Mokelumne Peak P1K SPS / OGUL / PYNSP / WSC
Peak 8,303ft P300

Fri, Apr 2, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Mokelumne Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Another quest for another SPS peak. We had run out of the easier ones in Tahoe area that neither of us had visited previously, leaving only English Mtn and Mokelumne Peak. English Mtn looks to be an epic adventure in winter or early spring if one starts from I-80 or Sierraville, so we turned our attention to the latter. Mokelumne is only high when compared to its surrounding terrain - there is nothing within about 10 miles that is higher, and it stands out visibly from most places in the Sierra between Round Top on SR88 and the peaks along SR108. Though its closest approach is from SR4 near Mt. Reba & Bear Valley, that route requires a tremendous drop to the Mokelumne River with almost 7,000ft of gain for the 8-9mi roundtrip. And in winter/spring, it's not really a feasible option to cross the river. All of the access roads off SR88 are closed with the winter snows, so it looked to be a 20+ mile hike by the easiest route at this time of year. It would be a long day, but Matthew and I felt it not outside our range, and decided to give it a try as the first of three days we planned to hike in the area.

Matthew picked me up at the usual 2a time in San Jose, and we made good time to arrive at Silver Lake shortly before 5:30a. We had hoped to find the Tragedy Spring Road plowed a ways, maybe to the small town of Plasse, but that was wishful thinking. So we ended up starting out of the Silver Lake Resort parking area at 5:45a. [We should point out that afterwards we concluded that this wasn't the best place to start. SR88 is several miles closer about three miles west of Silver Lake, and it appears there would be less elevation gain overall if one started on the ridge at the juncture (near Tragedy Spring), or nearby where one could find a pullout for parking.] The sun would be up in about 20-30 minutes, so it was plenty light out as we started. The snow was quite firm with the overnight tempertures below freezing, and we started off in our boots with our snowshoes strapped to our packs. We would find little need for the snowshoes today, as the snow later in the season becomes more consolidated and there was less post-holing than one finds in the winter months as the day warms up. Though sunny skies would predominate the whole day, so would the wind. It was blowing about 20mph at the trailhead when we started and would blow much harder at the ridges along the way for most of the day. This helped keep the snow more firm, but our efforts along the exposed portions were made that much more difficult.

Silver Lake is big - much bigger than it appears from the road, and our first effort was to travel the several miles of its western shoreline. We followed a handful of skier tracks for the first mile where we came to some cabins above the western shore, mostly boarded up. The last of the skier tracks ended at one of the cabins that was unboarded and occupied at the moment - I could see a few sleeping bags on the floor through the back window, the occupants sleeply soundly inside. Another mile brought us to the south end of the lake and the sleepy summer town of Plasse, a small collection of cabins and buildings, among them a rustic church. The town looked to be in hibernation, snow covering all the roads, all the buildings boarded, only some old snowmobile and skier tracks coursing through town.

We spied the ridge at the head of the creek that we needed to gain. Rather than follow the route of the trail indicated on the map (the trail was buried in snow and probably impossible to follow directly anyway), we struck out on a more direct course. The last part of this ridge involved some steep slopes, but we managed to scramble our way up without breaking out the crampons (mostly out of laziness). We got our first view of our goal from atop the ridge. Though we were still many miles from it, the high winds made the air exceptionally clear, and it looked like our peak was maybe four miles away. Our map on the otherhand, made it clear that we still had something like eight miles to go.

After our last several winter outings in the Tahoe area, we were no longer surprised to find snowmobile tracks in many places. There was no exception here. Not exactly sure which route they had taken to get here (our route was too steep for snowmobiles), the other side of the ridge was gentler, had fewer trees, and looked to be a snowmobile playground. We followed some of these tracks to the southeast where we gained the top of Squaw Ridge in the vicinity of Plasse Trading Post. If there were buildings here we never saw any, assuming the name was from some bygone pioneering days. Our direction of travel now shifted to nearly due south, another seven miles or so to our peak. Though the route was a somewhat confusing array of bumps and ridges, the direction we needed to go was obvious since Mokelumne poked its snowy head up above the skyline for nearly the whole route. Returning would be a different matter, as we there were no good landmarks to follow in the opposite direction.

It was 7:30a when we reached Plasse Trading Post, and from there we followed the ridges in the southerly direction as indicated. Along the ridges proper it was often snow-free and easier walking, but the winds were greater as well. As a result we tended to follow just below the ridgelines on the western side in most places, as these were the best protected from the unusual east-to-west wind that was blowing. We managed to find some short class 3 sections along the ridges in several places. These could have been easily avoided, but they broke up the monotony of the snow-covered travel we found on the forested slopes to the side.

It was another three hours until we broke from the forest upon the final mile to the summit. Before us was the impressive NE Ridgesteepened without appreciable softening, we stopped to put on our crampons. We had no axes, not really expecting to need them on the non-techical slopes of Mokelumne. Of course the wind was howling its fiercest as we climbed the last quarter mile, the summit area the highest point for many miles around - and thus getting the brunt of the wind's force. On either side of the ridge were two steep, nearly pyramidal faces. The East Face was sunny, the snow more consolidated, and was swept by the wind running up it. The North Face was steeper and the snow less consolidated, so we naturally avoided it. I actually felt safer moving out onto the East Face and off of the ridge because it put the wind to my back and made me feel more secure. As the slope steepened, the snow also grew harder, and I found I was having trouble kicking steps into the slopes. My crampons were my lightweight pair and I didn't feel secure trusting to just the teeth without an axe for security. Meanwhile, Matthew had paused on the ridge about 50 yards below me as I moved out onto the face, unsure he wanted to follow me. I couldn't blame him, either. As the slope worsened I rethought my strategy and decided to abandon the East Face. Moving quickly back onto the ridge and then just a bit further onto the North Face, I found the conditions a great deal more satisfying. My boots sank a good six inches in with each step and felt quite secure. Best of all the wind was almost completely absent on this side. The wind whipped up the East Face, swept over the NE Ridge, and left a relatively calm eddy on the North Face. Seeing that I then made swift progress up the mountain, Matthew followed on that same side.

It was 11a when I reached the summit, Matthew but a few minutes behind. It had taken six hours to reach our summit and we hoped the return would be a few hours faster (more wishful thinking). After looking among the summit rocks and snow for a register and finding nothing, we moved a short ways down onto the gentler SW Face where we took a break. We spent about half an hour on the summit taking in the views and resting up for the return. Bear Valley Ski Area looked to be only three or four miles distance to the southeast, a much shorter approach. The problem of course is the huge chasm gouged by the Mokelumne River between us and the ski area, and the river would be uncrossable at this time of year anyway. The resort was so close that we could make out the parking lot at the base of the lodge there. The air being usually clear, we had fine views of Desolation Wilderness to the north, The Mokelumne Wilderness and its many peaks to the east, and many, many more peaks to the southeast.

After about 30 minutes, we were done with out summit rest and headed back down. We retraced our steps back down the NE Ridge, avoiding the East Face altogether, making for a very easy and fast descent. Back down in the trees amongst the rolling ridges, as expected it was not obvious which way to go. I intended to simply follow our tracks religiously upon our return, expressing to Matthew my concerns about getting off-track. Though ours were the only tracks within six or seven miles, following them proved more difficult than I expected. Though the snow was soft enough now that our tracks were plainly obvious, the ones we laid down in the morning were on firmer snow and not at all clear. In some places we left no visible marks and we would hike along for 50 feet or so, search up and down for our tracks, locate them, correct our route, and follow some more. It wasn't very fast progress. And of course we lost them altogether not an hour from the summit. I located another set of tracks that we hadn't seen on the way in - perhaps someone had been out some days earlier? These we followed for ten or fifteen minutes before it occurred to us that they were not human tracks, but bear tracks. By now we were off-route several hundred yards, but continued following the ridge we were descending, oblivious to our condition. As we descended further the views ahead became wholey unfamiliar and we stopped to take a closer look at our route. A compass reading showed we were heading more northeast than north, clearly in the wrong direction. To our left we saw another ridge about a quarter mile distance. Figuring that to be our correct ridge, we headed left, now travelling northwest in an effort to intersect our original route. After gaining that ridge we found another ridge further west and higher still. By observing the direction of drainage in the area around us, it was apparent we had travelled further east than we originally thought. It was another half mile to the next ridge, which put us back on track.

Sort of. We couldn't find our tracks from the morning though we seemed to be in the correct vicinity. We kept our compass handy and headed north, expecting to recognize our morning route with each 100 yards we travelled. Still, we never came across any tracks, and the terrain was poorly recognizable. Only by frequent consultations of the map and compass was I able to convince myself we were headed in the right direction. By now it was approaching 2p and Matthew was looking tired. Not so much from all the miles and elevation, but more the lack of sleep the night before was catching up. I would get well ahead of him and have to wait a good while for him to catch up. At one point I waited for 20 minutes before getting worried. I whistled loudly to see if he was within range, then got some unintelligible reply as I saw him step from behind a tree about 100 yards away. I think he was secretly napping, though he wouldn't admit it. As he caught up he mentioned that he had lost his gloves from the back of his pack and had tried in vain to retrieve them. He looked and acted so very tired. His pant legs were shredded from his crampons, making for a humorous scene - you'd think I'd taken a homeless guy out for a hike. He admitted that had he been alone he would have stopped by now for several hours worth of napping, not really worrying about hiking out by headlamp. Not being the outdoor napper myself, I resolved to keep closer to Matthew lest he should stumble off to a nap if I got too far ahead.

We recrossed Squaw Ridge at a different point, some third of a mile or so further to the southwest, which didn't help us feel good about our tracking abilities. We must have crossed our morning's route at least once already, probably several times, but never were able to identify them. Still, with our compass and map we were able to convince ourselves we were nearly on-route (and unlike some of our previous adventures, we actually were where we thought ourselves to be), and we continued heading north. We came again upon the snowmobile tracks and noted the cabin identified as "Allen" on the map, and made our way to the last ridge overlooking the headwaters to Silver Lake. It was now 3:45p, and like on Squaw Ridge we found ourselves crossing the ridge at a different point than we'd followed in the morning. There were overhanging cornices here, but we found a route down between them, and soon were deep amongst the woods again. We stopped briefly to switch to snowshoes (we'd been wearing our crampons since we left Mokelumne) now that we were beginning to posthole an annoying number of times.

When we reached Plasse again we thought we were nearly done, but there was still several long miles to go. It wasn't until we reached here that we found our tracks again. The sun was sinking now, and not far above the western ridge on our left. Thunder Mtn was bathed in afternoon light looking still quite far away to the north, and we knew we had to hike out a similar distance. It was around 6p, some thirty minutes or so before sunset when we finally returned to our car. It had taken nearly as long to hike out as it had to hike in - some 12hr15m in all, a very long, tiring day. Matthew had ceased to enjoy the hike some hours earlier, and consequently declared it to be the hardest hike of the year. After some rest at the car he was able to admit that our first climb of Mt. Lola North had been more effort. On the other hand I had enjoyed the outing the whole distance, not yet reaching the point of wishing the hike were done with. So in my estimation this had been easier than a number of our earlier outing. In particular I had thought our combo Mts. Elwell and Adams day to be much worse, while Matthews was of the opposing view. This was an interesting discussion because it made it clear to us that there is a very subjective part in judging the relative difficulty of an outing - miles out, elevation gain, and hours spent were not sufficient for comparing different efforts.

After changing out of our soaking wet boots and socks, we drove in to South Lake Tahoe where we'd made a reservation for the night. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Chile's in town before retiring before 9p for the night. Matthew begged for a reprieve from our usual 4a wakeup call, so in sympathy I set it to 4:45a. Pretty nice guy I am, eh? :-)


Sierra Bonehead comments on 08/17/04:
Impressive day! Moke Peak is a remote landmark. Great pics, thanks!
seano comments on 05/14/14:
Note that it's much easier to hike the Plesse road from SR88 at the west end of Silver Lake. Even then, it's a long slog, and there are few landmarks to guide you through the woods on the way back.
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