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Breaking a long tradition of never starting before midnight, I decided to start an hour earlier, at 11p, from the Rancheria TH. I had actually come out the previous year to do this dayhike and gotten all the way to Crown Valley some 3hrs into it before being stopped by the Tehipite Fire that was still burning in the area after several months. I hung around in the frigid temps playing with the fire for an hour or so before turning back, afraid to venture further along the trail for fear of smoke inhalation. No fires this year, hopefully nothing worse than some pesky mosquitoes.
For hours I plied my way east along first the Crown Valley Trail and then its continuation as the Blue Canyon Trail. The only pictures I took for those first four hours were of trail junctions and other signs I passed by along the way. The trail itself has little to offer - it sees a good deal of stock traffic and is therefore loaded with poop and sand and rock and not much else. There was no moon to speak of and I was buried in the trees for most of the first six hours - not much else to look at. Secor says the Blue Canyon Trail is unmaintained, but that was not the case. Most of the downed trees had been cut from the trail, most likely by the packers that use it most. I did not have any trouble finding or following the trail until it neared its end.
6a, just before sunrise, found me at the north end of Blue Canyon. There is a well-used campsite here just before Big Meadow, and it seems the trail maintenance ends at this point. There were some helpful ducks in places, but I still found it easy to lose the trail through the wetter parts of the route as it passes east of Big Meadow. At the north end of the meadow the canyon rises steeply again as the trail continues north before finally giving up the ghost about a mile north of Big Meadow. As the canyon bends to the right I could see that it forked further upstream, the left fork heading to Finger Peak and the right one to Dykeman Pass. I followed the right fork for several miles past a number of unnamed lakes until I finally crested Dykeman Pass at 8a. Across the east side of the pass I got my first view of Tunemah, a rather unimpressive peak from this vantage point, after nine hours of nearly continuous hiking. And I still had almost two more hours to go.
To reach Tunemah it was first necessary to drop more than 600ft into the Alpine Creek drainage. It is a pleasant little alpine valley above treeline graced with several lakes and the babbling Alpine Creek. After refreshing my water supplies in the creek, I first considered taking the more direct, but riskier route up the steep NE Face to a point above on the NE Ridge. But there was at least one section high up that I was unsure of and in the end I decided to take the more conventional route on the East Ridge and the slopes immediately to the right.
I'd like to be able to say it was a fine climb in a remote setting, but really it had little going for it other than the remote setting. The talus at the base of the ridge was tedious in its finer moments, frustrating and curse-inducing in the not-so-fine moments. I tried to stay close to the edge to contrive some class 3 scrambling and avoid the sandier slopes to the right, but it still wasn't very good. Try as I might, I just couldn't make anything memorable about the scramble up.
The summit register dated to 1972, one of the older ones I've seen in the High Sierra, and I took the time to photograph all 36 pages of it, which works out to an average of just about one page per year. The last half dozen parties were mostly known to me, including Matthew Holliman, Tina Bowman, Jeff Dhungana, and Doug Mantle. As my heart rate subsided and my head started to clear, I contemplated the fine views and my return route. I had noted on the maps that there appears to be a shorter route passing over Burnt Mtn Pass, just north of Burnt Mtn (which incidently didn't burn in the Tehipite Fire). I had looked over Matthew's photos from his own visit three years earlier, but I couldn't determine if the cliffs on the east side of the pass could be negotiated. Now that I had a clear view from the summit, it seemed a perfectly reasonable route to pursue. My hope was to save some miles and elevation to boot, but at the worst to have it take no longer than the route over Dykeman Pass.
After dropping most of the way off Tunemah, I could have tried to save some elevation loss by traversing around the Alpine Creek drainage, but it seemed faster just to continue dropping down to the unnamed meadow between Tunemah and the pass. There were plenty of fine flowers in the meadow and fortunately it was mostly dry as I was able to cross it without getting my boots soaked. It took about an hour and twenty minutes to get from the summit to the pass with what ended up being trivial route-finding. I found a stack of stones at the pass, but no sign of trail on either the east or west side of the pass. The west side was another matter and not as easily traveled. Wet meadows, thick brush, and downed logs conspired in various combinations to make things somewhat slower. It took another forty minutes to drop the 1,700ft down to the trail at the bottom of Blue Canyon. I concluded that this alternate route to Tunemah would probably save about an hour in each direction.
The return down Blue Canyon might have been described as pleasant if it hadn't been for the forboding of the 1,500-foot climb out required at the end of it. There were some glimspes to the Gorge of Despair through the trees on the way down the canyon, but most of it was well-covered up by the trees in the canyon, all of which had been spared in the fire. The climb out was even longer than I had anticipated and seemed to go on forever. That much of the trail had been ground into a sandy layer several inches deep didn't help either, and to boot it was getting rather warm on the trail in the early afternoon. It was a razor's edge I walked in my prayers asking for cooling cloud cover without a drenching thunderstorm.
Once over the saddle near Kettle Dome things got somewhat easier. Adding to the sand was a layer of powdery ash as I traveled through an area that had been badly burned. The winter snows and rains had not washed away all the ash as one might have expected. I'm not sure that this stuff is very good on the lungs to be breathing it in, but there seemed no way to avoid it entirely. I was very thankful that I didn't come across any pack trains coming through. The lowpoint came at Crown Creek where the trail drops to 7,000ft of elevation. I paused here for a short soak in the chilly but refreshing waters before steeling myself for another 1,500-foot climb up to Crown Valley and the high saddle just beyond Cow Meadow.
Though the fire had crept up to Cow Camp at Crown Valley, it did not seem to have suffered much. The buildings had all been spared from what I could see as had most of the forest surrounding the rather large meadow. There were several hands working about the buildings (first folks I had seen all day), but as the signs tacked to the trees did not encourage trespassers, I didn't stop for a chat to see what they were up to.
Crown Valley is just shy of eight miles from the trailhead, and it took me another two hours and forty minutes to cover the remaining distance. My body was holding up surprisingly well, no doubt strengthened from the three previous outings and the residual acclimatization they afforded. It was just after 7:35p when I got back to the Rancheria TH. The outing had taken a bit over 20.5hrs, making it my longest dayhike to date (I have yet to match some of Matthew's that have been just shy of 24hrs). That I could feel decently at its conclusion was very encouraging. Perhaps Picket Guard wasn't going to be the nightmare I'd been envisioning. Then again, that might be wishful thinking...
Days later I learned that the route over Burnt Mtn Pass was part of the old Tunemah Trail described by Secor in which the Chinese sheepherders provided the colorful name for Tunemah when driving their sheep down rugged east side of the White Divide to Simpson Meadow below. The phrase is purportedly a fairly strong curse in Chinese that means something like, "You sleep with your Grandmother!" Or worse. There appears to be no vestiges left of the old trail beyond Blue Canyon.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Tunemah Peak
This page last updated: Sun Jun 16 22:49:56 2013
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