Peak 8,970ft P500
Bald Peak P300
Peak 9,800ft P300
Red Peak P500
Peak 10,244ft P300

Mon, Jun 7, 2021

With: Kristine Swigart

Bald Peak
Red Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

After last week's warm outing to Shasta-Trinity NF, I was looking for something cooler and decided to head to the Sonora Pass area for a few days. In reaching out to Kristine, I found she was eager for both days I had planned. Today's was to a group of peaks on the divide between the Clark and Middle Forks of the Stanislaus River, in the 9,000-10,000ft range. The 2018 Donnell Fire had burned over the lower slopes of the divide, giving us a mix of burned and unburned areas to hike through. As it turns out, the weather had turned much cooler this week, and with windy conditions it would have us putting our extra layers on and off throughout the day. It was a pretty full day that had us going for more than ten hours, leaving us quite tired by the end, but great fun, too.

Our starting point was the Seven Pines TH along SR108. There is no sign at the highway indicating the location at the back of a small collection of summer homes in Eureka Valley. A trail originating from here goes up Douglas Creek to the crest at a saddle north of Peak 10,244ft. I met Kristine at 8a after a 3hr+ drive from San Jose. She was parked near the highway and drove with me the short distance to the trailhead because it required a creek crossing which looked worse than it was. We followed the trail up for barely half a mile before leaving it to head to Peak 8,970ft. This one is much further west than the others and kinda out of the way. It wasn't on the original plan and Kristine was suspecting I was pulling a fast one on her. I only added it after ascertaining that Chris Kerth had done it as well with the others back in 2016. We couldn't let him have this on us, could we? We could not. The cross-country through the burned area wasn't too bad, but it got more difficult as we neared a steep gorge we would have to cross over. We elected to cross over higher up and stayed on the east side of the watercourse as we climbed steeply through burned chaparral. Manzanita is a tough plant and doesn't burn completely unless the fire is very intense. We had to work our way through acres of hard, pointy sticks still partially blacked from the fire. This was not a good day for me to choose a white tshirt. After climbing more than 400ft of such terrain, we crossed over the creek on a large fallen log at the 7,600-foot level. Above this, the slope lessens considerably and returns to forest, making for more pleasant hiking. This went on for another hour, eventually getting us high enough to be on the edge of the burn zone where we found large sections that had escaped the blaze due to lack of sufficient fuel. We spent the better part of three hours in reaching the summit which we found crowned with some granite blocks, the highest of which proved to be class 3 with a reachy move to get off the ground on its north side. Aside from the awesome views, the first thing I noticed was a much more difficult granite spire about a quarter mile to the WSW that looked of similar height. We did not have a strong desire to investigate, choosing instead to blindly trust LoJ and PB on this one. We found no register on this or any of the peaks we visited today, so we left the first of five registers before starting back down.

The next five hours would be spent following the divide from one peak to the other, in turn, all of it outside the burn zone. It was almost two miles to our second stop, Bald Peak, and after descending more than 500ft to a saddle, would require a climb of some 1,200ft. What I hadn't appreciated before adding Peak 8,970ft to the agenda was just how much gain there would be on the day - 6,700ft over the course of 14.5mi. From a distance, Bald Peak appears to have a cliff band surrounding its upper reaches, but it has access from both the west and east (and the south, too). The west side has a convenient class 2 break in the band near the crest, steep but not difficult. The east side is essentially a walk-off. There was a cairn with some poles at the summit along with views that were even better than the first summit. Upon descending Bald, we paused at some lingering snowfields along the north side of the ridge to supplement our water supplies. The chill wind and cool temps kept our consumption down, but the elevation gain was increasing it.

The third summit, Peak 9,800ft was only half a mile away and made the shortest leg of the day, taking about 45min from one summit to the other. Still, there was a 500-foot climb from the saddle as I realized for the first time that each peak was progressively higher than the last. It had no cliff band as on Bald, but the summit rises steeply at the end, a whole face of disagreeable talus. When Kristine asked how I planned to approach it, I vaguely waved at it, saying, "Right up the middle, of course!" And so we did. At the summit, we sat on the leeward side to get out of the wind, though my fleece would go on whenever we stopped. Looking east to Red Peak, the next leg would be the hardest, almost two miles and some craggy ups and down along the connecting ridge. We lightly debated which side to favor in avoiding the serrated sections as we were descending Peak 9,800ft. A short ways down I suggested we could avoid it altogether by dropping into the high basin on the north side and heading more directly to Red Peak - more elevation gain/loss, but what looked like easy walking through forest. And that's pretty much what we did, though I kept us sidehilling close to the base of the ridge to avoid extra elevation loss, an effort that was partially successful. We had lingering snowfields to work around or across (Kristine seems to love running across these things) and the sidehilling was extra work too. We were getting tired and would slip occasionally on the loose talus. My trekking poles would go flying as I hit the deck, both of laughing as I looked around to collect them afterwards. After traversing, there was a final 1,000-foot climb to get out of the basin and up to Red Peak's summit at just over 10,000ft. This summit sits in a great position looking over the Clark Fork drainage and into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. As we sat at Red's summit, we made a game of trying to identify many of the peaks arrayed before us. We did a decent job, though there were some bad guesses on both our parts that required dismissive scoffs from the other.

In descending Red Peak to the east, we ran into a small cliff band that looked at first like it would stop us. At the far east end, I looked down and said, "Oh, it'll go." It did, but not as easily as I had first guessed. There were some long reaches that were tough with my old limbs and tougher yet with Kristine's fused ankle, but we got down the 20-foot class 3-4 section without mishap. Once past this, it was clear sailing turning southeast and south for the 1.5mi distance to our last and highest summit, Peak 10,244ft. We followed the divide for most of it, but bypassed Pt. 9,875ft on the west side because it was easy to do so. On the final climb up to the summit from the saddle on the NE side, we got separated, Kristine favoring the west side of the ridgeline while I favored the east side. I misjudged the summit location by a hundred feet or so and Kristine handily beat me to the highpoint while I worked my way along the rocky line connecting me to it. By now it was 4p, eight hours into our outing and we were ready to head back. A more adventurous day would continue along the divide to St. Mary's Pass, picking up two more unnamed 10,000-foot summits, a pair I had done from the other direction a year earlier.

With about five miles remaining and all downhill, I suggested we could descend the NW Ridge into the drainage to pick up the trail near Douglas Creek. This was more fun than returning to the NE saddle we'd just come from, and it worked nicely without any bushwhacking, getting down to the trail in about 40min. Once there, we had another hour and a half of hiking back along the trail, well-defined in most places, but easily lost on occasion. It clearly sees traffic, just not all that much. The lovely meadows and forest gave way to the starker burn scars of the Donnell Fire in the last few miles. Where the trail begins to drop steeply down towards the highway, there were some large trees along the trail that had been cut as part of trail work after the fire - this kept us from having to get ourselves over what could have been some huge downfall sections. It was nearly 6:30p by the time we got back to the Jeep. We opened a few beers as we drove back to Kristine's car on the other side of Douglas Creek. There, Kristine went off for a quick dip in the creek while I showered Jeepside with a warm jug that had been sitting on my dash. Kristine needed to get home to check on her dog that had been bitten by a rattlesnake a few days earlier, while I went off to find a campsite somewhere along the Clarks Fork. We had planned to get together again the next day, but Kristine was doubting she was going to show up. We made arrangements to connect via inReach and headed off in different directions on SR108. For my part, I would have no trouble sleeping tonight...


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