Mt. Florence P750 SPS / WSC

Wed, Jun 30, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Fri, Aug 4, 2006

Mt. Florence is one of the few high Sierra Peaks visible as one enters Yosemite Valley. Arriving via CA120, Mt. Florence is the far distant pyramid shaped peak just to the right of Half Dome. At over 12,500 ft, it is one of the highest peaks in Yosemite. It is also one of the more inaccessible ones, at over 13 miles from the nearest trailhead. (The peaks between Foerster and Rodgers Peaks, inclusive, are probably the most inaccessible in Yosemite). From both Glacier Point and Half Dome, Mt. Florence is quite prominent looking toward the high country, and it was from these two more local hikes that I first desired to climb it. I had unsuccessfully attempted to reach Mt. Florence in August of 1998, but a bout of altitude sickness cut that trip short.

My second try was to be as a single overnighter on my way through Yosemite for a long weekend in Mammoth over the July holiday. The rough plan was to hike in Wednesday, possibly reaching the summit and camping somewhere below, or camping short of the summit and climbing it on Thursday morning before returning back. I'd cut my pack weight to 16lbs for a single night out, so I figured this lighter weight should allow me to cover considerable ground.

I left San Jose at 7:30a, and arrived in Tuolumne Meadows just after 12 noon. While I was getting my wilderness permit, I was strongly encouraged to carry something to treat my water and to use a bear canister, neither of which I planned for. I didn't have more than a pound of food, and it seemed a bit much to carry a canister for an amount of food that would fit in my pocket. And a bigger problem was that even if I stuffed it with my other gear, it wouldn't fit in my pack (which is a medium-sized mountaineering pack). I could hardly imagine a bear coming after some dried fruit while I slept at 12,000 ft. She was quite insistent on these items, so I told her I would go get them down at the Tuolumne store, which made her happy, although I did neither. Instead, I drove down to the parking lot near the Tuolumne Lodge. I stowed my excess food and gear in a bear locker located in the parking lot. I didn't want to leave a bag of non-food items in the back of my Suzuki as there is no top on the car and I'd hate a bear to tear through it looking for something edible. After these preliminary preparations, I was on my way just after 12:30p.

It was a very hot day throughout all of California, and probably the high eighties in Tuolume at almost 9,000 ft. As I hiked up the Rafferty Creek Trail, I noted that the trees provide almost no shade at noon, as the forest is somewhat sparse, and with the sun directly overhead, it easily penetrates to the forest floor, and me in particular. Even with sunscreen, a hat, and shades, the sun was quite intense. There was no wind to speak of, so it was easy for the mosquitoes to find their prey (me), which was why I was wearing lightweight hiking pants and a long sleeve shirt. Unfortunately, a cotton shirt was no match for the mosquitoes who could penetrate where the shirt pressed against my skin (like my shoulders), so I had to break out the repellent in short order.

The Vogelsang High Sierra Camp was closed as I passed through it, but snow had melted back to allow seasonal operations whenever they wanted. There was considerable snow going up to Vogelsang Pass, but not as much as recent years. In fact, the snow appeared exactly the same as the year before when I passed through two months later in the season. I stopped at the pass for a snack and a break. At over 10,500 ft, it was still quite warm, and with no shade it didn't feel like much of a break. The next leg of the hike is a heart breaker, as I had to lose over a thousand feet of hard-earned elevation. On the plus side, from this point on was all new ground to me, which made it particularly enjoyable. As I got down to Lewis Creek, the trail flattened and required a number of creek crossings. These were made difficult by the high water volume, apparently the snow was melting off at a record pace due to the heat wave. A second wave of mosquitoes came out to greet me but were beaten back by another application of the trusty DEET (100% of course - wouldn't want the pesky critters to think they might have a fighting chance).

A little past the Bernice Lake turnoff, I left the trail to begin contouring up to the Florence Lake area. From the topo it appeared that it might be possible to reach the Florence Peak ridge from the north through a col about a mile west of the peak. Secor doesn't mention this route in his description, so I was taking a chance on this one. The alternative was to travel further down Lewis Creek and approach Mt. Florence from the West/Southwest. This approach would take a lot longer, require much more loss of elevation, and it would not be possible for me to reach the peak until the next day. Even then, it was not clear that I'd be able to get back to the trailhead without having to spend another night out. As I gained altitude, I regained views of Mt. Florence ahead of me, and a number of other peaks to the west and southwest, including Mt. Clark and Half Dome. Once I got up near Florence Lake, I had a partial view of the col and could see it covered in snow up to the top. Unfortunately, the part of the top that was visible was seriously corniced, and I was unprepared (or rather unable) to hack my way through such an overhang. As I climbed up to the upper lake (Lake 10,541 ft), I had a full view of the col now and could see that right side was not overhanging and very climbable. I climbed down to the lake, around it's western side, and then along the rocks at the bottom of the slope.

It was now about 6:30p and I was getting tired, having been at for the last 6 hrs. If I could get up the ridge I'd be set even if I didn't reach the peak today. I put on my crampons, got out the ice axe, and started up the slope. This was the first use of my new crampons, and they worked quite well. The slope approached nearly 45 degrees, and the crampons held firmly the whole way up. My old ones were only 4 pointers, so with 10 points of contact the new ones worked significantly better. In particular, the two front points allowed for a very solid purchase with a good toe kick. Previously, I would have to toe kick several times or kick with the side of the foot to get enough room to plant the bottom points (on firm snow this could prove quite hairy). I rested a lot on the way up, climbing for 30 seconds, resting for 30 more. About 7p I reached the top, and relished the break to remove the crampons and pack them up. I was at 11,200 ft now, and still had 1300 ft to go. As I resumed my climb I became more and more aware of how tired I was. Even at this altitude it was incredibly warm, and there was still no breeze to cool things off. The altitude was affecting me physically, but at least I had no headache or other signs of altitude sickness.

I continued my climb slowly upward. The climbing was not hard, varying from small rock and scree to larger bouldering, but the air was getting thinner as the route continued ever upward. I was resting a lot now, the weight of my pack seeming to bearing more and more on my shoulders. Near 8p I was getting close to what appeared to be the summit. I tried to see if I could reach the top before the sun set around 8:30p. As I crested the peak about 10 minutes before sunset, I found that I had only summited a false peak, and the main peak still lay several hundred yards to the east. Somewhat crestfallen, I resigned myself to a few more hundred feet of elevation. I missed the sunset, which was blocked by the false summit as I was climbing Mt. Florence proper. I finally summited just after 9p, and damn near collapsed. I looked around for the summit register, but it was hard to find it in the failing light (or possibly I was just too exhausted). I had spotted a small nook about 10 feet below the summit that would have to do for a campsite. I didn't have the energy anyway to climb back down to the nicer spots I had seen on the way up (although I'm sure I'd have managed somehow if I hadn't come across the one at the summit).

It was getting dark quickly now, so I figured I'd better set up the bivy sack, pad, and sleeping bag before I couldn't see anymore. I heard a crack coming from the direction of the false summit, which sounded like rock falling, but when I looked over I couldn't see anything. I finished setting up the sleeping arrangements and prepared to jump inside. Although I had been carrying half a Subway sandwich for dinner, I wasn't hungry in the least and decided to ditch dinner in favor of rest. I would deal with food in the morning.

Suddenly, I heard a huge cracking from the same direction as five minutes earlier. As I looked over, there were several car-sized boulders accompanied by a great many smaller boulders and a ton of dirt falling from the very peak of the false summit. The thundering sounds grew louder as the rock mass dropped nearly a thousand feet to the snow and glacier below. On the glacier it left a debris trail 100 yards long and 15 yards wide. There was a cloud of dust that stretched from the peak all the way down to the glacier. With little wind, the dust at the peak lingered for nearly five minutes. At the bottom it was nearly 15 minutes before the dust dissipated. When I first saw the rock falling I had grabbed the camcorder, but there wasn't enough light for it since the sun had set 20 minutes earlier. After the excitement dissipated, I pondered my sleeping arrangements further. I was only 5 feet from the very edge of Mt. Florence's northwest face. If the rock fell here, would I be far enough back? Not likely. I tried to rationalize the risk away. What were the odds of both peaks having significant rock falls the same evening? Perhaps I could jump a few feet away from the peak if I heard any unusual sounds. Yeah, sure. In the end, I was too tired to move camp and decided the risk had to be pretty low. I think I fell asleep in less than 15 minutes as my body was finally able to quit after 9 hours on the go. I woke up once about midnight when the moon had risen and was shining brightly on my face. The temperature was probably in the 50's, a remarkably mild temperature at 12,500 ft in the Sierra at night. As a result I had the bivy sack open and my head exposed, so as the moon crested the peak and hit my face, it woke me briefly.

I woke up at 5:30a the next morning, about ten minutes before sunrise. As I got up to pack I was treated to a beautiful sunrise over the Cathedral range. Once the sun was up, it began to warm up quickly. It looked like it was going to be another scorcher. After I packed up my stuff, I poked around the summit until I found the register in the cylindrical aluminum container under some rocks. It appeared that I was the second one up this year, and the first person had not only climbed it the same day as myself, but had taken the same route up the north col. Even more amazing considering this peak is climbed less than a dozen times each year. I decided I should have something for breakfast, so I broke out yesterday's sandwich. It was terribly unappetizing. Cold, soggy, and pretty bland the second day, I managed to eat about 2/3 of it before I quit and packed the rest of it up. That would have to do for the breakfast. I also took the time to photograph the debris field from the previous night's rock fall. As I looked around the base the main peak, I was surprised to find an even larger debris field that resulted from a rock fall off the main summit earlier in the season. This second fall looked to be four to five times larger than the one I witnessed, and I'm sure I would have soiled my sleeping bag had it fallen while I slept at the peak.

The rest had done a world of good, and with some renewed vigor I decided to take a different route back and possibly bag Mt. Simmons on the way. I started down the southeast ridge looking for a way down the east face. If I could get off the ridge and down the face I'd be able to save losing even more altitude which I would have to turn around and regain once I was off the peak. Unfortunately, the east face had some pretty steep sections that I couldn't see a way down. I finally managed to get around the cliffs and snow sections and get off the face, but not before I had dropped 1300 feet from the summit. Once down, I headed east up the canyon, climbing talus and benches. Going uphill again, I was once again feeling tired, not as rested from the previous day as I'd hoped.

The end of the canyon was covered in snow, which rose from the bottom up to the ridges on the west and north facing sides. The snow appeared quite climbable with crampons, and possibly even enjoyable if I was going that way. Instead, I was headed north, up the south-facing slope, and there was nothing but rock in basketball-sized chunks in that direction. I had climbed 500 ft climbing up to the end of the canyon, and now faced a much steeper additional 500 feet to get up to the pass into the neighboring canyon. Up I went slowly. It wasn't yet 8:30a and I was tired, my "renewed vigor" dribbling away. It was going to be a long day, that much was certain. When I got to the top of the pass after half an hour or so, I was over 12,000 ft again, Mt. Florence visible to the west along the ridge. I had a beautiful view of Mt. Simmons and the even higher unnamed peak just to the south of it on the Cathedral ridge. From where I was they didn't seem too far away, and not that much higher than myself.

I started to get ambitious again, and began heading east up the ridgeline. I got maybe 15 minutes along the ridge before I was stopped cold. As often happens when following one of these rocky ridgelines in the Sierra, it suddenly fell away several hundred feet to a narrow passage in the ridge maybe 10 yards wide, and then rose again on the other side to the height I was at presently. I had not seen the gap from below when I started up the ridge, and I had not seen it once I was on the ridge until I was upon it. It seemed far too much effort to climb down the one side and up the other to bridge the gap, and so my ambitions for another peak quickly melted away.

I walked back to the low point up which I first climbed and surveyed the north-facing slope. There was much snow here, almost unbroken from the top to the bottom. I could pick and choose a route mostly over rock along the sides to the bottom, or choose a route over snow with some threading my way through the rocks. I decided it would be less effort and quicker to descend the snow (and also for a change of pace), so I donned the crampons, got ice axe in hand, and began the 500 foot descent to the canyon floor below. Despite the early time of day, the snow was already soft enough to make travel quite easy. I descended quickly, in less than 15 minutes. I crossed a small, still frozen lake, removed the crampons, contoured around the other side of the canyon, and descended another 500 foot snowbank, this time glissading on my butt, no crampons. After a short walk I was at the foot of my final climb, a 500 foot section up to the pass between Parsons and Simmons Peaks.

I had come down this section on my previous trip, so I knew I wouldn't have any trouble getting up. On the way up I filled my water bottles from the runoff from the snow above, and took quite a few breaks climbing this last stretch. Once at the pass, the high broad valley on the other side winds gradually down to beautiful Ireland Lake. There was much snow up here still, and it was completely mush in the hot sun. It turned out to be as warm today as it had the previous day, much higher than is comfortable at this altitude. I passed the lake on the right as I was now making a beeline for the Ireland Lake Trail which follows Ireland Creek down to Lyell Canyon. I met the trail where it meets the creek around 12:30p. I had been going cross-country for the last 6 1/2 miles which took me just about 6 1/2 hours to travel, a particularly slow rate of travel I might add. I hadn't seen anyone for almost 24 hours; the last person I saw had been at Tuolumne Pass the day before. I passed several day hikers on the trail now as I made considerably better progress once I was on the maintained trail. Down at Lyell Canyon, it was considerably warmer, but the green meadows and the creek offered a cooling environment that was probably more mental than reality. There were a number of backpackers that I passed in this section, along with some of the local inhabitants.

It took me another three hours to hike out to Tuolumne meadows. I had tried to stop for a rest along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne, even removing my boots and letting my feet cool off in the cold water. But it was just too hot to relax much, so I kept on moving until I was out. I was quite thankful that there was some ice remaining in the cooler I left in the bear box at the trailhead, and the last ice-cold soda that remained was a welcomed reward. After tossing the remaining gear in the car, I headed off to Mammoth for some good chow and a comfy bed to rest in. I wasn't done with my climbs by any means, in fact I was planning to do a lot more climbing in the Mammoth area over the next 5 days. I was well pleased with my trip in Yosemite, although I did miss by three hours my goal of 24 hrs for the round trip. Oh well, I could live with that. If nothing else, it gave me a goal for my second trip to Mt. Florence. :)

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