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Carson Peak rises majestically behind the small town of June Lake in the Eastern Sierra. It is not high by Sierra standards, but it looks good from the north rising sharply above SR158. I'd had my eye on the peak for a number of years, saving it for one of those half day efforts while vacationing with the family in Mammoth Lakes. Following an enjoyable outing to Treasure Peak, I repeated the 3a wakeup call the next morning and headed out for June Lake. I had done a rather poor job of learning the starting point the night before and ended up driving up several wrong streets in search of the Yost Creek/Fern Lake TH. Turns out it was much further west than I had expected, past the town limits and just before SR158 turns north towards Silver Lake. A sign alongside the road indicated the correct dirt road turnoff, and by 3:45a I was on my way by headlamp.
I found the trail a series of steep switchbacks almost from the start, rising up the forested slopes. The town lights and reflections off the lakes below could be seen from time to time through the trees. It took half an hour to reach the only trail junction (it wouldn't be hard to miss the sharp right turn which is the fork to Fern Lake), and Fern Lake itself at the end of the first hour. I now came to the dilemma I had so far avoided with these early morning hikes - trying to navigate unknown terrain in the dark. There was no obvious use trail heading up to Carson Peak that I could find. A more obvious route might head south from the lake following the shallower canyon towards San Joaquin Mtn, but I hoped for a shorter approach directly up the slopes west of the lake. After some minor bushwhacking I found myself on some boulder slopes threading my way towards the base of the broad East Face, just a blurr in the very weak early morning light. I came across a series of ducks that gave me encouragement that I was on the right track, but lost these after about fifteen minutes. I was unable at first to tell how steep the East Face was, but as the morning light came on I realized I was looking at near cliffs and it dawned on me that I could easily fail to climb what I thought should be an easy peak.
I aimed for the widest chute emanating from the cliff walls, roughly in the middle of the face. The chute twists and turns around corners and aretes making it impossible to tell if I could go this way until I was well on my way up. I climbed to the top of the boulders/talus fan at the bottom of the chute, then began making my way up the chute. In short order it became class 3 climbing, and I found myself having quite the scramble I had not expected. For 45 minutes I climbed the chute, keeping to the main channel as it angled to the right. Eventually I came to a notch that I hoped would lead to the summit plateau, but alas, did not. The other side dropped down in a steep and narrow chute to the north, some snow still occupying various sections. Behind me the chute dropped down the way I had come, from the hanging valley containing Fern Lake. Looking up the wall to the west and towards the summit, I thought I might be able to make progress in that direction. It was steep class 4 climbing, a bit scary to be honest, and I proceeded slowly to keep my nerves calm. I tried several variations but kept running into harder ground - moderate class 5 that I was not willing to solo. It was particularly painful because it looked like I had only 15 or 20 feet of hard scrambling before it eased off towards the summit. I had to admit defeat in this line of attack and climbed back down to the notch.
There had been another fork in the chute about 50 feet lower down, leading up and left to another notch I could see from where I stood at the first notch. There was some snow in this other chute that had put me off initially, but I now resolved to explore that possibility. I climbed back down the main chute, then up the second one, finding no trouble in bypassing the hard snow I encountered. Seeing trees over the top of the second notch as I approached it raised my spirits, but they were soon dashed as I stood atop the second notch and looked over a chasm between me and the trees lining the summit plateau. It was just 6a and I was already having far more adventure than I had planned for the day. I explored several options to downclimb the chasm to reach the other side, but was thwarted in these efforts. I tried the wall above me, but like before was stopped by a mid-class 5 stretch, though this one a paltry 10ft or less. Much as I would have liked to, I couldn't justify the risk in attempting further progress on that line, and again I climbed down to the notch.
I was literally moments away from calling it a day and heading back down to Fern Lake when I spotted yet another possibility up on the wall above me, but this time with a traverse to the right around a vertical section. Climbing back up the face, this proved to be the key, though not without some stressful low-class 5 climbing in a corner that had me questioning my judgement. In hindsight it was probably unwise to climb it since I would not have been able to downclimb it (breaking one of my own soloing rules). Getting past this tough section was a huge relief as I pulled myself up the remaining easy stretch to the plateau. I found I was at the top of the lower east summit, the highpoint still some fifteen minutes away to the northwest. It was an easy matter to make the final distance, and by 7a I was atop Carson Peak.
The summit had fine views of the Ritter Range and Sierra crest to the west, Silver Lake and the June Lakes area to the north, and the higher San Joaquin Mtn to the south. A plastic jug containing a register was tucked among the rocks of a summit cairn. The peak is fairly popular judging from the number of entries, but not among the usual peakbaggers that frequent the more recognized peaks in the range.
An entirely new descent route was needed, and for this I enlisted the promising NE Gully. This broad chute between the two main summits drops away in an immense field of class 2 boulders and talus some 1,000ft before the route is obscured further down. That I might find cliffs below after dropping down this distance did not escape me, but as usual I hope for the best but prepare for the worst (which would probably mean climbing back up then down the west side to Spooky Meadow and Agnew Lake). I dropped down the requisite 1,000ft, then another 200ft until I did indeed run into cliffs. Rats. It looked like my options were to head left around the north side of the peak and hope for better terrain there among the trees, or try to find my way right into a deeply cut gorge found to the east. I opted for the gorge to the right. It was a bit tricky, but I found a class 3 way through the cliffs by traversing far right until I could find slabs to descend on.
Once in the gully the descent was more straightforward despite a large amount of snow clogging the centerline. The rock hard snow was skirted on the right over crumbly talus and sand, one foot on the edge of the snow, the other sliding down the dusty mess to the right. Upon emerging from the gorge, the last half mile to the car turned out to be another bit of effort, this time in heavy bushwhacking through aspen forests. I could hear cars on the road below and someone working on splitting wood for the winter somewhere not far off, but for what seemed like an interminable amount of time all I could see were the aspen branches in front of me as I pushed and clawed my way through. Eventually I found a use trail that made progress much easier, though initially I headed off in the wrong direction to the left. I realized my error in about five minutes, back-tracked, and in another five minutes or so I emerged upon the parking lot just before 9a. Whew! That one was tougher than it looked...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Carson Peak
This page last updated: Tue Jul 29 18:20:41 2008
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