Mt. Hopkins

Sun, Jun 27, 2004
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Sun, Aug 9, 2015


Today was planned (by me) to be an easy day, after the long outing to Williamson/Tyndall the day before, and before we had to drive back to San Jose in the evening. Matthew was a man on a mission however, and his mission was to climb as many SPS peaks in the year as possible. He was feeling a bit behind in his goal to reach 100 peaks, so he was looking to double up where he could. And today that meant an attempt at Mills & Abbot out of Little Lakes Valley. Matthew had struggled the previous weekend on Mills, failing to reach the summit after getting rather lost somewhere on the North Ridge, complete with an unplanned bivy, no water - quite the little epic. Still, he was ready to tackle it again. Having been up both as dayhikes previously, it held less interest to me. Fortunately there are lots of other peaks in the area that I was eager to climb, so I picked a somewhat remote one, Mt. Hopkins, out on the west side of Pioneer Basin. There was no technical sections to the outing at all - almost all of it on trail right up to the base of the peak, then a straightforward class 2 talus slog to the summit. Not terribly exciting from a climbing perspective, but after the difficulties I'd encountered on the Tyndall->Versteeg traverse, I was rather in the mood for something easy and less life-threatening.

[For anyone reading this to get beta, I should point out that I didn't take the easiest route. Later I found that the easiest route would be to start at the Rock Creek Pack Station and head over Half Moon Pass. A decent use trail can be found for most of the route, and it never is more difficult than class 3. In addition to being shorter, Half Moon Pass is lower than Mono Pass. For any further ventures to the Pioneer Basin area, or any trips down Mono Creek, I will likely take this route instead.]

We headed out from the Mosquito Flat TH at 6:30a, another gorgeous, cloudless morning in the Sierra. We were in no hurry, so we paused at various points to take pictures of the sculpted peaks and wildflowers as we headed up the Mono Pass Trail. At the turnoff to Ruby Lake we parted company, Matthew heading to Ruby and Mills lakes while I went up to Mono Pass. When I was some height above Ruby Lake I stopped to look for Matthew among the rocks and boulders down below, but I had lost sight of him for the rest of the day. Mono Pass took longer than I expected, and it was almost 8a before I reached the broad saddle crossing the Sierra crest. There was a good deal of snow still, some on the south side, a lot more on the north side of the pass. Summit Lake was still partially frozen, but it was in the process of melting out over the next few weeks. The snow was frozen hard making it easy enough to cross, perhaps with the occasional slip. It would be less inviting in the afternoon after the sun had had a chance to warm it up.

I had never travelled north of Mono Pass into the Mono Creek area, so this was all new territory to me and I was eager to get a chance to explore it. In particular I had viewed Pioneer Basin from the summit of Mt. StanfordMt. Hopkins on the approach. The peak looked respectable from a distance, but even from afar I could tell that the East Slope would offer no difficulties - a moderate slope of talus and boulders. About a mile and a half below Mono Pass the route goes by Trail Lake, a very picturesque lake tucked away in an upper cirque above Fourth Recess Lake. I paused here to check out a Snow Survey Cabin, a sturdy structure built of cemented granite blocks around the middle of the previous century. The door was locked securely (with flanged protecting shields around the padlocks to prevent the use of bolt cutters) and I found no one around the area. I continued down another 800feet over the next mile to Golden Creek, a tributary of Mono Creek that tumbles down from the east end of the canyon from Golden Lake and the Half Moon Pass area. The creek crossing wasn't trivial, but not much problem either, and after filling my water bottle I was on my way.

The map shows the trail heading almost due west and following the creek directly as it heads down to several trail junctions. The trail had been reworked here as well, and I found myself on a more gradual switchback heading northwest away from the creek. I could see the old trail alongside the river below me, but this time I figured I could use the newer trail to my advantage. In order to avoid some additional elevation loss I was hoping to be able to traverse across some forested slopes to intercept the Pioneer Basin Trail higher up. This first long switchback played well to that strategy. Where it took its first bend back towards the creek I left the trail, contouring around and over several smaller ridges under the forest canopy. The cross-country travel was pretty easy, and rather sooner than I expected (maybe a third of mile later) I found myself on the trail again around the 10,100-foot contour level, and started the hike up to Pioneer Basin. I came across a party of three backpackers heading back down after having spent several days in the area. We exchanged some friendly words and parted company. The trail passes through the outlet of a medium-sized lower lake in a delightful meadow setting at 10,400ft. It was situated on an intermediate plateau that looked to make a fine campsite with views up to Mono Pass and across to Fourth Recess. I had some trouble finding a dry way across the creek, and in my hesitation the mosquitoes gave me an unwelcomed welcome. Swatting the buggers while dancing across wobbly bouldertops in the stream, I managed my way across without taking the expected dip in the creek. Another 400 feet higher up the trail I finally reached Pioneer Basin at 10a at the outlet of a pretty upper lake. The base of Mt. Hopkins was now just a short distance away. It borders the west side of Pioneer Basin, rising up from the west end of the southernmost of the Pioneer Basin Lakes at whose outlet I was resting. I might have stayed longer at the pretty site, but the mosquitoes owned this lake as well, and I soon left them to continue their hunt for more willing victims.

The climb of Mt. Hopkins East Slope went pretty much as expected - 1,500ft of talus and sand. Unfortunately, it was a bit heavy on the sand. Looking up it seemed to offer some class 3 granite blocks, but what couldn't be seen from below was the amount of sandy slopes surrounding all the rocky outcroppings. It took just over an hour to climb from the lake, and I found myself on the blocky summit at 11:15a. A summit register was found in a cracked PVC pipe under a small cairn. The entries didn't go very far back, and I was at first surprised by how often the peak gets climbed. From reading a number of the entries, it seems that at least one person from most backpacking parties to visit the area eventually gets bored or curious enough to scramble up the peak. Of the four major peaks surrounding the basin, this is the easiest and most assessible. The most notable entry I saw was from Paul Spence, who had just finished climbing Red & White Peak, Mt. Crocker, and then Mt. Hopkins in a day. The weather was still fine, though the clouds that had built up each afternoon the previous days were beginning to make their presence known. The views were grand, providing a unique view to a region I'm fairly familiar with, and it was easy to pick out over a dozen peaks I had climbed previously - Red & White and Red Slate on the crest to the northwest, Bloody, Baldwin, and Stanford to the north, Morgan, Wheeler, and Starr to the southeast, the Abbot group and Mt. Gabb to the south. I had a fine view of the Silver Divide to the west, a region I have yet to visit, and I noted several high peaks I couldn't identify beckoning to me. More immediately I was hoping I might have time to climb either Mt. Crocker or Mt. Huntington, nearby peaks lining Pioneer Basin, but I didn't think I could reach either and still get back by 5p.

After about 15 minutes on the summit I headed back down, taking a slightly different route down the East Slopes a bit futher to the north than my ascent route. It had some fine, steep sand-filled chutes that would have been a bear to climb but made for a very swift descent. I bounded down the slopes in great leaps, and even with a few class 3 sections to downclimb I managed to do the entire descent to the lake in only 12 minutes. Hmmm - maybe I would have had time to traverse to Crocker... I retraced my steps along the trail. When I repeated the cross-country portion to avoid the elevation loss, I didn't execute it quite as nicely as I had on the way up, and I ended up back on the the trail some distance lower than I had on the way out. This gave me more time to "appreciate" the three or four switchbacks I had missed earlier, and I cursed the trailbuilders for considering horses and mules first, hikers second. I passed a trail junction to Fourth Recess, crossed Golden Creek again, and headed up towards Trail Lake. I had only seen the one group of backpackers all day besides Matthew, and was feeling like I was doing pretty good putting in the miles out in the Wilderness, when down the trail jogs a lone runner wearing only sneakers, shorts, a t-shirt, and a water bottle strapped to each hand. A quick "hi" was exchanged and he disappeared down the trail. Suddenly my little daypack felt as heavy as a backpack, and I began to appreciate what some of the backpackers must feel when the dayhikers go by. I don't know how far the runner was going, but even if he only went down to the creek and headed back, he'd still be putting in something like 10 miles and 4,000ft - and who knows, maybe he was heading down the canyon to Vermillion Resort or over to Reds Meadow. Either way, I resumed my uphill trudge very much impressed with the guy.

Just before Trail Lake I ran into a party of almost a dozen folks on horseback with a packtrain of a half dozen mules in tow. They were headed down to Second Recess to spend some time, and by the number of mules I saw might have been fixing to stay for a good long while. They were all duded out in classic western gear, and from the looks of things it would have been hard to figure out if the year was 1904 vs. 2004. They were a congenial bunch, and while they were resting their horses and mules on a lazy afternoon we chatted briefly. I took pictures of the bunch and then headed on my way. I decided to take a shortcut starting on the east side of Trail Lake, going up the canyon wall at that end through some talus and bush in order to cut off maybe half a mile of the trail. I had seen what looked like a use trail crossing the talus field when I'd come by earlier in the morning, and it turned out to be helpful in negotiating the most tedious portion of the slope. Above the talus the use trail disappeared, and some surprisingly tough bushwhacking slowed me down briefly before I managed my way through. Resting above Trail Lake, I caught sight of the pack train heading out on the west side of the lake. I rejoined the trail, and around 2:30p I was back at Mono Pass. The clouds over the Abbot Group had built up more ominously than they had elsewhere, and my thoughts turned to Matthew as I began to wonder how he was faring on this fine day.

About a mile after the pass I came across a small group of dayhikers, where a woman in her 20s was lying down with leg elevated and a bag of water lying across her ankle. Separated from her friends who were some distance below her, she had twisted it and became unable to walk. A second group had come across her, offered help, and contacted SAR on their radio. She was smiling, talking, and in no apparent distress. I offered to relay a message to her companions below, but they had already started back up to rejoin her when I ran into them half a mile later. I was back at the trailhead before 4p, and the SAR team showed up a few minutes later. I went over to offer what information I knew, but there were three or four others that came by shortly with far more knowledge than I had. They had been in radio contact with the other group via cell phone, and offered their phone to SAR personnel to get the latest. After about ten minutes they had assembled the wheeled stretcher and a group of four or five were headed out to pick her up, maybe three miles from the trailhead. It really seemed like a great deal of time and effort expended for a sprained ankle, but at the same time I have to be thankful for not getting any serious injuries while out there myself, often many miles from the trailhead and alone.

Back at Matthew's car, I found the mosquitoes were not to be trifled with, and I hurriedly washed my feet in the creek and changed into some clean clothes. I secured myself in the car, but with the windows rolled up it was too stifling and hot. In a moment of environmental selfishness, I turned on the car and let it idle while I enjoyed the deliciously refreshing coolness of petroleum-fueled air conditioning. I was happily reading my book for half an hour until just before 5p when I turned off the engine. I expected Matthew would probably be late, I would admonish him, he would be sorry, and then we'd drive home. I was about to go out for a walk up the trail to greet him along the way when I spotted him coming off the trail not a minute after my watch struck 5p. Truly exceptional timing. I was in the process of congratulating him on his promptness after he reached the car when it became clear he was not in a great mood. Seems he had not only failed to reach Abbot, but he hadn't even made his way up Mills, having been stymied for the second time in two weeks. I felt guilty about my own trouble-free outing, and we discussed the various trickeries Mills had tossed in his way as we drove back to San Jose. The one saving grace of the day for Matthew was that we had time at least for a small feast at the Whoa Nellie, and this went a long way to finishing the weekend on a positive note.

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