Wed, May 20, 2009
We agreed to meet at 5:30a, and by 5:40a we were assembled just west of the SR4 bridge over Pacific Creek. The plan was to circumnavigate the drainage in a clockwise direction, starting on the east side of the creek and working our way around to the west side. First up was a climb of Lookout Peak, the nearest summit from the highway. We started with the snowshoes strapped to our packs as the snow was firm and mostly frozen. After crossing the bridge, the first several hundred feet up the wooded north ridge had only patches of snow, easily avoided. The going was steep and the pace typically brisk. We'd only been out about 15 minutes when Waide called up to us from below. He was having trouble keeping the pace and urged us to go ahead without him. Had we been an hour or more into the outing I would have simply offered to slow the pace a bit to keep things manageable, but at such an early juncture it would be impossible to complete the route we intended if kept to a pace Waide could manage. I asked if he had a map and got a positive reply. He said he just needed to get in better shape in order to keep up with us next time. And so we abandoned him and continued up the slopes through the forest.
The sun had come up shortly after 6a, initially bathing the surrounding peak tops in a warm glow. But a large layer of dark clouds overhead soon obscured the sun, keeping the sunshine away. This had the positive effect of keeping the snow harder for a longer period of time, but it put a damper on the views and made for dark photographs.
Once we reached the more open ridgeline higher up, we were treated to fine views of the area. David and I named off the various summits, Raymond and Reynolds to the northeast, Silver and Highland the east. Others were more of a guess, but we refined our guesses as we got a better perspective higher up. We went over one false summit, then another, before spying the 9,500ft+ summit about a quarter mile further to the south. We were about half on snow and half on dry ground by now, though travel over either was easy enough. It was 7:15a when we topped out at the overcast summit of Lookout.
In addition to the peaks already mentioned, we had good views of Reba and Mokelumne to the northwest, Round Top and others to the north. To the south was a whole mess of peaks we could only guess at. Though I had climbed probably half a dozen that were in view, the perspective was new to me and I had trouble identifying them. We found a register tucked in a plastic tub, the three of us dutifully signing in. There was also a benchmark stamped LOOKOUT PK, but no evidence of a lookout tower, if there ever was one.
Next up was Peep Sight Peak, immediately to the south of us, less than an hour away. We dropped off the modest southeast slope of Lookout, crossed the snow-covered Willow Flat at just over 9,000ft, then climbed up to Peep Sight over snow and class 2 talus/rock to the 9,700-foot summit, our highest point of the day. It was 8:15a when we reached the top and though it was still overcast above us, it was starting to dissipate some and we could see blue sky around the edges. There was a register on top in a glass jar along with an even older piece of paper folded up in a film canister that dated to 1989. I enjoyed the views from Peep Sight, particularly the near views to the southeast and south. There were a number of peaks within a few miles including Airola and Iceberg, though I couldn't place which peaks they were exactly until I got home and studied the maps better. Along with Folgers and Hiram, these four peaks would make a fine outing for a future day trip, possibly out of Highland Lake.
Our route now headed southwest to the other two peaks, Henry and Bull Run. In order to continue along the connecting ridgeline, it was first necessary to retrace our route off the northwest side of Peep Sight. By the time we reached the broad saddle between Peep Sight and Henry it was 9a. The sky overhead had cleared and the snow had begun to soften to where it now made sense to switch to snowshoes. The ground we traveled was uniformly covered in snow, at least until we got to the summit of Henry. We started up a ridge NE of Henry that turned out to be a dead end, of sorts. The north and northeast sides of Henry are ringed with cliffs, but we didn't realize the mistake until we emerged from the woods to see we could climb no further on this line. Fortunately it took only a small detour to the south, dropping maybe 100ft, to get us on the correct ridgeline that we had seen from Peep Sight leading to the summit. Getting to the ridgeline required a bit of steep hill work. Andrew took a steeper line than David or I, and we watched to see if he would be successful at the extra credit move. At one point he started slipping and slid 20ft before catching himself, after which he chose a slightly less vertical line with which to connect to the ridge. B+ for Andrew on that one.
More steep snow was climbed until just below the summit where we took off the snowshoes briefly when we reached talus. It was but a short walk further to the summit where we arrived at 9:45a. The summit of Henry is broad and fairly flat, and we were unable to locate a register at either of the two likely rock piles. We stayed long enough to have a quick snack then continued on. With snowshoes back on our feet we headed for the final peak of the day, Bull Run.
Bull Run was the most impressive peak of the four. From what we could see, it appeared to be ringed by 100-foot cliffs on all sides. The topo map didn't show contours on the unseen sides to be any less steep than those we could see. The one possible way up looked to be a horrendously steep snow slope on the NE side. An overhanging cornice topped most of it just below the summit. It was scary looking, but we bravely carried on, talking casually about it, but inside we were probably all a little afraid.
Luckily things looked to improve the closer we got. That snow slope didn't look any less scary, but the south side did not seem to have the same unbroken ring of cliffs. As we neared the base of the peak I suggested we should explore the south side as an easier way up. The others readily agreed. We traversed around to that side, climbing as high as we could on the snow slope before taking our snowshoes off at the edge of the talus fields. A large buttress on the SE side appeared to hide a talus chute leading up, just around the corner. It was up this talus gully I led, not knowing whether it would continue or not.
We found the gully relatively stable and completely free of snow, making for a standard class 2 climb for about 3/4 of the distance. The gully grew steeper near the top and I moved to the left onto class 3 rock for about 100ft, the others following not far behind. This led to easier ground and then the last bit of snow to the summit. It turned out to be surprisingly easy from what we first imagined, and we were all relieved to have it turn out so well.
Similar to Henry, the summit of Bull Run in broad and almost flat. It was easy to identify the highest point however, and there was a Pete Yamagata register dating to 2003. Judging from the numerous entries, the peak appears to be fairly popular, though ours was the first entry for 2009 (as it was in the other peak registers we visited that day).
My initial plan had been to return back to the saddle NE of Bull Run's summit, then follow the trail back down through Pacific Valley. But seeing how it was just noon and I hadn't planned to be back until at least 3p, I thought we might continue the traverse around the edge of the drainage. I had mentioned this to David earlier and he was game, so I brought up the idea to Andrew while we were atop Bull Run. He hesitated only momentarily before agreeing to the new plan.
The next order of business was to get off the other side of Bull Run to continue on the ridge extending northwest from the peak. I walked a short ways down the NW Ridge until I could determine that it was all cliff below me. Nothing doing that way, and I signaled to the others waiting above with a thumbs down sign. But the west face looked to have breaks in the cliffs, and easier ground was to be had on the south side of the west face. We ended up dropping through some boulder fields about the middle of the face until we could reach ithe steep snow slopes just below.
By now the snow had softened to almost ideal glissading consistency. We didn't know this at first as we strapped on our crampons a bit nervously. I started off, traversing the slope towards the NW Ridge while the others watched. It was quite awkward traversing the steep slope, so I decided it would be easier to drop some elevation to easier ground first, before regaining the ridge. I was cautious at first, descending facing backwards, kicking steps in the slope below me. But as I realized the snow was the consistency it was, I turned and started down in a standing glissade with much gusto. It was great fun. I shouted up to the others who were following the traversing tracks I had laid down, and with a bit more reassurance they followed down, standing, then falling, then getting back up again.
We brushed off the wet snow from our back sides and started back up to the ridge and headed northwest. Once we got to the ridgeline north of Pt. 9,413ft it was mostly downhill as we changed direction to head north. Sticking to either the ridgeline or the snowy slopes to the left, we had great fun over then next hour glissading down long, open slopes, climbing over small saddles, glissading down the next slope. Our butts were completely soaked, as were our boots, feet, and most of our legs, but we didn't care since it was warm out now and we were having great fun.
Eventually we climbed back up to the ridgeline and dropped down the west side into Pacific Valley. This slope was completely wooded and surprisingly steep. We had to carefully pick our way down more than 800ft through the trees. Glissading here was too dangerous. The snow was much too soft on this side, having been in the sun for most of the day, and might lead to an uncontrolled slide. With the trees so closely spaced, we could hardly afford that to happen. There were also numerous small cliff-like drops to watch out for, making our path down the slope a meandering one.
When the floor of the valley was reached, it was immediately obvious where the road/trail was. There were large snow-free patches through which the old road could be plainly seen. Once we were all safely on level ground I stopped waiting for the others to catch up, prefering to go ahead at my own pace. I stuck to the snow as best I could over the next mile, but by the time I reached the campground a mile later there wasn't enough snow left on the road to justify keeping the snowshoes on. The place was quiet, still closed for the season with the larger structures locked and boarded. I walked through the campground, past the corral, and out to SR4. From there it was only a short walk along the highway to get back to the cars where we'd left them near the bridge. It was just 2p, making the whole outing less than 8hrs. The others were less than ten minutes behind. We all agreed it had been a fine outing, though sadly the snowshoe season was drawing to a close. Perhaps next year I would do less desert peaks and more snowshoeing. That's the trouble with having so many mountains to choose from - never enough time to get to them all...
Waide's truck was gone when we got back to the trailhead, so he undoubtedly made it back safely. I wrote an email to him the next day to see if he made it to Lookout or otherwise, but never heard back from him. Perhaps he'd already started his additional training regimen...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Peep Sight Peak - Bull Run Peak
This page last updated: Fri May 29 13:14:36 2009
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