Italy Pass Backpacking

Looking for something new to us in the Sierra Nevada I found Italy Pass. It has everything I was looking for: Lakes, streams, small forests, and of course some peaks to climb.

Day 1: Approach day to drive up to Pine Creek Trailhead (elevation 7,300 ft / 2220 m). Along the way we picked up Klaus in Bishop. We found a nice camp site near the trailhead and setup camp. Then we took a little walk up the trail and later had dinner by the stream.

Day 2: Around 7:30 we headed up the trail and I mean “up”. This trail starts climbing right away. First it follows an old road to the Brownstone Mine site. Along the way we had a good view of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mill in the canyon. Once the old road ended, a very well maintained trail took us through forest to Pine Lake and Upper Pine Lake on to Honeymoon Lake. This is a very popular destination. From Honeymoon Lake one keeps on climbing and the trees get smaller and fewer until there are just some small clusters left. We made it to about 11,000 ft / 3350 m before calling it a day and finding a camp site. We had dinner on the smooth, glacier polished rocks and watched the color of the mountains around us change with the setting sun. After sunset we crawled into our tents to rest up for the next day.

Dinner on polished granite slab

Day 3: We had about another 1,400 ft / 400 m to climb to the pass. Again we started climbing right away and soon came to the Granite Park area. This is a flat area with numerous lakes and streams surrounded by beautiful granite mountains and hills. A place to remember to come back to and spend some time by the lakes. On this trip we continued, however. At the upper most lake the obvious trail ends and some route finding was required to find a comfortable way to the pass through the granite rocks and over the granite slaps. The head wall of the pass looked a bit intimidating, but getting closer we found that there was an easy to find route right up to the pass.

At the pass I packed some essentials into my little pack-able peak backpack for the climb up Mt. Julius Caesar (13,200 ft / 4025 m). Klaus was feeling the elevation here at 12,400 ft / 3650 m and decided to rather wait at the pass with Srisuda. The first couple of hundred feet of climbing were very easy on a use trail. Then the big talus started and slowed me down to a crawl. It took quite some time to pick my way through the jumble of big slabs and boulders. Eventually I reached a little saddle just some 50 feet below the peak. Here I faced another talus jumble puzzle to solve. Attacking it from the side rather than the intimidating looking front I found a decent way to the top. Views where so-so since there was a lot of smoke and haze in the air from the big fires burning all over California. After taking some pics I headed down. In this terrain it takes me as long to go down as it does to go up. The whole excursion took a bit over 2.5 h.

Ridge up Mt. Julius Caesar (peak in back)

Reunited with the others we started down the west side of Italy pass. Here it was very apparent that this trail has not been maintained in many years. There were some cairns, but they were marking various different routes. So we just picked a convenient route down to Jumble Lake. In the rocks around the lake we found a cairned route that made for a relatively easy traverse of the rocks. Following the outlet of Jumble Lake we soon got our first view of Lake Italy. Right away it was obvious that there were not many camping opportunities at lake level. As we were taking in the scene Klaus found the perfect site about 200 ft / 60 m above the lake. People had camped here before. So we set up and had dinner on a big, polished granite slab overlooking the lake. We again did not last long past sunset before getting into our tents.

Day 4: Klaus was still feeling the elevation so I had decided to attempt Mt. Gabb (13,741 ft / 4188 m) by myself. At 7, Klaus and I started down towards the lake with the intention of Klaus joining me until the climbing on the north shore of Lake Italy started. However, right around the first corner at the lake there was a massive slope with huge talus blocks lining the shore. Not something to traverse just for fun, so Klaus returned to camp while I went on. Getting over this obstacle made for a slow start and I was glad to reach Toe Lake at the west end of Lake Italy. It was 8 by this time and I had to get going since I had set myself a strict turnaround time. Climbing up to the 12,600 ft / 3840 m level to avoid a cliff was rather straight forward. From there it was a gentle climb to a sandy slope at the bottom of the west ridge of Mt. Gabb at about 13,000 ft / 3960 m. My intention was to take that ridge all the way to the top.

On Mt. Gabb

It started out well with sand and smaller rocks, but soon I found myself in big talus. Blocks as big as a refrigerator where just strewn randomly around. I barely made any progress and started to doubt if I could make it up to the top before my turnaround time. I eventually drifted down from the ridge to the south side and found some bighorn trails. Those were to steep and sandy, but had some smaller rocks separating them from the bit stuff. I made better progress there and made it to the top. Only to my great dismay it wasn’t the top. I was a bit too far west and head to climb down a little and traverse over to the actual peak. There I was rewarded with the sight of a nicely placed peak register. Views on this day were quite good, at least to the south and southwest. The northwest look outright dark. I took my pics and a bit of a lunch, but after half an hour it was time to go back down. I followed the goat trails more to avoid the talus, but they were so slippery that I found myself repeatedly on my rear end. I was glad to make it to the sandy bottom. From there it was a quick walk back down to the lake, then the tedious lake shore and back to camp. The whole affair took me almost 8.5h during which I only covered 5.8 miles and 2,800 ft / 850 m of elevation.

It was a warm day and I had used all my water about 1.5 h before reaching camp. So I was thankful for a hot broth that Srisuda prepared for me. While re-hydrating we updated each other on our day. Then we had dinner on our granite slab again, did some stretches to keep our muscles and tendons happy and soon were in our tents again.

Day 5: We decided to get an early start up the pass and have breakfast on the other side. We had about 1,000 ft / 300 m to climb and wanted to get that done in the shade of the mountain rather than in the warm sun. Our timing was perfect and we reached he saddle just about when the first rays of sun light made it across. On the other side we made our way to a small, unnamed lake where we found a perfect spot to cook up our breakfast.

Picking breakfast spot at unnamed lake

After breakfast we retraced our steps back to the starting point. On the way we encountered quite a few people coming up, probably early Labor Day traffic. At the end we met a young man hiking out. He intrigued us with 2 antennas sticking out of this pack. Turns out he had just spent 5 days in the mountains tracking bighorn with radio collars. We had an interesting chat with him.

After cleaning up a bit and changing at the truck we started the long drive home. Along the way we picked up some food at the Whitney Cafe in Lone Pine which we had at the rest area half an hour down 395. A burger from the cafe is kind of a tradition, but taking it as takeout was not that great an experience. So we won’t do that again. COVID-19 makes it hard to enjoy some of the things we used to take for granted. I drove about half way before Klaus took over.

We all agreed that it was a great trip and we were happy that we discovered this are.

Hike summary:
Including both peaks: 29 miles, 10,300 ft / 3140 m elevation gain
Excluding peaks: 22 miles, 6,400 ft / 1950 m elevation gain.

(Click on any image to enlarge/start slide show)

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