Aug 6, 2023
Day 3 of the 2023 Sierra Challenge was scheduled to be a very long outing to Piscator Peak in the Mammoth Lakes area. It was well beyond my abilities, so I planned instead to head to Peak 11,797ft above Duck Lake, using the same trailhead. Tom and Iris were feeling likewise, so they joined me, starting from the Duck Lake Pass TH at 6a instead of the 5a start planned for the Challenge. I had camped off Old Mammoth Road on USFS property at the historic Mammoth City site. It was a pretty quiet place to spend the night and I slept decently. I was up early to meet the others at the TH, found at the east end of the Coldwater Campground, east of Lake Mary. We carried crampons and axe, but didn't use them until late in the morning.
The hike up to Duck Lake Pass is about 4mi, passing by a number of picturesque lakes, including Arrowhead, Skelton and Barney Lakes. It was cool and shady in the early morning, but would be warm on the way back in the afternoon. A big snow year left portions of the trail still covered in snow, others muddy, particularly later in the day. The snow was mostly frozen in the morning when we went over it, but boot tracks gave us sufficient traction to leave our crampons in our packs. We spent an hour and 45min in reaching Duck Lake Pass, fully in the sunshine now. An array of three peaks were arranged high above us on the opposite side of Duck Lake, including our main target, Peak 11,797ft in the middle position. We took a short break before continuing down over the east side of the pass on the Pika Lake Trail. We would follow it around the north side of Duck Lake and nearly to Pika Lake before leaving it to start the cross-country portion. We traversed through light forest to the outlet of the small unnamed lake between Duck and Pika Lakes, then began an ascending traverse across talus, aiming for the saddle between our two peaks. We dodged large snowfields, too steep and hard to cross safely in the morning without crampons, finding the footing in the mix of talus and dirt to be pretty good. After ascending about 500ft, we decided to head more directly up to Peak 11,797ft, over a mix of terrain that included loose scree, talus and some decent scrambling on more solid rock. In avoiding a high snowfield, Tom took a line to the right, now in the sun, while Iris and I headed more directly up to the left of the snow, our route still shaded. Tom's was the faster of the two options and eventually reached the ridgeline above ahead of us. We had climbed another 500ft, and still had another 300ft, though over much easier terrain. We reached the summit at the far end of the ridge by 9:40a, about 3.5hrs after starting out.
Views stretch off across much of the northern part of the John Muir Wilderness looking east and south. Banner and Ritter could be clearly seen to the northwest in the heart of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Piscator Peak could be seen almost 2.5mi to the SSE across the Fish Creek drainage. The register we found had been left the previous September by Pinenut from Bishop, CA. Ours was the only other entry. I was of the opinion that we should climb another summit, Peak 11,532ft about 2/3mi to the southwest making the obvious choice. I had been to it back in 2019, but wanted to maximize our Challenge peak credit for the day. Tom wanted to get back to the TH so he could get home to SoCal as promised, with Iris demurring as well. But we weren't long starting off the summit when Iris changed her mind and decided to join me. So we said goodbye to Tom, who was heading back down our ascent route while Iris and I headed more directly to the saddle between the two peaks. The terrain is mostly easy, save for some squat pine forest that we had to weave around and through. After a few minutes of this, we were surprised to see Tom below us, waiting. Seems he decided to join us afterall for the second summit.
We were just about an hour getting between the two summits, all class 2 on more mixed terrain. Jason Lakey had left a register here back in October. There is a fine view to the south of the Silver Divide about six miles to the south, otherwise views are similar to those from the higher Peak 11,797ft. We had several options for getting off the summit and returning to the trail system, but decided the fastest would be to return north, down from the saddle between the peaks to Duck and Pika Lakes. This was much the same route I'd used in 2019. Tom went off ahead of us while Iris and I spent more time atop Peak 11,532ft. A large rockfall could be heard to the east and we managed to get a photo of it on Virginia Peak before it had dissipated. We watched Tom as he descended a steep sand and scree slope adjacent to a long snowfield, then switch to crampons before decending the lower part of the slope across the snow. Iris and I would repeat the same descent about 15min after him. The sand/scree slope was boot-skiable, but there was some added excitement from the rocks Iris couldn't help knocking down the gully with me below. A few whizzed by me, but none found their mark and we made it down to the end of the gully without damage. The snow was soft now, but too steep to go without crampons safely, so we were glad we had brought them with us. At the bottom of the snowfield we took off the crampons and traversed slopes back to Pika Lake.
Iris wanted to join Jim for some fishing there in the afternoon, and it wasn't hard to find him. We also met up with Karen and Ron who had joined Jim for the fishing. Ron had caught a 10-inch trout and left it on a stringer. Iris had conveniently brought a small pan, a stove and some seasoning with her for just this opportunity. After about 20min of visiting with them, I headed off, leaving the fishing in their hands. I returned to the Pika Lake Trail, followed that back up to Duck Lake Pass, then the 4mi return to the TH. The snow was quite slushy now, the trail rather popular. A few folks were struggling getting across the snow sections, but most looked to have no trouble. About a mile from the trailhead, Sean Casserly and Keith Hamrick came jogging down the trail. They were on their way back from Virginia Crag Peak, a Challenge Peak from 2019. Sean was in fine spirits, far better than the sad and dejected demeanor he was sporting upon returning the previous day. They hiked with me the remaining distance down the trail, mostly discussing Montana and other climbing objectives while I quietly followed behind.
It was 2:30p when we finished up, and I wasted no time getting out of my boots and into some more comfortable sneakers. The outing had come in at 12mi and 3,600ft of gain, giving me some confidence that I should be able to complete the outing to Fourth Recess Peak the next day. Some rest tonight would surely help...
This page last updated: Sat Aug 19 09:55:45 2023
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