Martis Peak
Mt. Baldy West Rim
Mt. Baldy
Phipps Peak OGUL / PYNSP

Wed, May 13, 2009
Etymology
Mt. Baldy
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

For years it was believed that the highpoint of Placer County was Granite Chief, the highpoint of the Squaw Valley ski area. I'd been up there on several snowshoeing occasions, most recently the previous year. In the summer of 2008 it was "discovered" that the far eastern edge of the county had a point just a few feet higher, a "liner" as it is called, on the western side of Nevada's Mt. Baldy in the Mt. Rose Wilderness. Seeing as the new highpoint was easy enough to reach, I decided to save it for a snowshoe outing at some convenient time. The time was ripe, overripe actually, as the snows of 2008-2009 were rapidly starting to melt.

I reached Brockway Summit on SR267 above Kings Beach at 5:40a, well ahead of the 6a meeting time with Waide. I drove up and down the road from the summit looking for the Tahoe Rim Trail, finding it about a half mile further south. Back at Brockway Summit I waited in my car reading a book until 6:25a when I figured Waide was either late or not showing up at all. I drove down to the trailhead parking across the street and started up at 6:30a. The sun was just cresting the hills to the east.

There was no snow for the first several miles of the trail, then patchy snow until about the 8,000-foot elevation. Numerous tracks had been laid in the snow over the previous weeks, but I lost the trail somewhere before the snow became continuous south of Martis Peak. No matter, it wasn't difficult to simply head uphill through the trees towards Martis. The snow was solid and had good purchase, so no snowshoes or crampons were needed. I reached the summit of Martis at 8a. There is a maintained lookout tower to the northwest of the summit I am told, but I never saw it or went to look for it (I forgot about it until after I got home). The views from the top are limited in most directions by trees. One can see west to Northstar and further to the Pacific Crest around Squaw Valley, and a fairly decent view northwest to the town of Truckee and the Martis Valley. Mt. Baldy and the Placer CoHP could be seen through the trees to the east, but most of Lake Tahoe was blocked by the same trees.

I headed east off the summit, descending through the trees to the connecting ridgeline to Mt. Baldy. I happen to notice a couple of brown balls of fur tussling about some 50 yards ahead of me through the trees, a couple of juvenile black bears were wrestling. I stopped to watch them undetected. Mother bear came ambling through the woods with a third cub in tow, then all four continued across the slope. The cubs were not very small, almost half the size of the mother. I watched them until they disappeared, never seeming to notice my presence. It was the first time I could recall observing bears without being observed in return. Maybe I'm ready to take up bear hunting?

I followed the ridgeline east then southeast over continuous snow coverage. I could see vestiges of snowmobile tracks in various places, but it must have been several weeks since the last one motored up here - most likely stopped due to the lack of snow at the trailheads. I also found at least three sets of bear tracks in the snow, some fresher than others, all just a single bear. They seemed to be more frequent visitors of late than people. I had a coordinate for the county highpoint in my GPS, and as I neared Mt. Baldy I used it to get me within about 50 feet of the point. There were a couple of rocky outcrops that looked to qualify as the highpoint, so I visited each in turn looking for a register or other sign I'd reached the right point. I didn't find anything so obvious, but there was an empty aluminum can and someone had etched a nice "X" into the rocky outcrop, so I guessed I was on target. The point had a nice view of the lake to the south and the snow-capped mountains surrounding it.

From the county highpoint it was only a 15 minute hike up to the top of Mt. Baldy. The top itself is tucked away among the trees, but just to the south in a clearing where the snow has melted off there is another fine view of the lake and also the area around Incline Village on the Nevada side. There are higher peaks to the northeast including Rifle Peak and Rose Knob. Some 16 years ago I had hiked from the Nevada Highway SE of Mt. Rose across these peaks and then down to Kings Beach. I had been within a few dozen yards of the county highpoint then, but of course close doesn't count in this little game. I took a break here to eat some of the snacks I'd brought with me and drink in the views. The snowshoes were still strapped to the pack.

It was about 9:45a when I started back down, initially following the same ridgeline, but dropping lower to skirt around Martis Peak on the south side. I thought it would be easier with less snow and the use of the many forest roads that cross the hillsides here, but it wasn't so great. The roads I found seemed to head mostly downhill towards Kings Beach, not across the slopes as I'd hoped. The cross-country wasn't too difficult, but downed trees and brushwhacking through clearings didn't make it any easier than hiking across the snow higher up. I think it was probably a wash. I ended up regaining the TRT with about two miles to go, and by 11:45a I was back at the car.

Too early to head home, I was happy I had considered the possibility beforehand. On the back of my map was another map, for Phipps Peak near Emerald Bay. It didn't have nearly the same mileage, only about 3 miles one way, but it had a good 2,500ft of gain. As I started driving my car down the highway towards Kings Beach I was surprised to see a line of cars heading uphill in my lane. Yikes! The lead pilot car with flashing lights clued me in that I must have been in the middle of a construction zone that started up sometime after 6a that morning. I pulled over to the side to let the line of cars go by, but many of drivers looked annoyed that I would try to cheat the system. So sue me, people.

In Kings Beach I stopped at the Safeway to pick up some lunch, eating it as I continued the nice drive around the west side of the lake to Emerald Bay. It appears to me that the state of California is attempting to spend all the federal stimulus money for roads as quick as they possibly can, because every Interstate and highway I drove on today has had significant contruction going on: I-580, I-5, I-80, SR267, and now SR28 and SR89 on the way to Emerald Bay. More construction on US50 for the drive home. Holy cow.

I pulled into the large parking lot for Eagle Fall about 12:45p and was soon hiking up the trail. The place was surprisingly busy. I've never hiked this trail before and didn't realize how popular it was, even outside the summer season. The main attractions appear to be Eagle Fall, a quarter mile up the trail, and Eagle Lake, about a mile further. The creek feeding both features has carved a deep canyon through the granite mountains and is quite picturesque. Shade from the canyon walls probably keeps the temperatures cool in summer, an especially nice feature. In winter it can have icy conditions (as warned on several signs), but the snow and ice had melted off the trail all the way to Eagle Lake. The stone steps leading up to the Eagle Fall overlook were of impressive craftsmanship. It took a lot of dynamite and a lot of man hours to assemble the hundreds of granite steps.

There were a handful of visitors taking in the view of Eagle Lake when I arrived about 1:15p. Needing to get around the lake to continue to Phipps, I first noted that the trail continuing up traverses the south side of the canyon well away from Phipps. To get upstream, I could either go left or right around the lake. The left or south side had steep snow with bootprints traversing across them - evidently a few hardy souls had gone that way, but it didn't look all that safe to me with a runnout that ended in the icy lake. The north side of the lake was snow-free, but getting across the roaring Eagle Creek would take some doing. In fact, that was the crux of the day. I examined several locations starting from the lake outlet, not finding a suitable crossing until about 100yds downstream. Even then the crossing was over a series of logs jammed against some rocks and it took some nerve getting across.

Once on the other side, it was an easy hike around the lake on a use trail, then up a steep boulder field leading to a snow chute northwest of the lake. The boulders were easy enough, but the snow was not so great. I put on the snowshoes for traction, but the snow was soft in the afternoon and barely allowed the spikes underneath me to grip the surface. Luckily it was enough and in less than five minutes I was taking them off again at the top of the chute.

Looking west, I thought I spied the summit of Phipps Peak, but soon rejecting the idea since the elongated ridgeline didn't fit the shape of the contours on my map. "Dang, where's this peak?" I wondered. It was after 2p as I returned to scrambling and bushwhacking my way up, the south-facing slopes relatively free of snow. I did a rough accounting of how long it might take to reach the summit and return, vs. how much daylight remained since I didn't have a headlamp with me. It should be no problem, really, but I also didn't want to get home at midnight after the four hour drive. Hmmm, Phipps was supposed to be fairly easy. When I got higher up, the sunny slopes gave way to snow-covered forest floor and I stopped to put on the snowshoes once again. This time it was a necessity to keep from punching through the soft snow. I was a bit confused as to my location, thinking I needed to get over the ridgeline to the west of me before I could see Phipps, and I was starting to think I would have to turn around before making it to the top. Such miscalculations aren't normal for me and I was somewhat dismayed. I decided to do a reality check and pulled out the GPS from the pack. I had no coordinates entered for this peak and my map did not have grid labels on my map to help fix a location. But at least I could find out what altitude I was at and make a better guess as to where I was. If I was in the wrong basin (the next one to the east), the elevation should read somewhere between 7,600ft and 8,000ft. I was happily surprised to find I was at 8,500ft which meant the wall I was staring at just to the northwest was indeed Phipps. Good news. Thank you, GPS.

With renewed vigor I snowshoed up towards Phipps Pass, then took the NE Ridge to the summit. At first it appeared the trees would block any views, but I soon saw the highpoint further south and up a small rocky outcrop free of trees. I topped out just before 3:30p and was treated to the nicest views of the day. It was a great vantage point from which to view the Desolation Wilderness, with all the snowy northern aspects facing me, giving more an impression of winter than late spring. Tallac, Dicks, Pyramid, Price, and all the Crystal Range were still cloaked in winter snows. Viewed from Pyramid, I imagine the view would be quite different. I could also see Lake Tahoe in two directions, to the north near Tahoe City, and east to South Lake Tahoe and the higher peaks of Heavenly Valley and the Freel Peak area just south of it. Below me to the south were the three Velma Lakes, still mostly frozen but thawing rapidly. Like the other peaks of the morning, I found no register anywhere in the rocks.

After a short stay, I descended off the south side of the mountain, staying on the snow as much as possible. I took off the snowshoes several times on my way towards the lake, then kept them off permanently when I reached Lower Velma. I stayed well north of the creek, eventually climbing the short distance back up to the top of the snow chute I had ascended from Eagle Lake. Rather than try the snow again, which might be too soft now, I descended at the north edge of the snow tongue where it was partially melted out against the granite wall. Using the bushes for purchase and to lower myself down, I carefully managed to descend to the relative safety of the boulder field.

At this point it was straightforward to return the way I'd come to Eagle Lake, back across the same logs downstream, then down the trail, across the bridge, and back to the parking lot. It was 5:40p when I got back and there were only a few cars left in the nearly empty lot. There were still several hours of daylight remaining, but my legs and I were done for the day - now for the exciting 4hr+ drive home...


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