Wed, Aug 6, 2008
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It was raining on and off during the afternoon in Lee Vining and Mike didn't give me much chance of making it to Piute Mtn the next day. "You're going to wake up at midnight to find it raining outside and you'll have to give up," he joked. He didn't know how close he was to being right. It wasn't exactly raining when I started the drive north to Bridgeport and Twin Lakes, but there wasn't a star to be seen and the sky was pitch black. A very bad first omen. The first drops began to hit the windshield when I was halfway to Bridgeport, but stubbornness (and outright denial) on my part convinced me they were but a passing inconvenience. The drizzle stopped shortly thereafter, and there were stars aplenty as I pulled into the parking lot at the Twin Lakes CG. It seemed I was going to have a fine start for this 40-mile dayhike.
After shouldering my pack and locking the car, a small racket nearby caught my attention. A bear and her cub were rummaging in the garbage bins for food. When baby bear caught sight of my headlamp he headed up the nearest tree, mom strolling over to the base of the tree to keep an eye on her cub. I paused to snap a picture of mom, the flash eliciting a menacing growl from her, and I wasted no time in putting space between me and the campground marauders. This was my first trip up the trail to Robinson Creek Trail (though I'd been down it once before), and I wasn't exactly sure where the trailhead was. I wasted some time in locating it, probably waking up a few campers by accident in my search. I went to the end of one road and finding no trail at the end of it, I wandered across a wet meadow towards the north in search of the beaten path. It was a bit frustrating, my unwaterproofed boots starting to soak through in the first half hour of starting out on a long day - not a good sign. By luck or good navigating (I'm not sure which played the bigger part), I managed to find the trailhead further north and struck off west for the long haul ahead.
I was not on the trail long before the first flash of lightning lit up the sky and the ensuing roll of thunder came sweeping across the canyon. Maybe I wasn't going to be lucky after all. It was no one-hit flash as I hoped, and for the next two hours the lightning and thunder played a symphony among the peaks and canyons, beautiful and awesome in many respects, but making me far more nervous of, rather than enamoured with, nature at the time. To pass time I counted the intervals between the flash and accompanying thunder. One of them was less than five seconds which meant less than a mile away, I think. I kept waiting for what I expected was the inevitable downpour to hit, figuring it would take only minutes for the soaking to have me turned around and heading back to the car. It never came. The lightning flashed and the thunder roared, but the rain never fell. To be sure, the rain had fallen earlier in the evening, soaking the shrubs that lined the trail, and I did indeed get my pants and boots fairly saturated, but for the most part I remained dry.
It was still dark when I entered Yosemite National Park just above Peeler Lake and dropped down into Kerrick Meadow. Only as I started the long descent of Kerrick Canyon towards the southwest did the eastern sky begin to grow light and the new day to dawn. The first thing I noticed as sunrise drew near was the complete absence of clouds - the thunderstorms had completely dissipated. Lucky indeed! Hiking through Kerrick Meadow I as struck by an unusual Sierra sight - ground fog. It hung in wispy blankets about 20ft high and covering many parts of the meadow. Hiking through it while staring at the trail below me and without good visual cues to the sides caused some disorientation. I staggered through the fog a bit tipsy. Might have been the lack of sleep or the chilly morning cold, too.
As the day came on the fog disappeared. I enjoyed the easy, relaxing descent down Rancheria Creek. It is a stunningly beautiful canyon, a standout even for Yosemite, in a very remote part of the park. There is a great deal of granite covering much of this area, small domes and great slabs and boulders of the stuff in all directions. I passed by several trail junctions, each indicating my ever-shortening approach to Benson Lake and nearby Piute Mtn. I was still some distance from Seavey Pass when the first rays of sunlight hit upon Piute Mtn, still far in the distance to the south. The peak does not make an impressive appearance from the northern approach, looking more like a short mountain with a long summit ridge. Exactly where the summit was to be found was impossible to ascertain. No matter - I would follow Secor's handy guide to the NE Ridge and find my way there as so many others have done before me.
Shortly before 7a I started up the carefully crafted stone step works leading to Seavey Pass. The pass is an ambiguous piece of ground with no obvious highpoint, the trail meandering through a collection of still alpine lakes that made for great reflection pools in the early hours of the day. There were pictures to be taken in almost all directions, and I found myself lingering longer than normal through this magical setting. As the trail eventually begins a determined downhill drop towards Benson Lake, I stopped where the trail turns sharply south and just before Secor's grassy slope heading up to Piute's NE Ridge.
Heading cross-country, I hopped across a creek, climbed the grassy ramp to the NE Ridge, then followed the ridge to its terminus with Piute's East Face. Rather than follow along the top of the ridge directly, I traversed the SE side of the ridge in places to save elevation gain, eventually landing at a saddle with the East Face. Per the instructions, I dropped off the NW side of the saddle to a high cirque on the north side of the mountain. Some lingering snows here helped refresh my bottles and get them icy cold once again. I crossed the cirque and climbed a talus chute on the other side which led to the North Ridge. Secor describes two possible chutes to take, but there seemed only one obvious choice to me. Once at the North Ridge it was an easy matter to finish the final distance to the summit where I arrived shortly after 9a.
In all it had taken nearly 8hrs to reach the summit, one of the more remote SPS peaks in Yosemite. To the southeast I could eye Volunteer Peak, perhaps the most remote SPS peak in the park. By the same route over Seavey Pass I guessed it would roughly be 9hrs to the summit of Volunteer. Ouch. The views from Piute's summit were not as impressive as from most other Sierra peaks, primarily because the other peaks are so far away. Tower Peak to the northwest and east to the Sawtooths were the most prominent, but even these had a faraway haze hiding their distinct features and lines. There were two summit register books, the oldest dating to 1974. Parts of this register were waterstained and hardly readable. A second register placed by RJ Secor in 2003 was in much better condition, Matthew's dayhike entry from the same year just a few places below RJ's entry. As usual, there were the familiar names throughout the pages, Beth Epstein's signature from almost a year ago the last before my own.
Before the day had started I had envisioned descending by a very different route, possibly off the north side into Kerrick Canyon. Secor also mentions a popular descent route to the southeast, but neither of these options looked too appealing from the summit. I decided to take the safe track this time, returning via the same route I had just come. I guess I wasn't in the mood for surprises. I was back on the trail by 10:30a and would spend most of the next six hours retracing my steps back up Kerrick Canyon and down Robinson Creek. I came across several parties of backpackers in Kerrick Canyon, a bit of a surprise to me considering the remoteness of the place. Some clouds began to form at midday, but nothing of any serious note developed throughout the rest of the afternoon. When I got to Peeler Lake, I jokingly dubbed it Peelyer Lake (as in "Peel yer clothes off for a swim") as I left my sweat-stained clothing strewn about the shore while I went for a brisk dunking in the inviting waters. Further down at Barney Lake, less than five miles from the trailhead, the outdoors began to take on a less wilderness feel. Scores of folks were fishing and sunbathing at the lake, dogs roaming about, grown men wearing camoflage for God knows what reason. I passed by a fairly large woman relieving herself some 20 yards from the trail, not the prettiest of sights. She had evidently gotten away from the lakeshore far enough to avoid the notice of folks recreating there, but likely had no idea exactly where the trail was. Lucky me.
The whole outing turned out to be just over 15hrs, a long day but not of epic proportions. I'll have the opportunity to revisit the area and grind out a longer outing next year when I target Volunteer Peak. That might make this one look like a picnic.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Piute Mountain
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