Peak 10,040ft
Peak 10,433ft P300
Peak 10,120ft
Peak 10,040ft
Peak 10,186ft P300

Sep 16, 2023

With: Kristine Swigart

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


It was probably ten years ago when I first took special note of Alpine County. There is very little development in the county with more than 95% of it on public lands. Luther, Carson, Ebbetts, and Sonora Passes can all be found in Alpine County, with almost every road in the county a candidate for scenic byway. It is the only county located entirely in the Sierra Nevada, with all of its 154 summits above 5,500ft. All but one are located on public lands, making it possibly the largest (by number of summits) of the state's counties that can be reasonably completed. More than half of the county is taken up by the Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg Wildernesses, making the effort both incredibly scenic and challenging. I had begun working on the county's summits about 10 years ago, but never in great earnest, whittling away, maybe 15-20 summits every summer. When Kristine moved to the Topaz Lake area on the east side of the county three years ago, she kept prodding me to tackle these summits more determinedly. Over these past years, we've paid numerous visits until we had gotten my list down to just a handful. There were only two summits with more than 300ft of prominence remaining, and four soft ranked ones. Five of these could be done in a 20mi day with 6,000ft+ of elevation gain. Kristine had done four of these a year earlier but was eager to join me to get the one she missed and a few others nearby that I'd already done.

I had camped the night in Little Antelope Valley at a quiet turnout along Golden Gate Rd, a road that would take us up to the Corral Valley TH at Rodriguez Flat the next morning. We made plans for Kristine to meet me at 6a for an early start, so I was dutifully up and ready to go by 5:45a. It was still dark when Kristine's headlights came into view and then zoomed past me on the dusty road - evidently she knew I was ready and didn't need to bother with even a greeting. I followed her at some distance to keep from choking on her dust, and by 6:15a we were at the TH. It was just growing light so we wouldn't need headlamps, though still about half an hour until sunrise.

We spent the first half hour plying the familiar trail uphill to the high junction at 8,751ft. We'd been on this trail only ten days earlier, so it was fresh in our minds. The sun was just rising on our line of 10,000-foot peaks to the southwest, looking quite far at this point. I had expected that we would follow the right fork down to Silver King Creek as we'd done on our previous visit, but ahead, Kristine turned to the left. I stopped her to make sure this was a deliberate choice, knowing it was about a mile shorter, but would add about 1,000ft of gain, crossing two valleys that we could otherwise avoid. I think the right fork would have been the easier route, but I was swayed by her reasoning, "It's a bigger loop!" And so we headed down to Corral Valley instead. It's a pleasant drop at an easy gradient, open to views the whole way. Crossing Corral Valley would be the first of several meadow crossings that had us nervous. The grasses are high, the ground uneven, and it can be difficult to tell marsh from dry land. Normally these would be a breeze in September, but a heavy snow year has kept the valleys wet all summer.

Once across the creek and meadow, we started up the first of two ascents on this leg, climbing 400ft through mostly forest, to gain a saddle leading down to Coyote Valley, about 300ft lower than Corral Valley. Our peaks were still some distance away but getting closer, and we could see more details as we headed off the southwest side of the saddle. We descended into Coyote Valley, worked our way across the wet meadow, and then made a 300-foot ascent over another ridge before descending finally to Upper Fish Valley. This was the more serious drainage of the three, and we could not find a way across Silver King Creek without taking our boots off. There is old fencing and a USFS log cabin that was once Connells Cow Camp. It does not appear that there were ever roads built to this remote site, and very likely the camp was exclusively supplied by pack train. There is a pack station back at our starting point, but it appears they don't come out this way often, mostly to places further north.

So much for the preliminary, now for the cross-country part. It was now almost 9a and we'd been at it for more than two and half hours. Now it was time for the big climb of the day, a nearly 3,000ft ascent to our first summit, Peak 10,040ft on the east side of Whitecliff Lake. We had to ascend about two miles up Bull Canyon, a route I had been down 13 years earlier when I did a 20mi loop that included Whitecliff Peak, starting from the south. There were remnants of a trail in Bull Canyon back then, and as we came to find out, these still exist. The cross-country travel is pretty easy albeit steep in places, so it's not all that important to find the trail. We stayed on the north side of the stream running down the canyon, taking the right fork that leads to Whitecliff Lake. Kristine was leading most of the way up this, eventually turning south to approach the first peak before we reached Whitecliff Lake. About an hour and twenty minutes up from the bottom, we were at the base of the peak looking at a route just left of the cliffy North Face. We didn't know if it would work, but it seemed a good deal shorter than taking the more certain route up from the SW side. There was a small boulder field to cross and some loose slopes, but we made it work at class 3 without too much trouble, despite the poor quality of the granite we scrambled over. The final hundred feet are over tamer, brown volcanic rubble that caps the granite base of the peak.

It was 10:30a before we reached the summit and took our first break of the day, one well-deserved. The sky was mostly overcast, having us wondering if our luck would hold out (forecast was for 30% of rain after 2p). So far, the weather had been near-ideal, with cool temps that kept us in our tshirts for all but the first 30 minutes of the day. It would start to warm when the sun came out, but thankfully there was little of that today. I left the first of five registers on the day while we discussed our next move. Kristine planned to head to Whitecliff Peak, afterwards she might head south to the next summit, or backtrack and chase me down along the ridge heading north. I planned to head to Peak 10,433ft next, first dropping to Whitecliff Lake and then up to the ridge along which the other four peaks were arranged. I was thinking I would take the direct route from our summit perch, bypassing the lake to the east. This would allow me to also bypass Pt. 10,486ft just north of the lake. Kristine talked me into going over this point, so that we could travel together down to the lake's west shore, then up to the high ridgeline. Seemed like good idea, and would allow me to visit the lake.

We headed off the rubbly southwest side of our peak to a saddle, then a sandy/graveley descending traverse towards the lake. We were still several hundred feet above the lake when Kristine changed her mind. She decided to head for the saddle on the SE side of Whitecliff Peak, thinking it would be less work than her first idea. So we bid goodbye from a distance, and I turned to continue down to the lake. I skirted around the west side of the lake, then up a chute to the north that I had spied during the descent. This was steep and somewhat loose, but all class 2, and got me onto the main ridge by 11:40a. I went over the rocky Pt. 10,486ft, the highpoint of my day though it has little prominence. Then another 20min or so to get me to Peak 10,433ft, mostly by following the ridgeline. I skirted around the west side to avoid tedious rubble on the south side, then went up the short distance to the summit. The weather continued to hold, and now that I was done with most of the uphill cross-country, was feeling pretty good about finishing out the day. The next summit, Peak 10,120ft, was only half a mile to the northwest, but would prove the most challenging part of the day.

I knew this peak would have some class 4+ scrambling from verbal reports I got from Rob Houghton and Kristine after their visits. Getting to the base of the peak is almost trivial, as most of the long ridgeline makes for delightfully easy cross-country travel. I could see from a distance that the summit blocks would be another story. Having tracks from both Rob and Kristine, I knew to approach the summit from the east, working my way up the short but steep slopes to reach the base of the more challenging work. There are two closely spaced summits of nearly equal height. The northern one looks a bit easier but is slightly lower - by only a few feet. The real work is getting up the southern one. I hadn't given it much thought beforehand because I figured I had scrambling skills on par with the other two, but this was looking hard. I walked around the base of the 30-foot summit to make sure I didn't miss anything obvious. I went through a narrow passage on the north side to get around to the west side where a wide ramp goes about 1/3 of the way up. At the upper end of the ramp, there is a narrow crack running diagonally back to the north, with a large, awkward boulder to get around just to reach it. The crack looked quite difficult, so I went back to the east side. There appears to be a chimney-ish thing to climb on that side, or a face climb just to the right. I went up the first part of this where the routes split, then out to the right for the face climb which I found exceedingly sketchy on the poorly consolidated granite. I worked slowly up to about five from from the summit where I ran out of handholds. The one I was hoping would be bomber ripped off when I pulled on it. Finding it too rich, I backed down, just about ready to give up. I caught my breath and decided to move left through some scraggly pines to see what the south side looked like. I found that it brought me around to the start of the crack on the west side, above the awkward boulder - at least I wouldn't have to do the dicey move around it. This crack running diagonally up the west side has rock above it that goes vertical and pushes one out of the crack. It was incredibly awkward, but it had the saving grace of allowing my right arm to fit in the crack and hold me if I slipped off. It was a minute or so of much nervousness, but it worked at low fifth class and got me to the summit a bit out of breath and over-adrenalized. I stayed only long enough to catch my breath, take a few photos and leave a register, then quickly back down before I could overthink it.

Thankfully, this was the last of the hard work, or at least of anything that would make me nervous. I spent the next hour hiking the easy ridgeline up and over the last two summits. Peak 10,040ft, only 1/3mi from Peak 10,120ft, had a bit of class 3 at the summit, but very tame compared to the last one. Peak 10,186ft was further along the ridge, about 2/3mi, but all class 2. It was 2:15p when I left the last summit. I turned north to follow the continuing ridge for a short while, before starting a descending traverse on the east side of the ridge. I was following Kristine's track, aiming for the Poison Lake Trail, about a mile NNE of the last summit. The cross-country through forest on that side was similarly tame and I found the good trail without any issues. It followed the trail for more than three miles as it traverses high above the Tamarack Creek drainage with open views across the Wilderness looking south and east, then descending to Silver King Creek, about three miles, all told.

I was quite tired by this time, barely able to bend over or move at more than a plodding pace. It took me some time to get my boots and socks off for the creek crossing, taking an extra rest on either bank of the creek. After getting my boots back on and my gear collected, I had a last 1,200-foot ascent over two miles to climb back up to the high junction. I was happy that this gradient is pretty gentle and allowed me to keep at it without needing to stop for additional rest. It would be 5:30p before I finally returned to the trailhead, over 11hrs for the outing and the longest I've done this year. Phew.

I saw Kristine's car was still at the TH, which had me believe she'd decided to follow me along the ridge after visiting Whitecliff. I took a well-needed shower and settled in with a well-earned beer while I download photos from my camera and did other small chores over the next hour. My brain had been pretty addled when I arrived and was slow to clear some of the fatigue and fog away. It was around this time that it occurred to me that I think Kristine's car is a Subaru Forester, not a Honda CRV, and that she had Nevada plates, not California ones. I had no cell service at the TH, but not five minutes after driving off, I got three incoming texts from Kristine wanting me to check in with her. I gave her a call while I drove back down the road, finding that she'd returned around 5p and left about 10min before my arrival. She was back at home now, and invited me to camp on her property for the night. We had plans to hike in Douglas County the next day, but I was too beat to consider it and had to cancel. I ended up driving back to SR108 and over Carson Pass before bedding down for the night around the 5,000-foot level on the west side of the range around 8:30p. I was too tired to bother with dinner and went to bed without, not really hungry and happy with the day's success. I would feel even better after a day of recuperation at home the next day...

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