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It seemed a luxury to sleep in past 2a, our normal departure time from San Jose. We left more than an hour later since we'd have only a short drive to reach our first destination off Interstate 80. When we pulled off at our exit we had no trouble finding the trailhead, a short drive on an icy road before we could reasonably drive no further. It was cold, though not bitterly so, as we wasted little time in getting ready to head out around 7:15a.
We started off on the Forest Service Road that would be our trail for the first hour until we reached Eagle Lakes. The temperature was in the 20's, and the first thing we noticed was the great amount of ice that covered much of the road. At about 5,000ft of elevation, there had apparently been weeks of freeze-thaw cycles in which water collected on the road and froze, partially melted and re-froze even harder. Where the sun had not penetrated to the road the covering was more like hard snow, but there was so much ice that it made the hiking rather tedious. No relaxing with hands in pockets, we each slipped several times on the ice through the course of the outing and it was every bit as hard as one might expect. Who would have guessed one could get sore shoulders on a dayhike?
Dangerous as the road was for hiking, it didn't seem to have discouraged the 4x4 crowd over the last month. Tire tracks were found in the hard snow and in the mud and dirt as well. I would have thought the ice would have discouraged such backcountry driving, but not so. Past the first few miles it wasn't an easy road either, with large, embedded boulders looking to discourage all but the hardiest souls. At one place that was particularly rocky we found the remnants of a side view mirror - it looked like someone had tipped over at this point. Scattered coins frozen in the snow and ice were further evidence that someone had tipped over, spilling their coin tray. I picked up about thirty five cents, but left a good deal more frozen in the ground - maybe it would thawed out when we came by later (it was dark as it turned out, and scrapping out pennies and nickels was the last thing on our minds that evening).
Eagle Lakes were frozen over when we reached them after an hour. We left the road and found our way across the snowfields, following a trail as best we could, loosing it from time to time. A bridge over Fordyce Creek made the crossing a non-event, though for a short time it looked like we might have some trouble fording the freezing watercourse, too wide at this point for an easy crossing. Once past the bridge we again found our trail and soon began the first real elevation gain of the day. We were heading for Black Buttes, a long ridge of rocky pinnacles to the north of Fordyce Creek, but exactly how we would get there had not been preordained. We reached at trail junction where we started following the Beyers Lake Trail, but after about a mile or so it became hard to follow as the snowcover became continuous and deeper. Consulting our map, we decided to leave the trail and make a diagonal ascent towards the ridge.
Up to this time we had been hiking in just our boots and having little trouble. The snow was beginning to buckle under us in places now that the sun was out and the snow was softening some. There were fewer trees as we climbed higher making the snow more exposed to the sun and the freeze-thaw cycle. At one place we were stymied by a slick patch of snow no more than 15 feet in length. I barely made it past the slippery section and turned to watch Matthew struggle in turn. The snow was too hard to dig his pole tips into and he slipped back more than once. He laughed, commenting that it could be the lowest angle snow we'd ever needed crampons for. Before digging those out of the pack, we managed to get Matthew past this point with a helpful pole held out for traction. We finally managed to make the ascending traverse and reach the ridgeline where the views opened up impressively. Looking north we could see Sierra Buttes and English Mountain, with snowy Mt. Lassen just visible in the far background. I had dreams of climbing English Mountain from this direction and was happy to find it didn't appear too far off. We wouldn't be climbing it today with our relatively late start, but I was convinced a winter ascent from I-80 must be possible.
We followed the ridgeline to the rocky summits, over several false ones that were enjoyable scrambles in their own right. I was about ten minutes ahead of Matthew when I finally reached the highpoint, pausing to get a few photographs of him as he made his way along the final section of the ridge. We found a summit register placed by Pete Yamagata (as it seems nearly all the Northern Sierra registers are). He had last been here in October, and there had been only a handful of visitors since. At some eight miles from the trailhead, this peak doesn't see many winter visits.
After a short break, our next objective was Old Man Mtn to the southeast, about three miles distance. This was the most enjoyable part of the day as most of it was above treeline and gently downhill, making it both scenic and easy, a nice little romp. About halfway across the gap we switched to snowshoes since we were starting to posthole in places. Though hardly kind to the toes, the snowshoes are far better than the frustration of postholing. Our route was a little too direct, not finding the path of least elevation loss that would have been a broad arc further east. So we found ourselves looking across a sharp canyon some 300-400ft before we could start the climb up to Old Man. The more proper route now looked too circuitous to us and cliffy as well, and I suggested the additional elevation loss would be more quickly overcome with the direct assault than trying to dance around it. Down we went.
The narrow canyon, almost a gorge, was south-facing, giving the snow a somewhat unstable characteristic. A small stream gurgled and rushed down the center, mostly buried under snow, but popping up enough to make us question the integrity of the snow we descended upon. It was a spicy bit of work in snowshoes, but we dared not try without lest we should plunge through the snow unexpectedly. There were a few waterfalls to negotiate around and some bushwhacking (in snowshoes no less!) near the bottom. It had seemed a somewhat foolhardly thing to try descending beforehand, but afterwards it looked like great fun.
Once at the bottom we immediately began the steep climb up to Phoenix Lake. The snow on this northwest facing slope was quite firm by contrast and we made quick time of it. Phoenix Lake, just north of Old Man Mountain, was an unexpected surprise, beautifully situated and frozen from one end to the other. We crossed directly over the ice, aiming for a north facing gully leading up to Old Man's East Ridge. Here the snow was firmer and steeper, and before getting up 1/3 of the distance we stopped to switch to crampons. It was steep climbing to reach the ridge, and then almost as steep from there, climbing up towards the summit. The crampons turned out to be crucial and we were glad to have brought them along.
It took until 2:40p to reach the summit and we realized that our plan to also climb Signal Mountain wasn't very realistic given the time of day. What had been evident from the map but something we hadn't truly grasped until we were on Old Man was that there was a 2,000-foot drop between the two mountains. Somehow I had hoped that there was a connecting ridge just off the edge of my map, but no such luck. It didn't matter which way one tried to get from Old Man to Signal - it was 2,000ft down to Fordyce Creek. A quick calculation said it would be sunset when we reached Signal, and neither of us wanted to try and descend Signal in the dark.
Getting off Old Man proved to be troublesome as we soon found. Our ascent route was on the opposite side of where we needed to go to head back, so we started heading off the west side. There are non-trivial cliffs on the south and west sides of the peak as our maps showed, but we figured we could cheat to the north to avoid any obstacles. This worked for the most part, but it left us with about 700ft of hard bushwhacking on the lower third of the mountain. What should have been an hour descent took twice as long, and I began to fret that we might not find the trail back before darkness overtook us.
My worrying was for naught as we landed ourselves on the roadbed shortly after 5p, not long before sunset. You'd think a road would be hard to lose, but this was no ordinary Forest Road, and we did manage to lose it a few times. It has to be one of the toughest OHV roads to be found in the Sierra, and I was constantly amazed to see tire tracks in evidence that it could actually be negotiated. What I expected to be our last difficulty came in the crossing of Fordyce Creek for the second time. There was no bridge this time, just the obvious path across a wide, shallow part of the stream through which the vehicles were expected to drive - and we had to cross. Downstream from this point the creek entered a small gorge with rocky sides and I could see a fallen tree reaching across the creek some 100 yards or so downstream. But the light was failing and there was no certainty that we could easily reach the log to cross on it. It was a painful decision to cross the stream knowing we'd have wet boots for the next few hours, and with concerns of freezing toes it was not done lightly. Utilizing rocks to cross about half the stream above the waterline, I made the last dash in a series of large, quick leaps. Matthew took it more slowly, more concerned with landing his whole body in the water than just his boots. The result was the same for both of us - water up to our ankles. It was uncomfortable but not as life-threatening as we had imagined. The water was cold but soon warmed as we continued hiking along the road on the other side. Most of the water was sqeezed out in a short time. My shoelaces ended up freezing, but my toes never got any colder than if I'd had wet boots on a summer hike, even as the temperatures soon dropped back down into the 20's.
Immediately after the creek crossing we got out our headlamps before continuing our march. The road again became a frozen mess, and with some stiff uphill sections, it was amazingly hard to negotiate in parts. This is the part of the hike where the barn animals are tired and just want to get back to the stable, and so we trudged on for the next few hours. At first I would wait every five minutes or so for Matthew to catch up, but eventually I just kept up my pace. Normally he'd be hiking on the trail faster than me at this point, but I was better able to negotiate the icy conditions (or perhaps just less cautious and taking more risks) and outpaced him. I turned left after reaching the junction with the Eagle Lakes road, but sometime after this I followed the wrong fork and ended up too far west. The fork I followed ended at a fire ring and small campsite. I sat on a log and pondered my map by headlamp while the moon was just beginning to rise over Signal Mtn to the east. Not knowing exactly where I was, it seemed the quickest way back would be to head cross-country towards the east until I intersected the main road which should be near the creek just west of Signal Mtn. I was a bit nervous leaving the relative comforts of a road, but within about five minutes I had landed myself on the road again.
I got back to the car at 7:45p, but it would be some time before Matthew would arrive. He had made a similar mistake, but had followed the wrong road for a much longer time. I had been pacing up and down the road for more than an hour when he finally arrived shortly before 9p. It had been too cold for me to sit still and unfortunately I didn't have a key to the car. So I had paced up and down, studying the road in far greater detail than it deserves. It was almost 11p before we had eaten dinner and found a motel room in Reno. There would be no getting up at the crack of dawn the next day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Black Buttes
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:08 2007
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