Mt. Mildred 2x OGUL / PYNSP / WSC
Ward Peak P300 PD

Fri, Mar 20, 2009
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Mt. Mildred previously attempted Mon, Feb 2, 2009

It had been more than a month and a half since my first attempt at Mt. Mildred ended with a broken snowshoe. I managed to hobble my way out of that predicament, but had not managed to get back to finish the job. In the intervening time I had made other plans for desert climbing, while in the Sierra more snow had fallen and it needed time to consolidate. It looked like the last day of winter was a good opportunity to give it another try. There were supposed to be others joining me for the day, but in the end it was just myself in the dark, empty parking lot at Alpine Meadows shortly before 6a. Fueled by caffeine and antsiness from four hours of driving, I was eager to get started, despite the near-freezing temperatures.

Luckily, the snow was hard and easily traveled in those early morning hours. I had none of the miscues from my first effort, and by 6:30a I had reached Five Lakes Pass as the eastern sky was growing light. The new snow had consolidated well in the week since it stopped falling, but under the trees, in the protected groves heading down the west side of the pass, it had not frozen overnight and was somewhat soft. I imagined it would get a whole lot softer as the sun came up and the day wore on. I paused upon reaching Whiskey Creek as a route across was not immediately evident. The snow overhung the banks on two sides to a depth of more than four feet, but I couldn't find a place bridging the gap. I had to settle for a small jump from the highside of one bank to the lower side across the creek, happy that the snow didn't collapse out from under me. I would have to find another way back on the return because I was certain I had no such leaping ability as would be required to reverse that little move.

My route towards Mildred followed a lower path than my first go at it, staying lower on the ridge between Picayune and Five Lakes valleys. I was trying to save the elevation gain I knew I would have to give up at a low saddle before some cliffs, but my traversing manuever turned out to be harder than expected and probably cost me more time than it saved, even if there was less elevation gain. It is not lost on me that I do this same incorrect tradeoff time and again, but like a compulsive addict I keep falling into the same trap, convinced somehow, that this time things will be different. During this traverse I had my eye on a second peak to the south, across a small side valley to Five Lakes. As I climbed higher the snow continued to stay firm even as the sun came out to bask the landscape, and my ambitions for the day began to snowball, as it were. It had taken me about two and half hours to reach the point where my snowshoe had broken, roughly an hour from the summit of Mildred. I imagined I would have plenty of time and energy to traverse the ridgeline between Mildred and this other peak (Peak 8,220ft), then continue down to Five Lakes Creek, up to Twin Peaks on the Sierra crest, and finally a four mile traverse north along the crest up and over Ward Peak. I rattled off rough estimates in my head, guessing I'd be back before 5p and really have something to show for the day's effort. I conveniently ignored a few nasty details like dealing with the softening afternoon snow and the non-trivial crossing of Five Lakes Creek on my way over to Twin Peaks - those were mere details to be brushed aside for the glorious trek around the Granite Chief Wilderness I was enjoying in my mind.

I skirted the cliffs northeast of Peak 8,109ft via the only sane route around the south side, then cut across the north side of Peak 8,109ft in another attempt at saving elevation gain and effort. The shaded, wind-swept slope was fairly hard and steep. It was clear that a fall here could not be arrested and would likely involve me sweeping several hundred feet down the slope before being racked by one of the hard, mercilessly unmoving trees that peppered the slopes. With my old snowshoes I would have turned back and climbed up and over Peak 8,109ft to avoid this slope, but the new MSRs had amazing traction that felt as good as if I were wearing crampons. And with a wider base than just crampons, I felt a lot steadier and safer. I carefully worked my way for a hundred yards across the slope before finding a break in the overhanging cornices sweeping over the ridgeline.

Once back on the ridge, it was an easy, sunny hike to the top up Mildred's East Ridge, arriving shortly before 9:30a. With seemingly unlimited amounts of daylight left, I was still dreaming of my grand traverse. An interesting point about Mildred is that it is not the highest point on the ridge extending north from Mildred, aptly named "Mildred Ridge." It would probably have taken me another hour to reach the highest point another mile and a quarter further north, but I was after named summits (Mt. Mildred lands on the OGUL peak list), not necessarily highpoints. Plus I'd never make it to Twin and Ward peaks if I rambled up to the highpoint of Mildred Ridge. To further dissuade me, there is a gap called Heavens Gate just north of Mildred that would have to be overcome - possibly nasty, snowy class 3.

There is an interesting feature low on the south side of Mildred called Johnson Monument on the topo map. It is a very narrow pinnacle, perhaps 6-8ft across rising up for some 30ft or more. I have no idea whether it has been climbed (though most likely, yes) as the volcanic rock in this region of the Sierra is notoriously poor for climbing. It's not visible from the summit, but I had seen on the way up the East Ridge.

I didn't bother to try digging for a register at the summit. There were no obvious rocks that it might be ensconced in, and one might spend hours looking for it. Instead I took in the snowy views about me. I recognized many of the peaks looking northwest, north, northeast, and east but those to the southeast were as foggy in my mind as they were distant, comprising the northern and western parts of Desolation Wilderness. Leaning against a rock and looking westward, I sat at the summit for half an hour, eating the food from my pack and trying to make sure I was drinking enough as well.

After my break I turned east and headed back along the ridgeline to the summit of Peak 8,109ft. Here I diverged from the ascent route, turning south and following another ridgeline for nearly a mile to the summit of Peak 8,385ft, only 13ft shorter than Mt. Mildred. The going was easy over the well-consolidated and open ridgelines. Days and nights of blowing winds had packed the snow to a firmness that was not easily undone by the warming sun. Turning east, I followed a narrowing ridgeline down to Peak 8,220ft. This started off easily enough, but obstacles popped up that had to be circumvented, along with long stretches of slow going over knife-edges along the corniced ridge crest. Once again the new snowshoes proved their worth and I was very happy with their performance in trying conditions.

It was after 11a when I reached the intermediate goal of Peak 8,220ft, the last highpoint before descending down to Five Lakes Creek. At this point I still had hopes of reaching Twin Peaks, and was eager to continue on. Rather than backtrack off the summit and take easier snow slopes on the south side of the ridgeline, I decided to descend some class 3 rock immediately south of the summit it the interest of saving time and having a bit of a scramble. I packed away the snowshoes and started down, slowly and deliberately. The upper part was easy enough, but things grew more vertical as I neared the safety of the snow slopes at the base of these small cliffs. About 20ft from the snow slopes, while carefully descending a short vertical section, I was astonished to have a large 200-lb rock dislodge from my hand. It happened much too quickly to be really scared about it, but it was just about shoulder high when I weighted it with my left hand to start lowering myself further. Almost silently, it rolled out of the lichened slot it had been moored in. I instinctively transfered the weight to my right hand and crimped up against the rock face away from the descending missile. Luckily the rock had a clear trajectory below me, and it dropped a good yard below my feet before crashing, bounding further out, another crash on rock, then a hard thud into the snow. The burnt smell of flint and steel hung in the air, I looked at my legs and feet and was happy to see them entirely unscathed - the rock had merely grazed pant legs next to my calf. It did not take much to imagine my foot or knee could easily have been crushed had the rocks been positioned only slightly differently.

I finished the downclimb in another minute and a little more soberly went about putting my snowshoes back on. Before continuing down I paused to examine the rock and the dent it left in the snow slope. These are good reminders - I just hope I don't need too many of them.

For the next several hundred feet things went smoothly down the ridgeline, heading for the creek. But as I got lower and lower the firmer snow finally gave out altogether and I was finding myself in a mushier mix of the white stuff, both slowing me down and sapping my energy. It was 12:30p before I reached the creek, and to no real surprise it was far too wide to have much hope of finding a snow bridge. I briefly considered taking off my boots and socks and wading across the shallow creek, but it looked like it could be tough exiting the far side due to the 3-4ft of snow built up on the banks. I imagined what it would be like kicking steps into the snow with bare feet as I struggled to get back out of the creek. The pictures in my mind did not excite me very much, especially the version that had hidden obstacles under the snow that served to bloody my toes and extract screams and curses from me. It didn't seem a very bright idea after this cursory examination.

In a way, it was nice to have the creek as an excuse to scale back my ambitions and I decided to simply hike north along the creek until I could find a crossing. If one didn't come, I'd just have to go back over Five Lake Pass and forget about Twin and Ward.

It was 20 minutes before the first possibility presented itself, a fallen log with three feet of snow bridging the creek. From the side it seemed a reasonable possibility, but upon nearing it I found the idea of a 1-foot wide/3-foot high pile of snow atop a log, soft in the afternoon sun, untenable. I could not imagine myself balancing along the length of the span without falling into the creek. So I plodded on. I spotted another pair of snowshoe tracks on the other side of the creek. At first I thought they were my own, but I knew I could not have traveled far enough north to intersect my outgoing tracks. The tracks followed along the far side of the creek in a manner that made me believe that other person must have been likewise searching for a route over to my side. It was sort of funny, trudging along the bank of the creek, watching the other tracks, neither one with a way to cross.

Around 1p I spotted a snow-free log angling across the river. Being naturally lazy, my first thought was, "I wonder if I can cross without taking off my snowshoes?" By now these new snowshoes had almost mystical qualities in my head, so this seemed less crazy at the time than it does in retrospect. It was a bit sketchy, but by going very slowly, mostly crawling on my knees, I was indeed able to get across with the snowshoes still on. I could probably scale buildings with these things if I had to, I mused.

By this time I had more or less given up on both Twin and Ward, and for a short while was content to follow the other pair of tracks as I continued north. But the trees were somewhat thick, making the route through them circuitous, and the soft snow was draining. I figured I still had three or four miles of this before reaching Five Lakes Pass. It then occurred to me that it might actually be easier to ascend to Mt. Ward, where the higher elevation and exposure to the elements would make for a firmer snowpack. I struck off away from the creek, heading east, looking for a useable route up to Ward. It wasn't hard to find. I had gone past the toe of the long SW Ridge, but by climbing the steep, open slopes just to the north I was able to gain the ridgeline about halfway up to Ward Peak.

It took an hour and 45 minutes to ascend the 2,200ft up to Mt. Ward, a distance of less than two miles. For much of the way I could look up and periodically see skiers from Alpine Meadows traversing south around Ward Peak for runs found on the southeast side of the mountain. If they saw me plodding my way up from below, I imagined them wondering, "What fool would..."

The summit of Ward is crowned by a small array of telecom antennae, and at the highest point I found a skier taking in the views looking east to Lake Tahoe. When he saw me approach he put on his helmet and shoved off, leaving me alone at the top, for the moment at least. Others were hiking up from the top of the Summit chairlift found to the north. I took a few quick photos and headed back down, following the nicely groomed track along the crest, courtesy of Alpine Meadow's snowcats.

Near the top of the chairlift I came across a couple of ski patrol doing search and rescue exercises with their very active dog. One person would run off and bury something out of sight, then the dog was unleashed to bound down the slopes and hunt for the object. Neither they, nor any of the other personnel scattered about the chairlift area seemed to care about my presence. I made an effort to stay to the far side, out of the skiers' way, to avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to myself. Where the wide cat track ended, I trotted through the gate for expert skiers and continued tagging the various bumps along the crest until the last one before the ridge drops down to Five Lakes Pass. Here I turned and descended the east slopes, in the vicinity of frozen Estelle Lake. The slopes were steep, made bad by heavy, soft snow which threated to slide out from under me in a slush avalanche. My trajectory was diagonal as I headed down to keep me from getting caught up in snow releases occurring behind me. I was happy that the slopes held together for the most part, though there was evidence of a larger release that looked to be fairly recent. These slower slides caused by the warm air breaking the ice bonds between the old snow and the more recent snowfall are not as dangerous as the cold and swift avalanches after a during or after a heavy snowfall, but they are still dangerous. The thick, cement-like texture of the snow can easily incapacitate a skier caught in it, and even if you're not buried to asphyxiation, it can still be very hard, if not impossible to dig oneself out again afterwards.

In all it took only 15 minutes to descend from the Sierra crest down to the parking lot, and by 3:45p I was back at the car. Even with Gortex gaiters, my feet, socks, and boots were thoroughly drenched, but they were never very cold with the exertion of the day. I don't think it was until after I had crossed the creek for the last time that the boots began to take on water in a serious way. I stripped out of all the wet gear and put on some fresh socks before starting up the car and heading back to San Jose. I would get back just before 8p and shortly after sunset - not a bad turnaround time for a one day snowshoe adventure!

Brian Browning comments on 03/27/09:
Bob - the guy who tackles 50 mile dayhikes is "lazy by nature"?! Please! Cheers.
Bob Burd comments on 03/30/09:
Well, I though saying "naturally lazy" sounded better than "naturally stupid" :-)
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