Mt. Elwell P750 SPS / OGUL / WSC / PYNSP
Adams Peak P2K SPS / OGUL / PYNSP / WSC / PD

Mar 13, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3


4a, a Motel 6 in Reno. The lap of luxury. Matthew didn't really agree. After I turned off the alarm I gave him an obnoxious-sounding, "Rise and shine, it's a beautiful day!" Of course it was pitch dark outside and he hadn't had much sleep, but this was his plan to climb Elwell and Adams in the same day so I wasn't going to let him off the hook. We wolfed down breakfast, packed up, and headed out for Graeagle, 70 miles, two counties, and another state away. Fortunately the roads are pretty straight and fast, and we made it to the trailhead just east of Johnsville shortly after 5:30a. Mt. Elwell is an SPS peak located in Plumas county in some of the furthest north stretch of mountains still considered part of the Sierra Nevada. I had climbed nearby Eureka Peak the day before while scouting out Mt. Elwell, so I was familiar with the area and knew exactly where to start for our peak today. Though technically winter, spring had come early, and today would be much as it had been all week - sunny, warm, and slushy snow.

We headed off with our snowshoes strapped to our packs, thinking the frozen snow would hold our weight for the first hour or so until it had a chance to warm up with the new dawn. That was a bit of wishful thinking. The snow right at the trailhead was packed from others who had stopped and walked around, but 10 feet from the roadway we started sinking in. I high-stepped through the snow on the forest floor for about 50 yards before admitting defeat. Snowshoe time. So after some fumbling there at the beginning, we finally were heading out towards Elwell at 6a. It was a very fine morning and the temperatures were great for our morning workout. We climbed 500ft in less than half a mile, a pretty good way to warm up. We topped out on a ridge and headed south towards our objective, still 3.5mi away and tucked well out of view. It seemed odd to be out in the snow in winter at 6:30a and have it so bright we had to pause to put on sunscreen. We walked half a mile along a mostly flat, rounded ridgetop enjoying the sunrise to the east and the views of Eureka Peak to the west - seemingly too good to be true. At the end of our ridge we turned southeast, climbed another 300ft in the shade, and emerged on a second gentle ridge. We hiked along this a short ways before having to lose some elevation to cross the upper basin of Claim Creek and reach the main North Ridge on the other side.

Though not as steep as the two previous uphills, this one was relentless, 1800ft in a little more than two miles. Mostly we climbed through the trees, favoring the shade found just to the west of the ridge, but now and then we'd trade that for the firmer snow and sunshine found east of the ridgeline. It was really a delightful climb and I enjoyed getting into a solid rhythm and putting in some good tracks. My new boots I'd just purchased in Reno the previous day were comfortable and working great. Matthew was never far behind me, a little surprising. He was hating the snowshoes back in December when he was doing his first serious hike with them, but now he was having no trouble keeping up. My age and experience were losing out to his youth and growing skills. I wondered how long it would be until I was trailing him on a regular basis on our little marches.

We topped out at the false summit at 8a. I had known there was a false summit from the day before when I viewed both summits from Eureka Peak, but now the true summit looked a good deal further off to the south with some intervening elevation loss to boot. I resigningly commented it would be another hour to the summit. Matthew looked at me like I was crazy, and suggested it was much closer than I had ventured. I was hoping he was right. We took a set of photos from the false summit and then continue on our way. Matthew was right - it took only 15 minutes to cover the last half mile to Mt. Elwell's summit. The final climb was a heart-pumping 150-foot stretch up a fine, snow-covered slope. I reached the top wishing there was another 150 feet of the same. Matthew was but a minute behind.

We found no register among the summit rocks, but with all the snow around it could have been anywhere if one existed at all. There had been a few tracks that we had crossed enroute, and there were several sets of ski tracks about the summit - we weren't the first of the season, and not even the first in the last week. Though we found no register, we found great views (NW - N - NE - SE - W) and a warm sun. There was a bit of a breeze so I put on my jacket (we'd been hiking in tshirts almost from the start), but we could have lounged up there for some time. Of course we didn't - we had another peak to climb still! We took a series of photos before heading down, not varying from our ascent route by more than 50 feet to one side or the other. It took a little more than an hour and half to return, and it was but 10:10a when we got back to our car. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable hike when all was said and done, one the best I'd had all season. The second half of the day was a different story.

After taking off our wet clothes, wringing them out, and packing up, we headed out on SR70, gunning east to Adams Peak. Adams is the furthest north peak on the SPS list, and is reputed to get very little snow compared to the other Northern Sierra SPS peaks. Pete Yamagata comments that a winter ski ascent would be possible only right after a big, cold storm. That statement was just flat out wrong - there was plenty of snow on Adams even in spring-like conditions. We took the turnoff to Frenchman Lake, and followed Yamagata's instructions to the trailhead. About the 5,600-foot level we began to hit small patches of snow on an otherwise excellent graded dirt/gravel roadbed, and these began to worry Matthew. His car would swerve a bit as it slid through portions of the snow, and he worried it might spin out and maybe get us stuck somewhere. Mostly I found it amusing and tried to encourage him to go for it. At the 5,800-foot level we came upon a larger stretch of snow some 50 feet or so long. Matthew pulled up and stopped. I thought it might be worth backing up and gunning it to get over, but Matthew thought otherwise. Since it was his car I didn't protest, and we pulled over to the side of the road to park just before noon. We were about two miles short of the trailhead, five miles in total from Adams' summit. We got out and started to get ready, when not a minute later a second vehicle pulled up to our very out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere location. Two good ol' boys in a pickup wanted to get up to "their driving range" (we never figured out what that meant), and went for it past our parking spot. They weren't going very fast to begin with and didn't make it more than 10 feet into it before grinding to a halt. The driver got out to hike up the road a bit to see how much further he might get while Matthew and I headed out with our snowshoes on our feet. On our return we would find that they had made another more valiant attempt to make it through the snow before turning around and leaving. They never made it to their driving range, and I had to concede that we would never have made it through either.

We had expected the hike to Adams Peak to be the easiest of the weekend, and consequently didn't really prepare with that much beta for the route. I had expected the peak to be obvious and visible from the start, but that wasn't the case at all. All we knew was the general direction to follow, but little of the intervening terrain. The map we carried had the route from the trailhead we had hoped to get to, but from where we started we were a bit blind, map-wise. Almost as soon as we headed out we left the road as it made a U-turn to head in a westerly direction. We figured there was little advantage sticking to a winding, snow-covered road, and we might as well head off in a more direct route. That was a mistake as it turned out. The road would have been both shorter and less elevation gain, but we only found that out in hindsight. Instead, we headed northeast up 400ft to the top of a rounded knob at 6200ft. It was merely a local highpoint, which meant we had to head back downhill. Somewhere around this point it occurred to me that I forgot my camera. Darn. Matthew would have to be the sole photographer to record our efforts as I wasn't about to go back to retrieve it. The snow ran out on the more exposed top area, so we took off the snowshoes and hoofed it in a zigzag pattern avoiding the snow patches that remained. We had to climb back down nearly 300ft, or almost everything we'd just climbed as we continued east. I got tired of postholing on the eastern slopes so switched back to the snowshoes. Matthew tried to hold out longer thinking the snow would disappear again ahead of us, but his postholing up well past his knees in places proved this to be folly. Down at the bottom we crossed a barbed-wire fence, a flat, snow-filled meadow, and then the fence again on the far side. We still couldn't see our peak ahead of us, but we could see the main Sierra crest running north-south a few miles off, and guessed Adams Peak was hidden behind a few more local highpoints to the northeast. Rather than attack these other highpoints (I was more closely inspecting our map at this point and determined it would only mean more downclimbing), we tried contouring around them on the southern edges. It turned into a series of three or four small ridges that we climbed up and over, losing a bit of ground each time on the other side. The snowshoes came off and back on several times, though mostly on. Finally we came down to the small creek that courses the east side of the main crest. We still couldn't see our peak, we were wallowing in extremely heavy, soupy snow, and in marked contrast to the delightful time I had had in the morning, I was simply hating Adams Peak.

We had clearly underestimated the effort to climb this peak in winter. I was entertaining thoughts of quiting the hike, just feeling much too tired. Knowing how this would disappoint Matthew, I kept these thoughts to myself. We crossed the creek and began climbing the steep slope on the east side. After a couple hundred feet, I stumbled upon a road at the 6400-foot elevation mark. Everything for the last mile and for most the rest of the day was covered in snow. The road was a welcome sight. Not plowed of course, nor even tracked, it was at least an open path we could follow for the next mile and a half. And this we did, plodding on for some time. We gained 600ft while following along the road, which was tiring - mostly because the road had looked to be nearly level as we went along. Where the road began to turn away from our peak we had another mile and 1200ft of climbing left to the summit. Up we went, a steep slope (about 30 degrees) exposed to the sun, but now that we were above 7,000ft the snow was less sloppy. There was much pausing after each effort of 20 to 40 steps as we progressively made our way higher. I was more tired than before, but now that I could feel we were getting closer, I no longer had the urge to retreat. We never talked about a turnaround time because we didn't initially think it could take us all afternoon. I figured if we made it to the top by 4p, we ought to be able to get back before dark.

We finally reached the main crest, and could look across a couple hundred yards to the twin summits of Adams Peak. It was an easy effort from this point. Somewhere we had read that the register was on the west summit but the highpoint was on the east one, so we headed initially for the east summit, arriving at the top at 3:30p. The last 20 feet or so were rocky so we had to remove our snowshoes. It had been three and half hours reaching the summit, about twice as long as we thought it would take - a bit of a miscalculation. As it turns out the east summit isn't the highpoint at all (the most recent topo maps have the west summit correctly identified as the highpoint), but as Yamagata points out the east summit is still worth a visit, with a great view overlooking the Upper Long Valley 3500ft below to the southeast. I didn't stay long at the summit, preferring to make my way over to the west summit to take a longer break there. Finding an all-snow route along the crest between the two summits, I strapped my snowshoes back on and headed over, about a 5 minute walk. Matthew came a few minutes later, but decided to just carry his snowshoes. I was amused as he approached the west summit and started swearing up a storm as he postholed into submerged bushes several times. He did manage to make it without resorting to the snowshoes, but the effort it required seemed far more than it would have taken to just put the shoes on in the beginning.

It appeared we were the first to sign in to the register this season, the last entry dating back to October of the previous year. Looking through the register we found several other winter ascents, so we certainly weren't the first. Maybe the first Elwell-Adams combined winter ascent, though. :-) We ate our snacks, Matthew took some pictures, and I put on some warmer clothes as I was feeling chilled now that we weren't moving at all. I took out our map and began studying it intently, determined to find an easier route back than the one we'd taken on our ascent. There was some risk in taking another way back though. Now that it was nearly 4p, we only had two hours to get back before dark. If we had any serious route-finding errors, we could easily find ourselves lost at nightfall. For the most part it seemed we just needed to follow the drainage on the west side of the peak down until we were about a mile from our car. Hopefully we could pick up the roads indicated on our map to make the navigation easier. Matthew wasn't any more interested in our ascent route than I was, and he readily agreed to head off wherever I led. Later I would find that Matthew is almost too trusting. He hadn't even looked at a map beforehand, and took almost no interest in it the whole day - he was happy to to follow wherever I went. When I pointed out that I have been known to get seriously lost at times, once even 180 degrees in the wrong direction, he simply countered that he'd done the same plenty of times on his own.

On our return we headed in a more our less westerly direction, down the steep slopes off the summit. No cliffs or serious hazards, just lots and lots of slushy snow. Down we plunged 1,500ft until we came upon a road again. This one wasn't so easily distinguished as the one we followed earlier, as the snow cover too easily hid the roadbed, and there weren't enough trees to see where the road was cut very well. Fortunately we noticed a series of yellow ribbons tied to bushes and trees along the route. These looked to have been tied on sometime this season, possibly to aide snowmobilers looking to follow the road. They proved of great utility to us as it took away much of our navigation worry. We would follow along to a ribbon, look ahead for the next one or two, and continue on. We had one small navigation error where we lost the road for five or ten minutes, but it was hardly consequential and we found the road again soon enough. As we plunged along, I was starting to feel nauseous. We weren't high enough for it to be altitude related, so it was probably due to dehydration or lack of sufficient food intake since breakfast. I asked Matthew how he felt. "Fine," was the reply I got. I was hoping for a bit more commiseration - I would have gotten it if he'd felt likewise. On our attempt of Clarence King the previous summer we had both felt nauseous, and somehow it made me feel better that Matthew had felt sicker than me there at the end. So maybe this was my chance to repay him the favor.

It took us only two hours to return to our car, just as the sun was setting behind the western hills. Most of the route was still covered in snow, and there were only a few short stretches of a hundred yards or so where the roadbed was exposed and we could take off our snowshoes. We were none too glad to see our car again. As earlier, our feet and boots were completely soaked, only by now they were getting a bit cold and numb, or at least mine were. I was glad to get the wet boots and socks off, dry my feet and get some dry socks on.

After our ritual changing into more comfortable clothing, we headed back down the road, onto SR70 and US395, and south to Reno. By the time we crossed the Nevada border my nausea had not only disappeared, but I was feeling really great and hungry to boot. We stopped at a grocery store and a nearby Subway for dinner. It was 8p before we returned to our motel - a long day indeed. The morning had been much easier than we expected, and the afternoon much harder, so overall it sort of evened out. Had we started out on Adams Peak I wonder if we would have then carried on to Elwell, so it was probably best that we did them in the order we did. We were in bed shortly after 9p, with the alarm set again for 4a - more fun planned for Sunday!


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