TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

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TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

Post by papercup » Fri Jul 12, 2019 2:23 pm

I was planning on taking a group over Taboose Pass over the July 4 weekend, with the goal of checking out Bench Lake and perhaps seeing if Split Mountain was climbable. About a week before setting off, I started reading trip reports from the 2017 HST Meetup, and found horror stories about both (1) the creek crossing and (2) the horrible creek bypass. Concerned about my group's ability to handle either in this wet year, I decided to call an audible and switched from Taboose to Sawmill, where I hoped the high water situation would be much more docile. Fortunately, I was able to snag the necessary permits.

We took off the evening of July 3 with the plan of covering a mile or so and then bivying in the desert. This worked like a charm. The evening weather was nice and cool and the buckwheat and other desert flowers were beautiful. We hydrated up before leaving and found plenty of flat sandy spots where one could drop a pad.

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We set an alarm for 4:15 the next morning and were on the trail around 5. I'd estimate that we made it 2/3 of the way through the desert region before the sun poked out. We made it into Sawmill Canyon around 7 and were grateful to have access to water again. A number of mosquitoes started poking around, so we filled our bottles quickly and kept on going. The first snow patches appeared around Mule Lake but were easily surmounted. We took our time after reaching the canyon, took naps at Sawmill Meadow, and ultimately made it to Sawmill Lake around 2. That was enough for us, so we set up a camp, took naps, did some fishing, and generally lazed about for the rest of the day.

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Sawmill Meadow

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Sawmill Lake pano

The next day was up and over Sawmill Pass to Woods Lake Basin. The climb from Sawmill Lake is steep but short, and was snow-covered near the top. We broke out the microspikes, but it could have been done safely in boots and poles. Once on top, we took a rest and wandered up some of the neighboring ridges before dropping down into the basin. Woods Lake Basin was dramatically snowier than Sawmill Canyon had been, with probably 90% of the ground covered in deep sun cups. We explored the basin, checked out the various lakes, and ultimately found a dry-enough campsite by the two small matching lakes in the northeastern portion of the basin.

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Sawmill Canyon pano, from the pass.

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Woods Lake Basin.

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Stars from camp.

The goal for the day was to climb Colosseum Mountain, then return to camp, grab our gear, and head back over the pass to Sawmill Lake. We were hoping to attain Colosseum's plateau via a chute and to return by taking the ridge all the way to Colosseum Col. This turned out to be doable. We crossed snowfields heading toward Colosseum's slopes, which eventually petered out among the rocks. From there we scrambled up the rocks and checked out a few chutes until we found one that we liked. A quick scramble and we were on the summit plateau. Our route was largely class 2, with a few bits of class 3 mixed in to spice it up a bit. From the plateau, it's easy walking anywhere. We headed to the lower eastern summit first, and then across to the true western summit, before following the ridge back to the col, back over the snow to camp, back over Sawmill Pass, and down to Sawmill Lake. Once we arrived, the lake was jammed. It's a rocky lake without too much in the way of campsites, and everything we could find was already occupied. I guess that's the holiday weekend for you, even on a tougher pass, and I can't complain about the holiday crowds when I was part of them. I was disappointed to see that several groups had campfires going, which I'm pretty sure is illegal at the lake. Given the crowds, we dropped down to Mule Lake and found spots to bivy for the night among the pine needles.

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Woods Lake Basin from the slopes of Colosseum.

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Scrambling up our chosen chute.

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Owens Valley panorama from the eastern summit.

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Westerly panorama from the true summit.

The final day was a straightforward hike-out.

I loved this hike. This was my first of the big east side passes, and the experience of going up for so long was a lot of fun. The uphill is fine, as long as you plan for it and are in decent enough shape. I loved the concept of hiking all the way from the valley floor to the top of the ridge, and I loved passing through the entire forested zone. The early start solved all problems with desert heat on the way up, and the downhill grade solved all problems on the way down.

Woods Lake Basin was also gorgeous. I'm sure it looks much different when it's all melted out, but it's a gentle enough landscape to be easily doable in the snow, even if the sun cups are a pain. We all had spikes but no crampons, and those were helpful but not essential. I think that we could have done the entire hike safely without any traction aids, although afternoon travel across the snow would have been much slower. We brought two axes, primarily just to practice with them and to use them as ice-chipping tools in the morning. They came in handy for those purposes but were otherwise unnecessary.

I even enjoyed the desert hiking portion of this. There were a variety of flowers out, bees buzzing around, lizards and rabbits and mice, the smell of sagebrush, all that good stuff. The snowfall has left the desert wetter than usual, so things were far more green and lively than you'd ordinarily expect. I wouldn't want to spend all day down there, but a few miles on both ends of the hike was perfect.

I'd definitely recommend this as an early-season hike. There are no challenging stream crossings (unless you want to drop to the JMT), and the wetness helps to keep the lower-altitude portions of the hike beautiful. Colosseum, which is climbed primarily from the south, melts out relatively early and we had no snow issues to contend with in climbing it. The relatively low altitude of the hike helps if you don't have a season of acclimation under your belt. I guess the downside would be that I understand that the mosquitoes can be heavy in this area, but if you get out early enough to beat them, you'll be in great shape.








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Re: TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

Post by SSSdave » Fri Jul 12, 2019 3:06 pm

Especially liked that image looking down the rusty chute of Colosseum Mtn, well done.

p >>>" I was disappointed to see that several groups had campfires going, which I'm pretty sure is illegal at the lake."

Why is it so many early season backpackers rationalize that it is ok to ignore campfire policies when there is still snow on the ground?

Of course they realize there is almost zero chance any forest service personnel will be out then that shows a general attitude of doing whatever they want to as long as they don't think anyone will catch them. And that goes beyond campfire policies as seems to be increasingly worse in this selfish era. And that is why this person has long been an advocate for using peer pressure since we enthusiasts are out at all times and even into remote areas personnel rarely patrol even mid summer. Well as long as a person can calmly, unemotionally, un-demandingly confront others that in my experience invariably makes others embarrassed thus less likely to repeat such in the future after considering they also have to worry about other enthusiasts coming up and saying something.

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Re: TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

Post by papercup » Fri Jul 12, 2019 3:24 pm

I wondered whether I should confront the groups with the fires. I ultimately didn't. Part of that was because I wasn't confident about the rules -- I never burn fires in the Sierra, so I don't pay much attention to where they are legal and where they are not. And, to be honest, part of it was because it was late and I was tired and I didn't feel like arguing with strangers. A missed opportunity on my part I suppose.

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Re: TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

Post by davidsheridan » Fri Jul 12, 2019 3:47 pm

Great TR! Sounds like an awesome trip!

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Re: TR: Sawmill / Woods Lake / Colosseum, 7/3-7/7

Post by windknot » Fri Jul 12, 2019 4:52 pm

Great photos and trip report! Thanks for sharing.
You can read a few backcountry reports here: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/

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