Sat, Aug 9, 2003
This was the start of the 2003 Challenge, and I eagerly anticipated this first day. I had never been to the Green Creek TH or visited the northern part of the Hoover Wilderness. Virginia Peak landed on the 2003 list because it was one of the few SPS peaks in the area I had yet to climb, I'd heard the East Face was an interesting route, and I always like to start the Challenge with a visit to Northern Yosemite. And if those aren't all self-serving reasons, I don't know what are.
Before dawn I left my Bridgeport motel room, packed up the car, and headed south on US395. I found the turnoff to the trailhead, but misjudged how long it would take me to drive the last 8.5 miles on the dirt, arriving at 6:15a for a planned 6a start. If my twin had been at the trailhead before me, he would have already started by this time. Instead I found 3 others waiting patiently for me in the parking lot. I apologized for my tardiness. The others had already made introductions - there was Michael Graupe who I'd climbed with a half dozen times in the past, Abe Mamaghani, and John Fedak, neither of whom I'd met before. We shook hands and exchanged greeting, and after I grabbed my daypack from my car we were quickly on our way. A fifth participant, Wayne Martin, didn't show.
It was another fine, glorious Sierra day. No clouds, but lots of wind, though that would come later at the passes. Right from the start John was in the pole position setting a blistering pace as we headed up Green Creek. He seemed like a man possessed, and the rest of us struggled to keep up his pace, probably about 4mph. I felt like I could keep up for an hour or so if necessary, afterwards I'd probably fall back. I hoped he just had nervous puppy energy and would settle down to a more reasonable pace after a mile or so. Excess clothing came off quickly as we all warmed up. The rest of us wanted to tell John to slow down, but not being on familiar terms with each other we kept that to ourselves. The sun had risen on Dunderberg Peak to the south, but fortunately we were still bathed in the cool shade. We marched on. After 30 minutes John slowed down to about 3mph, a pace I could live with, and 15 minutes later he stopped suddenly. "I can't go on like this. You guys go ahead, I'm going to have to slow down," he offered. "Why in the world did you start off with such a fast pace then?" I replied, stumped. "I didn't want to slow you guys down, but I just couldn't keep it up," John countered. We all got some laughs out of that, but in the end we set out and John went at a more leisurely pace behind us. That was the last we saw of John.
When we reached Green Lake, it seemed the interesting part of the hike had begun. We were close to treeline, in alpine country, and we had a beautiful view of the morning sun on Gabbro Peak across the lake. We didn't find the use trail to Virginia Pass where we expected to find it on the north side of Green Lake (the trick is to follow the trail northwest to West Lake for a hundred yards or so until you see a use trail heading west above Green Lake). So we followed the lake shore for about 50 yards until we stumbled upon it a short distance above the lake level. It was an excellent use trail that obviously gets a lot of use to keep it in such good shape, and we had no trouble following it the entire way up and over Virginia Pass. On the west end of Green Lake the trail passed through some rusting mining equipment somewhere between 60 and 100 years old. I imagine its "protected" as a cultural resource, but really its just a bunch of abandoned junk. As we hike on the trees gave way to meadows with various wildflowers in bloom, and these gave way to rocky talus in the cirque just east of the pass.
Virginia Pass marks the boundary with Yosemite NP, and from there we glimpsed the sheer wall that had Peter so excited many years ago - the East Face of Virginia Peak. It only looks imposing from a distance, as it's rated class 3. The views into Virginia Canyon to the west were wonderful, and Michael and I took them in while we waited for Abe to finish the hike up from the east side. I had plans to climb Stanton Peak as well, but from this view it looked rather puny. Michael wanted to climb Twin Peaks after Virginia, and it looked like a much worthier objection. I decided to scratch Stanton and join Michael on his more ambitious plan, even though I had climbed Twin Peaks some years ago.
Three of us went over Virginia Pass, down through meadows and across the stream in the canyon below, and straight towards the East Face. We climbed gentle, grassy slopes and then scree which brought us halfway up the East Face. We followed a steep talus chute that splits the vegetation growing on the face, rising nearly to the top of the Black Triangle feature that has been reported in the literature. We ended up just right of center when we got to the top and found our talus gave out and much of the way ahead blocked by cliffs. Time to climb rock.
By our route the first moves onto the rock followed went up some thin ledges that dissected a steep face. Good holds to keep it class 3, but our first significant exposure. I went up first for about 30 feet, then turned to wait as Michael followed. Abe looked and looked, asking if there wasn't an easier way. We didn't see one. Abe decided he would need more practice on easier class 3 before tackling this stuff with exposure. He said he might look for an easier route, and head back otherwise. Michael and I bid him well and continued up. The climbing was exciting, exposed but with good holds - classic class 3. But after a few hundred feet we found the rock looser than we'd like as many holds came off as we grabbed them. We moved onto an arete on the East Face and climbed along that, but finding it extremely loose. Clouds of dust billowed up and several larger conglomerations of rock tore loose as I weighted them, looking for a way up. We weren't liking the East Face so much anymore. We finally topped out 4hr15m after setting out from the TH. We could see Abe far below. He'd tried to climb some of the loose chutes he found further to the north on the East Face, but these grew progressively steeper and he eventually gave up. We waved to him as he turned to go back. It was windy on top so we put on our jackets, but the wind made the skies clear for some really great views (W - NW - N - E - SE - S). The summit register was only a third full, going back to 1992. We found Michael Golden's entry from the previous year with the note, "Hi Bob!" (He knew I would go up there and look for his signature). We were the second party for 2003, four others had summited 11 days earlier. We were on the summit about 30 minutes before it was time to go on.
Since it was still early (only 11a) we decided we had plenty of time for Twin Peaks. We headed down the NW ridge of Virginia, an interesting route. The volcanic rock is highly fractured and splintered, looking like petrified glass that has shattered into countless needlelike shapes as it was squeezed from the earth below. The pieces are still stuck together at the base, resembling little explosions frozen in mid-air. The climbing was mostly class 2 with some easy class 3, but we took our time marvelling at the rock formations. At the saddle (Twin Peaks Pass) we paused to admire the North Face of Virginia, a far more daunting prospect than the East Face we had taken. An unnamed lake lay below the pass to the east. We noted the wind was blowing harder here than when we on Virginia's summit.
We then turned our full attention to Twin Peaks and started up its South Ridge starting from the pass. Michael kept looking below on the east side for ledges used by other parties to avoid the difficult serrated ridge above. Not seeing these (they were probably far below us), We followed an exciting class 3 (sometimes class 4) line along the ridge, mostly on the east side, but sometimes along the very crest, and even dropping down a short ways on the west side to get around a difficult gendarme. It was even more fun we decided than the climb of Virginia Peak. The rock was generally decent, and the route-finding tricky, making us wonder at a number of junctions whether we'd find a way through. We did, and finally reached the summit at 12:15p. The single register we found there was only two thirds full, and dated from 1964. This was one cool register. Apparently only peak-baggers go after this peak (Rich will probably go ski it next winter), and the list of names were like a Who's Who in peakbagging. Doug Mantle's name was in there six times. Again we had fine views under cloudless skies (W - SE - S).
It still seemed pretty early in the day, just past noon. While we'd been hiking the half mile-long ridgetop towards the summit, I'd been looking to the east wondering if we couldn't descend off that way, to the east of the peak instead of going back through Virginia Pass. It seemed like the route would actually be shorter, and from the west the ridge seems fairly gentle. We studied our map a little closer on the summit, noting the closely spaced contour lines all along the east side of the crest. Probably cliffs, and probably not a good idea to try it on the descent - we could lose several hours if we had to backtrack. Even I didn't want to risk that much time, so I didn't try to talk Michael into going that way. Instead, we headed southeast down the boulder-strewn gully running down between the west and east summits. This is the route suggested by Secor as a better route than the ridge we took up. We found the gully incredibly tedious. For almost 2,000ft we boulder-hopped our way down the gully, wishing either to find more solid rock or a sand-filled chute. We got nothing by piles and piles of boulders. About 600 feet above Virginia Canyon Michael and I diverged on which was the better route. I wanted to traverse left, contouring around to the pass avoiding the loss in elevation. Michael pointed out that it would probably be more tedious sidehilling, and even though I knew he was right I kept angling off to the left. He decided to head straight down, and I contoured. The sidehilling was a pain in the ass, but it turned out to be quicker than Michael's route down to the trail and then up to the pass.
I returned to Virginia Pass by 2p where I found Abe. It was blowing ferociously at the pass now, far more than it had on either summit. In fact the two windiest places all day were Twin Peaks Pass and Viginia Pass. The wind it seemed, was funneling fastest through these low spots on the ridgelines, creating a venturi effect with the resulting high winds. I put on my jacket while we waited for Michael, and even put on gloves. Abe had climbed up too far to the left for Virginia Pass, gone back down to Virginia Canyon, found someone with a map, and then climbed back to the correct pass. He had come across Wayne Martin who had failed to show up at the trailhead to join us in the morning. Wayne had started at Virginia Lakes by mistake, had hiked out to Virginia Canyon, then gone back. A backpacker had seen John heading on to Virginia Peak, but we later found he had turned around before getting there as the time grew later. Michael came up and joined us at the pass along with a lone backpacker who was heading back out. It was an interesting convergence of parties at Virginia Pass. Three of us then returned to the Green Creek TH, arriving at 3:45p. Any Challenge hike that ends before 5p seems like a short hike, but we had been out for 9 1/2 hours, a respectable outing. We dined at the Whoa Nellie, then Abe drove home over Tioga Pass while Michael and I drove south and got a room in Mammoth at the Rodeway Inn. The next day's hike has a 5a start time so we went to bed before 9p. A great first day out.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Virginia Peak - Twin Peaks
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