Thu, Sep 15, 2011
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It had become my habit this month to leave San Jose around 9-10p, drive for 4-5hrs across the state and start hiking around 2a. This proved no exception, and the routine had become almost too familiar. I followed the same route I had taken two weeks earlier, across SR152, through Madera, Millerton Lake, Prather and on to Shaver Lake. From there the two routes diverged as I took the Dinkey Creek Rd turnoff, following the main branch all the way to Courtright Reservoir and the Blackcap Basin TH near Maxson Meadow.
The sky was full of stars, dominated by a gibbous moon and notably absent of clouds. Though deep in the trees, there appeared to be enough light to navigate without headlamp as I started off. The ground was wet, saturated in places from rains that appear to have finished up that same afternoon. Unknowingly I stepped in a puddle in the middle of the road within the first ten minutes which had me thinking the night vision thing wasn't going to cut it tonight if I wanted to keep my feet dry. On came the headlamp.
The trail follows alongside, then on a 4x4 Jeep road that heads north along the east side of Courtright Reservoir. After little more than half a mile the two diverge with the trail heading northeast into the John Muir Wilderness. It's a long seven miles along the Blackcap Basin Trail to reach the junction with the Hell-For-Sure Trail, found just after the crossing of Post Corral Creek. The water level was low enough to easily cross over on rocks, despite the recent rains. I continued to dodge puddles in the trail along the route through all those early morning hours. It was not until nearly 6a that it was light enough out that I could put away the headlamp.
It was quite chilly out when I reached Fleming Lake and Red Mtn Basin around 6:30a. A thin vapor hung over the lake and frost could be found on the dry, brown grasses around it. A few minutes further on was found the Indian Lakes Trail junction. On my only other visit to Red Mtn Basin I had taken the Indian Lakes Trail north towards Mt. Henry. At that time I had noted the whimsically named Hell-For-Sure Pass and figured I ought to come back again to check it out. It felt good to be making good on that plan, and I was happy to finally be on a new section of Sierra trail as I turned east towards the pass. The forest thins out a great deal in Red Mtn Basin and the views begin to open up nicely. Around 7a I was above the 10,200-foot mark where one gets the first view of Red Mtn's rounded profile to the east. The peak sits atop the LeConte Divide which effectively blocks the sun in the first half hour after sunrise. To the right is the more impressive form of Mt. Hutton with several inviting-looking ridgelines that drop down to Red Mtn Basin. These looked to be class 3-4 and I kept my eye on them all morning, thinking I might use one of them to descend from Mt. Hutton later in the day.
A few minutes after passing the Devils Punchbowl Trail junction I left the trail altogether and started cross-country for a more direct ascent of Red Mtn than I would get by following the trail all the way to the pass. I headed for the broad West Slope over easy ground of slab and rock, traversing some around a ridge just north of Disappointment Lake. The West Slope has easy class 2 ground on the left or north side, brushier class 2-3 on the right side. I opted for the latter, finding some fun, blocky class 3, but not enough to make a recommendation. The upper slopes were entirely free of tree and brush, the rocks and talus coated in slippery frost that upended me more than once while trying to scramble over it. The final hundred feet of the summit sees the rock suddenly change to a reddish hue, undoubtedly the stuff for which Red Mtn derives its name.
It was 8:30a when I landed on the summit, nearly 6.5hrs from the start. As one might expect, there is a fantastic view from the summit, taking in a wide stretch of the High Sierra from Ritter/Banner in the north to the Kaweahs to the south. Most impressively, Mts. McGee and Goddard stand out prominently 3-5 miles away to the southeast with the deep Goddard Canyon dropping thousands of feet off the east side of Red Mtn. I found no register anywhere about the summit despite a thorough search. A benchmark of some sort appears to have been removed from one of the summit rocks. My preliminary plan had been to go down to Hell-For-Sure Pass, take the trail down to Red Mtn Basin, then climb up to Mt. Hutton. But as I was descending Red Mtn's SE Ridge to the pass, I noted that the LeConte Divide south of the pass looked like it might make for a fine scramble, with knife-edged ridges and some class 3 climbing.
Reaching the pass from Red Mtn was as easy as it had appeared from a distance. A sandy use trail has developed on the east side of the ridge in places, evidence that the peak is fairly popular with those that head over this pass. There is a wooden stake, minus any sort of sign attached to it, with a rock atop it to mark the pass. There is a good view of Hell-For-Sure Lake and Mt. Hutton off the west side, with the trail rolling off into Goddard Canyon down the east side. The south side of the pass probably sees significantly less traffic since it has no named summits, but as I found out it had much better scrambling than that on Red Mtn. The ridgeline leading up to Pt. 11,837ft was a fun class 2-3 climb over blocks, thin edges, and around a small gendarme. South of this point the scramble becomes easier, though one section was interesting and probably the airiest class 2 knife-edge I've encountered. From a distance it had looked formidable, but upon closer inspection it was smooth and rounded and easily walked along without much care. The views off either side were rather nice, and therein probably lay the only real danger, that due to inattention.
I eventually reached easier terrain where a small tarn lay nestled on the crest where it flattens out. A broad, grassy ramp leading along the west side of the crest looked inviting enough to draw me off the divide and onto the cushy turf. I followed this south, high above Arctic Lake, traversing below Pt. 11,551ft. The ramp gave out and I found myself on sloping faces of the granite-lined cirque above Arctic Lake, with some snow to contend with and some amount of class 3. Just west of the crest and east of Mt. Hutton I reached Hutton Pass around 10:30a. The pass provides a route between Red Mtn Basin to the north and Bench Valley to the south. The north side of the pass was partially blocked with old snow whereas the south side looked to be easy going and of course snow-free.
I turned west to head up to Mt. Hutton via the East Ridge, keeping far to the left side where the terrain was easier and less bouldery. It was 11a when I reached Hutton's summit. Because it is off the LeConte Divide it did not have as good a view looking east as found on Red Mtn, but in other respects the views were better. Bench Valley is an impressive collection of long, slabby granite stretches lining a high valley above Fall Creek. The large lakes of Red Mtn Basin were arrayed below to the northwest and north. Clouds overhead were beginning to coalesce and I started to wonder if there might not be more thunderstorms in store for the afternoon afterall.
A nalgene bottle contained three similar register booklets, dating to 2001 but almost all of them filled. The peak was far more popular than I had imagined. Many of the entries were labeled with "PSCI02" or similar, where "02" refered to 2002. I did not find any relevant references to "PSCI" in an online search later, but I suspect it must be some outdoor program to introduce young folks to the Wilderness environment. I added my own name to the roster and tucked it back under a rock as I had found it.
Having been eyeing the (possibly) class 3 descent lines off the NW side of Hutton for much of the preceding traverse from Red Mtn, my resolve began to waiver as I started west off the summit of Mt. Hutton. Another side of me wanted to continue west along the upper ridgeline, dropping to Devils Punchbowl to explore that area, then taking the Devils Punchbowl Trail back to the Hell-For-Sure Trail. As I followed the gentle, sandy slopes off the west side of Hutton I stayed close enough to the ridge to get a close up view of the steeper ridge descents down to Red Mtn Basin. Either they really didn't look as interesting up close as they did from afar, or I convinced myself of this, because I soon decided to continue west down to Devils Punchbowl and forgot all about the other option.
For the most part is was easy sandy slopes and slabs all the way to Big Shot Lake at the bottom of the cirque I descended. I had over 6,000ft of gain by this time and the easier ground was most welcome. The lakes proved to be quite picturesque, crystal clear waters lined with granite, grasses, and a few small beaches. From an overlook twenty feet up I could look down to the waters of Big Shot Lake and see dozens of decently sized trout cruising the shoreline. There were several campsites I passed along the way, eventually picking up a use trail leading around Little Shot Lake and the larger Devils Punchbowl. I missed the trail junction to take me back north, not realizing my mistake until I had crossed the outlet of Devils Punchbowl, a third of a mile past the turnoff. I backtracked, found ducks leading north away from the lakes, and found my way back to the junction with the Hell-For-Sure Pass Trail by 1p.
As I headed west down the trail I noticed that clouds were building larger behind me over Red Mtn and the LeConte Divide. To the west the skies were mostly clear, but I knew it would not take much to bring the clouds over my way and to start raining with little warning. That I still had four and half hours of hiking before getting back to the trailhead did nothing to relieve this concern. I could certainly handle getting rained on for an hour or so, but something like three hours might have me feeling pretty miserable. I paused briefly at Fleming Lake for another picture before starting the long descent into the Post Corral Creek drainage, arriving at the creek shortly after 3p.
The crack of thunder was heard in the distance as I crossed back to the west side of the creek. Would it hold off? It was an even longer 2.5hrs of hiking to slowly climb back up 1,000ft to Long Meadow, then over a low saddle to the Courtright drainage of Dusy Creek. These last hours seemed to go on far too long, all the while wondering if the rain would start down on me. It was with great relief that I finally reached the trailhead at 5:30p. No rain had fallen and the skies would only improve on the drive home.
At more than 15hrs it had been the longest outing of the year and had me feeling more like I would expect after an 18-19hr outing. Part of me was feeling out of shape, wondering if I could even do an 18hr outing this year, while another part was just happy to be able to do this well at 50yrs. Something tells me I'm not going to be getting any fitter from here on out with each passing summer...
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