Wed, Apr 29, 2009
After leaving San Jose around 2:15a, I managed to find my way to Wrights Lake Rd off US50 about 36mi east of Placerville and maybe a half dozen miles past the small town of Kyburz. I got to the junction a few minutes after the 5:30a meeting time, finding no one. I sat in my car reading a book, figuring I'd give Andrew until 6a to arrive before starting off on my own. About 15 minutes later Andrew came driving down Wrights Lake Rd. He'd gotten to the junction about five minutes before me, but had driven up the paved road as far as he could. He'd come back to see if I was waiting at the junction.
We drove our cars up the road as far as we could, about three miles until we were stopped by snow on the road. This was a huge bonus because I had expected the road to be closed and that we'd have to hike from US50. The open road saved us 1,200ft of gain as well as the distance. There were two other vehicles parked alongside the road with ours, folks who had gone in for a longer, overnight adventure. It was just after 6a when we started off, snowshoes strapped to our packs, hiking up the road.
The weather forecast called for winds around 20mph today, but in the early morning it was calm as could be. It had been cold overnight, in the mid-twenties, so we were bundled up to start. As we warmed up in the first few miles hiking the road, we stopped to remove the excess layers, and it was quite pleasant in only a tshirt. The snow was frozen hard but with good purchase, making it easy to hike over with just our boots. In twenty minutes we reached the Lyons Creek TH where we turned off to follow the creek in a northeast direction.
We followed a path over the snow laid down by a handful of visitors since the last snowfall. The path meandered in an out of the trees on the southeast side of the creek, only roughly following the trail drawn on our map. After about half a mile we came upon the tent of a lone backpacker still asleep in his tent. I resisted the urge to make bear noises as we quietly passed by. As the footprints faded away we followed our own path for another hour until some of the peaks of the Crystal Range came into view.
My original plan was to follow the creek up to Lyons Lake and then directly to Mt. Price, but with a glimpse of Blue Mtn through the trees it looked like we could tackle this lower bonus peak easily enough from the south side. We crossed the creek to the north side and continued up slopes heading more or less straight for Blue Mtn.
As the slopes began to steepen and our feet began to slide out from us, we paused to put on our snowshoes. Continuing up, the views began to open more, with views to the south behind us, and east to Pyramid Peak. From the time we stopped to put on snowshoes to the time it took to reach the rocky summit of Blue Mtn took all of 30 minutes, only 2.5hrs from the start - it seemed almost embarrassing to be atop a summit that soon after starting out. I began to think we could make a more ambitious day of it, possibly even reaching Pyramid Peak which I had expected would take too much time.
We followed the wind-packed ridgeline northeast, up to Pt. 9,250ft. Here we had a commanding view in all directions, looking down on frozen Smith Lake to the left, similarly frozen Lyons Lake to the right, and straight ahead the pointy summit of Mt. Price, our primary goal. I had hoped to simply follow the ridgeline up to Price, but from our newly gained vantage point there were several areas of concern along the ridge. The route could probably be done at class 3 or easier, but it seemed somewhat painful to bypass the difficulties if they turned out to be more than bargained for. Having never climbed with Andrew and fairly uncertain of his mountaineering skills, I decided to opt for the easier bypass off the east side of the ridgeline - sometimes its just more fun to romp around on easy terrain than to worry about getting in over one's head.
Dropping off Pt. 9,250ft was our first challenge, a little too steep to head down facing downhill. I turned and kicked small steps with the snowshoes facing backwards, happy to find the snow was holding firm. The breeze had picked up once we had gotten to the ridgeline, and this would help keep the snow frozen most of the morning. I paused off to the side when I had finished the steepest portion to turn and watch Andrew descending. When he was done I asked him how he found the conditions. He sort of shrugged like it was no big deal and said he was fine with it. I could see it was certainly not his first time on snowshoes.
We dropped about 200ft into the bowl north of Lyons Lake, then followed the drainage north towards Mt. Price. I had been eyeing a narrow chute on the south side of Price since we had reached Pt. 9,250ft and as we got closer I decided to "check it out." There was an easier bypass route to the right, but Andrew decided to follow me to the chute. We had no crampons, but our MSR snowshoes were nearly as good even on steep terrain. I was carrying an ice axe that I got out to use in conjunction with one of my ski poles when I reached the bottom of the chute where things got steeper. Andrew had no ice axe with him, having to rely on only his poles and the snowshoes to keep him from slipping. I was up the chute in about ten minutes, then found a small tree above it to anchor myself and wait for Andrew to join me. He was not long in following, doing a fine job in the couloir. Though he would be a bit slower for most of the day, there didn't seem to be any rock or snow I might lead that Andrew could not follow. We would get along just fine.
From the top of the chute it was a short, easy walk to the summit of Price, where we arrived shortly after 10a. It was colder and windier now, making the summits an uncomfortable place to hang out. If there was a register on Price, it was buried in the snow somewhere, and we weren't about to start digging around to look for it. A great many snow peaks were visible from the summit, north to Mt. Rose, south to Mokelumne Peak, and dozens of peaks around the Lake Tahoe area. Despite our proximity to the lake it was almost completely blocked to us - only a tiny portion of the lake could be seen through a small gap, showing a bit of it near Tahoe City.
Next up was the pointed, overhanging summit of Mt. Agassiz to the southeast. We dropped off the ridgeline to the right to get out of the wind as well as to find easier terrain. This is a very easy section of the Crystal Range traverse, and it took us only 30 minutes to cover the short distance between the two peaks. Despite the overhanging nature of the summit, the top is wide and flat, and makes a comfortable picnic site in good weather. We circled and approached the blocks from the south and at first it looked like the final moves would be class 5 from that side, an unexpected surprise. With only a little searching, an easy class 2 route was found to the top around the west side of the blocks. Like Price, we found it cold and windy atop the summit and didn't stay long.
The next section of the Crystal Range is a bit tougher, with an obvious rock step of some 60ft or so along the ridge, just north of Pyramid Peak. The northwest side of Pyramid is a vast cliff face, and we would have to climb Pyramid from either the north or west sides. The West Ridge was fairly tame-looking but would require us to drop hundreds of feet to the south in order to access it. The north side seemed more desireable due to its directness, but we couldn't see over the main ridgeline to see if we could even access that side of Pyramid. We would have to go over to the ridgeline in the vicinity of the step to get a better look at the other side.
Like the Price to Agassiz traverse, we dropped off the right side of the crest to get out of the wind and for easier ground. I was a good ten minutes ahead of Andrew in reaching the crest for a peek over the other side and what I found was not pretty. There was a rocky drop averaging about 100ft, perhaps only 50ft at the lowest gap. What might make a stiff class 3 downclimb was made more difficult by loads of snow in the gaps and crevices. I walked along the ridgeline in two directions, but didn't find anything that looked reasonable. Perhaps noting my difficulties, Andrew reached the crest 100 yards further north, but not finding anything to his liking either, he traversed south to join me.
Without doing a scary downclimb, it looked like we had two choices. One was a very steep couloir leading up to the West Ridge, probably more suitable for crampons and axe than snowshoes. It would save us dropping the hundreds of feet for the easier access to that ridge. The other choice was to traverse around the large step in the main ridgeline and hope we could find a way up and over the saddle on the south side of the step. This seemed the better of two choices, and was what we tried next. We were happy to find it worked. There was a short section of very steep snow again (out came the ice axe) followed by a 20-foot class 3 rock section that turned out to be relatively mild. The east side of this saddle was an easy snow slope leading to the steep North Slope of Pyramid Peak, just what we'd hoped for.
With firm snow continuing to be the norm, only a few sections sporting a few inches of windblown stuff that sloughed off, we had another fine climb heading up to Pyramid. It was 12:15p when we topped out on the last summit, the highest in Desolation Wilderness, my third visit to Pyramid Peak. We had seen no tracks since leaving the lone tent back in Lyons Creek, but now at the summit of Pyramid there was evidence of much traffic about the summit, all of them coming up the milder South Ridge. It was down this ridge we fled after a few hasty photographs at the summit.
After descending about 500ft along the ridge, we turned west, away from the packed tracks and into the pristine drainages to the southwest of Pyramid. We traversed northwest across an open bowl, more cautious on the descent now as the snows were finally beginning to soften up. There was one last tricky section where we descended a steep north-facing slope to Lake Sylvia, again facing backwards for the steepest part of the upper slope.
Once down to Lake Sylvia, it was a fairly straightforward two hour march back, following Lyons Creek and the Wrights Lake Rd we had used in the morning. The snow grew softer as the wind died to a mere breeze when we were back in the forest, but we never had trouble with postholing in the snowshoes. We were in our tshirts once again, just as we had been earlier in the morning. My boots and feet became wet and then irritated and eventually blistered some, but nothing too serious. We found a small shortcut at the very end that took us through a little bushwhacking and steep dirt, but dropped us down on the paved road right where our cars were parked.
Back at 3p, it had taken us less time for the outing than I had expected, only 9hrs, and several more peaks than planned to boot. We both agreed it had been a very fine outing, and I was already eager to start planning another outing in the coming weeks before the snow melts.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Price - Mt. Agassiz - Pyramid Peak
This page last updated: Fri May 1 13:11:02 2009
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