When you drive along 395 through the Bishop area there are a few prominent peaks that define the skyline. The biggest, most impressive summit is Mount Tom. Tom has always brought a smile to my face because it presides over one of my favorite places in the world, and therefore it has held a place on my Sierra bucket list. It’s neighbor, Basin Mountain, also has an interesting sawtoothy ridge line that I’ve always wanted to see up close. Finally the chance came this year when I booked backpacking permits for Labor Day weekend – a three night base camp at Horton Lake with day climbs of Basin and Tom.
I figured this would be a nice end-of-season trip, pretty easy for the time of year when I’m usually in my best shape. Well, this year I am in horrible shape. Back in July I sustained a stress fracture in my foot, rendering me unable to do my big annual Sierra trip, as well as unable to run, hike, or climb for several weeks. I am just now healed enough for backpacking and scrambling around the mountains, so at 4:30 am on Saturday we hit the road and drove out to Bishop. I was relieved to finally be going back to my mountains.
After picking up our permit we met Pavla and Robin at the Burger Barn so we could caravan out to the trail head just beyond the Buttermilks. The road is a bit gnarly and 4WD/high clearance helps, especially along the last mile or so. Traveling together was smart, in case anyone got stuck or a flat. Pavla made it most of the way in her Subaru Forester, and our Tundra and Robin’s 4Runner made it all the way to the trailhead. We passed several cars pulled out along the way, pretty much parking wherever they decided they had enough rocks and ruts.
The four mile hike to Horton Lake, which follows an old mining road, is pretty easy. I was huffing and puffing a bit on the 2000 ft climb to 10k and I tried to brush off the disappointment about how I was feeling, knowing that it was due to my lack of recent exercise and coming from sea level that morning. I was just hoping that I would be okay for the peaks we had planned over the next two days.
One of the reasons I chose Horton Lakes for a typically busy holiday weekend was because the trail doesn’t really go anywhere. If you want to access deeper mountain country you’d choose a different trail. Plus, with only ten permits available a day I figured the crowds would be low. Silly me – that’s assuming that everyone actually respects the permit system. I counted far more people than ten going in with packs on their back that day. Luckily, about two minutes of exploration at the lake found us a nice site perched on a rock outcropping with a great view, and far enough away from the others camped in the area that we didn’t have to look at or hear anyone else.
We settled in for the night, watching the beautiful blue moon rise over Bishop below, and tried to get a good night of sleep so we’d be ready for the next day’s target: Basin Mountain.
Day 2: Basin Mountain – 13,240 ft
The summit of Basin Mountain is about 2.75 miles and 3200 ft of vertical climbing from our campsite. We planned on the North Slope route as described by Secor and some trip reports I had read. The route is straightforward and easy despite the confusion over the actual summit from below and temptations of following other paths. Here is our GPS track from camp so you can follow along:
Map of Horton Lakes, Basin Mountain, and Mount Tom climb
I had read that it was easier to follow the north shore of the lake instead of going through the talus on the south shore, but we chose the talus anyways. On the way back down we tried to take the other way around the lake but it was actually more complicated – we got stuck in marsh and overgrowth so turned back to go through the talus. Take the south shore – it’s not that bad at all. In fact, there are some cool flat sandy areas scattered through the rocks that would make for good campsites.
After hopping through the talus we found ourselves along the east side of the creek following use trails towards the lower of the two small tarns (lakes) we would pass on the way to the summit. The terrain naturally points you to the lake. On this dry September day the lake looked low, exposing a nice beach on its south shore.
There are nice rock cliffs above this lake, and we picked out two potential alternate routes through this cliff to the next level. In the early morning shadows it was difficult to make out the details and the steepness of these routes so we stuck to the Secor route as described, following the main drainage to the southwest up to the second lake. The two potential other routes headed straight up the wall to the south and southeast. They’d cut distance but I’m not sure if they’d cut time – the climb from the lower lake to the upper lake was pretty straightforward through bedrock and talus.
At the second lake (~11,400 ft) we took a break to fuel up on food and fresh water (this is the last water source on the way to the summit). The summit has been visible for a while but it’s difficult to pick out, kind of hiding behind a lower peak in the foreground. Even if you’re not convinced that it’s the summit way back there, head towards the north ridge. There is a nice ramp with many use trails that naturally leads to the north ridge. It’s a bit sandy/sloggy but not bad at all, at least relative to other slogs I’ve done. From this second lake it’s 1800 ft of climbing to the summit.
Just below the north ridge turn south towards the summit. We stashed our trekking poles for this final short piece since hands were helpful. If you follow the use trails along the ridge for the final ~200 ft to the summit the approach is easy. If you come to the summit from below you’ll have a longer stretch of class 3 moves up a slanty rock. By coming from the north ridge you just have to scramble over the top of this little tooth, reducing the amount of time and distance you feel exposed.
Looking back on the north ridge from the summit is awesome – you see the top of all of the ‘teeth’ that make up the face of Basin Mountain that is so recognizable from Bishop.
To descend, follow the same route back. It should go a lot quicker since you can bomb through the sandy slope (trekking poles were very nice to have).
This was my biggest outing since my foot injury and I was so happy to feel great at the end of the day. My biggest worry was actually all my out-of-shape muscles, hoping that I wouldn’t be sore the next day. Our plan for Day 3 was to climb Mt Tom, and I wanted to be as good as I could be!
Useful Guides and Gear:
The photos include details of the climb up Basin in the captions.