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We didn't get to bed until nearly 10:30p the night before and I didn't bother setting an alarm. So it was no surprise really when Michael failed to get up at 4a like he planned, despite the fact that I had gotten up to relieve myself twice in those last hours of nightfall, almost stepping over his unstirring body taking up floor space in our motel room. At 6:30a I got up for good, waking my companions in the process. It's one thing to sleep in and get some needed rest, it's an entirely different thing to waste good climbing daylight - we had more climbing to do!
We had discussed a few options the night before while eating dinner, and the best candidates seemed to be in Little Lakes Valley. Michael was interested in skiing the Dade Couloir, Matthew preferred a climb of Mt. Abbot, and having already climbed both, I was interested in nearby Treasure Peak. So it seemed we might all set out from the same trailhead and climb different peaks. Maybe we'd wave to each other from the summit? We got no chance to find out, because when we drove up the Rock Creek road we were confronted with a locked gate while still two miles from Mosquito Flat. The additional hiking would mean an extra four miles total, and none of us were terribly interested in more miles after our Barnard/Trojan outing. So we quickly made an alternate plan - Michael and Matthew wanted to go after Morgan (S), while I was interested in Wheeler Ridge and the highpoint along it, Wheeler Peak. Driving back to the south end of Rock Creek Lake we were confronted with a second locked gate, but this one was only a half mile from the TH, a distance we could live with. We parked the cars, geared up, and were ready to go at 8:30a. Matthew had the only map amongst us, since we hadn't really planned to hike here. Michael and I studied the map as best we could with the few minutes we had before heading out, particularly myself since I would be heading back towards Tamarack Lakes, an area I'd yet to visit.
Michael was wearing heavy plastic ski boots which struck me as quite odd. They seemed (and indeed were) quite clunky to hike in, but I suppose it was better than trying to lug them on his back along with his skis and other gear. He wasn't making ski mountaineering look very enticing there at the start. Matthew and I went ahead, leaving Michael back on the road - he would have his chance to catch up once he started downhill. The first couple of miles were mostly snow-free, but as we hiked up to the higher Wheeler Plateau, the snow-cover became more uniform, and the trail harder to find. As we gained some altitude we had a fine view looking back on the Abbot Group, still with plenty of snow. We found the turnoff to Francis/Kenneth Lakes, and once heading in a southeast direction we stopped looking too hard for the trail. Instead we took the path of least resistance through the forest which often corresponded to the route of the trail which would appear under us from time to time along the next mile.
We came to the turnoff for Francis Lake (which Matthew and Michael would follow up to Morgan), and had a fine view of Wheeler Ridge to the southeast. A broad, snow-filled couloir rose nearly the entire height of the ridge before us, and immediately this looked to offer the most straightforward route for me to take up to Wheeler Peak. We bid each other goodbye and went separate ways. My route took me down past first Kenneth, then Dorothy Lake, as I found the route-finding almost trivial with this gigantic ridge looming in front of me. As I drew nearer I could see south up the canyon towards Tamarack Lakes, with Broken Finger Peak (named by Andy Smatko who broke his finger deflecting a loosened boulder when making the first attempt in 1967) rising high at the end of the narrow valley.
The closer I got to the couloir the less steep it appeared, and by 10:30a when I reached the base of the snow climb it looked to be only 35 degrees or so. Initially I guessed it would take an hour to climb up to the ridge, but after making great progress in the first eight minutes I changed my estimate to a mere 20 minutes. But the view up was deceiving, and the top of the ridge was much further than it looked to be. In the end I took the full hour just to reach the highest point of snow, and I was still some ways below the ridge. Once on the rock I found it both loose and tedious (funny how those adjectives always go together), and I was beginning to see why Wheeler Ridge isn't very popular. The views at least were grand, west to the Mammoth area, northwest overlooking the plateau, and north along the spine of Wheeler Ridge. Once I was up on the ridge proper I was treated to the best view of Mt. Tom I'd ever seen, with a good view into the alpine region behind Mt. Tom going south to Humphreys.
It was class 2 going along the broken ridgeline to the summit of Wheeler Peak, where I arrived at 12:15p. I found a small register in a glass jar that was placed in the 1970's with mention of previous notes found dating to the 1940s. This is not a popular peak, seeing only two or three ascents each year, and not being an SPS list, it had none of the more familar names I'd come to recognize in the SPS peak registers. John Moynier's entry from 1988 was the most notable I saw, and I found it interesting how many entries made specific mention that they climbed the peak looking for Bighorn Sheep (there were no records of any sightings in more than a dozen years). There were great views in almost all directions (SW - W - NW - N - E - SE - S).
Knowing from Secor that the South Ridge was also class 2 and always looking for an alternative for the descent, I decided to continue my southern heading along the ridge. The several hundred yards between the higher north summit and its lower southern counterpart was the most enjoyable scrambling of the day. By sticking strictly to the ridgeline there was plenty of class 3 fun, including one class 4-5 piece of fractured granite about 2/3 of the way across the traverse. The views from the south summit weren't terribly different, but there was an improved view of the serrated Broken Finger Peak, unquestionably the most impressive-looking peak in the area (even though Mt. Morgan is higher). I made a mental note to come back some day in the future to climb it. I continued south along the ridge for another half mile until the cliffs on the west side gave way to boulder fields I could descend through. These were mostly basketball-sized rocks that were uncomfortably loose, required great attention, and consequently weren't all that fun. After dropping almost 500ft I finally reached the snowfields that I greeted with relief. On the steeper intial portions I did standing glissades, then once down in the broad ravine I turned north to follow the drainage out, jogging and sliding my way by still-frozen Tamarack Lakes, down 1,200ft over the next mile and a half in all of about 15 minutes - great fun.
Down lower I stumbled upon the trail again, poking out in places from under the snow. I was looking for my tracks from the morning but overshot them in the vicinity of Dorothy Lake. Not realizing this, I continued heading northwest when I should have been angling more west. I found more pieces of the trail which initially had me thinking I was on the right track, but eventually I realized it was a roughly parallel trail taking me about half a mile out of the way. I corrected course and rejoined the original route at Kenneth Lake. By now I was well below the firm-snow line and I was starting to posthole more regularly. If the snow was softer and I just punched through with my initial step it would have been no big deal. But it was of the annoying firmness that I didn't posthole until I had lifted up my back foot. Not only does it throw any kind of pace completely off, but it's like climbing stairs on flat ground since you have to expend the energy to lift the body before the snow would collapse and bring the foot to the ground level. This I found extremely frustrating. I would go out of my way to bushwhack under the trees or zig-zag in order to take advantage of whatever dry patches I could find. Snowshoes would have been very helpful about this time. I got so frustrated at one point that I swore at the top of my lungs. Knowing there wasn't likely anyone around to bother, it servered merely as a way to blow off steam and I have to say it made me feel better afterwards. Of course I postholed again immediately after that momentary feeling of contentment.
At least I didn't get lost, and I found my way back to down the trail to the trailhead at Rock Creek Lake. Another half mile walk along the road, and I was back at the car at 3:30p, a leisurely 7hr outing. Michael returned from Mt. Morgan at 4p, evidently having enjoyed a delightful ski descent down Morgan's north slopes. As expected Matthew had beaten Michael to the summit, and he had waited an hour or more at the top for Michael to join him. Michael waited at the cars with me until just after 5:30p, hoping the three of us could enjoy dinner together at the Whoa Nellie. Giving up well past the time we expected Matthew to return, Michael headed back in his car while I waited longer. Figuring he may have rested and fallen asleep somewhere, I wasn't really worried that anything bad had happened - mostly I was just getting hungry. Matthew came strolling in at 6p to my relief, apologizing for taking longer than expected. No harm done (I got some quality reading done while he was out), we set out for home (with a stop at the Whoa Nellie naturally), not getting in to San Jose until after midnight. It was a fine four days, and I'm now becoming convinced that May is one of the finer months to spend in the Sierra.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Wheeler Peak
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