White Mountain P500
Mt. Conness P2K SPS / WSC

Sun, Aug 1, 1993
  Etymology
White Mountain
Mt. Conness
Story Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3
White Mountain later climbed Thu, Jun 10, 2004
Mt. Conness later climbed Thu, Jun 10, 2004

This was to be my first extended trip to the Sierra since my Boy Scout days some 14 years earlier. I was not lacking on recent experience though. I had spent 5 months of the previous summer on an extended backpacking/camping trip to Alaska with my friend Eric. I had been bitten by the backpacking bug and worse, the peak-bagger strain. Another friend, Terry, became more interested in backpacking about the same time, and he would join me on extended trips in the Sierra in each of the next six years. Terry has little of the peak-bagging interest that I have, is tentative on even some class 2 cross-country, and is happy to just sit around and fish, read a book, or take a stroll to a nearby ridge or lake. Nearly the opposite, I enjoy nothing more than hiking and climbing while I'm in the Wilderness. If I'm not scrambling to climb something, I'm on my way back or enroute to another peak. Yet we both managed to enjoy backpacking with each other, and it was probably due more to our differences than those things we had in common. Terry was always happy to let me pick our destination and route, and was always willing to do the long marches in, without ever complaining. Sometimes he would join me on a hiking or climbing foray, and he'd comment that he was glad to have me around to motivate him a bit now and then. I appreciated that Terry was perfectly content to while away his time alone during the day while I was off chasing down a peak. And we both enjoyed getting back together at dinnertime to recount the day's adventures.

For our first adventure I picked Tuolumne Meadows, as it had a reputation for outstanding scenery. We planned to spend two nights at Young Lakes, and then return to Tuolumne and head out for a longer four night stay out at the end of Lyell Canyon. This would give me a chance to climb both Mt. Conness and Mt. Lyell, as two worthy objectives.

We hiked in starting early in the morning, or as soon as possible after obtaining our overnight permits at the Wilderness kiosk at Tuolumne Meadows. We started from Lembert Dome, hiking northwest along the trail until south of Ragged Pass. We then headed cross-country in an effort to both save some time and have a bit of fun. The pass lies just east of Ragged Peak, and the only tricky part is the steep northside descent. With snow this is more hazardous, but we found the west side of the north slope snow-free, and a straightforward descent over sand talus and boulders.

The next morning I headed out, leaving Terry behind to fish and while away the day. I hiked east from Young Lakes following the canyon to the upper lake, and eventually climbing a north spur onto the Southeast Ridge of White Mtn. From the summit of White Mtn I hiked north, following the ridge a ways, then dropping down onto the easier slopes of the west side of the ridge. It is an easy class 2 climb to Conness from here, with a bit of an airy stairway in the final 100ft or so the summit. I peered down to the glacier on the north side and was impressed with the dropoff found here. I could see two tiny figures roped together crossing the glacier. It struck me as odd that people would go out of their way to find a harder route to get to a summit. I hadn't been on the summit long when another party came up from the North Ridge, ropes, gear and all. "Where the hell did they come from?" I wondered to myself. Maybe I would have to look into this climbing stuff.

On the way back I skirted down the South slope hugging the Southwest Ridge as tight as I could. It got very steep and lost elevation in a hurry, but I managed to keep it to class 3 or below. Water dribbling down the slabs kept things very interesting, and it took me some time to get down. I then headed to Roosevelt Lake, a long, thin lake on Conness's west side that sits nestled in a fairly desolate little valley between Conness and Sheep Peak. I was surprised at the size of the trout in the lake, maybe eight to ten inches, far larger than the ones Terry was fishing for back at Young Lakes. I followed the creek down the canyon a ways until I figured I was more or less due north of camp. I then struck back up the hillside for a last 500 feet of climbing at the end of the day before popping up pretty close to the lake and our camp.

The mosquitoes were quite terrible, and I was a bit sad to be back in camp and having to deal with my fear of the dreaded pests. Terry had caught three fish and was excited to present them for dinner. The largest was maybe six inches and I suggested it would have been better to let them go back in the lake. Terry was adamnant though, and said he was going to eat them no matter what size they were. After cooking, deboning, and removing the skin, there was little left but a few bites and enough fish juice to barely flavor the rice bed we put them on. So much for living off the land.

The next day we hiked back out, set up camp in the Tuolumne Meadow walk-in, and got another permit for the following day. This time we planned to hike out to Donohue Pass where I'd been told I could find spectacular wildflower displays on the southeast side. Things didn't go quite as planned though.

We were off in the morning with four nights' worth of provisions and heavy backpacks probably weighing 45lbs. This was my first excursion up Lyell Canyon, a route I would take quite a few more times in the future. I was enamoured with the scenery, the Mammoth Crest rising high to the east, the Cathedral Range to the west, the spectacular Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne meandering down the center of this nine mile long canyon. It took probably four hours for us to reach the end of the canyon where the climb begins in earnest. Terry was sweating heavily and wanting a lunch break and rest. I was itching to keep going naturally. We settled on a compromise. Terry would stop and rest, I would keep going and explore the Maclure Creek canyon above, and we would meet back on the JMT at the bridge where we would make camp for the first night.

I headed up the 500ft of headwall on switchbacks, then climbed up to the bridge where I dumped my pack not far on the other side. It felt good to get the pack off my back. Now for the fun part. After hiking a short ways further on the trail, I headed southwest up the cascading Maclure Creek that joins the Lyell Fork at the bridge. This was an interesting undergrowth bushwhack, a delicate balance of rock-hopping back and forth across the creek and fighting the lush vegetation that grows along the creekbanks. I followed the lower portions of Maclure's Northeast Ridge, then skirted around to the east side to get me to the Lyell Glacier. I hadn't really had in mind climbing any peaks today, but I was getting tantalizingly close to both Maclure and Lyell. I had no axe or crampons or any rock climbing skills, so I was too intimidated to try for the higher reaches of these two mountains (class 3 was still scary to me at the time). But I did manage to reach the col between them, and had a breathtaking view down the southwest side. It looked frightfully steep down that way. It was around 4p by now and it was getting late, and besides I had to admit I was pretty tired.

I returned via the normal approach to Lyell, on a northeasterly course towards the JMT. About half a mile still from the JMT, I could see a lone backpacker had set up a tent down below. I hadn't seen anyone since I'd left Terry earlier in the day, and I was sort of looking forward to sharing a few words with another fellow human being. But as I drew closer, the backpacker spotted me and withdrew into his tent. He did not come out for the next ten minutes as I went by, even though I walked within feet of his tent - evidently he'd come up here for solitude and I wasn't part of the experience he was after. I thought it a bit funny and continued on my way without ever sharing a word.

By the time I'd returned to my pack it was 6p and I decided to go hunt for Terry. I walked down the trail, back across the bridge, all the way down to the start of the serious downclimb. I didn't see Terry anywhere. The area was now starting to fill up with other backpackers, which seemed a bit odd. It was still the middle of the week, so it wasn't a weekend crowd suddenly arriving, but where I saw no one the day before now seemed teeming with people. I was surprised at just how popular this area was. I reversed directions and headed back up the trail, stopping at several camps to see if anyone had met someone matching Terry's description. At 6'5" he's hard to miss, but apparently everyone did. Back at the bridge I pondered my options. It was too late to hike back down. I had our tent and lots of food, but no stove to cook with. Granola would have to suffice despite my serious appetite. Terry might be lost somewhere - did he possibly follow me up Maclure Creek? That would have been a bit much for him. Was he hurt? I decided to sleep at the bridge for the night, and head down in the morning to look for him.

I awoke early and started down the trail, eyeing everything that moved, made noise, or looked of human origin alongside both sides of the trail. Nowhere could I find Terry. It was still morning when I finished the hike out and seeked out the nearby ranger station. To an attentive ranger I gave an account of my missing friend and the events as I knew them over the past day. The ranger asked lots of questions about what he was wearing, the color of his backpack and other helpful descriptions that I was embarassed to recall very few details about. The ranger asked if Terry had been depressed, possibly suicidal. Would he have a reason to not want to be found? No, none of that seemed to apply. But somehow we had lost each other on one of the most obvious trails in the park.

After my interview with the ranger he said there was a ranger heading up on horseback that would help look for him. I went back to the Tuolumne Meadows campground as suggested by the ranger to await news. I don't recall how I spent the next four or five hours, but I'm sure I had a zillion scenarios running through my head trying to make sense of the whole thing. Sometime in mid-afternoon Terry came strolling into camp and we exchanged hugs and greetings like we'd just found our long-lost brothers. Terry related that he'd hike up to the bridge the previous day, but not across it (he would have seen my pack about 100ft past the bridge). He'd then camped somewhere about 50ft off the trail in what he thought was plain sight. Though he had no tent and the temperature got down to freezing, he said he had no trouble sleeping warmly that night, and in fact had his bag partly unzipped (he sweats alot, but he sure sleeps warm!). In the morning (he got up after I did) he spent some hours hiking up Maclure Creek to look for me. He had worried that I'd gotten hurt on my cross-country hike and made some effort to look for me there. And then he headed down around noon. He came across a ranger on horseback who asked if he was Terry Davis. And thus the events were relayed to him and he was able to finish the hike out knowing all was well.

We had blown two nights of our four night trip, and decided neither of us really wanted to hike back up Lyell Canyon again. So we decided to make camp where we were in the walk-in, and just a few day hikes with the remaining days we had.

Continued...


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