Thu, Jan 16, 2014
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I was in the Kennedy Meadows area of the Southern Sierra (not be confused with the Kennedy Meadows near Sonora Pass) for some rare January peakbagging while very little snow lay on the ground in this unusually dry season. The four separate hikes were of varying length though none very long, anywhere from 2-8 miles each, roundtrip. None of these named summits land on any peak list, but with varying amounts of prominence, all made for good destinations, providing fine views of the surrounding area, each with an old register going back decades.
At a turn in the road I left it to scramble up to a ridgeline which I followed up for almost 600ft, continuing in a mostly westerly direction. At the top of this ridge I turned left to head south more or less directly up towards the summit of Pine another 700ft higher. The moon was setting not long before sunrise came at 7a while I was still making my way up the north slope of Pine. This area and much of the Domelands Wilderness burned in the 2000 Manter Fire and there is still a long way to go for recovery. Most of the snags have fallen down, but brush currently dominates the landscape. The new pines are sprouting up but are many, many years from maturity. I had to dodge and weave through the healthy brush while avoiding snow patches as much as reasonable. Partially wet shoes wound be the result by the end of the day, but at least my socks wouldn't get soaked - just damp. It took just over an hour to reach the summit, by which time the sun was making the cold retreat and proving to be the making for a fine day.
To the north one can be see the forested areas north of the road that were spared in the fire, part of the South Sierra Wilderness with Olancha Peak in the background. To the south is seen Rockhouse Basin and much of the Domelands Wilderness area. From a distance it does not look as bleak as the north side of Pine Mtn close up. Many of the trees scattered throughout the region were spared in the large fire complex and overall it is doing well on the road to recovery. The oldest register scrap went back to 1976, left by a Gordon MacLeod party. Smatko had visited in 1988 leaving his signature small register with thin strips of paper and a tiny pencil. Rather than the usual film cannister, this was a small plastic pill container for prenatal vitamins which only makes sense when you consider Dr. Smatko was a gynecologist. A hunter from Ridgecrest named Lyle Fisher left the current register in 1994 with only five pages of new names since then. With the day starting to warm some, I returned via the same route, getting back to the van by 8:30a.
I followed the trail for almost three miles to a saddle NW of Ball Mtn, just before the trail begins to descend to Wildrose Meadow (and thus the alternate name of the TH). I found the trail interesting because it was not like the usual Sierra footpath. This one did not have the rockwall engineering of a CCC crew nor switchbacks to make things easier for pack animals and backpackers. It followed the natural streambeds for the most part, often in the dry streambeds and felt more like what one would expect from an Indian trail, created over centuries of use. The course has been altered over the years, often to get the trail out of the sandy drainages and onto a new cut to the side, but most of it remains fairly primitive. According to Jenkin's guidebook from the early 1980s, this was once the Wildrose Cyclepath (meaning motorcycles, not bicycles). But the creation of the South Sierra Wilderness in 1984 effectively put an end to motorized travel along the route. The only water source I noted, besides the patchy snow, was a spring just before I reached the saddle. It has a fence around it to keep cattle from poluting the source and some sort of box around the outlet (for unknown purpose), but it was just a trickle that came out from under the enclosure.
At the saddle where some old cattle fencing is found, I turned right and started up the steep slopes leading to Ball Mtn. Along with nearly 2,000ft of climbing in less than a mile, the forested slopes held far more snow than I had seen in the last few weeks. Most of it was less than four inches in depth and easy enough to cross, but some unconsolidated places up to eight inches in depth lay in wait to catch me unaware. As the hardest of the four hikes I would do today, it took just over two hours to reach the rocky summit. There was some scrambling to be had at the very top, but not enough to justify a visit. The views on the other hand were quite fine, especially to the south where Kennedy Meadows, Rockhouse Basin and most of the Domelands stretched out in that direction under the warm sunshine. To the west one cound see over the divide around Sherman Pass to the Greenhorn Mtns and Mineral King area. A small plume of smoke rose from somewhere in or around Mountain Home State Forest. It would still be burning when I returned a week later. To the north were some of the peaks of the High Sierra from Olancha to Langley and the Whitney region. A register held two business cards that pre-dated a MacLeod register left in 1976. Less than 12 pages had been used in the ensuing 38 years. The past year had seen three visitors, more than any year since the register had been placed, but I don't think that's a sign of increasing traffic. The return via the same route went a bit quicker thanks to the downhill direction and some jogging, getting me back to the car before 1p.
This was probably the best hike of the four in terms of scrambling interest. The beginning was through lower-angled, forested slopes where I found an abandoned campershell on its side and some obsidian chips suggesting Indians had been this way even before the makeshift methlab folks. But very soon after the slope increases and stays fairly steep the remainder of the way, climbing more than 1,000ft in just over a half mile. I stuck mostly to the North Ridge of the east summit, bypassing most obstacles to the west and enjoying the views along the way. The route-finding involved weaving under trees and short rock scrambles, a fun combination. It took just about 3/4 hour to reach the summit at just under 8,000ft. In contrast to Pine Mtn earlier in the day, there was almost zero snow found on the route though only 300ft lower.
From the summit one can see eastward down Ninemile Canyon to the Mojave Desert, south to the Chimney Creek drainage and the Scodie Mtns beyond. Views west are mostly blocked by a slightly higher ridgeline with Bear Mtn and unnamed peak 8,337ft. Similarly, to the north views to Kennedy Meadow are blocked by intervening mountains, but Olancha Peak is clearly visible towering above these well to the north. A tiny Smatko register placed in 1986 served until a decent one was installed a year later by a BLM party headed by John Newman. Newman was stationed at the Kennedy Meadows BLM fire station and made regular pilgrimages to this summit over the years, often with his dog. 25 pages of the register were filled over the next 25 years, more than I would have expected for an obscure peak. Most recently it was visited by highpointers Bob Packard and Dan Baxter who visited because it is a Wilderness highpoint. I'm not often out collecting these on purpose myself, more or less getting them as freebies along the way.
The return went considerably faster, taking little more than half an hour. The gate was once again closed upon my return and my hope is that the property owner had just a tad of his faith in strangers rekindled. At least my car wasn't vandalized.
Sean O'Rourke reports in his blog that there is an old road on the north that goes a considerable distance up the mountain. This may have been the road I crossed, but I didn't follow it in either direction. The topo map shows a 4WD road further west than my route going up to about 7,100ft. The satellite view shows more old roads than those depicted on the USGS topo map.
After a quick shower (the sun had set and it was growing cold quickly - no time to wait for a better location), I drove back out to the Kennedy Meadows / Ninemile Canyon Rd and drove it to the crest before it begins to drop into Ninemile Canyon. I found a primitive campground off a short dirt road away from the pavement at which to spend the night. This would make a good starting point for the first peak the next day but in the meantime I enjoyed the usual dinner/movie combination in the back of the van before retiring for the night. At 6,300ft in mid-January it would get quite cold even if there was no snow on the ground. Luckily I was prepared with a sleeping bag and a large down comforter. There would be no freezing my butt off huddled in a bivy sack on this trip...
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