Mount Shasta, Clear Creek Route

Opting to leave the Bay Area Saturday morning to avoid Friday evening traffic on Labor Day Weekend (with the Bay Bridge closed) was a good choice. The primary objective for the weekend was the Trinity Alps (see prior posts), but Shasta seemed like a fun objective to squeeze in Saturday midday. On my first attempt of Shasta in 2009 I was nearly blown off the mountain due to whiteout conditions but I came back in June 2010 to summit in much better conditions. Both of my previous experiences were on the standard Avalanche Gulch route with 100% snow coverage. This time couldn’t be more different with only one small patch of snow to cross near the summit and attire consisting of shorts and a t-shirt. In late summer, the south and west sides of Shasta consist of much loose material (sand, pumice and gravel). I chose the Clear Creek Route since it’s very straightforward and would give me a view of Shasta I hadn’t seen before. The access road to the Clear Creek trailhead is a gravel road and rough in spots (caution required for passengar cars) so it takes longer to access than the paved highway to Bunny Flat. The first part along the Clear Creek Trail is quite pretty with conifer forest at first and then wildflower meadows with views into Mud Creek Canyon and Falls and Mount Shasta looming above.

After the primary camping area at around 8,400 ft, the trail becomes a use-path with several braids that can be confusing, but they all ultimately lead up toward the summit. The key is finding the use path that contains the most solid blocks of rock. Despite my best efforts, for much of the way up this portion, I felt like I was making two steps up only to slide one step down. I utilized more solid rock wherever I could so my efforts weren’t without some reward. Despite being loose, the Clear Creek Route is quite efficient and I soon found myself at the summit around 3 hours after starting. The view is similar to that from an airplane with nothing really close.  Naturally, my favorite angle is toward the Trinity Alps, the most rugged thing in sight. Mount McLauglin also rises prominently to the north with its distinct cone shape. While the loose slopes were tedious on the way up, they were quite fun for the return trip with some great plunge stepping down thousands of feet of sand and gravel. Overall, the Clear Creek Route was nice and proved to be a great workout with nearly 8,000 ft of gain. I got a late start after 10 a.m. due to driving from the Bay Area that morning, but was back just after 3 pm with plenty of time to grab dinner and make our way over to the Canyon Creek trailhead in the Trinity Alps. Strava GPS route here.

Trinity Alps Traverse

The Trinity Alps are a spectacular subrange within the Klamath Mountain Range in northwestern California. At the core of the Trinity Alps is section of high, white granite peaks known as the White Trinities. These mountains are impressively rugged and due tot their geographical location, they contain elements of the Cascade mountains to the north (lush vegetation) and the High Sierra to the south (pristine granite).  Topping out at just over 9,000 feet, the height of the Trinity Alps is not impressive when compared with the Sierras, but their higher latitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean allow for significant winter snow accumulation and the existence of a few small glaciers. The largest of these cirque glaciers is immediately below Thompson Peak and due to the dry winter was virtually all bare ice with many active crevasses. I climbed Thompson Peak early in the season in 2009 finding substantial snow above Canyon Creek Lakes. On that trip I admired the long serrated ridge between Thompson Peak and Mount Hilton. Four years later I decided it was time to return to do this amazing traverse and climb the three named summits on the ridge – Mount Hilton, the Wedding Cake, and Thompson Peak. Strava route here. Complete photo album here.

I started out the day by ascending the Canyon Creek Trail which has some nice runnable sections. Once I ascended into a flat meadow area it seemed as if there was a tent at every corner (along with illegal fires). Labor Day weekend is a busy time for the Canyon Creek drainage, easily the most heavily used area in the Trinity Alps. Fortunately, once I left Boulder Creek Lakes I would see nobody until the summit of Thompson Peak. Solitude can be found in the Trinities even on the busiest weekends, but don’t expect to have Canyon Creek Lakes to yourself!  The ascent to Boulder Creek Lakes from the junction with the Canyon Creek Lakes Trail is on fairly rugged, steep trail but it’s less than 2 miles to the lakes from the junction. Boulder Creek Lakes are tiny but they are situated in a beautiful granite basin with Sawtooth Peak as a backdrop. From Boulder Creek Lakes it’s over 3,000 feet up to the summit of Mount Hilton. Surveying the slopes, my primary objective was to avoid thick brush which seemed pervasive on the lower part. My routefinding was pretty effective as I was able to pick my way through steep slabs instead of brush. Eventually, the terrain opens up with alp meadows and easy talus climbing toward Mount Hilton’s class three summit block. Once on the summit of Mount Hilton, I was greeted to a lovely view of the surrounding area, including the traverse to Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Peak across Canyon Creek and Mount Shasta in the distance. Descending from Mount Hilton, there was one uncertain section to cross a cliffy barrier into the next drainage. I found a loose ramp that was perched over cliffs that worked but looking back a route further down the ridge might have been an easier and faster way through this barrier.   

Once past the barrier, I worked my way up to another shoulder and then an awesome “granite highway” section ensued for 2+ miles. This section is stunning with rugged unnamed peaks and spires towering above on ridge crest and sweeping views of the pristine granite slopes to Canyon Creek Lakes below. The smooth white granite is interspersed with grassy meadow benches and small cascading streams, a delightful setting. I traversed over the ridge crest at a saddle south of the Wedding Cake and used a class 3 chute on the northwest side of the Wedding Cake to climb this rock formation, which has more amazing views. After the Wedding Cake I descended a little lower and found easy traversing on granite benches to Thompson Peak and then picked a route further to the west that I knew would be on more solid rock and faster than the sandy slopes on the south side of Thompson. In fact, it took only a little over a half an hour to reach Thompson Peak from the Wedding Cake. The views from this last summit of the day, and highest point in the Trinity Alps, were marvelous. I enjoyed the scene with a group who had ascended via a camp at Canyon Creek Lakes. The descent from Thompson Peak to Canyon Creek Lakes was spectacular with inspiring views the entire way, especially looking back up towards the traverse I had just completed. While Canyon Creek Lakes are popular, they are a beautiful spot with granite slabs coming down the lake shore and excellent views of the Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak up the Canyon. After Lower Canyon Creek Lake I jogged most of the way back to the trailhead. Next time I’m in the Trinities I hope to possibly include Caesar Peak in the traverse or climb Sawtooth Peak across the Canyon. Either way, I will definitely be returning since the Trinity Alps Traverse was an amazing route!  Strava route here.

Mount Stanford and Kings-Kern Loop

Mount Stanford is a very attractive mountain located on the Kings-Kern Divide straddling Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. At 13,973 ft, it’s just shy of fourteen thousand feet so it doesn’t draw the attention comparable to Sierra fourteeners, but it’s just as impressive of a mountain in terms of stature, difficulty to surmount, and commanding views. The peak is extremely remote with long approaches via either the eastside utilizing Kearsarge Pass or University Pass or the westside from Road’s End in Kings Canyon. In fact, the westside of the peak harbors one of the most remote drainages in the High Sierra with rarely seen views of the Ericsson Crags and the west face of Stanford. As far as trail visibility, Mount Stanford is only prominent from a small stretch of the John Muir Trail from Forester Pass down to Center Basin. Via the southwest slopes originating in Upper Kern Basin, most of the elevation gain to climb Mount Stanford is fairly easy, but the summit itself is located along a narrow and precipitous ridgeline to the north of Gregory’s Monument. Strava route here.

Gregory’s marks the end of the easy scrambling and while it’s only 30 feet lower in altitude than Mount Stanford, Gregory’s is more like a point along the ridge instead of a true summit. The scramble between Gregory’s Monument and Stanford features an improbable ledge/ramp that allows Stanford to be climbed without technical gear from Gregory’s Monument (otherwise the cliffs are sheer). However, care must be taken due to immense exposure and some loose rock along the traverse and scramble. For my summit of Stanford, I decided to approach via Road’s End and make a loop including East Lake, Harrison Pass, Upper Kern Basin, Milly’s Foot Pass and gorgeous Lake Reflection. While my route entailed more miles and elevation gain to climb Stanford than the eastside approaches (or even if I chose to do it as an out-and-back), I’m certain it was the more aesthetic and scenic route.

Along the way to Stanford I walked beneath the towering spires of the Ericsson Crags and passed by several high elevation tarns. Travel up the drainage to Harrison Pass was better than I expected and I managed to skirt most of the scary sketchy loose gravel on the steep slope heading up the final chute to Harrison Pass. Above Harrison Pass, I started to feel the altitude a bit having come directly from sea level and the cumulative effects of exertion to reach this point. It took a few minutes to negotiate the scramble portion and figure out the route, but I was soon atop Stanford enjoying the stunning panoramic views including the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer and the Sierra Crest. After departing Stanford, I headed down into Kern Basin and traversed around the shoulder of Mount Ericsson’s south ridge heading for Milly’s Foot Pass. I had been to Milly’s in 2009 and it was just as sketchy as I remembered it with kitty litter over the rock. I felt more safe climbing more difficult but solid rock on the side of the chute than descending down the chute itself. Fortunatley, this portion is only 100 feet or so and I was soon on gravel and talus slopes heading down toward breathtaking Lake Reflection, one of the finest alpine lakes in all of the Sierra. This heavenly lake features crystal clear waters and dramatic views of Mount Genevra and Mount Jordan, seemingly rising straight up from the pristine shores. I enjoyed a snack and rest at Lake Reflection and then continued back to East Lake, completing the lollipop loop of the Kings-Kern Divide. I met up with Erica just below East Lake and we enjoyed stellar evening light on Mount Bago as we descended toward Junction Meadow. The final 10 miles of trail back to Road’s End were enjoyable with net downhill and beautiful evening light. Next time I hope to climb Mount Ericsson and Mount Genevra. Overall, the route entailed nearly 38 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Strava route here.

Red Slate Mountain

The region between Rock Creek and Mammoth Lakes hasn’t drawn my attention in the past. I’ve always thought the peaks in this sector of the High Sierra are loose choss piles (at least that’s how they look from Hwy 395), devoid of the granite ruggedness found in other parts of the range. While Red Slate Mountain is arguably a choss pile, I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to this region finding gorgeous scenery and many options for future trips. The geology of this area is especially fascinating with a palette of rock colors ranging from blazing red to pale white. Along the way we even spotted purple and green rocks. The interesting geology of the region is reflected in the series of photos below. In fact, Red Slate Mountain’s neighbor is aptly name Red & White Mountain with red and white striations throughout its face. Just to the west is the Silver Divide with quintessential gray and white granite I am accustomed to in the High Sierra. While Red Slate Mountain is not an interesting climb via the class 2 route from McGee Pass, the view from the summit is outstanding. My favorite vantage was looking down at Lake Dorothy, Constance Lake, and the many other lakes of the Convict Creek basin. The other highlight of the trip was passing by a triumvirate of lakes leading up to McGee Pass, each becoming progressively smaller and more desolate as one ascends toward the pass. Big McGee Lake is by far the largest and most scenic with clumps of alpine trees surrounding its shores and Mount Crocker’s north face in the background. Gorgeous wildflower meadows above Big McGee Lake lead to Little McGee Lake tucked in beneath the cliffs of Red & White Mountain. “Mini” McGee is the final tarn below McGee Pass, a desolate place with virtually no vegetation to speak of. This 20 mile roundtrip route would make for an excellent high altitude run as a “one-up” with 6,200+ foot gain, but all downhill on the way back.  Strava route here.

Sawtooth Loop: Matterhorn Peak – Finger Peaks – Kettle Peak

The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I call this particular route the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates an impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. This deeply serrated ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. On my route I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak, but there are numerous other variations and objectives in the region to include on such a loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon are spectacular glacier carved canyons lined with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of this region south of Sawtooth Ridge. Strava route here

The most straightforward ascent of Matterhorn is via Horse Creek Pass. The going is very reasonable up to a shoulder above Horse Creek Pass, but once around the corner there is a section of tedious gravel slopes on Matterhorn’s southeast slopes (two steps up, slide a step back). The east couloir route, which I did on my first trip ever in the Sierra, is the preferred early season route when the couloir is still snow covered. Right now it looks like a loose, steep mess for a taxing ascent (i.e. more tedious than the Horse Creek Pass route). After enjoying the view from the summit I scrambled down to a small col where a sandy chute provides access to Matterhorn Peak’s southwest slope and Matterhorn Canyon. The descent through the chute is loose and also much preferable as a descent route. The chute deposited me fairly rapidly into the headwaters of Matterhorn Canyon. From upper Matterhorn Canyon I traversed over to Finger Peaks and scrambled up the east Finger. I wound up in hard class 3 and class 4 but it probably could have been easier if I was more careful with my route selection. I traversed the south side of the middle Finger and then ascended it via the class three route (starting from the notch between Middle and West Fingers) to gain summit and the highest point of Finger Peaks. This class 3 route seems improbably with a narrow natural ledge cut into a steep and smooth granite face piecing together two class 3 scramble portions. Without this ledge, the scramble looks like it would be at least class 4. The view of Sawtooth Ridge, Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon from both the east and middle Fingers are stupendous – one of best panoramas I have seen in the Sierra. I was happy to see the couloir west of the middle Finger was largely snow free so I descended more steep and loose slopes (carefully skirting around ice) and then pleasant alpine meadows down to the Burro Pass Trail. After a couple miles of running along the Burro Pass Trail, I headed cross country through meadows and granite benches to Ice Lakes Pass where I continued up to Kettle Peak. I had initially thought about tagging Eocene, but the route looked to require a bit more time than I had on this day. Kettle Peak was an awesome replacement objective with arguably the best view of the Incredible Hulk rock wall. From the summit, it’s as if you’re in a helicopter staring down at the sheer rock with climbers that look like specs on the immense granite face.  Descending from Kettle Peak the views of the Incredible Hulk and Maltby Lake continued. I passed by some climber camps and then picked up the good use path through Little Slide Canyon. It’s an arduous climbers path to be sure, but it would be an incomparably more arduous trek through Little Slide Canyon without this path.  The Incredible Hulk is all that I imagined it to be and more – a precipitous rock spire rising nearly vertically from the talus slopes below. It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath this rock, especially in the afternoon with ideal lighting. It goes without saying that I’ll be back for more adventures to this wild and remote corner of northern Yosemite. Strava route here.

Desolation Seven Summits

The Desolation Seven Summits loop offers the best showcase of the Desolation Wilderness I can think of and arguably contains the most rugged and impressive mountain scenery of any route in the Sierra Nevada north of Sonora Pass. The aesthetic loop climbs seven of the high points in the Desolation circumnavigating Lake Aloha and also providing grand vistas of Lake Tahoe. The loop contains a nice mixture of big climbs, scrambling and trail miles. Total mileage is close to 30 miles with nearly 10,800 ft of elevation gain. Considering the vast majority of the elevation gain is off-trail on often arduous terrain, this is a great workout.

The Desolation Wilderness is located west and southwest of Lake Tahoe and is known for the granite landscape created by the Crystal Range with its beautiful lakes and views. It is easily the most rugged area of the Tahoe basin.  With such beauty and relative close proximity to the Sacramento metro area and South Lake Tahoe comes over-appreciation in the form of crowds and trail quotas. However, this route explores sections of the wilderness that still feel wild, largely owing to the fact that the heart of the route between Pyramid Peak and Dicks Peak is entirely off trail. You won’t see many other people on this section, if any. I personally have yet to see anybody in the Desolation off a trail.  It is this off-trail section that also provides the most spectacular views of Lake Aloha, the crown jewel of the Desolation, and the Crystal Range. Last summer when I did this loop I skipped Ralston Peak (it was the Desolation six summits; photo album with ideal photography conditions in 2012 here) but tagged it on the way out this time. I found Ralston to be a worthy addition with great views of Echo Lakes and a different perspective on the Crystal Range and Lake Aloha. Even with the addition of Ralston, I managed to go 40+ minutes faster than 2012 finishing in around 11 hours total. The faster time is attributed to (1) better navigation between Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz, (2) better route up Jacks Peak, and (3) taking the Tahoe Rim Trail to Gilmore Lake and Mount Tallac from Dicks Pass instead of the off-trail ridge. Without taking hundreds of photos and nursing a nagging injury, I imagine this loop would go in less than 8 hours. Strava route here