Sawmill Pass, 4 Day Backpack, August 2019

Sawmill Pass is one of the more difficult passes from the east into the Sierra Nevada. This is mostly because it starts at 4600 ft in the desert and tops out at 11,347 ft, with some ups and downs this leads to almost 7000 ft elevation gain.

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This trail is also not maintained and the ranger issuing our permit at the Lone Pine Ranger station had no clue where the trail head even was. The plus side of it all is that one can get a nice, private mountain experience. We didn’t meet anyone for 2 days while up there.

We arrived at the trailhead in the late afternoon, finalized our packing and climbed into the back of the truck for some rest. In the morning we got up with first light and started hiking about 20 min before sunrise. It was 71 F (21 C). For the first 4 miles the trail climbs up the desert slope of the mountains until it reaches a ridge and the first views of the Sawmill Creek canyon present themselves. Now the trail loses some elevation on a sandy slope until one finally reaches a forest and a cold stream. We kept on going until we reached Sawmill Meadow at about 8300 ft. Here we dropped the packs and settled down for an hour long lunch break which we also used to fill our water bladders from the cold stream.

Topping of water

After lunch we continued our climb. The clouds got thicker and darker. Soon we got hit by some light and short showers which we waited out under some trees. Around 2pm we arrived at Sawmill Lake, our goal for the day, about 8 miles and 5600 ft gained above the trail head. We didn’t even have a chance to look for a camp site when lightning and thunder struck. We had not heard a single thunder all day and the forecast had not mentioned any. Now we had lightning and thunder almost simultaneously. We dropped the packs and hiking poles and looked for some tree clusters without trees sticking out, away from the lake and a little lower than the rest. While the storm moved away a bit, it did not stop raining for about an hour. As it let up we found a camp site, but the storm or another one came close again. We waited another hour. By now we started to get cold and decided to set up the tent in the rain, there was no more lightning.

After an hour in the tent we saw some sunlight. We crawled out to a strong wind, but our spot was well sheltered and we were able to prepare dinner. It did not rain during the night, but the mountain across the lake was very active the whole night with rock falls every few minutes. Some loud enough to wake us up. In the morning we noticed a huge bus-sized boulder on one of the slopes that had not been there the night before. Otherwise it was a beautiful morning and we were even able to dry our tent in the sun while packing and having breakfast.

Drying tent

The remaining 1300ft climbing to the pass were uneventful with just some small snow fields to circumnavigate. At around 10am we arrived at a lake on the other side of the pass. This was the spot from where I wanted to try to climb Colosseum Mountain while Srisuda waited. We picked a potential camp site in the trees, again with thunderstorms in mind. There were only a few clouds in the sky when I left.

I made good progress aiming for the western slope of the mountain and then picking a spot to climb up the very steep scree slope where it looked like I could get to the ridge. Once one the ridge it was easy walking up to the peak. There are 2 peaks, the one that is named on the maps and has the little x assigned to it and the actual peak which is a few feet higher. I visited both. The named peak is overlooking Owens Valley. I had cell phone reception up there on the very eastern side and sent some quick messages to let friends/family know how we were doing. As I was doing that it started to rain/snow/hail a little. The clouds still looked OK (no indication of developing thunderheads), but I packed up and started down. For the down trip I chose to follow the ridge to the east to a saddle rather than sliding down the steep scree slope I had come up on. Shortly after I was down from the saddle and passed the first lake I heard the first thunder. Not right above me, but still not comforting. I also knew that Srisuda would be getting really uncomfortable, so I started to quicken my step, even jog where the ground remotely allowed it.

Fortunately the thunderstorm never quite made it over our little valley, but when I arrived at Srisuda’s waiting spot she had started to set up the tent in anticipation of rain. We finished the job and had a snack. By this time the clouds had moved away to the east and we took a little walk exploring the many lakes.

View south from camp

The next morning we decided to hike down 2.5 miles to the John Muir/PCT and then north a little until we could see Colosseum mountain from the back. We took our time and made many stops to just sit and enjoy the views. On the JMT/PCT we meet quite a few people. By early afternoon we arrived back at camp, cooked a meal and looked for a spot to just hang out by a lake without being drained by mosquitoes. We got lucky and found that the lake closest to our camp had a light breeze blow over it, so lying in the grass down wind from the lake gave us a space without the blood suckers. We napped and read for a while before ending the day with another meal.

The last morning was our coldest, the thermometer showed 29 F (-1.6 C), there was frost on the grass. After breakfast we packed and headed back up to the pass and then down the 7000 ft towards our starting point. One the way we got almost the exact view of Sawmill Lake that Ansel Adams captured in the 1930’s. At the last creek crossing we topped off our water supply and prepared for a hot march through the desert heat for the last 5 miles. Fortunately there was a decent breeze blowing up the mountain and we were doing OK even though temps went up to 90 F (32 C) on the final portion of the hike.

We got to the truck around 2pm, dumped the packs in the back and drove towards Bishop to find a motel for the night. After cleaning up we looked for place to get a good burger. We discovered “Burger Barn”, a quaint place just outside town on the 168. There burgers were excellent.

It was a great adventure and of the 8 or so passes that I now know from the eastern side of the Sierra this is my favorite so far. It’s very scenic and the relative seclusion is great.

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