Mammoth Peak ex-SPS

Wed, Jun 23, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Mon, Sep 26, 2011

Mammoth Peak is not the same as Mammoth Mountain, the well-known ski resort in the Eastern Sierra. The lesser-known one is located in Yosemite, a minor peak in the Tuolumne region. It's about 4 1/2 miles ESE from Tuolumne Meadows, and sits at the northern end of the Kuna Crest, the ridge separating Lyell and Dana Canyons. Although it's over 12,000 ft and higher than many of the peaks in the Tuolumne area, it is overshadowed by the 13,000 ft Mt. Dana, less than four miles away to the northeast. So why did it catch my attention? Two reasons: it had a name (which is about all a peak- bagger needs, sometimes not even that), and it was a short hike. I was planning to take rock-climbing classes with some friends in Tuolumne Friday and Saturday, and was looking for a place to camp out Thursday night.

John and I had to wait until noon before leaving the San Jose area. He was in the process of buying a new home, and had a walk-through scheduled for 10:30a. I joined him for the walk-through process where we spent an hour placing blue masking tape all over the walls to mark places that needed touchups and corrections (much more fun for me than John, since it was his house that needed corrections). Immediately afterwards we left town and headed for Yosemite. We arrived in Tuolumne just after 5p, stopping only for gas and food to go. We already had a wilderness permit, but as I found out later, the whole area surrounding where we planned to camp was off limits to camping. Oops.

I had been under the mistaken impression that there was no overnight parking allowed off the US120 between Tuolumne and Tioga Pass. We had planned to park in the Tuolumne parking lot and hike the 4+ miles up to Mammoth Peak. As we arrived, we drove ahead and found that there were no signs indicating no overnight parking. This was nice as it saved us 2 miles and over 700 feet of elevation. Oh yes, we were being quite the wimps. The trickiest part of the whole hike was getting across the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River. It was quite full with runoff that was melting from the snowpack in quick fashion. Being wimps, we used our car to drive up and down the highway looking for the best place to cross. We located a log that crossed half of the creek (which braided into three sections in this area) that seemed the best we could do, so we found the nearest turnout and packed our stuff to go.

The first log was rather easy to cross as the log was both wide and dry. John was not used to such maneuvers, as backpacking was a relatively new sport to him. After I crossed it I got out the camcorder to record John's crossing in case he should take a drink. He didn't. We wandered about a bit and found a second log which together with some strategically placed rocks, allowed us to cross the remainder of the creek. After this, it was a cross-country hike south until we gained the ridge leading up to the peak. We had climbed only about 300 feet when we got to the ridge, and I think John was unprepared for just how much climbing was involved. Although it was only a little more than two miles to the peak, we had only gained 1/9 of the 2700 feet that we needed to gain the summit.

The views steadily improved as we climbed the ridge. We could look down into Lyell Canyon and see Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure far off at the end of the canyon. The trees grew more stunted and were more sparsely placed as we climbed higher. We found a nice place to dump our packs and setup camp that was sheltered behind a large rock from the wind. There was a good deal of snow about, but where we sent up camp was rather flat and sandy. We then resumed our climb with significantly lighter loads, which brought some renewed energy to our effort. The trees gave way eventually, and the route opened to better views, although exposed to the wind that was picking up a bit. John wanted to know what the difference between class 2 and 3 climbing was, so by way of example, we spent about 20 minutes taking the hard way up and over some large rock outcroppings that we found along the way. We had fun squeezing ourselves down a short chimney and laughing at each other as we nearly tumbled into the shrubs below.

We resumed our climb to the peak as we ran out of large rocky features, and John was slowing down considerably. It was now past 7:30p, and where originally I figured we'd get to the peak well before sunset, I was no longer so sure. We had another hour of daylight to be followed by a near full moon, so I wasn't worried about getting taken by nightfall. I was rambling on about the inconsistencies of the latest Star Wars movie (and no, I'm not a big fan of Star Wars, nor a Trekkie) we had seen the week before. John assumed my ramblings were a ploy to take his mind off our climb and the difficulties, but in fact I was having a good time and just rambling on with no such intentions. We had one false summit to get over, and what I thought was a second false summit was the actual peak itself. We arrived shortly after 8p, which we celebrated with a few photos and snacks. I couldn't find the register anywhere, even after looking in several rocky parts at the top, each of which could be taken for the summit. Fortunately, John found it stashed under a small pile of rocks. John was particularly excited, as this was his first summit register signing, although even after numerous previous peaks, I still get excited every time I come across one.

As the sun got lower, it grew windier and colder. I put on my jacket and shared my gloves with John. It was fortunate that I had brought several pairs. We stayed at the summit only about 15 minutes, not wanting to stay any longer due to the dropping temperatures. The sun set about 20 minutes after we started down, silhouetting Cathedral Peak off to the west. I had a particular interest in it as I was planning to visit the peak the following day. The moon had been up for about an hour, and it was quite bright, being just short of a full moon. John got out his flashlight while I descended ahead of him. There was still plenty of light to make my way easily down the rock and scree. After about 20 minutes, John gave up on the flashlight deciding it was impairing his night vision more than it was helping him. We arrived in the vicinity of our campsite on the ridge around 9:30p, but we couldn't find our gear. There was more snow here than we had remembered, and various rocks and trees alternated from looking familiar to being unrecognizable. We kept within shouting distance as we fanned out a bit to cover greater ground. I had thought it was going to be easy to find our way back as there was a good sized rock about 10 feet high right where we left our stuff. Funny how a rock that size can disappear on a much larger ridge. The thought of not finding our gear (and it had gotten noticeably darker now, only the moon providing any useful light) was somewhat disturbing and embarrassing at the same time. I was feeling mostly responsible for our predicament, being the more experienced of the two of us.

Just as I was about to suggest we sweep right and back up the ridge in a wide arc, I heard John to my left suggest he had found familiar ground. As I joined him it became immediately apparent that he was on track, and we found our stuff about a minute later. I was glad that John had noticed this, as it saved us at least another half-hour of searching and likely more. We didn't waste any time getting to bed, mostly just to get out of the wind. Additionally, we would have to get up early in the morning and hike down to the mountaineering shop for our class that day with our other friends, Michael and Monty.

We got up somewhere around 6a the next morning to a beautiful day, Tuolumne Meadows spread out below us, Cathedral Peak basking in the new day. Without the need (or means) to prepare breakfast, we were packed and off in less than half an hour. Our only concern on returning was whether we'd be able to find our starting point, as that had the only practical means that we had found to cross the creek without having to get our boots wet. Additionally, if we came back at a random location along the road, it might not be clear as to whether we needed to go left or right to find our car. The smart move would be to aim for the road far to the right of where we started, and then move left until we came upon our original logs used for the crossing. I had this in mind as we were returning, and initially we did keep to the right of our original route. But apparently I didn't reproduce the angle of the route, and by the time we got to the creek the outgoing and return routes merged. Of course the merging at the creek means we came upon the logs immediately, and I let John continue to believe that my dead reckoning skills were much better than I knew them to be.

The creek crossing was somewhat more exciting in the reverse direction, as it was necessary to steady ourselves on a part of the log with water flowing over it (we were able to jump across this part of the log the previous day). After I crossed I got the video cam out to film John again, as I gave him a 50-50 chance of making it across. John took his time, even getting on his hands and knees to maximize his body contact to the log. My comments got him laughing which momentarily made him less steady, but he regained composure and finished the crossing without incident. Back at the car we loaded our stuff and breakfast (leftover sandwiches from the previous day), and drove the two miles down to the Tuolumne Mountaineering shop.


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