Gray Peak Fail P500 SPS / WSC

Nov 1, 2003

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Aug 3, 2005

In what has gotten to be an almost regular routine, Matthew stopped by my home in San Jose at 2a to pick me up and head out to the Sierra for another weekend of death-marching cleverly disguised as dayhiking. October weather had been outstanding and we were hoping to get one more nice weekend in the mountains before the winter snows hit. Our timing was just a bit off. The first snowstorm had come the previous day dropping snow below the 4,000ft level. Fortunately it wasn't a big storm and we optimistically hoped the amount of snow wouldn't terribly deter our efforts to reach Gray Peak. Having checked the Park Service web site within the last 24hrs we knew that both Tioga Pass and the Glacier Point Road were closed. The former was of little consequence to us since we weren't heading that way, but we'd hoped to use the Glacier Point Road and the Mono Meadow Trailhead for our starting point. Our only option was to start out of Happy Isle in the Valley which would add about 8 miles and 2,500ft to our day. It made a hard dayhike considerably more difficult, even in the best of conditions.

When we got to the Valley around 6a, there was an inch of snow on the ground, and more was falling. In fact by 6:45a when we started out of the parking lot between Curry Village and Happy Isle it was coming down quite heavy. It didn't last long, but it gave us a taste of what the weather had in store for us today - unsettled, and threatening. Large patches of blue sky would make us think it was going to clear up, then huge towering clouds would move in and block out the sun and sky, and we'd think we were in for trouble. But it was just the weather feining and posturing, enough to have us on our toes watching the sky all the time.

We had some trouble just getting to Happy Isle from the parking lot. We missed the trail through the fen, and ended up bushwhacking across it, made more difficult by the fresh snow. "How are we going to find Gray Peak," I mused to Matthew while we struggled, "if we can't even find our way to Happy Isle?" We made it across without getting too wet, and our adventure was underway. We hiked up the JMT and were treated to wonderful wintry scenes of Half Dome, Grizzly Peak, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap. The higher we climbed, the more snow we found on the ground. We carried no snowshoes but didn't really need them. Without an underlying base it was easy enough to walk through the three or four inches of powder snow that lined the trail, the rocks, and just about everything. We stopped to take pictures of Yosemite's famous landmarks and hoped the blue skies over the Valley were portending of good weather coming. As the sun hit the backside of Half Dome, the snow turned to water which soon turned to vapor on the warming granite. Half Dome looked like a mountain on fire with smokey clouds soon enveloping it.

At the junction with the Panorama Trail we left the JMT and went right, hiking up towards Illiouette Creek. Matthew was a man with a mission and hiked along at a pace I had trouble keeping up with. He had a lot of energy today, as usual. It was 9a when we reached the junction with the Merced Pass Trail and took it heading south after a short potty break and a snack. We traded our views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Clouds Rest for those of Glacier Point and Mt. Starr King. We were finally out of the shady Merced Canyon as well. There was around six inches of snow at this elevation and I was glad to have Matthew out in front packing it down for me. The idea of actually reaching Gray peak seemed remote, ridiculous really, but it was a fine morning walk in new snow and that by itself was highly enjoyable. I didn't really care if we actually reached the summit, but for Matthew it was another story. He was motivated by the summit and would consider it a failure if we didn't reach it. Mostly I kept my opinions on this to myself, expecting the realities of our coming epic to be more self-evident in a few hours.

The sun was out while we hiked past Starr King and I fondly recalled my winter climb of it the previous February. The snow had been well-consolidated and I was able to climb it in a pair of crampons from the northeast side. I couldn't imagine climbing it with any amount of gear today under the current conditions. It was about 10:15a when we reached the junction with the east Branch of the Mono Meadow Trail. It had taken us three and half hours to reach this junction - from the Mono Meadow TH it would have taken about an hour and a half, adding up to four extra hours of hiking coming from Happy Isle. At least now we knew just how much extra work it was coming the way we did.

We had two small stream crossing not long after the junction. The first was easier, crossing on some snow-laden rocks. Matthew didn't trust the rocks or his balance, and used his hands to add some stability in crossing. The second was larger and trickier. Taking longer and using a different route across, Matthew was cursing mildly as his bare hands were coated in snow, quickly chilling as he grasped anything to steady himself with. I was shivering just watching him. Still he was undeterred, and we continued on.

Our plan was to head for the West Ridge, but the route is far from obvious anywhere along it. We knew going in that the forest sheltered most of the route and that other parties have gotten lost regularly along the undulating knolls and valleys on the west side of the Clark Range. Today would be even worse because the clouds hid the entire range from our view. So with compass in hand we left the trail when we were approximately due west of Gray Peak, and simply followed a compass heading east. We zigzagged of course to avoid the downed trees and brushy obstacles, but I kept referring to the compass to keep us on a more or less correct heading. The snow was ten inches deep as we left the trail, becoming a more serious obstacle. We carried on for nearly two hours cross-country, never catching sight of our elusive peak, but slowly gaining altitude. While thrashing along some brush along the top of a low ridge trying to view our peak, we caught sight of what we guessed was the West Ridge still a long ways off. We stopped to discuss our predicament. It was 12:30p and I figured we had about five hours of daylight left. The ridge looked to be about two hours off, then maybe an hour to the summit assuming that a foot of snow didn't make the class 3 ridge unclimbable. The weather was more threatening now than it had been most of the day. Matthew was for continuing on. I wanted a good workout, but I didn't want an epic. Getting benighted in these conditions with temperatures dropping below 30F was a far more serious sort of epic I didn't want to get close to. I voted we go back. And so we did.

Matthew was disappointed, but a good sport. He didn't complain or give me a hard time. I stopped to take a picture of Starr King from our vantage point southeast of it. We were a long way from it and had covered many miles today. But it just wasn't enough to get us there. The Gray Peak dayhike would happen, but not with snow cover, and probably not starting from Happy Isle. We retraced our steps, that much was easy since we'd left nice holes in the snow for miles. The snow was more difficult to track through on the way back thanks to the sun which had warmed it enough to give it the Sierra cement consistency we've come to expect. Still, we made good time returning to Happy Isle by 5p. No need to use our headlamps, no epic, but still a good 10hr+ workout. The scene coming down the JMT was quite different from the morning. The snow on the south facing slopes had almost all melted off. Other hikers had packed down the JMT quite well since we'd passed through in the morning. One pair of hikers had climbed up the Panorama Trail as far as the Mono Meadow Trail junction, but no further.

We had plenty of time to get our tent cabin in Curry Village and enjoy a hot shower. We met Romain that night over Pizza and beers, plotting out our strategy for the following day. We had originally hoped to attempt Higher Cathedral Spire, but the snow dampened those plans. We mulled over other possibilities as we wiled away the hours in the pub. We had no interest in going back to our unheated tent cabin until it was time for bed, so we stayed until closing, then moved across the way to the fireside lounge. By 10p we were no longer welcomed there and it was time to hit the sack...


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