Sep 22, 2011
Big Bird Peak
|Photos / Slideshow
|Maps: 1 2
Alta Peak previously climbed Jul 29, 2002
Tharps Rock previously attempted Jul 29, 2002
Tharps Rock later climbed Oct 1, 2017
In what was becoming normal commute hours for me, I left San Jose around 10p and motored across the Central Valley to arrive at Wolverton after 2:30a. I followed the Lakes Trail past Heather, Emerald and Pear Lakes, taking the Hump option (complete with small cairn marking the top of the Hump) along the way. The stars provided a lighted, celestial backdrop to the otherwise inky blackness. A waning crescent moon was insufficient to provide enough light for travel without headlamp in the early morning hours.
It was after 5a when I reached the Ranger Station off a spur trail near Pear Lake. It is a very large stone structure that I believe provides housing/shelter for backcountry skiers in the winter months. I didn't want to unnecessarily disturb any sleeping rangers inside, so I took a quick picture and continued on my way. There was no trail beyond this point, and if there was any sort of use trail leading up to the Tablelands I never came across it. It was easy enough to cross the creek dropping down from Pear Lake, and from there strike off cross-country. I traversed a broad ridge over slabs and easy alpine terrain to reach the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River leading up into the Tableland. The broad valley was easy to negotiate at night as I followed the river (really just a creek at this point) upstream for several miles. Daylight began to make itself felt around 6a when I switched off the headlamp and awaited sunrise, still about an hour away.
There were few trees at all in most of the Tableland, granite as far as the eye could see. Alpine grasses and low shrubs accentuate the landscape along with a number of small lakes and tarns. It had gotten to below freezing above about 10,500ft, making some beautiful ice patterns on the still waters. The cross-county travel was unusually easy, much like a walk in the park - which it was, actually. The weather was cool, but fine for hiking and the early morning sunshine felt good to the senses. Sunrise came to the Tableland around 7:15a and fifteen minutes later I was on the Kings-Kaweah Divide less than a mile from Big Bird Peak to the southeast. One is treated to a wonderful view looking down into Deadman Canyon and Big Bird Lake, with Glacier Ridge rising dramatically on the opposite side. It occurred to me that this might be a faster approach to reach Glacier Ridge than the one I had used out of Horse Corral Meadow.
I followed the divide to the southeast, dropping a short distance to a saddle before climbing the final boulder/talus slopes to the summit of Big Bird Peak where I arrived at 8a. The Northeast Face of the peak drops dramatically down towards the lake, but the other facets are much more congenial class 2 scrambling. There is a grand view of the High Sierra encompassing hundreds upon hundreds of peaks from the Mammoth Lakes area in the north to the Mineral King Peaks to the south. In particular one can see most of the peaks of the Great Western Divide. North Guard, Brewer and South Guard are at the northern end, Thunder, Table, Midway, Milestone and Centennial in the middle, with Mts. Stewart, Lippencott and Eisen at the south end. Behind it rises the higher massive of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge. To the south are a jumble of peaks around the Mineral King area which I found difficult to individually identify. Alta Peak lies prominently to the southwest with Mt. Silliman to the northwest and the granite waves of the Tablelands in the foreground. There was no register that I could find anywhere near the summit. In fact I found no registers at all on the four summits I visited during the day.
I headed south a short distance to get a better view in that direction down to the Lone Pine Creek drainage. The route down from Big Bird Peak looked like straightforward class 2, but the return to Wolverton is much long in that direction and misses the additional peaks I was interested in. I turned west, dropping down off Big Bird and traversing in a line across the upper reaches of Buck Creek Canyon that flows down towards the south. About three miles west by southwest lies another unnamed summit that Secor dubs "Winter Alta" or alternately "Skiers Alta", about two thirds of a mile northeast from Alta Peak. Skiers Alta is actually higher than Alta Peak, but the latter is more visible from points far to the west. Since it has more than 500ft of prominence, I considered it worthy of a visit and proceeded towards it across the Tableland, passing by a few lovely tarns and then gaining an easy class 2 ridgeline that led to the summit. It was nearly 10:15a when I stood atop Skiers Alta.
The views to the High Sierra and the Great Western Divide were similar to those found on Big Bird. Missing was the view to Deadman Canyon, but the view west into the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River is now opened up. The connecting ridgeline between Skiers Alta and Alta Peak is not overly difficult at class 2-3 and makes for an enjoyable scramble. There is a fine view of Castle Rocks to the south across the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River along the route. It took less than an hour to make the journey from one Alta to the other. Difficulties forced me off the ridgeline at the very end but there was a reasonable class 3 way up just to the left on the Southeast Face. Class 2 could probably have been had even further to the left.
The summit was missing the register and GOD BOX that had been there on my first visit nine years earlier. Even the swarming insects were gone. The only thing to be found aside from the rock itself was the USGS benchmark from 1950. I headed south from the summit for a short bit of class 3 scrambling down the ridgeline with views of Alta Meadow on the left and Tharps Rock to the right. The latter was my next object of interest, and having failed to gain the summit on my first attempt I was somewhat eager to have another crack at it. Looking west I spied another hiker on the trail as I started off the ridge. He was well above me and out of contact range when I reached the trail a few minutes later. I hiked down to the last switchback just above Tharps Rock where I found a pair of hikers just coming down from the saddle north of Tharps. I thought perhaps they had just come back from the summit and hoped I might glean some beta from them, but upon asking they replied that they had only visited the saddle before returning. Looks like I was to be left to my own devices.
From the sandy saddle I followed a route south on the west side of the ridge. This worked out much more easily than the route I remember taking across the spine of the ridge that was much trickier to negotiate. The 15-foot headwall I was confronted with at the end of the ridge was very familiar - this part I had not forgotten in the intervening years. It looked no easier now than it had done before, despite a great deal more experience in the interim. I knew from a comment someone had made that I should look for a class 4 route around the left side of the headwall and it was in this direction I turned my attention. I climbed down about 30-40ft to where I could crawl around an overhang to see around to the other side. Where I expected things to get easier they didn't, and for the moment I was terribly disappointed. I crawled back to the north side and made another survey of the face to see it there wasn't something I was missing. My prospects brightened when I hit upon a shallow chimney/crack system that looked like it might be the class 4 I was looking for. There was an unstable rock at the base that needed to be used to gain a foothold in the chimney above, but this did not seem a deal breaker. Dropping my pack, I managed to use the rock without weighting it heavily to one side or the other of its center of gravity and climbing up about 7-8ft. Comfortably positioned, but exposed (I would undoubtedly break bones if I fell at this point), I probed above me for the safest way up. Several options presented themselves, but the rock was not solid enough and my frame of mind not boldly steeled in sufficient amounts to allow me to climb more than a foot or two before retreating back to the safer stance. I stood there for several minutes examining the possibilities again, noting that there were good cracks to take pro which would have made this a cinch with a rope and some gear. With some frustration I backed down to the ground. There is a horizonal ledge of sorts coming in from the right side that might bypass the hardest part in the chimney. But the ledge is narrow with an overhang that would force me out from the wall on a precarious perch. I did the first two moves to gain this shelf but soon backed away from it as well when I judged it too dicey to proceed. I decided to call it a day on Tharps Rock at this point. Though disappointed, I at least had the satisfaction of knowing there was a route I think I could climb with a bit of gear. I'll have to make a future appointment for a return to this problem.
I found a sloping granite slab off the east side of the ridgeline to take me back down, easier and shorter than the other two approaches I'd used. At the base of the feature I spied the sandy trail some distance further east, but decided to head downhill to the south through some mild brush to intersect the trail after it returns from a wide switchback. Once I picked up the trail again, I headed west, traversing high above the canyon, mostly through forest cover, for more than three miles. I reached Panther Gap around 1:20p and continued on the Alta Trail that skirts the north side of Panther Peak. Well before reaching Panther Meadow I left the trail to head cross-country up steep, forested slopes to Panther Peak. The last hundred feet or so is composed of a rocky outcrop that is visible from a distance on the way back from Alta Peak. It was no harder than class 2. I stayed some time on the summit, relaxing in the sun and watching the clouds drifting overhead. In addition to good views of Castle Rocks to the south, there is a decent view of Alta to the east and Silliman to the north.
Eschewing the more circuitous trail options, I took a more or less direct path from Panther's summit back to Wolverton, a 1.5mi/2,000-foot cross-country descent down forested slopes with a modest amount of blow down to trip me up and keep my downhill speed in check. It was not quite 3p when I returned to Wolverton and the parking lot, making for almost exactly 12hrs that I was out on the trail. Despite my efforts to caffeinate for the drive home, I found myself nodding off before I was out of the foothills and reached Fresno. I pulled over and took a nap of perhaps 30 minutes that sufficiently revived me (or perhaps the caffeine had kicked in by this time) to allow me to drive the rest of the way home...
I thought my failure on Tharps would be the first Sierra class 4 I'd run across that I could not manage to solo. I later found that Tharps Rock has no mention in Secor's book, and I suspect it would receive a class 5 rating if it were, probably 5.4-5.6 via the route I was attempting.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Alta Peak
This page last updated: Sat Oct 31 19:31:50 2020
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