Wed, Sep 25, 2013
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After playing around with some mostly short outings the past few days, I finally hit upon a more worthy objective that I could do as a day hike in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park. Ball Dome is a modest-sized granite outcrop located in the upper portions of the Sugarloaf Creek drainage. This creek has the unique property that it is the longest stretch of eastward flowing drainage in the Sierra that still flows to the Central Valley. Once you wrap your head around what that means you'll probably decide it's no big deal. And so it isn't. But it's a lovely part of the Sierra that sees little traffic and has some delightful features such as Sugarloaf and Ball Dome. Secor lists the easiest route as class 4 which got Matthew's attention some years ago when he was perusing that fine guidebook. We had planned to pay it a visit on our way back from Sugarloaf the previous year, but I was too tired and begged to leave it for another time. He agreed, so long as I promised to come back with him, since he figured he might need a belay. I promised. Less than a year later I had forgotten this promise and the events surrounding it, and all that was left in my addled memory was that it was some kind of interesting-ish dome that one should pay a visit to once all the more major summits had been climbed. Today seemed a good day. It can be approached from several directions, the easiest might be via the Marvin Pass TH to the north. But since I was in the Lodgepole area, I chose to approach from the south, going over Silliman Pass to reach Ball Dome about a mile on the other side of the crest. The approach is about 10 miles, one way, so not an overly difficult day - just about the sweetspot of 20 miles' hiking I find most enjoyable.
I had spent the night at the Wuksachi TH, having the huge parking lot to myself, and happily unvisited by any of the park rangers. I was up before 7a and after breakfast was on my way half an hour later. The first mile and a half goes in and out of several minor drainages as the trail makes its way to the junction with the main fork coming from Lodge Pole. There are some very deluxe bridges over several of the creeks, including one that makes an unusual dogleg bend in the middle. From the junction, the trail heads north through easy forest, then begins to climb more steadily to Calhoon Gap. The trail then drops 200ft into the Clover Creek drainage where it forks. The left fork heads to JO Pass, but I took the right fork to Silliman Pass.
It was 10a by the time I reached Twin Lakes at the foot of Twin Peaks. Up until this point the route is entirely in forest that while shady and pleasant, offers no views. There is more forest above Twin Lakes, but at least it begins to thin and offer some views. The trail goes into a series of short switchbacks that I found too painful to follow, so for the most part I headed cross-country, using the trail only briefly. It was 10:30a by the time I reached Silliman Pass. Cloud wisps were floating over portions of the crest and obscuring Mt. Silliman to the southeast, but they were hardly threatening and for the most part the weather was near perfect. I could have followed the trail down to Ranger and Beville Lakes, then further down using a side trail to Lost Lake to get within a quarter mile of Ball Dome. The trail doesn't do this in a very efficient manner, so I chose to head cross-country once on the east side of the pass, dropping down and around the east side of Twin Peaks and then down easy slabs on the northeast side of the peak towards Lost Lake. Rounding a bend in Twin Peaks' NE Ridge, Ball Dome and Lost Lake come into view. The dome pops up from the surrounding forest like a mini Half Dome, piquing my interest. It wasn't until this moment that I remembered Ball Dome from the previous year and the promise I had made Matthew. I figured I was too far into it by this time with only a mile to go, so I hoped Matthew would forgive and continued on my way.
I dropped further down to the shore of Lost Lake (it didn't seem all that lost). There is some impressive granite rising above the opposite shore (Pt. 9,895ft). Ball Dome is another half mile or so past the lake, cross-country through forest, but nothing tricky. My first close look at Ball Dome was of the south side, which looked hard from where I approached. Not so hard as to give up considering it, but enough that it seemed worth checking the other sides first. As I climbed higher towards it through the forest, I moved around the east side which didn't look any easier. Had I actually read Secor beforehand, I would have known the class 4 route was on the SW side and the North Face was a 5.7, two-pitch climb. This would have kept me from continuing around to the north side and I would have given the SW side my best shot. But it also would have kept me from discovering that the north side wasn't 5.7 at all. In fact, it seemed the easiest route to the summit. What I discovered was that the north side has broken rock piled up higher on that side than anywhere else, making for the shortest route, about a single rope length.
The climbing on the north side consists of exfoliating granite slabs. There are no clean cracks to make things easier, but there are underclings and a fairly rough granite surface to keep things manageable. I had only my hiking boots and these sufficed, taking my time at a few pucker points. It took but five or six minutes to climb it, my best guess is class 4 on the easier side of the scale, a very enjoyable stretch. The summit provides a fine view of the surrounding drainage, but the peak is too low to see over the main crest to the south and west. One can see far into Kings Canyon to the northeast and the Great Western Divide around Mt. Brewer to the east. I found no register or cairn, just some random rocks. I looked over the south side to see if I might not be able to go down that way, but it looked more difficult than the route I had taken up. A bit nervous about getting down, I decided not to have lunch atop, but to get done with the sketchy stuff so that my lunch would be more enjoyable.
I had no trouble reversing the route. Back at the base of the north side, I looked around to the west to see if I could circumnavigate the dome but found it the steepest side. I would have to drop down significantly to get around to the south side. I wondered if the two-pitch 5.7 route mentioned in Secor was on this side (more like the NW Face than the North Face). I went back around the east side to reach the sunnier southern exposure of the dome. I looked around for a way up but found nothing that looked obvious. Anything on this side would be at least class 4. Finding it to be so was left as an exercise for future visitors. I found a nice rock to sit on and enjoyed my lunch in the warm sun. Not a bad way to spend half an hour. In addition to taking in the views, I studied the GPS for an alternate return route because, well, alternate return routes are generally more fun. The map on the GPS isn't as good as the printed 7.5' topo, but it sufficed. There appeared to be a low spot on the crest just east of Kettle Peak that ought to make a good pass to return over, so after lunch I packed up and headed off in that direction.
I didn't reach the pass, primarily because I was contouring too high. The smarter route would have been to drop down near Seville Lake before climbing back up to the pass, but I was trying not to lose elevation unnecessarily. So I ended up on the NW Ridge leading to Pt. 9,859ft, a pretty fun bit of class 3. Continuing up and over Pt. 9,859ft would probably have been interesting as well (and probably a lot harder than class 3 from the looks of it), but I was more interested in getting back over the crest. So I dropped off the SW side of the ridge, still contouring and avoiding the loss of too much elevation, into an upper cirque between Kettle and Twin Peaks. I went over a forested shoulder of the crest, roughly halfway between the two summits.
Fairly easy downhill cross-country over the next mile and a quarter led me back to the Silliman Pass Trail. Back on the trail, I spotted a fawn off to the side staying very still, trying not to be noticed. I didn't see its mother, but I'm sure it was nearby somewhere. The rest of the hike was pleasant, if uneventful. It was nearly 3p by the time I returned to the TH, about 7.5hrs after starting out, a fine day indeed.
I still had some hours of daylight, so I drove back to the museum parking at Giant Forest and hiked one of the trails starting from the museum. I was after another named summit in the area, a rather easy one, Bear Hill. The name comes from the garbage dump/bear show that used to take place on the hill back in the day when dumping a pile of fresh garbage on the ground and watching the bears rummage through it passed as pretty good entertainment. The garbage is (mostly) gone as are the bears (again, mostly). Aside from some old antennae and a weather station nearby, there isn't much to see at atop Bear Hill. In fact, identifying the summit isn't all that easy as it has almost no prominence. The two most likely sites were both crowned with summit rocks, one of them just making a class 3 rating. Yay. But the highlight of the trail wasn't the summit climb, but the hiking through Giant Forest with many giant sequoias and bright green dogwoods. On the other side of the highway I wandered over to Beetle Rock to check out the views and the old lodge nearby.
I ended up spending my last night in Giant Forest parked at the furthest back lot of the museum. These lots are also used to catch the shuttle to Moro Rock and are quite busy in the summertime. At this time of year the nearest lot was barely used and the back lots were completely empty. It was a fine place to spend the night away from the highway without getting bothered by rangers...
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