Fri, Aug 16, 2002
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The alarm went off at 4:30a, and it took but half an hour to put away my sleeping gear and wolf down some breakfast in the dark. I walked across the highway from where I parked and started up the St. Mary's Pass Trail at 5a. I got up early mostly to get me used to the early hours I'd be rising the next 10 days or so for the 2002 Mountaineers Challenge. This was the second of two days I planned for acclimatization, which were also just an excuse to get some more climbing in. At nearly 11,500ft, Sonora Peak is the highest Sierra peak north of Sonora Pass, and it also happens to be the highest unclimbed (by me) of the California county highpoints - which contributed to my interest in wanting to climb it. But Sonora Peak is really a pretty easy peak to climb, being quite close to the trailhead, so I planned to combine it with a climb of Stanislaus Peak which lies a few miles further north along the Sierra Crest.
As I headed up the trail, an easy climb to St. Mary's Pass, I was surprised by just how easy it was. A little more than a mile to the pass, then an easy class 1 scramble up the west slope to the summit for a bit less than another mile. The ground is packed gravel/rock over sand, with some moderate bouldering towards the top. I found myself on the summit at 6a, fully 20 minutes before sunrise. When I had started I had hoped I might make it right around sunrise, but this gave me lots of time to peruse the summit register and cool down. Too much almost, as I sat there in my thin jacket glad it hadn't been too cold an evening. It was easy to make out the more distinct (though lower) Stanislaus Peak to the north, and I studied the terrain some while I waited for sunrise. At 6:24a, the sun came up as expected, breaching the purple sky in a ball of orange on the eastern horizon. The views were somewhat muted by the early hours and some accompanying haze. On a clear day I've been told one can even see Mt. Banner far to the south, but today I could not even see to Yosemite's border. Photos taken, I headed back down the northwest ridge along the crest.
I started hiking along the Sierra Crest that connects Sonora and Stanislaus Peaks, separated by about two and half miles. The crest runs southeast - northwest here, the Pacific Crest trail following along down to the northeast in the canyon cut by the East Fork of the Carson River. It was quiet everywhere. No sounds, no smoke from campfires, no evidence of man or beast. I didn't stay long on the crest, as I soon realized there were more ups and downs along the ridge (tall piles of boulders, mostly) than I felt like scaling. I dropped down to the west, heading for the trail that heads north out of St Mary's Pass. I passed a small snow field, surprised to find snow in mid-August at 10,500ft along here. It was hard as rock and didn't look like it had any intentions of melting any time soon. I had to drop over a thousand feet from the summit of Sonora Peak until I found the trail. The next two miles contour nicely along the upper reaches of the canyon that lies west of the crest. This canyon is formed by the upper reaches of the Clark Fork, the same river I'd hiked out of the day before on Dardanelles Cone and Disaster Peak. I could now recognize the peaks to the west through the haze as the day broke more, and had a fine image of the topology in the surrounding area.
The trail crossed several streamlets, evidently fed by springs higher up along the crest. Where the water ran down the sides of the canyon, bright yellow flowers bloomed on either side, rivers of green and yellow in an otherwise stark landscape. The contrast between the lush flowers and the dry, sun-beaten earth just a few feet away was remarkable. After following the trail for several miles, it eventually runs out back on the Sierra Crest just southeast of Stanislaus Peak. From here I followed the crest towards the base of the peak, stopping to marvel at the cliffs that drop off the east side. Steep chutes lead down the east side of the crest and end in cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the canyon below. An interesting keyhole that I briefly explored led to a cliff dropping 500ft to the canyon below.
Once at the base of Stanislaus Peak, the route is a straightforward but steep class 2 climb up talus debris. Lots of slippage on the slopes, particularly where it's steep, some fun class 2-3 climbing over surprisingly solid rock right near the top, and I was on the summit at 8:20a. Aside from a bit of haze, the views were nice, north to Highland and Silver Peaks, west to Dardanelles Cone, southeast to Sonora Peak, south to Leavitt and other, unidentifiable peaks beyond. I found the register in an old ammo box, adding my own short note and perusing a number of others. I spent more time on the way back checking out the streams that crossed the trail and marvelling at the yellow flowers in abundance (and a few purple ones as well). I reached St. Mary's Pass at 9:40a, and stopped to take in the views one last time, both north and south. For being such a short distance from the road, it offers some of the nicest high country views outside the High Sierra region - I would definitely recommend the short hike to the pass if just passing through Sonora Pass and you have even an hour to spare. I returned to the trailhead at 10a, a 5hr roundtrip for the two peaks. And it was so early yet!
Rather than wear myself out unnecessarily, I chose to call it a day and drove on to Lee Vining where I had a room reservation for the next few nights. I had a late lunch/early dinner at the Mobil Station, having sworn off Nicely's forever, or until new management change, whichever comes first. I did some reading, logged onto the Internet, and generally wasted the afternoon/evening away resting up. I was in bed at 9p, anticipating a big day ahead to Whorl Mountain, the first Mountaineers peak on the agenda.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Sonora Peak - Stanislaus Peak
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