Mon, Feb 2, 2009
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later climbed Fri, Mar 20, 2009|
I got up an hour earlier this time (2am) to give me more time for the drive and hike. This got me to Alpine Meadows shortly after 6am for a start by headlamp. I picked the wrong place to park to avoid private property and spent the first hour or so thrashing my way up a steep slope immediately west of the parking lot that I eventually had to abandon as too dangerous. I had followed some skier tracks out of the parking lot, but it was soon apparent they were not heading to the same destination. I backtracked, went through the private property (which appears to be owned by Squaw Valley to service a lift they have built on the south side of KT-22), and found my way to the trail leading to the Sierra crest and Five Lakes, between Alpine Meadows and Squaw ski resorts. I found snowshoe tracks leading as far on one of the lakes, after which they abruptly ended. I spent almost two hours going that first mile and a half, not such good progress.
By then I was of the mind that I'd never reach Mt. Mildred, but it was such a fine day that I figured I'd just head into the Wilderness as far as I could reach. Just being out in the sunshine with snow on all sides was reward enough. After crossing a few of the frozen lakes, I dropped down the east side of the crest on easy terrain following Five Lakes Creek to its junction with Whiskey Creek, about a mile and a half and 800ft lower. The snow was mostly firm in the early morning hours, but it was a bit heavy going where the snow was shaded by the forest. It would grow softer and heavier underfoot as the day wore on.
Crossing Whiskey Creek was a bit tricky without snow bridges, but I managed it without getting wet. I then took a SW tack up the opposite bank towards the high ridge on the west end of the broad valley formed by Five Lakes Creek. Once above treeline the snow was firmer from exposure to both wind and sun and it was a delight to hike along towards Mt. Mildred. It seemed incredibly remote in the winter landscape, even though I could see the tops of chairlifts at both nearby resorts only a few miles away. It seemed like I had the whole Granite Chief Wilderness to myself.
Once I was on that ridge I could see Mt. Mildred further to the west for the first time. It didn't look more than a few miles away and my confidence increased. It looked like I could reach it in less than five hours time. I took a side trip to the top of Peak 8,089ft since I was so close, stopping here for a short rest. I took the time to study the remaining route to Mt. Mildred along the crest heading southwest and then west. There was one section of cliffs that would need to be circumvented. At first I considered the shortest route around to the north side, but the bypass looked very steep and most likely unconsolidated on the north-facing slope. I decided on the longer, but safer route around the south side of the cliffs.
Dropping off the rocky summit where I took my break, I continued along the ridge, losing elevation as I traversed down the south side of the ridge just before the cliffs. I aimed for a steep, but manageable ridgeline that rises up around the south side of the cliffs. Getting up to this ridge was through some deep, north-facing fluff, hard going but only about a hundred feet worth until I could get on the sun-exposed top of the ridge (where the snow would likely be firm again). The effort made me glad I didn't try to go around the even steeper route north around the cliffs.
I was just about atop the ridge and about a mile and half from Mt. Mildred, some 6mi from the trailhead, a minor disaster struck. I had always wondered about having a snowshoe failure while out on one these treks and had decided it could be quite dangerous in heavy snow conditions. And so I got to find out. One of the snowshoes had broken where the toe plate attaches to the frame. I was in trouble. I paused to consider the scope of the problem before panicking, taking the time to get a picture of the wayward snowshoe while I caught my breath.
Luckily, it was only 10am and I had plenty of daylight. I figured even if I had to pack up the snowshoes and posthole my way back, I could do so before dark. It would be brutal as the afternoon sun softened and made the snow grow heavier, but I figured I could make it back. It certainly seemed prudent to give up on the summit at this point, so I gave that no additional thought. Time to head back.
More fortuitous, I was able to cobble the snowshoe back together, and if I kept my weight on the heel of that foot instead of the toe, it would keep together. This worked well for the downhill sections fairly well, but was difficult to do on the uphills. I had to stop and reattach the snowshoes almost a dozen times, and it looked like I was limping badly on one foot to keep the darn thing together, but I was able to get back in a little over three hours. What at first seemed a huge disaster turned out to be more of a minor inconvenience. It didn't stop me from having a great time in the snow, and the only thing it cost me was the summit of a peak I now know I can reach in winter conditions. Oh, and I'll have to buy a new pair of snowshoes, too. This one had lasted me more than ten years over hundreds of miles - I guess I'd gotten my money's worth.
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