Wed, Sep 9, 1998
When we got out of bed around 7a, the temperature hadn't been below freezing as it had the previous two nights. The cloud cover had helped to moderated the temperature somewhat, but it was also more threatening. Instead of partly clear skies, we had a complete cloud cover and all indications seemed to be that we could expect it to get worse. This was our third day at Treasure Lakes in Little Lakes Valley, and after 5 years of having rather nice weather on our yearly camping trip, Terry and I were getting our share of marginal weather. The previous day the weather had held out most of the day, allowing me to climb Mt. Abbot, but today I was less willing to attempt a big climb (Mt. Mills, for example) for fear of being turned back (or worse, imperilled) by nasty weather. Terry was still not feeling well with an upset stomach, so he was interested in doing some easier cross-country hiking.
The plan that evolved over breakfast was to do an eight mile loop, about two-thirds of which would be cross-country. Directly south of Treasure Lakes was Peppermint Pass which leads into a small, unnamed creek drainage that contained Spire, Split, and Bear Lakes. We had no description of a route through here, but from the topo it all seemed likely to be nothing harder than class 2. From the top Peppermint Pass at 12,360 ft, we would descend to about 9,800 ft where we would run into the Morgan Pass Trail, which we could follow back into Little Lakes Valley. The whole route, although only about 8 miles in length, annoyingly goes through the corner of four 7.5min quads: Mt. Abbot, Mt. Hilgard, Mt. Tom, and Mt. Morgan; a bit of a pain for map management on the trail.
On the way up to Peppermint Pass I planned to climb Pyramid Peak, as it was hard for me to spend a day in the wilderness without climbing something noteworthy. "Pyramid Peak" is a well used name in the Sierra, and probably other parts of the world as well. There is a 10,000 ft Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness, and a 12,780 ft version at the head of Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon NP. The one in Little Lakes Valley is the highest, at 12,840 ft, but appears less significant being so closely surrounded by a number of 13,000 ft+ peaks. Bear Creek Spire, for example, is only a mile away to the southwest, but stands nearly 900 ft taller.
We left camp around 8a with our dayhiking supplies and some raingear (no ice axe or crampons today). Together we hiked up to the base of Pyramid Peak at Dade Lake, where we split up for an hour or so. Terry didn't feel well enough for the diversionary climb, and wasn't burdened as I was with the need to do so. In this respect I think Terry has a closer connection with nature than I, as he finds it highly enjoyable to just "be" in the outdoors, whereas I find it an exercise in well, exercise. If I'm not moving, I'm somehow burning daylight, and if I'm not scrambling in an upward direction, I'm missing out on opportunities (Peak Bagger Syndrome - incurable, I'm told). So Terry headed off towards the pass across the glacier on the north side of Bear Creek Spire while I headed up Pyramid Peak.
I was climbing up the northwest face which was a very pleasant combination of class 2-3 climbing. Rock ledges, turning to boulders, it became a bit more unstable as I neared the summit. The boulders in the upper half were large enough to be dangerous if they slipped or fell, and about every tenth step or so caused some motion that gave me pause (or rather encouraged me quickly off that particular boulder). It took about 40 minutes to climb the mile from Dade Lake to the summit. At the top I found a register that was really just a plastic bottle with much loose paper in it. The earliest entry dated to 1967, and it was quite evident that Pyramid Peak gets much less traffic than the surrounding, higher peaks. Most of the climbers had done a long dayhike from the parking lot back at Mosquito Flat which appeared would make for a very enjoyable day at that. The wind had picked up some, and it was getting colder instead of warmer as the morning wore on, so I didn't dally at all at the summit. Besides, Terry would likely be waiting for me at the pass.
I began to descend the southwest ridge directly towards the pass. I was shortly forced off the ridge to the northwest face to get around some huge blocks on the ridge. The southeast face would have been warmer as it was protected from the wind, but it was rather steep and cliff-like in that direction. I hugged the line between the face and the ridge, trying to get to the pass in as direct a line as I could. The rocks here were smaller than the large boulders encountered earlier, but they were much looser. The combination of rock and scree was very unstable, and much sliding movement occurred with each step downward. Halfway down I could see Terry waiting at the pass. I had earlier thought I might be able to get to the pass around the same time (I usually hike much faster than Terry), but I had not expected as much trouble as I got climbing the loose face. It had started to rain slightly so I put on my jacket and gloves. I was concerned that Terry might be getting cold waiting for me that 20 minutes or so.
When we finally met up again, he was cold but not uncomfortably so (Terry has a much higher tolerance for cold than I). Sheltered by a large rock overhang, I paused for a snack and some water before we decided the weather wasn't bad enough to abort our hike. We figured this was the highest point of the day we would need to climb, and the rest of the cross-country was all downhill. Terry had brought a rainjacket with him, while I had opted for a light jacket and a small umbrella. I was interested to find which combination would keep me dryer and warmer, and it appeared we were going to find out. As we started down, it began to snow lightly, and the wind was coming in greater gusts. At first we had little trouble as the snow melted quickly and the rocks maintained good traction. As long as it was snowing and not raining, we would stay dry. But before we could get down to Spire Lake, the snow had turned to intermittent rain, the clouds had completely enveloped the peaks (and ourselves), and the wind was becoming a problem. The umbrella I had was a cheap $7 lightweight one that could not take the impact of a wind gust blowing up from the underside. I had to carefully position the umbrella to face into the wind so as to take the gusts on its top. The problem was that the wind was changing directions quite often as the thunderstorm was developing. In addition the umbrella could only cover the top half of me when the rain would blow sideways, so it was only a short time before my pants were soaked to the skin (fortunately I had Gortex gaiters covering my feet which kept them relatively dry while my boots got soaked).
Around 10:30a, just before we got to Spire Lake, It started to thunder and lightening, and it rained harder for short bursts. During short breaks in the clouds, we could see the snow on the northeast face of Bear Creek Spire starting to stick and provide a light dusting. Despite my three pairs of gloves, my fingers were cold and clammy, but at least they weren't numb. I had trouble keeping warm as I waited at various places for Terry to catch up. I wanted to keep moving to stay warm, but Terry had concerns about the slippery rocks that were becoming more difficult to get traction on. Terry was wet under his jacket, but more from his own sweat than the rain getting in from outside. Terry's metabolism tends to keep his core temperature high, and produce volumes of persperation as he exercises. So despite his being wetter than me, he's always warmer and more comfortable than me (the tables turn on warm days). The storm seemed to be worst up at the Pacific Crest (good day not to be up there, it turns out), and tailed off the further east one looked. In fact, when we could Mt. Tom and Basin Mountain through the clouds periodically, it was downright sunny and pleasant looking.
Fortunately, our route was taking us east, and the further we went, and the lower we went, the better the weather got. Once past Spire Lake we were below the cloud layer completely, and our route finding was much easier (it wasn't hard before, you just had to follow the creek downhill, but there was greater chance of the two of us getting separated because of poor visibility). We continued down to Split Lake where I was able to put the umbrella away. It was a good thing too, as one of the fingers had broken, and I was fearing the whole thing would soon be a tattered mess. The wind had died down considerably by now, and the rain was only intermittent. Below Split Lake, the route drops off at a steeper rate where we had a fun time picking our way down some rock ledges to a hanging valley above Bear Lake. Here the alpine setting gives way to some scraggly pines which quickly become dense brush down by the creek. At the end of the hanging valley, the drop-off appeared precipitious and it was unclear what the best route would be or whether we could follow the creek down at all until we got closer to the end of the valley.
I wanted to stay higher on the left (north) side of the creek to avoid both the brush and swampy creek area in addition to exploring escape routes if the creek became an impassible route. Terry, on the other hand, tired of rock climbing and happily bounded off through the brush and creek in the direct line of descent. So we split up briefly, although insight of each other, Terry down by the creek, myself higher on the north wall. As it turned out, there was no waterfall, but a steep cascade, and it was just possible to follow the creek on its southern edge. My route also turned out to be feasible, as there was a steep descent on the other side of the ridge, but no cliffs as we feared. Half an hour after we split up we joined up again and descended down first rock and then forest as we approached Bear Lake.
Bear Lake is only a half mile off the Morgan Pass Trail, and it was here that we found the first signs of people we had seen all day. Although there was no camping there at the time, there were a couple of very obvious campsites that appeared to be regularly used. One in particular had an elaborate fire ring set up for what were likely huge bonfires in a quiet, somewhat remote site by a pretty lake. We paused briefly for a break and a snack before heading off. We travelled through forest and brush for the last half mile until we came to the Morgan Pass Trail. More than a trail, it's an abandoned road leading from the Pine Creek Tungsten Mine that we could see 2000 feet lower down the canyon. Morgan Creek Canyon is considerably drier than up by the Pacific Crest, a victim of the rain shadow effect provided by the crest. It was nearly 2p by now, and were somewhat tired, and not looking forward to the next three miles of uphill. Although it started off steep, the gradient declined considerably after the first 1/2 mile. Morgan Pass was a little over 11,000 ft, so we had only about a 1,000 ft of vertical to gain.
About a mile and a half from Morgan Pass, the scenery improves considerably as we came upon Lower Morgan Lake. The dry, rocky canyon (with lots of mining tailings dumped about) gave way to some nicely forested lakes with good campsites. We found a couple with their dogs (by their snarls, we took it to mean they didn't like visitors) camping here. A bit further up, the forest peters out again at Upper Morgan Lake, and the last 1/2 mile to the pass is mostly a jumble of rock and scree (with a trail wide enough for a 4wd ploughed through it). A bit after 3p we reached the pass, and the warmer weather we had enjoyed was once again giving way to the cooler temperatures and cloud cover we had been used to. Through the clouds to the west, we were treated to a beautiful view of the dusting that Mts. Dade and Abbot had received from the storm. We split up for the last mile or so back to camp, as Terry followed the trail down to Gem Lakes (and then took the familiar route to Treasure Lakes) while I wanted to explore the reaches above Gem Lakes some. I still had some energy left and an itch for more rock climbing and cross-country which I found amply supplied on my route back. From Morgan Pass I went southwest up the leftmost (east) creek canyon that feeds into Gem Lakes, before turning west and heading for Treasure Lakes. I found some small lakes up there, and some ice along the creek to play with. Growing up in So. California, ice was something I only found in the freezer. As an adult, I find it fascinating to throw rocks on frozen lakes, and play with chunks and sheets of ice. The ice I found along the creek provided such amusement and some rest as well.
I arrived back at Treasure Lakes around 4:30p, just ahead of Terry. He was still feeling poorly, in fact worse, so we decided to leave the next day. While we prepared and ate our dinner I devised a plan (with Terry's blessing) to climb Mt. Dade the next morning while he started to hike out. We would make the final call in the morning when we had a better idea what the weather would be like. It had been three days so far of pretty lousy weather, and I was beginning to think that September was not a good time to be in the Sierra's. (I really believe to the contrary, that August-October is the best time, as the bugs are gone and the weather is usually more pleasant. In fact all my trips this year had been during these months, and this was the only one with inclement weather.) Once again, the rain started up shortly after the sun went down, and we were driven to the comfort of our bivy sacks and sleeping bags.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Pyramid Peak
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