Tue, May 12, 2020
We returned to the Sacatar Trail Wilderness for a second day, this time for a loop in the Sacatar Canyon area to the north. There are some scattered homes in the canyon making access to the Wilderness at the eastern end somewhat tricky. We attempted to drive Sacatar Trail Rd that skirts the edge of the Wilderness but eventually ran into a locked gate signed for No Trespassing. After reversing course, we took a spur road that took us into the Wilderness and up to a saddle just east of Peak 7,540ft. It wasn't the best place to start (and certainly not legal, I realized later), but we could make it work. Though the distance was less than the previous day, the terrain was much rougher and brushier, too, and would keep us busy for most of the day. No energy left at the end for other bonus peaks.
Our first order of business after parking the jeep was to go up to Peak 7,540ft. I hadn't even planned this one as part of the loop, but now it was part of the larger loop we would make work. We left our packs in the jeep and went up the rocky east slope in just over 15min's time. The distance was less than a quarter mile, but the going was pretty steep. We found open views overlooking Sacatar Canyon to the south (really more like a broad valley than a canyon). The higher Peak 8,820ft, our next target, rose to the northeast. After leaving a register, we descended back down to the jeep, collected our packs and trekking poles, and headed off on the day's main program.
The saddle we parked at was actually the higher of two saddles along the ridge to Peak 8,137ft, our last stop of the day. We traversed to the lower saddle, then descended into the drainage to the northeast which we needed to cross before climbing some 1,800ft up to Peak 8,820ft, an effort that would take us nearly two hours though the distance was less than two miles. There was a mix of downfall, brush, granite slabs and broken rock, and the usual steep slopes. This was definitely the hardier portion of the Sacatar Trail Wilderness. It was almost 10:30a by the time we topped out at the day's highpoint atop Peak 8,820ft where another register was wanting. I had expected that we'd be in for easier going after this, as we made our way south along the Sierra Crest to the next two summits, both lower. Looking southeast, it wasn't obvious where our next summit was located, but it was clear that the terrain would not be easy and insead, more of the same. It would take us another two hours to travel another two miles to Peak 8,100ft. Our route was mostly on the west side of the crest where somewhat easier going was found as opposed to staying on the rockier crest. Kyle Atkins had left a register here in 2008, a few loose pages in a plastic medicine bottle. It had leaked some, leaving the pages damp. I let them dry out during the 15min we stayed at the summit, then tucking his page into one of my own registers which I guessed would stay drier. Kyle had been working on climbing all the summits on the Sierra Crest between Walker Pass and Donner Pass, and was the inspiration for my own list of the Pacific Divide summits.
It was nearly 12:30p and Karl had expected we were to start back towards the jeep. When I had told him we were doing three peaks on the Sierra Crest today, he selectively heard that as "doing three peaks today." His body was already geared to heading back to the barn but I still had two more peaks in mind. He was a good sport about it, as always, and after readjusting his frame of mind, we continued southeast towards Peak 7,860ft. Our 4th peak was just visible behind an intervening point and it was clear the going would be no easier than what we'd done for the last four hours. Luckil, it was only about a mile away and would take us little more than an hour to negotiate. Again we stayed on the west side of the crest, traversing around the intermediate point. We could have made things easier by staying in the drainage we only partially descended before traversing. This would have been over easier terrain and the extra elevation gain in scrambling back up the eastern fork of this drainage would have been minimal. Upon reaching the summit of Peak 7,860ft we were pummeled by a cold wind blowing over the crest, so we ducked onto the leeward side where it was more pleasant. It was the same wind that had been blowing most of the day, but it was more powerful here. To the south we could see the old road, now within the Wilderness, that used to connect Sacatar Canyon to the west with Little Lake Canyon on the east side of the crest. The road itself was built along what was once an Indian trail providing access between the Mojave Desert and the hunting grounds of the Southern Sierra. Once more, we left a register here before starting down.
Karl wasn't keen on the last summit that would require another 1,200ft of gain, but after 30min of a fairly easy descent off Peak 7,860ft into Sacatar Canyon, his spirits revived and he steeled himself for this last ascent to Peak 8,137ft. Our route was pleasant enough, initially heading northwest up a spur drainage of Sacatar Canyon, aiming for a saddle between Peak 8,137ft and our second summit, Peak 8,820ft. From below, this saddle is a bit deceptive, because once one climbs about 600ft, a high meadow area is entered with the true saddle another 1/3mi further west. After gaining the meadow, we skirted its left edge and began an ascending traverse to the southwest. The summit isn't obvious as there are two competing areas, and it helped a good deal to have the correct point marked on the GPSr. We reached the summit by 3:30p, having run out of our own registers but managing to cobble one together with the pill bottle we'd picked up on the earlier summit.
My plan was to follow the Northwest Ridge of Peak 8,137ft back to the saddle where our jeep was, and initially this is what we started to do. There was much sidehilling to go around the various obstacles found on the ridgeline. After about 10min of this, Karl asked if maybe it wouldn't be easier to just drop into the drainage and follow that back, with a short climb back up to the saddle at the end. As I paused to consider the idea, initially thinking it too circuitous, it quickly became clear that it would be much easier, and I was happy to have Karl along to help save us some unneeded effort. We dropped merrily downslope, found the sandy drainage as easy as we'd hoped, and got back to the jeep before 4:30p, probably at least half an hour faster than if we'd doggedly followed the ridge.
We drove back out to Kennedy Meadows Rd to work out a plan for the next day. We were unsure if Sherman Pass was open so that we could drive over that on our way home (it might determine help where we camp tonight and hike the next day). I suggested we stop at Grumpys Resort and ask someone there. The restaurant/bar/campground is the last civilized point along the PCT heading north before entering the High Sierra, a chance for PCTers to revive flagging spirits. There were dozens of tents set up and we wondered if perhaps folks were waiting for the snow to melt more. I put on my COVID-19 facemask and went up to the door, noting the obvious "Social Distancing Practices Will be Maintained Inside" sign. upon opening the door, I was immediately transported back 60 days to the old ways - the place was half-packed, folks lined up at the bar and at tables, not a single facemask other than my own. Had these folks not heard of the pandemic? I got an eerie feeling and decided not to wait in line to ask an employee my question. I bolted. Granted, almost everyone in there was under 30yrs of age and likely at very low risk, but after two months of training I was unwilling to relax my guard so easily. We ended up camping in the National Forest outside Kennedy Meadows near Troy Meadow where we had a fine campfire to keep us occupied for the remainder of the afternoon and evening. We would worry about Sherman Pass tomorrow...
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