Thu, Nov 3, 2011
It was well after 2a when we pulled into the Deer Cove TH off SR180 in Kings Canyon. We had seen not a single car for almost two hours after having passed through the small town of Minkle, east of Fresno. Matthew had been nodding off and on during this time though he claimed to have gotten no actual sleep. I had had three hours of napping earlier in the day but Matthew had no such advantage. He would have to rely on youth and superior conditioning to make it through the day. The temperature was 38F and was forecast to drop below freezing before the the night was through. A weak Pacific storm was slated to start heading in later in the day, bringing wind and colder temperatures ahead of it. I was feeling pretty tired and lethargic as I finished the long drive, suggesting to Matthew that I would be okay sleeping for a bit before we started off. Part of me was also worried that we might reach the base of the summit pinnacles before dawn and I loathed the idea of trying to scramble up them with freezing hands. Matthew admitted that he was ambivalent. Thinking I just bought myself an hour's rest, I started to put the seat back when Matthew made up his mind that we should probably get going to put his vacation day to good use. We packed up and started out at 3a.
I had put on all my clothes including an insulated hat, balaclava, down mittens, a fleece and windbreaker. These worked nicely to keep me warm but within fifteen minutes we stopped to remove half of this. I had never been on this trail before but it is similar to the Lewis Creek and Copper Creek Trails that also climb the north side of Kings Canyon - relentlessly upwards right from the start. The gradient was not excessive but it was continuous for most of five miles as it makes it's way up more than 3,000ft to a saddle just south of Wildman Meadow. After following the gentle descent down to the meadow, we somehow managed to lose the trail where it entered a campsite found there. The trail seemed to disappear into the ether. We found weak trails made by animals and followed them until we were well off the correct route. My GPS helped guide us in the correct direction, but from experience I know that the trail locations depicted on it are often just approximations. We wandered north along the west side of a ridgeline, roughly paralleling the trail only a hundred feet or so from it. Luckily the cross-country here was through forest and relatively easy.
It was just before 5:30a when we rejoined the trail just before the only trail junction along our route. The right fork continues upwards towards Frypan Meadow where it joins the Lewis Creek Trail. Our route headed west, traversing slopes for about 3.5 miles to Burns Meadow. The trail here was clear of downfall, but not cleared of the encroaching buckthorn that lines many parts of the trail. It appears the Forest Service no longer maintains this trail, but packers do, judging by the large amount of horse poop that can be found along it. Fortunately we wore long pants and the buckthorn was springy, allowing it to mostly just bend aside as we walked past without jabbing at us too much. Occasionally we would lose the trail as it got confusing in an area of downfall or was hidden behind a small wall of brush. We'd scout around, exploring options before finding it again a few minutes later.
It was 6:30a when we crossed a small stream and wandered into an empty campsite at Burns Meadow. There were several sleeping pads cleared at a lower location and others about 200ft higher, all under cover of the forest on the edge of the meadow here. Some gear had been left in places, but for the most part it was tidy enough. We struggled to find where the trail exited the camp, reminiscent of our trouble earlier at Wildman Meadow. We wandered back and forth between the campsite locations trying to find the trail again. To the west, where the map and GPS indicated the trail should go, was a huge field of buckthorn that we could just make out as it was starting to grow light. We didn't want to wander into the stuff without a trail to follow, so kept up our search for the better part of an hour before eventually giving up. We were still something like 2.5mi from Happy Gap, a non-trivial distance to cover in rough cross-country conditions. It appears there had been a major fire that swept through the area maybe 15 years ago, killing many of the trees and allowing vast fields of manzanita and buckthorn to take their place. There were new pines 1-2 feet tall in places, but it would be many more years before they were tall enough to screen out and kill off the underlying brush.
Our best option seemed to be to follow the creek upward at the edge of the forest. The downfall was considerable here, but it was easier going than trying to make our way through a 5ft wall of brush. We had spent so much time at Burns Meadow that it was plenty light out for this cross-country effort and we could put our headlamps away. The day came on and grew warmer as the sun crested the Comb Spur to the east and began to take some of the cold chill off. We climbed up a steep slope for more than 600ft to get out of the Burns Meadow drainage, then crossing a ridgeline to traverse into the next drainage. There were fewer trees and more bushwhacking to contend with here, the toughest part being where we had to cross a small creek that had much brush lining both sides. More traversing and climbing brought us to an easier section under forest that led over the next ridgeline and into the Choke Creek drainage and the first views to Eagle Peaks. Here we had some luck in finding the trail again and were able to follow the barely discernable tread to Happy Gap where we arrived at 9a. It had taken six hours to do what we'd thought should have taken four had the trail not disappeared on us. It was beginning to dawn on us why we'd heard so little about Eagle Peaks.
We found a fire ring with a rusty grate and crushed aluminum pot at Happy Gap, and oddly a USGS benchmark, but there wasn't anything very happy about Happy Gap. The trail never continued over the pass, though Voge described the route down to Tehipite Valley as dangerous and not suitable for pack animals. The trees were too thick on that side of the pass to afford any sort of view. We would have to wait until we started up the crest towards Eagle Peaks before seeing the landscape on the other side. The views to the southeast side of the pass were more open, providing grand, albeit hazy views of the terrain around Kings Canyon as far as the Great Western Divide. We paused here for only a few minutes before continuing our quest to Eagle Peaks. Though we were little more than half a mile to the summit, it would not prove easy. We were joking about how much time it would take and Matthew proclaimed, "Based on the what we've done so far, it'll probably take two hours." It turned out to be prophetic, very close to the truth.
The nature of the difficulties was not the same as the heavy brush we'd had to contend with so far. What came next was actually what we were hoping to find - some fun and challenging scrambling. It was fairly tame when we started out, a mix of easy terrain and only slightly less easy talus we found traversing around the north side of the crest. We reached the top of Grand Dike in about 15 minutes where we got a good view of Eagle Peaks now before us to the west. Under a small cairn there was an old film canister register that I guessed was probably left by Smatko. It turned out to be left by one of his regular partners, Bill Schuler, in 1987. Two other entries since then included one from firefighters in 1997 - which seemed to confirm the time since the fire swept through here. It may also have been the time the trail to Happy Gap was finally abandoned.
There is a fantastic view to the north of the Silver Spur which forms one of the ridgelines bordering the Gorge of Despair. Dozens of granite domes are packed together for what must surely be a backcountry rockclimber's wonderland. We could also make out Kettle Dome, Blue Canyon and Finger Peak further north across Tehipite Valley. Tehipite Dome was not yet visible, blocked from view by the Silver Spur. To the northwest one can see The Obelisk and the dominant peak in that direction, Spanish Mtn.
We dropped down the other side towards a gap between Grand Dike and the first of Eagle Peaks, the beginning of more than an hour and a half of good rock scrambling. It was not possible to tell from either the map or from looking at the view before us which of the pinnacles might be the highpoint, but that didn't really bother me as it looked like it might be fun climbing all of them. For the most part, we followed near the crest, moving to easier ground on the south side when needed. The rock was generally solid and as enjoyable in practice as it had looked from a distance. It took about 20 minutes to climb the first pinnacle which I dubbed #1. From the top I could see at least two higher pinnacles further west. I waited a few minutes for Matthew before hearing Matthew moving about lower on the south side, bypassing this first pinnacle. I called down to him that the highpoint was further west and to keep traversing as I would have to climb down to join him. We met up again ten minutes later where it was necessary for Matthew to negotiate an exposed section across a thin ledge. Together we dropped down to the notch between #1 and #2, moving briefly to the north side of the crest where we used some slabs to get by difficulties leading into the notch.
Ten minutes of brisk scrambling along the crest brought us to the summit of #2 where we found, as we half expected, that the highpoint lay further west with two more pinnacles vying for the honors. The pinnacles were at least growing closer together and it did not take long to get to the next one. We dropped off #2 on the sunny south side and moved around to where we could see both of the next two, #3 and #4. Guessing #4 to be higher, I led us across the south face of #3 to reach the summit of #4 less than 15 minutes after leaving #2. As luck would have it, it was clear from the summit that #3 was indeed the highest. There was another point further west (#5) that was quite a bit lower and didn't look all that interesting, so we skipped it and headed back for #3. This was climbed from the notch between #4 and #3, though it could be climbed from the south side by several routes as well, too.
Another ten minutes later, and by 10:50a we were atop the highpoint. It had taken nearly 8hrs to reach the summit, the longest time to reach the top for me this year. A dark green ammo box was lying between the two uppermost rocks, a sure sign our quest was complete. Inside was a small red notepad, the cover bright red and looking fresh. The 19 cent price tag gave away it's true age as much older. In fact is was the original register placed by Steve Fossett in 1966 as reported by Smatko in his 1968 guidebook. I didn't know it at the time, but this was the same Steve Fossett who became reknowned as a millionaire adventurer and crashed his plane near the Minarets in 2008 on the side of Volcanic Ridge. The second ascent was by a party of three from the SPS three months later. It included two recognizable names, Arkel Erb and Ed Lane (I had just climbed Ed Lane Peak as part of the Sierra Challenge back in August). A party of two that made the third visit in 1970 included Jim Jenkins who had written several fine guidebooks to the Southern Sierra. Jim died in a car crash in 1979 at the young age of 27yrs. The fourth visit in 1971 was a large SPS party of 14 that included more notables: John Robinson, Andy Smatko, Gordon MacLeod, Ed Treacy and Doug Mantle. Four of these were among the first eight to complete the SPS list. Ours made the fifth entry in the notebook, the first in 40 years. It was odd that Bill Schuler did not have an entry on his visit in 1987. We speculated that perhaps in his 70s by then, the sustained class 3 scrambling might have been too much at that age, perhaps he settled for reaching Grand Dike and calling it a day.
The views were as fine as we could have hoped, a grand sweep of the western portion of SEKI NP. The Great Western Divide and the Kaweahs made up the furthest views to the southeast with the Finger Peak on the LeConte Divide prominent to the north. The top of Mt. Goddard was just visible to the northeast over the Silver Spur. Mt. Harrington dominates the view to eastward along the spine of the Monarch Divide. Nearby to the southwest, at just under two miles, lay Wren Peak, the last prominent peak of the Monarch Divide until it drops to the junction of the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River. We had initially planned to pay this peak a visit as well, but were now afraid to do so would mean a mini-epic and a late exit. Perhaps we would find another, shorter route to its summit as a future project. It seems likely that its summit has a similarly old and forgotten register.
Though the scrambling had been fun, we did not want to take another two hours to return to Happy Gap. Instead of returning back along the crest, we dropped further down on the south side in an effort to bypass the more difficult sections. It was not an obvious route, but we did find easier class 2 going on that side with some helpful connecting ramps to get around several ribs. The return to Happy Gap via this route took only an hour, half the time it had taken on the way to the summit. I was feeling confident that we could cut another couple of hours off the return if we could do a better job of following the trail back to Burns Meadow. I was not yet aware just how obliterated the trail had become. It started well, following the trail as it traversed across the Choke Creek drainage and into the next one. But we lost track of it again after it switchbacked a few times down through forest and then across a brushy slope. The buckthorn had grown too high and made following the trail impossible.
With an eye on the GPS showing approximately where the trail should be, as well as the track we had taken earlier in the morning, we bushwhacked somewhere between the two routes, finding it tougher than we had in the morning when I was simply looking for the most brush-free route. When we got to the second ridgeline looking down on Burns Meadow, I made a grave error in insisting we could find the trail down the slope rather than following the more circuitous, but mostly brush-free route we had taken up earlier. After dropping down along the ridgeline, itself an easy effort on the forest's edge, the expected trail did not materialize and we were left with a quarter mile stretch to Burns Meadow down a buckthorn-choked slope. It was plain awful. The stuff was five to six feet high though we rarely touched the ground as we stepped over the plants in front of us, bending the branches to stand on for the next step ahead. The needles poked incessantly all over the lower torso. Particularly bad was when stepping down the brush would lift the pant legs to expose the ankles and shins to being stabbed and bled repeatedly without any protection. At one point I lost my balance and fell over on my back, opening new wounds in places that had up til then been relatively protected. I swore a great deal through this trauma. I apologized several times to Matthew for leading him down this hell, but he seemed to take it in better stride than I. I only heard him swear once or twice through all of it, though what he might have been muttering under his breath would have been lost on me. I took to swearing more regularly as it seemed to help let off the frustration I was feeling. As for the trail - it was all but non-existent. I did see the tread deep under the buckthorn at several locations, but it was too buried to follow and stepping onto the buckthorn, difficult as that was, was preferred over trying to push through at ground level.
It was with no small measure of relief that we finally found our way to Burns Meadow and the trail shortly before 2p. No time had been saved on the return route. We paused briefly here to empty our boots of their collected debris. There was a fine view of the Grand Dike - a collection of impressive pinnacles low on Eagle Peaks' SE Ridge - that would make for an interesting outing in its own right, assuming an easier approach could be found. Matthew led us on the traverse across the southern slopes of the Monarch Divide, making our way back to the Deer Cove Trail. Along the way I managed to trip up on a branch and tumbled hard onto the trail. After ascertaining I hadn't sustained any serious damage, I gave Matthew my camera to take a picture and then picked myself up and dusted off the dirt before continuing. The encroaching buckthorn became more of a nuisance on the way back as it poked at the fresh wounds that had been left on our lower legs during the earlier ordeal. There wasn't much that could be done about it, save console ourselves that like most wounds, these too would heal in time.
It was 2:45p when we reached the trail junction. Thankfully most of the remaining six miles would be downhill. Much of the Deer Cove Trail is free of rock and partially sandy, making for easy downhill jogging. Added to that was the fine scenery one is treated to upon the descent into Kings Canyon. Much of the earlier haze had dissipated (or perhaps we were just closer to the canyon now) and there was a nice view of Mt. Palmer towards the eastern end. It was 4:20p when we arrived back at the TH. Ours was still the only vehicle in the lot. We had been out for nearly 13.5hrs and seen no one else the entire day. It was actually a bit eerie, as we'd seen no cars on the drive in (no surprise there), and no one else on the way out until we were back near the Visitor Center at Grant Grove. It was as if the whole road into Kings Canyon had been deserted in preparation for the upcoming winter. We were just happy to have gotten another fine day in the Sierra before winter snows closed many of these roads for the season.
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