The Ionian Basin


  Evolution Valley
Evolution Valley
The trek to the Ionian Basin, one of the most obscure areas of the High Sierra, is a long one. But the Ionian Basin is a very special place for backcountry skiers, with all kinds of great slopes and skiable peaks. You could do a quick trip, via Echo Col in both directions, in about 4 days. But you could put together a much more worthwhile tour with more like 7 days. The tour described below is one example of a 7-day Ionian Basin tour.

The best time to visit this area (average tour elevation is around 11000') is mid-spring, mid-April to early May, depending on the season. No parking problems at either end (except that before mid-spring, the roads might not be plowed quite as far as you'd like).

The tour I'm going to describe starts at North Lake, or more likely, down at the bottom of the North Lake road where it leaves the Lake Sabrina road. Head on up to Piute Lake, the first camp. The next day, top out over Piute Pass and cross over southwest to Muriel Lake and Goethe Lake. Then pop over Alpine Col, southeast of Goethe Lake, and descend to the beautiful Darwin Bench, just west of Darwin Canyon. From there, drop into Evolution Valley (if you're out there past mid-spring, you'll want to cross over to the south side of Evolution Creek as early as you can, perhaps up around Colby Meadow). Then, tour westward all the way out to where Evolution Creek descends to and meets the South Fork San Joiquin River (camp 2). (The first edition of Moynier's guidebook described a different, more challenging, alternative to the above: From Piute Pass, continue westbound for a few miles, dropping down to around 10500'. Then, turn southwest up to Lobe Lakes, and continue up southwest to a very steep pass over Glacier Divide. From there, take a long descent to the west end of Evolution Meadow, a south-facing route that may lack good snow cover past mid-spring.)

  Mt. Goddard
Mt. Goddard photographed from Scylla; the ski descent is down the right shoulder
From Camp 2, you have some options: The easiest is to head straight upstream via Goddard Canyon to Martha Lake. Or, to make things more interesting, let's get to Martha Lake indirectly via the beautiful LeConte Divide. To do this, go up (south) Goddard Canyon from Camp 2, to just south of the 8800' contour. Then head southwest to about 11000', a mile north of Red Mountain, and contour around the east side of Red Mountain to Hell For Sure Pass. Descend to Hell For Sure Lake, Camp 3.

From HFS Lake, go southbound over the pass just east of Mt. Hutton (or, if that's too heavily corniced for your taste, go back up to the LeConte Divide, and follow the steep ridge-line around the left side of Hutton Col). From there, descend and contour down to Schoolmarm Lake, then east, south, and east, up along the chain of lakes. Continue east here to the crest of the White Divide. Criss-cross the divide a couple more times (touching "Confusion Lake") until you reach a moderate descent route to Martha Lake. From Martha Lake, go east up to a pass that is south of Mt. Goddard. Welcome to Ionia! Camp at your choice of numerous lakes. I believe a layover day is called for. Restless to ski? Do Goddard (east slope) in the morning and the west side of Scylla in the afternoon.

  Muir Hut
The hut at Muir Pass
Continue to traverse the Ionian Basin generally eastbound. Drop down to the beautiful Chasm Lake, perhaps skiing past its outlet far enough to get a view down the Enchanted Gorge. Continue further east to near the base of Black Giant, then turn north and traverse left to the hut at Muir Pass. There aren't any beds in this stone structure, but it's welcome shelter from snow, wind, and/or intense UV.

On the final full day of skiing, drop down to the east a little past Helen Lake, and then go north to the steep Echo Col. Descend the other side to Lake Sabrina via the trail route. (An attractive alternative to exiting via Echo Col is to follow Evolution Basin down to Evolution Lake, and then exit the Sierra via Darwin Bench and Lamarck Col to North Lake; allow an extra day for this alternative route.)

As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other options. Late season, you'll probably want to avoid the low-elevation loop down to the foot of Evolution Valley (and early-season, you may want to avoid the hazard from climax avalanches in Goddard Canyon). So, for a shorter, higher loop, consider going up Evolution Basin instead of down Evolution Valley. You could enter the Ionian Basin over Wanda Pass (about half way between Mts. Goddard and Solomons). Or, from Evolution Basin, head west to McGee Lakes, and around the north side of Emerald Peak via about a 10800' contour, then descending southwest of Mt. McGee to near the mouth of Davis Lake, then south to near Martha Lake where you can enter the Ionian Basin from the west. Or, short-cut from Wanda Lake to Martha Lake via Davis Lake.

An account of my 5/00 Ionian Basin trip, plus more photos.

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