STEVEN HAGEL photography | Pioneer Basin and the Mono Recesses

Pioneer Basin and the Mono Recesses

July 31, 2012  •  2 Comments

I'm 44 years old. My wife reminds me of that often. Goodbye youth - middle aged ya know - on the downhill slide. But I won't give it up, I want adventure. With two young boys, the opportunities for hard core mountain epics are now few and far between. But, I'm OK with that. A few trips a year is all I ask. Later, I am hopeful my little ones will grow to appreciate the splendors of the outdoors as I have and we'll be back in business. So... for the past few years, I take a break each summer and head out on a few solo adventures to the Sierra. Due to the blue moon nature of these events, my planning is obsessive. I overhear the wife's laughter as I begin to load my pack three weeks in advance of the actual trip.

I had read and seen photos of the Pioneer Basin area in the Sierra, and decided this was the place to go. I can remember seeing incredible images of this place on Flickr from a guy named Buck Forester and I wanted in. I leave our place in Reno and head south before midnight. My intention was to get some sleep in the back of the truck at the trailhead before strapping on the boots. Pulling into the trailhead at Mosquito flats at 3:30AM, I was revved on caffeine and ready to go. I knew there was a great sunrise shot a mere two miles up the trail above Little Lakes valley. I decide to go for it.

Let me step back a bit and describe what is in my pack. From experience last summer, I knew that to fit all of my backpacking gear as well as photography gear into a backpack it needed to be big - really big. So, during the off season, I acquired the Gregory Denali Pro Backpack. This is a plus 7000 cu. inch pack - the biggest of the big, a big red pig! Loaded down with 58 pounds of gear (26 pounds comprised of camera, tripod, 4 lenses, pano gear, filters, batteries, ect...), I begin my ascent. I reach the intended viewpoint as the eastern horizon begins to light. I set up the tripod and shot many images pre and post sunrise. I have always enjoyed the pre-sunrise shots due to the softer light. This was my favorite. This is Ruby Lake below and the Sierra crest above. Those are the big boys. The far left distant peak is Bear Creek Spire which is one of the best 4th class climbs I have done heading up the steep ridge left center. A proud line. Exquisite Ruby Lake

Now, I've had zero sleep and it was time to continue the climb over Mono Pass at 12,000 feet. I reached the summit of the pass and continue down toward my destination at Pioneer Basin. I meet a fellow cruising down the trail and we begin to chat. He is 86 years old and going strong - truly amazing. This guy has been visiting the far corners of the Sierra Nevada since the 50's and his stories make the ensuing couple of miles pass quickly.

We part ways as I continue the now uphill ascent into the basin. Sleep deprivation is apparent as the climb continues and I begin to seriously consider the sanity of my plan. It's beautiful though - wildflowers everywhere and absolute solitude. I finally arrive into the upper basin and set up my camp. Exhaustion takes me and I'm in the bag by 7PM.

No neighbors!

I awake late with renewed energy and am in awe of the landscape. Nobody around and five days to play! I am excited to finally put my new Nikon D800E to work. Let's see what this 36MP full frame baby can do. I load the day pack and climb north to the ridge above the basin. The view into the McGee Creek basin is stunning.

Time to climb some peaks. First Mount Stanford, and then Crocker which are about 12,800 and 12,500 respectively. Class 2 and 3 scrambling primarily, but it feels great to be back on the granite. I have lunch on the top of Crocker with nary a wind, warm temps and the sun on my face. Oysters and bagels. Believe it.

Summit of Mount Stanford

I head back down to the ridge toward camp and shoot an image looking south across the basin. My campsite is on the left side of the center lake. Mono pass, where I came from is just left of top center.

Pioneer Basin

I move camp down to the lower lake, which becomes base for the remainder of my trip. I had really hoped for some weather to bring dramatic clouds to add to the photographic compositions. It never really happened. Landscape photography is like that - you just have to be out there a lot. Right place at the right time, F8 and be there - and all that. The trout were rising to every fly though and I was happy.

Marsh Lake

I woke up late that night to a sky filled with stars. The moon was absent and the milky way was right there - bright and bold. I took this shot using a 30 second exposure:

The Milky Way

The remainder of my trip was more of the same. I explored the third and fourth Mono recesses and fly fished Mono Creek heading west. These outings really allow you to consider your priorities and put things into proper perspective. They force you to slow down a bit and appreciate the things you have. Back home with the family, things look a bit different and you have a smile on your face. The big soft bed and pillow take on a new meaning. Then you begin to daydream about the next adventure....






Candyce Roberts(non-registered)
I read on another blog that the sun sets early in the Pioneer Basin. Did you find this is true? We have only done a day hike here from the Forth Recess Lake but plan on returning to base camp in PB a few days in late August or Sept. We have been to many of the places you have photographed so it was really nice to peruse your portfolio. Thanks!
Rob Odeo(non-registered)
Nice description of the hike. Great photos! Thanks for posting.
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