North Peak P500 SPS / WSC
Shepherd Crest East P500
Excelsior Mountain P1K SPS / WSC

Fri, Sep 22, 2000

With: Greg Faulk

Etymology
North Peak
Shepherd Crest East
Excelsior Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
North Peak later climbed Fri, Jun 25, 2004

North Peak is located about a mile north of Mt. Conness in Yosemite NP and was probably named by the Whitney party at the same time. What it lacks in imaginative naming it makes up for in its climbing. It has excellent snow/ice routes year round, and some pretty good class 2-4 scrambling to suit your preferences. I planned to climb North Peak and Excelsior Mtn. on a free day prior to meeting some friends to climb Matthes Crest the following day. I had never been to Saddlebag Lake and this would give me a nice introduction to this part of the Hoover Wilderness, situated just east of Yosemite and north of Tioga Road.

I left San Jose at 8p on Thursday night in order to let the rush hour traffic settle down. I had just bought a new car (Miata), and had less than 50 miles on it when I headed out. The trunk and passenger seat were pretty full with climbing and camping gear for one. This is not a two-person camping vehicle, no matter how frugally one might pack. It was a beautiful night out, so I drove the entire distance with the top down. Even with the temperatures in the 50s at the higher elevations, I could keep reasonably warm by cranking the heater. My only complaint was that I didn't have enough room to move my legs around for such a long drive, but at least the cruise control offered me some opportunity to relax my legs and bend them some. This bit of discomfort was more than compensated by the beautiful nighttime views and the fun of driving the length of 120 in a car with a little more pep than the last. The Suzuki was definitely more practical for such ventures, but not nearly so fun. [The Samurai is living in retirement in Southern California these days. If you see a black Samurai covered in stickers, it's probably my brother Rick driving it.]

I reached Tioga Pass at 12:30a, and headed down the other side a couple miles to the turnoff for Saddlebag Lake. The pavement ends at one point, starts up again a little later, then disappears a second time. I got a bit lost looking for the trailhead parking. There is a walk-in campground before one reaches the lake, and another campground at the end of the road near the trailhead parking. I decided to just camp for the night in the parking lot, and set my bivy sack out in front of my car away from the parking lot to lessen my chances of being disturbed (or run over) by other inconsiderate late arrivals like myself. It was a bit past 1a when I settled down to sleep. The wind had picked up some and it was pretty chilly, so consequently it took me very little time to go from engine off to lights out.

I dragged myself out of the sack at 7a, knowing it was going to take me the better part of the day to bag the two peaks I had my sights set on. The wind had died down, but it was very chilly, in the upper 30s. Brrr. It took me only thirty minutes to pack up the car, and be on my way. I would have been faster, but I had to stop every minute to warm my hands up once they became too cold to be useful rolling up pad and bivy or stuffing my sleeping bag. Brrr. At least it was a clear morning, mostly clear sky with only a few passing high clouds. A fine day for climbing.

I took the path along the west side of the lake to start off. It's not as well used or maintained as the trail around the east side, but it's shorter and offers more sun in the early morning. Those first 15 minutes were the coldest as the sun had yet to come over the Tioga Crest to the east. I had my jacket, hat, and gloves on while my body struggled to warm up. There is a ferry that will take you across the length of the lake, but I have no idea what schedule they run or what price they charge. It seemed like cheating though, so I didn't look into it. The lake scenery was pretty nice, with reflections of the hills above mirroring off the surface. If you can ignore the dam at the trailhead that creates this lake, you can almost imagine it as a pristine alpine lake in a rugged, rock-strewn setting (a hundred years ago it was probably just a stream in a rocky ravine). Far to the north could be seen Excelsior, my second objective of the day, although at the time I didn't recognize it. I was quite happy when the sun finally decided to make an appearance above Tioga Crest to the east.

By 8a I had crossed the length of the lake and reached the Wilderness boundary (nice sign there). It had warmed up enough to put away the gloves, hat, and jacket, and now the really fun part could begin. North Peak was clearly visible up on the Sierra Crest to the west. Mt. Conness was hidden from view by the ridges in the foreground, but much of the route up to Conness Lakes could be seen. I followed the trail up past Greenstone Lake, turning off when I was nearly due east of North Peak. I followed the high ground on the lower portion of the East Ridge so that I could enjoy views both south to Conness Lakes and north towards Wasco and Steelhead Lakes. The lower parts of the ridge are easy class 2 climbing and helped avoid some of the steeper climbing below Conness Lakes had I followed the creek. The ridge to the right is blocked by an immense cliff that appeared to offer some spectacular climbing lines. The cliff could be avoided by keeping to the left side of the ridge. The best views were to the southwest where I enjoyed an unobstructed view of the Conness Glacier in its entirety. My only previous view of this glacier was from the summit of Mt. Conness itself a number of years earlier. From this vantage point it appears much larger and impressive (probably since it's not lost in the sweeping views available from the summit).

Secor doesn't describe the routes to the summit of North Peak from the east or southeast. The southwest slope (on the other side of the crest) is described as class 2 (the easiest way up), and the other routes listed are all class 4+, mostly technical routes. This is a bit unfortunate, since the route I was taking up the East Ridge and Southeast Face was turning out to be rather delightful class 2-3. It appears that class 2 could be maintained all the way to the col south of North Peak (between it and Mt. Conness). Alternately, one could choose a more difficult but more direct route to the summit over some very nice rock. I chose this more direct route and enjoyed the climbing tremendously. In addition to avoiding the looser sand and rock, it provided some short class 4 rock climbing "problems" that had that quality I term, "scary fun." There were little chimneys, good-sized chockstones blocking chutes, and flakes to surmount, and the rough granite provided excellent hand and foot holds. This ridge has some pretty good-sized cliffs as well, to make the route-finding fun (although not difficult). Looking back I had a grand view of Lundy Canyon and Saddlebag Lake, and I was gaining sufficient altitude to see over many of the intervening ridges. At one point I found myself right at the edge of the east ridge, and I could see snow/ice ahead of me that looked like it formed the top of a couloir. Later, I found out this was the top of the famous Northeast Couloir. Had I known this, I would certainly have gone over to it and taken a look down the couloir to see if I could spot Greg.

Who's Greg? Greg was planning to join Michael, Monty and myself for the climb up Matthes Crest the following day. By email, we had talked about hiking together today as well. But Greg was more interested in playing with his crampons and axe in the Northeast Couloir, while I was interested in getting to the top in a quicker fashion (that would allow me to climb Excelsior as well). So we never hooked up to climb North Peak, but in the back of my mind I was keeping an eye out for him.

I reached the summit at 10a, still quite early in the day. I had expected it to take at least another hour, but the total distance from the trailhead turned out to be less than I had thought. It had been a great climb (I highly recommend this route to anyone who enjoys class 3 scrambling), but I was only a bit sad to have it end (there's still a good deal of satisfaction knowing there's no more uphill). I found the register easily enough and signed myself in. While not climbed as much as Mt. Conness, there is still a good deal of traffic on this peak, probably owing to the popular technical routes on the northeast side. I didn't find Greg's name in the book, but he'd have had to get up awfully early to beat me up here via the couloir. Looking to the west, I was amazed to see what looked like a huge storm rolling in from the west. There was a solid cloud layer with the top at about 9,000 feet that extended all the west across the Sierra and the Central Valley. Later I found this was an unusually thick "fog" layer that had wandered in from the Valley, and not really a threatening storm. But not knowing that, it kept me wary of the weather the remainder of the day. The clouds were obscuring some of my views to the west, and I could see only as far north as Matterhorn Peak on Yosemite's northern border. To the south I could see Mts. Dana and Lyell on Yosemite's eastern and southeastern borders, and as far south Mts. Banner and Ritter in the Mammoth area.

Looking to the north, I had a difficult time picking out Excelsior Mtn. from the other points along the ridge. It appeared my route would closely follow the Pacific Crest since both peaks were on it. This might prove to be an advantage since I might not have to lose too much elevation, or it might prove exceedingly difficult if the rock is difficult to navigate.

Sitting at the top of North Peak, my next bit of business was to get myself down and headed toward Excelsior Mtn. In between ran the Pacific Crest for 3-4 miles with smaller peaks and ridges intervening. The first part involved the North Ridge of North Peak, rated as class 4 by Secor. As I started down, it seemed much easier, and in fact became easier the further I got from the summit. It was really no more than class 2 as far down as I could see. How could this be? Certainly ratings are a bit subjective and there are various interpretations of the same route. But class 2 is obviously quite different from class 4, and it would be unlikely that they could be mistaken for each other.

It wasn't until I had travelled over a quarter mile that it occurred to me that the class 4 section of the North Ridge was still below me. To my left the slope was gentle all the way down to the pass between Roosevelt and Upper McCabe Lakes (called "Don't Be A Smart Pass" by Secor). Another quarter mile in front of me the gentle slope gave way to broken cliffs where to the right could be found the class 4 section of the North Ridge. It would have been a shorter distance and less elevation loss to go that way, but not likely faster, and certainly more scary hiking solo. I chose the safe route and headed to the lower pass where I found a good deal of snow/ice on the north side. Without crampons or axe it was too unsafe to glissade down, as the snow had barely begun to soften. It was easy enough to find a class 2 route down the left (west) side of the snow field, and by 11:30a I found myself down at the shore of Upper McCabe Lake. It is a lonely, isolated alpine lake, mostly surrounded by rock, but it has a great view from its eastern shore looking west, where the Sierra seem to drop off from its western end. Among the rocks along the shore I found a small shrew. The only reason it paused to allow me to take the photograph was because it didn't have a choice on account it had died some days earlier.

From Upper McCabe Lake, I found a use trail to take me back up to McCabe Pass between Shepherd Crest and North Peak. This was a fortunate find since the slope here is pretty steep and rocky, with a surprising number of shrubs to help confuse things. At the pass I found a small sign announcing the boundary of Yosemite National Park (intended for those travelling the other direction). Looking back over the pass, the clouds I had been keeping an eye on were coming further east and nearly reached the sky above me. To the south, they had already reached Mt. Conness and North Peak, and became ever more threatening. Still, to the north, east, and southeast, the skies were blue. While I rested at the pass for a bit and had a snack, a few other backpackers wandered by. This is evidently a regularly used crosscountry route, and its advantages were obvious. A relatively low pass (11,200 feet) with easy access on both sides, enabling one to reach the McCabe Creek drainage from Saddlebag Lake, an easier alternative to coming in from Tuolumne Meadows further to the south.

As I sat there taking in the views of the Hoover Wilderness to the east, I noticed a hiker several hundred feet below me on that side wandering back and forth as if searching for a lost article. I wondered for a moment if this might be Greg, and I waved to him when he looked up for a moment. He waved in return, but then went back to his search. I concluded that this wasn't likely Greg, since Greg had said he was planning to climb the Northeast Couloir on North Peak. This was far off of the route one would take to get there from Saddlebag Lake.

While I rested there, I noticed on my map that the ridge directly above me to the north had a name - Shepherd Crest, and as a result it suddenly earned my desire to climb it. I have very loose requirements for choosing peaks to climb. If they have a name, then I want to climb them. If they have a name and I happen to be in the neighborhood, then I really want to climb them. It seemed a short 500 feet up or so, and such a shame to miss an opportunity. It was only noon, so I decided to go up. The climbing was hardly exciting, however. From the pass it is a semi-loose pile of boulders of varying sizes, and mostly a tiringly steep slog. After I had climbed about a third of it, I noticed a second climber starting up from the pass below me. I hadn't noticed where he had come from, but it's possible it was the same fellow I had observed wandering around below. It seemed odd that another hiker would choose to climb this obscure ridge at the same time as myself. Was it possibly more popular than I thought? The other climber gained slowly on me, but not fast enough to beat me to the summit. I reached the top at 12:30p, and immediately set about looking for any evidence of a register, but found none. Disappointing, but not surprising. Shepherd Crest stretches for over a mile in a northwest direction, and the climbing along the ridge and the northeast side were considerably more difficult that what I'd come up. The rock looked loose, and although impressive looking, probably makes for poor (and unsafe!) climbing on its cliff faces. I took a few photos and started down again, but didn't get very far before I met the other climber on his way up.

As he approached me, I recognized the face from pictures posted on the web. "Greg?"

"You must be Bob." came the reply.

So it was Greg afterall, and it had been him that I'd seen down below (later he told me he thought he had lost his sunglasses, prompting the search, but found that they had been on his person the whole time). Greg was a bit surprised to find that he was not on Excelsior, which he had assumed was the peak just north of North Peak. He knew I was planning to climb Excelsior in addition to North Peak, so he had taken a short detour to see if he could find me at the summit before heading off to North Peak. Having seen me head up Shepherd Crest, he guessed correctly that it was I ahead of him, but incorrectly that I was on Excelsior. I pointed out the real Excelsior a few miles to the North still, clearly further than he wanted to go today. Together we made another search for a register, but came up empty again. We took a few photos of each other with North Peak as a backdrop (after very geekily discussing the pros and cons of our cameras) and made plans to meet together in Lee Vining at the end of the day before starting down. We climbed together only a few hundred feet before I turned left (north) to stay on the Pacific Crest towards Excelsior while Greg turned to the south to return to the pass. There was still about five hours of daylight left, plenty of time for one more peak!

Once I left Shepherd Crest, the route to Excelsior was pretty straightforward: follow the Pacific Crest with a few ups and downs, from point A to B. Easy as the route may be, I cannot recommend it to others as an enjoyable hike. Nearly the entire two mile distance is a continuous rubble slog. It probably didn't help that I was getting a bit tired around this time, having been hiking now about six hours. It took me two hours to reach Excelsior, carefully watching each boulder I stepped on along the way (and there must have been thousands) to help maintain my balance. Excelsior was the highest point of the day's hiking, and the altitude was beginning to affect me. I noted that in addition to being tired (more so than usual), I was also a bit lethargic, one of the warning signs I show that I'm starting to get altitude sickness. Sea level to 12,000+ feet in about 12 hours is a bit too quick for me most of the time. I have had similar experiences climbing Koip, Parsons, and most recently Sawtooth Peak, so I was pretty familiar with the symptoms as well as the remedy: decend.

The views from the peak were partially obscured by the clouds rolling in, and much of the views to the west were blocked. Those views I did have were grand, particularly of the Pacific Crest looking south, and again looking northwest. In contrast to the clouds coming from the west, the eastern views showed blue sky everywhere. There is a swell view of Mono Lake to the east, and Dunderberg Pk to the north. At the saddle just south of Dunderberg could be seen a faint trail that I later found to be the Summit Lake Trail. I stayed at the summit only a short while. It was 2:30p, and I still had about seven miles to travel to return to the trailhead. With more than three hours of daylight left, it seemed pretty safe since the route was all downhill. I started following the route I had taken up along the south ridge of Excelsior. I had a great view of Lundy Canyon to the east, and could see the trail winding its way up the canyon in a number of places. I began to wonder if there wasn't a more direct line of return to Saddlebag Lake that would allow me avoid reclimbing the intermediate peak between Shepherd Crest and Excelsior. Always one to prefer a new route to retracing an old one, I started descending to the left (east) even though I concluded that my map showed insufficient detail to determine whether it would be feasible. There was a great deal of elevation loss to get to Lundy Canyon, and I could not yet see the west edges of the canyon to determine how steep they were. I was hoping that by heading in a southeasterly direction, I would end up at the head of the canyon with only a moderately steep decent to get off the Pacific Crest.

I descended the first 1,000 feet from the summit, and crossed the flat bottom portion of the high bench I found there. On the eastern edge I was greeted by some very steep cliffs that dropped off 2,000 feet to the canyon below. That wouldn't do! I contoured around south hoping that things might look better from another perspective. I found myself looking down what appeared to be a class 3 chute dropping between some rocky spires nearly the entire distance to the canyon below. Once down, however I would have to climb back up over 1,000 feet along the trail to the head of the canyon. That didn't seem like much fun either. I would rather climb back up to the crest and retrace my steps than go to so much trouble. I continued contouring, but running out of options. I had to climb a couple hundred feet to get around a minor peak (11,795ft). This offered me a route down 600 feet of moderate slopes to another small bench. At the bottom of this, I found yet more cliffs to the east (pesky things), and had to climb back up another 100 feet to get around a second minor peak (11,324ft). This finally offered me views of Shamrock and Steelhead Lakes to the south and way down to reach them. Excellent. This made me feel quite relaxed as the way home appeared secured.

Before descending, I took in a great view of North Peak's north side, and scanned the couloirs for signs of Greg. Surprisingly, I could just make out a mere dot in the very center of the westernmost couloir. From this distance, it was hard to tell if it was a person or a rock. For several minutes it did not seem to move. While that seemed to make me lean towards believing it to be rock, it seemed quite out of place sitting there in the very middle of the couloir. [Later, I found that Greg had taken longer to climb North Peak's Northeast Couloir than either of us had expected while discussing it on the top of Shepherd Crest. Almost certainly that was Greg there in the couloir. Lamely, I failed to get a picture...]

It was 1,000 feet down to the lakes over a fairly steep hillside, but mostly class 2. The hillside was a bit loose with sand and gravel, an advantage while descending. Near Steelhead Lake I found a trail that I knew would lead back to Saddlebag Lake. It was about 4:30p and I had about an hour and a half of sunlight. The clouds coming in from the west had reached the Pacific Crest now and provided a darkening backdrop for North Peak close by to the west. I still had a little over 3.5 miles to go.

This part of the Hoover Wilderness is quite pretty, with sparse trees and abundant alpine lakes. At a bit less than 10,000 feet, I was still pretty high, and the altitude was still affecting me and making me feel poorly. I was getting pretty tired. I kept up a good pace dispite my discomfort, as I was imagining cheesburgers and shakes in more vivid color the closer I got to the trailhead. As I approached Saddlebag Lake, I saw the last ferry of the day leaving, maybe four minutes ahead of me. The idea of taking the ferry had suddenly taken on a different perspective from the morning when it was so easy to shun the idea as cheating. Not only would it have been welcome at this point, but just about any fare would have seemed reasonable. Anyway, I was too late, and there was little I could do about it. There is no phone to call for another one, and all I could do was wave as they motored off in the distance.

I decided to take the trail around the east end of the lake as it seemed to afford the most of the remaining daylight (I had my jacket on by now as it was getting cooler), and it offered a different route home. This decision cost me an additional 15 minutes of hiking time I found out later - the western shore is definitely a shorter route. I was feeling pretty buggered by the time I returned to the trailhead at 5:45p and completed my circumnavigation of Saddlebag Lake. Nausea and headache were my rewards at the end of the hike. I was rather exhausted to boot, and it took me some time when I returned to go through the effort of changing out of my clothes and putting on some fresher coverings. All my actions were carried out in an exaggerated slow motion to keep my nausea from getting the best of me. I looked around for evidence of Greg's return, but saw none, so I guessed he had gone ahead to Lee Vining without finding my car in the lot [turns out his car was sitting there next to mine, and I failed to recognize it despite being given the make, model, and color].

I drove down to Lee Vining to the appointed restaurant and looked about for Greg. Not finding him threw me for a bit of a loop as I had fully expected to find him here ahead of me. I now figured he must have gone to Tuolumne Meadows to secure a campsite for us before coming down to Lee Vining. Perhaps he'd be along any minute. I went out to my car and rested a bit, hoping the inaction would make me feel better. It helped a small degree. After about 40 minutes I went back inside and made another look around. No Greg in the waiting area. As it was getting busy now (around 7p), I put my name in and waited another 20 minutes before my name was called. Still no Greg, so I took a booth by myself. As I sat there pondering the menu and all the excellent fat-rich items I found thereupon, I noticed someone at the counter reading a book who looked suspiciously familiar. Greg had apparently wandered in while I was sitting in my car (which he had to walk right past, so we're both guilty of not being able to recognize cars), and had taken a seat at the counter after being unable to find me.

So we shared my booth and a meal, and recounted the day's adventures and made a more thorough introductions (the only previous time we'd met each other was for about 20 minutes on the top of Shepherd Crest earlier in the day). The food and drink went a long ways towards affecting my recovery, and I began to feel much better. Afterwards we drove to Tuolumne Meadows and found an unused campsite which we commandeered for the night. Michael and Monty would be expecting us to leave a note somewhere directing them to our campsite as they were scheduled to arrive sometime late at night (the four of us planned to climb Matthes Crest the next day). But I was too tired to bother with a note once we found a place to camp, and really the better reason was I didn't want to be bothered by later arrivers waking me up in the middle of the night. I figured if they happened to find my car while driving past in the dark, then great [they didn't], otherwise we'd meet them in the morning at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead the next morning at the appointed hour [they did].

Continued...


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