The wind had gusted all night, and at some point I put in ear plugs so I could get some sleep. When it started getting light out I popped them out and was extremely disappointed to hear that the wind was still blasting. I reluctantly poked my head out of my tent, expecting to see clouds still hanging over us. I was mildly surprised to see that they had mostly cleared out, although there were still some light clouds hanging over Feather Peak. Knowing the Sierra, I figured it was just the beginning of the same stuff we had the day before and was worried about our chances at Mt Julius Caesar. Boo.
Finding the ‘trail’ to Italy Pass from our camp was a minor challenge, but once we got on our way it was pretty easy going. The cairns people have scattered all over the place aren’t really accurate, but it’s easy to see where to go. I was feeling the elevation a little but was okay as we strolled through Granite Park. The wind near the uppermost lake was painfully blasting us as we climbed. However, the light clouds had disappeared and we had a beautiful clear blue sky. So at least 50% of the annoying weather was gone – that’s something, right?
Italy Pass played tricks on my eyes. My perspective of scale was way off, and as we approached via a nice green slope I thought it was far away with big rampy cliffs we’d have to negotiate. Suddenly some hikers appeared on top (climbed from the other side) and they looked HUGE! It turns out the pass was much closer than I thought. They looked about 20 feet tall each. Once my brain wrapped around what my eyes were seeing everything suddenly appeared much easier and we were on the pass about 15 minutes later. Those ‘big rampy cliffs’ were littered with use trails and easy routes to the top – Italy Pass was far easier than my eyes were telling me. Another lesson!
We crested the pass only to be bombarded by wind whipping up the slope from the other side. Finding a protected spot, we took a break and readied our summit packs for Mount Julius Caesar. This peak is right next to Italy Pass and is an easy class 2 scramble. Sooz was surprised when she pulled out her water bladder only to find it empty. On the one hand, good for drinking and staying hydrated. On the other hand, oops – out of water. Luckily I had enough to share for our trip to the summit.
I bookmarked the location of our packs on the pass on my GPS and we grabbed our summit packs (my new Arcteryx Cierzo 18) with cameras and snacks and started up the peak. There is a steep sandy use trail to start off, but it quickly turns into talus hopping. The rock was solid so it was fun. Also, the higher we climbed the less the wind blew – this is not a normal phenomenon! I guess we timed our climb for the end of the strange system that was blowing through the Sierra, and by the time we reached the summit ridge there was barely even a breeze – it had turned into a perfectly beautiful Sierra day.
It took us about an hour and a half to get to the summit of Mt Julius Caesar where we were able to enjoy the jawdropping views across to Bear Creek Spire and other peaks in the region. We found the summit register can, inside of which was an old tobacco tin. The tin contained the spiral notebook register and a cool story:
July 4, 2006: We found this registry can in a deep crack reachable only by hanging off the cliff. Inside were entries dated from August 12, 1928 through 1933 (Dave Brower), 1939, 1949, 1953, 1959 (Steve Roper and others)….1962. The 1928 entry was the christening, “Having climbed this peak and finding no signs of previous ascent, we christen it Mt Julius Caesar since it is the highest unnamed peak overlooking the Italy Basin” Alfred & Myrtle Prater
Our descent took about the same time and we were back at the pass by 3pm to retrieve our packs. From Italy Pass we needed to contour over to Dancing Bear Pass, an easy cross-country pass that would take us into Bear Lakes Basin. The ‘contouring’ took a while and took us down lower than I would have liked, mostly so we could avoid the steepest snowfields and biggest rocks. We crossed some snow and did a bit of rock hopping but it was straightforward and fun.
We were planning on filling up our water at the small tarn at the pass that is shown on the map. But we ran across a cold and fresh stream tumbling down the rocks from a snowfield above so we filled there. Good thing – the tarn was completely dry. Do not rely on it as a water source!
From Dancing Bear Pass we descended into Bear Lakes Basin. It was a slow descent – we kept stopping to ooh and ahh at the views. Seven Gables, Feather Peak, White Bear Lake, Black Bear Lake, it all was amazing. We followed the terrain towards Black Bear Lake, then continued along its outlet towards Ursa Lake. After wandering around for a while, we worked our way over to Big Bear Lake where we found an amazing campsite perched above its northern shore.
We hadn’t seen a soul since Italy Pass and we had an entire golden-trout-filled lake to ourselves. Seven Gables towered above the Basin and was an incredible view from my tent, framed perfectly by the door. It was a tiring day, taking longer than we expected (especially with a short distance of ~6.5 miles), but “it’s all part of the adventure.” And another lesson – it always looks easier on maps.
And as if the day wasn’t perfect enough, we were treated to the most amazing moonrise I’ve experienced as it peeked out from behind Feather Peak just as the Peak was being bathed in a beautiful red alpenglow. I’m certain I fell asleep with a big grin on my face.
- Photo Album with all photos from this day (100 total): Granite Park to Bear Lakes Basin