Sat, Oct 17, 2009
Following the driving directions provided by Pete's guide, we made our way to the Van Vleck Trailhead. Pete provides descriptions of every junction along the road, but it could easily have been shortened to something like, "Take the Icehouse Road exit off US50, follow the main road for about 20mi to the Horse Camp / Desolation Wilderness TH turnoff on the right side. Go six more miles to the TH parking." But that wouldn't be nearly as much fun and hardly something we could spend the long drive making fun of.
It was dark when we got to the parking lot around 6:15a. Another vehicle had pulled in minutes before us. The camoflaged driver got out of his truck and shouldered his pack and gun before heading out a few minutes later. It was hunting season in the Sierra and this was a rare treat to see a hunter actually walking in to hunt. I was impressed. Later, on the drive out, we would see the usual collection of camo-dudes driving slowly along the road in their large pick-ups in search of big game. Nothing like have a high-powered rifle, a case in the cooler behind you and a strappingly powerful V-8 engine under the hood when beckoning to the primal call of the hunt. At least they weren't out on the trail shooting the skinny asses off us hikers.
After consulting our maps we decided to drive back out of the trailhead parking and park at the locked gate along the main road. There is only enough parking for a few cars here, but on this not-so-busy weekend in October there was only one other car there.
We headed out 6:30a by headlamp. We continued to follow Pete's directions to a 3-way junction, taking the right fork in the direction of Red Peak. When we came to the sign labeled "Bassi Creek Trail" mentioned in Pete's guide we turned right and began following it. It seemed to involve more downhill than we expected, so Matthew consulted the map and declared this was expected until we crossed the creek. But no creek crossing seemed forthcoming. Down we went, along the west side of the creek for another ten or fifteen minutes before stopping for another consultation. In our haste earlier, we had failed to accurately read Pete's description telling us to continue on the dirt road another tenth of a mile after finding the Bassi Creek Trail. His descriptions were so wordy that we tended to ignore them, but as we found they can be deadly accurate. Back up the trail we went.
After a more careful reading, we found the Red Peak Trail where indicated and followed this as directed. By now it was 7:30a and plenty light out. The trail crosses Bassi Creek and then follows the south side of the creek on a steady uphill climb to the southeast towards Lake No. 3. It passes through a number of boggy areas that would be far more annoying in spring or early summer than we found in October. Still, the recent rain and snow had left these areas resaturated and it was fairly impossible to keep our boots dry. Mine fared somewhat better since I had given them a coating of water repellent spray the day before, but even they eventually succumbed.
Along the way to Lake No. 3 we crossed the Wilderness boundary and began to run across modest patches of snow. The only trail junction encountered was just before reaching the lake. We turned left and by 9a we were at the lake with views to Silver and Red Peaks rising above the far sides to the north and east, respectively. The west slopes up to Red Peak looked fairly tame so we made a beeline more or less in that direction. We couldn't really tell the difference between gullies and ribs and talus slopes of varying degrees of difficulty described by Pete, but just went up the steep slopes. There was not much brush or trees to hinder progress, and the boulders we encountered higher up were fairly secure and made for an enjoyable scramble. There was no snow of any significance on this side of the mountain.
When we reached the ridgeline we turned north heading for the summit a short distance away, and by 9:45a we were atop Red Peak. One of the first things we noticed was a higher summit along the ridgeline to the southeast, an unnamed peak on our map. Appears we weren't the only ones confused by this - the summit register seems to have been placed by someone with the impression he was on Silver Peak (the next peak to the north). Several later entries made sure to correct this misconception. The register was not very old, dating only to 2007. The views were extraordinary in the early morning with unusual clarity. We could see Mt. Diablo off to the west and the snowy South Face of Mt. Lassen far to the north. Sierra Buttes, Lola, Castle Peak, and a host of other peaks were also visible to the north. To the east could be seen portions of Lake Tahoe with Mt. Rose at the north end and Freel Peak at the south end. Views to the southeast were partially blocked higher peaks in Desolation Wilderness including Jacks, Dicks, and Price. Mokelumne Peak could be seen far to the south. To the southwest and west was a broad swath of the lower, forested portions of the western Sierra. Union Valley Reservoir was plainly visible although at the time we could not identify it by name.
There was a chilly wind blowing over the summit from the west and we did our best to hide on the leeward side, but it was too cold to remain for long. After about ten minutes we started off the north side for our next destination, Silver Peak. It took about 50min to make our way along the connecting ridgeline, traversing some on the east side to avoid more tedious portions of the ridge. There was more snow than we had expected, but it was not of sufficient quantity to cause any serious problems, and it simply added some diversions and made our route more circuitous in places.
It was 11a when we reached the summit of Silver Peak. We were surprised to find a Northern Alpine Section (of SC MLC fame) PVC register dating to 1986, old enough to contain all four (#1, #2, #3, #4) of Yamagata's entries from his visits in the early 1990s. There were only a few other recognized names, among them Bob Sumner from 1995 doing the same traverse in the opposite direction. After we finished perusing the register and taking a few photos, we were off on the next leg.
The stretch between Silver and McConnell was the longest of three legs, but took only about an hour, much as the first leg. The scrambling was easier and there were some stretches of easy class 1 walking along sandy portions of the ridgeline. The register on McConnell had been placed the same September day in 1986 by the NAS as had been done on Silver. There were a few other recognized names in this register, including Don Palmer and Adam Jantz.
The third and last leg along the ridgeline was the trickiest, involving a bit of bushwhacking and more significant scrambling with some modest exposure, some easy knife-edges and some harder ones. In dropping off the east side again to avoid some difficult blocks along the ridge, we made a long traverse that ended with some class 4-5 climbing to get us back onto the ridge. It was a most unnecessary bit, but as I relayed to Matthew, "We haven't been challenged enough yet," just before I started up this bit of exposed rock. Matthew could have easily climbed around it, but sensing a challenge he followed up, though not without some trepidation. After struggling at one point he asked if I could take his pack which seemed to do the trick as he made the delicate moves required.
It was 1:45p by the time we attained the summit of Tells Peak, probably about 45 minutes later than it should have taken. Oh well, we still had plenty of daylight and no plans to climb anything else in the afternoon. We found no sign of a register anywhere about the summit though we looked in all the likely places we could think of. The Highland Trail goes very near this summit and it appears somewhat popular, which means it is probably hard to keep a summit register there. As if to prove this the case, we came across a party of six near the saddle south of the summit as we were headed down. We had found parts of the trail along the sandy portions of the ridge but had just lost it before coming across this party. I asked them if they had come up the trail, and after receiving an affirmative, I then asked, "Where is it?" They pointed out the faint trail to our left and we happily thanked them before setting off down the west side of the ridge. Not knowing we had come via the ridgeline, they probably figured we had come up the trail and had gotten lost on the return. The thought of being taken for morons provided us no small amusement.
The Highland Trail is hard to follow for the last half mile from Forni Lake up to the summit. Ducks along the way were very helpful in staying the course, but we still managed to lose it several times before finding it again. We noted an absence of the other party's footprints in the soft earth in many places, so we surmised they must have lost the trail an equal amount of time on the ascent as we did in going down. Ok, maybe we weren't morons afterall.
Once we reached Forni Lake the trail was in much better shape. Seems most parties probably only goes as far as the lake which looks to provide a fine prospect for camping. We spent the next hour and a half making our way down the Highland Trail, following a creek, through bog and forest, past a combo weather station & corral, along an old road, and eventually back to the van not long after 3:30p.
On the drive back out to US50 we considered a few possibilities to get some extra hiking in with the remaining bits of daylight, but couldn't come up with an interesting option that one or the other of us hadn't already climbed. Oh well, they don't all have to be full days. We ended up in South Lake Tahoe where we enjoyed some pizza and beer before heading out towards Carson Pass to spend the night. Our plan for the next day was to investigate Black Butte near Caples Lake that we had no beta on, and we were eagerly anticipating it.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Tells Peak
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