Fri, Oct 1, 2010
Balloon Dome is a large granite dome located in the hinterlands of the Sierra National Forest and Ansel Adams Wilderness, near the junction of the San Joaquin River and its South Fork. Because it is not very high at less than 7,000ft and far from any trailheads, it does not receive many visitors. There's little information available on the Internet and Secor has no mention of the dome in his guidebook. I'd first seen Balloon Dome some years ago from the summit of Mammoth Mtn looking south - it doesn't stand out as a "Must Visit" because of its low stature, but over the years I heard short blurbs about manky bolts, runnout pitches and interesting backcountry adventures surrounding it. I wasn't so much interested in lugging rockclimbing gear out to have a go on it, but when I heard the descent route was class 3, it seemed like it'd make a fun place to visit. And now that we were both done with the SPS list, Matthew and I were both interested in just this sort of Sierra obscurity.
Matthew had not had the avantage I had of having the previous day off, and consequently arrived at the McCreary TH only a few hours before our 3a start. I had sort of picked that time at random in our email discussions as plans were being made, but as I awoke at 2:30a to the alarm it was sounding like a bad idea. Matthew was awake in his car next to mine and I asked if he wouldn't prefer to get a little more sleep. He declined, saying he was fine with the early start, and so I got up to join him, albeit reluctantly.
Neither one of us had ever been on any of today's route, unusual nowadays for our Sierra outings and another reason we were both interested in the hike. We did a poor job of searching out the trail (which we found next to the sign on our way back), instead following a dirt road just left of this, thinking it was what we were looking for. We hadn't hiked together in quite some time and had lots of catching up to do as we wandered down the wrong road blissfully unaware. Where the road ended in a sloping meadow we found no sign of a trail continuing, though we searched around looking for ducks or other clues.
We proceeded from this point to strike off in the most likely direction, across Miller Creek and onto the opposite hillside. We climbed upwards thinking we would top out on a rounded ridge per our map, but the slope seemed to go up far more than expected. Eventually we pulled out a GPS to get a coordinate and elevation measure to match to our map. After some wrangling with the technology we concluded we were about a half mile northwest of where we thought we were and quite far from the trail now. We dropped back down to Miller Creek but still did not find the trail we hoped to find. Had it simply fallen into disuse and disappeared? That certainly was possible - it wouldn't be the first time a trail shown on the topo had been reclaimed by nature. We'd been wandering for more than an hour and were beginning to wonder if we'd have to wait for daylight, still hours off, before finding our way.
Fortunately we spotted a duck uphill and followed this to another one and eventually onto the trail. By the time we reached the 4WD road shown on the map we'd taken about an hour and a half to travel little more than a mile from the trailhead. We also came to find that we could have driven to this point quite easily had we taken another road from near Clover Meadow to the Miller Crossing TH. Almost two hours to hike from one TH to another. Great.
At least now we knew where we were and could get on with the business of getting to where we wanted to go. We crossed the fine steel bridge spanning Granite Creek, and entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the trail contouring around the drainage about 100ft above the creek for the first half mile before both start dropping down towards the San Joaquin, more than 2,000ft below. It was quite dark as we navigated along the trail for the next hour and half. We could see the outline of Balloon Dome off to our right periodically through the trees, but little else until we were nearing the San Joaquin and it began to grow light out.
We paused for our first break when we reached the river. I had wondered if we'd have to wade across the river, still very much alive in late summer, but here we found a 53yr-old bridge across the watercourse. According to a sign posted on it, the bridge materials were brought in with the aid of helicopter and pack mule and then assembled on site. There were campsites along the other side of the bridge and it seems this is as far as most visitors go. We struggled some to find the continuation of the trail, going back and forth along the campsites, studying our map, and eventually finding the trail again.
Beyond the river it seems the trail gets much less traffic. The tread was faint in many places and there were downed trees to manuever around. We didn't get a good look at Balloon Dome until we'd climbed out of the canyon where it could be seen to the southwest. We left the trail where it began turning east, starting off cross-country for the last two miles to our goal. The intervening terrain was forested and somewhat undulating, but we did not encounter much brush that could not be gotten around fairly routinely. By 8:30a we had climbed to the saddle between Balloon Dome and Pt. 6,337ft just to the south, the start of the class 3 route up the South Ridge.
At this point the outing becomes much more interesting. Some slabs and a convenient ledge lead to the start of the South Ridge. From there, granite slabs rise up in long stretches with enough angle to give one pause, intermixed with other scrambling over large boulders, shelves, and chimneys - a fun combination that made the 5hr approach worthwhile. We found the crux to be a slanting chimney of sorts, steeper than the other slabby parts but with some undercling holds and decent friction on the slab to make a go of it. In all we spent about 30 minutes to reach the summit.
The views are quite nice high atop this large granite dome nestled in a low valley with higher peaks surrounding you on most sides. To the west is Squaw Dome near the start of our hike on the west side of the San Joaquin. To the northwest is Triple Divide and other peaks on or near the Yosemite Border. The Ritter Range is to the north where smoke from a lingering fires partially obscured the scene. The top of the gondola could also be seen atop Mammoth Mtn. To the east rose Rube BM and Pincushion Peak, both along the long ridgeline stretching northwest from Saddle Mtn on the Silver Divide. To the south were Mt. Tom (not the more notable one near Bishop) with its fire lookout just visible, Kaiser Peak behind it, with Chiquito Ridge and Shuteye Peak dominating the view to the southwest.
Along with a 1968 USFS benchmark, there was an old, damp register dating to the 1970's. We did our best to let the pages dry out during the 30 minutes or so we stayed at the summit. The oldest entries were unreadable on the first pages, but the first readable one on page 3 was from a party led by Fred Beckey in 1974. At least half of the entries were from parties doing similarl rock climbs on the east, north, or west sides of the dome.
Our descent followed the ascent route for the most part, with slight deviations. The crux chimney caused Matthew no little concern, as he tried an alternative a few times before eventually using the same I'd taken ahead of him. Once off the dome, it took us an hour to get back to the trail. The GPS coordinate I had taken did not help a great deal in locating it - apparently it had marked a spot several hundred yards to the south. Matthew had taken a coordinate as well with his own GPS and this one proved accurate enough to locate the trail within a few tens of feet. Half an hour later we were back at the San Joaquin where we stopped for a break. I had hoped to take a refreshing swim here but found the water much too cold for my liking. Matthew hadn't even given it thought, and probably thought I was a bit crazy for doing even that much.
It would take us more than two hours for the long climb back out of the canyon. We were rather tired by this time. We had a better view of Balloon Dome than we'd had in the morning, but now storm clouds were threatening it overhead, dropping rain in that direction. Our timing had been good and we were glad we hadn't waited until daybreak to start the hike. Shortly before 2p we reached the Upper Miller Crossing over Granite Creek, and here I found a pool to take a brief but hardly refreshing dip. The desire to get the sweat and salt off outweighed the unpleasantness of the water temperature. Matthew hung out by the bridge waiting patiently for me to finish with my bit of nuttiness. Once dressed, we continued our hike back to the McCreary TH where we arrived at 3p, no trouble finding the trail across Miller Creek this time. Flags and other ducks that we had missed in the darkness made this much easier.
Matthew planned to hike out to Mt. Ansel Adams the next day whereas I had to get back to San Jose. So while he prepared to hang out and look at some maps and make dinner, I bid him farewell. I decided to take Minaret Rd back instead of Beasore Rd. Though the former is longer, it is smoothly paved the entire way unlike Beasore, which appears to have had little maintenance for years now. Minaret Road was much easier on the car and I was glad I used it. This was the last of the serious peaks I would tackle in the Sierra this year, though I'm already looking forward to more such obscurities next summer.
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