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We didn't set out for Hooper Peak. We started out in the morning on our drive from San Jose heading for Mono Meadow with the intent of dayhiking Red Peak and Mt. Clark. Not both together mind you, for that would be a most arduous undertaking. I was going to head to Red while Matthew went to Clark since we'd both already dayhiked the other peak. But during the drive Matthew discovered my heart wasn't strongly set on heading out that way so soon after I had visited nearby Gray Peak. So we started talking about Return Creek in Northern Yosemite. We were vaguely hoping to get to Pettit Peak, an SPS peak located in the heart of Northern Yosemite, a peak Matthew had climbed the previous weekend on a 50 mile dayhike out of the Virgina Lakes TH. I was of the opinion that a quicker route could be found out of Tuolumne Meadows via Return Creek, certainly less mileage, but the cross-country portion was long and possibly difficult. Thus our exploratory visit Friday. I gave us a 25% chance of getting to Pettit, and suspected it would be a day of scrambling, but no peakbagging.
We parked the car in Tuolumne Meadows and started off shortly at 6:30a. We followed the trail across the meadow to Parsons Lodge where we found a young couple asleep in the back of their hatchback. Waking up, they explained that they were part of a search effort for a young man lost in the area. We noted his picture and the pertinent information printed on a flyer, then headed down the trail to Glen Aulin and down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. It took 3 hours and 10 miles to reach the turnoff to Return Creek, a subsidiary stream of the Tuolumne. That was the easy part, then came the scramble upstream.
This seemed an ideal time to visit with the water low as we could scramble a good deal over the rocks in the creekbed. In many ways it was similar to a hike up Tenaya Canyon with waterfalls and other obstacles to surmount. I had studied the route on TOPO! at home, but not planning beforehand to visit it this weekend, had not brought a map along. All we had was a 15' map of Yosemite, one of many standard issue that Matthew keeps in his car at all times. It was difficult to recall the details and match them to the coarse map at our disposal, but I knew we were looking for an exit route from the streambed up the left side of the steep canyon walls. After less than an hour we left the creek and scrambled up the west side of the canyon aiming for what we hoped would be a class 3 route through the cliffs above us. The first half was over huge, car-sized boulders which were rather fun for a while, until the unexpected happened.
Matthew was following me up a gap between two boulders when he suddenly swore and hung his head, his hand reflexively covering his eye. My first thought was that he somehow hit his head on an overhanging rock. But his cursing was sharp and continuing, unlike the single curse one expects from blunt head trauma (can you tell we've been through that scenario before?). Matthew commented that he got stung. Then I noticed a couple of wasps on his shoulder, and almost as quickly he cursed yet again. It was looking like we disturbed a nest. Matthew climbed up to where I was standing and I brushed the wasps off him. "We've got to get out of here," I offered urgently, trying not to panic. We moved off some 20 feet or so, Matthew shouting with several new stings. We stopped to brush him off, then ran off over the huge boulders another 50 yards before we felt safe to stop. The running itself may have led to a dangerous slip, but we didn't really feel like we had any other choice. We'd never considered wasps a danger in the High Sierra and weren't prepared for this. Matthew sustained about a half dozen stings before they gave up or were driven off. Not wanting to be suffering alone, he looked over and asked how many stings I got. "None," I admitted sheepishly.
After that bit of excitement we continued up, realizing that we had left the creek much too early for the planned route to Pettit. On top of this the weather was starting to grow more threatening and I started to worry that our ascent would be made all the more difficult with wet rocks on the descent should the threatening weather actually become something. The scrambling was difficult in places, up to class 4, some through bushes and dirty cracks we used to climb through the cliffs. We climbed higher and higher, not realizing the ascent out of the creek would be almost 2,500ft of gain. Oh well, if we couldn't get to Pettit, we figured we could at least get to Hooper Peak at the top of the hillside we were scrambling up.
We stopped at a false summit some 400ft or so below the actual summit to take a break and try to figure out where we were on our map. Hooper it seemed, was indeed the rounded bump to the west above us. The weather was growing worse, rain now visible to the south over Mt. Hoffmann, and thunderstorms developing above us over Hooper. My better judgement was saying we should go down, my more aggressive side wanted to finish the hike to Hooper. Matthew offered no opinion, leaving the decision to me. "Let's go for it," I finally said, half certain I would come to regret it. We found that Hooper had two summits, and naturally we first climbed the lower one before descending and climbing the higher one. We agreed that Secor was absolutely right - dubious rewards were all we got. The views would have been better without the obscuring clouds, but even then it was more for the uniqueness of the view than anything else. Almost none of the higher peaks are visible from the relatively low summit (9,600ft), but it has a decent view of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. It had taken us 7 hours to reach the summit - not what we'd normally consider for a warm-up day.
Looking north, we could see Pettit some 2 1/2 miles away. I commented that it looked to be about 2 hours away, useful for future reference. Matthew replied as though I was talking about going there now: "Ok, then what - we head north to the trail and take that back to Tuolumne?" He was completely serious about continuing. Recall that we (I) had nearly turned back 400 feet from Hooper's summit because the weather was seriously threatening. Further, when we had left Return Creek we erred in forgetting to fill our water bottles. I had 1/3 of a bottle, Matthew had about 2 tablespoons left. Matthew expected we could fill up at tarns between the two peaks that he had seen on the map (with only our 15' map we couldn't be sure), but looking across from Hooper, it looked dry as a bone. And lastly, even if we were to spend two hours to get to the peak and another two hours to get to the nearest trail, it was over 25mi back via trail. And this a warm-up day. I concluded that Matthew was crazy, perhaps temporarily affected by dehydration, exertion, or the altitude - anything to keep from admitting I myself was a wimp. We descended a different route back to Return Creek, via the steep slope I had planned to climb originally. It had some challenging scrambling in the upper half, some annoying bushwhacking in the lower part. I thought it was a much better route as it turned out. However it also meant we had a longer descent down Return Creek. Simply put, I loved it, Matthew hated it. It took me a bit over two hours to cover the mile and a half down Return Creek to the trail. I rested for about 15 minutes, but didn't expect Matthew for maybe another hour (I'd last seen him when we both had reached the creek). I started the long haul back - another 3,000ft of gain back to the TH. Near Return Creek I had built a small cairn in the middle of the trail and wrote in the dust on both sides the time of day (5:05) so Matthew would have some idea how far ahead I was. I was going to further write "Run, run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!", but it was hard enough just writing the time legibly that I gave up on that extra bit of taunting. On my way up towards Glen Aulin the skies were dark and threatening ahead of me, but in the time it took me to reach the upper part of the canyon, the skies had cleared out. I got back to the car at 8:30p, the last half hour by headlamp, then began the wait.
It had been cold in the morning when we started, several degrees below freezing, and now it was quite cold again. I left the car idling for the first 45 minutes so that I could warm my shivering body. I was fine while I was hiking, but now that I stopped all my fingers went numb and I was thoroughly chilled. I turned the car off, and with my heavy jacket over me and the seat partially reclined, I dozed on and off. A ranger stopped around 10:30p to tell me I couldn't sleep there. I explained the situation, and she asked me lots of questions about where we went, when I last saw him, what supplies he carried with him. She asked if he had enough food for the night. "He doesn't need any food to make it through the night," I replied. I was a bit surprised at what seemed a dumb question. The bigger concern was whether he could bivy in subfreezing temps with only a shell and a light jacket. I couldn't imagine doing so myself - I had a hard enough time staying warm in a car with the engine idling. In the end she decided the best thing was for me to continue doing exactly what I was doing, and gave me the phone number for Yosemite SAR should he not return by morning. Back I went to my on and off dozing. Around 11:30p I was brought to life by the beam of Matthew's headlight approaching the car. Matthew's explanation for arriving three hours later was somewhat weak. In addition to an hour and twenty minutes longer he spent descending Return Creek, he'd missed the turn off at Parsons Lodge and gone further to the Lembert Dome TH. But the odd part was a tale of getting lost on the wrong trail near Glen Aulin, which he followed in a circle for an hour before finding the correct route. He described the trail as minimally used, but defined with cairns for markers. It certainly doesn't show up on any maps. Would we be able to retrace this in daylight?
As we were driving on to Bishop, Matthew went on to describe how he'd been sitting along the trail at Return Creek when he heard shouts of "Hello! Hello! Anybody here?!" from up the trail. A couple of backpackers were standing near my cairn wondering if someone was hurt. It occurred to me after I'd left the cairn that it might be misinterpretted by someone other than Matthew coming by, especially with the missing hiker known to be in the area. Sure enough, they'd read "5:05" as "SOS" and thought someone was in trouble. Matthew talked with the backpackers briefly, but didn't even notice the writing at the cairn which might have let him interpret it more accurately for them. They're probably still wondering what that was all about. Earlier, the ranger had given me the good news that the missing hiker had walked out earlier in the day.
This page last updated: Fri Dec 9 17:23:51 2011
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