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Day 2 of the Sierra Challenge was not expected to be very difficult. Though the gain was close to 5,000ft, the roundtrip distance was not all that much at around 13 miles. Tamarack Peak is the unofficial name of the highpoint of Monument Ridge, found southeast of Twin Lakes. There are several approaches that can be used and I picked the hardest option as it was the easiest on the driving without the long miles on dirt roads. I had never used this trailhead at the east end of Twin Lakes and was interested in exploring the trail leading up to Tamarack Lake, north of our summit. There were 15 of us as we started out at 6a, though not all made it for the TH photo op.
All started out well as the trail appeared to be well-maintained, climbing up the sage-covered slopes above Twin Lakes and over a crest with a view of the lovely Upper Summers Meadow. The trail skirts the western edge of this meadow as it follows to the east of Tamarack Creek. An unmarked trail junction confused us. Someone asked me if I knew which way and I just shrug and said something like, "They all go up." But I didn't really know. We took the wrong fork and crossed to the west side of the creek, initially encouraged as the trail continued up the hillside. But it soon grew weak and we found ourselves sidehilling and then running out of trail altogether. We stopped to consult a map which we probably should have done the first time, and found that we were on the wrong side of the creek and should never have crossed it so far down. We began to bushwhack our way through the heavy growth around the creek to get to the other side. Oddly, the creek was stronger and more difficult to cross higher up and we struggled to find a suitable crossing place. We ended up using sketchy wet boulders and logs. Michael D., one arm in a sling, performed admirably and no one ended up falling in the creek. We soon found the trail again on the other side and continued up.
Further up the trail I came across a wet dollar bill lying to one side, making it the first time I can recall being paid to take a hike. I'm informed this does not qualify me as a professional guide since the payment was unintentional. The sagebrush and forest gave way to rock, snow and alpine terrain as we got our first view of Tamarack Peak shortly before 8a. We passed by beautiful Tamarack Lake where the maintained trail ends, then a mile further on to Hunewell Lake over use trail and talus. Hunewell sits at the upper end of the hanging valley and the base of Tamarack Peak. The mountain is split by a snow-filled couloir that looked most inviting. Jonathan was the only other of our band that was interested in joining me, so the two of us set off alone while the rest took a route around towards the west.
I had never met Jonathan until today. His brother Lincoln had signed up to join us for the day and Jonathan had joined on a whim. He hails from Mammoth Lakes, an anesthesiologist at the hospital there. Unmarried, he lives a very active outdoor life, amazingly fit for his 55 years. He's very competitive, seemingly unmellowed by age, and lamented about not having fit enough companions to join him for such endeavors as he was now doing. I learned a great deal about Jonathan, truth be told a good deal more than I was interested in, as Jonathan likes to talk almost as much as he enjoys a good workout. I like to get my acquainting in smaller batches, getting to know someone for a few outings before taking an interest in their life's story. Normally this doesn't pose a problem on the Challenge as I can just hike ahead if I get enough of talking to any one individual, but this strategy didn't work at all with Jonathan, I came to find.
The couloir we climbed on the north side of Tamarack was a very nice 800-foot line with excellent snow conditions, steep but good purchase. It was every bit as good as some of the more famous Sierra couloirs, but is relatively unknown. The snow was not soft enough to allow (or need) the kicking of steps, but the crampons bit nicely to the old snow not yet hardened to late season ice. Jonathan could not only keep up with me, but he could do so keeping up a enthusiastic conversation. It was necessarily one-sided as I was needing to use all my energy to climb and breathe while Jonathan seemed almost to be idling, staying back with me just to have someone to bounce his conversation off of. This was not the Wilderness experience I was hoping for.
When we reached the top of the couloir we paused to take off our crampons, still almost 400 ft below the summit. We could see one individual about 200ft below us on the talus slopes and two others far to the west on the east side of Crater Crest approaching each other. This seemed odd as neither looked to have come up from Hunewell Lake as we might have expected. This was only explained later. Jonathan was pretty confident that we were going to be the first to reach the summit but I was highly doubtful. Our route had been enjoyable, but it could not have been the fastest way to reach the summit. We were at the summit fifteen minutes later, finding Adam, Tom, Chris and two others already there ahead of us. The participant that had been below us turned out to be Jonathan's brother as he joined us a bit later. He was taking his time, a bit knackered, not in quite the shape his brother was.
I was surprised not to see Sean at the summit as surely he should have been faster than all of us. This was explained after he showed up ten minutes after our own arrival. He had gone to the highpoint of Crater Crest first. On his way to Tamarack from there, he met up with Michael Graupe who was doing the two peaks in the reverse direction. These were the two dots we had seen from the top of the couloir who had converged, met, and gone separate ways. Michael's name was already in the register, having been the first to the summit. He had come up from the Green Creek TH on the south side of the ridge, saving several miles and 1,000ft of gain. His plan to gain time on me and take the lead for the Yellow jersey was working out nicely.
There were three registers found at the summit. The oldest was in a rusty tin, left by A.J. Reyman in 1946. Though the peak is left out of guidebooks by Secor and Roper, Voge's older guide lists Reyman with the first recorded ascent. There were other entries from 1955 and later the same decade, but few other entries. A BSA membership card from 1972 was also included. A second register was inside a 35mm film canister. It had only three entries since 2002. A third register in a large glass jar held various more recent scraps and papers.
The views were outstanding thanks to clear air in the early morning. Dunderberg dominates the view south across Green Creek, though many taller Sierra peaks filled the background. A surprising amount of the Yosemite High Country could be seen from our 11,700-foot perch. Even Half Dome was visible far in the distance to the southwest. To the west was the majestic Sawtooth Ridge with its serrated ridgeline and impressively shaped north faces of granite and snow.
Our Backpacker Magazine photographer Michael D was one of the last to reach the summit, eager to get some photos of the group at the summit. After patiently posing for a dozen shots, we began the descent off the west side, most of us heading to the bonus peak, Crater Crest. In the high, flat area between Tamarack and Peak 11,743ft I met up with Michael G on his way back from Crater Crest. He was making great time on his day and was soon to start back down to Green Creek. Containing a smile, he did a good job of keeping his satisfaction with his route choice to a minimum, but it seemed clear he would be more than an hour faster than myself in returning, and this could very well mean all the difference in the Yellow jersey. Twenty minutes later I met up with Bill Peters coming from Crater Crest. He was doing the two peaks in the same order as Sean, but at a much slower pace.
The views of the Sawtooth Ridge while walking north along Crater Crest were most inspiring. There was a fine view of Twin Peaks, Matterhorn and the Dragtooth from a vantage that I had never seen before. I was particularly interested in the class 4 NE Ridge of the Dragtooth, all of which was clearly visible. It certainly looked like a most impressive line and I made a note to give it a shot some day. It was after 11a when I reached the highpoint of Crater Crest with Adam, Tom, Jonathan, and Chris. It was a lot further north along the ridge than one expected. A register in a glass jar was found at a cairn. An old 1976 scrap had been left by Smatko and Yates, though they acknowledged and copied Reyman's name from a visit in 1946 on the same day he had summited Tamarack. Even over a span of more than 60yrs, it would seem that peakbaggers think similarly - hit the bonus peak while you're in the neighborhood. A register book had been left in 1983 by Pete Yamagata. A MacLeod/Lilley party had visited a year later.
I did not stay long at the summit. In fact, as soon as I had signed the register and taken some pictures, I silently ducked off the east side of the highpoint even while Jonathan was still talking about something or other, though I don't know that it I who he was addressing at the moment. Partly I needed a break from Jonathan and people in general at this moment - I wanted to have some quiet time to myself on the return. I also wanted to keep from losing too much time from Michael G, so I wanted to jog as much of the way as I could.
The top part of the descent was over much talus, necessitating more care and slower going, but this soon gave way to steep slopes of sand and needle padding where the descent progressed more rapidly. By accident I came across the crater for which the crest is named. A small lake of blue waters filled the basin that looks like it could have been created by a meteor impact but more likely was the result of volcanic venting. Down in the valley just below Tamarack Lake I came across another use trail that we had not used on the way up. Following this down, it melted into a marshy area half a mile later. It took a little effort to get across this section without soaking a foot or two, but eventually I met up with the trail we'd taken on the way up and made fast time afterwards. The views looking north while jogging down were quite fine, taking in Summers Meadow and Twin Lakes. I was back to the TH shortly after 12:30p, having made it down from Crater Crest's highpoint in an hour and a quarter. I was hoping this would prevent Michael from taking too big a lead.
Sean was the only participant in the parking lot, to no great surprise. he was busy making himself lunch, a buritto concoction featuring a mango salsa that looked delicious. I didn't wait around for the others to show up as it would be an hours-long wait for many of them. We would meet up again in the late afternoon at the Whoa Nellie for dinner and margaritas. I drove on to Lee Vining where I had a room reserved for a couple of nights. A fine outing followed by a shower followed by the Whoa Nelli - hard to write a better script in my book...
In all we had 18 folks reach the summit via four different routes. Besides the route Michael took, William and Eddie started out from Green Creek and headed straight up to Monument Ridge rather than utilizing the trail along Green Creek, resulting in a long 11hr+ outing. Evan drove his camper into Upper Summer Meadows then used his mountain bike to get closer to the summit via a Jeep road. He didn't seem to have saved much time though.
Michael ended up 15 minutes faster than myself, taking the lead for the Yellow jersey. It would take three days to catch back up.
Tom and Karl each had five summits after two days for the lead in the Polk Dot jersey.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Tamarack Peak
This page last updated: Mon Nov 21 08:58:55 2011
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