Sierra Point

Sun, Mar 9, 2003

With: John ?

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map
later climbed Fri, Apr 15, 2005


Saturday had been a most successful day climbing Half Dome, so John and I were still hungry for a bit more of the adventure we had shared the day before. We chose to attempt a climb of Grizzly Peak, a short distance east of Happy Isle, southwest of Half Dome. We had essentially no beta, not because there wasn't any out there to be found, but because we hadn't bothered to check before attempting it. The peak rises sharply above Happy Isle, though this is mostly forested. A rocky arete goes down the southwest side intersecting the Merced River in the vicinity of the Vernal Falls viewing bridge. The south side I had scouted earlier and found it was mostly cliffs. The easiest technical approach would be to come from between Mt. Broderick and Half Dome on the east side, but that would be a longer approach than we had time for today. Our plan would be both simple and crude: hike a short ways on the JMT out of Happy Isle, then try to find something climbable to our left. If that didn't prove workable, we'd come down, move over some distance, and try again. We carried no climbing gear, not even rock shoes - if we couldn't free it (around class 4), we'd try another route.

We hiked the JMT almost to the bridge, turning up some distance past the spine of the Southwest Arete. The arete itself was too difficult to climb, though we scoped it out initially. Mostly it is comprised of garage-sized blocks of granite sticking up through the forest cover into the sky, making cliffs on both sides - probably too difficult for us even with climbing gear. We headed up a loose gully just east of the arete, following it for several hundred feet until the loose dirt and oak trees gave way to more solid rocks. The rock turned out to be much looser than our comfort level, and though we tried two or three different routes here, we backed off each time due to increasing uneasiness. We climbed back down to the trail and tried another gully further east, but this too proved fruitless. The crumbling rock simply sapped whatever faith we had in our own rock climbing abilities.

Climbing back down to the trail, having already invested almost two hours in the venture, we backtracked to the west side of the arete to examine that side better. High above the way seemed blocked by the massive gendarmes on the Southwest Arete, but we figured we could at least climb higher on this side than we had done on the other. So up we went, a steep hillside of sliding organic matter intermingled with granite blocks and some interesting scrambling. We rested at one spot about 300ft up where we had a good view of Happy Isle below and the blast region from the Glacier Point rockfall from 1996 that had damaged the Nature Center and killed one visitor. The downed trees looked like matchsticks all lined up in the same direction, falling away from the debris pile where the boxcar-sized blocks had fallen down. It looked nearly as fresh as if it had happened but months ago instead of nearly seven years.

Climbing higher, we began to run into the cliffs we had seen from below, and to gain more elevation we headed left though we knew that way would be equally blocked by the cliffs above. As I climbed up one rocky section, I stopped to marvel at the amazing stairstep pattern the rocks had naturally made here. I looked up, I looked down, then I became convince this wasn't a natural stairstep. I called to John that I'd found some sort of trail. What trail it could be we had no clue. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere when we'd nearly run out of scrambling room, we find a trail leading upwards. If I was a religious person I might have called it a miracle. Instead I decided it must be another abandoned trail like the Ledge Trail that leads from Curry Village up to Glacier Point. We followed the mysterious trail up, wondering to where it might lead us. We found out soon enough. It breeched the Southwest Arete bringing us out to a point right on the arete and about half the height to Grizzly Peak. There was a view spot here complete with metal railings that were still solidly attached to the rock. It had the most incredible views, where one could see Vernal & Nevada, Illilouette, and Yosemite Falls all at the same time, possibly the only place anywhere that one can see this many of Yosemite's famous falls (Bridalveil was the other notably famous one missing). Later we found out that this location is called Sierra Point, and the trail we found is the abandoned Sierra Point Trail. We could look almost straight down from our aerie to the JMT and make out numerous folks making their way along the trail. Over twenty years I have hike the trail below more than a dozen times, and never knew about this viewsite.

After a short break, we explored higher, climbing class 3 rocks up the arete as high as we could scramble. Where we ran out of class 3, we found a large cairn marking the spot. We didn't know if this was marking the top of a climb from below on the south side, or the start of a climb above. Later we found this was the starting point for the class 5 Southwest Arete (Roper calls it class 4, but a more recent party found it more difficult, and from our view of the start, we concurred). To make further progress we would have to make our way up a slanting ledge at maybe 35 degrees, perhaps two feet wide, with exposure on the right side. This would have been ok except for the bulge on the left side that would push one out to the exposed side. Neither of us felt like pushing things any further, so we retreated.

We followed the Sierra Point Trail all the way down, at least as far as we could. There was one section that was virtually wiped out by landslides, and may have been one of the primary reasons for closing the trail. We ran into a group of three teenagers about halfway down, much to our surprise. One of them had been on the trail five years earlier and was leading his friends up. Guess it wasn't that big of a secret. About a hundred yards from the bottom we could no longer follow the trail as it made its way over a large moss-covered boulder field. We came out on the JMT not 100 yards from its start at Happy Isle. At least we'd know the quick way to get back up for our next try at Grizzly Peak.

Thus did our weekend adventure end. Though not successful at reaching Grizzly Peak, we had "discovered" Sierra Point on our own, which we both agreed was more than worth the day's efforts. And we also had a reason to come back again in the future, to try our luck at Grizzly again - this time with a rope!

As a side note, on the drive out on SR120, I stopped just past the largest tunnel the road travels through, got out and walked back into the tunnel along the sidewalk. Halfway through the tunnel is a side tunnel leading out to the cliffs overlooking the Merced River. This side tunnel was used to remove debris during the main tunnel's excavation and dump it out the opening. Having driven by it countless times and seeing the flash of light from the opening as I sped by, I always wondered what the view was like. I found out and was not disappointed. There is a fence at the end of the tunnel that is easily surmounted for a better view. There is considerable exposure over the edge, but great views.

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