Sun, Feb 15, 2004
Tinker Knob lies on the Sierra Crest between the Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl ski resorts. It is the highest point between Granite Chief to the south and Mt. Lola to the north. Up until the previous evening, we hadn't considered climbing this peak during the weekend. In fact, we hadn't formulated any plan beyond the previous day's visit to Mt. Lola. We considered Mt. Rose briefly, but I turned that down since I'd already been there. We might have gone down to Kirkwood to climb Thunder Mtn (Amador county highpoint), but we needed to return to Grass Valley at the end of the day to retrieve Matthew's car. So we hit upon Tinker Knob, and flush with our success the last two days, we felt confident we could manage this one.
We awoke from our Reno bivy site in a dirt lot on the town's outskirts at 5:45a, darkness still ruling the sky. The lights of a few nearby homes (one house had a 500W spotlight lighting up its front yard all night long) and the downtown casinos prevented anything like real darkness from taking hold, and it was fairly easy to pack up our gear without using flashlights. We were thankful it hadn't rained on us during the night since we weren't prepared for such an event (it would have led to a mad scramble to dive in the car with our stuff). We had some trouble finding our way back to the Interstate, but once we managed that, it was smooth sailing back into California. We landed ourselves in the Squaw Valley parking lot shortly before 7a and headed out more or less on the hour. We wandered through the Olympic Village looking for signs of a trail. Behind some buildings at the far west end we climbed up onto the snowpack and found many boot and snowshoe prints. Not enough to pack the trail tightly, so we had to put our snowshoes on from the start, but it was enough to lead us upstream where it soon merged with the regular trail (we've heard the trail starts behind the fire station).
We would have liked to think we could climb both Tinker Knob and Granite Chief, but the liklihood seemed pretty slim. I began the hike entertaining we might climb Silver Peak to the north of the village, but it wasn't much on the shortest route to Tinker Knob. After the first ten minutes we found ourselves following snowmobile tracks, and we were resigned to following those uphill wherever they led us (and it wasn't towards Silver Peak). After half an hour we saw no more boot or snowshoe tracks, those folks who had left them were just out for a stroll it seemed. But the snowmobile tracks when on, and we followed them dutifully - it was much easier than making our own tracks. Down in the canyon formed by Squaw Creek, the snow was quite heavy and I wanted nothing to do with blazing our own trail if it could be avoided. On the south side of the creek the ski resort took up nearly the whole panorama to the south. It was the first time I had been in this canyon (though I have skied at Squaw upwards of a hundred times), and the surroundings looked quite rugged and picturesque, much more alpine looking than the Mt. Lola or Castle Peak areas, despite the cable cars and chairlifts that criss-cross the ski area. The slopes grew steeper the further up canyon we went, but at least our view was continuously improving.
The snowmobile tracks led us away from the pass we had expected to reach, taking a more northwesterly, then a northernly direction. We ended up at a saddle on an eastern spur off the main Sierra Crest, between Pk8506ft and Pk8426ft. This was the limit of where the snowmobiles went up to on this side of crest. The slope reaching up towards Pk8506ft (which was at the junction of the Sierra crest and our spur ridge line) was too steep for snowmobiles, so we had to forge our own trail up. Had the snow been less consolidated I would have worried about avalanche danger, it was that steep. We struggled, but managed our way up, and by 9:30a we were atop Pk8506ft. It was windy and cold at the exposed summit, and neither of us felt like hanging around there for long. I pointed to a peak to the northwest hoping it might be Tinker Knob, but Matthew brought me to reality by stating Tinker Knob must be a good deal further behind it and out of view. Darn. I had hoped we might be able to hike along the crest to reach Tinker Knob, but we could see that that would not be possible with several areas of cliffs blocking the route along the way. The PCT was down on the west side of the crest and climbs a saddle just southeast of Tinker Knob. But we were both loathing the 800ft of elevation we'd have to lose (and reclimb), so we headed northwest following below the crest on the west side, giving up as little elevation as we could get away with. We carried on without benefit of snowmobile tracks, but the snow was considerably windpacked and not too hard to cross. Our ankles would have begged to differ as they were forced to cant to one side as we traversed the slopes for well over an hour. Tinker Knob came into view when still almost two miles off. We could see the broad gully that the trail must take up to the saddle, but we still avoided the undesirable descent.
As we were crossing the southwest slopes of Pk8761ft I got the bright idea that it might now be easier to climb directly up to the crest and then follow it to Tinker Knob. This would alleviate more tedious traversing we still had ahead of us, and looking up it seemed the cliff areas along the crest were behind us. Up we went. It was really steep and the snow packed to a degree that made successfully arresting a fall about a 50-50 proposition. It was a good place to observe extra caution to make sure we didn't have a chance to test the odds. About 100 feet below the crest the rocks and talus were exposed enough through the snow to allow us to take off our snowshoes and climb the rest of the way in our boots. At least now a fall was unlikely. Matthew commented that my idea to climb up looked to be the right choice. It wouldn't last long, however. I climbed up to the crest ahead of Matthew aiming for the highpoint. As I neared it I realized the top portion was at least class 4 and was best avoided. I started traversing around on the west side, maybe 30 feet below the summit, on a very steep slope indeed. Protruding rocks offered safety, but it was necessary at times to connect two rocky areas with a few steps across the snow. I kicked deep steps with my heels into the slope to give me as much security as possible. The snow was very hard. A few times my foot bounced off before it could break the tough upper crust. A second, harder application of the heel would then get me through. It was not a painless traverse. I imagined Matthew would not like the exposure, but thought that my deep steps would help give him enough security to follow me. I kept looking behind me, but didn't see or hear him. After about 15 minutes on the dicey slope (it was no longer a good choice to have gone this way), I got around to the easier northwest slope. There were no more exposed rocks to use for crutches, but with the snowshoes on again I had enough traction to make it down the slopes to the pass where the PCT crosses over the crest. Still no sign of Matthew. It turns out he looked at the route I took across the west face there and decided that was a bit crazy. He chose to climb down the slope another 60-80 feet and then cross where the snow wasn't quite so hard, nor quite so steep. Meanwhile I was waiting at the pass wondering what had become of him. A pack of three snowmobiles came up from the northeast side and went down over the southwest side without stopping. I was back in OSV land. After about 10 minutes I started to get cold and headed off towards Tinker Knob, now but a quarter mile away.
Looking back at one point I finally spotted Matthew, a mere dot over on the west side of Pk8761ft. He looked to be far off, maybe a half hour behind me, but that was deceiving - it was really only something like ten minutes. Matthew makes up a lot of ground once his nerves are relaxed. The easiest route up Tinker Knob is the broad East Face, a snow slope reaching from bottom to within 20 feet of the top. It was steep, but not more than perhaps 30 degrees, and I made my way up the 200 feet in short order. By this time (it was now 12p) Matthew had reached the pass, about ten minutes behind me. At the summit I found two huge cairns built on the east & west summits separated by maybe 40 feet. A shallow saddle not more than about ten feet lower than the summits was between the two. They looked like they were each competing for the highpoint at the summit. I found the summit register at the westernmost of the two, and judging from the entries it is a very popular peak, particularly in the summer. There was a small wooden sign announcing Tinker Knob, in the same fashion as the signs we found at Andesite Peak a few days earlier, and Red Lake Peak back in December. They seemed the handiwork of the same craftsman. After about five minutes I looked back over the east side and found Matthew about halfway up to the summit already. Behind him were two other climbers who'd just arrived on skis, ditched them in the trees below, and were now making there way up a few minutes behind Matthew. Later we found they had spent the night at the Sierra Club's Bradley Hut located east of the Sierra Crest in the Pole Creek drainage.
The weather was continuously overcast and some low clouds were skimming the summit periodically hampering our views. Still, we could see north to Castle Peak, southeast to Lake Tahoe and Heavenly Ski Resort on the far side, and south to Granite Chief and Lyon Peak. We didn't stay at the summit for any length of time, just long enough to have a snack, sign the register, and take a few pictures. We left the two skiers with the summit to themselves and headed down. We glissaded off the East Face, then hiked down to the saddle and the PCT. We decided to forgo the sidehilling we'd done on the way up and go for the extra descent on flatter ground. There were heavy snowmobile tracks heading down the southeast side, and we took to these like they were a trail. This worked well for maybe 45 minutes before we realized none of the snowmobile tracks were heading south towards the pass north of Granite Chief like we'd hoped. Instead, the tracks seemed to indicate that the riders would come over to the west side of the crest in order to zip around the meadows and up the treeless slopes below the crest, then head back over the way they came when they were done. So somewhere along the way, about halfway between the two passes, we ran out of tracks and had to forge our own trail. This was made difficult by the heavy snow found in the flatter, wind-protected forest areas. It made us very much aware of how long a day it'd been and how tired we were. There was zero wind now, some hazy sunshine, almost balmy. I got into a slow rythmic pace, breaking trail with a steady, albeit slow gate. Matthew was behind, varying from right behind me to five minutes back, depending on when and how long he stopped for short breaks. It took much longer to get back to the pass north of Granite Chief, and as I picked up a lone set of skier tracks heading back over the east side, Matthew was nowhere to be found. I waited about five minutes at the pass for him, then continued on.
Following the skier tracks helped thread me through some cliff areas found on the east side, but in general there was so much snow that a number of other routes would have been possible. In fact at one point I got bored with the traverse through one of the cliff bands and chose a more direct and steeper route down a chute between some rock pinnacles. Once I was out of the steepest sections and into the milder slopes further down the canyon, I met up again with older snowshoes tracks from the past several days. These led me down along the north side of the creek and an eventual return to the Olympic Village. It was 3p when I returned to our car, for a 7hr15m outing. Not bad for mid-winter I thought. I began changing out of my wet clothes and packing up my gear for the drive home. I hadn't seen Matthew since before the pass several hours earlier and thought he might be as much as 30 minutes behind me. But that wasn't the case as I don't think I'd been back more than five minutes when he showed up safe and sound, if maybe a wee bit tired like myself. We'd had a very successful weekend, hitting all three of our objectives in three days, and we were pretty satisfied with that. We could come back another time to climb Granite Chief and a few other peaks we've still to climb in the area. The drive back was long, as expected. It was over 5 1/2 hours getting back to the San Jose due to a combination of slow traffic for many miles on I-80 and our needed detour back to Grass Valley to get Matthew's car. Needless to say, I slept quite well that night back in my own comfy bed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Tinker Knob
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