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I left San Jose around 7p Wed night, traffic no worse than usual, and found myself turning off SR108 a few miles before Dardanelle up the Clark Fork turnoff. It was 10:30p when I drove up and found the dirt road turnoff for the Arnot Creek Trailhead, where I found an empty parking area. I picked a place to the side where I put out a ground cloth, pad, and sleeping bag, protected by my car on the side facing the parking area (the only thing worse than having someone arrive even later in the night and waking you up, is having someone arrive even later in the night and running you over). My alarm went off at 5:30a, while it was still quite dark out. I had stopped the previous night to buy the alarm at a Staples somewhere around Livermore. I was looking for a small lightweight thing the size of a Bic lighter, but all they had was this one the size of wallet that played 15 different alarm tunes, could tell me the time in Berlin or Singapore or 10 other time zones, functioned as a calculator, and probably could have been used as a navigation aid and nail clipper had I taken the time to read the instructions. But at only $7, it didn't rate worthy enough to read the instructions which were written in seven languages in type so small I could hardly tell the English section from the Spanish one.
I ate a quick breakfast and packed my stuff up in the car, draping a few T-shirts over my ice chest (are there bears around here? - I had no clue as there were no signs, and no bear boxes). At 6a I headed up the Arnot Creek Trail which followed a delightful brook named appropriately, Arnot Creek, for about two miles until I found a trail junction at Woods Gulch. I took a left and headed up steeper ground for another two miles to a saddle where the trail drops down into Jenkins Canyon. This seemed the best place to leave the trail and head up towards the rock pinnacles that surround the high mesa around Dardanelles Cone like turrets on a medieval fortress. There was a barbed wire fence running perpendicular to the trail here, whose purpose I hadn't guessed until later in the morning.
As I started climbing up the slopes leading to a chute cutting the pinnacles, I found the rock was as loose in practice as it had looked from below. I struggled on this a short while before finding my way to the base of the chute. Much of the north side of Dardanelles Cone is steep cliffs, so I didn't have many choices on routes to climb. The summit itself was almost a mile west of the pinnacle I was trying to surmount, and I had taken what looked like the most straightforward route from the trail. I hadn't been able to find any trip reports or beta on the web, which means I was more or less winging it. The chute was loose class 3, without the scree piles I'd climbed earlier, but the rocks I was climbing on would frequently disintegrate in my hands. It was kind of fun really. As it narrowed it became something of a chimney-ramp combo and it gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush even though it was much safer than it looked. Oddly, though almost nothing grew on the rotten volcanic rock, the few plants I did encounter had some beautiful violet flowers on them. After a hundred feet or so I found myself on top of the pinnacle, but not yet up to the higher mesa. There were more cliffs above me which I bypassed by contouring around to the east and then southeast, and still I ran into more cliffs. As I found myself traversing over more loose volcanic talus, I began to think this wasn't the walkup I had expected. The views were nice as were the wildflowers, but the climbing had begun to feel tedious. I found another, wider chute which lead to more class 3 climbing that turned out to be the key to getting me up to the summit plateau. Now I could look over to the summit still half a mile away, but over easy ground. As I walked across and reached the summit at 9a, I kept my eye out for alternative ways down. I doubted that I had found the easiest way and was eager to find an easier descent so that I might not have to downclimb the loose class 3 sections I had come up. The southeast slope seems a tempting idea, as it provides a more or less direct line from the summit to the parking lot down below. The slopes themselves are no more than class 2, but from the looks of things might it be bit of a bushwhack (maybe a long one), and I chose to disregard that option.
I had fine views from the summit, west to Mokelumne Peak, northeast to Airola Peak with Highland Peak behind it, east to the Sierra Crest (though I wasn't familiar with any of the peaks at the time to identify them, and besides it was too smokey from the MacNally Fire far to the south), southeast to Leavitt Peak, and others behind I could not determine. Strangely, I heard bells ringing periodically, guessing that someone had left their horses to pasture in the meadows below while they camped (wrong guess). It was pretty early in the morning still, a bit cool at the summit (so I put on my jacket), but only a slight breeze. After a quick snack I started looking about for a descent route, preferrably one that would take me back to the meadow north of the peak in the most straightforward manner. The north side seemed to be mostly cliffs, and I'd been unable to pick out a sure descent line in that direction during my stroll over to the summit earlier. Now I explored the west slopes and northwest ridge, finding the latter a bit tough with some sharp pinnacles making the way uncertain at best. The west slope was steep, but open enough that it looked to provide options once I got down further, and this in fact turned out to be the case. I kept as close to the northwest ridge as I could, even downclimbing a short section of class 3 that afforded an escape route, and soon I was down to the broad, easy slopes along the ridge further down.
The uncertain, difficult section behind me, it was mostly a matter of just heading down northeast off the ridge, across the meadow, and finding the trail again. The route was very loose descending the ridge but technically easy, and I was soon heading through the forest looking for the meadow that was so obvious from above but now proved slightly elusive. The bells I'd been hearing grew louder, and I expected I would come out on a wrangler's camp any moment. I found the meadow, and immediately noticed that much of it was trampled, the animals probably milling about the trickle of stream that flowed through the middle. Halfway through the meadow I startled the first of them, and saw three cows take off to the far side of the field. It hadn't even occurred to me that I might find cattle in a Wilderness region, particularly one that seemed as remote as this. Then it began to make sense - the bells weren't on horses, but cattle, and I was walking through a public lands grazing area. The whole thought of this struck me as out of place and just stupid. I found acres upon acres of ground that was badly trampled underfoot, almost as though a plow had been dragged through the area. Particularly in the nearby forest areas, there wasn't a piece of vegetation anywhere, just dusty, trampled ground with cow droppings everywhere. I wondered just how much economic sense it even made for the ranchers to bring cattle here. You have to haul them up from some wintering grounds, drive them out to ranges some five miles or so from a trailhead, round them up periodically, and drive them back at the end of the season. Did the rancher save $1000 or $5000 dollars on the cost of raising the cattle as opposed to doing this on private land somewhere? I doubt that it even saved them that much. Yet here they were tearing up land than the government has set aside for public use. Can all of the public do this, or even all of those that might be so inclined? Of course not. I thought of land acquistions that the state and county governments were buying in the Bay Area for millions upon millions of dollars. Would these be turned over to allow grazing in due time? No, they are much too valuable for that. But due to the notion of "traditonal use" we allow cattle to trample beautiful alpine meadows that are far finer than the open space purchased at enormous cost around the Bay Area and elsewhere. Ah, but I digress. Needless to say, I wasn't too thrilled with the cattle. As I came across the barbed wire fence again which led back to the trail, it occurred to me that its purpose was to keep the cattle from ranging too far from the meadow area.
Once I reached the trail I picked up my pace and jogged back down. I passed several backpackers heading the same way as myself, a young girl of maybe 17yrs, and two fatherly-looking figures accompanying her. At the same time, two horsemen came up from below, evidently looking for the others, as they turned to accompany them downhill. I jogged by after greeting them and continued on my way, shortly running into about 15 more ladies with a few more adults who were sitting around waiting for the others to catch up. I gathered the first one I had encountered was the one they'd been waiting for, and I heard comments that the group had been hiking since 7a and the ladies were anxious to get off the trail. I garnered no more than a few odd glances and quizzical stares as I waved on my way past them. Later I found there was a private camp (Liahona Camp) next to the public trailhead, and it was likely to this location that they were returning. I returned to my car at 11:30a without meeting another party, and found no additional cars in the near-empty lot when I got there.
I rinsed the salt and sweat from my face with what was left in my water bottles, grabbed a cold drink from the cooler, and headed out. Back out on the paved road, I took a left and drove a few miles east, following the Clark Fork and the canyon it carved to near the end of the road. Disaster Peak was my goal for the second half of the day. The "disaster" for which it was named was the broken leg one of the members of the first ascent party suffered when he carelessly fell off the east side of the peak. It probably could have been more accurately called Stupid Peak, but that probably wouldn't have made it past the mapmakers of the day. And to be fair, 130 years ago when the members of the USGS were mapping this wild country, a broken leg was a far more serious affair.
I recharged my water bottles and headed out from the Disaster Creek TH at noon. The trail climbs fairly rapidly at first under an impressive granite outcropping called simply The Iceberg (misnamed "The Iceburg" on the 15-min quad). It wasn't until I was under this impressive rock structure that it occurred to me it may be one of the namesakes for the larger Carson-Iceberg Wilderness that I was visiting. To be fair I wasn't sure if the Wilderness was named for this feature or the similarly named Iceberg Peak a few miles to the northwest, but that seemed like splitting hairs. Who I wondered, was the person or persons that contrived to name peaks after icebergs. Were they Scandanavian sheepherders that saw a resemblance between the rock and the floating ice, or perhaps by pioneers who had never seen an iceberg but imagined this is what they might look like? I'm not sure what the origin was, but my own thoughts concerning the massive formation was that it had some nice rock climbing potential and ought to have attracted the attention of that crowd. And if I let my imagination run with it a little, maybe it did have some resemblence to a giant berg as it broke from its glacial mooring.
Past The Iceberg, the trail eases and follows a very easy incline for several miles. Bull Thistles and other beautiful flowers dotted the trailsides as I climbed higher up the canyon. The creek cuts a canyon between two ridges, to the west Lightning Mountain and Disaster Peak rising high on the ridge to the east. The topo map shows an unmaintained trail climbing diagonally up from meadows between the two main peaks which requires one to walk north past Disaster Peak before cutting back to find the trail. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the trail shown on the map even though I walked back and forth a few times in the area where the map indicated the junction should be. I found the junction for another unmaintained trail heading to Paradise Valley but that takes a more circuitious route leading to a pass north of Disaster Peak. The only markers I found were a few pink ribbons tied to some trees leading eastward. Thinking this might be the trail, I followed them, but after three ribbons and 50 yards I came to nothing. So I gave up and simply struck off cross-country up the canyon hillside. I followed a diagonal route leading to the right (south), similar to the trail shown on the map, fairly easy travelling under the forest canopy (which means mostly dirt, pine needles, and fallen logs and branches on the floor). The hillside grew steeper, but technically easy, and at times I even found vestiges of what seemed to be a trail. I followed one section up until it seemed to head in the wrong direction (downward), then left it to head uphill again. I was to find that this indeed was the trail as I made my way back to this very place later in the day.
Reaching treeline I climbed through some low scrub that clung to the rocky soil, and headed for the ridge from which I hoped to gain a better view. I couldn't see the summit of Disaster Peak and had to admit I wasn't exactly sure how far up I had to climb or exactly in which direction it lay, which of course meant I would be climbing longer than expected. I came up a steep scree slope to find it was a false summit, the true summit still almost a mile away, but now at least I could view the peak and be sure of just where I was going. It looked to be another 700ft of climbing or so, and just a bit disheartening that it was a good distance off still. Oh well, just keep walking, I told myself.
I continued to follows the ridge that lead east then southeast to the summit (this would be the northwest ridge I suppose). I came across a partially completed barbed-wire fence that looked to have been recently erected. I came to a gate in the fence that described it as property of the US Forest Service, and further on I found fresh rolls of barbed-wire that would probably be used to complete the fence. This was even more distressing to me than my earlier discovery of the cows in Wilderness lands, as it indicated that the federal government was actively erecting new fences in a place that is supposed to be devoid of human fixtures. In a meadow (this would be Paradise Meadow) a few miles north I could see cow dots grazing away. Was the new fence going to restrict the cows to the meadow areas or simply separate two pasturing areas? There were cow patties gracing both sides of the fence all over the place. The worst part was that the fenceline seemed to be heading right up the northwest ridge to the summit. I briefly considered trundling the rolls of barbed-wire down the slopes to the north, thinking I could at least delay the building of this fence. But aside from being illegal, I had to admit I didn't know any of the circumstances for which it was being built, the fence would probably get erected anyway, and in the end I'd only succeed in leaving piles of barbed-wire to rust away on the hillsides for the next century or so. Argh - too much cow stuff for one day!
I left the pattie fields and climbed up the volcanic talus that lined the peak on most sides. It was loose as well which made for tedious climbing, but by 2:50p I found myself upon the summit at last. Most sides of the peak were loose talus (except for the east side that caught soldier-boy by surprise - it was a small cliff area there, more like class 3 climbing). I found the views hazy, I could barely make out Dardanelles Cone that I had been on earlier in the day. Other peaks I recognized included Hiram and Iceberg Peaks to the northwest, Highland to the north, and Leavitt to the south. Disaster Peak doesn't sit on the Sierra Crest itself, but slightly detached. Sonora and Stanislaus Peaks, which I planned to climb the next day, were somewhere to the southeast, but exactly where I was unsure at the time. I perused the summit register and found an entry suggesting the mountain should be renamed Cowpie Peak - looks like I wasn't the only person having a problem with the cows. I recognized a few other names in the register which dated back nearly twenty years, and spent a bit of time reading through some of the other entries before adding my own.
I took some photos of the views, had a quick snack, and headed back. I figured I'd try again to locate the trail, and headed southwest off the summit down some easy-to-descend, hard-to-climb talus and sand slopes. By the time I had gotten a few hundred feet down, the slope eased, the ground firmed, and I stopped to unload a few handfuls of unwelcomed hitch-hiking pebbles out of my tennis shoes. After about 20 minutes I did manage to find a trail which led of all places back to the gate in the fence along the northwest ridge! I left the trail again and headed southwest, finding another use trail which I soon gathered to be the one indicated on the map. I should report here that it is a pretty faint trail and not well travelled, at least anymore. It did have the advantage of following a line of minimal gradient, and it helped in traversing across a few steep talus sections. I eventually returned to the place I had left it on the way up (the downhill section had only been for about 30 feet or so). It was a nicer descent than ascent, and if one can manage to find the trail I'd have to recommend it over the more direct route I took on the way up. I didn't follow the trail all the way back to Disaster Creek, as I knew I could cut a bit of mileage off by heading directly down to the creek instead of taking the diagonally descending trail. This I did when I was about 400 feet above the creek and I could reasonably see a way down the steeper off-trail slopes below.
Back on the trail I headed south, going faster but not jogging as I had done earlier when descending from Dardanelles Cone - I was admittedly tired by now. Disaster Peak had turned out to be a tougher climb than I had expected, fooled by the short mileage but larger percentage of cross-country travel. I saw only a single party of backpackers on the way back, the only other persons I saw on the trail in the afternoon. There were several nice campsites along the creek once about 2 miles from the TH, and there are many miles of trail to explore up Disaster Creek (and even more remote peaks which I'll have to go visit in the future!). I returned to the TH at 6p, fairly beat after hiking 12 hours. I took a dunk in the nearby Clark Fork, and the cleansing helped me feel both relaxed and refreshed. After putting on some fresh clothes, I drove back to SR108 and then headed up to the resort at Dardanelle. I had dinner at the restaurant there, and though the food was only so-so, a friendly staff, a hard day's hiking, and the fact that I didn't have to do anything but show a credit card made it a pretty good meal experience nonetheless. I used the time to peruse my map for tomorrow's hiking before I headed up towards Sonora Pass. I pulled into a large dirt parking area south SR108 opposite the St. Marys Pass TH. It was 8:00p when I turned off the engine, twilight just settling over the area, the sun having set not long before. I didn't want to set up my bag for illegal camping while still light enough to be seen easily from the road, so I sat in my car reading a bit. After a few minutes a strange gurgling sound began in the engine compartment. I opened the hood to find my radiator boiling over into my overflow reserve. I watched the water level rise and then exceed the capacity of the plastic tank, spilling over while I stood there helpless. I hadn't counted on engine trouble. I guess the combination of uphill driving and then stopping at 9,000ft where the boiling point is lower was a bit more than my little car wanted to handle. Fortunately I didn't lose too much fluid and it soon stopped, the level receding after a time as the engine cooled. Catastrophe averted, I went back to reading my book. After another 15 minutes or so I decided I was tired enough that I stopped worrying about getting caught and laid out my ground roll and went to bed at 8:30p.
I ran across your name again, this time on a peak register in the Sierras. I was on Disaster Peak on Sunday, and it seems that you had been the last one up there, 10 days before. The peak apparently doesn't get visited often.
Kelsey had been one of two climbers that had beaten me to remote Ventana Cone the previous spring, evidenced by the small film canister register they left on the summit. Kelsey is active in the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, and I had struck up an email exchange with him concerning that first venture. Small world...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Disaster Peak
This page last updated: Sat Oct 30 12:25:33 2010
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