Unicorn Peak WSC / CS

Aug 14, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Sep 21, 2002


As we woke up in the Tuolumne campground early in the morning, I had grand plans for our second day of climbing. We would tackle Unicorn Peak first, and then Cockscomb Peak later in the afternoon. Our climb the previous day of Cathedral Peak had been great fun, and I was eager to continue fun through today. Both of today's peaks are rated class 4. Most of the climb is class 2-3, with the rope and gear being needed only for the final few hundred feet or less. We packed up the car before 7:30a and drove out to the Tuolumne Grill anticipating a delicious breakfast before starting out. As the Grill doesn't open until 8:30a, we had plenty of time to dry our ground cover and sleeping bags out in the rising sun. We had plenty of time to resort the gear that had been hastily shoved in the pack the day before, and get ready for another day of climbing.

Just before the Grill opened, a mass of humanity had gathered around the entrance, a ragged bunch for the most part (John and I included) that looked more like a soup kitchen crowd. John and I were second in line which was nice, as we had a very short time to wait once the place opened (there were probably 30 people in line when it opened). Hint: arrive at 8:15a to get a good spot in line. I had a breakfast of pancakes, hash browns, orange juice, and hot chocolate, an undeniably better fare than we had for dinner the night before (granola bars and beef jerky). John ate a bit more than I, but then with 30+ pounds on me, that was hardly surprising. Satisfied with our meal, we left our car in the parking lot around 9a and headed south of the lot to find the Elizabeth Lake trailhead somewhere on the other side of the Tuolumne campground.

With a little effort, we found the trailhead after wandering about through the campground. From there it's about two mile up to Elizabeth Lake with just under 1000 feet of elevation gain, a nice morning warm-up. I was carrying the climbing pack again for the second day, an enticement to talk John into climbing Cockscomb after we were done with Unicorn. Well before we got to Elizabeth Lake, we had an excellent view of Unicorn Peak to our right. As we continued along the trail, the peak drew nearer until it was at a right angle to the trail and we had still not gotten to the lake. We were beginning to believe the map was lying to us and that the trail had evil intentions to lead us away from the peak. Not wanting to be fooled, we left the trail, heading east towards the peak. Within a few minutes we were at the southern shore of Elizabeth Lake, where we would have arrived anyway had we stayed on the trail a few more minutes (the trail was just toying with us, I was convinced).

From the south edge of the lake we started heading up the steep ramp up towards the peak. This first part was a series of benches, ledges, some boulders, and some trees and shrubs mixed in just to keep it all interesting. This was pretty steep going, and John was beginning to feel the aftermath of yesterday's exertions (I had been a bit stiff when we had started the day, but was feeling great now that I was warmed up). We would climb up 30 or 40 feet, rest a minute, and repeat the procedure. As we climbed, we had a swell view of Elizabeth Lake below and Johnson Peak rising across the canyon to the east. As we climbed higher, the trees grew sparser and the other vegetation gave out altogether, mostly due to poor soil conditions that were getting rockier. It took us an hour to go only 1/2 mile, but we had climbed almost another 1000 feet to well over 10,500 ft. As we looked about the summit area, it seemed we could almost scramble to the very top, perhaps within about 75 feet. Instead, we chose a route a bit more difficult to the right that would give us a fair bit more technical climbing, but possibly still only one pitch.

It took us the usual 30 minutes or so to unpack our stuff, setup our rope and gear, and begin the climb. I lead up what seemed like a fine pitch, much the same good rock quality we had found on Cathedral the day before. For a couple of novices, "good rock quality" meant few loose rocks to drop down on each other, good cracks for climbing, and clean rock for good foot and hand holds. Like yesterday, John was more than happy to belay from below while I lead. In a short time I had clambered up to crest, just north of the summit, short about 10 yards or so. I setup an anchor (which took me a long time) and belayed John up to me. Once he reached me, he continued upward easily to the summit a short distance away, or at least what I had thought was the summit. I followed John up and found the summit was still 10 yards off, so I clambered up and belayed John the remaining short distance. The whole operation took something like 45 minutes, rather longer than my brief description - we're still not breaking any speed-climbing records.

We had some swell views of what was becoming a quite familiar area to both John and I. Cathedral Peak, which we had climbed the previous day was just to the west of us. Cockscomb, which I still had faint hopes of reaching today, was to the southwest as was Echo Ridge (itself an interesting-looking class 3 climb).

Just like the previous day, we were unsuccessful in our attempts to locate a summit register. Strike two for registers this weekend! We were treated to nice views as we had a snack at the summit. It was now after 1p and beginning to seem less likely we would be able to climb Cockscomb, still a good distance and hike away to the south. It was time to get ourselves off the peak. We decided to let John climb down first, place protection along the way, and then I would follow while he belayed from below. The short south arete seemed a bit difficult for a down climb, so we chose instead to climb down the east face as far south on the summit as we could. I sat at the top waiting for what seemed an interminable time (I still have to work on the patience part of climbing) while the rope slowly fed out of my hand, stopping for long periods while John placed protection. Although the protection does nothing for John since I have him belayed on the rope from above, it could save me from serious injury should I fall while seconding down. Additionally, this was John's first chance to place protection for real, and he was relishing it. He placed 6 pieces of pro in the short 75 feet we had to go, an unusually high quantity. The number represented more John's enjoyment of the task rather than the difficulty of the descent.

After we got off the summit and the rope, we switched into our hiking boots and packed up our gear. It appeared now that it was too late to make it to Cockscomb Peak, so I suggested we might just go as far as the unnamed middle peak between it and Unicorn, just to "have a look" and size things up for a future attempt. John agreed, and we headed off in that direction. Unicorn actually has three summits, the highest one being to the north (and the one we had climbed). The other two minor peaks appeared to be easy class 3, so just for fun I scrambled up those while john headed for the saddle between Unicorn and the middle peak. A few minutes later I joined John at the saddle and we started up the class 2 boulder climb to the middle peak.

From the top we had our closest views of Cockscomb, and it appeared it would make a fine class 5 climb along the northeast ridge. The easiest route approaches from the western side, a short class 4 climb. It seemed we would have a number of options if and when we decided to climb it, but today we had gone far enough. A few more pictures from this summit (which is actually higher than Unicorn, but has no distinguishing features), and we headed down it's eastern ridge. This was another class 2 boulder climb as it brought us back down towards Elizabeth Lake.

We got to a minor saddle that appeared to have an interesting route down to the left, towards the west end of the lake. There was a narrow gully here, not steep, whose sides rose up like a wall on either side 20 feet high. There was still snow in the gully, but we could clearly see a straightforward route to the opening below. John took this route while I followed the eastern wall down that had some nice class 3 climbing. Eventually I ran into a cliff and could make no further progress, so I backtracked up a bit and decended a similar gully just to the east of the first one. This gully also dead ended, as I was faced with 20 foot dropoff with no easy way down. The rope and gear didn't do me any good unless I wanted to set up a rappel and leave some gear behind. Again I climbed back up, and this time entered a third gully (this one with an obvious route down - I was getting tired of backtracking), to the east of the other two.

Eventually I met up with John again at the snowfield below where all the gullies met, and we had some fun glissading as we continued down to the lake. With little previous experience, John did quite well picking up the standing glissade technique. Down at the lake finally, we circled around it counterclockwise (so as to make our circumnavigation of Elizabeth Lake complete) and met up with the Elizabeth Lake Trail once again. From here it was a short hike back to Tuolumne Meadows and the end of another fine day outdoors. It was about 4p now and we still had a long drive back to San Jose, but we stayed long enough to get some liquid refreshments (chocolate milk, in my case) from the Tuolumne Store for the drive home. We waited until we got back to Oakdale for dinner, and treated ourselves to the largest burritos imaginable (with our limited imaginations, anyway) at Sonia's. Highly recommended as a nice way to treat yourself (and restore those lost pounds) after a bit of roughing it in the high country of Yosemite.

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