Mt. Starr King P900 SPS / WSC

Sat, Feb 8, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Jun 23, 2000

It had been a fairly dry year so far in the Sierra. Though the High Country was blanketed in its usual wintry white, it was not very deep, and hardly fresh. It had been over two weeks since it had last snowed, and what had fallen was greatly consolidated. Rather than fret about the lack of snow, I decided to take advantage of it and planned what for me was a very adventurous winter outing - a solo dayhike to Mt. Starr King. In the summer this is not such a difficult undertaking, and can fairly easily be done in a day from Mono Meadow near Glacier Point, even by relative novices. The technical climbing is only two or three pitches of easy class 5, and in fact it had been only my second backcountry foray using a rope that I had done a few years earlier. Winter brings a few extra challenges. The road to Glacier Point is closed at Badger Pass, so an approach from that side involves an additional seven or eight miles each way, not very practical for a dayhike. My approach then would be from Happy Isle in Yosemite Valley, making it a 5,000ft, 13mi dayhike. I expected the snow to slow me down considerably, but there were a few things in my favor there. I knew the trail to the top of Nevada Falls, the first three and half miles, would be largely snow-free and easy travel. Secondly, the well-consolidated snow should make for decent snowshoe travel as long as it didn't warm appreciably during the day. I also knew the south side of Mt. Starr King was likely to be free of snow, making a climb of that in my rock shoes a straightforward challenge, much as it would be in the summertime. To add a bit more spice to the hike, I intended to try a looping route, around to the west side of Starr King, down to Illilouette Creek, up to Glacier Point, and down the snow-filled chute just west of the point, where the old Ledge Trail used to run. It was perhaps a bit overly ambitious, but then that's partly what the point of my adventure was about. I didn't want to go out and climb something I knew for sure I could do. It would be far more interesting if there was a fair chance of failing.

I had scrambled around on the walls of Yosemite Valley the day before, and found the weather decidedly pleasant, rather spring-like. I slept out in the open in the Upper Pines campground, comfortably nestled in my sleeping bag alongside my car. I was up at 4:45a to my alarm gently beeping, darkness still firmly holding the night, the stars shining brightly above. By the time I'd packed up, breakfasted, and reparked my car at the Trailhead lot, it was 5:15a as I headed out. I was sporting a light jacket over a long-sleeve t-shirt, hiking pants, a hat and gloves. It was cold out to be sure, but not freezing temperatures, probably upper 30s. My headlamp blazed as I made my way to Happy Isle, and I stopped at the convenient restrooms found there to take care of a bit of business. I had seen a few campfires across the road as I had started out, but there were no other hikers about, and I would see no one for most of the day - hardly surprising. I carried a good-sized pack, heavy by my usual standards, mostly due to the crampons, snowshoes, and poles that I carried. I had with me a warmer hat and several more pairs of gloves that I could wear in layers, but no other warmer clothes. The weather was expected to be fine, and my bad-weather strategy, should it be necessary, was to retreat and run. I had a space blanket as a psychological crutch, but didn't expect it would help me survive a night in freezing temperatures should I find myself incapacitated and needing to use it. Getting benighted was just not an option.

As expected the trail was snow-free most of the way. The Mist Trail was closed so I followed the winter route up the John Muir Trail. Half an hour after leaving Happy Isle I was able to turn off the headlamp and find my way as the new day slowly dawned. The sun does not come up quickly in early February as it does during the summer. The sun, low on the southern horizon, arcs slowly upwards, taking its time before breaking in the new day. I found Half Dome's southwest side snow-free as it came into view at Clark Point, the sun not yet striking its upper reaches. I had three times now failed to climb Half Dome in winter via the Cable Route. I wondered if it didn't make more sense to try the snow-free Snake Dike route. The upper part of the JMT between Vernal and Nevada Falls was closed as is usual in winter, redirecting hikers 500ft down to the Merced River and up the trail on the north side of the river. I figured I could save a good deal of time by ignoring the closed gate and chose to continue up the JMT, here making a wide, gradual ascent to the top of Nevada Falls. And it would give me a chance to see why the trail was closed in winter, as I didn't really believe the "Rockfall Danger" sign posted on the gate.

As I neared closer to Nevada Falls, I found the southern walls of the falls covered in as much as three inches of ice. The sun penetrates very little here, and it evidently allowed for ample ice growth, hundreds of feet down the smooth walls. Probably not enough for safe ice climbing, but I wondered if hardy souls had ever ventured here to give it a try. Where the trail crossed these icy cliffs it became apparent what the true reason for the trail closure. The overhanging walls dripped water which froze several feet thick in places on the stony trail, huge icicles dangling in harms way for this hazardous 40 yard stretch. Out of laziness more than anything I left my crampons in my pack, and I slipped and slid my way through the obstacle course. It seemed safe enough while the temperatures were low, but I wondered how safe it might be as the day warmed. There were plenty of shattered icicles lying about the ground, many already partially melting and refreezing their way into the icy strata that coated the trail. So there was little doubt that these things broke off regularly. As I paused to take a few photos of the ice formations, I noted the sun rising on the hills northwest of Yosemite Valley. Day was breaking, though I remained in the shadows for some time still.

I never reached the top of Nevada Falls, instead forking right at the junction with the Panorama Trail that comes down from Glacier Point. This started me up on a series of switchbacks which became hard to follow due to increasing snow coverage. It mattered little since I needed to leave the trail anyway, so I headed more or less southeast up a steep drainage. The ground was littered with downed trees and branches, and I zigzagged to stay on dry ground as much as I could. It wasn't really dry ground as everything was damp and wet from the melting snow, but just snow-free. After a few hundred feet the dry patches began to give out and I found myself forced on the snow. Initially this was a bit difficult because of the steepness (and my reluctance to get out crampons), but the slope lessened as I gained the more difficult part of the canyon walls. I found myself walking through a burned section of the forest which looked dreary and lifeless, but it made for easy navigation and enjoyable views as I climbed higher. In fact the views were quite nice indeed, from Yosemite Valley to the northwest, to Half Dome and Liberty Cap to the North, to Clouds Rest to the northeast. Snow was all around me a foot or two deep, but the views looked more spring-like with far less snow on the south facing slopes across the Merced Canyon. The hiking here was quite good. The snow was firm, but not icy, and my boots sank at most half an inch as I walked, just enough to give decent purchase on the hillside. Still no need for crampons, and my snowshoes stayed strapped to my pack.

I contoured around the northeast side of Point 8574ft, the lower peaklet northwest of Starr King that is often mistaken for its higher neighbor when viewed from Yosemite Valley. As I walked awkwardly across the slope, I regretted not having stayed further east in the shallow valley between Point 8574ft and Point 8052ft. There the walking would have been easier, and according to my map (yes, this time I carried one) a better approach to Starr King's Southeast Slope. Mt. Starr King came into view as I rounded the bend, which both intrigued and bothered me. I was bothered because it now confirmed that I was climbing too high on this side. I would have to climb back down or do an unpleasant traverse across the steep east side. But what intrigued me was the view of the north side of Starr King. There was less snow than I expected, but the northeast slope looked far more favorable than the class 5 rating it had. I thought I would find it looking much the same as the Southeast Slope, but dangerously coated with ice and snow. Could I climb it I wondered? It hadn't been part of the plan, but it seemed worth checking out. I convinced myself that since I'd already climbed halfway up the wrong side of the mountain, I could at least go up and recon that side. Worse come to worse, I'd go back down around to the southeast side. With that resolve, I plowed my way straight up the slope to the saddle between Starr King and Point 8575ft. It was 9a when I reached the saddle, and the last spurt had caused me to finally break a sweat. The sun had reached above the trees to the southeast and began to warm me further. It was a good place to take a short break and have a snack. I surveyed the north side of Starr King, and found the Northeast Slope in profile on the left appeared to have a continuous stretch of snow cover from the trees below all the way to the summit. I couldn't have climbed wet or icy rock slopes, but perhaps I could climb the snow if it was well consolidated. This possibility drove me to check things out closer. It might be a waste of time, but I seemed to have plenty of that left in the day.

I reshouldered my pack and headed toward the peak, aiming for the highest trees that grew on the northeast side. The slope began to steepen well before I reached the end of the trees, and I finally relented to strapping on the crampons. This made walking almost trivial, but the slopes still managed to take my breath away and my progress slowed accordingly. As I reached the last of the trees, I paused to make further assessment of the route. The snow did indeed seem to stretch to the summit, and the angle appeared to be about 35 degrees. The only problem now was that I had no axe. The crampons would do fine in climbing, but it seemed I could have trouble should I need to arrest a fall. I put on a pair of overmittens and took out my ski poles to use for balance in lieu of an axe, and started up the slope. The snow was encouragingly firm, with little chance of avalanching. It was nearly ideal for kicking steps, each swing of my boots digging about 5 inches into the slope. The underlying snow was softer, but not powdery. At one point my kick came up short with a painful jolt to my toes - the snow had thinned to a few inches here. To my left the slope was easier, about 30 degrees, but the rock slabs showed through where it got more exposure to the morning sun. I certainly didn't want to have a thin snow layer slough off from under me, so I moved a bit more to the right where it was deeper. Further to the right the slope reached 45 degrees, so I tried to walk the optimal line between sufficient snow cover and minimal slope. As the slope steepened to its greatest extent about halfway up, I could no longer use my poles well to balance since they were splayed too far out to the sides to do much good. I moved my hands to just above the baskets, spiking the points into the snow axe-fashion to provide holds for my arms. There was little chance this would hold in a fall, but they would catch a small slip and could be used to partially pull myself up with. The view down to the trees was a bit distressing as I imagined myself careening like a bowling ball 150 feet into the unyielding bark-covered pins. Better to not look down, I reasoned. I rested often, but not long. It was an uncomfortable place to linger and besides my fingers were starting to get cold. Though I had two pairs of gloves on, the metal shafts that I gripped above the baskets were sucking the heat from my hands. Two thirds of the way up the angle began to ease and I made quick progress to the summit. The last 30 feet had some bare patches and thin icy sections over rock, but the angle was so low that these were more of a nuisance than a serious obstacle. It had taken about 20 minutes to climb the slope above the trees, and at 10a I was on the summit. Success!

There was plenty of snow about the summit slabs, but the warm sun gave a bright, cheery feel to it. The summit is a rounded knob with maybe a quarter acre of nearly flat terrain. I took off my pack and wandered about, taking in the wintry views of the High Country around me. Much of Yosemite National Park is visible for the summit which is higher than Half Dome by 200 feet. Mt. Hoffmann to the north, Echo Peaks & Matthes Crest to the northeast, Lyell and Maclure to the east, Mt. Clark, Gray and Red Peaks to the southeast. Both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls could be clearly seen in Yosemite Valley far below to the northwest. I had a snack and made an entry in the summit register, the first of the year, the last one being from November. After I had warmed nicely in the sun for almost half an hour, I started to get my things together again for the descent.

I switched to rock shoes and packed the crampons, poles, and boots away in the pack. It was a bit bulky and heavy, more than I would have preferred for the class 5 friction climb, but it would have to be managed. My backup plan now, should I find the slope too steep, would be to climb back up and retreat back down the Northeast Slope. As expected, nearly the entire face of the Southeast Slope was free of snow. The rock was warm, and it seemed more like a summer climb than February. I stopped at the primary rappel station where the slope first steepens appreciably, and collected a carabiner and a bunch of worn slings left over the previous seasons. I then headed down, going slowly and zigzagging my way across what seemed the easiest slopes with the best holds. There are but a few crack systems at all on the face, and these weren't much use for climbing. This could possibly be the only class 5 peak in the Sierra that can be climbed entirely without using one's hands - friction climbing at its purest. Of course I did use my hands wherever I thought they might do some good and even in places where it was probably to my detriment. The face is something like 400 feet in elevation, and though I had climbed it twice before, it was rather imposing without the safety of a rope tied to my waist. I found the slope to be just about as steep as I could manage without little fits of panic, and it became almost a mantra to keep telling myself, "Trust the shoes, trust the shoes." Nearly an hour in descending, my concentration must have been keen the whole time as I never once stopped to take a photograph during the descent. It was 11:30a when I reached the saddle between the north and middle summit, marking the end of the technical section. I changed back into my boots, took another photo of the Southeast Slope, and headed up and over the lower middle summit. (The top of the middle summit offers the best view of the Southeast Slope.)

Climbing down the south side of the middle summit, I almost wished I'd left my rock shoes on. The slabs are pure friction climbing, but not as steep as the Southeast Slope had been, and I managed in my boots. As I made my way down I marvelled at the few pine trees that grew on the slopes here. These weren't withered and weather-beaten scrubby pines, but pretty good-sized trees about 15-foot or more tall with trunks several feet in diameter. The truly impessive thing was they grew out of what looked like bedrock, squeezing up at of cracks found in the slabs. There was no earth anywhere, just rock, and the roots of the trees followed whatever cracks they could find out from the trunk, searching for water and nutrients. These were opportunistic trees if I ever saw any.

At the saddle between the middle and south summits I turned west and headed down the sunny slopes found here. I avoided the patchy snow for about half the distance down the slope, but then ran out of dry patches. The snow was softer here, and my boots would sink four or five inches with each step, and it seemed certain that my boots would be soaked before I got back. I wore gortex gaiters between my boots and my socks, but these would only prolong the time it would take for my socks to get soaked. They've never been able to really keep them dry. I found a small creek here gurgling and bubbling its way down the ravine in the middle of the slope, and I stopped to refill my water bottle before it disappeared altogether under the deepening snow cover I found as the slope lessened. I continued downhill, angling to the northwest, looking for the trail that connects with the Panorama Trail further north. Exactly what benefit I might derive from finding the trail was questionable - it was solid snow cover now in the Illilouette Valley between Starr King and Glacier Point Road, so the walking would likely be little different than it would be as I was now. But it gave me something to shoot for, and perhaps it might afford easier navigating as the trees thickened further down.

A bit surprising, I did find the trail. I was a bit in the woods, and the trail provided a clear path that could be easily discerned despite the thin forest canopy and uniform snow cover. I found this next mile and a half the most pleasant hiking of the whole day. The sun warmly on my back, miles from another soul, and easy walking in the dead of winter at 7,000ft elevation. Who would've thought it could be so delightful at this time of year? Even though it was past 1p now, the snow stayed firm enough to make easy work of the hiking. My snowshoes stayed strapped to my pack where they stayed the whole day as dead weight - or a 10lb insurance policy, depending on viewpoint. At least I had gotten some use out of the poles. I decided that I was making good enough time and feeling strong enough to do the full loop I had planned. Next stop - Glacier Point.

I left the trail where the slope down to Illilouette Creek seemed most reasonable. I didn't expect to be able to cross the creek in its icy, swollen condition, so I would need to make use of the bridge that crosses it shortly before the creek plunges down over Illilouette Falls. I reached the creek upstream a ways from the bridge, but caught sight of it soon enough as I contoured high above the steep east bank of the river, heading north towards the bridge. The trees were dense here and the ground underneath icy (snow melting off the trees froze again in layers on the snow below), slowing progress accordingly. Tired of slipping and nearly cracking an elbow or knee, I relented and put on the crampons again. I reached the bridge at 2p, crossing it still wearing crampons (and making small indents in the wooden planks where it was bare of snow).

The 1,200ft+ climb up the east side of Illilouette Ridge to Glacier Point was a bear. Literally in fact, as I found bear tracks in the snow not far from the top. It looked as if he'd gone the other way not more than a day or two earlier judging by the small amount of remelting the tracks had undergone. I followed the trail where I could, mostly over snow, but once there were some open spots I removed the crampons and finished in just boots. As I stumbled across the road and the Panorama Trailhead I was surprised to find a skier not a minute later, coming from Badger Pass and also heading to Glacier Point. When I got to the observation railing at the edge of the cliff, I found about half a dozen other skiers already there. This is a popular winter destination it would seem, and for good reason. The views into the Valley, and east to Half Dome and Mt. Starr King are hard to beat. I took five minutes here to shoot some photos and have the last of my three granola bars. I was looking rather enviously at the assortment of goodies another pair had brought with them, but I tried to console myself that I should be down to Curry Village well before they ever got back to Badger Pass.

I headed west looking for the Four Mile Trail that would head down by the opening of the gully, but never really found it. It didn't really matter since I'd been down the Ledge Trail route a number of times and it's pretty easy to find from Glacier Point. Simply head west and go down the first drainage a few hundred yards from Glacier Point. The chute was filled with snow, and quite firm. Icy in places even, so I put the crampons on right at the top. I used the poles for balance as I walked carefully down, knowing full well that a slip would be difficult if not impossible to stop - I'd probably end up about 2,000 feet lower in a world of hurt. It would have been much more relaxing and fun if I'd had my axe along. So instead of enjoying a nice winter descent down the Ledge Trail, I spent half an hour in the treacherous upper reaches picking my way oh-so-carefully down. Adding to the challenge, I could hear a stream gurgling underneath the snowpack, now and then popping out to the surface before popping back under. Fortunately the snow was hard enough that I never broke through, though I worried about this in addition to my more serious concern. This upper section descends 1/3 the vertical distance to the valley floor before the route takes an easterly turn across the northwest face of Glacier Point and down to Curry Village. Just before this turn, the snow in the main gully turned to water-ice that suddenly and unexpectedly blocked my progress. Even with an axe there was no way I'd get down this next 25-foot section. As luck would have it I could cut left around a large boulder and onto a sloping ledge that was snow-covered and allowed me to bypass the icy stream. It certainly saved me a good deal of time, because my backup plan at this point was to reascend the gully and try to make my way down the Four Mile Trail which would find me high above the valley floor after sunset.

At the turn in the route, I noted an old "Trail Closed" sign bolted to a piece of rock. Little good it seemed to do. The stream also turns westward here, following the bend in the trail, before diverging north and cascading down a series of ledges and forming the seasonal feature known as Staircase Falls above Curry Village. There was much ice on the sides of the stream and at one point I was held up for a good five minutes needing to step only four feet across the stream to pick up the route on the other side. The trick here was to not step in the water (and soak/freeze my foot), and not slip on the ice. I studied the fall line which seemed to be over a series of icy cascades before plunging 20 yards downstream over the first of the main ledges in the falls. I couldn't convince myself that if I did fall, I wouldn't land somewhere behind Curry Village, again in a world of hurt. So falling was simply not an option. Yet I couldn't convince myself to dig in my pack for the crampons that would have made this single step across easy. Instead, I focussed all my energy into placing a single foot on a smooth piece of ice, balancing my weight carefully across it to keep my footing from slipping out beneath me. As I stepped across I grabbed some branches on the other side, and hauled my butt off the ice. No breaking ice, no slipping, no wet feet. But I should have used the crampons.

There was more snow on the other side going down some slopes around 30 degrees. The snow was softer in places and I would break through, long enough to get snow down my boots and keep the outsides nice and wet. But most of it was solid, so much so that I broke down and put on the crampons to get down about 150 feet of it. Then it was back to drier rock (or rather wet, but snow-free rock), and less and less snow the lower I dropped in elevation. Once about halfway down vertically from Glacier Point, the rest was easier, but still not trivial. There seems to have been some avalanching and rock slides since I was last here about four or five years ago. There were some very loose sections that had me grabbling bushes to steady myself, and a few rocky traverses on class 3 stuff that were wet and more threatening without any bushes to hold on to. I took a last photo when I was about 2/3 of the way down, an afternoon shot of Half Dome before Glacier Point's shadow had crept up to it. It was a reminder of how late in the day it was (4:15p), and how early the sun sets at this time of year. I continued down through the debris choked gully, unable to find any vestiges of the trail I had remembered from before. I suspected the trail is slowly being reclaimed by nature through the never-resting processes and forces acting upon it. There was little bushwhacking needed thank goodness, and a pretty sharp transistion from loose scree to forest cover not far above the valley floor. By the time I'd stumbled down into Curry Village it was 5:30p, the sun just having set, and another 15 minutes to get back to my car. Whew! A long 12.5hr day, but a most enjoyable adventure!


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