Tue, Oct 11, 2011
Matthew had driven up earlier in the afternoon to spend some time at the Marvin Pass TH to get some sleep while I opted to nap in the afternoon and drive out from San Jose starting just before 10a. Along with some significant traffic delays in Fresno due to construction, and my misjudging the time to reach the TH, I was more than half an hour behind the 2a meeting time when I turned off the last of the pavement for the final 2.5mi of dirt to the TH. At some 8,000ft of elevation, the road was wet from melting snow, but serviceable for my low clearance Miata. Mud on a steeper section with a mile still to go proved too much, and rather than try a third time to get up it without sliding off the roadway, I opted to park and hoof it the rest of the way. Matthew was asleep when I arrived by headlamp sometime after 3a, fortunately having just waken. I was worried that he might have gotten up before 2a and spent the last hour frustratingly wondering where the hell I was. By the time he was ready to go it was nearly 3:30a. The later-than-planned start was going to work to our advantage as the mileage planned for the day was not very high. This would help ensure we didn't get to Sugarloaf in the dark. After signing in at the TH register, we were on our way.
It was forecast to be below freezing, but we found temperatures in the mid to upper 30s when we started off. There was snow on the ground from the beginning, covering much of the 1.5mi of trail up to Marvin Pass. The snow was packed from a number of other hikers coming in and out, some backpackers, others hunters. There was another vehicle parked at the TH besides Matthew's, which later in the day turned out to belong to a hunter and his son. The snow was not at all consolidated, averaging about two to five inches in thickness, and very sloppy. The waterproofing spray I'd put on the boots earlier in the day would keep my feet dry for only a few hours before the water and cold found their way through.
It was 3:50a when we reached Marvin Pass. We turned west and headed cross-country towards Mt. Maddox, less than a mile along the ridge. The ridge we followed was along the northern border of the Jennie Lakes Wilderness, snow covering most of the ridge. We found some class 3 boulders about halfway along, then more class 3 in picking our way through the snow-covered boulders that built up the south side of the 9,600-foot summit. The last 50 yards or so were slick with the snow and slow going, but we found our way to the top with the aid of headlamps and a nearly full moon. The tough scrambling had been a surprise (we had no beta on the peak and just thought it was a walk along the ridge), but a good one.
A summit register dating to 1995 had been left by MacLeod and Lilley in a glass jar. Though not as popular as nearby Mitchell Peak, there are still something like 3-4 parties every year. We took some effort to make time exposure photographs of the Central Valley to the west and the Great Western Divide to the east. The snow on the higher mountains helped greatly in providing a picture that looked even better than that provided by the natural lighting. Though it was nearly 5a, in mid-October this meant that it was still quite dark out, no sign yet on the eastern horizon of the coming day that was still several hours off. Hiking at night had been old hat by now, as well as summiting peaks under the moonlight. This one had the added adventure of snow and we both found the experience well worth the effort and trouble to get there.
We returned to Marvin Pass, then dropped down the south side to Rowell Meadow. I expected the south-facing slopes to be mostly free of snow, but this was far off the mark. Snow continued to cover the ground almost without break and our feet began to grow wetter and colder. It was almost 6a when we reached Rowell Meadow, still quite dark out, our feet still quite cold. Not realizing it was a 4-way junction, I started off down the wrong trail while Matthew called out to me, "Don't we want to go THIS way?!" Of course we did. We plodded on over the uneven snow, water running under the trail and pooling in places to catch us off guard. As we continued through the forest, I began to think this plan had been a mistake. Just as we reached the apex of the trail before it begins a long descent to Sugarloaf Creek, I paused to ask Matthew, "Do you think this is kinda stupid?"
He replied, "A little."
"Just a little?" I returned, hoping for stronger confirmation.
We discussed the whole thing for a few minutes, both agreeing that the snow should be mostly gone before we got down to Sugarloaf (we were actually above the summit of Sugarloaf at this pass, and for most of the route so far), but we didn't know if the rock would be wet to make climbing difficult. And I had no illusion that my feet would dry out anytime in the foreseeable future. They were already quite numb and not happy with me in the least and would not improve until well after the sun had arisen. Matthew wanted to leave the decision to me as much as I wanted to leave it to him, though secretly I wanted him to agree to turn back. He said he was 50-50 and would happily turn back if I promised to come out another time to do Sugarloaf. We had brought a rope and gear and expected it might be a rock climbing affair, taking both of us to succeed. It was easily agreed to, and back we went.
We returned to Marvin Pass for the third time, at 7a. It was now plenty light out, but the sun was still half an hour from rising. Mitchell Peak was about a mile and half to the east from the pass and I wanted to pay it a visit. Matthew had already been to it on a previous trip so we bade goodbye to each other at the pass. Matthew planned to drive back to Fresno and get online to cancel his vacation day and work remotely from there. I would see what other roadside peaks I could find to do after Mitchell. Our outing together had ended before sunrise, a new record of some sort.
I was initially happy to see that the trail to Mitchell Peak had been used recently and well-packed. About a mile east of Marvin Pass I found a trail junction marked only by a stick painted orange at the top. I turned left, or north, and followed the packed trail for about a mile and a half as it made its way towards the summit going around first the west, then the north side of the mountain, keeping almost entirely in the shade of the early morning hour as the sun was just rising. At over 10,300ft it was the highest point and consequently coldest I had been all morning. The snow here was frozen. Where the trail was packed it was actually quite slick and I found myself slipping awkwardly and often. I would have been better off just crunching through the untracked snow that had much better traction, but some sort of perversity kept me on the trail, slipping and sliding somewhat abruptly when I wasn't careful. My weak rationalization was that I wanted simply to see where the trail actually went as it spiraled around the summit.
I was happy to find the bright sun when I arrived at the summit shortly after 8a and hoped that my toes might begin to thaw out. I found a concrete pad among the large granite boulders, probably the foundation of an old lookout tower. There were wires and a few old boards found haphazardly scattered about the south side of summit, perhaps having fallen there when it collapsed, though I couldn't state this with any certainty. The highlight of the summit is the spectacular view one gets looking north across Kings Canyon to the Monarch Divide and east to the Great Western Divide. Hundreds upon hundreds of snow-capped peaks were visible from Yosemite to the Kaweahs. The recent snows added to the dramatic relief, making the individual peaks stand out more strongly than they might otherwise appear. Of note were Mt. Goddard to the north, the Palisades to the northeast, and the Kaweahs to the southeast. As far as I could tell, a view of Mt. Whitney to the east was blocked by the stretch of the Great Western Divide between Thunder Mtn and Milestone Mtn.
There was a light, but cold wind blowing over the summit from the north and I found better conditions just over the south side where my toes were able to warm some in the sunshine and out of the breeze. I slowly began to thaw out and relax some. I took time to study the surrounding peaks. I picked out Sugarloaf easily enough to the east, noting that it was almost assuredly snow-free as we had guessed. To the south was Mt. Silliman and another objective we had hoped to reach, Ball Dome in the foreground. The latter is also class 3-4, but as it is much higher than Sugarloaf it had significant snow on it. To the west was Mt. Maddox poking up from the surrounding forest, the Central Valley and the Coast Ranges in the background. In the early morning before haze envelopes the Valley, it was possible to make out the distinction between the brown hill of the Diablo Range and the darker, greener Santa Lucia Range behind it, though both were some 150 miles distance.
After almost an hour atop Mitchell, I was sufficiently warmed to begin my descent. My feet were still quite wet, but my toes were no longer numb. As I started down my eye caught the red of a summit register tucked partway under the concrete platform. The nested cans held a glass jar that in turn was crammed with papers. I rarely sign such popular registers, and simply put it back where I found it without bothering to open the jar. I headed off the west side of the summit, initially down the summit boulder field, then moving onto snow-covered slopes along the ridge. This was far easier than following the trail around on the north side and made me feel dumb for having done so earlier. I reconnected with the trail on the southwest side, followed it back to Marvin Pass once again, then back to the TH. Matthew was gone, obviously, but the other vehicle was still there and its occupants, a father and son, were milling about. A wave from me did not elicit a response from either as I kept hiking down the road.
The road was starting to dry and was not as muddy as I had found it in the dead of night. The other vehicle came rambling down the road about ten minutes later. I was sort of hoping they might offer me a ride down to my car, but a second friendly wave as they approached again got no reaction. Neither would look at me, as though I didn't even exist as a hazard to avoid running into. I suddenly got the strong impression that they weren't happy I was there. Perhaps my presence had scared off the game they were hoping to find in the area. More likely, perhaps Matthew and I had disturbed their sleep in the back of the camper shell when we started off around 3a. Oh well. It did not make much difference as I was back at my own car in another five minutes.
It was barely 10a and I had no need to return to San Jose so early. Certainly there were other summits I might visit in the area, I expected. I had no plans or maps for other peaks in the area, but my GPS was pre-loaded with the location of all the named summits in the area, so I simply started searching for the nearest available. The first that came up was Lookout Peak, only a few miles distance to the north. As I found later, a more rigorous hike can be made from the summit starting from Cedar Grove, but the easy way is to drive most of the way there, the option I chose.
Returning to the pavement, I turned immediately right and started off on another dirt road leading northeast. There is no signage indicating the way to Lookout Peak. The road was in good condition and easily navigated with my Miata as long as I didn't drive too fast. Keeping to the main road and ignoring other turnoffs, I drove about 3.5 miles to a trailhead I found just south of the summit. There is a large parking area here suitable for camping, just outside the National Park boundary. The only other vehicle there belonged to another hiker I met on his way back shortly after I had started out. The hike itself is trivial, only about a mile roundtrip with a few hundred feet of elevation gain. There is no lookout tower as the name might suggest, instead it seems to be named for the fantastic views to be had from the summit of the Monarch Divide to the north and the deep gorge of Kings Canyon below. A small communications tower lower on the southeast side of the summit was considerately placed so as not to mar the views. I spent an unusually long (for me) time on the summit admiring the views of the snow-dusted peaks around. Of particular note for future outings were two summits I later found were Wren Peak and Eagle Peaks on the west end of the Monarch Divide. There was a benchmark at the rocky summit, but no register.
I was back to the car by 11:40a and spent most of the next hour driving to Buck Rock. A few miles before reaching SR198, a left fork from the pavement follows a signed dirt road for several miles to near the summit of Buck Rock. The road is fairly rough for a low-clearance vehicle, but again I managed to get to the end by going slow enough. Buck Rock sports an old lookout tower atop its summit, one of the oldest still in existence found in California according to a nearby placard. The stairway leading to it looks like a rube goldberg collection of wood and steel, making a steep class 1 walk out of a class 5 pinnacle. There are sport climbing routes found on the left (southeast) side of Buck Rock offering a more challenging way to reach the summit. I opted for the easy way.
Though manned in summertime, the tower was closed in mid-October on a Tuesday. A steel gate across one of the gangways blocks unauthorized traffic, intending to keep folks off the summit when it is closed. I climbed halfway up the stairs just to see if there was a way around the gate, and was happy to find that the cable closing it had enough slack to allow me to squeeze through the partially opened gate. I climbed the remaining stairs and walked around the summit tower to take in the views of western SEKI and out to the Central Valley (though it was completely obscured with haze by this time of day). Like Lookout Peak, there is a good (though not as close) view of the Monarch and Great Western Divides, but the GWD in particular can be seen stretching almost in its entirely south to the Mineral King area. Another easy summit and I was back at the car by 1p.
I still had a bit more time before heading home, so after returning to SR198 I stopped at the Big Baldy TH a short distance up the road and hiked out to Big Baldy. I'd seen the TH sign for many years but never had (or took) the time to stop and check it out. It is an easy two mile hike along a forested ridgeline over a few intermediate bumps before one reaches the large granite dome for which it is named. The summit is open and free of trees, offering much better views than along the trail. To the north can be seen the outcrop of Buck Rock with Mt. Goddard looming high behind it in the distance. All of the Great Western Divide can be seen from the summit to the east, though the views to the west were hopelessly washed out. There were half a dozen parties along this popular trail that I met on the hike in, the last of which was the same hiker I ran across at Lookout Peak. He recognized me as well and we both had a laugh thinking we were on similar itineraries. I asked if he'd been to Buck Rock and recommended it as highly worth a visit. Mine was the last car at the TH when I returned at 3p.
It wasn't the day we had planned, but it turned out to be enjoyable nonetheless and I got to visit a few easy summits I might not otherwise have given a thought to. In addition, I have a few new peaks to add to my list as well as a need to plan a return visit to give Sugarloaf another go.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mitchell Peak - Buck Rock - Big Baldy
This page last updated: Wed Feb 2 17:43:35 2022
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