Williams

Northern Palisades from Williams


For the last several years I have found early August better spent elsewhere than the Sierra, meaning that I have missed Bob Burd’s Sierra Challenge. The peaks have become increasingly obscure since he finished the SPS list, but one that I regretted missing was Mount Williams, a minor but challenging summit in the Palisades between Norman Clyde and Palisade Crest. I had hoped to do it with a friend, but that fell through, so as the season drew to a close, I headed down to Glacier Lodge for a few days of chilly, challenging scrambling.

Middle Palisade through Sill

Not wanting trouble, I slept in the overnight lot, leaning my bike box against the back of the car to give myself room to sleep, then drove up to the day lot to start hiking. I waited until I could see without a headlamp, then started out in all my layers. I immediately met a man from Alaska, who had come south to escape the endless winter. Though we started in the same direction, he intended to fish Big Pine Creek, so I soon left him to hike up the south fork. I have always enjoyed this approach: there are few people and no horses, it conjures fond memories of my early Sierra adventures, and the sunrise view of Norman Clyde Peak is always impressive. I was fortunate to be on a pleasant trail, because my recent level of activity had left me with energy for little more than a respectable walk.

Middle Pal and Norman Clyde

Once past the Brainerd/Willow Lake split, I looked for and found Bob’s shortcut to Finger Lake near where the trail leaves its outlet stream. While I disagree that it is a “decent use trail,” the route was obvious and mostly painless, saving me distance and frustration, if not much time, in reaching the lake. I refilled my water, then followed the increasingly-cairned route up around Firebird Ridge toward the Middle Palisade Glacier. The glacier’s healthy state, with almost no bare ice visible even at the end of the season, cheered me as I approached it, then turned right to zig-zag up some steep third class leading toward Norman Clyde’s north face.

Norman Clyde and notch

Like Bob, I started on Clyde’s standard route, then made a diagonal traverse toward the notch before Williams. I found mostly easy terrain most of the way, though things got trickier as I went up and around the fingers of the snow/ice couloir leading to the saddle. These were fairly steep, and rock-hard due to being permanently shaded this late in the season. Kicking steps was impossible, and chipping steps with a sharp rock would have been treacherous. Fortunately most of the fresh snow from a couple of weeks ago had melted or blown off, so the rock was almost all dry.

Approaching the notch

I finally reached the ridge at the southern saddle, where someone had built a tent platform. The chockstone mentioned in Bob’s trip report was still wedged in the dirt-chute to the west and, not remembering whether he went under or across, I went across, aiming for the less-windy eastern side of the ridge beyond the northern saddle. This turned out to be a mistake, as I had to do some slow, windy, tricky downclimbing to get past the pinnacle separating the two notches. The east side of the ridge was steep and sometimes rotten, so after passing the first false summit, I gave up and climbed the windy side. The whole ridge was complicated on the sides, jagged on top, and often loose, and between that and the wind, I was not enjoying myself.

Norman Clyde and Middle Pal from near Williams

Williams has two possible summits, and I visited them both, later finding that the first is probably slightly higher. I did not find a register on either, probably because I took only a few seconds to look in the blasting wind. Broken clouds were streaming up the west side of the crest, partly obscuring Norman Clyde, Middle Palisade, and Sill. I stuck to the windy side on the return, dropping down below the notch to come up the dirt-chute below the chockstone. Each time a rock broke loose, the dust it released would blow up the chute and into my eyes. Looking down, I was surprised to see that my water hose had frozen — I knew it was cold, but did not think it was that far below freezing.

I had a bit more trouble getting down and across Norman Clyde’s face, at one point having to cross one tentacle of the icy couloir via a deep powder-filled depression. However, at least I was sheltered from the wind. Once back on Norman Clyde’s standard route, things went quickly, and I was soon hopping down the talus toward Finger Lake, destroying some of the cairns that have multiplied there over the years (there were none in 2007). I took the Bob shortcut again, then finished at a pathetic jog, passing the Alaskan at the South Fork stream crossing, where someone has nailed aspen branches into a primitive bridge.

Nevahbe Ridge

Looking down-ridge toward McGee


Nevahbe Ridge is a long, colorful, chossy ridge above Crowley Lake, connecting the southern lateral moraine of the old McGee Creek glacier to Mount Morgan. It was supposed to be a decent class 2-3 scramble, and I had intended to do it with a couple partners over the past year, but ended up doing it solo while I was up near Mammoth. It turned out to be more fun than I expected, with plenty of crappy choss, but also some fun scrambling if one stays along the crest, particularly around “Nevahbe Point.” The descent into McGee Creek was miserable at times, but much better than my recent trip to Pyramid.

McGee moraines and Crowley Lake

When I pulled into the McGee Creek trailhead around dark, I thought I would have the place to myself. However, a guy in a Sprinter pulled in about fifteen minutes later, jockeyed it around to level it with some wedges, then spent a creepy amount of time staring at the back of my car by headlamp (remembering my license plate number?). I ignored this breach of trailhead camping etiquette, finished reading the articles I had downloaded earlier, and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. It seemed slightly warmer up in the canyon than down in the flats by Crowley Lake where I had slept the night before.

McGee and black blocky ridge

Secor mentions in passing that Nevahbe Ridge can be reached by climbing a steep chute behind the pack station, so I jogged back down the road a bit, hopped across the creek on a convenient rock, then bashed through sagebrush and other desert scrub toward a broad talus gully. The talus seemed to suppress the worst of the brush, and was more stable than it looked, so the initial grind was long, but less painful than I had feared. I reached the ridge on a sort of northern spur, and began climbing just left of the narrow and blocky black crest. The route seems to be popular enough for a faint trail to have formed in some sections, including here, so I had no trouble with the lingering desert scrub. The black rock ended with some fun class 3 scrambling, and the ridge turned red and broader; I hiked up a switchbacking trail toward the next rocky area.

Nevahbe Point in the distance

The climb to Nevahbe Point felt long, with many false summits and short class 3 sections, but I was enjoying the scrambling, and the view behind me of McGee, Morrison, and the region’s other colorful peaks was a pleasant distraction. I found two registers on the point, with a surprising amount of local traffic including several familiar names. The hike/jog over to Morrison was shorter than I had feared, but more annoying, with a mixture of sand and sharp, uneven large talus, including a “chicken head” that actually looked like one. Stepping over one such block in a hurry, I manage to bash my shin badly enough to bleed, but a few choice curses fixed the problem.

Actual chicken-shaped chicken-head

I was surprised to find only a couple pages of register entries between now and my happier, easier visit last fall. I added my name again, then moseyed over to the summit on the other side of the plateau, which looks almost as high as Morgan and is incorrectly labeled “Esha” on Peakbagger. I could have skipped it, but doing so would not have saved much time.

Upper McGee Creek

On the map, it looked like I could descend a ridge to the northeast, then drop down into a tributary to McGee Creek. However, the ridge looked brushy and annoying, while there was a nice-looking sand- and talus-slope on the other side. The slope was not quite as nice as I had hoped, with some large “surprise surfboard” blocks waiting for the unwary, but it was mostly smooth going on alternating talus and sand. Rather than heading toward the supposed trail at (yet another) Grass Lake, I turned right, following a creek-bed leading toward the main trail lower down. I stayed mostly on the right-hand side, preferring pleasantly open woods to the vicious willows in the bottom. Only near McGee Creek was I screwed, forced to bash my way through aspens for the last hundred or so vertical feet.

Once on the trail, I took off at a jog that soon became a run. This being a holiday during leaf-peeping season, there were plenty of people out with their cameras, and even one carrying her lazy dog in a pack. I vaguely noticed the foliage, but was more focused on maintaining a decent pace on the gentle descent to the trailhead. Back at the now-full parking lot, I had a late lunch, then headed down the hill toward Bishop. I had run out of things to do in the area, and was tired of the cold nights.

Crocker, “Robber Baron,” Hopkins

Crocker and upper Pioneer lake


These are three unremarkable peaks on the west side of Pioneer Basin, located between Rock Creek, McGee Creek, and the Mono Recesses. I have spent relatively little time in this part of the Sierra, and had never visited Pioneer Basin, so it seemed like a worthwhile outing while I was on top of the hill. Thanks to Halfmoon Pass, which I used last fall to tag Recess Peak, this was a reasonable outing of about fifteen miles taking less than seven hours. Fortunately I glanced at Secor before starting, something I don’t always do for easy peaks, because his description of Hopkins as a “class 1 sand hill” prompted me to reverse my planned course, ending my peak-bagging with a joyous 1300-foot sand-run.

Morning at Halfmoon Pass

I spent another cold night in the Mammoth area, this time off a side road near McGee Mountain, then drove up Rock Creek with my heater on full blast. I waited for the sun to reach the car, then started up the trail behind the pack station around 8:00. I easily found the use trail to Halfmoon Pass, which starts out very well-defined, and was soon comfortable in just an overshirt as I climbed the east-facing bowl toward the ridge. The other side was of course chillier, but the descent to Golden Lake and traverse around its right side went quickly, and I was soon jogging down the hideously-switchbacked and horse-ravaged Mono Pass trail.

Crocker Col and Crocker

Just past the turnoff to the first Mono Recess, I turned off on the trail to Pioneer Basin, which also sees a fair amount of stock traffic as far as the first lake. The trail rapidly fades beyond, going in and out of existence above the second lake, and finally ending before the last two. Pioneer Basin features some annoying scrub pine, but is mostly open, gentle, and easy travel. I examined the ridge I would traverse as I hiked and jogged up the basin, eventually spotting Crocker Col, a nasty-looking chute just before Mount Crocker.

Red and White and Red Slate Mountains

While the approach to the chute was an arduous boulder-hop, the chute itself was actually pleasant, with stable talus on the right-hand side, and I was soon at the ridge, looking down into Hopkins Creek and across at Red and White Mountain. I stayed on talus left of the ridge to avoid the wind, finally climbing a short class 3 section to reach the summit. I could see the rest of my day to the south, but the view in the other direction across McGee Creek was much more interesting, the typical white Sierra granite sharply interrupted by the colorful red and black choss intrusion south of Mammoth.

Robber Baron and Hopkins from Crocker

The ridge to Hopkins is about 1.5 miles long, and gentler on its west side. I traversed around the first bump, then stayed closer to the ridge approaching Robber Baron. Several gendarmes and side ridges forced me into some class 3-4 climbing that offered the day’s only real challenge. I continued slowly on or right of the ridge, eventually reaching the summit, about halfway distance-wise to Hopkins.

The remainder of the ridge was much easier, with a quick sand descent to the saddle, then stable talus to the final summit. Of the three register canisters — a custom PVC thing, a peanut butter jar, and a pill bottle — I chose the peanut butter jar, which most people seemed to have been using. I added my own to the list of mostly familiar names, then checked out the other two. The pill bottle’s book was empty — I have no idea why someone left it — while the PVC thing held an old, faded book dating to 2005.

Fun sand with Halfmoon in the distance

I could see almost my whole route home from the summit, down 1300 feet of sand to the second lake, then back along the Pioneer Basin, Mono Pass, and Golden Lake trails to Halfmoon Pass. After a bit of talus and decomposing granite, I had a perfect sand run down to the lake, where I emptied my shoes and got some more water. From there, I jogged as much of the rocky, screwed-up descent as I could, then slogged my way back up the valley, around Golden Lake, and up the chute to Halfmoon Pass. The use trail on the other side grows fainter higher up, so I found it much harder to follow on the descent. I repeatedly stopped to check my GPS track when I found myself diving into willows, costing me some time. The stops were worth it, though, as the lower trail is much more runnable than the surrounding woods. I jogged through the manure the packers spread on the lower trail, then walked through the pack station to my car, ticking one more unexplored Sierra valley off the list.

Pyramid (or Herlihy)

I had an afternoon free after my car was fixed, and chose a random peak near Mammoth named either Pyramid or Herlihy. Sometimes a diagram is more eloquent than words:

Shepherd and Tioga Crests

Shepherd and Tioga Crests across Saddlebag Lake


I wanted to make the most of the long drive up to Yosemite by spending a few days tagging random peaks around Tioga Pass. My first targets were Shepherd Crest and Sheep Peak. I thought they fit well thematically, and could make a nice loop by starting at Saddlebag Lake, traversing Shepherd Crest, dropping south to climb Sheep and its unnamed sub-peak, then climbing over the saddle south of Conness to return. I had plans for a couple more days in the area afterwards as well. Unfortunately, a combination of cold and wind forced me to lower my ambitions on the first day, and then car trouble scuttled the rest of my plans. Such is life.

I had just as cold a night as expected up at the Saddlebag Lake trailhead, with only one other car-camper for company, and took my time over breakfast and coffee before stubbornly setting out wearing all of my summer mountain clothing. It was a cold, windy, shady hike/jog around the lake, though it was almost pleasant once I reached the sun near Greenstone Lake. I was both worn down and hungry from the previous day’s unusual amount of flat running “down” Lyell Canyon, so I walked where I would normally have jogged, and ate about half my food.

Shepherd Crest and Steelhead Lake

At the south end of Steelhead Lake, where I expected to start the cross-country, I instead found a fairly clear use trail heading northwest, almost directly toward Shepherd Crest. The trail disappeared in the final talus below the northern end of the ridge connecting it to North Peak, but the talus and sparse krummholtz did not offer much resistance. The wind, however, picked up unpleasantly, forcing me to side-hill left of the ridge for some shelter.

North, Conness, and Sheep from Shepherd

I headed straight up where the rock turns darker gray near the summit, quickly grabbing the register before hiding below the ridge to read it. I saw a couple of familiar names, added my own, then quickly put it back in its place. The wind seemed to be getting worse, with knock-you-over gusts across the ridge; clearly traversing the Crest would be miserable. I instead miserably retraced my steps, hating the wind until I was finally sheltered below the Shepherd-North ridge.

Saddlebag Lake and Dana from Shepherd

With lots of day left, I decided to tag Tioga Crest, a 1000-foot prominence peak on the other side of Saddlebag that I had planned to save for the morrow. I followed various trails almost to the north end of the lake, then went cross-country up the peak’s southwest ridge, following various game trails up mostly easy terrain. The supposed highpoint is on the far end of the long east-west crest, which I again traversed well below before heading straight up to the summit.

Excelsior and Lundy Canyon

Oddly, though Tioga Crest is slightly higher than Shepherd Crest, the wind was slightly less bad. I admired the drop into deep Lundy Canyon to the north, which held a substantial amount of snow on its north-facing slopes, and chossy, colorful Excelsior Mountain on the other side. I was pleased to see that the previous visitor had been fellow New Mexican and wanderer Guy Dahms, who I almost feel I have met after seeing his name on so many summits. The descent to Dore Pass and Saddlebag Lake was all at a pleasant angle, but not conducive to scree-skiing, so it took longer than expected. I should have jogged the trail/road around the east side of the lake, but felt more like walking.

I ate a late lunch, then looked around for an easy afternoon peak, settling on Gaylor Peak, just outside the park entrance station. I turned the key to start my car, and… click. I waited a bit, then tried again with the same result. I pushed and rolled my car into the sun, gave the engine a chance to warm up, and tried once more, with the same result. Shit.

Since it was downhill from where I was to the Mobil station, I figured that if I could coast I could reduce the cost of the tow, and perhaps even push-start my car. The first obstacle was getting out of the parking lot, which had a slight flat/uphill section. After some experimentation, I found that if I chocked the wheels with wedge-shaped rocks, I could rock the car back and forth to gain ground, quickly kick the nearest wheel’s chock forward, then walk around the car to advance the others. Sometimes I would gain only an inch, sometimes six or eight. I had about twenty feet to go to reach the downhill, but I also had nothing else to do all afternoon, and could use the strength training.

I had been doing this for a bit over an hour, and wasn’t especially interested in help, but when one of the other hikers noticed what I was doing and offered, I did not refuse. With two of us pushing bobsled-style, we quickly got the car over the hump, and I jumped in to steer and brake. Driving was a bit more work without power steering or brakes, but perfectly safe at 20 MPH or less on the way down toward the Tioga Pass road. Unfortunately, there is one flat stretch about a half-mile before the intersection that was too long to coast. With my last momentum, I pulled to the side of the road, then prepared for another cold night, preparing myself to bleed money the next day. Cars suck sometimes.

Potter, Amelia Earhart

Potter and Lyell Canyon

I hadn’t seen Renee in awhile, so when she said she would be in the Sierra for the next couple of days, I tried to figure out an outing that would work. With her coming from Tahoe and me from Lone Pine, anything would involve a lot of driving for at least one of us; a peak in Yosemite seemed like a good compromise. I did a short day up Meysan Creek, then made the long drive north, stopping for gas and groceries in Bishop before heading into the Expensive Zone.

Efficient hydration technique

I had enjoyed warm weather and clear skies in the Owens Valley, but noticed some brown-looking clouds as I drove up toward Mammoth. As I neared the gap in the Sierra that gives the ski area its snow, I entered a horrible haze of wildfire smoke, with visibility only a couple of miles. The fire, in Mariposa on the west side of Yosemite, had closed down parts of the park, and made Renee’s scrambling day somewhere between unpleasant and unhealthy. We met at the Mobil station, stared at maps and Secor for awhile at the Mobil station, then said “what the heck, why not Amelia Earhart?” It is an easy peak that neither of us had done, not too far from Tuolomne, but otherwise unremarkable; a suitably unambitious goal for a day forecast to have brutal ridgetop winds and possibly choking smoke.

Tuolomne can be a cold trailhead late in the season, so we left the Mobil Mart a bit after 7:00, and started around 8:00. Though it had frozen overnight, temperatures were surprisingly pleasant as we jogged the first part of the Lyell River trail, then turned off toward Vogelsang Pass and Ireland Lake. The Lyell River trail sucks, but having good company helped, and I soon found myself in new territory climbing up toward the lake. The toe of the ridge leading to Potter Point looked steep, so we continued to its west, then turned off-trail to climb through easy forest and slabs to the crest.

Brushy terrain near Potter

Potter Point is not really a peak, but merely the end of a ridge leading north from Amelia Earhart, so we walked over to what looked like the highest bump, then retraced our steps south. The first part of the ridge was typical Tuolomne-area fare: a mixture of nice slabs, decaying granite, sand, and krummholtz. The wind was beginning to pick up from the west, and the crest was brushy, so I took a path on the eastern side that proved efficient.

Some fun slabs and cracks

The rock changes to gray ramps and talus closer to Earhart’s summit, with the eastern side steepening to a glacier-carved cliff, so we were eventually forced onto the crest and into the wind. We could see a layer of smoke to the west, probably from another fire farther north in the park, but fortunately the air remained reasonably clear where we were. I found the register, then quickly took it to a small, sheltered alcove east of the ridge to have a sandwich and dig through its contents. The ammo box unfortunately contained only sheets of loose paper and an empty snuff can. To the south, the Lyell Glacier looked healthy after last winter’s heavy snows, with no visible bare ice. Ritter and Banner rose to the southeast, with the latter looking more impressive from this angle.

Ireland Lake and Parsons

We had thought of continuing south along the ridge to Simmons peak, but with our late start and Renee’s long drive home, decided to call it a day. We dropped east down some large talus, then pleasant slabs, then less-pleasant woods, reaching the Lyell River trail just above its endless flat section. The Lyell “River” is more like a long, skinny lake, barely flowing north to join the Tuolomne. With a strengthening wind blowing from the north, it appeared to have reversed course, and I wondered if water were piling up below the headwall, ready to unleash a flood when the wind stopped.

Slabby descent to Lyell Lake

I did not feel that we had gone very far in the morning, but the Lyell trail seemed endless. It is a hateful sand-trench through trees, slightly downhill on average but rolling as it winds along the side of the canyon. I have done it three times now — once hiking, once jogging by headlamp, and now jogging by day — and all of them have made me swear to never do it again. While I have been running my descents lately, including most of the ten miles down Shepherd Pass, this modest seven or eight miles of flat running had my knees complaining more than any other recent outing. Finally reaching the parking lot, I noted that the outing was just under 21 miles — long-ish, but shorter than it felt. We ate and talked awhile in the parking lot, then Renee headed home, while I drove up to Saddlebag Lake to reload my pack, write, freeze, and sleep.

Rosco

Rosco with Comb Ridge and Le Conte behind


“Rosco Peak” is a ranked 13er between Lone Pine Peak and Mount Le Conte, named for Brian French’s late and well-loved dog. I had driven down to Lone Pine to help with Ryan’s FKT on the Badwater to Whitney bike ‘n’ hike, and wanted to make some more use of the 60-mile drive south from Bishop. Rosco was one of a couple of peaks in the area I had yet to climb. My original plan was to start up the 5.6 northeast ridge of Lone Pine Peak, then traverse around the Meysan drainage to Candlelight and down to the Portal. However, I was tired after a late return from Whitney, worn down from the several preceding long days, and looking at a long drive north, so I opted to just tag Rosco.

I sent some correspondence at the scenic pullout at the mouth of Lone Pine Canyon, then parked on the shoulder at Meysan, shoved a deliberately minimal amount of food in my pack, and hiked through the shuttered summer homes to the sandy Meysan Lake trail. With a relatively short day ahead, I shunned aggressive music in favor of podcasts as I plied the nearly-flat switchbacks up to Grass Lake.

Rosco from near Grass Lake

I left the main trail to make my way toward Lone Pine Peak’s unpleasant standard route, finding occasional cairns and bits of trail as I made my way through the woods and willows past Grass Lake’s several outlet streams. The route climbs a steep sand-and-talus gully to the plateau between Lone Pine and Rosco. This gully sees regular landslides, which prevent it from stabilizing. A down-trail has formed that is decent for scree-skiing, but useless for ascent; the best tactic is to stick to the boulders to the left. I slowly made my way from rock to rock, then crossed right to climb a bit of third class toward the plateau in Rosco’s direction.

Mallory, Irvine, Whitney

I stayed on or left of the ridge on my way to the peak, fighting through several false summits, getting around the vertical backside of one via an exposed class 3-4 traverse. It was slow going, and while I had fine views of Owens Lake, Comb Ridge, and Whitney, I did not appreciate a minor peak putting up such a fight. I eventually reached the summit to find a register containing mostly the names of Sierra Challenge people. The sky was clear, and the weather was warm and calm; my mood improved as I took my time eating the last of my food and surveyed my surroundings, appreciating the 10,500 feet of relief between Whitney and Lone Pine.

I chose a better route on the return, traversing ledges left of the ridge to avoid most of the difficulties. Trying to cut the corner into the chute, I got myself into a bit of trouble on some steep slabs, but found nothing harder than class 4 (and a rap anchor left by some climbers with no need to rap). Once in the chute, I carefully plunge-stepped down the use trail, which was mostly sandy, but had the occasional treacherous stretch of hardpack. Back on the Meysan Lake trail again, I jogged most of the way, taking the massive sand shortcuts to make the horizontal switchbacks bearable. I was back at the car by early afternoon, where I ate lunch above the sweltering valley before heading north.

Polychrome, Versteeg, Tyndall SW

Looking back at Tyndall SW


Shepherd Pass is probably the most popular of the big Sierra east-side passes, and possibly the least painful, despite having a 500-foot wrong-way section I call the “dreaded sand hill” that one must climb on the way down. I have been up it many times, including for Williamson and Tyndall back in my pre-Dr. days, the Great Western Divide peaks, and Junction during an early Sierra Challenge. Polychrome, Tyndall Southwest, and Versteeg were the last three peaks I had left to climb out of the pass, the first two being ranked 13ers, and the last a bump between Tyndall and loathsome Lake Helen of Troy. Though the three peaks are not connected, I managed to stitch them together into a lollipop passing through the scenic and rarely-visited upper Wright Creek drainage behind Tyndall. To my surprise, the mostly-pleasant outing took less than twelve hours.

Sunrise below Anvil Camp

I set my alarm for 4:30, but woke around 3:00 and, as is often the case, lay awake brooding until it made no sense to try to go back to sleep. Instead, I took my time over coffee and breakfast (eggs and beans), then started up the trail by headlamp at 5:00 as someone else packed in the parking lot. The creek crossings were straightforward this late in the season, and I was soon hiking the endless switchbacks to the Symmes Creek saddle.

Sunrise over the Inyos

I topped out around 6:30, and was able to stash my headlamp on my run down the south-facing slope. The red glow of sunrise appeared on the top of Williamson and the crags north of the pass, and I eventually reached the sun about an hour later on the climb toward Anvil Camp. The trail had been badly washed out in the decade since I used it, and rebuilt a few years ago to climb around the resulting gully, adding another short wrong-way section. I passed a man reading in his tent at Anvil Camp, and a small tent city in a meadow a short ways above.

Kaweahs and GWD from Polychrome

I pushed myself on the final climb up the headwall, and was pleased to reach the pass in under four hours. I took the mandatory photo of Tyndall’s slabby northeast face, then vacillated for a few minutes before heading for Polychrome, grabbing water at the nearby tarn as I passed. The peak’s north ridge was a straightforward boulder-hop leading to a surprisingly broad summit with a few boulder-piles that could be the summit. Climbing what looked like the highest, I found no register, and stopped to eat an Epic bar. While they are normally an overpriced luxury, I found them for 50 cents apiece at Grocery Outlet, making them almost as cheap as tuna as a source of protein.

Tyndall from Williamson Bowl

Afterward, I climbed another nearby blob to make sure I had tagged the highpoint. This one was trickier, with some delicate moves onto a fin and a step-across. From there, I made a quick sand descent toward the rim of the Williamson Bowl, where I found a surprisingly well-defined climbers’ trail. Things have changed since I first visited in 2007. I followed the trail for awhile, then left it toward Lake 12,247′ and Versteeg’s standard north ridge.

Helen of Troy

I found stable talus and slabs for most of the way up, but it became hideously loose near the top, and my curses rang from the cliffs around the Williamson Bowl. I eventually made my way to the northeast ridge, which had a good view of Lake Helen of Troy and stable “Colorado class 3” rock. Remembering Bob’s trip report, I knew that the easternmost pinnacle was highest. There I found an ammo box with the register, containing entries from familiar names and also the nearby backcountry rangers. I was encouraged to see that people had come up the southwest side, since I was about to descend that way.

Tyndall SW crags

I sent a few text messages, then dropped down the first chute, which was loose in a way that made scree-skiing impossible. I was able to slide a bit when the chute opened up lower down, but it was still slow going; at least I hadn’t tried to come up this way. My senses told me that the slope I was on would cliff out, so I traversed right and followed the next rib and gully, finally descending horrible loose talus to reach the grass near Lake 11,959′. I spent some time admiring the reflection of the thousand-foot crags of Tyndall Southwest’s south ridge, then traversed around its toe to reach the easy way to the summit.

Tyndall SW summit plateau

The slope turned out to be an unpleasant sand-pile studded with boulders. I made my way from rock to rock, trending right to get closer to the ridge where there were more rocks. After gaining weight and losing fitness in the fallow period after Peru, I have been pushing long days and shorting my food a bit (e.g. about 2500 calories today), and my pace was suffering from both factors. I eventually slogged to the summit, which is a surprisingly flat plain with several “pancake stacks” of granite. Fortunately someone had been kind enough to put a cairn on the highest, so I did not need to wander around checking out the others. The register was a nice SRC box containing some sheets of paper from the 2012 Sierra Challenge and nothing to write with.

This totally goes…

I knew that the descent west and north was class 1-2, but that would take me in the wrong direction. Instead, I headed down one of the chutes to the north, (over-) confident that I could make it work. I wove between the two easternmost chutes and the separating ridge, eventually taking the slabs to the right where the angle lessened closer to Tyndall Creek. I grabbed some water, then hiked the mile or so back to Shepherd Pass.

Shepherd Pass from Tyndall SW

The section from the pass to Anvil Camp is runnable in places, but too rocky for real speed. Below that, however, things get fun. I jogged and hiked to the far side of the washout, then took the massive shortcut to save a half-dozen switchbacks before cruising down the slightly sandy and very runnable trail to the base of the sand hill. I had saved a sandwich for this final obstacle, and it gave me enough energy to maintain a respectable pace on the climb to the Symmes saddle.

The almost 2000′ of near-horizontal switchbacks into Symmes Creek sucked as much as I remembered, but I doggedly kept up a decent running pace out of habit. I met a backpacker just past the first stream crossing, and planned to run right past. He seemed talkative, though, and I had no real reason to hurry, so we talked for the final hike along the creek. It turned out that he had climbed all over the world, and had been coming to the Sierra since the 1970s. With a trad climbing background, he was a solid scrambler, having recently done the north ridge of Lone Pine Peak (5.6) in boots. We talked some more at his camper, then took off to find flat spots in the desert to sleep.

Gable Lakes, Four Gables SW, Basin SW

Tom and Basin from Basin SW


Pine Creek is blessed with three trails — Pine Creek Pass, Morgan Pass, and Gable Lakes — and I had yet to use the last. I had taken it in previous years for Four Gables and Gable Lakes Peak, leaving no logical and significant peaks to climb that way, so I had to get creative. We had met Dan and Denise returning two days earlier, and Dan had suggested a loop over Four Gables and back via Pine Creek Pass. I did a variant of this, adding on nearby “Four Gables SW” (unranked) and Basin SW (a ranked 13er) to be able to say I had climbed something new.

6-cylinder mine engine

The early-morning wind seemed to have cleared the cold air out of the valley, so it was fairly comfortable when I started up the steep Gable Lakes trail around 6:45. Being a morning person, I was annoyed to look at my calendar and find that daylight savings time lasts another month. I saw headlamp time in my future. I plied the familiar trail past the tram towers, then into the upper basin where it flattens out for a bit and becomes overgrown in places with willows and manzanita. I lost it between the cabin and mining machinery, then regained it to wind through the krummholtz to the first lake.

Gable Lakes Peak

I boulder-hopped up to the second, where I stopped in the first semi-sheltered sunny spot to get water for what was likely to be a long dry stretch. A bitter, almost eyeball-freezing wind eddied through the valley, hitting me unpredictably and keeping me in hat and gloves. I passed some frozen cascades above the final lake, then took the same angling route toward the ridge that Bob and I had used for Gable Lakes Peak. While it is normally better not to side-hill, there is a sort of trough in the talus leading to the final notch that is easier than taking the ridge.

Once on the ridge, I tried to stay on the sunny and less-windy east side for the final few minutes to the summit. I found no register, but was happy to find a sunny, sheltered spot with my first cell reception in three days. I replied to some emails and texts, then turned my phone back to airplane mode to save battery.

Four Gables from Gable Lakes Peak

Four Gables is a short distance away across a deep and unpleasant-looking gap that has dismayed me in the past. However, it is not as bad as it appears: the descent is fairly easy on sand to the left, and the climb is mostly solid other than a bit of wretched sand near the top. Four Gables’ official summit is uniquely pathetic, being the lowest of three corners of a broad, sandy plain. I had even mistakenly moved the register to the highest corner the first time I climbed it (sorry!). I bypassed the summit boulders to stroll across to the southwest corner, which I had not yet visited.

Desolation Lake and Glacier Divide

The bitter wind was coming consistently from the west, so I quickly checked out the views toward Royce Lakes and Pilot Knob, then found a sheltered spot to have a snack and decide what to do. I could traverse the line of unranked peaks toward Pilot Knob, head to Pine Creek Pass via the first saddle to the west, or make a two-mile third class side-trip to Basin Southwest, one of my few remaining ranked Sierra 13ers. It was still early, and I had come all this way, so I decided to head for Basin.

Upper Horton Lakes

I dropped down to the southeast, then side-hilled around the gentle sandy valley above Desolation Lake, aiming for the bump where Basin juts east from the crest. Bypassing this bump, I foolishly stayed near the crest of the ridge, thinking the whole time that I should be down on the sandy plain to the south. The plain gives out a few hundred yards short of the summit, and the ridge becomes fun, exposed third class. I tagged the summit, then found a sheltered spot from which to admire Basin’s higher main summit to the east, Humphreys to the south, and Mount Tom and the cliffs of upper Horton Lakes Basin to the north. “Home” looked far away.

Steelhead Lake is huge!

I was smarter on the way back, scampering back across the exposed ridge, then angling down to the sand and cutting across the north side of the connecting point. I took a more-or-less straight line to the first saddle west of Four Gables Southwest, which I figured was some sort of pass. The north side was fairly steep and held snow in places, but I found a couple of cairns, and it went quickly carrying only a small daypack. I passed decent-sized Rust Lake, then descended another steep step to skirt huge Steelhead Lake to the left.

Pine Creek Pass

The long, descending traverse across the head of French Canyon to the Pine Creek trail would have been a miserable bog earlier in the season, but was pleasantly dry and easy so late in the season. I bumped into the trail at a switchback, and hiked to the pass as quickly as my tired legs would allow. The packers have done their best to ruin the north side of the pass with giant awkward steps, but it is still quite runnable, and I managed a respectable jog.

Between the two lakes, I met a ranger with a shovel and a huge pack. I had been talking to myself on the descent, so talking to another human was a nice change. She was out for five days, doing minor trailwork and “checking permits,” though I would be surprised if she met anyone. While there were perhaps a dozen cars at the trailhead, I had seen no one more than a mile from the trailhead in the last three days. I thanked her for her work, then continued hiking and jogging around the lower lake.

I met two dayhikers out for an afternoon jaunt just above the final descent, then tried to stave off boredom on the many switchbacks down to the Tungstar Mine. The upper trail/road was rocky and miserable, but the lower part was smoother dirt that I enjoyed despite my tired legs. I finally emerged at the pack station to be briefly menaced by someone’s dog (“oh, he’s just acting tough”), then walked to the car to rinse off before driving down through Rovanna to cell service. After two days of self-determination, I needed to coordinate with the humans.

Little Lakes, Ruby Finch, Pyramid

Rosy Finch and Little Lakes


Little Lakes, Ruby Finch, and Pyramid Peaks are part of a line of summits between Mount Morgan and Bear Creek Spire, with Morgan Pass threading between Little Lakes and Ruby Finch. All are normally reached from the nearby 10,000-foot Mosquito Flat trailhead. However, I chose instead to climb them from the other side of Morgan Pass, starting at 7600-foot Pine Creek. Someone might come from this side of the pass because he is:

  1. stupid
  2. in need of exercise
  3. already parked at Pine Creek
  4. all of the above

I filled in the bubble for number 4, then took off around 6:45, walking the paved road past the gate and up to the ugly Tungstar Mine.

Washout on Morgan Pass road

Most of the “trail” to Morgan Pass is a long-abandoned mine road, covered in debris and completely washed out in three places. The first two are fortunately near a switchback, and therefore easily bypassed by a steep use trail. At the third, one must cross the washout, whose sides are steep hard-packed dirt with insecurely-embedded rocks, reminding me of the Canadian Rockies’ treacherous moraines. I found an easy way into the ravine about 20 yards uphill, then climbed the bottom a bit farther until I could carefully third-class my way out on rocks embedded in the dirt.

This looks fun…

Above, the road was even fainter, with almost no human footprints; clearly the washout has hurt Morgan Pass’s popularity. However, there was adequate traffic and signage to find the place where the trail leaves the road, passing the Lower and Upper Morgan Lakes, plus a small cabin, on the way to the pass. Studying Little Lakes Peak from the trail, I decided to head cross-country at the outlet to the uppermost Morgan Lake, then climb a talus chute that seemed to lead to the summit without any cliffs. It would not be aesthetic or fun, but it would get the job done, and I still had miles to go.

Rosy Finch from Little Lakes

The chute was actually a bit more stable than I had feared, so although I frequently had to stop to catch my breath, I emerged near the summit in a reasonable time. I found the register, protected by a large inverted coffee can, then sat down in the lee of the summit rocks to and have a snack. The ridge leading to Morrison looked tedious, but it seems that most parties do it, and it is apparently only class 3. After my break, I talus-hopped and slid my way down, got some water at Upper Morgan Lake, and followed the trail for a hundred yards before taking off for Rosy Finch’s north ridge.

Little Lakes and Morgan from Rosy Finch

I expected this to be the day’s highlight, with a supposed class 4 rating and good reviews from Bob and others. While there was very little class 4, the ridge was indeed fun, with quality class 2-3 scrambling and manageable levels of loose rock. Weirdly, there seemed to be remnants of an old survey station on top — I would not expect surveyors to have climbed a class 4 peak, particularly one that is not a local highpoint.

Ridge to Pyramid from Rosy Finch

The ridge to Pyramid looked long and gnarly, and I knew nothing about it, but I was in a surprisingly good mood, so I found it enticing rather than discouraging. I started out hopping around and down large blocks, finding mostly class 2-3 climbing with a bit of class 4 there and there. Approaching the unnamed intermediate summit, I found some fun knife-edge sections, and a few towers that required a bit of low fifth class climbing to get down the back or around one side.

Register on unnamed bump

Reaching Point 12,640+’s quartz-strewn summit, I was surprised to find a register in an old peanut butter jar. The sun-rotted lid shattered when I tried to unscrew it, so I sacrificed my empty sandwich bag to protect the contents. There were perhaps 1-2 visits per year to this point, including several people traversing to Bear Creek Spire. I have climbed the peaks around Little Lakes Basin individually, traversed from Ruby to Mills, and even (mistakenly) soloed most of Bear Creek Spire’s east ridge. While I gather that there are more difficulties, e.g. between Abbot and Mills, this did make me curious about a traverse around the basin from Morgan to Mono Pass. I don’t think it is well-known, but would not be surprised if Croft has done it.

Pyramid up close

The ridge continued as an easy boulder-hop for awhile, then sharpened a bit descending to the final notch before Pyramid, which seems to be an occasionally-used pass between Little Lakes Basin and Spire Lake. The climb up Pyramid’s east ridge started with a short class 5 chimney, then relented to fun class 3 climbing with a few small towers to be bypassed. With easier routes from the west, this summit seemed the most popular of the day, sometimes acting as a consolation prize for people who ran out of energy attempting Bear Creek Spire.

Spire Lake from Pyramid

Rather than returning to the pass to the east, I continued down the ridge toward Bear Creek Spire. Although it looked gentle on the topo map, it was surprisingly tricky and time-consuming, with loose rock, many small gendarmes, and occasional short, steep steps. I was tempted to descend one of the chutes to the left, but (wisely) resisted the urge, fearing they might cliff out. Just before the broad saddle, I finally found one where I could see all the way to the bottom, and cut the corner, skipping Spire Lake entirely.

Looking home from Pyramid

This drainage would lead to Bear Lake and rejoin the Morgan Pass road around 9600′, sparing me a loop around through Little Lakes and several miles of road and trail from Morgan Pass. It involved much talus, and took longer than expected, but I was having a good time. Fast boulder-hopping may not attract sponsors or impress the ladies, but it is a valuable and enjoyable mountain skill. Finally reaching Bear Lake, I found a couple of massive fire rings, though no use trail, so I continued down the boulders to the left to avoid undergrowth.

Road work

I reached the road with enough energy to jog most of the flats and downhills, and walk quickly though the ones covered in too much loose debris. Below the washouts, I met a man carrying a fancy camera, full-sized tripod, and pounds of extra lenses. He asked me if I was one of those ultra long-distance runners (“kinda…”), and told me he was hiking up to take photos of the “facility” (i.e. Tungstar Mine) from above. I didn’t understand why he would be doing that, since it is ugly at the best of times, and was already in the shade, but didn’t think to question him. Instead, I continued jogging down the road, reaching my car in a bit under ten hours, with enough daylight and warmth left to rinse off, chop up dinner, and catch up on the blog.