Mon, Jun 3, 2013
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My plan involved a 40-50 mile route around the Falls Creek drainage, visiting a total of ten summits with prominence of at least 300ft (all from ListsofJohn.com), three of which were officially named, a good introduction to this part of the park. I didn't know if it would take me two or three days, but I made plans for the latter and hoped for the former. I took no stove, no filter, just a smattering of non-perishables I scrounged from around the house and a few basics: bivy sack, sleeping bag, pad, ground cloth (not really essential) and some extra clothes. Of course there were many of the ten essentials, but these are small and don't weigh much. With two quarts of gatorade the pack probably weighed about 15lbs, perhaps a bit more.
When I got to the Hetch Hetchy entry station shortly after 8pm, I was happy to find that the ranger does double duty as permit-issuer. Open until 9p in the summer, this is the only place in Yosemite to get a permit past 5p. Good to know if one is coming in the Big Oak Flat entrance station on SR120 late in the day - a 12 mile detour can net one a permit without having to wait until a station opens at 7:30a elsewhere. The ranger asked some questions I was poorly prepared to answer. What was my starting trail? All I knew was I was starting from the dam and following a route I had mapped out on TOPO! - trail names are rarely provided there. Where did I plan to camp? Again, I hadn't much of a clue. I planned to hike until I got tired and then sleep. He showed me a map which I quickly perused and then gave him some likely-sounding locations - Laurel Lake and Lake Vernon. This seemed to work because he went on to the next question. "Do you have a bear cannister?" Rats. All I could think to say was, "Uh, do I need one?" Apparently I do. He was happy to provide one for a $5 fee. No way it would fit in my smallish pack, but I paid the fee and left it in the back of the van, unused. Next time I need to think faster. I was heavily distracted by the mosquitoes that were attacking me outside the window, standing there as I was in my shorts like an idiot. I would dance around, swat at some of them and shoo others away during our brief conversation. "Wow, the mosquitoes are really bad tonight," I commented. "They're always like this," was the deadpan reply.
Most of the parking around the dam is for Day Use only, but they conveniently provide a backpackers' campground and parking for those issued permits. The ranger gave me a parking pass and sent me on my way. I found the backpackers' camp but chose to sleep in the back of the van. It was far more comfortable, and mosquito-proof to boot. My last bit of civilization before striking off into the Wilderness the next morning.
I was up by 5a, breakfasted, and on my way half an hour later. I would have less than half an hour before the mosquitoes were awakened and on my scent. I crossed the O'Shaughnessy Dam, perusing the dozen or so placards the SF Water folks have provided for educational reading. There was mention of Muir's disappointment in losing the fight to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley, but it appears national sympathy for a city nearly destroyed by the 1906 earthquake won out and allowed San Francisco to upgrade its water system at the expense of a little Yosemite real estate. I passed through the tunnel at the north end of the dam and onto the trail system. I had slept poorly that night because it was not very cool, in the low 70's when I went to sleep. It had only gotten perhaps to the low 60's by morning and would soon start warming up. This meant a hot day was in store and the only way to avoid it was with altitude. There would be plenty of that to be gained today.
I passed by a wayward newt on the trail that would soon need to seek refuge from the coming sun. I reached the first trail junction at 6a and started the uphill trek. I would spend the next 45 minutes climbing 1,200ft above the reservoir, the sun making its appearance during this time. The mosquitoes were only a minor nuisance while I was hiking, but would swarm to more serious numbers whenever I paused. I had long pants and shirt and a hat as well, but there were plenty of open places for them to feast. The shirt proved no protection where it pressed against my skin, so my shoulders would regularly get bitten. I avoided using DEET for most of the day because I hate the smell of the stuff on me when I'm sleeping, but I would eventually give in. I should have just started using it in the morning.
I turned left at the next junction I reached at the 5,200-foot level, heading west for Miguel Meadows. I was on the trail only a short distance, looking on my left for a cross-country route up to Condon BM, my first stop. It was a short climb of only about a third of a mile and less than 500ft, but an interesting one - just enough brush to have me worried about the thickets, but proving no big deal. I didn't realize the summit had a benchmark until I had actually reached it. I'd thought it was the first of string of Peak-somethingthousandfeet that I planned to visit. The benchmark and a few associated reference marks were all the people signs I found at the top. The views aren't much thanks to trees in most directions. Most of the first half of the day was going to be like this, with far more forest than one normally expects from Yosemite.
I went down the north side via a variation of the route I took up, finding some class 3 scrambling down large blocks of granite buried in flora that covers much of the terrain. Bushwhacking continued to be a minimum, thankfully. It was 7:30a by the time I got back to the trail. I returned east to the last trail junction and then took the fork towards Laurel Lake. Another 1,000-foot ascent followed. The next three peaks are found in a roughly equilateral triangle about two miles on a side. It would take about an hour and a half to get from one to the other. None of them were named, all of them found between 6,600ft and 7,300ft. The first, Peak 6,687ft, I climbed from the east, up about 500ft of forested slopes to reach the summit. It featured a class 3 summit block made class 2 by a log lying against it to reduce the technical difficulty. There was a partial view from the top, to the west where one can see Lake Eleanor and Cherry Lake, the other two main reservoirs in the SF water system. In other directions, not so much. Lots of forest to the south and southwest, to the north and northeast much the same with a taste of the granite High Country in the distance. Interestingly, there was a rusty wire around a fallen tree at the summit - the only sign I found of previous visitors, though to what purpose I couldn't determine.
I descended the north side of the mountain, crossed Frog Creek, and continued cross-country heading north towards Laurel Lake. I picked up a trail just before reaching the lake and used if for a short distance to pass the lake on its west shore before leaving it to head up to Peak 6,843ft which overlooks Laurel Lake on its northwest side. There is a view of the lake from the summit (featuring another class 3 summit block) but as before, trees blocked much of the scene. I saw no evidence of others on this peak, but then would have been surprised if I had. I dropped back down to the lake where I picked up the trail, following it for more than a mile around the north side of the lake, back across Frog Creek and then southeast to something called "Beehive" on the trail signs. I have no idea what Beehive is, perhaps just the semi-swampy location where four trails come together. It wasn't one of Yosemite's finer sights. I left the trail at the junction and climbed some 600ft to the summit of Peak 7,247ft from the northwest. This was a large rounded summit with a partial view to the east and northeast where I was glimpsing the granite domes Northern Yosemite is noted for. I was getting tired of Yosemite forest and was looking forward to a change. It was just after 11a and it seemed like a good time for lunch which consisted of chocolate in both solid and liquid forms. The Sees easter egg packed more than 500 calories and promised to melt into a gooey mess if left in the pack much longer.
I dropped back down the NE Ridge through forest to return to the trail, shortly coming to another trail junction. The right fork leads downhill to Vernon Lake, but I was taking the left fork up Moraine Ridge. This three mile stretch of pleasant trail took me up another 1,000ft to the 8,000-foot level and the beginning of the more pleasant granite country I had been expecting. The temperatures were cooler above this elevation. The highpoint of Moraine Ridge is about half a mile north of the trail and requires another relatively easy cross-country jaunt to reach it. At the top I found a class 3 summit block surrounded on all sides by some surprisingly tough brush that made reaching the top an unexpected chore. Now almost 1:30p, I sat at the top and ate lunch which consisted of most of the remaining food I had brought. How this was supposed to have lasted another day was a bit of a miscalculation. At least the mosquitoes were mostly at bay now that the day was at its zenith. I was starting to get tired by this point, having been on the go for almost eight hours. And I still had seven hours of daylight. It didn't seem I was going to have the energy to continue for that long. I started considering where I might camp for the night. The next two peaks were the highest of the trips, both named. I would probably camp near the summit of one of them in order to avoid the worst of the evening mosquito swarm.
I returned to the trail that leads down into Jack Main Canyon. The two peaks, Mahan and Andrews, were located on either side of the canyon. As I was starting down, I came across a party of five backpackers going the opposite direction. They had planned to do a looping route on the trail network, but found the creek in Jack Main Canyon uncrossable. They reported the water too cold and too deep, the mosquitoes too fierce and they were ending their backpack trip by returning the way they'd come. I would have to make the same crossing they described as impossible if I was going to reach Andrews Peak, but I didn't let this detail bother me. I figured I'd find a way, in one manner or another. The drop into Jack Main Canyon isn't significant, only a few hundred feet, but at the time I thought it might be much more. It would probably have been most expedient to continue on the trail into the canyon and to the base of Mahan Peak before starting the climb up, but I decided to leave the trail much earlier and follow an ascending traverse up the granite slabs leading to the rim of the canyon on the northwest side. It turned out to be quite pleasant actually, the slabs no more than class 2 and providing the best scenery I'd had so far on the day. With far fewer trees, the views were mostly unobstructed. The route also allowed me to visit the scenic Ardeth Lake nestled up against the west side of the peak. Tiring talus slopes led most of the way up to the summit on the west side, followed by some modest, but pleasant scrambing on more solid granite for the last bit to the summit.
It was almost 3:30p when I reached the 9,149-foot summit. With some 7-8,000ft of gain and 20 miles under my belt, I was ready to call it a day but it was still much too early. I would have liked to lounge around the water and take a brisk swim and maybe a nap, but the mosquitoes would have made a nightmare of it. The summit had a register, the first I'd seen on the day, housed in one of the Sierra Club aluminum cannisters that are found on many of the SPS peaks. The oldest scrap was from a San Jose Scout Troop from 1969. The register was full of scraps and a notebook attesting to the summits popularity, much to my surprise. Who are all these people that come out this way, far from any trailhead and well off the PCT? The summit had the great views I had been expecting all day. The almost 10,000-foot Richardson Peak rises up across Frog Creek about two miles to the north. Only a mile to the south across Jack Main Canyon is the lower Andrews Peak. To the northeast and east stretched the higher summits of the High Country with significant snows still blanketing much of their granite slopes. Thunderstorms were developing around the crest of the range at this time. The skies were clear to the south and west, however, where Vernon Lake and Mt. Gibson (the following day's objective) could be seen in the distance.
From the summit of Mahan I decided I would camp somewhere near the summit of Andrews Peak. Andrews looked to be mostly a bunch of granite and what I hoped would be not-so-many mosquitoes. I dropped off the SE Side of Mahan, a mostly class 2 affair until one runs up against a cliff band about 2/3 of the way down the mountain. I found a brushy class 3 chute to get me to a boulder field below and eventually the bottom of Jack Main Canyon where I picked up the trail. Despite my warning earlier from the backpackers I came across, I didn't think I'd have much trouble getting across the creek. Surely there would be a downed log or something I could cross on. There was not. I followed the creek for a full mile and half, finding no crossing. The creek was consistently wide (perhaps 15 yards) and deep, nearly head level at the center. I'd never seen something like this in the Sierra. It was as if there had been an earthquake rift through the canyon and it was filled with slow-moving water. It was a beautiful canyon with rich, green meadows and gorgeous scenery. I found an automated snow sensor in one meadow where I was looking for a log to cross. Now after 5p, the mosquitoes had returned with a vengence and it was all I could do to keep brushing and swatting them off me. I took many bites, the DEET wearing off. Pausing in the trail was out of the question. Eventually I came to a trail junction where a crossing is shown on the map. The creek was much wider, perhaps 30 yards and a bit more than waist high at its deepest. I could see the exit trail on the opposite side. This must have been as far as that party got before deciding to turn back. I decided otherwise.
I would have to take all my clothes off except my shirt, stuff everything in my already overloaded pack, cross the creek, and then dress before continuing on. And the real trick to all this was to keep moving the whole time to minimize the mosquito attacks. It would have been comical to someone watching me, I'm sure. I would quickly untie a boot and then walk around while I removed it and the sock. Then the other boot. Then stuff them in the pack without pausing as the mosquitoes were already landing on my bare feet. Once I took my pants off the ante would be upped and there was no turning back. I was very quick to reshoulder my pack and plunge into the creek. The chill of the water barely registered, focused as I was on the mosquitoes. At the deepest point the water was up to my naval and I had to hold the pack up higher to keep the contents dry. On the far side I set the pack down, tore off my shirt and plunged back into the water. At least I would have a chance to rinse off the salt and sweat and DEET during this operation. Back out of the water I wasted no time getting dressed and moving once again. I probably got 20-30 bites during this whole operation which I considered a success. If I had stood there naked, I'm pretty sure I would have been drained of blood inside of 15 minutes.
I left the trail once again and climbed about 1,000ft over a mile from the creek to Andrews' summit over a mile up its NE Ridge. The scrambling was class 2-3 and would have been far more enjoyable if I wasn't already so darned tired by this time. Though fewer, I would still find mosquitoes all the way to the summit. It was 6p by the time I pulled up to the highest point of Andrews' dark granite summit. A plastic jar held a register less busy than Mahan's, that had been placed by an NPS ranger in 2000. The thunderstorms to the east were pushing west now, bringing the sound of thunder in the distance and the threat of rain. There was still two hours of daylight but I decided I had had enough. I might have still continued down to the saddle on the west side and up to the next minor peak a mile away, but I could only imagine the mosquitoes growing fiercer as the sun got lower in the sky. So I set up my bivy on a flat shelf just below the summit, a short wall on one side conveniently shading me from the late afternoon sun. I changed into clean clothes and got into the sack quickly to keep the mosquitoes out. I would not sleep for several hours, instead listening to buzzing of the swarm outside the netting, frustrated in their efforts to get to me. Periodically I would look outside to see the advance of the evening. The high tops of the thunderstorms had drifted overhead, but brought no rain. As the sun was setting it would color them bright orange and then fading to red and gray before night finally settled in. It had proved a successful day, reaching all the summits I had set out for, but the mosquitoes had kept it from being a memorable one - did I mention I really don't like the Sierra in June?
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