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I left San Jose at 2a and arrived at Sierra City on SR49 shortly after 6a. Though unseen from the road below, I knew Sierra Buttes loomed high, 4500ft above the town to the north. I had originally planned to approach from Bassetts to the north much as Matthew had done, but I decided to check out the southern approach from Sierra City following Pete Yamagata's excellent instructions. It was a good stroke of luck as the road turned out to be snow-free until the regular parking area. The road was well graded with culverts to allow several streams to flow freely under the roadbed. It was 6:45a when I parked the car and headed out, the sun having just begun to rise in the east.
I took various road spurs, continuing to follow Yamagata's directions towards the summit. It wasn't more than half a mile before there was too much snow to walk freely over. The elevation here is fairly low, less than 6,000ft, and the overnight temperatures were not long below freezing. Consequently my steps plunged through the surface without holding and I found myself a foot deep with each step. Time for the snowshoes. Even with these, there was a 2-3 inch depression made with each step. Shortly before reaching the 5800ft contour, I found a ravine that looked to have continuous snow going straight up towards the summit. With an average angle of 30 degrees it was steep and tiring, but it was the most direct route one could find. A small cascade where the ravine narrowed made a small obstacle that wasn't too difficult to bypass (as long as one doesn't mind walking on rocks with the snowshoes here and there). The sun came out from behind a ridge to the east, and both the snow and I began to get toasty. Even just wearing a t-shirt was too warm.
As I climbed higher I could begin to see some of the familiar peaks to the south, including English Mountain and Castle Peak. Where the angle began to ease finally, I found myself under sparse forest cover, the first trees I had encountered in the first 2000ft of climbing from the trailhead. Though still early in the morning, I made a line of ascent that took advantage of as much shade as I could find. I had put sunscreen on before 8a, which almost seemed silly except for the acute brightness of the exposed, shadeless south face I was climbing.
It wasn't until I was above 7800ft that I finally caught sight of the summit rocks, a jagged line of impressive volcanic plugs lined up along on a serrated ridge. The true summit was still out of view, but I didn't realize this at the time. It was just before 8:30a when I reached the summit ridge, to the west of the highpoint which was still out of view. The north side of the ridge plunged down precipitously, and the frozen Sardine Lakes could be seen far below in a valley completely blanketed with snow. Far to the northwest I could make out the unmistakable cone of Mt. Lassen, the first time I had seen the peak from anywhere in the Sierra. I followed the ridgeline to the southeast, climbing up some minor bumps before finally glimpsing the summit tower, crowned with the famous lookout tower atop the apex and the fantastic stairway leading up the northwest side. I climbed around an intervening gendarme on the south side which brought me to the base of the stairway.
I paused here. The stairs really seemed like cheating. Yamagata's route description merely states that a class 3 chute exists somewhere out of sight from the regular route. I noted what looked like a possible chute on the south side and decided to give it a go. I left my snowshoes at the base of the stairs, donned crampons, and with my ski poles (I had no axe) I walked down 50 feet or so to the base of the chute just around the corner. It was very steep, maybe 50 degrees, and narrow. It would not have been easy to climb in snowshoes - heck it wasn't easy even with crampons. I wished I had brought and ice axe if for nothing more than as a security device. The snow was less consolidated here, but firm. Once I kicked through a few inches of tough crust, it was softer below and I could make good steps. Halfway up the chute widened to several possibilities. I kicked steps on an exposed slope up to the left where I was blocked by class 5 rock. It probably wasn't more than about 5.6, but I hadn't planned on such soloing, and I backed off. Another possiblity up an off-width crack also looked more than I bargained for. Climbing back down a short ways, I took the narrowing chute up to the right. Still filled with ice and snow, it was a bit harrowing. I could see avalanche debris down at the base of the chute and was glad that the conditions were neither too unconsolidated nor too warm for further slides. Near the top a last vertical section about 5-feet high was overcome to bring me up to the ridgecrest a short 30 yards or so from the summit tower. I grew a bit queezy looking over the north side, about 400 feet straight down. With carefully planned moves and an iron grip on the rock to my left, I walked the narrow section to the broader base of the tower. Whew. That was exhilarating, but more than I had signed up for beforehand. Now 10:15a, it had taken me 2 1/2 hrs to reach the summit, the last half hour spent in the nasty little chute.
The excitement over, I wandered over to the base of the lookout. Strapped to one of the support structures was a teddy bear and some artificial flowers, a tribute to a young lass who lost her life (exactly how I don't know because I only glanced at the faded card and didn't exert the effort to read the tiny print - my eyes aren't what they used to be). I climbed the stairs to the upper deck, walked around and took in the views (SE - S - NW - N - E). I could see as far north as Lassen (I looked in vain to find Shasta), and as far south as Freel Peak on the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. West, one could see the Coast Range, and nearer the interesting formation of Sutter Buttes (another county highpoint to be visited someday). One part of the upper decking literally hangs hundreds of feet over the North Face, a dizzying view, and unsettling to know you're trusting your life to some bolts and braces on a weather-beaten tower.
Heading back down, I took the staircase. The class 3 chute had been fun, but not really that fun. At the bottom I retrieved my snowshoes, put them back on, and headed back down the southwest side of the peak. It was very easy going until I got to the exposed steeper section. Here the snow had warmed to a soft, soupy consistency. It was so loose that I couldn't glissade at all, and I had to be careful lest my steps might sink into a hidden pit up to my knees (twice I went in to my hip and it took some time to dig myself back out). But it was much easier heading down than up, and I found myself back at the car at 10:45a, little more than an hour after I'd left the summit. It went much easier than I had expected, and even before I had returned to the car I started thinking about what to climb in the afternoon. Elwell? Adams? Something else?
My shoes and socks were completely soaked - a regular occurrence all weekend. I took them off and changed into some dry socks and tennis shoes, leaving my wet socks under my wiper blades so they would dry off on the way to the next peak. I packed up my gear, had a snack, and headed back out. Unfortunately I left my wet boots sitting on a rock at the trailhead. They might still be there. I drove an hour through Sierraville, north on SR49 and then SR89, and was all the way north to Graeagle before I realized I had left my boots. Rats. Fortunately they were a pretty beat up pair that cost about $20, and I had a spare pair with me in the car. I decided not to go back to retrieve them. On the drive north I was contemplating what to climb for the afternoon. I wanted to climb Elwell, but Matthew was planning on meeting me at the trailhead the next morning to go after Mt. Elwell which he hadn't climbed yet either. I decided to drive to the trailhead to check out camping options for the evening, and scout out Elwell.
Yamagata's directions for Elwell are primarily for summer hikes after the snow has melted. He comments that a winter ski ascent is possibly from Graeagle, but unlikely as a dayhike. It seems he didn't consider the trailhead starting out near Johnsville on the northwest side of the mountain. The road is plowed to within about four miles of the summit, not at all a difficult winter approach. I drove out to the road and found the likely trailhead where the road bends 180 degrees, just before Johnsville. What caught my eye during the drive though wasn't Mt. Elwell, hidden from view by an intervening ridge, but the bulking mass of another peak to its northwest. This was Eureka Peak on whose flanks the small ski resort is located (and the reason the road is plowed another half mile past Johnsville). It looked like a fine afternoon hike, a few hundred feet shorter than Elwell, and I immediately set my sights on it, without having any more knowledge of it than the name and its height.
At the end of the road at 5,500ft is a parking lot that would hold about 60 cars or so, the parking area for the (now closed) ski hill. There was only one other car there on this Friday afternoon. I had read somewhere that the resort is open weekends and Wednesdays only, so this wasn't much of a surprise. The other car, a pickup with a shell actually, belonged to a young snowboarder who had just come down from several runs off the peak and was setting up a chair to rest, eat lunch, and catch some rays. My shoes were still soaked but my socks had dried out during the drive, so I would have dry feet for at least a few minutes at the start.
I set out at 12:20p, heading up the slopes to the west. What a slush-fest! Wet, heavy, and messy, the snow was horrible, really. Though 2,000ft of gain to the summit, it was little more than two miles, so I figured I could slug it out, hoping the snow would be firmer higher up. In about 20 minutes I crested the ridge just above the highest chairlift (this is a real small operation with only two lifts and about 600ft of vertical). To the west and below me was Eureka Lake, frozen over and covered in snowmobile tracks. I followed the ridge south, heading towards the main mass of the mountain. Though the East and Northeast Faces were steep, there were plenty of tracks heading off that way that made me confident it wouldn't be too hard. While I was about 800ft below the summit area, I took greater notice of the more impressive North Ridge that leads directly up to the lower north summit. In addition to some steep snow slopes, there were rocky sections that looked class 3ish, so I decided to head up that way for nothing more than to add some spice to an otherwise easy climb. It turned out to be as interesting as I had imagined, perhaps more so, and I found myself with a bit more exposure than I might have liked. But all went well and I kept the snowshoes on all the way to the top of the north summit. From there it was an easy half mile tour around the summit ridge to the higher south summit, and I found myself atop it at 1:50p. I'd had great views of Mt. Elwell all the way up, and now I could see many other peaks I recognized including Castle Peak, Mt. Lola, and the morning's effort, Sierra Buttes. The views were mostly new to me, and as always a real treat to enjoy, feeling on top of the world. There were many tracks around, from something like a dozen visitors in the last week of sunshine.
On the way down I followed the tracks to the easier route down the northeast face, contouring north to pick up my original tracks on the ridge east of Eureka Lake. I was nearly swimming in the soupy slush, but going downhill I didn't mind the amount of snow I had to push around nor the 8-12 inches each step would sink in. Everything below my calves was completely soaked, but in the warm afternoon it hardly mattered - there was no fear of getting cold in the spring conditions. The one problem I did suffer was that the new boots I was wearing (this was their maiden voyage) were a tad small and the middle toe on my right foot was being seriously jammed while descending with the snowshoes. I would lose a toenail for sure if I didn't remedy the situation. I returned to the parking lot at 3p to find it deserted. The snowboarder had left the whole mountain to me. I had originally planned to camp somewhere near the trailhead to meet Matthew in the morning, but to no great surprise I didn't feel much like camping. I calculated Reno was little more than an hour away, about 70 miles. I could not only get a cheap room with a hot shower, but I figured I might also be able to pick up another pair of boots. So off I drove, back through Graeagle, onto SR70, west to US395, and south to Reno. After getting my room I found the location of the Big 5 in Sparks and got myself a pair of $17 boots in size 11. These would prove to be one of the best pairs I've had in the last 5 years, working comfortably for the next three days (though I may still lose the toenail from the climb of Eureka Peak). I called Matthew and let him know where I was staying. It was 5p when I called him, and he planned on leaving the Bay Area in another hour or so. Giving him the option of sharing the room or meeting me at the trailhead, he decided to join me in Reno so we could head out the next morning together. Sometime a few hours after I'd gone to bed around 8p, Matthew came in through the door I'd left ajar. We chatted briefly while he brought some things in, then we both hit the sack - more fun and adventures the next day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Sierra Buttes - Eureka Peak
This page last updated: Tue Sep 21 11:33:24 2010
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