some salt off the scouts at the lower lake. Bedding sites were short and Wendy and I slept on a gravelly area by the lake.

[1] Bob could have helped them earn a merit badge in the process, but NOOooooo…


Friday:  This morning we got a late start for Woods Lake after a delicious Cream of Wheat breakfast.  This stuff is much better than grits[1] and even picky eaters like Ken like them. This morning John went up into the coulars and brought me some ice to pack my foot in to take down the swelling, which was very nice of him.  It was very little black and blue on it but is very painful to walk on and I can just barley get it into a boot.  When we started for Woods Lake, Wendy and Byron split off to visit the Sixty lakes Basin and the rest of us went straight to Woods Lake.  Mike and John went off to climb Cedric Wright and Coliseum.  I was left alone all day and just hobbled very slowing and carefully the two or three miles to the lake.  I stopped often to soak my foot in streams and the swelling is down some. At the lake I had lunch alone before Ken found me and helped me to camp.  We then went fishing. I caught five very fast and let them go, then went swimming while Ken, Kevin, and Tom caught an incredible number of trout. I believe Ken caught 25 and the others less, only keeping eight however.  I returned to our camp on a hill above Woods Lake and soaked my foot for several hours in a stream that ran through camp.  Wendy had returned from the trip with Byron but I didn’t see them until late in the afternoon. We had a hearty supper with many fish and lots of John’s humor before Wendy, Byron and I went down to Woods Lake to sleep on a grassy spot. The moon reflected strongly into our faces off the lake that night and I didn’t get much sleep.

[1] This was the only trip in which we used grits.  It was flavorless, taking on the flavor of whatever you added to them.

aug day 7 005 John Lane.a.jpg

Saturday:  We got up early for a fast breakfast before heading over Sawmill Pass.  I started as soon as possible, leaving the dishes and breaking of camp to the others so that I could get a head start and not hold back the group.  I must have gotten a 30 minute lead but had to go very slowing and cautiously on the rocky trail. I found out later that I had broken my foot.  The group overtook me in no time and John stayed back and walked with me.  Sawmill Pass is almost flat from the Sierra side with a difficult ascent of 7000' from the other side.  As we lost altitude in dropping into the Owens Valley we saw the life of high altitudes slowly change into lower and drier types.  Lunch at Sawmill Lake found us in a huge stand of cinnamon barked foxtail pines. Most of us swam and all seemed in good spirits.  After some had started down to our camp at Sawmill Meadows John began throwing rocks into the pond.  He was joined by Ken and Kevin and soon they were like madmen, throwing everything they could lift including branches, logs, boulders, and sand.  John showed us the proper discus form and we finally left for the short hike down.  I again found myself hobbling along by myself and last, but my foot was feeling better and I could manage a speed almost equal to the others. I soaked it once more in a stream before reaching camp at the edge of the meadow.  This was apparently a mule packers camp from the cans and bottles thrown about.  Wendy and I cleaned up and packed away cans after smashing them.  We ended the trip with heavier packs than when we started, we found out later the next day.  We (Wendy, Ken and I) exercised some expert cookery as we tried to use up any food that was left[1]. We had bread and some kind of apple pudding, plus any extras that people had been saving. The clouds had built up during the evening and everyone feared it would rain except Mike, who had predicted (or requested) the day before a cloud build up for Sunday, but no rain.  Most slept near the fire but Wendy, Byron and I slept in a stand of trees in the meadow.  It never did rain more than a few drops, and I got little sleep this night.

[1] Each group did the same, eating everything but the morning meal.  Mikes group experimented with grits, and found that when you added chocolate drink mix, it was good; however, lemonade grits was a bomb.  We were already trying to get away from the “dri-lite” formulations sold to backpackers, when common store items were often as good or better and much, much cheaper. 

Below: Sawmill Lake


Sunday.  I got up a few hours before dawn and roused Byron, John and Ken, who were to bomb out to get the cars.  Wendy was up early too and we saw them off and then began trying to get the others out of bed.  The sunrise over the meadow and the Owens Valley was something to remember, beginning with a modest pink spot and reaching a golden flow through the clouds over the valley by the time we were halfway down the trail.



















This trail deteriorated into soft sand, and after a stop at Sawmill Creek we had a half mile or more of cross country through desert to the cars, or at least to where they would be.  The five of us washed and ate while we waited for the drivers, who soon appeared and carried us into Independence’s finest, and a hiking tradition for us, Austin’s Drug Store.  The much-anticipated milk shake was good and was the first and perhaps the best part of civilization we had experienced for awhile.  We went to Dirty Sox[1] hot springs and then tanked up on food at Olancha before driving home in the silence of the desert and the friendship of eight people who have shared some good memories. 

[1] AKA, Dirty Socks, named for the sulfur smell of the springs.

Epilogue: I descended Sawmill Pass again in 2016. Although listed as "not maintained", there was no deadfall or washouts. However, I'd forgotten it was 7000' of descent, and I was pulverized at the bottom. Kevin the 14 year old fisherman is still my hiking buddy and my son Jim and his daughter Jenna join us on annual backpacks.  Kevin is a federal judge. Ken Primmer died years ago, I have reconnected with Byron, and I keep in touch with Wendy. My brother Mike is happily retired and lives in CO, I live in Boise. Below, Jim, Kevin, Jenna and Josh on a 2014 hike.