Wed, Aug 1, 2007
Pettit Peak, Volunteer Peak and Piute Mtn together make up the three hardest SPS peaks to reach in all of Yosemite, outdoing the likes of even Mt. Lyell, Electra Peak, and Forester Peak. Matthew and I had done an "exploratory" hike from Tuolumne Meadows down the Tuolumne River Gorge and up Return Creek a few years earlier to test the feasibility of reaching Pettit from this direction. We only got as far as Hooper Peak on that trip, but it seemed possible that a more concerted effort could get us to Pettit and perhaps Volunteer as well. Having already dayhiked the two peaks starting from Virginia Lakes, Matthew had far less interest in the project than myself. I decided to give it another shot as a "warmup" before the Sierra Challenge, inviting anyone who might be interested to join me. Ryan Spaulding, an energetic if sometimes naive 22yr-old was the only one to take the bait, and at 2a on a Wednesday morning, we were heading out from Tuolumne Meadows by headlamp.
It was an unusually warm summer night, well above freezing and we wandered along in only tshirts under close to a full moon. I was pretty sure that Ryan had only a faint idea of what the day had in store for him, but the young tend to be more impetuous than us older folks, so I had done little to dissuade him. Experience can often be the best teacher. We travelled down to Glen Aulin (where I pointed out several bridges that need to be crossed on the return, explaining that Matthew had gotten lost around here for several hours in the dark), then continued down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to Return Creek for a total of 10mi. It was just after 5:30a, the darkness just beginning to fade as we stopped on the bridge over Return Creek for our first break of the day. As I sat munching a PopTart, Ryan suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my God!"
I looked up to see him looking across the bridge behind me. Turning, I saw the same sight that ha startled him - a pair of beady eyes, reflecting brightly from our headlamps, stood staring at us on the other side of the bridge. The eyes belonged to a teenaged bear that seemed only moderately fearful and far more interested in what we were eating than was safe for all of us concerned. As I stood up the bear retreated off the far side of the bridge, then began a slow, deliberate manuever to cross the creek in a small arc and approach us again from the near side of the creek just under the bridge. The bear wanted us to believe he was invisible, unseen in his stealthy manuever as he tried to position himself again for a raid of our provisions. All the while I was watching him, trying to get my camera out for a picture, still holding the PopTart which had captivated his attention since our arrival. The flash of the camera sent the bear packing a second time, but once again he snuck back through the bushes and neared the bridge. A second round of picture-taking caused the bear to give up and move away for good (there was a backpacker camping near the trail that might make for easier pickings, the bear decided), and in the end all we got was a mild scare and some lousy photos of brown bear fur.
From this point the easy part of the hike ended (a 3,000ft descent, btw), and we started up Return Creek. It is virtually unknown it would seem, but rates as one of the finest creek climbs in the Sierra, imho. Thanks to a low snow year, the water level was sufficiently low enough to allow us to progress up the canyon staying in or near the boulders comprising the streambed. There was much rock-hopping and clambering over boulders, some worn smooth by water currents, others with slippery portions of lichen or moss on them. Though naturally talented and acrobatic to a fair degree, I think this was the first time Ryan had done any significant cross-country travel along a steep creek channel, and it was almost inevitable that he would take a few spills in the creek. He ended up soaking both boots, but the remainder of him stayed pretty dry. He took his forays into the creek in good style with a laugh (I couldn't help but laugh, but was unable to get a picture as he quickly extracted himself from the water).
About halfway through the trip up Return Creek, I spotted another bear, this one blacker and larger, making his way up the creek in much the same fashion as ourselves, save for the occasional frenetic jumps we were making. I tried to sneak up on the bear, seemingly unaware of our presence, in order to get a better photo, but was unsuccessful. Almost as quickly as it had appeared, the bear took a sharp right and disappeared into the brush on the hillside. It took nearly 2hrs to travel about a mile and a half upstream, and before we had completed this portion Ryan had begun to have doubts and suggest he would turn around rather than slow me down. I assured him that I was moving plenty fast enough, and that he should not use that as an excuse to turn back. After a good deal of hesitation and indecision, he decided to press on.
We left the creek and climbed a boulder & brush slope on the west side that Matthew and I had first descended from Hooper Peak. I had studied this slope a good deal at the time, deciding it offered the best approach route to Pettit Peak to the north. Ryan was happy to be out of the creek, even if was onto a loose, crappy boulder field - anything to break up the monotony that had sunk in with the boulder-hopping in the creek. A thousand feet of climbing led to a traverse of about 150yds through dense brush to an exit gully (mostly brush-free, thank goodness) that required almost another thousand feet of climbing. Ryan made it through the brushy traverse, only to start flagging more seriously at the base of the exit gully. We were now about 7hrs into the hike, our peak nowhere in sight, myself anxious to keep moving to avoid an epic outing, and Ryan just about out of energy. I started up the gully while Ryan rested a bit more, but I never saw him again after that. I scrambled to the top of the gully where it dumped out onto the forested ridge northwest of Hooper Peak and waited about 20 minutes for Ryan to join me. He never did. I called out several times, but got no response. He had given up and decided to call it a day. I built a cairn in an obvious location and left a note for him in case he might continue upward. In the note I suggested he should give up on Pettit, but climb Hooper instead if he still had the energy, only a short distance to the southwest.
From the ridgeline, I hiked down to the headwaters of Register Creek to the north, then up the slopes in the direction of Pettit Peak, about 3mi to the northwest. I had forgotten my maps back in the car, so I was doing it from memory, really wishing I knew if I was supposed to be heading northwest or more north. It was impossible to positively identify Pettit, Volunteer, or Register Peaks, so I aimed for what looked like the highest in the area. It was a very pretty area with lakes, abundant flowers, and high alpine meadows, along with a great deal of granite slabs and moderate peaks on many sides. I passed through a small saddle to the northeast of what I thought might be Pettit Peak, and continued north, traversing on the west side of a high ridgeline for what I hoped would be Volunteer Peak ahead of me. Oh, how a simple map would have taken the guessing out of those last few hours. In zeroing in on the highpoint of the area, I scrambled over a few false summits as I followed along the class 3 ridgeline heading north. After much effort (4,500ft from the bottom of Return Creek) and 9.5hrs, I finally got to a summit with a register. I was hoping it was Volunteer (then Pettit would be on my way back), but alas, it turned out to be Pettit Peak. In surveying the terrain still further north, I had to admit I hadn't the energy for the 2-3hr roundtrip it would take to reach Volunteer - and I wasn't even sure which of several lower bumps was the proper peak. I cursed the name of Matthew aloud in my dispair - how the heck did he manage to dayhike the pair of these? Not by starting out from Tuolumme Meadows, to be sure. His name, along with Michael Graupe's and a few others dotted the last few pages of the register which back as far as 1972. Though not climbed often, the peak had seen a surprising bit of activity in the last few years.
The return went great until I got back down in Tuolumne Canyon and had to hike back out to the car. It was horribly draining and I could eat nothing to raise my energy level - I had neglected to eat much at all during the day, and now my stomach was in no mood for food. I got back to Glen Aulin ok, but above that there is a particularly steep portion of the trail and I started feeling horrible. I could hardly get a full breath and my stomach was largely unhappy with the state of things. For the second time in a month I had to pull over and heave. Water and gastric juices - oh boy! More heaving. My stomach was aching when I stopped. Served it right, I figured. It felt like I had strained the muscles and they might not be able to sustain another round of such activity. I only felt better for about 15min, but I still had another hour and a half back to the trailhead. It was pretty darn miserable. There was a wonderful sunset in Tuolumne Meadows, spent thunderstorms floating above, alpenglow on Lembert Dome, Mts Dana and Gibbs, and the Cathedral Range, beautiful reflections in the river, and I didn't take a single picture. The effort of getting the camera out of the zipper was too much work. I would stop to rest for a minute but it only seemed to make my stomach feel worse. My legs and the associated muscles used for their locomotion were starting to cramp if they did anything but walk - just removing my shoes to get the sand out was a huge effort as I would cramp when I reached down towards my feet. When I reached Soda Springs, less than a mile from the trailhead, I came across other folks who were out to take in the evening sights around sunset. Bad as I felt, I would have been terribly embarrassed to start vomiting again in front of young couples and families enjoying their strolls. It took everything I could muster to stumble back to the car without making a public scene. For several minutes I just stood there with my arms and head leaning on the car roof, controlling my breathing, telling myself it was finally over.
It was 8p before I got back to the trailhead, and though it wasn't the longest outing at 18hrs, it was certainly the worst for how I felt. I thought I might feel better if I got something to eat at the Whoa Nellie, so I headed off over Tioga Pass. I had to pull over while driving down Tioga Canyon because I thought I was going to pass out and drive through the railing. Even a few minutes rest helped a good deal, but I no longer thought dinner was going to do anything to revive me. I eventually made it to Bridgeport by 10p where I took a room and crashed without dinner. All I really needed was sleep and it didn't take long after my shower to pass out on the bed.
Now I figured Ryan had had a much better time of it since I didn't see him on the way out. He didn't park at the same location as myself, but if he had I would have been puzzled to see his truck still there. He didn't get out until sometime around noon, the next day(!). Seems he napped a while along Return Creek, allowing me to pass him somewhere along the creek, then got lost somewhere in the vicinity of Glen Aulin - in the exact same location I had warned him about that morning. Realizing he was headed in the wrong direction, he bivied, sleeping little thanks to large black ants that crept into his clothing at regular intervals while he lay on the ground. In the morning he started again. He didn't have a map either, but he had a compass and realized the trail he was on was heading NE instead of SE. He spent 3-4 hours heading south cross-country before stumbling upon the trail about 4 miles from the Tuolumne Visitor center. He stumbled into Bridgeport that afternoon, catching Michael Graupe (who had driven into town for the Challenge) by surprise. My story didn't sound half as good after listening to him recount his adventure. He was so worn from the outing that he had to sit out the first day of the Challenge. Experience is a great teacher.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Pettit Peak
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