Fri, Sep 14, 2007
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I arrived at Florence Lake sometime after 1a, stowed my food in a bearbox, then wandered about by headlamp looking for the trailhead. Fortunately it wasn't hard to find, and just after 1:30a I was on the trail. It was a long haul to Blaney Meadows, on to Muir camp, and continuing on into Kings Canyon NP, all in the dark. I passed by several trail junctions along the way, including several leading to Seldon Pass - my next visit in this area will use those trails to reach Hooper and Senger. It grew colder and colder with the increase in elevation, though that alone could not explain a 15-20 degree drop in temperature. It seemed likely that the narrowing canyon was harboring the cold air that settled into it during the night. It was below freezing for several hours and I found it difficult to keep warm. I had only a thin jacket, a balaclava, and some thin leather gloves. My fingers were numb for hours on end as the tattered gloves proved their inadequacy. Fall was certainly upon the Sierra and I would have to start carrying warmer clothes. You'd think I would have figured this out by now, but typically it takes an outing of suffering from the cold before I start carrying more stuff.
It began to grow light after 6a, shortly after I entered the park. Goddard Canyon grew lighter, displaying the high granite walls on either side. It was a bit dark and forboding before sunrise, the air still very cold. I paused at the large wooden bridge over the San Joaquin River where the John Muir Trail begins its climb up to Evolution Valley. I took the other fork here, continuing south on a trail that grows thinner as one heads further up the canyon. The canyon narrows a great deal beyond this point, the river cutting a gorge in many places, making a crossing somewhat problematic. Fortunately the water level was quite low, and where I needed to leave the trail I found a place to hop across the river on boulders, in between short, steep climbs into and out of the gorge.
The sun had come out by 7:30a, but I was still heavily in the shade of the canyon walls. I was happy to find that as I climbed out of the canyon the temperature rose as well, and I was soon comfortable again with the feeling back in all my digits. I wouldn't actually see the sun until shortly before reaching the summit. I made an ascending traverse on the west side of Emerald Peak, keeping to the right as much as possible to avoid a boulder and talus fest along the ridge. This worked out nicely with grassy benches interspersed with short class 3 sections of rock that made the climb enjoyable. Most of the reports I had read described this route as a slog, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it otherwise.
The LeConte Divide on the west side of Goddard Canyon was almost all in sun by the time I was halfway up to Emerald. Red Mountain dominated the divide with its easily distinguished orange rock, the Hell For Sure Pass Trail barely visible as it zigzagged up to the pass just south of Red Mtn. Mt. Henry, an SPS peak to the north of Red Mtn, was also visible, though I couldn't distinguish it from some of the other unnamed peaks along the divide. Looking ahead, Emerald Peak certainly does nothing to make itself stand out, at least from the vantage I had on its western flank. Without knowing exactly where the summit was, I just kept traversing in an upward line until I reached a barely discernable ridge on the west side that I followed to the summit.
It was nearly 10a when I reached the summit, 8.5hrs after starting out. I found the familiar Sierra Club aluminum canister with a register going back to the 1970's. There were individual sheets of paper that were even older, with a Glen Denny entry from 1957. There was a paper that was even older, but it was mostly illegible. Where it had been folded the paper had disintegrated, leaving 9 small squares of paper where there had been one. A date of 1930 was visible on one scrap, but that was about all I could read. Unfortunately it was breezy at the summit and I was afraid the scraps might blow away if I tried to lay them out and put the puzzle together. There were of course many familiar names in the register, mostly those chasing the SPS list - no surprise given the remoteness of the peak. Doug Mantle had seven entries, the first in 1973 and the most recent only 12 days ago. Imagine - more than 40 years of climbing in the Sierra.
Along with the breeze came some remarkably clear skies, making for great views. Of particular note was the Evolution Valley so nicely displayed below me to the east. Having made enough excursions to the area over the years, all was intimately familiar - Evolution Valley, McGee Canyon, Darwin Canyon, as well as the surrounding peaks - Lamarck, Mendel, Darwin, Haeckel, Wallace, The Hermit, Goddard, and many others behind those. For a short time I considered an alternative descent down the east or north side to Evolution Valley. There is a prominent chute on the east side that looks like it might go down to the cirque below, but the lower half was not visible from above. It might make for a good ascent route from that side. The register had mention of ascents from the north or northeast sides, but they described "interesting" route-finding, which might be harder on descent when cliffs aren't as readily visible until one is upon them. In the end I decided the extra risk wasn't worth it - if I had to climb back out of a bad descent route it might cost two or three extra hours, and this outing was already going to be long enough.
So off I went, back down the west side, taking much the same route I took on ascent. It was just after noon when I reached the trail below - only 18mi and 6hrs to go! I plugged into my MP3 player for the long return, enjoying the afternoon, the warm sun, and the scenic canyon, even if I wasn't enjoying the aches and pains slowly overtaking my feet and legs. I must have passed almost a dozen backpacking parties making there way along the JMT in the afternoon. It seemed like a fine idea to stop for a break at the hot springs near Muir Camp, but I was lamely unable to find them. I followed a sign and a use trail on the east end of the camp, but they only led to some campsites and the San Joaquin River. Consulting my map, I noticed the hot springs were indicated on the south side of the river, and it was beginning to seem like a wild goose chase (I didn't notice until later that there are two springs indicated, one on each side of the river). Without anyone around to ask directions from, I gave up the idea and continued back on the trail.
On I marched back through Blaney Meadow and then the ups and downs towards Florence Lake. I might have taken the ferry back across the lake had I known I could actually get a ride. The trail junction for the ferry is about a mile before the lake, and high above its shores. It would have been very helpful to have a sign posted at this juncture indicating if the ferry was running, and even better what the schedule might be. Not wanting to lose another chunk of time on a lost venture, I did the safe thing and continued on the trail around the south and west side of Florence Lake. It was just after 6p when I finally got back to my car. Sadly, I was about 15 minutes late to get something to eat at the store which had just closed. But I was happy to get out in one piece without having my boots or feet fall apart after completing one of my longer outings. Following on the heels of a similarly long outing to State Peak the week before, I think I was finally becoming comfortable with the 16hr+ hikes. Now if I could just work up to the 20hr+ comfort level, I might enjoy the future outings to Picket Guard, Tunemah, and some of the harder ones I have yet to do...
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