Alta Peak SPS / ESS
Tharps Rock Fail ESS / CS
The Watchtower ESS

Jul 29, 2002

With: Mark Connell

Alta Peak
Tharps Rock
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
Alta Peak later climbed Sep 22, 2011
Tharps Rock later attempted Sep 22, 2011

In looking for a nice warmup hike prior to climbing Mt. Brewer, I hit upon Alta Peak on the west side of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Seems lots of people climb this peak, it's particularly popular in the winter (so how hard could it be as a summer hike?), and to top it all, it was the first Sierra peak climbed by Jules Eichorn, who went on to pioneer a number of class 4-5 climbs in the High Sierra during the 1930's. I was unable to convince anyone to join me for the Mt. Brewer dayhike the following day, but Mark was interested in coming out to climb Alta. He met me at my home in San Jose at 7:30p on Thursday evening, and we drove caravan-style (he was going to return after climb Alta, so he needed to bring his own car) to the Wolverton TH in Sequoia.

Neither of us had been to this trailhead before, so were unprepared for the rather long drive. Though it's a westside trailhead, it still took 5hr to get there, which is about how long it takes to drive to Mono Lake on the east side. Arriving well past midnight, we searched the area surrounding the parking lot for suitable bivy sites, but found little. Mark decided to sleep in the back of his car, while I found a small shelf behind one of the bear boxes near the trailhead. I had several dreams that night involving bears trying to get into the boxes, and of course this naturally kept waking me up to survey my surroundings. Fortunately they were just dreams, and no bears stomped on my head, and no bears came visiting to the area that night.

We got up at 5:30a (didn't want to let a ranger find us dozing here illegally), and hit the trail by 6:15a. The first part of the trail has no great excitement, but after about an hour we came out on Panther Gap. It offers a beautiful panorama of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River drainage and a far-off view of the southern half of the Great Western Divide. From here the trail climbs more gradually as it contours high above the Kaweah River. Smoke from a fire dimmed our views a good deal and presented a hazy fog about the valley below. Castle Rocks, a craggy feature on the opposite of the valley could just be discerned through the smoke. We found a few springs on the hillside crossing the trail, and we took advantage of one to fill our water bottles. The springs gave life to a hillside meadow of ferns and flowers of all colors, and we stopped a number of time to photograph them.

As we climbed higher we noted the interesting rock pinnacle called Tharps Rock on our left, and I became somewhat fixated on it as the trail makes a wide counter-clockwise circle around it. As we approached the point where the trail comes closest I asked Mark if he was game to go check it out, and with his approval we struck off from the saddle just northeast. The rock climbing was interesting and we tried to follow a route along the ridgeline. We climbed up some cracks and chimneys and eventually found ourselves squeezing through a narrow gap with 20ft of air below, which led to - a cliff. Hmm. Retracing our steps and trying routes off the ridgeline, we separated as I took the west side and Mark tried the east side of the ridge. I eventually found my way to the summit rocks, but could not muster the courage to climb a 15ft overhanging section even though it appeared to have some decent holds. Meanwhile, Mark didn't drop low enough on the east side and found himself cliffed out a second time which pretty much sapped any drive he had left to reach the summit. I looked around some more, but decided it would take more than easy class 5 to surmount, so I gave up my quest as well and left the summit untouched. Later I found some help online pointing to the east side of the block as the key to climbing the summit block. Having left it unclimbed, it would give me an excuse to come back again in the future.

After playing around for most of an hour on Tharps, we were back on the trail and headed up the final sandy sections of the trail to the summit ridge and Alta's summit, arriving at 10:15a. The smoke continued to obscure the views somewhat, but we had a grand view of the Great Western Divide from as for north as Mt. Francis Farquhar and as far south as Florence Peak. And there was Mt. Brewer, tomorrow's goal, standing as one of the highest sentinels on the vast divide. The register box we found had an odd collection of items in addition to the standard registers. The most interesting was the GOD BOX, a wooden box with a small slit in it, with no door, hinges, or other method of opening (though someone had already broken a few of the sides off - nothing inside). Dave Daly from had visited but three days earlier, and after perusing a number of other entries we left our own. Our stay at the summit was brief, owing mostly to the annoying insects that collected there. One particular species of the flying variety seemed to overwhelm the rocks, and it looked like it was a group-copulation festival as they swarmed the rocks in frenzied activity.

Our plan to return was to take a circular route via Pear Lake, and from perusing trip reports prior to our hike we'd learned that there were at least several ways down to Pear Lake, though details were sketchy. As we left the summit rocks, we came to the very first chute on the north side directly below the summit and marvelled at it's very direct drop into the basin below heading right for the lake. The chute looked very loose in addition to being quite steep, and it seemed obvious that the easier route would be a more circuitous route along the ridge to the northeast before dropping down. Always looking to add a little spice, I asked Mark what he thought of the chute, and as expected he gave a non-commital reply that I took to mean, "I'll follow you if you go down there." So I pretty much jumped into the chute before we changed our minds, and almost immediately set off a cascade of sliding sand, tumbling rocks, and God help any poor soul that might have been climbing up from below. Mark followed cautiously, and I took a more cautious attitude as I realized I was now in Mark's firing line and wholely dependent on his good judgement in not sending rocks down to clobber me. I watched him closely as he slid and climbed down. I moved to the side to avoid the rock funnel, and even found a short section of interesting rock climbing to occupy my time. This detour allowed Mark to catch up rather easily, and we both made our way carefully down the very loose chute.

Eventually we got out of the steepest part, jogged down a couple hundred feet of a sandy talus fan at the bottom, and came out on a wide granite bench area that was still about a thousand feet above the lake which we could see below us. The down climbing was easy and fun until it grew steeper and we began to realize we may have cliffs to deal with below. We did. I took this as an opportunity to find more interesting ways down, but by now Mark was well aware that my leads were decreasingly likely to be taking the easiest descent. As I started down a ledge system that cut diagonally through the cliffs towards the west, Mark balked at a section that involved more than a casual faith in friction to hold one in the face of exposure. Seeing his hesitation, I then relented to point out the easier line I had seen going east a short ways back, and Mark decided to take leave of my little game and play the descent more cautiously.

Left alone, I continued down the narrow ledges, marvelling at the abundance of wildflowers that grew well along these cliffs where water leaked from the granite walls. I had no assurance that my line of descent would prove feasible, and was fully prepared to climb back up 500ft or more to go Mark's route should I get cliffed out. But instead the route continued to "go," though the difficulties I encountered gradually notched up little by little until I was doing class 5.easy. Had it started out that way I would have balked as well, but the more I descended, the more I was willing to commit myself to get down a bit further. I felt like I was on a whole other hike, alone, unsure, but having a good time. I came to call this the Wild Traverse, which seemed improbably to keep going on and on, giving me only a short glimpse of what lay ahead, always challenging, always leaving unrevealed sections ahead. Eventually I came to the crux of the route which was an enormous chimney that cleaved the rocks almost vertically for over a hundred feet. My traverse brought me to the middle of the chimney where a huge chockstone was wedged between the walls. A sketchy downclimb that I had doubts about being able to reverse got me into the chimney just below the chockstone. Looking down, it was nearly vertical with what looked like decent holds, but most of the rock was covered in lichen that appeared quite slippery. I only considered it for half a minute or so before deciding I'd probably fall 30ft if I tried to downclimb it. I then turned my attention on going up the chimney, and climbed first around and behind the chockstone, then stemmed my way up and on top. Looking up further it seemed impossible for me to climb higher in the chimney. But fortunately my ledge system continued on the west side of the chimney, and I crossed over the chockstone to the other side. That chockstone proved quite useful, allowing me to climb down into the chimney, then up and on top, and finally to cross the chimney - I'd probably have had to retrace my steps all the way back to Mark's route had it not been there.

The ledge system finally brought me down to easier ground where travel was more open and easier, if not nearly as much fun. I walked around to the base of the chimney to get a picture of it from the bottom, but wasn't quite able to get the perspective to show what it was really like. It certainly would have helped if Mark had come along so I could photograph him on the exposed parts! :) More downclimbing brought me to the wide granite bowl that feeds the south side of Pear Lake. A glacier appears to have smoothed the rock considerably, and Pear Lake itself was probably the terminal point of the glacier for an extended period in some previous epoch. I rejoined Mark who had handily beaten me to the lake, and we walked around on the west and north sides until we found the trail that would take us back.

It was only 12:30p, and we had most of the day remaining still, and Pear Lake began to attract me like a siren. I knew I would be camping out again that evening, and a refreshing swim was sounding inviting indeed. There were four backpackers that we came upon at the south end of the lake, two German (or german-speaking at least) couples that were eyeing the lake in a similar fashion. Mark didn't express the same interest in a swim, but he didn't mind taking an extended break - so off we went to find a suitable swim spot. Testing the waters they were cold but not freezing - at least there were no icebergs floating around to keep the chill on. A couple hundred feet from the other backcountry visitors, I quickly stripped to my very white nakedness and jumped headfirst into the lake. Shockingly brisk at first, it was everything and more I had been imagining for the last 15 minutes or so. I swam out a few hundred yards to a shallow rock island near the neck of the lake (which I suppose gave rise to the lake's name), and sunned myself until I was warm again. Looking back, I found that I had been somewhat of an inspiration to the germans who had were all in the lake now, though with more modesty than I had shown - they all had brought bathing suits. Eventually I swam back to shore (one of the others swimming out to my rock - it must have looked quite inviting) and dressed myself. Mark had cooled himself off in the water as well, and refreshed, we were off on the trail once again.

We passed by the ranger station and several lakes on our way down. A cornucopia of rules and regulations posted at each lake attested to their popularity for overnight camping, though we didn't actually find any other folks besides the germans we'd met camping at any of them. We took more pictures of wildflowers, Mt. Silliman in the background to the northwest, and generally enjoyed the fact that we were going downhill instead of up. At a trail junction we took the slightly longer one to the north so that we could go by the rock feature known as The Watchtower. The trail is a more scenic alternative that contours high above the Tokopah Valley. We could look down several thousand feet to the creekbed below, and I pointed out a trail that seemed to follow the stream to the east then just stop. That seemed odd. Then we realized that the Tokopah Valley was home to the Lodgepole complex downstream and the trail was a popular one used to view the Tokopah Falls. We could see perhaps ten tiny dots at the end of the trail below enjoying the views of the falls and the swimming hole at the bottom.

The Watchtower is an impressive tower of granite that rises thousands of feet from the Tokopah Valley below. There are a number of equally impressive rock climbing routes on its north and east faces, none of which I expect to find myself on anytime soon. Fortunately there is an easy access point from our trail with nothing more than class 2 connecting the top of The Watchtower with the nearby hillside. We clambered up to the highpoint but were a bit disappointed that it didn't afford us the dizzying views we'd hoped for down the steeper faces. Oh well - it was still a fun diversion.

Back on the trail we continued down, the trail heading southwest into the next watershed. Here the views are gone and we are back in the forest, and not more than a few miles from the trailhead judging by the number of hikers we are now running into on our way back. The moods of the other hikers varied from the casual contentment of a carefree stroll to where-are-we-going-and-why-did-you-drag-me-out-on-this-hike frustration and dismay. Mark noted that the closer one gets to the trailhead, the less likely is someone to return a greeting on the trail. It seems it takes a certain amount of time on the trail for civilization to wear off before we can shed our protective walls that make us wary of others. Whether they would reply with a "Hi" or not, we continued greeting those that crossed our path and though it was a bit longer than we thought, we arrived back at our cars at 4:30p.

A celebratory beer and a changing of the shoes, and soon we were feeling significantly refreshed. Mark headed out soon after so that he could get home in time to visit with his family, while I drove north towards Cedar Grove.


Poduska comments on 06/13/07:
I really enjoyed your account of this trip. I am actually going to be following the exact route yout took, on my trip this weekend. Thank you for your attention to detail and all of the photos.
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