Tue, Jul 1, 1997
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A day after my failed attempt on Mt. Ritter during which he weather was quite nasty, the weather was now beautifully clear and I was looking for a leisure walkabout day. I had been up at Donohue Pass two days earlier and declined to climb Donohue Peak at the time. I hadn't set out planning to climb it on this day, but somehow my travels had me wandering off in that direction, and I suppose I had the peak somewhere in the back of my mind.
Terry planned to join me again today, at least for a little while. He planned to abandon me when he decided he'd had enough. We headed out from our camp at Thousand Island Lake shortly after breakfast, carry our day supplies in our waist packs. My first objective was to cross the ridge just north of us to Weber and Sullivan Lakes. There is a trail leading up to the lakes from Waugh Lake, and we planned to take that trail down after we reached Weber Lake.
The route we took to Weber Lake was rather straightforward, thinly forested and moderately sloped, until we got over the ridge and were nearly to the lake. We found ourselves above a small cliff overlooking the lake. The cliff was too small to show up on the topo map we had, but unfortunately too big to walk around easily. So I persuaded Terry to do a little down climbing, following my lead. The last 10 feet or so were class 3+, requiring some deft foot placements and handholds. Terry was not at all comfortable with this last part. Rather than swear and curse at me which he would certainly have been entitled to, he let me help him with his foot placements and get him through the last stretch. I could see him sweating more and getting nervous, so half my effort was spent talking him through it and trying to rationally present the risks involved. Terry felt much better when we got down, and even seemed to enjoy it in hindsight (adrenaline high). We didn't stop at Weber Lake, but noted that it was a beautiful setting which would make a fine camp location for some future trip. We found the trail we were looking for quite easily and headed down to Waugh Lake.
At Waugh Lake we stopped for a break and a snack. It was about 10:30a, and Terry decided he was ready for a more leisured pace for the rest of the day. He planned to follow the trail around the lake and then head back through Island Pass. I was planning to continue heading north, so after our break at the lake outlet, we parted company.
I headed for the minor peak just north of the lake at 10,245 feet. I was off trail now, my preferred method of traveling in the Sierra. I find considerably more solitude and have a great deal more fun going cross-country, getting to play at explorer out in the great unknown. Of course even the cross-country routes have been traveled many times, but without the obvious trail, only the occasional piece of refuse provides any sign that humans have passed here. Sometimes the trash appears to be decades old (old rusty tins, old style pop cans and bottles) and provides a little historical puzzle in guessing its age and how it came to be there. I'm reminded of the Chilkoot National Historic Park in Alaska that follows the route of the Klondike gold rush for 33 miles, from the Pacific Ocean across the Alaskan Panhandle into Canada. There are historical artifacts that are now over 100 years old, and all of them are protected. It is forbidden to take items or even pick them up. But it's all just trash! Old rusty cans, machines, boot soles, and other junk that was abandoned by a bunch of environmentally-unconscious campers in a rush to get to the gold fields, and 100 years later it's a national treasure. End of digression. :)
It was a nice 800-foot climb up to the peak, and there is a great overlook of Waugh Lake and the surrounding area. Behind a rock near the top I found a jar with a note inside. It was left by a group of 6 guys who had climbed up here while camping near Gem Lake back in 1984. I kept the note and planned to write to the address they left, curious as to whether they'd remember leaving it. I next went down the other side of the peak (ok, more of a rounded knob) a short distance and headed northwest through a high forested region. I was aiming for a ridge that comes off the Koip Crest, separating the Lost Lakes area from the area I was in, just north of Waugh Lake. From a distance, the climb up the side of the ridge looked like it might be difficult, but fun. The presence of trees and other vegetation on the side of the ridge was a good indication that the route was doable. It turned out to be somewhat easier than I expected, with little use of the hands needed to gain the ridge.
On the other side I found a considerably more barren landscape. There were few trees and little vegetation, and even the lakes looked listless under the midday sun. Rather than lose elevation, I contoured to the north around the lower of Lost Lakes, situated just below 10,600 feet. The traverse was over much broken boulders, and the added slope made me question my choice. It may have been better to just go down to the lake and up the other side where I could attack the incline head on. Above 11,000 feet, Lost Lakes has a high plateau, and once there I headed northwest towards the low pass I could see up ahead. The pass lies between Blacktop Peak and Peak 12,245 (1.7mi SW of Blacktop Peak), and crosses the Pacific Crest at just over 11,400 feet. I reached the pass sometime after 1p and stopped to admire a spectacular view. To the left was the Kuna Creek drainage, tumbling down into Lyell Canyon. Ahead was the main portion of Lyell Canyon, with views down to Tuolumne Meadows and beyond into much of Yosemite's high country. To the right were the high walls of the Koip Crest which rise up just over 13,000 feet. I made a mental note to return sometime in the future to climb the high points on the ridge.
I was closing in on Donohue Peak now, as I was less than a mile and a half from it. The closer peak separating me from Donohue Peak was actually several hundred feet higher, and I briefly considered climbing it instead. On the plus side, it was closer and higher, and higher is always goodness for peak bagging. On the minus side, it didn't have a name, which made it less impressive to return and tell Terry, "Hey, I climbed Peak 12,245!" Another minus was that it was higher (which meant more climbing, and I was getting my fill for the day). In the end I chose the original destination. From the pass, I dropped down 200 feet on the Yosemite side so that I could then traverse around the peak to reach Donohue Peak. There was still some snow around on this side of Peak 12,245 which slowed my progress some. I had not come prepared for snow today, so without crampons and ice axe it was necessary to kick steps to methodically make my was across the steeper sections. Were I to slip, it was unclear whether I would have been able to stop myself before crashing into the rocks below where the snow ran out a 50 yards or so below. I could have gone down further to bypass the snow altogether, but the risk in crossing the snowfields did not seem that great. I suspect had I slipped I would have cursed myself for being so foolish.
Once around Peak 12,245, I gained the Pacific Crest again at the pass just northeast of Donohue Peak. From here it is a short, easy class 2 hike up to the top. The top is a jumble of giant broken blocks without an obvious high point. The views are grand, sweeping out over much of Yosemite, the Ritter Range, and the Mammoth area. It provides an excellent vantage for viewing Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure and the approach from Lyell Canyon. It was clear that my attempt to reach Mt. Lyell two days earlier was doomed to fail, as it was much further from Thousand Island Lake than I had imagined in my optimistic planning a few weeks earlier. Like Mt. Ritter, Mt. Lyell would have to wait for another day. I looked around for a register, which I finally found with some difficulty (the lack of an obvious high point means you have to look around a bit). The last person to climb the peak had done so a few days earlier on horseback, and bragged of being the first to do so. Interestingly, Secor notes in his book that the first person to climb the peak was Sergeant Donohue (for whom the peak is named), also on horseback. Perhaps it was possible I was the first person to climb the peak without a horse?
I looked around for a route to take off the mountain. From the north (the way I came up) and west it is a very easy climb. The simplest route probably would have been to follow the west ridge down to Donohue Pass and take the trail back to camp. A more interesting route going directly south off the peak presented itself. There was a chute I could enter from the top that appeared would take me about halfway down that side of the peak. From there it was unclear how I could continue further down, as the view was blocked. It was possible that I might climb down several hundred feet to find myself at the top of a cliff. On the other hand, it seemed that the further I got off the peak, the more options were likely to open up to me. I judged I had enough energy to climb back up the way I came if need be, and headed off down the slope. It was beautiful class 3 climbing almost the whole way. By far, it was the most interesting and enjoyable climbing of the day. The chute opened to some benches and slabs and a variety of sections requiring good hand a foot placements. At a number of points my choices seemed to narrow to a single escape route, but always there was clean way down. From the bottom I looked back up to examine my route and was surprised that it looked much more difficult than it turned out to be. Had I approached the peak from this direction I would not likely have attempted to climb up this way as it did not seem to offer any means to overcome the cliff at the very top. The top chute I entered was small enough not to reveal itself from far below.
Thousand Island Lake had been visible from Donohue Peak, so I knew which direction camp lay even though I was 3/4mi from the trail and 4.3mi from camp. I decided to test out my sense of direction by heading cross-country directly towards camp without following the trail. It's generally much easier when heading to a peak to travel cross country since you can usually keep your destination in view for much of the travel. When heading back down, it can be somewhat trickier as there are fewer obvious landmarks to rely on. In this case, it turned out to be rather easy to find my way home; it was likely that even the map was unnecessary. I knew I'd pass by the western end of Waugh Lake, and the ridge up to Island Pass was fairly obvious as well. On top of that, the forest isn't particularly thick in this area, so navigation through the trees was quite easy. Through much of it I could run in pretty much a straight line without having to climb over fallen trees or circumvent swampy areas.
Somewhere past Waugh Lake on my way up to Island Pass I came across an aluminum snow shovel. It was one of those folding types that the ski patrol packs around during ski season. I imagined that it had fallen off someone's pack as they were doing a ski tour here earlier in the year (or possible several years earlier). It was in pretty good shape and seemed a useful (and cool) mountaineering accessory, so I carried it back with me. Several years later, I have yet to put it to use, but it still seems cool to own one. On reaching Island Pass, I was surprised at first to see other people. I had seen no one since I left Terry earlier in the morning and I was under the false impression that I was the only one in these mountains. I then remembered the PCT passes through here. Duh. Island Pass was quite nice both for its beautiful setting and that it signaled the end of the uphill climbing. It was only a little more than a mile back to camp from here, and I kept off the trail until the end. I was rewarded with a viewing of a few deer I ran across in the trees by Thousand Island Lake. Normally I wouldn't find a few deer particularly special, but aside from a few squirrels, lizards, and birds, I hadn't seen any animal life in the several days we were camped here. And above 9,000 ft the sight of a few deer is somewhat of a surprise. (And better than a few bears visiting at night!)
I rejoined Terry back at camp just around 5p. He had had a pleasant day as well (including the trademark nap) and was about to start dinner. Excellent timing - soup and pasta, and lots of it,. Yum! It was the last night out for this trip, and a most enjoyable one at that. Although I didn't manage to climb the two major objectives I'd planned, I was hardly disappointed. It would only make the future successes that much sweeter.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Donohue Peak
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