Sawmill Pass, July 2022

Jack, John, Srisuda and I met at the trailhead for Sawmill Pass the night before the hike since we wanted to get an early start. There were a few peaks we wanted to try to climb and Srisuda and I also wanted to enjoy some time at nice Sierra lakes.

Day 1:
We started hiking around 5:30. The trailhead is at ~4500 ft and Owens Valley gets very hot this time of year. So we wanted to gain some elevation before it got too hot. Sawmill pass is one of the 4 “nasty” passes to get into the Sierra from the east. The nasties have between 6,000 and 7,000 ft of elevation gain. My plan was to make it to at least Sawmill Lake on day one. We made very good progress and arrived at the lake shortly after noon. Now we had the option to make camp or go up another 1,300 ft over the pass. This would get us closer to the peaks we wanted to climb. We decided to take a nice long break which included naps and then see. The rest helped and we decided to continue over the pass.
On the west side we went down to the first lake that had water and set up camp. We all were quite tired and went straight into our tents. The mosquito situation also did not make staying outside pleasant.

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Day 2:
After breakfast and packing up we hiked down to the John Muir Trail (JMT) and then north for about 2 miles. There was a lake to the east of the trail and we were just south of Mt. Wynne, one of the peaks we wanted to climb. We took a little time to find nice camp spots not too close to the JMT since there was a lot of traffic as this section is also part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). After setting up we had some lunch and then Jack, John, and I packed our day packs and started out for the peaks. By this time it was close to 1 pm. Initially, we thought we’d do Mt. Pinchot, but when we got a closer look at the terrain we were concerned that it would take too long. So we decided to climb Mt. Wynne (13,185 ft / 4019 m) instead.
We headed for the eastern slope of the mountain and started climbing. The slope and size of the talus made for a fairly easy climb up to about 12,800 ft. There the terrain became very craggy and we had to look for a route up. We traversed towards the southern ridge of the mountain and started up a very steep slope with lots of loose rocks of various sizes. Not a good route, particularly with several people on the slope. So we ended up climbing the rocks on the side. John decided to climb the left side of the slope while Jack and I chose the right. Either side required the use of both hands and feet for vertical climbing. For a while, we did not know where John was, but then we heard him shout from the top that he had arrived. Shortly afterward we joined him.
The views were great and we took our time taking it all in. On the descent we decided to go down a scree slope after the vertical climbing section rather than the long talus ridge we had come up. It was fun and quick.

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Day 3:
As I took off for Mt Pinchot (13,500 ft / 4115 m), Jack and John started back out. Jack had lost his camera and was hoping to find it at the first night’s campsite; however, some honest hiker had found it and left it clearly visible on the trail. There are still good people around.
Colosseum Mountain (which I climbed 3 years ago) was on the way, so Jack took off for that summit while John went another 6 hours back to his truck and the long drive home. Jack took the rocky spine 500 ft up to the ridge then on to the summit of Colosseum Mountain (12,456 ft / 3797 m), but opted for the easier slope for the return down. After a nice camp at Sawmill Lake it was an easy but hot hike back to his truck on day 4.
I went north from our camp to the bowl and lake east of the saddle between Mt Wynne and Mt Pinchot. From there I went up to a saddle and then turned left onto the east ridge of Mt Pinchot. The route that I had seen described follows the ridge at the interface of the rocky/craggy top of the ridge and the steep slopes of loose talus. The slopes are at about the angle of repose, i.e., any rock kicked loose starts tumbling down hundreds of feet. It was tedious to find a route through here. There were several occasions when I doubted myself and thought I was somehow in the wrong place, but every time I found a solution. The final 200 ft of climbing is on a wide, gentle slope of easily walkable talus. The view from the top was spectacular. Full 360 on a clear day. I spent about half an hour up there.
On the way down I did not follow the full ridge back, but dropped down the slope directly into the bowl at a point where I could be sure that there was no cliff hidden in the slope and where there was enough scree to make the descent easy.
After returning to camp Srisuda told me about her lake exploration, particularly of “Island” Lake, and that she had found a nice spot to take a refreshing dip. So we went over there, dipped in the lake, and hung out on a nice little ledge by the water’s edge.

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Day 4:
After breakfast we packed up and started our hike back to Sawmill Pass. We toyed with the idea of spending the night around Woods Lake on the east side, but could not find a good spot with a constant breeze to keep the mosquitos at bay. So we just took a very long break enjoying the views before heading up to the pass and then down to Sawmill Lake. This was a good decision since we had no mosquitos at all there and could hand out outside the tent watching the color of the mountains change and the shadow of the Sierra creep across Owens Valley. It was also quite a bit warmer and we opted not to put the rain fly on the tent.
A guy came up the trail and we told him about other good campsites at the lake. While we were sitting enjoying the evening he appeared again a little while later asking if we could warm up some water for him. Turns out his plan of crossing the pass and going down to the JMT had been a bit ambitious and now he found himself without a stove that the friend he was meeting on the JMT had.

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Day 5:
We got up at dawn, packed, had breakfast, and were hiking by 6:45. It was warm right from the start. About halfway down there is a very strong stream to cross and knowing that this was our last water source for the day we got enough water for 4 miles of hiking down in desert conditions. We also mixed up a liter of Gatorade which we shared right there. That cool mountain water tasted so good. True “mountain dew” :). The remainder of the hike was uneventful except, maybe, for the bear paw prints we saw in the sand for about half a mile. There were fairly fresh since they were on top of any boot prints. So at blind turns, we were a little noisy not to surprise a bear.
At the truck we had our 5 gal water tank which we used to take showers right there. On the drive home we stopped at the Whitney restaurant, a tradition, to have a nice recovery meal. Sadly the place has not come out of the pandemic well, the food was sub-par and overprice on top of it. We won’t stop there again. Traffic through the LA basin was heavy at times, but it could have been a lot worse.

One thought on “Sawmill Pass, July 2022

  1. Epic journey! That cover photo is incredible. Few comments: even without the captions, I knew those bloody legs were my Dad (Ouch! Sorry, Dad!) and I hope the pine needles also were used for the special pine needle tea. 😉

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