Tower Peak P2K SPS / WSC / PD

Thu, Aug 7, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

I had two days reserved for acclimatization before the start of the 2003 Sierra Challenge, and no one but myself to do so with. One strategy would be to find some easy peaks and rest up a bit before the main event, not unlike training for a marathon or other endurance event. Trouble is I don't feel like I get out enough, so I'm always trying to maximize my days in the mountains, particularly after sitting on my butt at work for a few weeks or longer. So I decided to dayhike Tower Peak, one of the Mountaineers peaks located in a remote area of northern Yosemite, 15 miles from the nearest trailhead. After the failed outing to Clarence King the previous weekend, this would seem a piece of cake.

I left San Jose at 2a, as much to avoid any sort of traffic as to have as much daylight for hiking as possible. I gassed up in Oakdale, my only stop between San Jose and Sonora Pass. Down the east side I travelled, looking for the trailhead for the West Walker River. I passed a pack station and pulled into the backpackers' lot just before reaching the campground near the river, heading out at 6:30a with little more than what I could fit in a fanny pack.

I had some trouble finding the trailhead - I took what I thought was a use trail to the campground, but it deceptively led me through some thick brush and across the creek before I found myself in the back of somebody's campsite. Oops. I walked quietly behind someone's tent (I thought about making bear noises), then down the dirt road where I found the trailhead - and a 3-car day-use parking lot right across the road which would have been far more convenient. I crossed the bridge to the east side of the West Walker River and started the long hike south along the river. The trail starts off decent enough, but soon merges with the pack trail coming from the outfitter back by SR108. After this junction there is a good deal of dust and sand to contend with on the trail, which doesn't lend itself to getting recommendations. Tower Peak can be seen far to the south in the initial mile or two of trail, after which it disappears from view until less than two miles from the peak.

I enjoyed the early morning shade, hoping to make good progress before the sun bore down on the trail. The weather was quite nice, not a cloud in the sky all day, anywhere on the horizon. I hoped to get to the higher elevations before the day warmed too much, and for the most part that worked beautifully. I passed by Roosevelt and Lane Lakes, two popular fishing spots, then began the steady climb up the East Fork of the West Walker (I wonder if there is a West Fork of the East Walker River?). I passed a junction to Fremont Lake, bearing left to stay on the main route. At Long Canyon I came upon another trail junction which I mistook for one further up, and headed left, much to my detriment. I followed this up for over a mile, all the while thinking I was climbing the rise shown on the map to the left of the river. Instead, the trail continued climbing ever higher. I began to suspect I had taken a wrong turn and stopped several times to peruse my map. Only after the second perusal was I convinced I had hiked up Long Canyon. My map didn't show this trail at all (which was decent, though not well-used). My map showed a trail coming from the east and ending at Anna Lake above me, and I suspect this is a newer connecting trail coming from the west.

Not wanting to backtrack the full distance back to the junction, I struck off west cross-country hoping to intersect the main trail much sooner. This involved some steep scrambling, first traversing, then downhill. 30 minutes later, and about the time I was beginning to think I had made a second, more serious error, I stumbled across the trail under the forest. Ok, a little time lost, but plenty of daylight left. I made no more route-finding errors on my way up the river, passing several junctions but no other hikers. The views from the trail aren't terribly exciting, mostly forested canyon, a small river, and every now and then a few peaks poking up in the distance to catch my attention. One of the prettier spots was Upper Piute Meadow, a regular destination for the stock as denoted by the fence cutting across the middle of this otherwise pristine, large meadow. I had some trouble getting across the river at the Tower Lake junction (I guess the river isn't that small), but finally found a downed log that helped me get across without taking off my boots.

Not far past the meadow one gets a fine view of an impressive tower rising to the south. Not Tower Peak which lies hidden a mile behind this one, it is likely the formation for which the peak is named. From here the trail rises up more steeply, following a small forest-covered stream emanating from Tower Lake further ahead. I lost the trail some as it broke out into a narrow, wet meadow. It seems either Tower Lake receives few visitors or the meadow does a good job of overgrowing the trail. No matter, it was easy to see where Tower Lake lay to the southwest. As I was crossing the upper end of the meadow I spied a steep talus field heading up to the south that looked to reach the Sierra Crest and shorten my route if I could get up that way. The map shows a permanent snow field with two snow-filled exits. The left one I could see ahead of me, steep and likely icy (I had no crampons or axe with me). The right hand side showed no snow, but the view was blocked by a shelf and the exit was around the corner out of view. Would it go? It seemed worth a try, maybe costing me 45 minutes or so if it didn't work out, so off I went.

It was 12:30p now, but lots of energy remaining. I made short work of the talus and boulder heap, finally reaching the shelf that gave me a view to the right exit. There was a small snowfield here, hidden from view that rises nearly to the right exit. But to the right of the snowfield was a clear path, all class 2 to the ridge above. The shortcut worked. Once on the crest I could see far south down to Mary and Tilden Lakes, and other places I couldn't identify. Around me were some delightful alpine meadow patches scattered between the scrubby pines and rock. Looking around I could see Forsyth to the west (a peak I'd climbed a number of years earlier), the tower seen from below to the northwest, and Tower Peak itself about a mile off to the southeast. It looked formidible from this vantage, though I expected it to ease the closer I got. Above the last of the grassy tufts, the rest of the walk is mostly over boulders though I found some slabs and (unnecessary) class 3 to relieve the tedium of the boulders. The views remained nice, and the cooler weather above 10,000ft refreshing.

As I approached the peak from the northwest side, I climbed up the slopes over easy class 3 terrain. I kept waiting for it to get harder, but was soon on the summit and out of any more route. It barely rates a class 3 to be sure. Most of the class three is just very steep ledges, cut like steps in the mountain, requiring little use of the hands. The views are as outstanding as had been rumored, pretty much in all directions (NW - NNW - NNE - NE - ENE - ESE - SE - SSE - SSW - SW), and I enjoyed a short stay on the summit in cool conditions. The Tower Glacier was shiny with hard ice showing - seems the Sierra glaciers are melting off pretty quickly. Perusing the register I was surprised to find that the previous entry was from Michael Graupe (who would be joining me for the Sierra Challenge) who had dayhiked it just three days earlier. [Matthew Holliman would also dayhike the peak later in the month - possibly the only time the peak has been dayhiked three times in one year, almost certainly the only time it's been done three times in one month!]

It was 2p when I reached the summit, having taken about 7 1/2 hrs to reach the summit, coincidently the same amount of time it took Michael. I left after about 15 minutes, heading back the same way I had come up. Because of the variation I took to gain and then descend the ridge, I never did see Tower Lake - I'm told it's very nice though. Back down in the meadow I took some time to refill my water bottle and take some pictures of the beautiful lupines in bloom there. I almost hated to get back on the forested part of the trail for the long haul back. The sandy sections were much more annoying, and my feet were starting to protest more vigorously. Somewhere after the junction with the trail from Dorothy Pass I came across a lone female hiker heading out the same way as myself. In conversation I learned she was backpacking with three other friends and she was scouting ahead to see if she had the right trail to exit. I told her she did, but she didn't seem convinced. We stopped and I got out my map to show her exactly where we were on it. Still, she didn't seem convinced. The places on the map didn't seem to register with her, so maybe she thought she ought to be somewhere else. She ended up heading back to regroup with her friends. I'm not sure she's the one I would have sent out to scout, but I hoped they made it back alright.

I stopped a few times to photograph some lilies lying upon a small lake and of the (now) obvious sign I'd missed at the Long Canyon Creek junction on my way in. Mostly I kept cruising at a pretty good clip so I could get back before dark, ignoring the complaining signs of blisters from my feet. I didn't make it back before dark, but I did get to enjoy the end of the day as the sun set on the West Walker River. I kept hiking well after the sun went down, now just trying to finish up without the need for the headlamp. I pretty much used all the available twilight, returning exhausted just after 9p. 14 1/2 hours - the longest hike in quite some time, and I was pretty beat. I found a room in Bridgeport (the priciest town on US395 that I found), but there was no food to be had - all the stores and restaurants were closed up for the night. Darn. No dinner that night. I would have to find something easy to do the next day or I'd be trashed before the Challenge even began!

Continued ...

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