Mt. Ansel Adams

Thu, Sep 24, 2009
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

Mt. Ansel Adams lies on the SE boundary of Yosemite, one of the more remote peaks in the park. It was named in 1934 for the famed photographer who was among the large Sierra Club party that made the summit's second ascent for the dedication ceremony. The name only became official in 1985 upon Adams' death. I had run out of west side SPS peaks that I could do with a free day, so I've started looking to other unnamed peaks in the range that I've kept in a mental list over the years. Ansel Adams was high on this list both for its name as well as its remoteness. It would also give me my yearly chance to drive the marginal pavement that is Beasore Road.

It took about 4.5hrs to drive from San Jose to the Fernandez Trailhead, passing over Pacheco Pass and through Madera, Oakhurst, and Bass Lake. Though not the shortest approach, this route would be entirely new to me, an extra incentive I've grown to appreciate as I ply some of the other trails more repeatedly. The Fernandez Trailhead is about 2 miles north of Beasore Rd on a slightly rough dirt road that was just passable by my van. There were two other cars in the lot when I got to the trailhead and I was not long in starting out at 12:15a.

There are two trails starting immediately from the TH. The Fernandez Trail heads west while the one I took, the Walton Trail, goes north. The Walton Trail follows along an old dirt road for about a quarter mile before a sign indicates a left turn. From here on out the trail is single track, running mostly through forested, somewhat undulating terrain in a northwesterly direction until it reaches the West Fork of Granite Creek some seven miles later. Along the way there are a number of junctions with other trails (including the Fernandez Trail that connects about the 3.5 mile mark). The Mytopo map of the area shows a shortcut trail to Post Peak Pass that I attempted to follow. I found the junction just past the Fernandez Trail junction, signed for Joe Crane Lake. I took this thinly-used trail a short distance to another sign that indicated the trail I wanted, signed for Post Creek. This trail appears to have been abandoned some years ago and was very hard to follow. Downed logs and overgrowth conspired with the inky darkness to make this a very slow route and I abandoned it within about five minutes. There was no telling how long it might take and I figured it would be better to do a few extra miles on a well-used trail instead.

Back to the main trail I went and continued in the northwesterly direction. I navigated past several more trail junctions to the West Fork of Granite Creek where I turned right to head northeast. A gradual downhill leads to Post Creek which was as dry as Granite Creek - I would find very little running water on the whole hike. Fortunately I was carrying almost four quarts with me which would suffice for the entire outing. I got lost trying for about a quarter of an hour trying to pick up the trail on the opposite side of Post Creek, wandering back and forth three or four times before I finally picked up the correct scent and continued on my way.

Past Post Creek the trail turns north and climbs 600ft to reach above treeline where I could get the first views beyond the trees. It was still quite dark and there was no moon, but I could see the silhouette outline of the Clark Range around Triple Divide Peak to the northwest. The western sky had a faint glow along the horizon, the lights of San Joaquin Valley out of view behind it. After a half mile of relatively flat travel in a delightful setting, the trail begins the final 1,200-foot climb to Post Peak Pass.

The trail switchbacks up along a route following granite slabs, dynamited in places, and skillfully crafted with stairs in others. It had been about 50F at the start around 7,500ft, but it was now approaching freezing as I neared the 10,700-foot pass around 5a. I stopped to put on my fleece and a pair of wool gloves that would suffice for the next few hours until the sun came out to warm things up.

Post Peak lies a short quarter mile or so south of Post Peak Pass, rated class 1 by Secor. This easy rating made it seem a trivial undertaking in the dark, so I set out to tag the bonus peak. Mostly following the ridge, I found it class 2 from the start, with some class 3 higher up. The right or west side is very cliffy, so there were no options on that side, and by headlamp I could see no easier route off to the left side. I thus kept to the ridge, enjoying the pleasant but unexpected bit of scrambling. Upon reaching the highpoint, I found a 20-foot monolith, another surprise. Dark as it was, it was easy enough to discern this was the highest point around and I took off my pack to digest this puzzle further. I must have spent 10 minutes walking around all sides of the thing to no success. The easiest way seems to be first climbing a subsidiary block on the east side, then stepping across to the monolith about halfway up. But the holds were not obvious and the exposure was dangerous and I could not work up the nerve to try it. I met similar defeat on the north side which seemed to be the least vertical facet, but there was no way for me to climb it in my boots that I could discover. It may have been only low class 5, but it was too rich for my blood and a curious sandbag from the rating in Secor's book. I suspect he never actually climbed the peak nor got a report from someone who did, but probably just guessed at the rating judging from the easy look of it from the topo map. Oh well.

I looked around for a register but found nothing amongst all the rocks and crevasses about the summit area. The only sign of human visitation was a rock left atop a worn glove to keep it in place while it slowly rotted from the exposure to UV and the elements. To the east the sky was starting to grow light with a faint outline of the Minarets and the Ritter Range clearly discernable. It was time to move on.

I went back to the pass and followed the trail north towards Yosemite, losing it in the vicinity of the park boundary. I ended up taking a cross-country shortcut down into the alpine canyon just west of Isberg Pass through which flows the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River. I regained the trail and followed this down to the junction with the Isberg Pass Trail, continuing down into the canyon. Cold and frosty in the canyon, the sun had come up shortly after 6:30a to light up the Clark Range to the west, notably the orange and brown colors of Red Peak. I would be in the shade until around 8a when I started climbing east out of the canyon.

I passed a group of three backpackers milling around a campsite at the southern end of the canyon, trying to keep warm as they assembled their breakfast. As short wave was all that passed between us as I kept on. I continued north along the trail about halfway up the east side of the canyon for another five miles or so, past Isberg Peak and Long Mtn, and just past Foerster Peak. Here I left the trail to follow a route east up to to a grassy plateau that angles up to a saddle on the North Ridge of Foerster Peak. I had looked at this route on the topo beforehand as a way to save the further drop to the Lyell Fork of the Merced and the described route to Ansel Adams. A picture I had taken from Foerster's summit two years earlier helped convince me the cross-country might be pleasant walking rather than boulder hell, and this turned out to be the case.

The sun had popped up above Foerster as I crested out of the canyon and onto the more gentle slopes of the plateau heading east. This was a very pleasant stroll across alpine meadows. A family of ptarmigan were poking around one area, not sure about who I was. There were five in all, looking to have hatched earlier in the season and now nearly fully grown. Their underbellies were molting to white in preparation for the coming winter. Mom appeared to be absent or perhaps had already abandoned the litter. I reached the rock saddle below the North Ridge around 9a. I had hoped I might be at the summit in eight or nine hours, but it was obvious I was going to be well behind that optimistic estimate. I stood at the saddle and looked down at the cirque between Ansel Adams and Foerster and was somewhat dismayed to find it would be harder yet. I had hoped to be able to do a high traverse around the cirque to Ansel Adams, but cliffs on the NE side of Foerster made this impractical. Even had it been possible to get through the cliffs, the rest of the traverse looked like an ugly boulder scramble, probably loose from the snow that lies atop the cirque for much of the year.

Resignedly, I dropped down most of the cirque, staying perhaps 50 feet above the level of the small unnamed lake found at the bottom. What had looked like an unpleasantly steep scree slope on the opposite side turned out to be much better, almost in compensation for having to drop and regain so much elevation. Grassy in places and surprisingly stable, it wasn't bad at all climbing back up.

I found the chute described by Secor easily enough, a class 2 affair leading to a notch immediately east of the peak, where I arrived at 10a. The north side of this notch leading up from the Lyell Fork is not described by Secor, but upon inspection it was found to offer a mostly class 2 route all the way from the bottom, probably a quicker route if coming up the Lyell Fork. There was a section of snow maybe 100ft in length in the upper reaches, so axe and crampons are likely to be required even late in the summer.

Secor's description of the route from the notch is somewhat wordy, more so than I thought necessary. It could easily have been said to just take the most obvious route to the summit. I first climbed gingerly into an adjacent chute to the left, then followed this up and around in a counter-clockwise spiral towards the summit. The climbing was class 3, but not difficult, taking less than 15 minutes to complete from the notch.

I had some trouble locating the summit register, an SRC box that was bolted down, not near the highpoint, but further east about 20 yards or so. The box and enclosed book had been placed in 1989. I photographed almost 30 pages of entries found in the book. It appears to have been more popular in the past as visits have dwindled in recent years. Mine was the only entry for 2009. I had a PB&J sandwich along with a 20oz Coke that was no longer cold. Good lunch, despite the warm soda.

The best views to be had are towards the west where one can see across the Merced drainage to the Clark Range, down towards Yosemite Valley and a good view of Half Dome. Views north are blocked by Mt. Lyell, Rodgers Peak and the Cathedral Range, and to the south by an unnamed peak and Foerster Peak. Ansel Adams is the lowest of the named peaks along this chain, so it sits somewhat subdued below its neighbors. One can see the upper half of Banner, Ritter, and the Minarets to the east, rising up from the North Fork of the San Joaquin River.

After about 30 minutes it was time to head back. I briefly considered taking what is probably the shorter route back via Foerster Peak, but the maps I carried with me did not show the terrain and trail details for that area and I did feel familiar enough with the layout to go without. So I resigned myself to a return largely via the same route I had taken.

It was not a bad return, either. I got to see all the terrain by daylight that I had missed during the night, and I was still hours faster than the most recent outing to Picket Guard, which made this 18hr+ outing seem downright pleasant by comparison. Once back on the trail I stopped at the lowpoint for a Starbuck's caffeine boost to help me with the uphill. It worked quite nicely. I passed by a few backpacking parties on their way up to Isberg Pass, myself taking the fork to Post Peak Pass. My feet were starting to complain some, the first blisters having formed about the 15 hour mark. But a summer's worth of similar exercises told me I could safely ignore them and they wouldn't grow much worse. In fact they were feeling better at the end of the day than they did hiking up towards the pass.

Clouds were drifting by overhead in the afternoon, but nothing to seriously threaten precipitation. It was almost too warm, really, and I rather sort of wished there were more clouds or a stronger breeze to cool things down. It was nearly 2:30p when I went back over the pass, enjoying the views of Triple Divide Peak and the Clark Range as I dropped south out of the park. It took another hour to return to Post Creek. On the slight uphill out of the creek I passed by a couple of pretty, shallow lakes that I had completely missed in the evening. In spring or early summer these would probably be rife with mosquitoes, but there were none to be found anywhere at this time of year. There were almost no flowers that could be found along the trails. The grasses were ripening and turning brown and the landscape was preparing for the fall season with pleasant days and cold nights.

Heading back down towards the Fernandez Trailhead I had some views of the Silver Divide to the southeast, softly lighted in the hazy afternoon sunshine. It began to grow cool again as I neared the end of the hike after 6p. It would chill to about 60F by the time I arrived at the TH at 6:45p. The gallon of water I had set on the dash was still somewhat warm, so I took a quick rinse in the parking lot before setting off on the drive home. I think the shower does about as much to revive me as a dose of caffeine, though I would have several more of the latter on the drive in order to make it back to San Jose still awake...

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This page last updated: Wed Sep 30 18:03:13 2009
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