Vogelsang Peak P750 SPS / WSC
Rafferty Peak
Johnson Peak

Tue, Sep 14, 1999

With: Chris Ridell

Vogelsang Peak
Rafferty Peak
Johnson Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Vogelsang Peak later climbed Sat, Jun 21, 2003
Rafferty Peak later climbed Tue, Jun 19, 2012


Vogelsang Peak is situated in the heart of the Yosemite High Country. As such it commands wonderful views of the Cathedral and Clark ranges, the Kuna Crest, and far north to the Yosemite boundary with Forsythe, Tower, Matterhorn, and Twin Peaks. In fact, the only Yosemite peaks that aren't visible from its summit are the far southeastern peaks on the very boundary, including Mt. Lyell, Rodgers, Electra, and Foerster Peaks. Not bad for a peak less than 11,500 ft in stature. I had passed by Vogelsang several times in the past while attempting to climb Mt. Florence, the last time only a few months earlier. In the first attempt on Mt. Florence a year earlier, I had planned ambitiously to climb Vogelsang and Fletcher Peaks on my way, but failed miserably. Vogelsang can be climbed as a relatively easy dayhike, and I finally had a day in Tuolumne to devote to bagging it.

It was now two days since the Half Dome epic. The day after was spent playing around on Polly Dome above Tenaya Lake. Monty and I were the only ones who felt like climbing, while the others went fishing, for a walk, or rested. We didn't feel like hiking any distance, so we climbed some easy cracks on Polly Dome that were easily reached from highway 120. Monty and John had to return to San Jose that night, so there were just four of us left camping at Tuolumne Meadows that night - brothers Ron and Tom, Tom's friend Chris, and myself. We were only staying this one last day before returning ourselves, so I was hoping to get a last peak climb in before leaving.

I awoke a little before 7:30a, having decided the night before to climb Vogelsang Peak. It should be an easy class 2, and I expected I could be on the summit in about 4 hours (9 miles from Tuolumne to the peak), maybe three hours to return. It was a cold morning. It had gotten below freezing during the night, and I put on just about all the clothes I had with me. I wandered over to the other tent where Chris and Tom were sleeping, and proceeded to wake them to find if they were interested in joining me. There were a few grunts and a few indiscernible mumblings that emanated from inside their sleeping bags. After I asked a second time, I got a half-hearted "yes" from one of them, some more grumbling, and then silence again. I then went over to wake Ron who was sleeping in the passenger seat of his rental car. How he manages to do this, and do it comfortably, is beyond me. The few times I've tried it myself were spent quite restlessly, as I tossed and turned all night, got little rest, and a sore neck for my effort. As I rapped on the window, Ron poked his head out and gave me a very pained look. He rolled down the window long enough to tell me thanks, but no thanks. He wanted to sleep some more and then return to Fresno early. I went back to the tent to see if they were stirring inside, but all was silence again. Waking them a second time, they told me they had changed their minds, possibly they might go hiking later, but not this early.

Oh well, I tried. We'd been up till midnight and before I had retired they had been rather wishy- washy as to whether they'd join me, so I wasn't too surprised. I didn't have any breakfast food with me, so it was pretty quick to pack up my tent, eat a few granola bars, and be on my way by 8a. Heading due south from our campsite, I soon enough connected with the JMT that skirts the southern end of the campground. Very soon after heading off on the trail, I was surprised to see a young buck grazing just off the trail. I have seen plenty of does and youngsters, but rarely any with antlers. I warmed up soon enough once I got hiking. I removed my jacket and stored it away, as the sun rose higher in the sky and began to warm things up.

The first two miles are relatively flat as they follow the JMT as it begins its way up Lyell Canyon. The climbing began where I turned off onto the Rafferty Creek Trail, rising over 1200 ft up to Tuolumne Pass. I made excellent time as I climbed steadily on, keeping up a 3mi/hr pace despite the elevation gain. Just before the pass, the trail opens into a large alpine meadow, where one gets the first views of Vogelsang Peak. Behind me, the view east was pretty nice as well, warranting a short break for pictures and bladder relief. By 10:15a I had reached the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, situated at the foot of Fletcher Peak, not far from Vogelsang Peak. I had expected it to take me about 45 minutes longer to reach here, probably because the other times I traveled this route I had a backpack on. Traveling with only a few day supplies in a fanny pack makes quite a difference. There was no one at the High Sierra camp when I arrived, and it looked like it was in the process of being taken down. It had looked much the same when I was here in August (then, it was in the process of being assembled), a short season of only a few months this year. It looks like a lot of work to put up and take down the tent cabins, and pack in all the supplies needed to support clients for a few months. Presumably the tents cannot be left up for the winter, as they'd be destroyed by the load of snow they'd receive on their roofs. I have no idea how much it costs to stay at one of these camps, but it seems like it ought to be quite expensive, judging by the amount of manual labor involved to maintain them.

I found the logs that span Fletcher Creek just south of the camp. Where previously I had found snow or very wet ground above the creek, it was now quite dry so late in the season and easy enough to follow the trail. The trail follows close by the base of Fletcher Peak, a little more than a mile northwest of Vogelsang Peak. It is said to have some very good climbing on it's north side, and from the look below it is understandable. As I walked by my eyes scanned the various chutes that can be found on the northwest and west sides. They looked like they'd be class 3 or 4 depending on the route one chose, and quite fun as well. I made a mental note to come back another time to climb this peak as well. Between the two peaks lies Vogelsang Lake at 10,312 ft. It was still full, fed by some permanent snow that lies on the north side of Vogelsang Pass just south of the lake. The trail skirts the western side of the lake on its way up to the pass, but my route left it just after crossing the lake's northern end. I had a clear view of Vogelsang Peak and it's whole east face and decided there were plenty of ways one could climb on this side. It was 1200 ft of climbing to reach the peak mostly over boulders and large slabs of granite. This was a lot more fun than the more tiresome sand and scree. I spotted cairns along the way, guessing that I was taking the "usual" route. Then I noticed other cairns at various places well to one side or the other of the route I was taking. None of the cairns were needed, as they didn't make the route any less difficult by following them as opposed to ignoring them and choosing your own route. Why did so many people bother to make so many unnecessary cairns? My best guess was that this was a field classroom used to teach cairn-building skills during one's stay at the High Sierra camp. Maybe the instructors should have let the students take their handiwork home with them rather than leave them lying around.

In about 20 minutes I was on top of the ridge, but still a good distance from the peak. What I had thought was the peak from below was just the eastern ridge. The true summit lies a short distance west of the east face. I clambered over the large boulders along the ridge and found myself at the summit at 11a, only three hours after I had left Tuolumne. As expected, the views were grand in all directions. Looking around clockwise starting from the south, were the Clark Range, Mt. Starr King, Half Dome, Mt. Hoffman, Matterhorn Pk, Mt. Conness, Parsons Pk, Simmons Pk, Mt. Florence, and a whole host of peaks I didn't take pictures of. To the east across Vogelsang Pass were Gallison and Bernice Lakes, both of which have wonderful alpine setting campsites (no trees, so you have to like the sun a lot). Vogelsang Lake below me is in a similar setting, but has a good deal more traffic. I had a snack and drank some water as I perused the peak register that I found in an old ammo box. It had been climbed as recently as the day before, and had an amazing number of entries. One entry was from someone who was making her 10th visit to the summit. She worked at the High Sierra camp as a cook, so I guessed it was a nice way to spend a few idle hours during the day. It seemed that just about every guest of the camp makes this climb, as most of the entries were during the months of August and September when the camp was open. Since I was ahead of schedule, I scanned my map to see what else I could climb before I had to be back in Tuolumne to meet the others. Rafferty Peak, about three or four miles to the north seemed a good candidate.

After I finished taking photos and packed up my stuff, it was time to head down. I looked down the direct east face and gauged it to be a class 3 climb, provided it didn't leave me hanging over a cliff. I could see about halfway down, but was left to guess what lay beyond that. I didn't remember any cliffs from below, but then I wasn't paying close attention. I decided to go down this way, resigned that I might have to climb back up should I get stuck. As I was hoping, the climbing was more interesting than the route up, and I enjoyed climbing down through over ledges and through narrow chutes. Luckily, the climbing got no harder as I descended, and I was easily able to navigate my way down. Down on the easier boulders, I once again noticed a proliferation of cairns (or ducks, depending on your preference). I've read that cairns are not welcome in Wilderness areas, and hikers are encouraged to remove those that are found. Normally, I leave them in place, as I've found many a cairn quite helpful in finding my way (North Guard comes to mind most recently, where the cairns helped me find the easiest route on the last stretch along the summit ridge). Those I found here were utterly useless, and I decided to knock over as many as I could find, a fun distraction as I hiked back down to the trail. I passed the High Sierra camp as I retraced my steps back through the Tuolumne Pass. There was an entire mule train (maybe 10 mules) that were here now, getting packed to take stuff back down to Tuolumne Meadows. The packer was swearing up a storm as he attempted to load one side of a mule only to find the saddle hadn't been fastened securely and everything fell off. He muffled his outburst when he caught sight of me, probably more embarrassed by his public display of packing (in)ability, than by his swearing.

I passed the High Sierra camp as I retraced my steps back through the Tuolumne Pass, looking for a good spot to cut over to head toward Rafferty Peak. Tom had mentioned that he and Chris might follow behind me later in the morning, so I half expected to see them as I was hiking back down. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of figures resting off to the side of the trail ahead of me. As I approached they were looking down intently at their map and didn't notice me coming. We exchanged greetings, and I asked them what they were looking at.

"Chris is thinking of climbing Rafferty," Tom said.

"A fine choice," I replied.

Tom's feet were still badly blistered from two days earlier, and were not feeling too good at the moment. He certainly wasn't going to climb any peaks under such conditions, and I was surprised that he'd come this far, almost seven miles from the trailhead. Chris hadn't done any hiking or climbing until this morning, so he was itching for a little more action than Ol' Hobble-about Tom could provide. I offered to accompany him to the top of Rafferty, without telling them I had planned to go that way anyway. It seemed like he'd enjoy it more if it was all his idea, and besides, there'd be no blaming me if it turned out to be too difficult a climb. If there was time, I planned to then head off towards Johnson Peak as it was in line with the return to Tuolumne. Chris wasn't too sure about the second peak, but he was keen on bagging Rafferty. After all, it had a name on the map, so it has to be a worthwhile objective, right? I think I was wearing off on them...

We left Tom who was planning to rest his feet awhile before heading back. He planned to take it slow getting back. The approach from the east is easy class 1 through sparse forest and large sheets of granite that resist most tree and plant growth. The incline increases gradually and eventually becomes a class 2 boulder field. Chris began to get winded about 10 minutes after we started off, so I slowed the pace to allow him to rest more. He seemed rather surprised to find himself out of breath, believing he was in better shape than he found himself in. I had to chuckle, because I have hiked with Chris several times in the past few years and he always feels this way. Tom says that Chris always plans to get in shape months before he comes hiking with us, but never quite makes time for it. Now Chris began blaming the altitude although he had spent the last two nights at 8,500 ft, and we were presently only at 10,000 ft. As we climbed the boulder field to the saddle north of the peak, Chris was breathing quite heavily and stopping every 50 feet to rest, hands on his hips, chest heaving. When we reached the saddle, he was swearing in between breaths, finally convinced that he was out of shape. He was somewhat disheartened when I told him we still had 250 feet to climb to the summit, but after resting, signaled me to lead on. The slope wasn't as steep as it had been, but the whole summit was pretty much a pile of boulders that ranged in size from washing machines to Volkswagens.

I reached the summit of Rafferty Peak at 1:30p, and found a tin can register under a pile of rocks. The views around were mostly all familar by now. Far to the southwest was the rounded dome of Mt. Starr King where I had been three days earlier. To the southeast were a number of familiar peaks including Dononhue Pk and Simmons Pk. Simmons was another unclimbed peak on my wish list, another future trip as yet unplanned. Close by to the west was a good profile of Cockscomb, a short class 4 climb from Elizabeth Lake. From the summit of Rafferty I also got my first view of Nelson Lake, an inviting lake at the forest's edge about a mile southeast of the peak. Chris found his way up about 5 minutes later and we sat and enjoyed the view while I handed the register to Chris. He looked perplexed and asked what it was. He hadn't seen a summit register before and thought it was pretty cool when I explained it to him. After about 15 minutes we headed north to descend the opposite side of the peak. We expected the descent to be similar to what we had just climbed, but found it noticeably steeper. Chris had some doubts as he looked down the mass of jumbled boulders that looked steeper than it really was (class 2). I went ahead to show him it was easier than it looked, after which he came down following my route exactly. We slowly made our way down to the north saddle. Chris looked dejectedly at the rise up to the next ridge. It was 500 feet up to Johnson Peak, but only 200 feet to the ridge south of it. If Chris could make the first 200 feet, he could drop down into the Elizabeth Lake drainage where I could meet him after climbing Johnson Peak. 200 feet doesn't sound like much, but staring up at it in front of him, Chris decided he'd had enough. Checking the map, it seemed pretty straightforward to follow the drainage east of where we stood down to the Rafferty Creek Trail. The contours on the map indicated that the route was less steep than what we'd already done, so Chris left me and headed down.

It was 2:15p when I headed up the ridge that separates Elizabeth Lake from Rafferty Creek. Johnson Peak was a short distance due north with about 300 feet of climbing remaining. The ridge was a broad, sandy saddle that had very little growing on it. Lots of slab granite and big boulders, but not much else. Johnson Peak is at the top of a narrow ridge running north-south. It was surprisingly fun climbing among the large boulders that make up the ridge, much more interesting than Rafferty Peak. At the top, I found a register in an old tin can, not very pretty, but functional. Having found no register on nearby Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks earlier in the summer, I was surprised to find one on this lesser one. I had much better luck with registers today, going three for three, my best effort yet. The views from the top provide excellent coverage of Tuolumne Meadows, the Elizabeth Lake drainage, and the Rafferty Creek. Looking around I was surprised to find that I'd climbed most of the nearby peaks in the area, Matthes Crest, Cockscomb and Echo Peaks to the southwest being the notable exceptions. Already I was planning a future trip to that area... Far to the east across Lyell Canyon could be seen Mts Dana and Gibbs, and Kuna and Koip Crests on the Yosemite boundary. Far in the background to the southest, Mt. Florence was just visible.

It was only 3p, and I still had plenty of time to make the rendezvous at 5p back at Tuolumne Meadows. The fastest way back would have been to head for Elizabeth Lake to the west, and take the trail back. The direct route would go almost due north following the ridge down into the forest, but slower since it would all be cross-country. Since I had the time, I took the more interesting direct route, and was amply rewarded for my choice. The climbing down the north ridge was interesting, there were a number of small class 3 "options" to play with on the way down above timberline, and once in the forest I had an interesting time navigating my way back. The forest blocks the view of . Lembert Dome, which was the obvious guiding landmark I had been using. Without resorting to a compass (which would have been cheating and I don't think I was carrying one anyway), I had only the angle of the sun to fix a bearing, and made a game of trying to navigate as accurately as I could back to the Tuolumne store. There were numerous downed trees that had to be circumvented, causing me to constantly change my direction of travel. I knew if I wandered to far to the left I would run into the Elizabeth Lake Trail. For this game, that would be a failure. If I kept to the right of the trail, I would have to eventually run into the John Muir Trail, which skirts the southern boundary of Tuolumne Meadows. It occurred to me that once I reached the JMT, I might not know if I should go left or right to find my way back to the store. I might end up hiking half a mile or so in the wrong direction before I figured out I'd gone the wrong way. After nearly two miles of wandering through the woods, around and over countless fallen trees and through numerous ravines, I at last stumbled across the trail. The last several hundred yards had been more bushwhacking than I had expected, and I was glad to find myself back on a nice dirt trail. Looking right and then left, I just caught sight of the trail sign at the start of the Elizabeth Lake Trail. I had quite by luck wandered within 20 yards of the trail, making it quite easy to determine that I was, in fact, right behind the store. Although I had aiming for just such a line, I knew from past experience that my navigation isn't nearly that good. On another occasion near noon on a cloudless day, I had tried the same game, and found myself travelling 90 degrees from my intended direction after only a quarter mile - it was quite disorienting to find myself off by such a large degree!

It was 4:15p when I reached civilization again, and I treated myself to a burger and shake at the Tuolumne Grill. Yum. A little while later I found Tom at the Wilderness Permit parking lot, limping badly. His blistered feet had treated him poorly on the return from Tuolumne Pass and he was not humored by my jokes. I was surprised that Chris had not returned before Tom, who claimed he was hiking at a snail's pace on the way back. Just as we were getting worried after 30 minutes or so, Chris strolled in without any trouble. He had had a fine cross-country walk down the creek canyon, taking his sweet time, as he explained it.

Thus completing another extended Sierra weekend, we began the long, long drive back to San Jose...

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