Tuolumne Peak P500

Sep 24, 2000
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Aug 4, 2005


Rising at the more reasonable hour of 7a rather than the 5a we had done the day before, almost seemed like sleeping in. I was a bit stiff in the legs, but nothing a little walking wouldn't work out. The others arose around the same time, and we spent a little while discussing what to do today as we packed up our things in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. A few scattered neighbors had risen and started fires, but it was still pretty quiet. Monty and Michael had decided to head home early today, one excuse or another. I think they'd had enough adventure the day before on Matthes Crest, and we're satisfied to leave it at that. Greg was still interested in doing some nearby rock climbing, but I wanted to leave the ropes behind today and get some miles in. Greg had had enough miles for the weekend. So after breakfast I bid farewell and left the others around 8a.

It was another fine day, and a good hike seemed called for. The day before, while we were perched atop Matthes Crest, I spotted a peak to the northwest that looked interesting. Checking the map, it indicated Tuolumne Peak, a few miles to the northeast of Mt. Hoffmann. I was looking for something to climb on Sunday, and this seemed an interesting choice (there are so many peaks I haven't climbed that it's pretty easy to pick one on a whim). I had never noticed before, possibly because it doesn't stand out well from most angles, unlike nearby Mt. Hoffmann.

It was easy enough to find the Murphy Creek trailhead on the north side of Tenaya, with a convenient parking lot on the south side of the road. I was on my way at 8:30a. It is a very pleasant hike in the forest, following the creek up a gentle slope. Polly Dome rises on the east side (blocking the sun in the early morning), and there is a good deal of granite all about the creekbed. There is ample evidence of glaciation along this trail, large boulders left stranded and glacier polish on the large slabs of granite that make up the floor of the small canyon starting at about a mile and a half from the trailhead. The low sun angle made the glacier polished surfaces shine quite brightly.

Just before mile three, I met the trail junction for Glen Aulin and turned left towards May Lake. Another trail junction is encountered in less than half a mile, the left heading toward May Lake, the right (my route) towards the Ten Lakes area. There is a 22 mile loop through the Ten Lakes area that I would like to do as a dayhike someday, today's journey covering about five miles of it. Not far from the last junction, I got a good view of Tuolumne Peak rising 2000 feet above me. The trail traverses the lower slopes of the east side of the peak, where there are many downed trees due to avalanches that sweep this hillside. In fact, all the trees are quite young in this area, indicating there are no safe places along this hillside that don't avalanche regularly. The last several hundred feet of the peak's east side appear to be impassable cliffs from this perspective, but I'm cognisant that "impassable cliffs" from a distance often are passable upon closer inspection. Still, I planned to take the class 2 northeast face up from the trail as it offered the fastest ascent since it involves the least amount of cross-country travel (on the way back I found that the direct line was faster, and probably would be faster for an ascent as well).

The trail climbs some steep switchbacks before it tops out at a pass offering great views into the Ten Lakes area. About 50 yards in front of me, to one side of the trail were a couple of returning backpackers taking a break and enjoying the views. They were the first persons I'd seen since I started on the trail, as this seems a lightly used section of the park. Without disturbing them (why lessen their perception of having the place to themselves?), I left the trail and started up the ridge towards the summit. It is an enjoyable climb over some easily navigated terrain. At first it is a series of slabs and ledges, but about 500 feet below the summit is a small, beautiful meadow (although brown now in the late season), with sweeping views from the southeast to the east, including the whole Tuolumne Meadows area and the surrounding peaks. It appears this used to be a high lake long ago, and is probably swampy in the early part of the season, but quite dry now. I walked through the middle of it thoroughly enjoying the quiet of the moment. A more wonderful spot to be at the time I couldn't imagine.

Once across the meadow, the quiet was interupted by some heavy breathing (mine) as the route gets pretty strenuous from here. A steep slope of boulders slowed me down, as I made my way up, pausing every 30 steps or so. The summit is rounded from this direction, so it takes a bit of time before one can see the actual summit. I could see around to the west side of the peak and was surprised by the steepness of the cliffs I found there. These were much steeper than those on the east side, and quite a bit more impressive as a result. It was 11a when I reached the summit, or what I thought was the summit. A second summit was a short distance to the south, and from this vantage point it was impossible for me to tell which was the higher point. I looked around for a register among the rocks on the north summit, hoping the presence of one would indicate I was on the correct summit. No luck. The lack of one was not proof that I was wrong, however. Few of the peaks not on one of the Sierra Club peak lists have registers, although sometimes there are more informal ones that climbers may leave from time to time.

The views from the summit were grand. One could see for many miles in just about all directions, the only nearby obstruction being Mt. Hoffmann to the southwest. To the south and southeast were the Clark and Cathedral Ranges, respectively, and all of northern Yosemite visible to the north and northwest.

I debated whether I should carry on over to the south summit. There was 60 feet of elevation to lose and regain, and what, I wondered would it really matter? That almost seemed blasphemous, because in the bigger picture one could extrapolate to ask what did it matter if I got to the top of any summit? To a peak bagger it does matter, even if it can't be articulated all that well. So I shot off to the other summit, humored that it took only 15 minutes. Why did I even bother to debate it? Here I found a film canister with some scraps of paper and some names jotted on them. I recognized the name of Andy Smatko, who appeared to have been the last person to make an entry the year before (it's likely others were at the summit but just didn't find the "register"). I don't know how old Andy is, but he must be up there since he is the first person to complete the SPS Peak List back in 1964, and the eleventh to complete the HPS Peak List (which covers all of Southern California) in 1967. That's nearly 500 separate peaks, all before The Summer of Love and Richard Nixon. And he's still at it! Even with all that experience, I have to disagree slightly with his comment about the "obviously" higher north summit. It may very well be that the north summit is higher, but I couldn't tell from either vantage point, and would hardly call it "obvious". Perhaps my eyeballs just aren't honed to the same degree of peakitudeness. Here's the side by side, you be the judge. Before heading down, I took the requisite summit shot, had a quick snack and plotted my return.

I decided it would be more fun to find a new route down, and the class 2 South Ridge looked like a good choice. I could see back towards Tenaya Lake and the trailhead nearly the entire route with only a few ups and downs intervening, none of great note. I decided to see if I could make a beeline, using only dead-reckoning (no compass) to return to the trailhead. I started down the South Ridge, but then headed down the eastside cliffs as soon as it looked class 3, which was surprisingly close to the summit. I picked my way down the various granite ledges and short chutes in a fun route-finding exercise.

The rest of the return journey was fairly uneventful other than I did manage to cut a nearly straight line return. Of interest is that there is an easy cross-country route one can follow between the May Lakes and Murphy Creek trails. It save about a mile and a half off a loop between the two drainages and only costs about 100 feet of elevation gain. I returned to the trailhead at 12:30p, only an hour and a quarter after leaving the summit. This gave me plenty of time to drive the 5 hours home to San Jose before sunset, even with a stop for dinner.

This was the last visit of the season to the Sierra for me, the end of a fun season indeed. Twenty peaks in seven trips, nineteen total days. Either my kids are going to have to grow up awfully fast or I'm going to have to quit my job if I'm going to top that next year. Hmmm. That last one isn't a bad thought... :)

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