Mon, Aug 19, 2013
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The Keyhole Plateau is a broad, sloping, mile-long plateau atop the Sierra crest between Piute Pass and Mt. Lamarck. The unnamed highpoint at the southern end is recognized as an official CA 13er which got it invited to the 2013 Sierra Challenge for the fourth day. The north end of the plateau is a slightly lower summit given the unofficial name of Mt. Marshall. Though it lacks the prominence to qualify it for the 13er list, its near proximity made it an easy bonus peak that most of us would visit. The was expected to be an easy day, sandwiched between two of the hardest ones, a respite to give us a chance to "catch our breath", so to speak. It would easily prove to be the shortest outing of the week.
There were almost 20 folks at North Lake for a 6a start, though not all were heading to Keyhole Plateau. Some were heading to Emerson, others to Pilot Knob, some just for a pleasant walk up to the pass. Sean showed up with his hand wrapped, a ball point pen in place of a splint along the length of his pinky. He likely broke a bone the day before on Black Divide, but lacking any sort of medical insurance, decided to do his own version of cast on it. We hiked from the parking lot near the pack station to the TH at the campground where we reconvened for a quick photo before starting off. There are two main trails that branch off almost immediately from the TH, either of which could be used to reach Keyhole Plateau. The more certain but longer route goes by way of Piute Pass to Muriel Lake and then southeast through Lost Lakes. Most headed off in that direction. Three of us, Evan, Jonathan and myself, decided on the shorter but less certain route on the Lamarck Lakes Trail. We had no beta on whether an approach from the east side of the crest would work where the topo map showed cliffs to abound. We thought it seemed likely that we'd be able to find a way and were willing to take the risk in return for the possibilit of a shorter approach. This was the first day that Evan was joining us, though he'd been a regular part of the crew in years past. He'd had his hip replaced earlier in the year and was only able to manage the easier days.
We hiked up the trail under blue skies as the sun came out to warm things up. We reached the outlet to Lower Lamarck Lake in less than an hour, faster than we realized and had to backtrack some. We left the trail to hike up the north side of the lake into the Wonder Lakes drainage, initially on a decent use trail that we thought would make things a breeze. But this ended, or perhaps we just lost it, and we found the terrain more trying than it had seemed on the topo map. What we thought would be a pleasant hike up through a series of lakes was far hillier than depicted, giving us more uphill, downhill and sidehilling than we'd guessed, through forest and over dale. Still, it was not altogether unpleasant and we found ourselves lost in conversation for several hours. Evan's new hobby was bird watching which he'd taken up as quickly as he has his numerous other hobbies that make him one of the most active retirees I know. Second perhaps only to Jonathan who, while not counting bird watching among his pasttimes, was not unfamiliar with it. Jonathan contributed a detailed treatise on the edible Sierra mushrooms for which he'd become something of a local expert, and plenty of other discourses, too. Two of the most talkative hiking partners I'd ever known were on either side of me which on paper I might have guessed would be far too much for a Wilderness experience, but in reality wasn't all that bad. They've grown on me over the seasons, it would seem.
Our little party of three came to an end shortly after 8a when Evan decided to climb to the ridge south of Wonder Lakes early, up a talus slope that he judged might be better than other choices further up the canyon. Unconvinced, Jonathan and I continued up for perhaps another third of a mile. We eyed a snow slope to the south and thought we ought to be able to climb up to the left of it to reach the same ridgeline Evan was aiming for. The route did not seem to have the same amount of disagreeable scree that Evan's did and short portions of it were enjoyable class 3. For the most part the slopes we climbed were somewhat loose and nothing approaching "classic". But it got us to the ridge by 9a, well ahead of Evan who we could not see anywhere to the east of us. The ridge provided a fine view to the north of Mt. George Davis above Wonder Lakes and east to Sky High Lake. To the west was the plateau we were aiming for and nothing but class 2 scree reaching to the crest. There would be no technical issues with the remaining climb.
We spent another 30 minutes climbing the junky talus, aiming for the right side where Mt. Marshall was located. Part way up Jonathan decided to head left in order to visit Keyhole Plateau first, so we ended up parting ways from this point. The Marshall summit was actually behind a false summit and not visible until I'd reached the plateau, but it took less than 10 additional minutes to reach it over easy ground. I met Sean at the summit who arrived about the same time, having come up by way of Piute Pass. The views take in the area around Piute Pass with Mt. Humphreys prominently to the north, the Glacier Divide to the west, the Evolution region to the south. Looking east to Wonder Lakes, one sees an awful moraine in the western reaches of the canyon that we were glad we didn't continue on to. An old shaving canister held a surprising register whose oldest scrap dated to 1939. Chester Versteeg and party had given the name "Mt. Marshall" to the summit in 1940. There were numerous other Sierra Club entries from the 50s and 60s. A more recent register dated to 1968, placed by Andy Smatko's pals, Tom Ross and Bill Schuller. They clearly hadn't seen the older register that sometime later must have been recovered and placed in the same container. It was a gem of a find and both of us were excited to see so many old signatures. The most recent entry was from 2009 when Bob Rockwell had paid a visit - we added our own names, Sean leaving a trace of blood - seems he had scraped his already injured hand somewhere along the way.
After photographing all the pages, we packed the register back as we found it and headed south to Keyhole Plateau. The walk was very easy over sandy terrain that was surprisingly level for being along the Sierra crest. 20 minutes later we were at the summit where Jonathan and Pat were already relaxing. A register here dated only to 2008 and had but three pages. It was obviously the more popular destination, but the older pages have disappeared into the ether with so many other Sierra summit registers. Jonathan took off after a few minutes to visit Mt. Marshall (as would all the other visitors to Keyhole Plateau when told about the old register to be found there), about the same time Peter joined us at Keyhole Plateau. Though clouds were starting to gather overhead, it was a beautiful morning at the summit with fine views. After another ten minutes or so, Sean and I headed north again, intending to drop back down into one of the two canyons on the east side. We met up with Michael who was on his way to Keyhole Plateau. Michael was lamenting his slower pace this year, a result of not getting out enough earlier in the summer.
Sean and I descended the same slope I'd ascended to Mt. Marshall, down to the subsidiary ridge that splits the two main canyons on the east side of the crest. The faster route was the northern one with Wonder Lakes, but this was not obvious until we had tried the southern one with Sky High Lake. The initial descent went fairly quickly with some decent but not great boot-skiing. Sean took a line down further west and easily beat me to the shore of Sky High Lake and was soon out of sight in the moraine heading east. Even with one hand, he could scramble through this stuff much faster than I. From Sky High to Upper Lamarck Lake was almost an hour of tedious boulder hopping and it was here that the poor choice of routes became obvious. My only compensation was that I hadn't gone this way in both directions and at least now I knew that Sky High Lake has little redeeming value as a route. There were some cliffs to climb up and over in getting around Upper Lamarck Lake, the north side the better choice than the southern route. Shortly before 12:30p I was finally around to the outlet of Upper Lamarck and back on the trail. From this point the descent went fairly rapidly and in less than an hour I was back at the pack station and the cars. This afternoon I would have some leisure time and there would be no trouble getting enough sleep...
Sean had returned an hour ahead of Pat to increase his lead in the Yellow Jersey to 1hr10m. Eric had climbed Muriel Peak where Sean had not, so Eric now had a one-peak lead in the Polka Dot Jersey with 12 summits in four days. Jonathan finished 5 minutes ahead of Pat which left the two in a tie for the Green Jersey. Eric was still far in the lead for the White Jersey with a commanding 6hr+ advantage over Daria, in second place.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Keyhole Plateau
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