Tue, Aug 3, 2010
Lost Cannon Peak
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I had thought I'd visited most areas of the Sierra between Lake Tahoe and Mt. Whitney to within at most a few miles, but came to find a large empty space north of Sonora Pass and east of the Sierra Crest, terra incognita so to speak. There are a half dozen peaks on the WSC list that I had yet to visit and this blank area had caught my attention some months earlier. The seven peaks in this area were spread out over a much larger area than I could cover in a day, so at least two days would be required. As I came to find out, even that wasn't enough.
I had left San Jose without a very solid plan on what I was going to do over the next few days, other than "climb some of these peaks." The important part of the plan that I left out had to do with food and the obtaining of said food. Normally I would climb for the day, retire to one of the east side towns for repast, sleep somewhere, rinse and repeat. The problem with this remote area north of Sonora Pass was that there weren't any towns of note between the various trailheads and I'd failed to bring sufficient foodstuffs to suffice for a few days. I sort of glossed this over as a "training regimen", thinking I'd see how my body would hold up on a minimum of food, perhaps a few nut bars to tide me over. "How big a deal could it make for a few days?" I figured. Umm, plenty, it turns out.
From my bivy at Chipmunk Flat I drove east over Sonora Pass in the morning and down to the marine's Mountain Warfare Training Center. What I hadn't known until a few days ago was that there is a public access road going through the center that provides access to Silver Creek Meadow and the trailheads just south of this area of interest. A decently graded road accessible to all vehicles, it winds its way steeply out of Pickel Meadow, climbing high above the West Walker River drainage. One fork of the road comes to an end at 8,600ft in Silver Creek Meadow, only a few miles from three of the peaks I was after - a good place to start.
There was a bevy of men and vehicles breaking down a large encampment for an activity already completed when I arrived about 7:45a. They may have been a contractor tearing down for a marine exercise in the area, but I didn't speak to anyone at the time to confirm this. There is a trailhead board located here but finding the trail is the real trick. Shortly past the board the road ends and the trail drifts off into a grassy meadow almost without a trace. I wasn't planning to use the trail much at all today so this wasn't much of a deterrent.
I headed southwest through the large meadow, past an old log cabin and across Silver Creek, aiming for the long, broad East Ridge rising up towards White Mtn. Progress was helped some by finding an old road shown on the 15' map (but not on the newer 7.5' map) that goes over the lower shoulder of this ridge. The cross-country was not difficult, somewhat cramped in the brushy forest, but opening up nicely by the time the ridgeline was reached. The ridge provides fine views of Wells Peak and Lost Cannon Peak to the north, and the Sawtooth Ridge to the south.
The ridgeline I followed led up to White Benchmark, about a miles southeast of White Mtn. I reached the benchmark at 9:45a, about two hours after starting out. Half an hour of easy walking led to the summit rocks of White Mtn. There was a jar with a recent, albeit trashed-looking,register from 2008. Inside was a small film cannister, with a classic Andy Smatko register dating to 1992 (I believe he was already over 80yrs old, by this time). Off to the west of the ridge I traveled on was the Sierra Crest with Sonora and Stanislaus Peaks both prominent. In between dropped a 2,000-foot canyon formed by the Carson River flowing north.
At this point I was feeling pretty good despite having no breakfast and no lunch in my pack, either. I had intended to head northeast from here to reach Wells Peak a few miles away, but changed my plans on the fly to continue north along the ridgeline for Whitecliff Peak. There is another trailhead to the east that is an easier approach for Whitecliff, but I was feeling bold and thinking I might swoop up a few extra peaks in a long day. So off I went.
The ridge was fairly tame and never more than class 2. Though sparsely vegetated, there were some lovely flowers in bloom to add color and beauty to the easy hiking. And what's not to like about the views one gets from walking a ridgeline? What I didn't fully appreciate until later was that Whitecliff was more than four miles away and even with modest terrain this could take a bit of time with undulations along the way and some tedious boulder-hopping in places. In all I spent some three hours between White Mtn and Whitecliff Peak, not exactly sure where the time went, but certainly not in resting. The climb to Whitecliff finishes with hiking up a local highpoint nearly as high as Whitecliff, dropping more than 600ft to a saddle, then a long haul up a nasty sand slope for half the final distance up to Whitecliff.
I found no register atop the summit when I reached it around 1:15p, though I can't say I spent much effort looking around. My energy was beginning to fade by this time and an earnest effort to find a register was the first thing to be sacrificed. My bold plan had been to head to Antelope Peak to the northeast after reaching Whitecliff, but the foolishness of this had slowly dawned on me as I was taking more time than expected to reach Whitecliff. Figuring I could do that one the next day with Mineral Peak, I set my sights on Fish Valley Peak.
Fish Valley Peak lies almost 4 miles due east from Whitecliff. Between them runs the Silver King Creek and a wide valley that would require dropping some 2,600ft followed by a similar climb back to the summit. This segment I knew would take some time to complete. I first dropped back down to the South Shoulder and from there took some sandy scree slopes down to Whitecliff Lake, one of the few lakes in the whole area. Here I stopped to revive myself with a refreshing but very cold swim in the emerald waters. From this vantage point the white cliffs that give rise to the name of the peak and lake are very evident. If it weren't for the generally crappy nature of the rock throughout this area of the Sierra, one might think there was some very good rock climbing to be had on the near-vertical cliffs there.
Just after 2p I was on my way again, skirting the south side of the lake, crossing the outlet, and then heading downhill. Pete Yamagata in his online guide describes a use trail leading up to the lake and it was not difficult to find it. Or portions of it, anyway. Though flagged or ducked in places, the trail is often indistinct and I lost it several times on my way down. The cross-country is easy enough throughout the area that I didn't lose much time when the trail was lost.
By 3p I had reached Upper Fish Valley and the lowpoint of my segment across the valley. I found old fencelines and campsites in the area, but no cattle grazing in the large meadow. Portions of the meadow were wet and boggy and it was with some care that I picked my way across it. A large toad hopped out from under my feet near the creek. The crossing of Silver King Creek took some effort without taking off my boots, but with the aid of some islands in a braided portion of the stream I found a way across.
Once I started up the broad ridge towards Fish Valley Peak, I was fully aware just how much energy I was lacking. I grunted and groaned my way up the sagebrush and forest-covered slopes, taking almost two hours to reach the summit. The sun felt hot in the afternoon and I was very much wishing I had had breakfast or something to eat for lunch. Food, it turns out, it pretty important. The 800 calories I would consume in a gallon of Gatorade during the day just wasn't cutting it.
A MacLeod/Lilley register dated to 1994 and included an entry by Bob Sumner, but none others that I recognized. There's a fine view of the Sweetwater Range to the southeast and Antelope Peak to the north. Views west were partially washed out by the sun hanging over the horizon. Looking ahead to the ridgeline going south, I was happy to see easy ground without the undulations I'd had going from White to Whitecliff. Still, I didn't think I could do both of the two remaining peaks and was already writing Lost Cannon off for another day.
Heading off the south slope of Fish Valley Peak I startled several bucks that had been resting and hiding in the brush. I wasn't very quick in getting my camera out and they were already some distance away before I could take their picture. It was almost 6p by the time I got to the unnamed highpoint along the ridge where it splits, the left fork heading to Lost Cannon, the right fork to Wells Peak. I was somewhat torn at this point. Wells would be the easiest of the two peaks to hit on the way back, but there was this saddle that dropped between me and the peak that would require some 600ft to reach Well's summit. Lost Cannon was a bit out of the way, but didn't have the same drop. After a moment of indecision in my tired state, I decided to head for Lost Cannon.
In a long stretch of sandy ground that I had to traverse along towards Lost Cannon, I had to blink a few times when I spotted a naked man sitting in the sand with his back to me about 100yds ahead. I soon realized it was a mannequin, and it was indeed naked, and missing a few limbs to boot. My guess was (or is) that it was part of a marine exercise run in the area - you know, the one where they learn to surround, disarm, and capture naked terrorists hiding out in the mountains. These are very good skills every marine should learn.
Yamagata's guide describes two summits to Lost Cannon, both class 3 and of approximately equal height. I tackled the north summit first as the easier of the two, a straightforward scramble when approached from the notch between them. The south summit turned out to be a trickier problem. I first tried to reach the summit from the north via the same notch I'd used for the north summit. This route almost worked, but left me with a last stretch that I backed down off of. I then tried to the south, around to the east side and up from there, but after some class 3-4 bit of hairiness was stymied as well. I finally had to admit I needed help and dug in my pocket for the copy of Pete's description that I had there. Though not entirely accurate, it served its purpose and got me to the correct starting point, up 40-50ft on the west side, through a notch, down 15ft on the east side, along a ledge and then up some tricky class 3 that threatens to push you off on your way to the summit. Interestingly, the route comes within about 10 feet of the north side route I had tried first and may have been able to traverse around on the east side to join with this route had I tried to do so. Oh well, I got to the top.
The pole Yamagata described had been taken down, adding to the confusion as to which was the correct block. I put the pole back up as an aid for future climbers. There was no register to be found. Too bad, because this little gem was the best class 3 summit I've seen in the Sierra between Sonora Pass and Donner Pass, far to the north. It was so good that I'd forgotten just how tired I was. By now it was past 7p and getting late. The 12hrs I'd taken so far began to feel more like 16 or 18hrs. Back down on the west side of the summit blocks I found a set of nesting tins with nothing inside - the bottoms had been rusted out anyway, making them virtually useless as a register container.
I spent the next hour making my way south and southwest back towards Silver Creek Meadows, down steep slopes on the south side of Lost Cannon, a combination of fun sand slopes and not-so-fun talus, brush and bouldery creekbed. As I got back to the meadow around 8:20p, I found a party of 4-5 soldiers busy setting up a couple of large tents for more marine exercises that night. They suggested I might sleep near my car if I'd like, but when I asked what time they'd be quieting down, they sort of smiled and said, "Oh, we'll be up pretty late." I think they were planning a drunken reverie more than a training exercise. I'd find a quieter place to sleep.
I drove back down to SR108 and then down to US395 where I turned north. I ended up at the TH for Antelope Peak at Rodriguez Flat around 10p, without dinner. I wasn't all that hungry anyway, but my body was missing the energy. I would pay for it again the next day. Some lessons take more than one day to sink in.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: White Mountain - Whitecliff Peak - Fish Valley Peak - Lost Cannon Peak
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