Tue, Aug 28, 2012
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Dennison Mountain is a prominent peak in the western half of the Southern Sierra, located roughly between the two SPS peaks, Homers Nose and Moses Mtn, due east of Visalia. I had first seen it when climbing Moses Mtn with Matthew in 2005 and was intrigued by the view. My interest in climbing it was sparked by my later interest in prominence, with Dennison's just exceeding 1,000ft. That interest grew upon reading a TR on climber.org in which a PCS group spent a day making an attempt from the south before succeeding from the north. Coming from Mineral King, I would be attempting to recreate the approach from the north, hopefully a good deal faster than their 10 1/2 hour time as I hoped to get back to San Jose before sunset. The total distance was just over 10mi roundtrip, but the elevation gain exceeds 5,000ft.
I had spent the night at the Atwell Mill CG along the Mineral King Rd, less than 10 air miles from the day's starting point at the South Fork CG to the southwest. The driving between the two points was anything but direct, taking me nearly two hours to cover the 34 miles. The last five miles was along an increasingly deteriorating dirt road that I barely managed in my low-clearance van. Mine was the only vehicle in the campground when I started off shortly before 6:30a. It was not immediately obvious where to find the South Fork Trailhead, but fortunately the campground isn't all that big and in a few minutes I found a TH sign at its east end.
Right from the start there were patches of poison oak that kept me on my toes for the first hour. The stuff was usually on one side of the trail or the other from the start at 3,600ft until past Putnam Canyon at over 5,000ft. I would have to step over it in a number of places and could never really relax my gaze from the trail all this time to keep from accidently brushing against it. Above 5,000ft it grows more sparsely and was completely absent above 5,500ft. The trail starts off going through shady oak woodlands in the lower elevations, some conifers appearing about a mile up the trail but never really dominating the forest makeup. Homers Nose and Brow can be seen from the trail to the north atop the ridgeline across the South Fork of the Kaweah River, but most of the views are muted by forest cover. Above me to the south I could catch occasional glimpses of Dennison Ridge and some rocky features, but none of these turned out to be Dennison Mountain which is out of view.
The trail passes through the Garfield Grove of giant sequoia about a mile after crossing Snowslide Canyon, but my turnoff is at Snowslide and I never did get to see the grove. A few scattered sequoias could be seen along the trail before this if one looks closely, but mostly it is the domain of oaks. By the time I reached Snowslide Canyon I was concerned that the cross-country might entail a great deal of difficult bushwhacking, judging by the thick understory I encountered along the trail. But the canyon is used as an ascent route precisely because it is relatively free of entangling brush and once I had a view looking up the canyon my concerns were alleviated.
The scramble up Snowslide Canyon was actually quite enjoyable, at least initially. There was no water other than a few stale puddles. The rocky streambed made for good, solid scrambling up to class 3 for the first 900ft of the climb. There were some lush ferns, interesting flowers, a fluffy, cotton-like plant and other curiosities. 900ft up, the canyon splits and I made the choice to follow the right fork which heads more directly to Dennison. This seemed a mistake in retrospect. The right fork started off well enough, with some stiff class 3 scrambling up a steep step in the canyon that I found enjoyable, but this was soon dampened by a wall of alder and brush blocking the canyon above it. I probably should have pushed through the brush into easier territory still in the center of the canyon, but I started climbing further right, out of the canyon on ever-steepening ground until I reached the North Ridge of Dennison's east summit just north of Pt. 7,271ft shown on the topo map. I thought things might improve once I reached the ridge, but alas, wishful thinking can do little to change topography. It took 45 minutes to climb the next 1,000ft up towards Dennison Ridge, just below the east summit. There was bushwhacking, ugly sidehilling and other fun-lacking activities to keep me from recommending the route. Better to stay in the canyon.
It was 9:50a when I reached the point below the east summit where I traversed right around its northwest face. I knew the east summit was lower and avoided going to the top to save the elevation loss back to the saddle between the two summits. The traverse skirts a cliffband on the northwest side making it a bit tricky, but no more than class 3 in the end. Once more I thought my troubles would be over once I reached the saddle, but yet again this proved wishful thinking. There is much manzanita and buckthorn along with plenty of rock between the summits that must be negotiated. Careful consideration to route choices can ameliorate the situation, but some bushwhacking seemed inevitable. There's nothing resembling a use trail or even an animal trail and I got the impression that very few folks ever bother to come this way. I reached the rocky East Ridge of the west summit around 10:15a, the end of most of the bushwhacking. Another 15 minutes brought me to the summit at the west end of the ridge.
Despite its prominence, the views from the summit are not all that great due to the interference of trees. To the southeast rises Moses Mtn and to the northeast rises the Great Western Divide with portions of Kaweah Ridge visible behind it. There are two rocky pinnacles making up the west summit. The benchmark is found on the lower western pinnacle, the register on the higher one 20ft to the east. The register and its container appear to be originals, placed by Chester Versteeg and Howard Hill in 1950. The next visitor was a surveyor in 1961, then more surveyors in 1962 who placed the benchmark with that date. Since then there were only 6 parties to sign the register with one gap of 29 years between visits. This was truly a rarely visited summit. I spent perhaps 15 minutes at the summit before starting back.
I did a far better job on the return in minimizing the bushwhacking both along Dennison Ridge and the descent down Slide Canyon. For the latter, I pushed further east and descended the next ridge across from my ascent ridge, which I found clearer and easier to manage. It eventually dropped me into the (climber's) left fork of Snowslide Canyon which was much better than the right fork I had picked on the way up. I was back at the trail before 12:30p and with some jogging got back to the campground by 1:15p. That made for only 2 1/2 hours for the descent, less than seven hour total. And I would easily make it back to San Jose before sunset - a fine day indeed!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Dennison Mountain
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