Backpacking Kids Crossing the Sierra Video: Darwin Bench and Lamark Col

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 24 July 2011

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High Sierra Backpacking Kids

I really enjoyed this video of a mixed group of kids and adults making a crossing of the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains from West to East. Check it out. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. I believe it's really instructive as to the potential of kid backpackers.

Another of the values of this trip is its route. This group chose an especially challenging route, a classic route across the Sierra Nevada incorporating a brief section of the John Muir Trail topped off by exiting the Sierra Nevada along a cross country route over a difficult mountain col. Note the warning on the picture of the sign below. Nice job Dudes. 

These guys put together a fine example of one of many custom medium distance routes through classic Sierra terrain you can craft along the John Muir Trail by incorporating various trailheads along sections of the John Muir Trail in the Southern Sierra Nevada.

These guys pushed it even a step further by topping off their West to East Sierra crossing  by passing through Lamark Col, a most challenging cross-country route.

I did not measure the length of the route, but the video puts this backpacking trip at fifty miles. This matches the requirements of the Boy Scout's 50 mile merit badge, last time I looked. Coincidence?

This route assures that these kids really earned their 50 mile merit badges.

A Fine Trip

The Kid's route began at Maxson Trailhead at Courtright Reservoir entering the John Muir Wilderness. After crossing Hell For Sure Pass they joined the John Muir Trail at the head of Goddard Canyon for a short hike South through Evolution Valley. The unmaintained route up to Darwin Bench is located between Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin along the John Muir Trail.

Hiking Map

The kids finished their 50 mile trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach the Eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada by hiking the challenging cross country route through Lamark Col via Darwin Bench.   

Above: Ranger Dave Gordon at the McClure Ranger Station in Evolution Valley puts up this sign every Summer. The sign prevents many backpackers coming off the John Muir Trail seeking a side trip up to the Darwin Bench from getting lost by starting at the wrong start-point for the route up to Darwin Bench.

Below: Ranger Gordon advising a Sierra Club backpacking group at the McClure Ranger Station about the fate of one of their group who had collapsed on the trail. The hikers below had hiked to Ranger Gordon's for help, while some of the party stayed with the exhausted hiker. She was OK, and was walking out with some rescue rangers after they  rested her up a bit, rehydrated her, and carried her pack.

Ranger Gordon with Sierra Club hikers talking about rescue of one of their party

Trip Rating

I rate the Overall Difficulty of this trip for fit adults as the least difficult of the hardest level of trail rating, a Hard 3, with the passage through Lamark Col being rated as the highest level of the most difficult rating, Hard 1, because it is challenging both physically and in terms of technical skills, though very short.

The long approach to the Col reinforces these ratings.

For kids I rate this whole trip as Hard 2, with sections of, and topped off by the Hard 1 passage through Lamark Col.
The Hard 2 trail sections are composed of the sequence approaching Hell for Sure Pass, the climb up to Darwin Bench from the JMT, up to the passage through Lamark Col.

My trail rating system is fairly objective, and becomes more effective in predicting stress levels for various individuals by overlaying a fitness rating system onto the trail rating system.

Boy Scouts?

I am just guessing, but this video tells me that these dudes are some pretty squared-away Boy Scouts. I could be wrong. I'm not wrong that these guys are squared-away, they are, but I'm only 90% sure they're Scouts. I'd love to hear from any of the trip leaders to fill in the details of the trip. 

I'm interested in hearing how to prepare and keep kids together for such an ambitious trip. Parents need to know! I'm guessing that you guys built up your skills, fitness, and experience step by step.

Independent of the sponsoring group, if any, this trip should be an inspiration to all parents and kids. Look at what you guys can do!

I've met excellent Scouts all over the Sierra Nevada. And I've also met a few poorly behaved Scouts too. But the good Scouts outnumber the bad by about 10 to 1.

Some Excellent Scouts

Wolfsborough Treckers (scroll down)

Troop 13, Newcastle

As the trail guide comes closer to completition all of these Scouts, backpacker encounters, Ranger incidents, and the various elements of Trail Culture we encounter along the trail will decorate all of the trail guide pages between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.

You will meet the finest people on the Sierra Nevada Crest trails, and on this trail guide and forum, for the most part.

The long trail will remove the bone from the head of even the most stubborn urban idiots, later, if not sooner.

Their Trip

Crossing Hell for Sure Pass put the the kids into Goddard Canyon, the route that adventerous JMT hikers will take South off of the JMT for a cross-country section of hiking across the Ionian Basin. These hikers will rejoin the JMT at the Black Giant on the South side of Muir Pass.

This group of kids instead turned briefly North down Goddard Canyon to join the PCT/JMT at the bridge on the San Joaquin just above where Evolution Creek joins the San J, where the JMT beings climbing up into Evolution Valley.

Hiking Map

The kids encountered the John Muir Trail at this bridge, following the JMT South to the point between Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin where a nice unmaintained trail, marked by the Ranger Dave's sign above, brought them up the short but tough climb to the lake in the throat of the Darwin Bench. A whole series of crystal blue lakes are set in close order in Darwin Bench, which bends South to bring us under the West side of Mount Lamark.

Exiting Darwin Bench via the tough scramble/climb through Lamark Col probably brought the kids to Camp Sabrina and the end of their West to East crossing of the Sierra Nevada. Again, nice work guys.

I took the time to explore the Darwin Canyon when I hiked by on my last Tahoe to Whitney trip in 2009. I set a beautiful protected camp near the first lake encountered hiking in. I took the afternoon to explore Darwin Canyon. Note the day pack. I do a lot of scrambling when I hike between Tahoe to Whitney, so I've come to bring a light day pack. It's the blue pack ready to stash some food in for my scramble up to the lakes in Darwin Canyon.

Campsite behind great protective boulder at Darwin Bench off the John Muir Trail

I will lay out the pictures and videos of the Darwin Bench when I finally get the trail guide constructed down to that point.

Though I did not climb through Lamark Col, as my goal was to exit the Sierra at Mount Whitney, I observed it and queried the backpackers I encountered. Thus the film below of Doug and Carol, who hiked to the Darwin Bench and their exit through Lamark Col via a scramble across the Ionian Basin to Muir Pass. Though both the Kids and Doug and Carol were standing in exactly the same place in Goddard Canyon, they took quite different routes to get to the Darwin Bench and exit through Lamark Col.

My Trail Encounters in the Darwin Bench

I met Farhad and Hauyee at the junction of the John Muir Trail and the path to Darwin Bench. They had just come West through the Lamark Col, and were literally "wide-eyed." They described their passage as "harrowing." They were rookie backpackers, and breaking into the JMT through Lamark Col was an ambitious move.

Returning to my camp in the Darwin Bench from my scramble-exploration of Darwin Canyon I came across Tom, Mark, and Quinn's campsite. They were having a blast. The next morning I encountered Doug and Carol from Gardnerville as I was heading back down to the John Muir Trail.

Doug and Carol were doing an amazing scrambling backpack trip. The film below talks about part of their trip. If the kid's trip inspires parents and kids to get out, then Doug and Carol will inspire backpackers to take it to the next step, and get out to do a little cross country backpacking.

 I would love to hear from any of the backpackers mentioned in this article. All of the pictures of you guys will appear in the trail guide when it is constructed.



Video Two: 
Darwin Bench

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