Mon, Jul 1, 2013
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I started the hike at 6a, crossing Eagle Creek on some sketchy rocks to avoid having to take my boots off. Martins Cow Camp is located on the opposite side of the creek though there were no cows evident in the vicinity. As I hiked up the road (a high clearance vehicle can drive another four miles to its end) through Long Valley, I passed by several OHV camps along the way and several trucks came rumbling past me to other destinations in the picturesque valley. Along the way I had a good view of Three Chimneys high on the ridgeline to the south, and of the ridge in general. There are extensive cliff faces on the side facing Long Valley making the choice of where to climb out of the valley non-trivial. I hiked the road to its end, then picked up a trail that continued beyond it. The trail crossed Long Valley Creek (little more than a trickle here), then started to double back to the west and head back down the valley. Judging from the footprints, it sees more horse traffic than foot traffic. As it did not go where I wanted it to go (further up the valley), I started looking for a way up to the ridge, finding one that was straightforward though not as direct as I had hoped.
Though most of the area is volcanic in nature, there are granite outcrops at various locations that appear out of place. My route went up through one of these outcrops on the north side of the ridge, a pleasant mix of granite slabs, sand and boulders that are more inviting than the more standard volcanic choss. My ascent route landed me on the ridge more than a mile west of Peak 9,896ft, close to The Three Chimneys. I'd have to walk the ridge east to the highpoint and then back again over the same ground. There was at least one better option that I saw as I walked the ridge that would have allowed me to climb to a point just west of the summit, but this route isn't evident from where the road ended in the valley. At least the ridgeline wasn't too much of a chore. A small pond was found a few minutes east along the ridge in a grassy low spot. Two dozen small birds resembling terns were flying in a loop across the pond, skimming the surface either for bugs or water, I couldn't tell which. They paused only when I got too close to the water's edge, but quickly resumed their flight pattern when I left. Parts of the ridge are easy walking while others have tortured, broken volcanic rock features. It was easier to sidehill on the southwest side of the ridge over the chossy slopes than try to tackle the the tougher portions of the ridge head-on.
It was almost 9a by the time I reached the highpoint. The view east and south looks into the Emigrant Wilderness. Relief Reservoir was just out of view a few miles to the northeast in the depression formed by Relief Valley. I would have had to walk another third of a mile towards East Flange Rock to get a better view, but I declined the extra effort. Much of the view towards the east was washed out by the early morning sunlight. To the north was a fine view of Long Valley, up which I'd traveled. To the west stretched out the long ridgeline I would traverse to Cooper peak, near its end, a good number of miles away. There was no benchmark, register or cairn found at the summit, so after a few photos of the view, I was on my way.
I retraced the route back along the ridgeline to The Three Chimneys. This looked, and would prove to be the hardest summit of the day. The two skinny chimneys appeared to be vertical on all sides and I would not even attempt them. The nearer, fatter, and higher one also happened to be the only one I might have a chance on. I found a spiraling gully that led clockwise from the west side almost around to the east side that made the initial part an easy class 2 affair. Then things got hard. There is a hole in the rock at this transition at the top of the gully. To the right, the main mass of the bloated chimney looked class 5, exposed, and nothing I should be soloing on. To the left, it appeared that class 3 climbing might allow me to climb over the small arch and onto the summit and it was in that direction that I moved. Unfortunately, I got less than 20ft higher before a gap in the route had me pausing, looking hard, and then stopping. The nature of this volcanic rock is that even though it might actually be very solid, sometimes a key rock in the aggregate pops out and makes me quite wary. The exposure would have made a fall incapacitating, if not deadly. I backed down, with less than 30 vertical feet to go. Maybe with a rope another time or maybe never, but not today.
Past The Three Chimneys, there was an even larger rocky formation that also looked exceedingly difficult from every angle I saw it. As it had no name and but little prominence, I didn't give it a whole lot of consideration and was happy to sidehill my way around it on the southern aspect. Beyond this, the ridgeline takes a dip down to Eagle Pass with Castle Rock, the next objective, rising above the west side of the pass. It was 11a by the time I reached the pass. A USFS trail runs over the pass, coming up from Eagle Meadow where I had started in the morning, and going south down to Cooper Meadow and forking to other destinations inside Emigrant Wilderness. The ridgeline I was hiking was actually along the wilderness boundary as indicated by several signs. An older sign described it as the Emigrant Basin Primitive Area, the name given to the area in 1931 before it became the Emigrant Wilderness in 1975.
Not far up the west side of the ridge from the pass I came across an old campsite. A small aluminum pot was still nestled in a makeshift campfire, now filled with pine needles and other forest duff. It took only about 15 minutes to hike from the pass up to the base of Castle Rock. This ancient volcanic plug also appeared very difficult. I first tried to see if there was any reasonable way up from the east where a small saddle can be seen between the two primary summits. With near-vertical walls and more of that brittle-looking aggregate, I found nothing that looked safe. I scanned the north side as I walked past it, figuring I'd just continue on to Cooper Peak further west. But a few features caught my attention and I came back for a closer look. It seemed that a broken series of features would allow me to the summit if I could get by the initial 15 feet or so. After some careful consideration, I decided to give it a try. A 4th class traversing move with poor footholds had me going very slowly, my hands crimping a couple of rounded rocks sticking out of the aggregate, hoping they would hold. They did. In fact everything on Castle Rock held, though I was still hesitant to trust any of it. I was maybe a third of the way up when I ran into a dead end. About to give up a second time, I found another way around the problem as I was retreating and this proved the key. The rest was relatively easy. I was happy to find the northern summit was the higher of the two though it had appeared differently from below. This negated the need to make the awkward descent into the saddle between the two, though it probably wasn't more than class 3. After failing on Three Chimneys, this one felt good. The formation isn't all that high, so the views aren't that much better than one can obtain from the ridge. The south side of Castle Rock drops more than twice the distance as the north side, making it a significantly more difficult climb. I was fairly confident that there were no other easier routes to the summit. Though there was no register and no cairn, portions of the route looked to have been tread upon at some time in the past, judging by the somewhat sandy nature in sections. I was careful to retrace my route as exactly as I could, using the same foot and handholds that had proved solid on ascent. The last class 4 traverse moves at the bottom had me nervous, but again the holds all held and I got down without incident.
Back on the ridge I continued west along the Wilderness boundary. Some old barbed-wire fencing lay on the ground, unused for decades probably. It took about 35 minutes to complete the ridge traverse to Cooper Peak which lies at its western end. I expected to find the benchmark as depicted on the 7.5' topo map, but found only a nearby reference mark that points in the direction of where the benchmark ought to be. Cooper's summit is much like Peak 9,896ft's, rounded and an easy walk up in comparison to the rugged features found between the two. I recharged my Gatorade bottles with some of the snow found lingering on the north side of the crest before dropping down off the ridge to the north. I was less than four miles from the start to complete my 17-mile loop, designed to allow me to tag one last peak on the way back, Eagle Peak, which was along the direct line. From the 9,600-foot summit of Cooper, I had to drop a total of about 900ft to a saddle southwest of Eagle Peak, then climb more than 600ft back up to this last summit. Like Castle Rock, it had a rocky volcanic plug at the very top, but this one turned out to be no more than class 2 from the north side. As a standalone peak, it offered the best views of the day, looking down into the various valleys and valleys surrounding it and across the horizon to the higher peaks - north as far as Round Top and south to the Yosemite border.
Though there was no register, this one had the obvious sign of previous visitors - a trail leading to its summit. Though not depicted on any maps, the good use trail zigzags up from the north along a shady, forested ridge. I followed this trail (the last visitor came up on a motorcycle) down for about a third of a mile until I reached a clearing where an OHV road ends. This road comes up from the west as part of a network of OHV routes off the well-graded Herring Creek Rd, a FS looping route that comes up from near the town of Strawberry along SR108. This would be an alternate, shorter route to reach Cooper and Eagle peaks. My car lay to the northeast, so instead of following the OHV road I struck off cross-country once again, diagonaling down the slope in a beeline for the car. I used the GPS to aid me in the direct line, but it wouldn't have been a big deal to be off by any distance as I would either have hit the road I had driven in on if to the left, or the Eagle Pass trail if I landed to the right, both nicely leading back to Eagle Meadow.
It was almost 3p by the time I got back to the van parked at the TH. Normally I would drive off to find some other peak to go after with more than five hours of daylight remaining, but I was pretty tired by now. The major discourager was the temperature, hovering around 87F even at 7,500ft. It was simply too hot to enjoy the afternoon with more hiking. As I drove back out to SR108, I was dismayed to watch the temperature climb by a few more degrees. How was I going to even sleep at night if it was this warm? This was a problem that had me half-considering just driving home and calling it a day. Thunderstorms had built up over the Sierra crest well to the east and I decided I could probably drive up that way to find cooler temps. Twenty degrees cooler, in fact, though I had to drive more than twenty miles to reach Sonora Pass. A short distance past Kennedy Meadows it started to rain and the temperature had fallen to 73F. I paused off the side of the road to take a shower - the combination of hot water that had been sitting on my dash during the day mixed with the cold rain drops that fell from the sky was not an entirely satisfying experience. Thunder roared and lightning flashed in the surrounding peaks as I hurried through my roadside bathing routine. Like my shower, the lightning was only a momentary thing, ending less than five minutes after it started. The rain soon stopped as well, but thankfully the clouds hung around. Afterwards I drove up to the pass to spend the night at the TH. It was warmer than I might have liked, but at least it was under 70F and manageable. I would try to get an early start the next day to beat the inevitable heat that was sure to return...
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