Jacks Peak OGUL / PYNSP / WSC

Wed, May 12, 2010
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
previously climbed Sat, Aug 27, 1994

Over the last few years I have returned to some of the peaks I had climbed on backpacking trips in order to do them again as dayhikes, and had thought I had redone all of them as of last year. A month ago I was perusing the OGUL list of which I had only a few remaining peaks. It occurred to me that I had somehow missed Jacks Peak that I had first done sixteen years earlier. Along with nearby Dicks Peak, Jacks is located in the heart of Desolation Wilderness. Though by most standards Desolation Wilderness is not all that large or remote, in winter or spring conditions these peaks require significant effort to reach them. On very short notice I decided to do a one day trip to climb it, only a couple days after the latest storm had passed over the area. Though the weather was fine, the snow conditions made the outing far more difficult that I had expected.

It was shortly before 6a when I was ready to start out from the Pyramid Creek TH at Twin Bridges along US50. I paid the $5 fee to use the parking area, only briefly considering the use of free parking half a mile down the road. Maybe the money could help buy more toilet paper for the bathroom. The information at the TH kiosk mentions that day use permits are needed for entering the Wilderness, something I was unaware of until then. It also mentioned that these permits could be obtained at the Wilderness boundary, so it didn't seem any inconvenience.

Right from the start I found the trail covered in several inches of two day-old snow, partially consolidated during the day prior, hard but not frozen overnight. The trail was not hard to find but hard to follow, mostly because there are so many use trail fragments in this canyon that it is not always easy to tell if you are on the main one or not. The new snow was in the process of melting even at this early hour and there was water running underfoot and along almost every section of the trails. It was hard to keep my boots dry, the extra hopping and skipping and meandering it required slowed my pace considerably. After half an hour I had only gone the 3/4 mile to the Wilderness boundary - to no great surprise, there were no Wilderness permits available.

In all I spent more than two hours hiking up Pyramid Creek and climbing the headwall to the west of Horsetail Falls. The snow made the class 2 boulder field/cliff region more like class 3, though I'm sure I didn't take the easiest route. In two sections I was scrambling up snow-covered logs that breached short cliffs, wondering why I wasn't looking for something easier, just bull-doggedly climbing up the line I had chosen because I could. At the top of the headwall where the cascades start, the terrain profile rolled off some and was mostly covered in a smooth layer of snow.

Putting on my snowshoes, I followed along the left side of the creek, higher into the trees. The creek was much too wide and swift to cross, and I began to think my initial plan to head for Lake of the Woods on the other side of the creek wasn't going to fly. Or swim, in this case. The sun had been up for several hours, but I was still steeped in shadows provided by the high ridgeline on the east side of Pyramid Creek. I had a fleece over my t-shirt, a balaclava over my hat, and a pair of wool gloves to keep out the cold. Pyramid Peak was in bright sunshine to the west, looking close, but still more than two miles away. Around Avalanche Lake the snow was thicker and began to bridge the banks of the creek. I found a suitable snow bridge to make my crossing, then spent about half an hour to reach Lake of the Woods. Along the way I had my first view of Jacks Peak far in the distance, but this was soon lost to the forest. I found Lake of the Woods completely frozen over and covered in snow. I made a few probing jabs with my ski poles before venturing out. Above 8,000ft now, I would find all the lakes similarly frozen over. I was in the sun now and warming rapidly, so most of the extra clothes went back in the pack. I would find conditions varying a good deal throughout the day with various items going on or off at different times, with more changes than I can remember doing in one day. It was a good demonstration of the wisdom of layering to stay comfortable.

Continuing on towards Lake Aloha, I got another view of Jacks Peak and would have it in my sights until I was at the base of it. There were dozens upon dozens of animal tracks in the fresh snow that I came across, but only those from one other human. Before reaching the large lake, I crossed these tracks from the previous day at a perpendicular angle. I could see that they were headed for Pyramid Peak and guessed that they had probably come from Echo Lakes the day before. What struck me as odd was that they were 6"-deep boot prints - someone had come all this distance without snowshoes or skis, surely a very wearing effort.

Lake Aloha is quite large by wilderness standards - two miles in length. The lake is mostly man-made with a retaining wall built by PG&E decades ago, used to regulate water flow in the American River. In the fall the water level is lowered to its minimum, then allowed to refill with snow and spring runoff. Walking across it one gets somewhat deceived by distances. The higher peaks of the Crystal Range rise up on the left - Pyramid, Agassiz, and Price, Crystal Crag on the left, and Jacks straight ahead. What looked like a twenty minute crossing of the lake took me twice as long.

I took my first break under the shade of some small trees at the far side of the lake, at the base of Jacks. It was nearly 10a and I had been going for four hours. I had hoped to reach the summit by now, but the soft, unconsolidated snow was making this a strenuous workout. I ate half of my food (two of four nut bars) while I sat on my pack for the short break. All was white wherever I looked. I was not much over 8,000ft, but the snows had a grip on the land as if it were mid-winter instead of mid-May. The first time I had come to Jacks Peak had been in late August when there was almost no snow remaining, and it was the last time I saw the lake unfrozen. Since then I have been back several times to climb some of the surrounding peaks - Dicks, Tallac, Pyramid, Price - but always in winter or spring when the lake is covered in snow.

Once my break was over I turned my attention to Jack's South Face, behind me. The face is fairly steep and was mostly covered in snow, leading 1,500ft up to the lower south summit. The snow had been exposed to the sun for some hours now and was softening considerably. I chose not to go up the southeast slopes because I figured they had been exposed even more, increasing the risk of wet slides. From the beginning I found the snow somewhat worrisome, averaging about 4-5" of the newer snow over the hard, old layer. The snow did slide some, but not dangerously. It warranted constant attention for changes. As I zigzagged my way up through minor cliffs and slabs, I favored the more southwest facing sections when I could find them since they were a bit firmer. I spent the better part of an hour on these slopes, eventually aiming for the SW Ridge at a point just below the rockiest, steepest part of the ridge. I was afraid to climb the steeper snow slopes of the South Face up to the very top, fearing the snow might not hold me there.

At the SW Ridge, I'd hoped the shadier west side of Jacks would offer firmer conditions. They didn't. The snow I found there was even less consolidated. It did not appear to have much time to soften the previous day, forming a looser layer 2-3" thick over very hard, steep snow. I ventured out only a few feet before thinking better of it. I felt trapped between a soft spot and a softer one. I found a dry, sunny spot on the rocks of the SW Ridge and took off my snowshoes - time for some scrambling. The ridge itself was too blocky to climb directly, but just to the right seemed to offer a combination of thin snow over talus plus some class 3 scrambling on steeper rock. Another half hour went by making my way gingerly to the top of the south summit. What I found at that point wasn't terribly encouraging.

The higher north summit was still almost half a mile away, connected by what looked like a long class 3 ridgeline. Yikes. 5 1/2 hours so far, and who knew how long to traverse the ridge. This was looking more and more problematic. I hiked over to the start of the ridge where I could see down both the west and east sides. I might have to drop a few hundred feet, but it looked like a mostly-snow route would be far faster than trying to stay on the ridge. I made my first move off the east side, dropping about 15 feet through the rocks to the open snow slopes with more than 1,000ft of drop to the runnout below. More yikes. I tested the snow with my snowshoes back on, but didn't get more than about 10 feet before I grew nervous watching the snow slide in a thick layer out from under me. This wouldn't be much of a big deal in other places, but the first hundred feet were too steep for me to commit to more of it. I chickened out and scrambled back up to the ridge. For the first time I began to think it might be ok if I turned back, and I took a moment to ponder things further. Not willing to give up just yet, I next tried to drop down on the west side for a similar end-run around the ridge, but here the snow was windpacked in a thin layer that had even less cohesion than the east side, easily slipping off the hard snow layer underneath - much like I'd found on this side lower down before scrambling the SW Ridge. Usually spring conditions are such that one or both sides of a ridge have safe snow, but this was the first time I've run across this bad-news combination. I climbed back up to the ridge once more and was ready to turn back - an uncontrolled slide off either side was unacceptable, as I wasn't sure I could stop even if I used the ice axe I was carrying with me.

Of course I could always come back in summer or fall and it would be trivial. I could even come back the following week and things would probably be much easier then, too. I stared up at Jacks, contemplating the hike along the ridge. I couldn't invent a time excuse - the truth was that I had plenty of daylight and no pressing reason to return before dark, and I couldn't claim exhaustion. I was only a moment from capitulating anyway, having finally arrived at the "it's not a big deal if I don't make it" point that is necessary before quiting any climb. In a last effort at motivation, I told myself I was just being a wuss and that I could manage the traverse across the ridge. It would take longer than I would have liked to be sure, but it would be the safest way to the summit. And so I took off the snowshoes, packed them away, and began the hike along the rocky crest. I would get to Jacks, even if it took another hour and a half.

All of my hesitations in traversing the ridgeline proved unfounded. I ran across no dangerous drops to halt progress, and the difficulty was no more than class 3 and quite enjoyable even with the snow to check my speed and make each step a cautious one. What I hadn't seen from the south end of the rock section was that there was a break about 1/3 of the way along that allowed me to drop about 50ft onto the snow on the east side with a much safer gradient than I had intially tried. This led to an all-snow ramp leading up on the east side, bypassing the remaining 2/3 of the rocky crest. This was so fortunate as to make that final push to the summit from where I was ready to turn back take only 30 minutes. And so, just after noon, I found my may to the snow-covered summit of Jacks.

From where I stood, Jacks looked to be in the center of a snow-filled wonderland. There wasn't even a hint of spring to be seen in any direction, just the white stuff all about. It felt incredibly remote, not the least reason being that it had taken more than 6hrs to reach. I had reached almost every peak on the Sierra crest in less time than that, though obviously they weren't done on snowshoes. Lake Tahoe was visible through the gap between Dicks Peak to the north and Mt. Tallac to the northeast. The Crystal Range stretched out in a long line from Pyramid Peak to the south, to Tells and McConnell to the northwest, a fine stretch of peaks on the west side of Desolation Wilderness. Further afield to the east could be seen Mt. Rose, Monument Peak, Freel Peak, and Mt. Hawkins, north to south.

There looked to be a rock wind shelter built at the summit, but it was mostly buried in snow. I didn't dig around inside for a register. I sat on one of the exposed rocks and ate my remaining two granola bars along with some Gatorade. The wind was quite gentle at this time, and with the midday sun warming things so nicely, it was indeed quite pleasant sitting there.

I had gotten a good look down the east side of the peak during the last climb up to the summit, and became convinced the southeast side was the better route to have taken. It probably would have saved me more than an hour's time on the ascent but I was hardly complaining - it had been fun all the same. Always looking for an alternative descent route, I resolved to head down the southeast slopes on my return to Lake Aloha.

I started down the East Ridge initially, soon dropping into the large cirque southeast of the summit. The snow was as heavy as I'd found it earlier, still prone to sloughing and wet slides, but the lower gradients made me feel more confident. Still, I took my time on the steeper places, choosing to zigzag down the slopes rather than a more direct descent in order to reduce the impact of my steps and reduce the amount of snow sloughing off below me. My confidence and speed increased as I reached the forested portions of the cirque where the avalanche danger was considerably reduced. In all I took only 35 minutes to descend back to the lake.

Another ten minutes walking across the lake went by before I found my incoming tracks and rejoined the inbound route. I had initially hoped to climb nearby Cracked Crag as a bonus, but my energy was flagging and I'd be happy with just the one peak on the day. I spent another hour in crossing the lake and taking an alternate route down to Avalanche Lake, bypassing the visit to Lake of the Woods I had done on the way in. Neither way held any obvious advantage, and from looking at a map one could easily find several more ways to travel through this picturesque portion of Desolation Valley.

Back at the top of Horsetail Falls and the headwall dropping towards Pyramid Canyon, I took off the snowshoes for the last time. I found it easier to follow a route close to the west side of the falls where the ground held less snow and there were remnants of either an old maintained trail or decent portions of use trails. This had the added advantage of giving me close-up views of the falls that I had missed almost entirely in the morning. Below the falls, I found the trail flooded with runoff but this mattered little - my boots by now were soaked through and there was nothing left on my feet to keep dry. I sloshed through the softening and melting slush of the lower elevations, winding my way through the woods between the various threads of the creek. It was only in the afternoon that I was cognizant of the great variety of use trails braiding through the canyon - one need only move 20 or 30 yards to the left or right to find yet another section of use trail.

It was not long before 4p when I returned to the TH parking. There were several other cars and a few folks milling about the parking area and TH kiosk, but none had ventured onto the trail. I'm not sure that I either encouraged or discouraged the others when I came out into the parking lot, my boots obviously soaked and leaking water all across the dry pavement. I had time for a nice rinse with a gallon of water warmed inside my car during the day and a change into a dry set of clothes before driving back. Even with a stop at Starbucks for my girlie Frappuccino and some rushhour traffic in Sacramento, I managed to get home before sunset. That made the drive with the top down quite enjoyable and a good finishing touch to a fine day in the Sierra.


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