Crater Mountain P1K DS / DPG
Mammoth Peak 2x ex-SPS

Mon, Sep 26, 2011
Mammoth Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
Mammoth Peak previously climbed Wed, Jun 23, 1999
later climbed Sat, Aug 6, 2016


Mono Craters, a small string of volcanic mountains just south of Mono Lake, is billed as the youngest mountain range in North America at 400,000yrs old. For almost a year I had thought Panum Crater was the highpoint of Mono Craters without really checking to see where it was. Panum Crater is on the Great Basin Peaks list and so it seemed natural that it would be the highpoint. But when I went to climb Panum earlier in the month, I found it is the northernmost, youngest, and possibly the shortest summit in the range. Looking south, I wondered where the highpoint actually was. Since then I did some looking at maps and came to find Crater Mountain is the highpoint with more than 1,200ft of prominence to boot. There didn't seem to be much of an approach and would make for an easy outing some day on my way back through the area. I was just now on such a mission, returning back from a visit to Great Basin National Park, and looking for a couple of easy peaks before driving the remaining distance back to San Jose.

I had not had any sleep on Saturday night and consequently I was quite tired when I pulled over to sleep Sunday evening. I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping more than ten hours which had the wonderful property of reviving me nicely. It wasn't until 7:30a that I got up and was ready to go a few minutes later. I didn't bother having anything for breakfast, partly because I didn't think it would matter on such a short outing, but mostly because I didn't really have anything breakfast-worthy that I'd thought to bring. A bottle of Gatorade tucked into my pack would have to do. It was only two or three minutes after rising that I was heading out.

I had found a sandy dirt road (really just crushed pumice) off SR120 on the NE side of Crater Mtn to spend the night, only 1.5mi from the summit and I expected it should take less than an hour to reach the top. What I didn't account for was the sandy nature of not just the summit but the entire route. Even under the thin forest cover the ground was primarily sand, and while the gradient was low and travel relatively easy to start, this did not last long. As the slope began to steepen the tediousness of climbing it increased in equal measure. Pine needles matted the ground in some places, and though these had a tendency to slip in mass, they proved better than the open, sandy ground that was the only other option. Some low scrub provided some additional footing, but overall it was much like climbing a huge sandpile.

The summit location is not obvious from below and in fact the highpoint cannot be seen from the base on the east side. A GPS proved helpful in getting me to the correct highpoint most directly. The upper reaches of the range are almost devoid of trees and vegetation, the sand slopes criss-crossed by tracks from deer and humans alike. An hour into the hike I had covered little more than a mile, but had reached a broad saddle north of the summit. Earlier the views to Mono Lake had begun to open up and now I could see across the saddle to the Sierra peaks around the east side of Yosemite. Twenty minutes later I reached the final summit massive, a collection of rocks that proved exciting to scramble upon primarily because they weren't sand.

An ammo box at the summit held old registers dating to the 1960s and a newer one placed in 2001. Given the slogginess of the climb and its relatively low elevation, I was surprised by the popularity it enjoyed. I might have expected signatures from highpointers like Hanna and Carey, but others by Rick Kent and Miguel Forjan surprised me. I had assumed they were more discerning in the peaks they chose to climb, but perhaps they had a soft spot for the obscurities that I was unaware of (later Rick tells me it was snowing everywhere in the Sierra that day, so it was a sort of consolation summit). The views were quite nice and could easily justify the effort to reach it. In addition to a grand view of Mono Lake to the north, there is a panorama of the Sierra from the Mammoth Lakes area to the south, stretching to Yosemite to the west and north to the Sweetwater Range.

The return was easily made in less than 30 minutes, taking large, plunging steps down the now much friendlier slopes, and jogging most of the distance where the gradient eased. It was only 9:30a when I returned to the van, giving me time for another short outing on my drive back through Yosemite.

Mammoth Peak is a 12,000-foot summit quite prominent off the south side of SR120 as one passes west through Tioga Pass on the way to Tuolumne Meadows. Though a fairly easy day hike, it has the distinction of being the only remaining Sierra peak that I had climbed not as a day hike. I had camped on its slopes some 12 years earlier during a week I was taking rock climbing classes from the Yosemite Climbing School out of Tuolumne Meadows. I had left this on the backburner as a low priority to come back some day to do as a day hike. Today seemed like a good time to take care of things.

At the US395 turnoff I found a pair of backpackers trying to hitchhike their way through Yosemite. I feel bad when I have the Miata and can't help out a fellow outdoorsman, but with the van I have plenty of room and pulled over to give them a lift. Wes and Zak had just finished 19 days on the John Muir Trail and having taken the bus from Lone Pine, were now trying to get back to their car at Tuolumne Meadows since there is no bus service up to Tioga Pass. Along with their packs they had four bags of groceries they'd bought in Lone Pine, bringing back with them to help continue their summer adventure. They had three more weeks in which they planned to visit Death Valley, Las Vegas, and the national parks of Southern Utah. There was nothing not to like about these guys or their plans and I was happy to help them out.

After dropping them off at the Wilderness Office parking lot where their car was, I drove back up towards Tioga Pass and found a suitable turnout from which to set off for Mammoth Peak. I was about as close to the peak as one can get from the road, about 2.5mi to the northwest. There is a paved roadside stop here with an information placard describing Mts. Dana and Gibbs but facing Mammoth Peak - I wonder if this doesn't cause some confusion? There were several other vehicles at the turnout, folks milling about the nearby Dana Fork as I prepared to leave. One gentleman saw me shoulder my pack and asked where I was going, perhaps curious because there is no trailhead here. He seemed a bit surprised when I pointed out Mammoth Peak, almost as though it were some exotic location, wishing me luck on my venture. I smiled and thanked him for his good wishes.

Crossing Dana Fork was rather easy with the low waters of late September. Soon thereafter I entered the forest and lost sight of the summit for the next twenty minutes or so as I made my way southeast through the trees. Portions of the ground were surprisingly wet and lush for so late in the season. Evidently the NW Face of Mammoth holds a considerable amount of water that releases all along that side into the meadows and forests facing Dana Fork and SR120. The route I followed on the way up was far from optimized. In fact I think I followed the brushiest path possible more for an exercise in weaving my way through the shoulder-high growth which made for a fun little route-finding problem.

Higher up the views back to Tuolumne Meadows and the Yosemite High Country begin to open up as the NW Slope grows steeper and rockier. There are some obvious cliffs to the left that I avoided on the way up, choosing easier ground to the right up class 2 boulders mixed with some grassy stretches. The last portion rising to the rounded summit is a talus/boulder exercise without any special challenges. It was 12:30p when I topped out, finding a small cairn marking the location of a plastic tub holding a register. The one I had signed twelve years earlier was gone, replaced by a new one that dated back only a few months. The summit has fine views of Mts. Dana and Gibbs to the east, the Mono and Parker Pass area to the southeast, Mts. Lyell and Maclure to the south, The Cathedral Range to the southwest and west, Tuolumne Meadows to the northwest, and Tioga Pass to the northeast.

I started down the NNE Ridge, following the crest along its very top for some enjoyable class 3 scrambling. Though somewhat forced, it had a fun collection of large blocks with a number of different bouldering problems that kept me entertained and challenged without any real risk and almost no exposure. The crux was a thin crack that made for an awkward lieback on the down climb, but again no real danger if I fell. Class 2 could easily be found off to the left if one tired of, or didn't care for the ridgeline. The ridge eventually broadened out and lost all pretense of class 3, making me lose interest and turn left back towards the car. This took me down through the center of the cliff faces that I had avoided on the way up, somewhat accidently. I spent a good 10-15 minutes taking my time very slowly through this, finding a workable route down it without having to backtrack and find another way around. It was actually quite fun, despite a few dicey spots with some slick rock and more serious consequences should I fall, the only tough challenge on the day.

Back in the forest again I headed northwest, using my GPS to set the direction of travel to get me back to the car most directly. This took me through some fine meadows and easy forest travel. I found a broken deer antler somewhere along the way and set it up on a rock for another visitor to find. When I returned to the creek I followed it along the southern shore, admiring the pools and small cascades of water, looking for an inviting location that I might rinse off in. Taking my camera out for a photo, I managed to promptly drop it into the creek, much to my shock and horror. I watched it get carried into the moderately flowing stream in that first second before plunging in after it. I managed to grab it out of the water in the next second, but not before my boots and most of my lower torso had been soaked. Oh well, I was looking for a rinse, afterall. I took the battery out right away and left it on a rock to dry in the sun, then peeled the rest of my clothes off to allow for a more proper rinse. After twenty minutes or so I put my still wet boots and clothes back on, gathered up my camera and other gear, and walked the remaining few minutes back to the car. I didn't dare try to take another photo lest the camera might be lost for good.

I was never able to revive the camera despite low temp baking in the oven and other means to remove the moisture. At least I was able to retrieve the photos off the memory card. A replacement camera set me back $160 - a most expensive swim, indeed.

Anonymous comments on 10/01/11:
Bummer on the camera. I've dunked cameras before, pulled the batteries, and let them air dry and relieved to see them come back to life. Some people swear by packing them in dry rice as a moisture absorber.
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