Fri, May 13, 2005
As is now usual, Matthew was out in front from the beginning as we headed up the SW Ridge to Red Lake Peak. This was my fourth time up this popular peak, now holding second place only behind Half Dome in my Most Visited list. The wind was brisk though thankfully not howling as it been the last time we climbed this, and we had jackets on before we were halfway up the ridge. While Matthew forged ahead and approached the volcanic summit rocks from the east side, I decided to tackle the crested summit head-on from the south. This turned out to be a very enjoyable class 4 traverse made a bit more difficult due to the snow found in many places. There was only one location that I could not attack the ridgeline directly and had to downclimb 10 feet or so on the east side to bypass it. I found my way to the summit at 7a, some 10 minutes after Matthew had already arrived by his alternate route. I didn't stay more than a minute, eager to continue the S-N traverse to see how the rest of the summit ridge would work out. This panned out nicely, class 3 nearly the whole way until I was able to scramble back to the snow covered main crest. Matthew followed the same descent route a few minutes later, and together we headed off towards Stevens Peak.
From Red Lake to Stevens the ridge was mostly snow covered and easy to follow. There were a few rocky ridges we scrambled across to keep this interesting, and ran into one section with a large, 20-foot dropoff that we could not successfully negotiate (other than that, the entire traverse from Carson to Luther Pass can be scrambled directly on the ridgeline). We continued on to Stevens a short distance away, arriving at 8a. Not much of a summit really, mostly flat-topped with similar views as Red Lake Peak. There was a summit register, but most of the contents were damp. Mike Larkin was the last entry from a few weeks earlier. Later via email he mentioned that he'd found the register in even worse condition with some of the notepads lying in the snow. Heading north from the summit, we encountered a ridgeline with some very large cornices and paused to take our picture on them. We joked about "doing a Thomas," referring to Mark Thomas's 1,000ft ride down an avalanche when a cornice broke from under him while hiking in Utah earlier in the season.
Shortly after this we came to a location along the ridge with some fantastically fluted pinnacles on the southeast side of the crest, all the more impressive looking with their mantle of snow. We stopped to admire one particular pinnacle, alone and detached from the main crest. It rose to a sharp point, a summit block maybe two feet on a side. I couldn't stand to leave it unmolested, and jumped down to the connecting saddle to scramble to it's summit. Matthew watched from the ridge above as I wallowed in deep snow trying to gain a footing onto the pinnacle. The snow just came away from the pinnacle in soft, non-consolidated clumps. I tried to pound a platform to stand on as I pushed the snow down below my knees, but it seemed to disappear below me without raising my footing a bit. I had to pause to put on heavier gloves to keep my hands from freezing, and eventually cleaned enough snow off the rock to get ahold of it and pull myself higher. I had to pause again to get out my axe to help negotiate a short, snowy arete to the base of the pinnacle. As I started chimneying up between two pillars I began to realize how dangerous the pinnacle was. The rock was friable sandstone with rounded rocks embedded between the layers. It had evidently been a seashore at one time in its distant past, and subsequently risen up from the depths over the eons. But the embedded rocks had never fully consolidated with the sandstone, and what I thought were ideal foot and hand holds came away far too easily. As long as I was perched between the two pillars I felt safe, but the final eight feet to the higher summit pinnacle would require me to negotiate those precarious holds. I chose to leave the top untouched, and called to Matthew to take a picture. After he obliged, I carefully descended the pinnacle and retraced my steps, collecting all my gear along the way. Not exactly successful, it had been an adventurous 15 minute diversion nonetheless.
Further along the ridge we came to a memorial stone marker for a 12yr-old boy named Kenny Miller who died here in 1992. Challenged with learning disabilities as a result of an illness as a toddler, Kenny had been an inspiration to all those around him. While on a family outing in the Tahoe area he had disappeared, and an 11-day search by the El Dorado SAR team turned up nothing. Later his body was found on this exposed ridge. Just how he had wandered so far from where he disappeared was somewhat of a mystery. Along with some papers describing the incident in a plastic bag, the stone marker was surrounded by toy trucks, presumeably a favorite of Kenny's. Some looked fairly new, suggesting they are brought up regularly by family pilgrims. It was a very touching memorial, and Matthew and I were both moved by it. It would have been impossible not to be. The gray skies added to the melancholy of the moment, and after a short pause we continued on.
We now had some elevation to lose, dropping down to a saddle near Scotts Lake and then up 1,400ft to Waterhouse Peak. The snow grew softer as we descended and we paused to put on our snowshoes. Down we went to the saddle and wandered a bit through the forest seeking the uphill slope leading to Waterhouse. We came across some bear tracks, fairly fresh from the looks of them.
Matthew forged ahead on the climb and I didn't even try to keep up. I was happy to use his snowshoe tracks to make my own easier. We followed a route that took us up the middle of the South Face, keeping on snow as much as possible. A few hundred feet short of the summit we had to remove the shoes and climb boulders the remaining distance. Matthew had somehow been convinced that the summit was off to the east when in fact it was more to the northwest, and this extra divergence allowed me to catch up and reach the true summit just before Matthew. We found another popular register on Waterhouse, the third for the day. This one seemed in better shape. We took a few pictures and had a snack while we rested briefly, then continued northeast down the mountain towards Luther Pass. We arrived shortly before 11:30a, and while I set out my gaiters and snowshoes to dry on the warm pavement of the parking area, I put out my thumb for every car passing south over the pass.
It didn't take long to get a ride, though we got only as far as the junction with SR88. From there I picked up a second ride almost immediately, but that one took me only as far as Red Lake. From there I tried unsuccessfully to get another ride to the top of Carson Pass, but ended up walking the remaining two miles back to the car. I drove back down and picked Matthew up alongside the road, then we drove on to Markleeville and up to Monitor Pass.
During the drive we were discussing afternoon options, but because Matthew had had enough of the snow for one day, these were limited. We finally hit upon a short hike out of Monitor Pass to Leviathan Peak. As far as we know the peak shows up on no peak list, and it's only qualification was that the name appeared on the road atlas we were consulting. The peak lies maybe a mile from the highway. A dirt road, partially covered in snow winds its way to the communication facilities found on the summit. There is also a FS lookout up there, though long abandoned. The hike itself was short and uneventful, but the views were far better than we had expected. Evidently it has over 1,000ft of prominence and has a surprisingly far-ranging view, southeast to the Sweetwaters, east to Nevada, and a fine selection of Sierra peaks to the west. We could pick out a few such as Hawkins, Markleeville Peak and Highland, but there were many to the southwest between SR4 and SR108 that looked quite inviting and wholely unknown to us. We lingered about the summit for a while, knowing this was the last peak of the day, and eventually made our way back to the car.
The weather had been unsettled most of the day, starting off overcast, then clearing some, now growing more gray. On our drive south on US395 we got some raindrops, but not much else. The weather looked to be stronger to the north, but our drive south kept us clear of that as we made our way through Bridgeport and Lee Vining. As expected we stopped for a late lunch / early dinner at the Whoa Nellie. We had the place nearly to ourselves, making the most of the fine menu selection. A fitting end to a fine outing!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Red Lake Peak - Stevens Peak - Waterhouse Peak - Leviathan Peak
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