Mt. Lyell P1K SPS / WSC
Mt. Maclure P300 SPS / WSC

Fri, Aug 7, 1998
Mt. Lyell
Mt. Maclure
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
Mt. Lyell later climbed Sun, Aug 5, 2001
Mt. Maclure later climbed Sun, Aug 1, 2004

After my less-than-great outing to Parsons Peak the previous week, I came back to Tuolumne Meadows with renewed vigor and new plans, this time to climb Yosemite's highest peak (Mt. Lyell at 13,114 ft). The aspects I enjoyed most about the previous trip were the night hiking and the lightweight backpacking. With a pack weight of around 22-25 lbs, I could cover large distances without the usual aching shoulders, and I found that I didn't miss the stove and hot food all that much (at least for a single night out).

I arrived in Tuolumne Meadows about 6:30p on Thursday evening, having already eaten my Subway dinner on the drive up. (Coming in on CA120, the town of Oakdale provides the last "modern" stop where one can feast on fast food to one's delight.) Out of Tuolumne, the route follows the John Muir Trail up Lyell Canyon for about 9 miles of mostly flat terrain. The Mammoth Crest towers to the left, above the meadows across the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, offering the last glimpse of sunlight as it faded in brightness and color and dusk set in. On the right is the Cathedral Range (with Mt. Lyell marking its southernmost and highest reach), broken in several places where Rafferty and Ireland Creeks come down to meet the Lyell Fork. I had travelled this canyon a few years earlier, and it was a completely different hike doing so at dusk/night, rather than midday. As dusk gave way to night, the deer came out to feed, and I spotted several grazing out in the open meadows. Some appeared indifferent (or ignorant) of my presence, while others darted for cover. The ones that darted away before I spotted them would cause my heart to skip a beat, as my mind was convinced that that was precisely how a mountain lion would appear in my peripheral vision before pouncing on me and mauling me to death. (I know it's rather morbid and all, but my mind gravitates towards such thoughts when I'm hiking alone. :)

About halfway up the canyon, the trail comes out of the woods to a wide open granite-covered area. In the moonlight it was quite bright (for nighttime, of course), and I decided it would make a nice stop for a snack, some water, and a bathroom break. After I rustled through my pack to find the snack and camped my butt on a rock, I noticed a glow not 10 yards off. I realised there was a tent there, and the glow was from the flashlight of its owner searching for the tent zipper. As he poked his head out the tent, I apologized for disturbing him and told him I'd be heading off in a minute. Far from disturbed, he was rather relieved. He'd thought I was a bear who'd come looking to pillage his belongings. Considering this a bit, I had to agree that the bear was the more likely scenario for this time of night.

By 9:30p I'd reached the end of the canyon, or at least the flat part of it. The trail goes up from this point as the canyon narrows and the river turns into a cascading creek. The first 500 feet are the steepest, but offer the final and best views of Lyell Canyon. There are few trees on this steep section, and looking back the canyon appears both immense and peaceful under the moonlight. The next three miles are under the forest cover, and offer a large number of enjoyable campsites. On a Saturday night, most of the trail quota of hikers can be found in this stretch, but tonight it is mostly empty.

At 11p I had reached treeline, where the forest peters out at the shores of an alpine lake whose southern shore was still surrounded by snow, angling sharply down from the steep wall at that end. I lost the trail at this point, although I knew from the map the direction it headed. The snow was ice hard by this time, and I'd rather deal with such route finding when the lighting was more accomodating. I found a nice flat area sheltered by some trees to the east of the lake and bedded down for the night in my bivy sack and sleeping bag.

I awoke around 6:30a, but didn't get out of bed until nearly 8a when the sun had breached the Mammoth Crest to the east. I'm not one to start off early in the morning when the temperatures are hovering in the 30s. Additionally, I justified it telling myself I'd been hiking late the previous night. I packed my stuff up and hid my pack under a tree in some shade, and was soon on my way. I ate breakfast (consisting of dried fruit, beef jerky, and water) as I hiked along. In the light of day, I found that the trail crossed the lake at its mouth across some tenuous logs. It then skirted the lake's western edge, avoiding the steep snowfield at the lake's southern end that had stopped me the previous night. I followed the JMT/PCT about a half mile or so before heading west cross-country towards Mt. Lyell.

There are several routes one can take from the JMT/PCT to get to the foot of Mt. Lyell. The Maclure Creek route is much harder as it involves more cross country travel and some difficult bushwhacking up the creek making numerous tough crossing. The easier route is to follow the trail as high as possible (just over 10,400 ft) before heading off toward Mt. Lyell. In following this route, I had a relatively easy time climbing the solid benches, mostly snow-free by this time of year. It is all class 2 climbing up to where the Lyell Glacier begins.

I reached the foot of the Lyell Glacier about 11a, just below the prominent rock buttress to the east of Mt. Lyell that splits the glacier in two. At this point I was a bit higher than I had planned (I was shooting for the col between Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure) and disliked the idea of having to go down a bit or do a long glacier traverse. The snow on the glacier was set well, perfect for kicking steps - the toe goes in about half way, making nice, firm footholds. I decided that the East Arete looked interesting, and perhaps the shortest route to the summit. Ice axe in hand, crampons engaged (my measly 4-pointers), I headed up the glacier/snowfield on its eastern side. Although the side seemed safer (less steep), I had to stay away from the ridge to some distance where the snow had been in the sun long enough to soften it. It was nice climbing, but it gets steeper as one goes higher, and the fall line stretches considerably below out to the glaciers middle. A fall here would not likely be fatal, but a high speed pounding over the considerable sun cups lower down was certainly something to avoid. I doubt the crampons were necessary on this particular day, but being alone they add an additional sense of security I was happy to have.

Once up on the arete, it's pretty easy climbing to the summit. Easy at this point defines talus, large boulders, and anything you aren't likely to fall more than three feet on. I reached the summit at noon under beautiful skies and a light, but brisk wind. The register on Mt. Lyell is a very cool custom box placed by the Sierra Club back in the 30's. It's made of thick aluminum and has the peak's name embossed on the lid. Mt. Lyell is climbed quite regularly, so my only "first" was in being the first one up that day. The previous climber had been up top only yesterday. The views from the summit were spectacular, befitting its "Emblem" status. To the east were Banner, Ritter, the Minarets, and the Mammoth area. To the south were the wonderfully remote peaks of Yosemite's souteast border. Half Dome could be seen far to the west, and a temptingly short distance away to the northwest stood Mt. Maclure.

I had a quick lunch (which looked remarkably like breakfast) and then headed down the northwest ridge towards the col between Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure. I'd read lots of complicated descriptions about chutes,bergschrunds and class 3-4 climbing, but encountered little difficult climbing on my descent, probably due to the nice condition of the glacier. I basically climbed along the rocks until it got uncomfortable for me, then plopped back to the glacier. I down climbed facing the mountain for the steepest part, then turned around as the pitch decreased and my confidence increased. For the last half of the descent I was nearly running, making huge plunging steps into the ever-softening snow.

Once at the col, I continued on up the other side to Mt. Maclure. The climbing here was mostly on rock, and was a rather fun class 2-3 mix of boulder-hopping and climbing. I reached the top just after 1p, and found a similar register that had been placed a few years after the one on Mt. Lyell. The entries were much fewer here, and dated back to the Eighties. If you have to choose to climb one or the other, most folks obviously choose Mt. Lyell for its more impressive stature. Still, I would have felt bad if I hadn't climbed Mt. Maclure, being so close to Mt. Lyell.

Climbing back down, I was soon on the snow again glissading and running most of the way. The sun cups made the snow too bumpy this late in the season for the really classic seat-of-the-pants glissading, but I also enjoy the standing glissade and seeing how well I can maintain my balance as I slide, run, and hop over the various ridges during the descent. As I got back to the PCT/JMT, I still had one last goal I wanted to complete on this hike. Up till now, I'd covered all the JMT in Yosemite at some time or another from its start in Yosemite Valley up to where I left the trail this morning. I'd also covered all of the trail from Thousand Island Lake up to Donohue Pass on the other side. There was still a 1.5 mile section on this side of Donohue Pass I wanted to cover if possible. So, tired as I was upon returning, I headed up the trail towards the pass. Half way up the trail was lost in the snow which was still covering the pass late into the season.

As I hiked along, I was startled by a Grouse or Ptarmigan (I never was a good birder) flopping around in front of me in an excited state with a broken wing. I had seen this once before when a mother bird tried to draw attention away from her nest of eggs that were lying by the side of the trail. This time I ignored Momma, and looking around saw 4 chicks scattering off over the snow. Not one to break up a family, I hiked about 30 yards on and turned around to watch how Momma would be able to round up her chicks again. There was no direct line of sight as the snow was heavily cupped. Momma started chirping at irregular intervals to signal the chicks to return. Two of them found her almost right away, but the other two took considerable time as they raced around the sun cups in something resembling Brownian Motion, stopping now and then to listen for another chirp. After 5 minutes or so, all were united again, and for Momma, at least, the world seemed right once again.

By now I was only a few hundred yard from the pass or it's general vicinity, but had lost the trail completely under the snow. There was no obvious trail of footprints to follow. Apparently, the standard procedure was a random walk over the pass (made possible by its wide, flat nature) in the approximate direction. I don't know if it counts as completing the trail or not (seems it should), but for whatever reason I lost interest in this pursuit of the pass. What distracted me was the possibility that I could descend to my pack below via an interesting route from the east. So off I went north for a short while over a relatively flat area before descending some fun class 2-3 rocks and ledges in an westerly direction to my pack. From below, there is a cliff area looking south towards Donahue Pass. The trail winds around the cliff area to the right (west). My descent route comes around the cliff area to the left (east). While on top it wasn't clear whether it was possible to go this way or not (which got my interest), but from below, there were numerous routes visible.

I now had simply to put my pack on and hike out, all of this being easier to say than do. It was 3pm, I'd been hiking almost continuously for 7 hours, and I was tired. The best part of course, was knowing that there was no more uphill! Off I trudged. It's always sad having to leave a beautiful place after such a fun day of hiking. On the way out I passed a dozen or so parties who had started off from Tuolumne Meadows this morning, probably most of the trail quota. The various campsites along the way were filling up fast, and it promised to be another nice weekend in the mountains.

Somewhere in the middle of this, around 3:30p, I came across a ranger talking congenially with a backpacker. As I strolled by, giving a little wave, the ranger turned to me and politely asked if I had a Wilderness permit. Busted. Of course I didn't since I had arrived late the previous evening after the office was closed. I was unsure of the penalties, but they are rumored to be quite high, somewhere around $100. Rather than confess and plead for mercy, I chose the other tack, which is to lie and see what I could get away with. I calmly replied that I was on a dayhike, and did I need a permit? He looked at my backpack rather skeptically, unconvinced. I explained that I had left Agnew Meadows (near Devils Postpile) at 6:30a, and planned to reach Tuolumne around 6p, where a friend was picking me up. I had brought a sleeping bag and bivy sack in case it was necessary to bivy at the pass since I had little info on the snow conditions that might be encountered there. I very little else with me, I pointed out. He was still unconvinced, hardly believing I could have walked 20+ miles already. I pointed out that the shirt I was wearing was from the Big Sur Marathon, and that I routinely hike very long distances. This seemed to do the trick, as he came around to where he wanted to believe me. He explained that a new regulation, enacted just this year, prohibits carrying of backpacking gear (sleeping bags, tents, etc) without a valid overnight permit to counter just such false claims that happen quite frequently (this way they don't have to actually catch you in the act of overnighting in the wilderness). I replied that I was unaware of such a regulation, but that as a visitor to the Wilderness I should be responsible for knowing all pertinent regulations, thus I would be perfectly understanding should he decide to give me a citation. This seemed to mollify him to where he decided to only take ID info from me, and not issue a citation. He warned me that my name would be kept "on file", and should I be found in a similar situation in the future, the fine would double. Happy as I was to keep the money in my wallet, I forgot to ask him just how much money these darn citations would cost.

Without further incident, I reached the trailhead and my car just before 6:30p. My toes had started to hurt in the last several miles due to the abuse I'd put them through the previous 24 hours. I reassured them they would have at least a week to rest before the next beating. To make them (and the rest of my body) feel better, I changed into some clean clothes and sandals before driving off. I was particularly thrilled that I just made it to the Tuolumne Meadows store before closing to buy a banana, soft drinks, and chocolate milk for the drive home.

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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Lyell - Mt. Maclure

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