Henry, Emerald

Emerald from Hell For Sure Pass


Henry and Emerald are both remote SPS peaks, west of the Evolution Valley near the center of the Sierra. Bob had done them separately, reaching Henry from Courtwright Reservoir and Emerald from Florence, the latter taking about 15.5 hours. Since they are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, I had long planned to do them in a single trip; and since I had just done the tedious Florence Lake approach for Hooper and Senger, I chose to do them from Courtwright, a route that would consist almost entirely of new-to-me terrain. However, those separating miles include Goddard Canyon (confusingly not home to nearby Goddard Creek), a 4000-foot trench adding an extra vertical mile to the day.

Since I was planning to spend two nights at Maxson, I opted to split my headlamp time in half, putting in an hour in the morning and anticipating another in the evening. I woke to chilly but surprisingly comfortable temperatures, drank breakfast, and shouldered a pack heavy with almost all of my remaining high-energy food. Small hands and a bit of manual dexterity allowed me to secure my remaining food in the bear box, though the local ursines seemed well-fed enough not to have eaten the potato or onions that had long been lying in the open box. With that, I was off down the trail, which briefly coincided with a thirty-plus-mile OHV route to Kaiser Pass that maps.me had nonsensically suggested as the best bike route over from Florence.

Fleming Lake

Once off the jeep road, the trail crossed Maxson Meadow/Bog on an old wood walkway, then slowly climbed through the woods. Starting from a dry trailhead, I knew I was low on water, but my water hose was frozen, so I had no idea how much I had left. I stopped to lie down and suck a bit of water out of one creek, but did not want to deal with the cold and misery necessary to get more inaccessible water. Maps.me fortunately did better at routing me to Lower Indian Lake, because I was outside the area of my downloaded maps, and there are a mess of confusing trails in the area.

Henry’s west ridge

It finally started getting light on the climb away from Post Corral Creek, where the views simultaneously started opening up. In keeping with Courtwright’s dome-rich surroundings, there were pleasant granite slabs breaking up the west-side woods, including Corral Mountain behind and the unnamed peaks flanking Fleming Creek. Water and warm sunlight finally coincided at Fleming Lake, where I found a faint path leading to a place where I could reach open water without wading through a grassy bog. From there, I continued along the trail to the mouth of Lower Indian Lake, then took off cross-country toward Mount Henry, previously hidden by an unnamed and un-surveyed 12,000-foot peak to its south.

Evolution junction from Henry

The west ridge looked like it would probably work if I joined it late enough, and the cross-country was surprisingly easy and pleasant, with some nice slabs and relatively little brush or sand. I contoured south of the ridge to avoid some jaggedness, and was reassured to find some cairns on the route I had chosen to reach the final summit slope. Henry lies near the northern end of the Le Conte Divide, with the ridge dropping 4000 feet to the San Joaquin River to the north at the JMT/Piute Pass junction, and continuing jaggedly south past Hell for Sure Pass toward Tunemah. I hoped that, unlike Tunemah, Hell for Sure was not named for its nature.

Final Evolution descent

From the summit, Emerald Peak looked distant, Goddard Canyon deep, giving me some pause. However this is what I was here for, what I am meant for; returning to Maxson by mid-afternoon and trying to amuse myself at the deserted trailhead simply would not do. I shouldered my pack, then set off down the steep, loose slope toward the unnamed and unknown lake and creek leading to the San Joaquin across from its junction with Evolution Valley and the JMT. After the initial nasty descent, I found easy travel beneath the mystery 12er’s northeast ridge, then an ominously steepening descent into the Manzanita Zone.

Typical Goddard cleft

Consulting both my map and the terrain, I cut the corner to the south, skipping the JMT entirely and nearly escaping the brush. However, a final tactical error forced me to bash through some aspens just above the trail; at least I was headed downhill and “with the grain.” I had previously traveled this trail on my escape from Tunemah, and found it much as before: little-traveled but still in decent shape. However I did not travel mindlessly, as I needed to figure out how to reach Emerald from this side; between the vertical cleft often surrounding the San Joaquin, the creek itself, still an unpleasant ford this late in the season, and the steep walls rising 3000 feet or more to the summit, the route was not obvious.

Emerald from 11,000-foot bench

I left the trail near a “campsite” marked on the map before the “pig chute” (whatever that is), and almost immediately found a nice rock crossing. I grabbed some water, then started meandering up the 3000-foot climb, foolishly optimistic as always that I could make something work. Preferring class 3-4 rock to brush, I found a decent line to the weird plateau around 11,000 feet, then continued straight up a seasonal stream toward the peak’s north ridge, thereby avoiding the worst of the upper talus and cliffs. This worked well, and I reached the summit sooner and fresher than expected.

Evolution Ridge and Darwin Bench

Looking straight across Evolution Valley up the familiar Darwin Bench was a distressing reminder of my proximity to the east side. Still, I took my time enjoying the views of frustrating nearby Peter, McGee, and The Hermit, and perusing the register. It seems that the (mostly familiar) crew had come at the peak from just about every angles, some encountering an easy scramble, others unexpected difficulties. I was reassured to read that one group had found an easy route from upper Goddard Canyon, boding well for my plan to shortcut straight across to Hell for Sure Pass.

Freezing San Joaquin

Unfortunately this route was worse than my line of ascent, with more loose talus up high, and more brush and obnoxious cliff bands lower down. I think the party in the register started from higher in the canyon, but I did not want to do the extra distance. The Hell for Sure trail leaves the Goddard Canyon far up-canyon, following a bench around 10,000′ for at least a mile. However, it seemed feasible and faster to cross the river down around 9400′, then climb 600′ straight back up through class 2-3 terrain. I lucked out, easily finding another rock crossing below a freezing waterfall, then climbing a virtual staircase to the trail, which is faint but still usable.

Hell for Sure Lake

There was no question of tagging nearby Red Mountain: I was running low on daylight, and wanted to cover as much distance as possible before headlamp time, when I would become much slower on faint and/or rocky trails. I enjoyed the view of large Hell for Sure Lake against Mount Hutton’s steep north face, finding a surprisingly decent trail on this side of the pass. The trail faded somewhat past Disappointment Lake, but there was still a sign at the Devil’s Punchbowl junction, and I reached the junction with my outward route well before dark.

Other than an ill-conceived attempt at a slab shortcut, the return was mostly uneventful. Near Post Corral Creek, I was startled out of my music-aided coma drive by two men gathering wood to add to an enormous campfire, then put on my headlamp somewhere past the supposed Corral on the final, gradual 600-foot climb toward home. I was energetic enough to jog some of the flatter uphill sections here, but began suffering in the pool of cold air in Long Meadow, and stopped enjoying myself on the final climb. Mindful of the dry trailhead, I filled up on water near what I guessed (correctly) was the last creek crossing, then sloshed and slogged home. Emerging into the lot, I was surprised to find another party messing around next to their pickup truck. They were probably at least as surprised to have me suddenly pop up out of the woods, hacking out a lung and poking at my phone to stop Strava. I eventually found the correct pair of bear boxes, shoveled down some pasta with canned oysters, and fell asleep as the others finished what they were doing and departed to wisely leave the strange woods creature alone.

Spanish

Spanish from false summit


Spanish Mountain is a relatively short and easy hike from the Crown Valley trailhead, and an even shorter one via the Spanish Lake OHV route. Since I had a sort of OHV with me, I figured I could make it even shorter by biking at least some of the road. Unfortunately this road turned out to be messed up even by Colorado standards: I pushed my bike more than half of my time on the way up before stashing it, and while I managed to ride most of the descent, I probably did not save much time, and managed to coat my bike in gross west-side dust. At least I saved some wear-and-tear on my knees…

Messed-up road

I waited until it was just warm enough, then coasted the brief downhill road stretch to the OHV route, where I almost immediately questioned my decision to try riding it. When assaulted by horses or jeeps, the dirt in this part of the Sierra turns loose and powdery, erodes, and exposes the embedded rocks. This road is steep enough for the damage to be severe, and apparently sees regular enough traffic that it does not recover. I alternately pushed and rode my bike for awhile, then stashed it behind a stump about 3.5 miles up, just past a flatter section, deciding it would be faster to run and hike from there.

Slabs on Spanish

Continuing to the end of the road, I found an outhouse, a few fire rings containing the expected trash, and an obvious use trail leading up Spanish’s northwest ridge. I followed this until it faded and disappeared, then continued to a false summit a bit less than a half-mile from the summit. After a bit of a down-thrash through some brush and boulders, easy slabs led to the large summit boulders. Even though Spanish is a much less impressive peak than Tehipite, the hike was far more enjoyable, with good views much of the way.

Obelisk and not-Tehipite

From the summit, I had good views of the Obelisk and Tehipite Valley to the west, the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide to the southwest, and deep into the Kings River valley to the south. I made a decent effort at jogging on the descent, then actually managed to ride a surprising amount of the road, though often little faster than a walk. I returned to the bear boxes, packed up my stuff, then took off with the trailer for the Maxson Trailhead near Courtwright Reservoir.

Courtwright domes from spillway

Not paying much attention to the topo maps for my bike legs, I didn’t realize that Courtwright Reservoir was almost 2000′ higher than nearby Wishon, putting it almost on the level of the high east-side reservoirs. Fortunately this road was also better than the Florence horror-show, but it was still a long afternoon climb, and I reached the trailhead with only a bit of time to enjoy sunset on the many domes surrounding the reservoir.

Bootay!

There were many parking spots and bear boxes at Maxson Trailhead (“absolutely no camping!”), but most seemed to be in disrepair. The pit toilets were open and in good shape, though, and there was only one car in the lot, so a flat spot behind one pair of bear boxes seemed like a good campsite. My slight exasperation and disgust at the trash left in the abandoned boxes turned to delight when I found two onions, a potato, an unopened bottle of mayonnaise, and a can of Trader Joe’s smoked oysters in one of the bags of “trash.” Score! The mayonnaise alone was an extra 1700 calories and, at this point, a welcome addition to my bologna or cheese tortillas. I left the potato, but sauteed one onion in a generous amount of olive oil, then cooked some pasta and mixed in lots of Parmesan for an unusually-tasty dinner. Questioning the necessity of “proper food storage,” I set my alarm for early and quickly fell asleep ahead of the longest day of my trip.

Tehipite Dome

First view of Tehipite

Florence to Wishon

After a mere day and a half of peak-bagging, it was time I tried another 75-mile bike day, from Florence Lake to the Rancheria Trailhead near Wishon Reservoir. I figured that, starting earlier in the day, from a much higher elevation, with a slightly lighter trailer, I could actually pull it off this time. The rolling route still had plenty of elevation gain and loss, but I managed to reach the trailhead with a lunch break and only a few minutes of headlamp time.

I took my time waking and packing at Florence Lake, getting started around 9:00 AM when I thought my hands would not freeze. The road was every bit as rough as I remembered, but I found the climbs almost all rideable, and was back at Kaiser Pass at a reasonable hour. Once past the one-lane part of the descent, I enjoyed the fast, smooth road back to Huntington Lake, then turned left on the high road to Shaver Lake. The road had more climbing than I expected, reaching a highpoint over 7000′ at Tamarack Hill before dropping 2000′ to Shaver, but the good pavement and civilized grades allowed me to make good time.

After several days incommunicado, I finally had cell service in Shaver, which I used to determine that Bob’s Market seemed to be the preferred local store. It had perhaps a slightly better selection of fresh fruits and vegetables than expected, and the usual insanely high prices for packaged goods. I bought the most caloric, least healthy things I could find — a pound of bologna, a block of cheese, a package of chocolate chip cookies, and a Coke — then sat outside the store to drink the soda and make myself a couple of bologna tortillas. I struck up a brief conversation with the owner, who seemed impressed that I was headed all the way to Wishon that evening, then headed to the southern end of town and turned back east toward the mountains.

Fortunately this road was much better than the one leading to Florence, and not very crowded. Almost all of the traffic consisted of large white pickup trucks, about half from various utility and tree-trimming companies, the rest seemingly hunters. The long, uphill ride took longer than I had hoped, so the sun was just setting as I reached Wishon Dam. The temperature dropped suddenly and dramatically as I put on all my clothes and turned on my taillight on its far end, then continued the remaining few miles to Rancheria Trailhead. Seeing that the trailhead itself was dry, I filled up on water from a creek near the final intersection, then finished the last half-mile of dirt by headlamp. There was a truck parked at the trailhead, but I did not see anyone around, so I quickly made dinner and packed for the morrow, once again set an early alarm, and threw down my bivy stack in a flattish spot right behind the bear boxes.

Tehipite Dome

Tehipite Dome was one of two SPS Mountaineers’ Peaks I had yet to climb, the other being the Hermit, whose summit block proved too hard last fall. It is an impressive sight from the south, where its most photographed side rises 3000′ or so from the deep and remote Tehipite Valley. From the north, however, it is a small bump at the end of a dusty 14-mile trench, invisible in the forest until you are about 20 minutes from its summit.

There’s no camping at Cow Camp!

I stashed my dry-sack in the bear box, left the rest of my stuff behind the bear boxes, and started from the Rancheria Trailhead by headlamp. I knew I would see this part of the trail at least once, and I figured once was enough. The trail climbs a bit, then drops on its way past Crown Rock to Crown Valley, home of the famous Cow Camp, where there is ABSOLUTELY NO CAMPING! (Perhaps this rule does not apply to cows.) From there I dropped still farther, crossing Crown Creek and entering Kings Canyon with views of Kettle Dome to the north, a much more impressive formation than Tehipite from this direction.

Crown Point and Kettle Dome from Tehipite

After following the trail to a saddle, I left it to make my way cross-country through several small drainages to Tehipite’s north ridge, from which I could finally see the summit and the upper parts of Tehipite Valley’s south side. Unfortunately the smoke on this day was the worst of my entire trip, obscuring the least-often-seen and possibly most-impressive views I would have. The route up Tehipite’s summit was fairly obvious: start off on a sloping ledge to the left, turn uphill at a tree, then sort-of mantle onto a short third class slab which leads to the summit plateau. There was a faded and dubious-looking sling on the slab, which I would have cut and removed if I had a knife. I instead pulled it up after me and left it at the top, to discourage anyone from pulling on this dubious and unnecessary handline.

Upper Tehipite Valley

The summit register was more or less evenly split between Real Climbers doing hard routes on the big side, and peak-baggers like Yours Truly sneaking up the back side for SPS points. The long approaches for either deter the crowds, so I recognized most of the names. I sat around for awhile taking in the views of the Tehipite Valley and the long, deep upper valley of the Middle Fork Kings River, which is still a major internal Sierra divide far upstream where it passes through Le Conte Canyon between the Palisades and the Black Divide.

West-side dirt tan

The return was uneventful, and I found my stuff unmolested at the trailhead. I rinsed off as much of my dirt tan as I could, packed up, then filled up on water on a short ride down to the Crown Valley trailhead, where I planned to start the next day’s hike/bike to Spanish Mountain. Looking through Tehipite’s register, and at the map later, I realized that I could have done both peaks in the day. However this would not have saved me any time, as I planned to ride to Courtwright Reservoir the next day. I set up camp in the empty trailhead parking lot, then almost regretted it as truck after big, white truck crawled by creepily slow. I at first thought they were rednecks checking out the outsider, but later realized that they were just hunters looking for deer foolish enough to venture within rifle-shot of the road. It would be another cold morning followed by a much shorter day, so I turned off my alarm before settling in for the long night.

Hooper, Senger

Hooper from Senger


These two remote SPS peaks, on either side of Seldon pass, were the reason I had suffered the brutal road to Florence. While Senger is an unremarkable pile of sand and talus, Hooper has an impressive east face and a non-trivial summit block. Bob had intended to tag both in one trip when he climbed them many years ago, but uncharacteristically ran out of energy and had to make two trips. Fortunately I was able to them in a single trip, sparing myself the need to repeat the long approach. Curled in my bag waiting to sleep, I read through Bob’s trip report on my phone to see if there was anything non-obvious about these peaks. I was glad I did this, as it informed me of the old trail leading from the Muir Trail Ranch directly up to Sally Keyes Lakes. This shortcut saved me a great deal of time and frustration plying 2500′ vertical of Jolly Manure Trench switchbacks.

How did this road get here?

It had not cooled off overnight as much as I had feared, and the stars were out as I made my headlamp start on the long hike around Florence Lake. The trail crossed the San Joaquin River on a nice bridge, then very slowly gained elevation on the way east, passing below North Rock on the way toward the Ranch. I was surprised to find a jeep road paralleling the trail, with tracks indicating recent use, since I had not seen any road leading there from the west side of Florence. Perhaps cars can drive across the dam, or there is an old truck stuck at the Ranch, with fuel brought in by mule.

Nice trail, nasty brush

I found the shortcut trail exactly where Bob had described, and had no trouble following the line of cairns to the base of the manzanita-choked hillside. I had expected a use- or game-trail, but believe it had actually been built, as it passed two old signs indicating the wilderness boundary. This trail stayed well west of Sally Keyes Creek as it climbed steeply toward the lakes, becoming indistinct once it entered the woods around 9400′. Fortunately I was recording my track, because the trail is much harder to find on the way down, and the off-trail brush is savage.

Ice on lakeshore

The previous afternoon’s snow had melted off lower ground and the south-facing slope I was climbing, but a dusting remained in the meadows above 10,000′. I thought I was almost at the pass after passing the three lakes, but it is another 800′ past (yet another) Heart Lake and up to a narrow cleft. The high plains around large Marie Lake were nearly solid white, and snow of course clung to the north-facing talus fields. Bob had mentioned time-consuming boulder-hopping getting to Senger in fresh snow, so I decided to attack Hooper first, giving the sun more time to do its work. It turned out not to make much difference, as there were similar amounts of slow talus on the way to both summits. There were also some small, rock-hard snowfields left over from the winter, which gave me more trouble than they should have.

Hooper summit block

I reached Hooper’s south-southeast ridge well above its lowpoint and, after playing around on the fourth class crest, dropped down onto the easy sand and boulders of the south face. Reaching the summit rocks, I briefly checked out the 5.4 crack on the front, then thought better of it and went around to the easy backside step-across. Gemini, Seven Gables, and the high peaks around Lake Italy rose impressively to the east and north, while Senger looked disturbingly far away on the other side of Seldon Pass. I plotted a course that would minimize boulder-hopping, then retraced my route to the pass.

Seven Gables, Gemini, Humphreys and Emerson distant, and Senger (r)

I managed to stay mostly on snow-free slabs, much more efficient than the snowy talus, then wasted time dealing with steep brush and boulders trying to bypass 12,068′. Unlike Hooper’s, Senger’s summit is a broad plain whose highpoint is not at all obvious. I walked over to several potential summits, found no register, then took off down the sand in a straight line for the Sally Keyes Lakes. The descent was mostly easy travel, with surprisingly little nasty brush lower down in the woods.

San Joaquin bridge

I emptied my shoes out at the trail, then jogged it for a short distance before heading cross-country to find the shortcut trail. I found a line of cairns higher up, lost the trail by sticking too close to the creek, then used my track to find it again before I got into any real trouble in the manzanita. I felt energetic enough to put in a respectable jog along the San Joaquin, but found it hard to maintain good speed or mood on the spitefully-rolling, horse-ravaged trail around the lake. I returned to my camp in the picnic area just before the headlamp hour, made myself hot glop and a boiling thermos, then settled in for another long night.

Huntington to Florence, Jackass Dike

Jackass Dike and water source


Having succeeded in reaching a cold elevation, yet failed to reach my next trailhead, I waited for it to get warm enough for my hands not to freeze while riding, then got an inefficiently late start toward Kaiser Pass and Florence Lake. The pass was another 2000′ of climbing, starting out on a good two-lane road that narrowed to 1.5 gradually deteriorating lanes. I was glad to spend the first part of the morning going uphill, giving things a chance to warm up enough for my hands not to freeze going downhill.

Kaiser Pass

I stopped for a photo at the pass, then descended the rapidly-worsening road toward Edison and Florence Lakes. The pavement was almost worse than dirt, consisting mostly of potholes and frost heaves. Checking on the trailer periodically, I realized that I had not tightened the nut on the hinge between its fork and body enough, and the constant bumps were slowly loosening it. This seems like a flawed design in two ways: first, this is the only part of the trailer that cannot be assembled with a 4mm Allen wrench, instead requiring two pairs of pliers; second, unlike a quick release, the tiny nut on the bottom of the skewer can work its way loose and fall off. Fortunately it loosened very slowly, and I caught it in time; I quickly got in the habit of checking the nut every morning and after rough sections of road, and tightening it as much as I could with my fingers.

Florence dam

While I paused on a steep descent, a young woman in an old car wearing camo stopped to ask what I was doing on a bike way out in the middle of nowhere. I explained I was just touring, and she oddly wondered if I were worried about dangerous wild animals. Having spent plenty of time in Canada and Montana, where such things actually exist, I found her concern strange in the tame Sierra. Continuing on, I fetched some water from a roadside stream, grateful for my new insulated rubber gloves, then jounced on to reach Florence Lake a bit after noon.

Partly cloudy to the west

I spoke to some fishermen for awhile, then stashed my trailer in the day use area, looked at my map in an unsuccessful search for water less polluted than the reservoir, then pulled up Peakbagger to find a nearby bump I could climb to kill the rest of the day. I settled on Jackass Dike, a slabby fin downstream from the lake. It was close, short, and I would pass by some potential water sources on the way. I biked over to Jackass Campground, which was of course closed, then followed the dirt road leading past the diversion dams and tunnels used when building the Florence Lake dam, giving up where the road fords the reservoir’s outlet stream. The stream was slow, swampy, and downstream of the reservoir, and a sign along the road warned that the water was unsafe to drink without boiling. So much for an easy source of good water…

Mmmm, slabs…

I locked my bike to a tree, then headed off through a dispersed camping area along the stream, finding a nearly-complete roll of toilet paper on a branch. I made a mental note to booty this, then continued on game trails through the meadows and woods toward the dike. I knew nothing about the peak, but assumed I could figure out a route. The first crux was finding a path through the manzanita and oak-brush surrounding the base; I hiked along the edge of the woods perhaps halfway along, then thrashed uphill to the base of the slabby side.

Snowstorm on the summit

With some false starts and a bit of backtracking, I found a third class route to the crest, where I saw that the highpoint was obnoxiously far away, and the weather was deteriorating. As I made my way through a couple of undulations, I kept an eye on the snow slowly swallowing Florence Lake and the peaks to the east. I thought of turning back, but the storm did not look too bad, and I had only one more gap to cross. This proved trickier than the others; after a bit of exploration, I found a fourth class route to the left that led back to the top. Another 5-10 minutes of hiking through a snow flurry led to the summit, home to an unattractive radio repeater.

Here it comes

I found no register or cairn, though I did not look very hard in the snow and wind. I made a couple false starts before finding the fourth class downclimb on the way back, cliffed out trying to take a different route down the side, then found a worse way to thrash through the brush at the base. However, once in the woods, I found a better game/use trail for my return. I bootied the toilet paper, then rode back up to the day use area, worried about how cold it would be that night. Surprisingly, I did not have the lake to myself: a small group of rednecks who may have been out boating pulled their trucks into a picnic spot on the other side of the woods and started a lively campfire. However, they kept their distance and were not too loud, and I was tired, so I had no trouble going to sleep at dusk, with my alarm set for an unpleasant pre-dawn hour.

Bass to Huntington Lake

Million Dollar Mile


I had been carrying my bike and BOB trailer around in back of my car for awhile, setting them outside each evening to make room to sleep; now it was finally time to put them to use. I stashed my car on a forest road off Beasore Road, where it would hopefully not be vandalized or towed, then spent much of the morning assembling the trailer and packing. My goal for the day was to ride to Florence Reservoir, deep in the mountains near Seldon Pass. Maps.me plotted a route that was a bit under 80 miles which, in a ridiculous and uncharacteristic turn of optimism, I thought I could do in a day. As it turned out, 80 miles and over 10,000′ of elevation gain with a full trailer is far more than I can manage. Also, maps.me’s routing was seriously messed up, taking me on one road closed for construction, then another closed to all but maintenance vehicles. Fortunately I was on a bike, so both errors worked in my favor.

Italian Bar bridge

After a quick descent to Bass Lake, during which I got used to how my bike handled with 50 or so pounds of trailer attached, I made my gradually-descending way south and west, past the Geographic Center of California (whatever that means), to the Italian Bar Road along the north side of the San Joaquin River. There were almost no cars on the road, no wind, and temperatures were comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. As I descended into the river valley near Redlinger Lake, I passed a sign saying the road was intermittently closed — Uh, oh… — then spoke to the driver of a Jeep going the other way, who said that the road was definitely closed at the bridge — Oh, crap… — but suggested I might be able to get through, as it was a weekend and no one should be working.

San Joaquin waterfall

It turns out that a small road crew was working on a Saturday, but one member was happy to escort me across the bridge, which was under some sort of construction. From there, at a lowly 1600′, I enjoyed a gentle climb along the river on more car-less road, eventually reaching a split at a switchback. Stopping to check my map while shooing away face-flies, I found that I should head left, on a gated road that continued along the river. I was once again glad that I was on a bike, as the road is only open to pedestrians, bikes, and utility workers accessing the various dams and power plants along the river. I disassembled my setup, passed the bike, trailer, and dry bag over the gate separately, then reassembled them and continued west, pedaling hard to outpace the face-flies.

Power station along closed road

This was one of my favorite parts of the trip, riding a car-less road blasted into the steep granite walls of the San Joaquin River valley. The (type I) fun ended at Dam 6 Lake, where the road forks and begins climbing in earnest. I took the right fork, which averages about a 10% grade for several miles. Here I learned two things: (1) I had to walk my bike on anything steeper than about 11%; and (2) the face-flies could keep up with me in my lowest gear. I never felt them bite, or even land on me; they apparently feed solely on human misery, of which they had a bountiful harvest. I finally reached the upper gate around 4500′, once again disassembling and reassembling my rig in a swarm of face-flies.

Huntington Lake near sunset

Back on normal roads, I encountered the occasional car on the more gradual climb to the power plant at Big Creek. It was hot and I was out of water, so I stopped to see if I could find a hose bib or restroom. Unfortunately the visitor center was closed for the weekend, and the grounds were all watered with greywater. I was debating whether to knock on someone’s door — I was thirsty and a long ways from camp — when a man and his daughter walked by. The daughter, who apparently had Down’s Syndrome, sat down nearby to play in the grass, and the man was curious enough to talk for awhile. I learned that he was a triathlete, had lived in Houston for awhile, and now lived in Big Creek and worked for the power company. He told me that the various dams and generating stations I had passed were all built in the early 1900s to power the trolley lines of Los Angeles. Eventually his wife came by and, learning that I was looking for water, went back to their house to fill a gallon jug. I drank some, then filled all my receptacles, sensing that sources of water might be few and far between on this side of the range.

The man had warned me that the next section (the “Beaver Slide”) was a tough climb, and I soon found myself intermittently pushing my bike again, though at least there were fewer face flies at this elevation. It was about a 2000-foot climb to Huntington Lake, which I reached just before sunset. The houses around the lake were half empty, the campgrounds all closed, but that was fine by me. I pulled into one of the closed campgrounds, made dinner, made myself a thermos of boiling water to help stay warm at night, then threw my dry bag in one of the bear boxes before crawling into my sleeping bag for the long night.

Tour de Sierra Ouest


I had yet to climb twenty-something SPS peaks, mostly in the western and southern Sierra. Many of the peaks were not particularly interesting as climbs, and involved long drives to remote trailheads. To make them more interesting, save miles on my car, and gain some experience, I decided to bag some as part of a bike tour. After briefly considering a crazy 500+-mile loop over Tioga Pass and back through Kennedy Meadows, I settled on this shorter 9-day route from Bass Lake. The experience taught me that I can handle around 75 miles per day towing a trailer through the mountains, and that I really enjoy bike touring when mixed with peak-bagging. I was also reminded that the west side, with its face-files, dry trailheads, and dusty woods-trails, is inferior to the east side.

Cycling stats

Day Mi Elev
1 47.9 +7600/-5100
2 24.1 +3600/-3200
4 78 +9200/-9000
5 3.3 +100 /-1000
6 16 +3000/-1700
8 45.7 +3400/-7600
9 36 +4700/-4200
Total 251 31,600

Hiking stats

Day Mi Elev
2 3.5 1400
3 29.2 8100
5 28 5600
6 14.6 4300
7 40.5 11,900
8 13 2900
Total 128.8 34,200

Red, Ottoway, Merced

Red Peak is red


Red and Merced are two SPS peaks at the southern end of the Clark Range in the high country of southwest Yosemite; Ottoway is a minor bump that gets in the way between them. I had hoped to add neighboring Gray Peak, finishing off a cluster of unclimbed SPS peaks in the area. However the long approach, short days, and an ugly ridge between Red and Gray led me to summit only the southern peaks, saving Gray for another day.

Seldom-used trailhead

Expecting little to no cell phone coverage in the western Sierra foothills, I was using the maps.me app for Google-free offline maps and route-planning. (I still carry my red De Lorme Atlases, but owning a smartphone has made me lazy and stupid.) While its underlying OpenStreetMap data is generally complete and accurate, it is not flawless, and the app itself sometimes makes bizarre route choices (more on that later). Sometimes they lead to interesting things, but not this time: I wanted to reach the Quartz Mountain trailhead, buried deep in Sierra National Forest south of Yosemite, and instead of the nice Beasore Road, maps.me directed me up Sky Ranch Road, which starts out decent and gradually deteriorates, finally turning truly wretched as it passes through an active logging operation. I dismissed my initial plan to do some of this by bike, and slowly drove my long-suffering car to the lonely trailhead, arriving just before dark.

Where are these places?

I started at a reasonable hour the next day, jogging the sometimes-vague Forest Service trail down to the fence at the park boundary, then hike/jogging the rolling approach to Merced Pass. Fortunately OSM has good trail coverage, because this area was too far from my chosen peaks to be included in the USFS maps I had downloaded, and there are a mess of trails in the area leading to unfamiliar lakes, meadows, and passes. Fortunately most of these trails remain in good shape and easy to follow, though I can’t imagine many people use them.

Gray from Red

After hike-jogging miles of rolling, forested terrain, I made the gentle climb to Merced Pass, then did my best to run the rocky descent to the Red Peak Pass trail. On the long, gentle, 2000-foot climb past the Ottoway Lakes toward the surprisingly narrow and hidden pass, I began to realize that I would not have time or energy to tag Gray Peak, which would involve a multi-mile out-and-back from Red. I left the trail at the base of the final switchbacks, slogging up some red talus toward the peak. I found a surprising amount of ridge between where I topped out and the summit, but no difficult climbing.

Ritter Range from Red

From Red’s summit I had a clear view of the Ritter Range to the east, mostly rolling forest to the west, and Red and Merced Peaks to the north and south, both looking depressingly far away. Since Merced was at least in the right direction, I signed the register, vowed to come back for Gray, then headed south. Attempting a slightly higher line on the return, I ran into some surprising cliffs just before the pass, which forced me to backtrack a bit before finding a class 3 way through. I took a high line across the bowl above Upper Ottoway Lake, then returned to the ridge near Ottoway Peak, a minor bump on the ridge which I tagged before following the ridge to Merced.

South from Merced

From the summit, I studied the several drainages to the south, then took the one to the south-southwest, which seemed to offer the easiest path to the Fernandez Pass trail. After an initial scree-and-talus descent, I had a long walk through meadows (thankfully dry this late in the season), slabs, and mostly-open woods, eventually stumbling out onto the trail. I jogged what I could of the long trail back to the car, briefly taking a wrong turn just past the National Forest boundary, where the spur trail to Quartz Mountain is faint.

My original plan had been to bike from here to the trailhead for Foerster Peak, but given the unpleasant roads, I chose to drive instead. Rather than returning the way I had come, I aimed for the Beasore Road, finding gradually-improving dirt mixed with bad pavement, then excellent pavement with a center line (!!) and even a bit of traffic at Beasore Meadows. Rather than driving west to the trailhead, I foolishly decided to sleep in the parking lot there and ride to the trailhead in the morning. This proved to be the first of two fatal mistakes: while the morning ride was scenic and manageably cold, it took more time than I expected. My second fatal mistake was to try to take the Timber Creek trail to Sadler Lake. This trail turned out to be long-abandoned, nearly invisible, and plagued by brush and deadfall. With a mid-morning start after my 20-mile ride, I realized I had no chance of reaching the peak, and gave up a couple hours in. Defeated, I returned to the car, then drove down the nice pavement to near Bass Lake to start the main event.

Vogelsang

Vogelsang and Tuolomne Pass


Vogelsang is an unremarkable SPS peak in the Yosemite high country near the High Sierra Camp of the same name. It is most easily done as an 18-mile hike from Tuolomne Meadows. I may have already climbed it with my family as a kid, but I was not keeping track of peak lists back then, so I decided to tag it on my way over Tioga for some late-season west-side shenanigans. I slept alongside a few of my compatriots in the lot behind the Mobil station, ate breakfast watching the dawn arrive over Mono Lake, then drove up the pass, this time finding no guard shortly after 7:00 AM.

Other trail users

I pulled into the empty Lyell Canyon lot, finished my coffee, and started down the familiar trail, ignoring the signs about it being a federal crime to have food in my car. Even if I put my entire supply, which could last me (or a bear) a week or two, in one of the food lockers, the bear would smell the crumbs wedged between the seats. Hopefully the dirty socks would mask the smell. I know the trail-maze well by now, so I did not have to consult a map to get onto the trail toward Vogelsang HSC. This trail is of the usual Yosemite sort, with big rocks, awkward steps, and pulverized dirt, but sees little enough traffic compared to the main highways, and is mostly manure-free.

Half Dome in the distance

Crossing Tuolomne Pass, an indistinct saddle between Rafferty and Fletcher Creeks, I passed the long-closed Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, continuing up the familiar trail toward Vogelsang Pass. I left the trail just past the outlet of Vogelsang Lake, aiming for a weakness in the peak’s north ridge, and soon found occasional cairns in the mixture of slabs and talus. As the possible routes merged near the ridge, I even found a bit of a use trail, unsurprising on an easy peak so close to the HSC. The remaining ridge to the summit was the usual Yosemite mixture of scrub, boulders, and sand, but offered no serious obstacles, and I was soon hopping across the summit’s short, narrow crest.

I finished my food, dismissed my vague plan to tag 11,357′ and Rafferty on the way home, and retraced my steps. Thankfully I only had to do the final few miles of the Lyell Creek trail this time instead of suffering its full ten near-horizontal miles. I found a couple of other cars in the trailhead parking lot, and was pleased to see my car unmolested by bears. I took my time preparing and eating a late lunch, then finished up the drive over to the west side.

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.