Mount Duncan McDuffie

12-Oct-95 (Private Trip)

By: Doug Jones


My journey into the Range of Light began on the sunny afternoon of October 12. I set off on the very familiar Bishop Pass Trail from South Lake. After about one hour and 2 miles of travel, 1 took my first water break at Long Lake. The fall colors were absolutely beautiful. The weather was so nice it was hard to believe that it was mid October. While sipping from my canteen, something strange caught my eye. In a bush on the lake shore, a bird was fluttering and flopping around as though it was trapped. I set down my canteen and walked over. Sure enough, the bird was hopelessly tangled in fishing line. I reached down to grasp it, and it began to squawk and shriek hysterically. The frightened creature had no idea that my intentions were good. Carefully, I put my hand around the bird, but could not get it out of the bush. So, please forgive me, I used my teeth to bite through parts of the bush, and removed the bird, which was squawking and pecking my hand like crazy. I kept telling the bird to calm down so I could help it. Finally, the bird relaxed. I dug through my pack with my free hand and found my knife. After about 10 minutes of careful cutting (this now calm bird was a tangled mess), I got all the fishing line off. I then held it in my hand for a minute or two. It was amazing to hold such a beautiful, wild bird. Its black beak was at least 2 inches long. It was medium-sized with a red streak by its eye, an orangish underside and black and white spotted feathers (See Note 1). I set it down and as soon as I let go, the bird flew off. My heart rejoiced and I wondered if a career in wildlife biology was my calling. It felt good to give something back to a place which had given so much to me.

After removing the remaining fishing line from the bush, I continued on, admiring the beauty of the High Sierra, something which never ceases to amaze me. I then met an artist sketching the north escarpment of Mt. Goode (she liked the bird incident!). Shortly thereafter, I surmounted 12,000' Bishop Pass. I rested briefly, studying the avalanche chutes on Agassiz and gazed southwest to Mt. McDuffie, which seemed so far away. I then began the trek down to Dusy Basin and after a mile or so, met two friendly backpackers setting up camp. I stopped to talk, and soon an hour passed. They invited me to camp with them, and I accepted. The evening light show on the Palisades was priceless. I soon dozed off under the stars. I awoke at first light (7AM) Friday the 13th, and pondered that while I ate breakfast. I packed up, bid my friends farewell and got off to a late 8AM start (I was trying to enjoy this trip!).

One thing that immediately caught my attention was my feet (I set off from South Lake in a brand new pair of Raichle Eigers--ouch!). I ignored the pain and just cruised on, knowing that I needed to hurry because the days were getting short. I reached the Middle Fork and headed south on the JMT a bit to a campsite I crashed at last August and marveled at how Mother Nature had changed everything in just 60 days. I stashed my sleeping bag and some gear, ate, and readied my day pack. I kept all of my food with me (I knew about the resident bear!). I then boulder-hopped the Middle Fork (something that was nearly impossible two months prior) and, keeping a sharp eye out for black cats, set off on an ascending traverse to "Ladder Creek." It was not enjoyable--hot and brushy. And my feet were hurting. I reached the creek, drank, then headed up through a cool, welcome forest. While ascending, I found 2 jackets on a rock. They had been there at least a year. One was somewhat sun-bleached, but they were in good condition. I put them in a plastic bag and in my pack.

Soon the forest opened and I came to a band of cliffs at 10,000'. I ascended a loose Class 2 chute (S.W. direction) for 500' (see Note 2) and emerged just west of Point 10,572 at beautiful Ladder Lake. There I drank from a refreshing stream (on the west side of the lake) and ate lunch. It was getting late (1:45 PM). Due to the brush below and my aching feet, I was not moving very fast. However, I pressed on, heading roughly southwest on tedious talus, thru a cliff band via an interesting 100'- 150' slabby chute (easy class 3) and much more talus to a completely frozen lake at approximately 12,000'+. I traversed west for 500'+ gain to the ridgeline "saddle" at 12,520'+. I found out that the "correct" (i.e., "Class 2") place to emerge is atop the northern of the two 12,600'+ peaklets. I lost more precious time traversing to it.

I then chugged some water to lighten my pack and ascended the western side of McDuffie's S.E. ridge (loose!) to a false summit, which I bypassed on the left, and along the ridge (class 2-3) to the summit--13,282'. (The only way this ridge is wholly class 2 is to drop way down and then slog back up on loose debris. Staying on the west side, roughly 50' or so below the ridgeline affords a mostly Class 2 route to the summit-occasional Cl. 3 moves when you cross chutes). I arrived at the seldom-visited peak at about 4:15PFn, and I was delighted with the nice register. Unfortunately, time was of the essence so I made a quick register report for the mountain records and began the descent. My feet were screaming (raw blisters!). I retraced my route and arrived at Ladder Lake at about 6:15 PM taxed and tired. The "B" word was on my mind.

I had maybe 30 minutes of light left (it was already getting dark in the canyon below) and 2,000 feet of cross-country down to the JMT. I figured, oh what the heck! What's a summer in the Sierra without at least one bivy. Besides, it was nice to have a choice. I could have put on my headlamp and continued down. It would not have been fun, but I could have made it. Also, the only difference between getting down and a bivy was my junky sleeping bag and ground pad. But 1 had 2 extra jackets! I wondered if finding them had anything to do with that bird. So I put on all my clothes (4 layers on my torso) and the 2 jackets (they even fit me!), curled up in my bivy bag, and had a "real night in the mountains!" I was very lucky-it didn't even get to freezing (I was at 10,500') and I even slept for a few hours.

Saturday, October 14, I awoke to a spectacular High Sierra sunrise and had bagels and iced tea for breakfast (I had plenty of food). I also spent some time fixing my feet with Band-Aids and moleskin while reveling in the morning light. Sometime after 7:30AM I headed down the Class 2 chute to the "Ladder Creek" drainage. I now had excellent visibility and descended the forest paralleling the creek and even avoided all brush until I got down to the 9,000' level. There I took a break to survey the brush below and between me and the JMT. I then descended some slabs to the brushy area (I was glad I decided not to try it in the dark). Using methods I developed while hiking in the San Gabriels, I avoided most of the brush (except for one stubborn short section) and soon arrived at the Middle Fork. I spent a couple minutes mentally connecting some boulders, then made my crossing. Alas, I was on the John Muir Trail! I headed north and saw fresh bear tracks as I made my way to my: gear cache.

Upon arrival, everything was just the way I left it. I repacked and began the 3,400' ascent to Bishop Pass. Subsequently, I found a small snake (I think it was a garter snake) resting on the trail. I picked it up and placed it off the trail, because I heard people coming and did not want it to get trampled. As I limped onward, one thing 1 kept noticing was the bear tracks. Sure enough, just below the footbridge over Dusy Branch at approximately 10,200' there it was right on the trail. I just stopped and the bear gave me a surprised look. It was mostly brown and fairly large. I didn't try to handle this one! Instead, I yelled and the bear ran off without hesitation. I actually felt bad about scaring it off, but realized that a fear of humans will help ensure its survival. I continued on, pausing for a gaze at Giraud Peak from time to time. By the time I arrived at Lower Dusy Basin, I could barely walk. I had to doctor my feet again. So I took a break by an icy stream and watched the trout "hit" insects on the surface. It was quite entertaining. I also examined Giraud Peak some more. I originally planned on climbing it on the way out, but not the way my feet were hurting. So I made some mental notes for a future ascent. As I was patching up what was left of my feet, the two backpackers I met the day before came by. They marveled at the fresh hamburger and suggested I invest in some "2nd skin.

After they left. I resumed my hike, stopping occasionally to admire Mt. Winchell, Thunderbolt and North Palisade, three of the High Sierra's most splendid masterpieces! At the Pass, I rested under the cloudless afternoon sky. If I didn't have a calendar, I would have thought it to be August (weatherwise. 1995 has been an unusual year in the High Sierra). The view was invigorating, but I knew it would be getting dark again soon, so, painstakingly, I began the 5 mile descent. I was so happy to get to my car at South Lake so I could get those boots off!

Trip stats: 31-32 miles/10,500' gain & loss]

Note 1:
I did some research. I believe that the bird was a red-shafted flicker.

Note 2:
The 15 minute map shows a creek running through it. It is an error. The 7.5 minute map is correct, i.e., it shows the proper drainage from Ladder Lake.


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