Mt. Lyell P1K SPS / WSC

Sun, Aug 5, 2001

With: David Wright

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Aug 7, 1998
later climbed Sun, Aug 1, 2004


Sierra Emblem Challenge 2001 - Day 2


Continued...

Day 2 had us up bright and early. The alarm went off at 4a in our motel room in Lee Vining, and within a minute I was in the shower trying to shake off the sleep. My legs were a bit stiff from the previous day, but otherwise in good shape. I was glad my feet had not gotten any blisters which I feared would be the weakest link in my body being able to keep going for ten days on these hikes. David was up as well and after a quick breakfast in the room, we packed our remaining things in our cars and headed out about 4:45a. It was pitch black still, no sign of light on the horizon. The weather was pleasant enough, not nearly as cold as it could have been. Still, we had to drive 4,000 ft up to our starting point in Tuolumne Meadows.

It's a pleasant drive up Tioga Road, particularly when there aren't any slow moving RVs to check your speed. We each drove our car to the trailhead as we expected we'd be finishing the day's hike at different times. There was no one to greet us at the Yosemite entrance booth when we topped out at the pass, not unexpectedly of course. We drove down towards Tuolumne Meadows, turning left at the Tuolumne Lodge/Wilderness Reservation turnoff about a half mile before the Tuolumne campground. It was a little after 5a when we arrived, and to no great surprise, there was no one else waiting to join us. David and I were quick to discover that we were the only two who were going to show up for these adventures, at least until we got to Whitney the following weekend. It took us a little while to actually get started, for some reason there were a number of things David had still to organize. After stashing the coolers and food in the bear boxes and locking our cars, we headed out at 5:25a.

It was just discernably getting lighter out on the eastern horizon, but we could see little of the trail in front of us without our lights. I had a Petzl LED-illuminated headlamp, while David did me one better in terms of compactness and weight for a flashlight. He had a small, quarter-sized light, a single green LED for illumination, powered by a watch battery. Held between his fingers at his waist, it barely provided enough light to walk by, but in that lay the charm - it seemed the minimal necessary light to navigate by at night.

We walked on in silence for the first 20 minutes or so. It was quite cold out, frost on the grasses, the night very still, no creatures stirring anywhere. Absorbed in our own thoughts we hiked on, myself in front, David not far behind. We had some 27 miles to cover today, more than any other day, and I expected it would take all the available daylight. This had prompted our very early start - better to start in the dark than end in it, if one has a choice. Having hiked with David the previous day and finding his pace to be slower than my own, I was worried that his company was going to slow us down considerably on this more time-critical day. While I was happy to have his companionship, I was finding myself resenting the thought that I'd finish several hours later than I'd hoped for, and consequently losing out on valuable recovery and sleep time. David, the ultra-marathoner, seemed content to keep a slower pace and continue on hour after hour after hour, long after I'd be wishing myself done and in bed. David was unfamiliar with the routes for the various peaks, and after his fear of getting lost when returning alone the previous day, I didn't feel I could leave him on his own again. We found that we only needed the lights for those first 20 minutes, as the new day began to make itself known. It was still fairly dark and cold, but now there was sufficient light that we could save our batteries for another time. We crossed the bridge over the Lyell Fork, joined the John Muir Trail, and began heading up Lyell Canyon. The sky brightened bit by bit in the next several miles as we walked quietly through the still meadows, David in the lead. Amelia Earhart Peak was one of the first peaks to catch the morning rays halfway up the canyon.

This was the fourth time I had headed up this canyon, more than any other trail I have taken in Yosemite. While I find it quite beautiful, it is also quite long, nearly nine miles so. We saw no one on the trail all morning, not surprising. About 7 miles in we saw smoke from a campsite on the east side of Lyell Fork. Though we could not see the campsite, we could the smoke rising high above the trees. As we neared it, there erupted several early morning shrieks, no doubt a testosterone-laden wakeup call to the rest of the world. Neither David nor I were duly impressed, and we likewise doubted anyone else within earshot was either. We rambled on by without being detected by any of the several campsites we went by, and by 8:30a we'd reached the headwall at the end of the canyon. Looking back down the long canyon lying still in the shadows, all of Tuolumne Meadows was now basking in sunshine at the far end from where we'd started. Now the climbing and the more interesting parts of the day would start.

After 3 hours of relatively flat hiking, the headwall at the end of the canyon is the first real climbing. 500 feet up some fairly steep switchbacks, combined with the first rays of sun coming in over the Mammoth Crest to the east, and I was actually working up a sweat. I didn't wait for David in this stretch, but continued up until I topped out at the headwall and went a bit further to the bridge that spans the creek up here. This gave me a good 15 minutes to remove my pack, take a rest, and enjoy the snack. The bridge has taken a beating over the past ten years, and has begun to fall into disrepair. Still, plenty sturdy to allow safe passage. I enjoyed the stream flowing under my feet, relaxing in the shade of the tall evergreens that grow along the banks here. David came up and joined me soon enough and we both enjoyed the break, commenting that we were a bit surprised to not see any other hikers yet. I would have expected that more than a few would have been along the trail by now. It wasn't long before an older gentleman, looking to be in his late 50's or so, wandered by with a heavily laden pack. He was a few days into his bid to complete the entire John Muir Trail, and certainly looked to be amply supplied. The pack towered above his head, a few pans strapped to the outside, a bag of maps in a plastic pouch strung around his neck. While I hardly envied his load and the effort it was taking to climb the grade here, I did envy and admire both his determination and his ability to take 30 days for such an adventure. How different it was from the one David and I were on!

Climbing higher, we finally attained the upper reaches of the treeline, where a beautiful lake (more of a wide spot in the creek) in an alpine setting welcomes visitors to the High Sierra and the first glimpse of Mt. Lyell, several miles to the southwest. The spine of the Cathedral Range runs east-west from Donohue Pass to Mt. Lyell, and the northern flank with the largest glaciers and permanent snow fields in Yosemite is in grand view (only the smaller eastern side of the Lyell Glacier is visible from here). The traverse along this ridge looks to be impossibly tortured with a formidable array of jagged spire after jagged spire. Not our route, to be sure! The trail crosses the lake at its outlet, where a series of nicely spaced boulders makes this a breeze. Both David and I broke out the digital cameras at this point to snap a few nice shots. David had just purchased a new compact Cannon that was only the size of one's palm, and was eager to try it out. There is another headwall on the JMT just past this last lake, and we used the excuse to take photographs to sneak rests in on the way up. Looking back, it really is a gorgeous scene of the alpine meadow falling further below you, opening up an ever-larger view of the upper Lyell Canyon. After a small number of switchbacks, this smaller headwall tops out in another small alpine meadow, with smaller lakes and a tinier stream running through it. The JMT crosses the lake at the outlet, but it is at this point that we leave the trail and head cross country.

As we hike southwest and begin to follow the small stream uphill, we came across a large group of about 15 backpackers just off the trail here. They were assembled in a circle, mostly lying about, relaxing, and looking like they were waiting for something to happen. Whether they were waiting for other members or were receiving some type of instruction we didn't find out, as we were passing 50 yards to the south and never spoke with any of them. They didn't seem to pay any attention to us either. The stream was our last vestige of the more inviting land we were leaving below us, little but rock and large granite slabs remained. It is a nice hike up this canyon, easy climbing over firm granite benches and wide, glacier polished slabs. We took a break near the last of the stream where we could easily get water. I simply refilled my water bottles while David took the safer, but more time-consuming path of filtering his water. I had given up carrying a filter several years ago as I became more convinced that it was unnecessary in all but the busiest streams in the Sierra. I never preach the waste of filtering as I know well enough that it is the safer course of action, and I'm always willing to wait patiently to let companions filter water as often as they desire. I snapped a few photos of the last remaining wild-flowers while I waited for David to filter a few bottles, and took a short rest on the seductively soft and inviting beds of alpine vegetation that grew in patches in the area. It was now about 11a, and I had to give up the hope of reaching the summit by noon. Getting back before dark was going to take some doing at this rate, and I worried about this a good deal, though to what purpose I could hardly say. We'd get back when we got back, and there was little I could do about it, really.

The climbing was not very hard, but we were at altitude now, over 10,000 feet. I was feeling fine in the warm sun, but David was slowing considerably. Upward we went over several rises. A trickle of a creek dribbles down the center of a particularly steep section composed of unusually wide slabs of granite. Faith in the soles of one's boots is required to climb several sections, as I wonder if my boots will hold. I am a bit surprised they do, and gain confidence in them as I climb higher. I soon became winded in this section and had to stop for breaks every 50 yards or so. Looking back I can see David has just crossed the flat area at the bottom of this section, and is about to start up. I am halfway up the 500-foot rise and expect David will be slow in coming. Reaching the top of the rise I find that I am not at the bottom of the Lyell Glacier as I had expected. Instead there is a large boulder field that climbs another several hundred feet before it appears to top out again. I decided to continue on, and after another 15 minutes I reach the top of the boulders and see the snow field before me. Here I camped out on the largest rock I could find, rested, and waited for David to join me. It was a short while before David crested the rise below me, and another while yet for him to negotiate the boulder field. By the time he reached me he was looking pretty beat and began to express doubts of his reaching the summit. I was going to hear none of that. If it was going to take me several hours longer to reach the summit because I had to wait for David, he damn well better plan on reaching the summit! David had warned me that he has a habit of giving up just before the end of a long effort, and I had seen just what he meant the day before on Matterhorn. No, we would get there, one way or another.

We strapped on our crampons in the slushy snow, and with axe in hand, headed out across the glacier. We were just at the base of the buttress that splits the Lyell Glacier in two, and had a great view of the entire western half and the summit of Lyell thrusting up in the middle of this expanse. It had been a dry year in the Sierra, and the glacier had suffered accordingly. In early August it looked as it might look in September of a normal year. There were large suncups covering most of the lower half of the glacier, and at the top, a wide bergshrund pulled the glacier back from the summit rocks. By comparison, nearby Mt. Maclure was nearly void of snow. I took the lead again and headed up the east side, heading directly for the East Arete. I had taken this route the only other time I had been to the summit, and found it easy class 3 rock once the arete was attained. I had not understood why the Lyell-Maclure Col was considered the easiest approach, as that route had some more difficult rock sections to be negotiated as I found when I descended that route on my way to Maclure. Soon I would find out.

The glacier gets steeper and steeper as one climbs higher, though it never gets steep enough to fear falling off. There was a good deal more ice in the upper half due to the low snow conditions which left portions of the glacier exposed. In places there could be seen small crevasses, not threatening, but making one take notice. David fell behind again, but continued to make steady progress. I danced around the icy sections as best I could, searching out anything that would help my crampons gain purchase. It was shortly after 1p that I gained the ridge, or rather, that I came upon the gaping bergshrund at the top of the east arete. The gap was quite large really, much more than I had expected to encounter. I did not want to approach too closely to the edge, so at first I could not see how deep it was, but easily it could swallow a Buick. I figured I'd scout out the bergshrund looking for the best location to cross while I waited for David to catch up. The gap stretched from the start of the East Arete for about 100 yards to the west, or about half the width of the summit rocks. The more I looked the more difficult it seemed. I could find no crossable gaps in the center where I could reach the more reasonably climbed rocks. The far right seemed too far away, so I didn't venture that way, and instead I focused on the far left side where the bergshrund pulled away from the East Arete. A large section had collapsed on itself there, and it seemed with some careful manuevering, I could get myself onto the rocks on the other side. David was still some time in coming, so I crossed the bergshrund over an 18 inch gap (with 20 feet of air below) after forcefully testing both edges of the gap with my axe (I hacked at them with great force, but only managed to knock off a few chunks - the walls were almost solid ice). I climbed down into the gap (about 12 feet deep at this point) and had removed my crampons when David appeared at the crest of the bergshrund. He gave me a look of incredulousness, a sort of "I'm tired as hell and what are you doing?!"

I didn't really have a good plan that I could spit out with any amount of confidence. The fact was the bergshrund had surprised me. When I had climbed here before, the snow was probably 10 to 15 feet deeper, and I had no trouble with the rock climbing once I had reached the ridge. Now, the low snow had exposed some rather dirty and loose rock, and very steep at that. I told David I was going to look around, but from what I could see already there was no way David was going to follow me. I took my time climbing up maybe 15 feet to the edge of the ridge, but it looked no better up there. Looking down the other side, I was on a serrated knife-edge, easily class 5, probably class 5.5 or so. None of this had been exposed previously, which is why I probably thought the East Arete a piece of cake. If I could traverse maybe 30 yards towards the summit the climbing became much easier class 2-3, but I could find no safe way to get there. I don't think David liked watching me climbing around on the crumbling rock, and he seemed relieved when I announced my retreat. I retraced my steps, retrieved my crampons, and joined David back on the glacier. I'd spent the last 20 minutes or so thrashing around for a way to make the East Arete go, and had to admit that I chose the wrong route. We should have headed to the Lyell-Maclure Col. Looking down towards the col, it seemed an insufferable time and distance away, and neither of us wanted to retrace our steps there. David announced that he'd had enough, and having gotten to where we had was good enough. He was also concerned about the time it would take to get back (it was now 1:45p), and didn't want to be returning at midnight. I was decidedly less satisfied with not reaching the summit, and let David know. He wasn't the least surprised, and expected I'd keep trying. But he was definitely past his return time and was heading back. So we parted.

I told David I was going to try the right side of the bergshrund, though I didn't expect the route up the middle to work out. If not, I'd keep angling down towards the col until I could reach the rocks and the northwest ridge and climb this baby that way. Either way, I guessed I'd be able to get up to the summit and back down before David had made his way back to the trail, so I did't think it mattered much that it was getting on in the day. It would be a late return whether I went to the summit or not. Traversing left, I soon made my way to the center of the northeast face of Lyell. Here, there is a small chute still filled with snow/ice rising up another 30 feet or so. The bergshrund was bridged at this point, which allowed me to climb higher towards the summit. The snow was extremely hard, more like ice, and I didn't want to trust my crampons to hold me on the steepening slope. Instead, I climbed to the right of the snow and climbed up the edge where snow met rock in a little trough that allowed the melting water to run down. The rock was more a mixture of wet sand and loose rocks, and it took some effort to keep from bringing down a good part of the mountain as I climbed up. The chute narrowed further up as it turned a corner, and I began to worry that I was climbing into a walled-off cliff. As I reached the turn and looked around I was excited to see that I could just fit my body through the narrow neck where the snow ended as well. I removed my crampons and tossed them in my pack and scrambled up the class 3 rocks. Unexpectedly, I found the climbing quite fun! Too bad there hadn't been even more of it, I thought.

I was only climbing on the rocks a few minutes when I reached a small gap between the two closely spaced summits. To my surprise, there was another climber in his mid-twenties sitting patiently on the rocks, having a snack. He didn't seem nearly as surprised to see me. He had seen David and I climbing up to the East Arete earlier, while he had chosen to take the route from the col. I asked him about that route, and he commented that it was a bit dicey without having crampons. He was Australian, or at least that's what I guessed from his accent, and I wondered if that meant it was dicey by American standards or by European standards which are less forgiving by accepting a greater degree of risk. He had left his father at camp back on the JMT and had climbed up the next canyon north. We chatted for a few more minutes, and when I asked if he knew which was the higher of the two blocks he drew a blank. He figured he'd been to the top, and was surprised to learn there was a summit register. I didn't remember having two summits to choose from the first time I climbed it, and as payment for having a poor memory I was obliged to climb first the wrong one before alighting on the true summit (the east one) where I found the register.

It was 2p now, and while I was happy to have reached the summit by yet another route, I was anxious to get back down as well. After a few photographs of the excellent views to be had ( Banner and Ritter to the east, the peaks on Yosemite's SE boundary to the south, Mt. Clark and the Merced River drainage to the west, Mt. Florence inconveniently blocking Yosemite Valley to the northwest, Tuolumne Meadows to the north, and Lyell Canyon to the northeast) , a cold breeze that was blowing up from the southwest face quickly drove me back down. I had a quick snack with the other climber, and shared some of my bars with him as I had more than I would want to eat, and he'd not brought enough for his outing. After a few minutes I bid him goodbye and left.

I decided to head down the northwest ridge towards the col thinking it would be faster than a retreat down the route I'd ascended. Thankfully, this turned out to be true. The ridge descends gently at first over large and medium sized boulders. The slope steepens and the boulders give way to more solid ledges and more difficult (but fun!) climbing. There was a smaller bergshrund on this side of the glacier, but there were a number of places where it was bridged providing access. The snow was somewhat hard here even though it had been in the sun much of the day. I didn't want to get slowed down with my crampons in the steeper reaches, so I worked my way down along the rocks avoiding the snow altogether. This turned out to be quite fun and challenging as I made my way down some interesting class 3 cracks and across some narrow ledges in the toughest section. I managed to make it all the way to the col by staying on the rocks, though I'm not sure if this would be possible with more snow. At the col the snow was much softer and heavily suncupped as well, and I paused here to put on my crampons. It is debatable that they were needed at this point, but I thought I might move quicker and slip less with them. I tried to move swiftly over the snow, in and around the suncups, falling every so often as I worked up too much speed and got out of control. Once I was off the glacier and removed the crampons, I had to switch from the sloppy half-in-control jogging that I was doing to a more careful boulder hop as I made my way down the moraine heaps. I spotted David ahead, about halfway back to the trail, and caught up with him at 3p. He wasn't at all surprised that I'd made it to the summit, in fact he'd have been more surprised had I not.

David seemed more optimistic than I that we'd be able to return before dark. He figured if we made it back to the trail by 4p, we'd be back by 7p. I was thinking that we had 11 miles to go after reaching the trail, and to make it back in only three hours would be more than a stretch, more so with David's slower pace. But no reason to rain on his optimism. We did manage to reach the trail at 4p, though. I decided to try something new to lessen the risk of blisters on my feet, and had carried my sandals with me for just this purpose. I have seen PCTers in sandals along the trail in years past, amazed at their ability to do so (but somewhat grossed out by the ugly beating the feet had taken). Maybe there was something to it. David took a photo of me after I'd changed, then we headed down. Almost from the beginning the sandals were a mistake. There were two problems I quickly discovered: small rocks would find there way between my feet and the sandal requiring me to constantly shake my feet to free them as I walked. Worse was the constant threat of severe toe damage from stubbing them against the rocks in the trail. I didn't realize just how much I kick the large rocks with my feet until I tried this stunt. No matter how hard I concentrated on where I placed my feet, I found that I would stub my sandals every five minutes or so. Fortunately I stubbed them where my smaller toes were and the sandal took the brunt of the blow. But should I stub my large toes that reached to the edge of the sandal, I expected a good deal of pain. Rather than wait for the inevitable bloody mess to occur, I finally gave up after 30 minutes and put my boots back on. Next time I'll try tennis shoes. By now David had fallen some distance behind, and though I had stopped for a good ten minutes while I swapped out footwear, he didn't catch up.

I decided to head out and see if I couldn't get out before sunset, and picked up the pace considerably. 5p and I reached the base of the headwall, the rest a relatively flat walk out. I came across a number of backpackers heading the other directions. Traffic had been relatively light the whole day, but now it was picking up to the high density this section of trail is known for. Seven miles from the trailhead I passed a group of 15 teenage girls, some of whom seemed ill-prepared as they were carrying their large, cloth sleping bags in their hands. But they were laughing and joking and looked to be having a pretty good time, and seemed in better spirits than the other more seasoned backpackers I ran across. Later it seems one of the party became injured (sprained ankle) and was taken out by horseback by a ranger (bet he hated that job). I missed the excitement, but David got to see it play out, following me at a later time. At mile 6 I rounded Potter Point and crossed Ireland Creek, just a small stream now. I decided to take a break and soak my feet which were getting quite hot and threatening to reach blister stage soon. I didn't have much time to cool my feet before the mosquitoes began to appear, calling their friends for an easy meal. In my haste to dry my feet and get my boots back on quickly I managed to drop my car keys into the stream, along with the alarm remote that was attached. I retrieved it as fast as I could and tried to blow out as much of the water as possible. It occurred to me that I had set the car alarm in the parking lot when I left in the morning, and if the remote didn't work now, I might have a fun time trying to shut off my alarm. I found myself wishing I had remembered the instructions on how to disable it - just the sort of worries I least wanted to have while I'm hiking! At least I was able to get away from the mosquitoes without giving out any free samples. At mile 5 I spoke briefly with a Ranger who had paused to check my permit. Seeing my daypack he realized there was no need to ask about a permit, but the axe strapped to the pack caught his attention and he asked where'd I been. When I told him Mt. Lyell he was impressed, and proceeded to ask if I was interested in being a back-country ranger. I laughed, and told him the work sounds interesting, but doesn't pay enough. That point he readily conceded as he laughed himself, and we parted company. My pace was very close to three miles per hour, and I could accurately determine the mile markers by looking at my watch. When I reached mile 3 I knew I had but an hour to go, and that I was home free. No matter how tired I get, when I reach that last hour of hiking I no longer worry I might run out of energy, or that my blisters or pains will get the best of me. The last few miles were pleasant with the slow retreat of the sun. The tall grasses glowed in the early evening light, and the air began to calm and cool in preparation for the coming night.

I made it back to the car at 7:55p, 14.5 hours roundtrip. And it wasn't yet dark as an extra bonus! Going solo I think I might have taken a few hours off that time, but I don't think I would have been any less tired. I wanted to get my boots off as quickly as I could, but I still had the little matter of getting into my car. As I feared, the alarm wouldn't work no matter how many times or how hard I pressed the button. I had remembered that there was a switch inside the car that could be used to deactivate the alarm once the key is placed in the ignition. Holding my breath, I opened the car via the lock, and dove in as the alarm went off at 90 decibels, scaring the bears and every living creature around the Tuolumne Lodge area. I jammed the key in the ignition and flicked the switch a half dozen times, not knowing at all what sequence or how many times to flick the switch. But it shut off - victory! After changing into my tennis shoes I left a note on David's car telling him to find me at the Rodeway Inn in Mammoth, and off I went. I stopped at the Shell in Mammoth to get gas, and as I was filling the tank I heard my car giving a little chirp-chirp on the alarm. Not a good sign. When I opened the door to leave, the alarm fired off again and I went through the same flick-flick of the switch to get it to shut off. I began to fear I was going to have to contend with an out-of-control alarm for the next week or so. My motel mates will be thrilled to hear it go off at 5a right outside their rooms...

Though I had no reservations it was easy to get a room on Sunday night during the summer. I ate dinner in my room, a few bowls of cereal from the supplies I had with me. It was already past 9p and I didn't feel like wasting time going out anywhere, maybe tomorrow I thought. While I caught up on email and downloaded photos I waited for David to arrive, but he never did. I imagined he had given up on me, tired of me leaving him on his own, tired of trying to keep up a pace he was less than happy about. I was sure he couldn't have gotten lost since we were both on the trail when I left him, but it was possible that exhaustion got the best of him. So I went to bed that night not knowing if David had left me is disgust or passed out on the trail somewhere in Lyell Canyon...

Continued...


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