Sun, Jul 4, 1999
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After the wimpy hike up McGee Mtn the previous day, I was looking for a bigger challenge. It was the Fourth of July in Mammoth, and the two big events in town today were the parade in the morning, and the evening fireworks out at Lake Crowley. There was also a pancake breakfast, a craft fair, and sales going on in every shop in town. Forsaking all of that (like that was hard to do), I got up early and left the condo long before the others awoke. I was headed for Devil's Postpile which only allows cars in before 7a or after 5:30p (between those hours you must use the $8 shuttle).
There are a host of hikes possible in and out of this area. Nearby Reds Meadow is a waypoint on the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails. Hikers can receive packages there or resupply themselves at the local store. Devil's Postpile is also the jumping off point for hikes to the Ritter Range located to the west, lying between Mammoth and Yosemite. On the northern end rise Mts. Davis, Banner, and Ritter, the latter being the highest in the area, and the namesake for the range. The Minarets, a striking line of pinnacles visible from the Owens Valley, lie in the middle of the range. These are mostly technical climbs, requiring a partner, rope, and other climbing gear to be surmounted safely. At the southern end lies Iron Mtn, a nicely shaped pyramidal peak just over 11,000 ft. It is a relatively straightforward class 1-2 climb, the only difficulty being its distance from the trailhead. Devil's Postpile is the closest starting point, about 7 miles from the summit, about 1/3 of which is off trail.
It was about 7:30a when I left the parking lot and headed off across the San Joaquin River (without the nice bridge, this would be a difficult undertaking indeed). On either side of the river were abundant shooting stars in some of the largest displays I have seen anywhere. After admiring them briefly, I headed off on the historic Mammoth Trail, which was first used in the 1880's to resupply the Mammoth area from the west during its heyday as a mining town. The trail begins a modest 500 foot climb in the first mile before heading back down to King Creek as it gives up all the elevation gain in the second mile.
At King Creek I found a considerable amount of water flowing, much more than I had expected (actually, I hadn't expected any since I hadn't consulted the map at all for river features, thinking the San Joaquin was the only one of consequence). I could have crossed where the trail joins the creek in perhaps knee-waist deep water, but I wanted to avoid soaking my boots (or removing them). The creek wasn't particularly wide, but certainly more than I could jump across. I began scouting northward along the bank for either a jump-across point, or a strategically fallen log. After a nearly a quarter mile of searching, I found just such a log, although it was far from ideal. One end was barely out of the water, and the constant thrashing of the water upon it kept the first three feet permanently wet (at least during this part of the season). This allowed some form of algae growth to take hold on this portion of the trunk. I became aware of this as I began to straddle the log on all fours and found my hands slipping off the slimy, clearish-brown stuff. An excellent natural lubricant that may have amazing commercial applications, I was nevertheless unimpressed at the moment and wanted nothing more than to get it off my hands and off my bridge. Fortunately with a bit of persistence, I was able to wash most of it off the log, enough to allow me a sufficient amount of confidence to venture to cross. With one foot and one hand on either side of centerline, I inched very slowly across. A fall would have plunged my entire body into the cascading water, which would have not only threatened my life to some degree, but would have ruined my day as well. While straddling the log in this position it also occurred to me that a 50 cent ZipLock bag would have protected my $1800 camcorder from certain ruin. It took me nearly a minute to cross that first 3 feet, a personal record for log crossing.
Once safely across, I scrambled up the other side and headed off in the direction of the trail. I found it relatively easily in about 5 minutes and continued up the trail, noting where I'd need to leave it again on my way back. The next mile was a steep 1000 ft hike up to where the trail forks. The Mammoth Trail continues to the right, on to Summit Meadow and beyond. I took the Beck Lakes Trail to the left, which contours on the southeastern side of the Ritter Range. The next mile was relatively flat, a welcome break as I made my way to Fern Lake. There were a few parties camping here, one with a dog that came out to greet me or chew my leg off, I wasn't sure which. While one camper yelled at the dog to stop (which it didn't), another assured me it was harmless. I held my hand out and he gave it a friendly sniff; I petted it kindly in return, and within seconds we were best of friends. I exchanged some small talk with the campers before continuing on. At the lake I got my first view of the high ridge leading up to Iron Mt., and it was here that I noted several possible routes onto the ridge. I decided to choose one of these rather than continue on to Anona Lake or over to Ashley Lake.
I left the trail (or rather it sort of petered out on me) and I began the long climb up the rock and scree. It was 1500 ft in little over a mile, and I had to drop down a gear to keep from wearing myself out too early. There was still a long way to go. Once I reached the ridge, the views improved and the climbing became more interesting. The class 2 scree slog became a class 2-3 ridge climb. There were several sections that required deft use of hand and footholds to provide some climbing excitement. At the base of a large snowfield that hung off an upper slope along the ridge, I refilled my water bottles from the water that dripped from the bottom. I bypassed the snowfield to the left and contoured around the minor peak along the ridge. The southwestern exposure was free of snow and the slopes safer for crossing, but became somewhat tedious as the firmer ground gave way to a large boulder field. After about 15 minutes, the climbing grew easier and the summit was in view to the northwest about a mile off.
The view to the west took in the North Fork of the San Joaquin drainage area, a pleasantly green and wooded area between the Ritter Range and Yosemite. It looked like a much easier climb from this other side where one could camp comfortably a few miles south of the summit. The last few hundred yards of the climb were steep again as I clambered up the summit pyramid. Just before the summit is an interesting two-pronged pinnacle with a smaller rock wedged between the two sides. Although you can't tell from the photo resolution, Gondola 2 atop Mammoth Mtn is visible below the small rock. As a diversion, I went over and climbed the 15 foot pinnacle, an easy chimney move.
It was 11a when I reached the top, time for a rest and a snack. While there are swell views of Yosemite's remote southeastern range to the west, the Silver Divide to the south, and Mammoth Mtn to the east, the Minarets do not look very impressive at all from this vantage point. Viewed edge-wise, the sharp pinnacles so prominent from the west or east are completely lost as they merge together in the foreground of Mt. Ritter. To the southeast could be seen the higher mountains in the distance along the Sierra Crest, but the only one I could positively identify was Red Slate Mtn (just to the right of middle in the photo).
I signed the summit register, which I found easily enough under a pile of rocks in an old ammo box. The last person to summit had been up here only yesterday from a camp on the south side of the peak. The north and east side of the summit drops precipitously to the snow below. I had a good view of the east couloir which leads up from Ashley Lake to the ridge southeast of the summit. Although I didn't have my axe and crampons with me, it didn't look too difficult a descent. I consulted my map and made plans to include a return loop through Ashley Lake. Excited by the prospect of some fine glissading, I packed up and hurriedly headed down to the ridge and the top of the couloir.
Once I was standing at the top, the couloir looked a bit steeper than I was hoping. It was a bit too steep to glissade and I wasn't going to feel comfortable walking down, as I feared a slip could send me down the sun-cupped slopes at high speed. Had the snow been softer, a fall could have been arrested with my fingers if necessary, but I was afraid that wasn't going to be the case today. An ice axe would have made this a whole lot safer. Looking around, I found some primitive stone age ice tools that I could use to help me climb down. I faced into the slope and used my hands and feet to climb down the steepest section. The rocks I held in my hand helped me dig into the snow without my hands freezing (besides the lack of an ice axe, I hadn't brought any gloves either). Eventually the slope lessened enough to give me confidence that I could safely glissade the rest of the way. The route down was free of rocks, and the partially frozen lake at the bottom was far enough from the runout that it seemed unlikely I would go that far.
I ditched the rock tools, turned on the camcorder, and headed down on my butt. The full video would take too long to download (and not be worth it anyway), but you can get the idea in the action sequence: (1=>2=>3=>4). I picked up a bit more speed than I expected, and had snow spraying everywhere (which you can see on the camera lens). I used my elbows to steer since my hands were occupied with the camera. My jacket protected my elbows from the trashing they would have received bare-skinned. I came to a stop eventually and quickly brushed myself off before the snow melted into the remaining parts of clothing and body that weren't already cold and wet. Both the camera and I had survived (although as you can see from the photo, I needed to clean the water off the camera). That was fun!
I hiked on the rocks a bit as I headed down. The snowfield didn't end as I expected, but continued with a dogleg to the left down a steep slope. This one was even steeper than I had just done, and quite a bit longer. Without the camera to distract me, I threw myself down a second time, flying at a good clip. The sun cups were bigger on this lower slope, and my body bumped and bounced all over the place. I would yell out when I hit the bigger bumps (somehow it feels better to say "Ow!" and "Ooof!") as I bounded down on my butt. Eventually, all the good fun came to an end as the slope flattened out and I got up and brushed myself off a second time. From below, looking back up to the peak, the summit looked fine, with its nice pyramidal shape. I continued down over rock and snow, but the snow was starting to give out. I came upon Ashley Lake, a beautiful, high alpine lake at the base of Iron Mtn. that would make a fine campsite. I passed the lake on its western shore, and found a crossing site across the creek shortly after the lake. I found evidence of recent travel through here, boot and dog prints in the mud along the creek. I hadn't seen anyone since Fern Lake, which was when I had left the trail. Somewhere on the left side of the creek my map showed the start of a trail heading back down to the Beck Lakes Trail. I had a bit of trouble finding a place to jump the creek a second time to return to the western bank. I managed to find a narrow spot where the creek was bounded by some rock walls and fell over a 10 foot waterfall. Once on the other side, it only took me a few minutes to find the trail I was looking for. On the trail, I picked up my pace and headed down to King Creek. Since I was much further upstream the second time at this creek, it was easier finding a way across, provided by a convenient log nearby. I met a couple that were just arriving in the area and setting up camp. It was flat and provided a great source of water, but seemed too likely to be mosquito infested for my taste (the map shows marshes in this area). I continued heading northeast, and soon found myself once again gaining altitude. I hadn't realized when I looked at the map previously that I had a final 1 1/2 mile section with 500 feet of elevation gain.
It was about 2p now and I was getting tired, so I took my time on this last uphill section. It took me up and over a rounded ridge before dropping down nearly 1500 ft down to Johnston Meadow. I lost elevation quickly as the trail switches back a number of time as it descends through the forest cover. The majority of the downhill ends by the time the trail joined the John Muir Trail. From here I followed the JMT as it followed the Minaret Creek down towards the San Joaquin River. It surprised me that I didn't see anybody else until I was down to the San Joaquin, as this is usually a very busy trail. It's quite a popular day hike from Devil's Postpile up to Minaret and Cecile Lakes, following Minaret Creek through some beautiful scenery. I completed the loop, arriving at the junction where I had headed off towards King Creek earlier in the day. From there it was only 1/3 of a mile back to the trailhead where I arrived shortly before 4p. I was tired but still felt pretty good - it had been a fine day for hiking. I still had one full day left in the Mammoth area, so I drove back to town considering my hiking options for Monday...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Iron Mountain
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