Gray Peak P500 SPS / WSC

Wed, Aug 3, 2005
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously attempted Sat, Nov 1, 2003

I was looking for a couple of good acclimatization days before the 2005 Sierra Challenge. My preferences have gotten more particular as I get older, either because I'm wiser and know what works best, or I'm simply more set in my ways. Best not to look into these things too closely if there isn't anything you're going to do about it anyway. I wanted a hard first day followed by something easier, both at relatively low elevations, say under 12,000ft. A dayhike to Gray and Red peaks in the Clark Range of Yosemite seemed to fit the bill nicely, particularly since I'd already failed at my first attempt at Gray in the fall with Matthew a few years earlier. In that previous effort winter had come a week too soon and we were inundated with several feet of snow to wade through, ultimately giving up several miles from Gray Peak. This time I would be able to start out of Mono Meadow for a shorter approach than Yosemite Valley, and the snow would not be a factor.

I'd made several trips from this trailhead on climbs of Mt. Starr King, so there was little new in the visuals, though it seems the forests have been burned even more than they had on previous trips. It took almost four hours to make the drive from San Jose, a dark, lonely excursion that would have been far better to make with a companion rather than by myself. By 6a I'd reached the trailhead, and a few minutes later was out on the trail, revived and ready for an enjoyable outing.

I paused in the vicinity of Mono Meadow to take pictures of some of the wildflowers still on display late into the summer - the extra rain and snowpack had made this one of the better years for flowers. Even with the charred trunks of the evergreens for a backdrop, the flowers made a delightful appearance. Their vibrant colors and youthful stems and leaves remind one that a forest burned is not lost forever - it is but part of a cycle that life repeated replays.

At Illilouette Creek I looked for downed logs I'd used before to cross the watercourse, but found none remaining. I spent a short time looking for other ways across before finally taking my boots off, rolling my pants up and wading through the chilly waters. I followed the trail east, southeast and south for a number of miles before leaving it shortly after crossing the Clark Fork. I had no trouble negotiating the cross-country portion towards Gray, partly because I was overly cautious of the warnings about getting off-route here, and partly because Matthew and I had negotiated half the route on our first visit in the snow. Oddly, I never got a good view of Gray from a distance on the route I approached from the west, though I had good views Mt. Clark and Red Peak that flanked it on either side along the crest of the range. As I climbed higher I obtained expansive views behind me opening towards Starr King, Half Dome, and Yosemite Valley. I could even see Yosemite Falls tumbling over the brink, though I could not see any of the Valley floor.

I worked my way up through the forest, the slopes growing steeper as I neared Gray's West Ridge. Rated class 3, I was expecting a somewhat exposed bit of rock, but mostly I found myself climbing thousands of feet through forested slopes, and compacted sand/talus benches. With less than 300ft of elevation left to gain, the ridge finally shed its forest cover and left me on a mild class 3 ridge. There was some interesting scrambling, but very little overall, and certainly not worth a recommendation for the effort to get to it. Some of it was loose, dangerously so - a slab the size of a large television set let go from under me and crashed down for over a thousand feet on the steep north side of the ridge, splintering and pulverizing as it fell, before the remains came to rest on the snow field far below. It's really only the last couple hundred feet that has anything resembling class 3.

It was 11:50a when I finally reached the summit, some fifty minutes later than I'd hoped it might take. I didn't stay long, eager to get on to Red Peak and back before nightfall. I made a strategic error here in not reading the available beta beforehand. Had I done so, I would have known that the best strategy was not to follow the connecting ridgeline, but to drop down to the basin to the west and then climb back up. Instead, I headed along the ridge, finding little trouble until I got to the low point along the ridge. South of that point the difficulty increased and the rock became alarmingly rotten. So much so that I could not trust it to make some of the class 3 moves required to keep along the ridge. Contemplating the ridgeline for some moments at this point, I noted that the I would have to do some more serious backtracking to get around this little problem. I looked ahead and observed that I wasn't done with the hard parts by any stretch. I'd already burned up an hour since leaving Gray's summit and looked to have well over an hour remaining. A quick calculation had me getting back to the trailhead around 8-9p, much longer than the 12hr day I was hoping for. My interest in getting to Red was suddenly drained and I decided to head back. Red Peak could wait for another day.

After backing off of my somewhat precarious perch along the ridge, I regained the notch and headed down the west side from there. Talus at the top, dropping to a steeper slope with some cliffs that I managed to find a way down through, not all that hard really. This landed me in the large cirque between Gray and Red peaks, adorned with meadows fed by the waters of Red Creek that courses through it. I took my time descending the easy terrain along the creek, enjoying the soft, grassy turf and the flowers in bloom. After a few miles and some 1,500ft of descent, I was down in the more heavily forested, and gentler slopes found below 8,700ft in this area. Another hour took me through the cross-country portions and burned forest areas I'd traversed in the morning, and then another hour on the trail brought me back to Illiloutte Creek.

There was quite a few other parties in and around the creek, making it a very busy place even on a Friday afternoon. A group of four were on the other side of the creek near the trail drying clothes and resting in the sun. I waved an acknowledging sign with my hand, then took off my boots and socks and proceeded across the stream knee deep. As I'd found in the morning, the smooth rocks on the bottom of the creek were slippery with moss, and fording the creek was no small effort as I concentrated on my foot placements to keep myself from slipping in for an unplanned bath. When I was but ten feet from the other side, I slipped. My foot caught in a crack, my other foot mechanically came up and tried to counterbalance my position, leading to a short little dance where I ended up with one arm in the water and my shirt soaked up to my shoulder. That little display would have been embarassing enough, but I managed to kick water all over the other four who had been minding their own business before this oaf came along. They jumped up out of the way attempting to alleviate the worst of my shower, but the damage was done. All I could say was, "I am so sorry." They laughed a bit and mentioned they'd done a similar manuever, but that didn't stop me from feeling like a complete idiot. I beat it out of there as soon as I could manage after getting my shoes back on (though I took a moment to photograph the party I crashed).

Without further disruptions to my fellow wilderness visitors, I made it back out to the Mono Meadow Trailhead around 5:30p. This gave me plenty of time to head down to Curry Village to enjoy pizza and beer on the patio, grab a shower, and take in the always-popular, Sunset on Half Dome show. I then drove up SR120 past White Wolf, finding a suitable spot to pull off the highway and sleep out under the stars (far from the watchful eye of The Man).

Continued...


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