Mon, May 21, 2007
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I left San Jose at 9p, and fueled by caffeine and FM radio, I arrived at the Crescent Meadow trailhead in SEKI NP four and half hours later. There had been no cars for the last several hours, since shortly after leaving Fresno. There were also no cars at the trailhead, and I would have the place to myself. I decided to sleep a bit in the back of the van, setting the alarm for 3a. I think there was still too much caffeine in my system as I slept very little, but it was a comfortable and refreshing rest, and by 3:15 I was ready to go.
This was my first foray onto the High Sierra Trail, or at least this part of it at the far western end. Matthew had warned me that it was long, really long, really awfully long. And of course it was. For more than an hour and a half I proceeded by headlamp, contouring the north side of the immense canyon carved by the Marble Fork of the Kings River. Temperatures were in the 40's, and I wore just a long sleeve tshirt. The stars overhead were bright, particularly the Milky Way, with the lights of the Central Valley visible to the west. It slowly grew light towards the east, and shortly after 5a I was able to proceed without the headlamp. Things began to become more pleasant as I had views to take in and I became more awake. Flowers along the trail captured my interest, as did a surprising number of cascades and waterfalls found along the way. On the far side of the canyon rose Castle Rock Spires, though they were soon behind me and fading into the distance.
By 7a I had passed Buck Creek and reached Bearpaw Meadow. Past this point, the trail begins climbing before turning northeast towards Lone Pine Creek. I had a muted view into Valhalla and the Hamilton Lakes area, primarily because the sun was shining in from behind it. I couldn't see Hamilton Lakes from my vantage, but I could see the trail entering the canyon far below me. The trail then begins a descent to Lone Pine Creek, situated in a pretty valley at the north end of the drainage area. Beyond, to the north, was Elizabeth Pass, with a great deal of water cascading down the steeply sloped granite leading to the pass. I imagine I'll be making a trip up there someday to visit Glacier Ridge found on the other side of the pass.
At a trail junction I turned right, heading east up the canyon. The trail led me to beautiful Tamarack Lake, where I arrived shortly after 9a. There was a good deal more snow above the lake situated at 9,200ft, but most of it was on north facing slopes towards Lion Rock. I found a great many fish, all about 10" long at the outlet of the lake, barely frightened by my appearance. It wasn't until I stepped on the log crossing the outlet that they scooted away. They must have been quite hungry, recently emerging from the frozen lake and eagerly lined up like cattle at the trough waiting for insects to flow by as the lake drains into Lone Pine Creek. I figured I was doing pretty good time-wise, thinking I might make the summit in another two hours as I covered the last two miles. But it didn't quite go so fast.
The trail now ended, my first thought was to follow the creek upstream to Lion Lake. Almost immediately I discovered why this was folly as I found myself cutoff by a narrow ring of cliffs the creek had cut through rock. In addition, there was a good deal of heavy brush along the creek, forcing me to abandon that plan. I backtracked a bit and traversed left along the cliffs until I could climb up through a break in them. This brought me to a flat, meadowy area, though at this time of year it was more like a marsh. After stepping into the spongy lowlands and wetting my boots, I backed up and made a careful circumnavigation of the swamp in a clockwise direction. There were more cliffs, though easier to navigate, above the meadow rising 1,500ft up to Lion Lake. Just before reaching the lake I found I could no longer avoid the snow as it began to cover all but the south-facing slopes. The snow was mostly firm, though it didn't appear to have frozen overnight. I suspected it might be a sloppy mess in a few hours. I reached Lion Lake at the base of Triple Divide's SW Face at 10:45a. Man, this was getting to be a haul!
Angling up to the right in an ascending traverse, I was soon off the snow and heading over a great deal of boulders and talus towards the saddle on the crest west of Triple Divide Peak. Dubbed "Lion Lake Pass" by Secor, the pass is straightforward class 2, offering a good cross-country route into Cloud Canyon to the north. By the time I had reached the pass at 11:30a, the wisps of clouds I had ignored earlier were becoming something more to reckon with. As far as I could tell, there was no large system moving in over the area - in fact most of the mountains to the north of the ridge were under sunny blue skies. But to the west, clouds had begun to blow in and started obscuring Lion Rock and the surrounding higher terrain. As I started up the West Ridge towards the summit, the left side was sunny and warm while the right side of the crest was clouded and chilly.
Still living in some sort of denial, I thought the summit was about half an hour away from the pass, but it would take me almost three times that long and it was nearly 1p before I reached the summit. Along the way, I found the ridge impossible to stay on without becoming class 5. To be fair, Secor's description mentions periodic diversions from the ridge, which is a fair description. The left or north side is much steeper, and getting around blockages on that side was much less fruitful than the south side of the ridge. It was a decent route, but I think I may have been too tired by that point to enjoy it fully.
On the summit, I found myself at the edge of the cloud cover - to the north and east were clear skies, but immediately to the south came up the cool chill of cloud and fog streaming over the summit and then rapidly disappating. I could see nothing of Lion Rock, Lion Lake, and very little of the SW Face. I held out hope that the clouds wouldn't completely cover the mountain, and hopefully wouldn't develop into precipitation. It didn't take me long to decide not to pursue my plan to tag Lion Rock as well. I wanted to blame it on the weather, but the truth was that I was just too tired, and I didn't want to be returning at midnight - I was still scheduled to take the kids to school the next morning. In the register I found Matthew's name on the last page, he had been the last one to visit the previous October. His entry mentioning that he had come from Lion Rock didn't make me feel any better. The bastard. He'd knocked off both on the same trip, but I would have to make the haul back out here again. Though mine was the first ascent of the year, it wasn't unusual for the peak to be climbed in May. Most of the previous years had ascents earlier in May, usually as a ski outing.
Rather than return via the West Ridge which had taken up much time, I figured it would be faster to descend the class 2-3 SE Face. Secor's description made it sound pretty straightforward: "Climb any of several chutes and gullies to the summit from Lion Lake." How hard could it be? Plenty, as it turned out. Had I read Matthew's entry on Summitpost ahead of time I might have thought twice about it. There are cliffs along much of the face that had seemed intimidating when I viewed them during my ascent, but the route description made me think maybe it was illusory and there would be several chute options to choose from. My experience ended up similar to Matthew's as I wandered back and forth along the face in the lower half looking for a way through the cliff bands. I managed to do so, but I would have rated the crux through the cliffs as class 3-4. And just when I thought I was home free, a second cliff band blocked progress and I had to hunt around some more for a way down. Even with the route-finding issues, it was still faster than the West Ridge, taking about an hour to get through the cliffs and onto the easier snow slopes below. The clouds had had the added benefit of keeping the snow from getting too soft, and I was able to boot ski down in short order.
Finding myself at the east end of mostly frozen Lion Lake, I began traversing around the north side of the lake until I was blocked by some easy cliffs. It would have been an minor deal to go up and around them, but I was too lazy to climb higher if I didn't have to. The lake looked like it might still be solid enough to walk on, so I tried that. Gingerly at first, I found the top layer a bit spongy and worrisome. I made slow progress, stepping as lightly as I could, wondering if this had been a dumb idea. At one point my foot broke through to some mushy snow-ice below (soaking that boot and sock), confirming it wasn't too bright a move. From that point I decided to get back to shore as soon as I safely could, altogether covering about 50 yards across the ice.
With the somewhat dangerous and somewhat dumb parts behind me, it was time to begin the long haul out. There would be no blue sky at all for the rest of the day as the clouds had completely socked in the valley, leaving about 500ft between the bottoms of the clouds and the ground below. I retraced my steps down to Tamarack Lake where I was happy to be able to pick up the trail again. I still had over 15 miles to go and it would take five and a half hours to cover the distance. My periodic pauses to photograph the emerging wildflowers were thinly disguised excuses to take a break, but I never lingered longer than a minute or two. There were more uphills on the way back than I had remembered, particularly along that part west of Buck Creek. It was a very long grind getting back. Next time I must bring a music player to help pass the hours.
It was 9p when I returned to the trailhead. I had worried a bit about leaving my car alone for so long with bears prowling about, but I found it unmolested. A second car was in the parking lot, but no sign of occupants around the trailhead. I decided to drive out through the south entrance thinking that way might be faster, but it ended up taking half an hour longer and I didn't get back to San Jose until 2a - 29 hours after leaving Sunday evening. It had been about five hours longer than I'd hoped, but at least I'd survived. I was very glad I didn't try to continue to Lion Rock - that could wait for another day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Triple Divide Peak
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