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later climbed Sat, Aug 9, 2003|
A year later, an opportunity arose when my friend Michael wanted to return to the site to climb Matterhorn which he had failed to do on our first visit due to exhaustion. In better shape, and using this as a kick off for a weeklong trip through Northern Yosemite, Michael wanted to travel with his friend Monty in one direction while I travelled the other direction. I happily volunteered for this duty since I was trying a new experiment of lightweight backpacking that Michael and I had been discussing for a few months. My version of this is to carry as little as necessary for a one night stay in the Sierra allowing myself to cover as much ground as possible in 24 hours or less. This meant no stove, no cookwear, no water filter, no tent (I used a bivy sack). I couldn't carry all the water I would need, but I relied on the ability to get water from fresh snowmelt up in the high country, reducing the risk of giardia.
My plan for this trip was to drive up to Tuolumne Meadows, arriving in the afternoon, drop off the car, and then hike the 30 miles (and bag Twin Peaks along the route) to Twin Lakes by the following afternoon.
Michael and Monty had started their trip 5 days before, and were in Tuolumne Meadows for a rock climbing class before they were to resume their trip down to Yosemite Valley and their ultimate destination, the Sunday brunch at the Ahwanee. I arrived at the market in Tuolumne at 3:30p on Friday and found the two grizzled hikers before I had even shut the engine off, walking in front of the car. We hadn't actually planned to meet, but it was a nice surprise. After exchanging greetings and news, they drove me down the road to the ranger station and dumped me off at the trail head at 4p. The weather was wonderful, clear skies warm.
Off I went across Tuolumne Meadow, lots of people everywhere; day hikers, photographers (setting up for that perfect afternoon/sunset meadow photo), a few backpackers on their way to Young Lakes. It only took me a quarter mile before I had to pull out my map to check the route. Seems there are 3 or 4 trail junctions almost right away, without clear markings. Turns out the two I couldn't decide between both joined up another quarter mile later and headed in my direction to Glen Aulin.
Glen Aulin is a High Sierra Camp, which means its one the five or so places in Yosemite that you can visit the high country in high style via the Pack Station concessionaire. In a group of up to twenty, you get your own horse, about 3-4 guides who do all the heavy work like loading and unloading mules, cooking meals, etc. On a previous trip in Tuolumne, I happened through the corrals as they were preparing to load the provisions. All the guests' personal goods were in a big pile, and in this particular one I noted 5 cases of Budweiser. That kinda left the impression on me that this wasn't as much a wilderness experience, as an alternative party location. But I'm sure it's a pretty fun time in its own way, and as I get older I appreciate more and more the idea of being catered to on vacation. End of digression.
The 5.2 miles to Glen Aulin follow the Tuolumne River as it exits Tuolumne Meadows. Its a beautifully picturesque series of cascades mixed with a few slower stretches. There are plenty of dayhikers strolling the edges, fishing, and otherwise enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I passed by a returning pack train heading back to Tuolumne, a pleasant looking group that appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed their outing.. Just before Glen Aulin, the trail and river begin a steep decline, the river's cascades clearly visible from the camp below. Although I knew there was this downhill from the map, I was still hoping I didn't lose too much elevation knowing I would have to turn and gain it all back again. It went down quite a ways, oblivious to my silent pleadings. (It's about 800ft down to Glen Aulin.)
The camp is located in the only flat spot for a mile in any direction, so its not hard to figure out how they picked this particular location. Strangely, I only saw one person on my way through. I don't know if they were between visitors or perhaps they were inside having supper (It was after 5p by this time). It's a very picturesque spot, very worthy in its own right as a destination. The PCT heads north at this point, and as mentioned earlier, begins the uphill portion. Fortunately, it is a very nice grade, not strenuous at all. By the time I got to the meadow up in Cold Canyon the sun had just set and twilight was beginning. This is one of the nicer times to be out hiking I've found, when the deer come out to feed and are more easily spotted.
The trail heads downward for a short while where it meets Return Creek, passing through a forested area on the way. Under the trees it became too dark to see easily, so I had to use the flashlight starting at this point. While I have hiked at night in Yosemite several times before, those previous times were in more open terrain with the moon out, and not nearly so dark. I started thinking about bears and mountain lions, and how a lone hiker at night would be easy pickings, particularly one waving a flashlight around to show his every move.. Eventually I decided this wasn't a very nice, comforting, or fruitful thing to spend time thinking about (I didn't run into any bears or mountain lions or other man-killing beasts). After the downhill, the PCT turns left and follows the Return Creek downward. I turned right to begin heading up Virginia Canyon.
From the map, it appears I had two choices of routes here, one going up Virginia Canyon, the other up Spiller Canyon. The Spiller Canyon route offered the easiest passage through Horse Creek Pass, but the entire canyon is cross-country. Virginia Canyon offered a nice trail that goes up most of the way, finally turning right as it heads east out of Yosemite via Virgina Pass. The route I needed to go at the end of Virginia Canyon goes through one of two additional passes (Stanton and Twin Peaks Passes) or via Twin Peaks itself (as I planned to do), before reaching Spiller Canyon and Horse Creek Pass. In the end, I think my choice of Virginia Canyon was the correct (easiest) one (I was later told by Michael who had taken the other route, that Spiller Canyon was arduous, although scenic).
I followed the trail up the Virginia Canyon, noting a few campfires across the creek a few hundred yards or so. I wondered if they found it strange seeing a darting flashlight following the trail across from where they were. By this time it was 9p, but I wanted to tick off as many of the miles as I could before tomorrow, as I would have to do all the cross country travel and climb the peak as well, so the fewer miles, the better. At 10p the bulb in my Mini Maglight burned out. It took me about 15 minutes to install the spare bulb (conveniently provided in the flashlight's backend) by the light of a Bic lighter. I went deliberately slow during this operation, fearing that I might drop the batteries or any of a half dozen crucial tiny pieces, by which the loss of any single element would render the flashlight useless (and certainly halt any further progress!).
After I was on my way again, it was only 30 minutes before I came upon a junction where the main trail turns east toward Virginia Pass. My route was straight ahead, but the trail wasn't easy to find at night, so I called it a night. It was 10:45p now, and I'd come 18 miles, which was plenty enough. I'd been eating my trail snacks (dinner, really) along the way, so I had only to set up the bivy sack, inflate the mattress, open the sleeping bag, brush my teeth, and retire. Five minutes after stopping, I was in bed. A new personal best for setting up camp. :)
I woke up around 7a to another beautifully clear day. I packed up my things and was on the trail in about 15 minutes. I had more dried fruit and jerky for breakfast which I ate on the way. The trail here thins out, but is easily followed in the daytime for another mile or so. The trail heads up to the end of Virginia Canyon where it peters out among some nice campsites. There was a group of 4 camping in this area, just beginning their morning routines as I passed by. I've now reached 10,000ft and the route climbs quickly from this point. Neither of the Twin Peaks are visible from below, so the route upward isn't obvious. Secor offers the class 2 route between the two peaks as the best route, but the topo map doesn't help one unfamiliar with this area. The map shows two creeks heading up to Twin peaks on either side of the east peak. In reality, the right creek goes up the middle (the correct route) between the peaks, and the left one goes up towards the ridge between Spiller and Virginia Canyons (the route I took). While not impassable, it's more difficult class 3 made all the more challenging with my pack on.
It was 11a when I finally got to the summit of Twin Peaks, or rather the flat area up top. It's not at all obvious where the high point is, and you have to hunt around for the register. Hint: It's on the pile of rubble at the top of the ridge I was climbing up. While still a nice view, the large flat area up top prevents the commanding 360 view one gets from the top of Matterhorn Peak. I signed the register and stopped long enough for a snack and some photos. Then comes the business of getting down.
My route is to take me through to Twin Lakes, so I don't want to go back down the way I came. Plus, I'd feel dumb for having carried my pack all the way to the top. I figured it would take me an extra 2 hours easily if I have to go back down and then through Twin Peaks Pass. Secor claims there are two chutes on the west side (class 2-3) that afford access down to Horse Creek Pass. The somewhat scary part is going down a chute you've never been down before when you can't see a clear route to the bottom. As I descended, there were a dozen places where I nearly seemed to run out of a way down, but somehow there was always that one way that only becomes clear as you come right down to it. In a number of places I would have preferred to come down facing forward with my back to the mountain (for better visibility), but the pack on my back required me to climb down facing the mountain, using my feet to search for holds. I kept thinking how "fun" it would be if I got stuck and had to climb back up to get out. Fortunately, this was not to be the case, and eventually the chute comes out to a series of benches (requiring a bit of zigzagging) and then a talus slope that was much more tiring than the rocky part. By 12:30p I had reached Horse Creek Pass on the border of Yosemite.
While there is no maintained trail for the next 5 or 6 miles, I had been down this route a year earlier so I figured it'd be a piece of cake. The use trail fades in and out at various places, but since I knew the route (basically you follow Horse Creek down the valley) I kept up a decent pace and picked up the route where I could. Near the Hoover Wilderness boundary (about 100 yards from the maintained trail) I managed to get lost anyway, and found myself whacking through some very overgrown bushes looking for the trail again. I eventually managed to find it right at the location of the Hoover Wilderness boundary sign. At this point it's about 1600ft of downhill to Twin Lakes, and there are a lot more people one finds on the trail (coming up the canyon for dayhikes). I reached the campground and Monty's car just before 3:30p, almost 24hrs after I left Tuolumne. I had run out of water about two miles back, so I was mightly glad to have the convenient grocery store at the campground where I could buy all sorts of fructose-sweetened drinks along with my favorite - chocolate milk. Another six hours and I was back in San Jose, and soon after sleeping quite soundly...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Twin Peaks
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