Three Sisters P1K SPS
Dogtooth Peak

Mon, Oct 20, 2008

With: Shane Smith

Three Sisters
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

Intending to head to Tunemah Peak, perhaps one of the five hardest dayhikes on the SPS list, I had left San Jose in the afternoon around 1p. This allowed me to get to the Rancheria TH shortly after sunset, getting a good six hours of sleep before I was up again at midnight. A notice at the TH kiosk indicated that several trails were closed due to the Tehipite fire, including the Blue Canyon Trail which I would use to get close to Tunemah. Since it was dated more than a month earlier, I figured it was out of date and unlikely to still be an issue. So off I went.

For nearly three hours I plied the trails towards Crown Valley by headlamp, temperatures in the upper 20's - cold, but not unbearable as long as I kept hiking. I figured I would be in Blue Canyon by sunrise and the sun would help warm me up at that time. When I reached Crown Valley I spotted what looked like a campfire through the woods, but when I noticed several of these I realized they were parts of the forest burning, not campfires. It looked like the Tehipite fire was still burning after all. When I went to look at the glowing embers close up, I found deep ash in places off the trail, yet in other places things were untouched. It had rained lightly a few days earlier, and the damp earth along with the cold temps and still air were conspiring to extinguish the fire, but only with mixed success. There was still a good deal of dead wood littering the forest floor along with a thick matting of pine needles. The fire managed to creep slowly through the pine needles in places, sometimes going out, other times igniting the drier pieces of dead wood. It was a slow-motion affair for the most part and it was not difficult to walk around the fire area at the perimeter where I had approached. Several trees were partially consumed in the hour I hung around watching the fire, and in the distance I could hear the crashing of trees from time to time. I made several attempts to continue on the trail past Crown Valley, but the smoke only got thicker as I waded into the burn area. I imagined that as the day warmed up I might find myself in real trouble later in the afternoon upon my return. A retreat seemed the smarter option. It helped that I realized I might still be able to salvage the day and climb Three Sisters. I had been saving the peak possibly for a list finish, but using it in such a situation seemed a good idea as well.

It was just past sunrise and 7:15a by the time I had hiked all the way back to the TH. Seven hours of hiking and no peak to show for it. That is some kind of a record for me. On the bright side, I still had most of the daylight ahead of me and Three Sisters shouldn't take more than about half a day, I guessed. Once again in the van, I drove back out to Wishon Reservoir, and then on to Courtright Reservoir and the Cliff Lake TH. It was now about 8a. There was a single car when I arrived, parked near a locked gate. I drove past it into the large parking lot and went over to the TH kiosk to inspect the map. Since I hadn't prepared for Three Sisters ahead of time, I had only a general idea where the peak lay. It could not be seen through the forest in the vicinity and I hoped a map at the kiosk would prove sufficient for navigational purposes. Alas, the map showed only trails and lakes, but none of the surrounding peaks nor terrain topography. I was afraid I might be out of luck.

I heard a car engine and guessed that the car's owner had returned. Perhaps I could see if they had a map I might peruse. As I walked over to the other vehicle, the passenger window rolled down and I politely asked if there might be a map of the area I could look at. "Yeah, sure," was the response. As he started to dig around in a pack in the heavily loaded, but pint-sized car, I added further that I was wanted to get to Three Sisters. "Really? That's where I'm going," he responded, then paused in his search, looked up at me and said, "Are you Bob?" I started to laugh.

Turns out it was Shane Smith. Having just climbed Spanish Mtn the day before, he'd slept in his car overnight and was heading to Three Sisters today. A prolific peakbagger, I've seen Shane's name in dozens of summit registers but had never met him. Shane has completed all of the DPS peaks, all but one of the HPS ones, and upwards of 150 on the SPS list, for a grand total higher than my own. He and I had just exchanged emails only a week earlier concerning the standard route on Middle Palisade. That we would meet each other coincidently like this might at first seem highly improbable, but upon further reflection wasn't all that unlikely. For me it was quite fortuitous, because not only would I get a map to the peak, I'd have someone to join me as well.

The two of us headed out not long after 8a, taking the Cliff Lake Trail into the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness and up several thousand feet of gain. Once Shane had shed his colder outerwear, passing folks might have mistaken us for twins, both wearing the same khaki-colored pants, long sleeve white T's, and similar hiking boots. Even the goofy hats were similar. The biggest difference was that Shane was sporting trekking poles. For several hours we hiked along discussing each other's goals, work, climbing, and family histories and stories. Hailing from Ridgecrest, I envied Shane's central location for peak bagging the Sierra Club lists, but not so much the 100F+ temperatures one has to endure during the summer for the priviledge. His drive to the west side TH had been similarly daunting - 8hrs, while mine had taken but 5hrs.

We reached Cliff Lake by 10a, a beautifully situated lake at the 9,400-foot level, with (you guessed it) cliffs bordering it on one side. Beyond the cliffs rose Three Sisters, just barely visible above the foreground. After taking a short break, we continued around the east side of the lake, climbing higher as we turned west and headed towards Three Sisters. Dogtooth Peak came into view to the north behind Cliff Lake now below us. We followed a line heading nearly directly for our summit, with only slight veering to the north to avoid losing too much elevation. At the base of the peak, we scrambled up the class 2 East Face. It was only for the last 20ft or so as we climbed the summit rocks directly that we encountered a few class 3 moves - easily avoided if one so chose.

It was shortly before 11a when we summited, and though the climbing had been rather mundane, we were both highly impressed with the sweeping view of the Sierra before us. We could see the Clark and Cathedral Ranges of Yosemite to the north, the Great Western Divide and the Kaweahs to the south, and literally hundreds of peaks in between to the east. Three Sisters lies so far west of the rest of the Sierra that it gives the impression of being on another range - not unlike the view from the Inyo or White Mtns, but with a much broader sweep of peaks since the inside of the curve of the Sierra faces west rather than east. Together we pieced together labels for more than 30 of the peaks within our view, and probably could have done twice that had we taken more time with the effort. The summit register went back only a few years but the names of the frequent visitors easily filled several books. We added our own while we snacked and considered what to do next.

The nearest peaks are Brown Peak to the south and Dogtooth to the northeast. Further south were Eagle and Nelson Peaks, but these were too far for me to consider given the extra seven hours of hiking I'd gotten in before sunrise. Dogtooth looked to be the most interesting of the two nearby peaks and I resolved to head off in that direction. Shane seemed a bit surprised that I would head off to the peak without having gathered any beta beforehand, but it looked to me like it ought to be no harder than class 3. Certainly worth a look, I thought. Shane decided he'd be content with just the SPS peak and declined to join me, so we shook hands at the summit and parted via different routes.

I headed down the NE side to the saddle with Dogtooth Peak. I skirted a few intermediate highpoints on their south side, traversing easy cross-country ground over slabs and sparse forest cover. There were ducks in places along the way, to what purpose I could not fathom. Certainly there was nothing to hinder taking almost any route across the easy terrain, and why someone would build ducks to encourage a specific path seemed a bit pointless. I dismantled those I happened to pass by on my way.

It took only about an hour to make it from one summit to the other. Dogtooth has three distinct summits, the highpoint being the least obvious one to the east, at least when approaching from the west. The most interesting of the three is the westernmost, the double-pointed formation looking like the namesake canine tooth when viewed from most angles. It was also the hardest, probably class 4 by the easiest route, but I didn't take the time to find out as I might have had I not been fairly tired by this time. By skirting around the north side of the west and middle summit I was able to find a class 2-3 way around to the saddle between the east and middle summits. It was then easy to pass through this saddle around the south and east sides of the higher pinnacle and find a somewhat circuitous class 3 way up with little exposure. The east and south faces below the route were near vertical and looked to be well beyond class 3, but I didn't look all that hard to see if there might be other ways to reach the highpoint. It certainly had the look and feel of limited options without getting out a rope.

I found two canisters at the summit, each containing register books that were concurrently in use. Though not as popular a summit as Three Sisters, it still saw a good deal more traffic than the average Sierra summit, probably owing to its relatively short distance from Courtright and the outstanding views to be had from its summit (much like Three Sisters).

After my short visit to the summit, I reversed the route I had taken up from the west until I was on easier class 1-2 terrain. There may have been other options off the west side, but by this time I was too tired to go exploring and really just wanted to get back. I headed south from Dogtooth towards a lake in that direction. Without a map I wasn't certain where the trail was, but it wasn't too hard to guess that I would intercept it if I continued in that direction. This cross-country romp would shortcut the return, bypassing Cliff Lake. The lake I passed around south of Dogtooth was Bullfrog Lake I came to find later, a pretty lake with fine views of Dogtooth behind it when viewed from the west or south shores.

I had hoped I might run across a side trail at Bullfrog Lake, but not finding one I continued in a more southeast direction, passing an unnamed lake and eventually intersecting the main Cliff Lake Trail further below. I spent another hour on the trail, mostly downhill, but the last mile back to the TH had a modest 250-foot gain. It was 2:40p when I got back to the car, making just over 6hrs for Three Sisters & Dogtooth, but more than 13hrs for the day. I was happy to call it quits. I managed to get home to San Jose before the kids went to bed, somewhat to the surprise of the family - they'd gotten used to having me roll in around midnight of late. I would save that for the next outing later in the week.

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