Parabolic Passes

posted Oct 8, 2013, 8:45 AM by Paul Wagner
Some passes are transparent.
And that's M, walking down through the talus. ©
From the start you can see the top, and you have a very good idea of how far you have to go.  The trail may be steep, but at least you can see how steep it is.  Often the trail goes up on a steady climb, or even up a steep face, with blue sky showing you where it all ends.  And that ending takes you right out on top, with a sudden revelation on the other side. WYSIWYG. 
That's M hiking down from Virginia Lakes Pass at right.  You can see here with her bright blue backpack.  You can also see the top of the ridge, and that's where the trail tops out.  No surprises.  Transparent.
But there are other passes in the Sierra.  Passes that never really show you where you are or where you are going.  Each step takes you closer to the top, but you can't tell where the top will be.  Because the form of the ridge is a parabola, you can see blue sky ahead, but that doesn't mean that the climbing will stop soon. 
Things are looking up---but we are not at the top yet.
It seems that no matter how far you hike, the trail just keeps going up.  The parabola very gradually eases the steepness of the climb, but just when you think you have finished the steep part, the trail stops switchbacking and turns to head straight up the side of the pass--and it is as steep as any switchback.
And you still don't get to the top. P remembers Avalanche Pass in Kings Canyon National Park from a hike he took there more than forty years ago.  The trail starts at Road's End, and it climbs about 6,000 feet.
Over the last mile or so, the top of the pass seems almost within reach.  And yet with every hundred feet of elevation gain, more of the pass is revealed...and it keeps going up. 
And at 10,000 feet, that's no joke. 
The photo above is of Ten Lakes Basin Pass.  It doesn't quite get to 10,000 feet, more like 9650 or so.  And it certainly doesn't start below 5,000 feet the way the Avalanche Pass trail does.  This one is out of the Yosemite Creek trailhead, and it starts at about 7500 feet--although the first few miles are quite gradual.  So the final climb to the pass is less than 1,000 feet total.
But still, it is a parabolic pass.  It teases you with the idea that you must be getting close to the top...and then it shows you that you have more climbing to do.   It reminded P just a little bit of Avalanche Pass, forty years ago.
Like we said, he remembers it well.