North Kettle Peak P500
Kettle Pinnacle CS
Shell Mountain P300 ESS
Buena Vista Peak P300 ESS

Wed, Nov 7, 2012
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPXs: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


Jennie Lakes Wilderness is one of the smaller wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada, encompassing a little more than 10,000 acres on the western boundary of SEKI National Park, just south of Kings Canyon. All of my previous visits had been only short excursions through from the Marvin Pass TH on my way to other objectives in the adjacent national park. The previous day Matthew and I had done just that on our way to a fun climb of Sugarloaf, found in Sugarloaf Valley to the east. I had a second day to play in the mountains before heading home, so I planned to make a tour of the wilderness, taking in a few summits in the process. I decided to start early around 4a in order to have a few hours to hike by headlamp (which I almost always find provides a contempative environment) as well as to get almost 20 miles of hiking in before heading back around noon. My primary goal was North Kettle Peak, unofficially named. It's really just the unnamed northern summit of Kettle Peak on the Kings-Kaweah Divide, about a mile north of the named point. Both have the same number of contours and determining which is the true highpoint is a bit difficult. Best to just climb both. I had visited the southern point a few years ago and wanted to come back to tag the northern one.

Starting from the Big Meadows TH, I found the going straightforward for the first hour and a half until I was just over the east side of Poop Out Pass. Up to this point the trail was well-maintained and easy to follow, but then took a somewhat unexpected left turn. I followed this for a short while as it seemed to contour around the southeast side of Shell Mtn. I was on it long enough to determine it wasn't following the general path of the trail as shown on the 7.5' topo map. Had it been rerouted, or was this a connector trail that joins the two main trails in the wilderness? I backtracked, deciding to follow the path of the old trail, even if it was no longer maintained. It was growing light out by this time, making things easier. I found no alternate trail, at least initially, but I did find a few ducks as I dropped down the drainage a short distance, eventually finding a useable trail again. I'm not sure what had happened, but it appears the most likely explanation was that a few extra switchbacks had been built in where it grew steep for a short distance.

It was nearly 6:30a when I reached the junction with the Jennie Lake spur. I made the detour to visit the lake which I found nestled against the north slope of the Kings-Kaweah Divide, new snow dusting the shaded terrain. There was only a single lake to be found - so why is it called Jennie "Lakes" Wilderness? A great mystery, indeed. I returned to the main trail, continuing east, reaching JO Pass at sunrise. This is an oddly named pass whose meaning was told by a Mr. Ellis to Chester Versteeg:

"About August, 1889, I crossed the pass with stock. Sheepmen and saddle stock had crossed before. Probably first used by sheepmen in 1875. I gave the name to the pass from the initials cut on a tree some years before by John Wesley Warren. He started to cut his name, 'John,' but cut only the first two letters."

One mystery solved. At JO Pass I left the trail and headed northeast, cross-country up the moderate slope leading to the high ridgeline between the two summits of Kettle Peak. I found the ridgeline itself to be very easy, almost flat, with nice views off to the right. The south summit was visible behind me, Twin Peaks and Mt. Silliman to the southeast. Ball Dome (the other summit Matthew and I had hoped to climb the previous day) could be seen to the east. It was 7:30a before I reached the end of the ridge at the north summit where it drops off sharply on the north side for almost 600ft to a small unnamed lake. The views from the summit were partially blocked by trees and there was no well-defined point to make an obvious summit - a bit of a bust in that category. I did find an old NPS boundary sign nailed to a tree, probably dating back 50 years or more. There was no register that I could find. Shell Mtn dominated the mostly uninteresting view to the west, while to the north could be seen Maddox and Mitchell peaks on the northern boundary of the wilderness, with the higher summits of the Monarch Divide in the background, with yet higher summits of the Palisades Region beyond those.

Most interesting was a rocky pinnacle to the northeast about a quarter mile away that looked like it could be some fun. Matthew and I had spied it from the north during our return the previous day, initially mistaking it for Ball Dome. This feature, unnamed on the maps, I dubbed Kettle Pinnacle since it was nearly connected to where I stood. I decided to pay a visit and see if it could be climbed without gear. Though there was snow on the north side of North Kettle, there was less on the connecting ridgeline that I traveled to reach the base of Kettle Pinnacle. The SE Face was close to vertical but looked to have plenty of features for a low class 5 route. Having no gear or partner, I looked elsewhere for an ascent route. Though intimidating from a distance, the SW Ridge proved easier than it appeared. It was a great bit of class 3 scrambling. Steep and exposed in places, but great holds with abundant chickenheads and pockets for hands and feet. There were several gaps along the summit ridgeline, but each of these managed to have at least one class 3 way to get around it. Though I only spent about 15 minutes on the ascent, it was most enjoyable. How was it that it got no mention in Secor? I found no cairn nor register at the summit but have little doubt it had been climbed - it was too obvious and accessible to go unnoticed by previous visitors. I left a small duck on the summit to allay similar concerns in the future, should there be any.

The North Ridge, which I chose for the descent, proved trickier still. I spent almost 30 minutes with much more class 3 scrambling, getting around several gaps until low on the ridge. A final gap I could not find a way around, but I had an escape route off the west side which up to this point was too vertical to descend. There was a bit of class 4 in this last effort to get off the pinnacle but it's possible that with more careful route-finding it could be kept at class 3. By the time I'd reached the dry, unnamed lake at the base of the cirque between North Kettle and Kettle Pinnacle, I'd decided this one definitely qualified in my list of 100 top Sierra scrambles.

I continued cross-country heading west, aiming for the other main trail that I could used to get me closer to Shell Mountain. The cross-country was nearly two miles in length from the unnamed lake, but easy enough over forested terrain with fairly open understory, growing steep for about 400ft near the end where I was hunting around for the trail. I located it some distance north of where it was shown on my GPS (though the 7.5' topo has an accurate representation of its location), then followed it further west as it climbs the lower slopes on the east side of Shell Mtn. The mountain itself is a large, rounded mass covered in forest with no defining features on all but the Northwest Face. After about half a mile on the trail I found what I thought was the junction with the connector trail I supposed I might have found earlier in the day. Had it existed, it would have been convenient to use it to return to Poop Out Pass and climb Shell Mtn from there. But alas, after following this for maybe a hundred yards, a use trail at best, it either disappeared or I lost it amongst the manzanita that characterized the more open terrain here. Giving up on the trail, I simply turned upslope and climbed the remaining mile and half to the summit cross-country, again not hard at all.

I found the highpoint at the SW end of a short summit ridge. Though mostly forested, the NW aspect is open up to views of the boulder-strewn Northwest Slope and beyond to forest (looking west) and higher mountains looking north. For a third time I found no register at the summit, an Oh-for-Three day on that account. I spent probably half an hour at this last summit of the day, enjoying a sandwich I'd brought along. Around 11:15a I started back down, continuing west along the ridge and down to the trail I had started on. The cross-country travel continued to be easy, all the way back to the trail I eventually intercepted, the same I had hike in on during the dark hours of the morning. The only person I came across the entire day was a man about my age with his friendly dog about a mile from the TH. It was noon when I found myself back at Big Meadows and the van, taking about 8hrs to cover the 18 miles of adventure.

After starting back on the Generals Highway, I decided to make a quick stop to visit Buena Vista Peak, an easy a one-mile trail leading to the top. There are good views to the west from the rocky summit, though the views were muted by the usual afternoon haze from the Central Valley. Big Baldy could be seen a few miles to the south, Spanish Mtn perhaps 15 miles to the north. The rocky pinnacle, Buck Rock, home to an impressive lookout tower, could be seen to the east with Shell Mtn a bit further. There are two summit blocks vying for the highpoint, within a foot of each other according to my GPS. Both are class 3, though the eastern one is tougher and more exposed. I followed the trail all the way to the summit, but took a shortcut off the northeast side on the return that featured a use trail with a bit more adventure. It was 1p by the time I had finished the day's hiking. I took a quick rinse where I had parked on the side of the road and then headed for home, ending a enjoyable two days in the Sierra, the last of the season for me as it turned out. Not a bad finish, that...

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