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

Tapto Lakes

The Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes area is one of the most scenic in all of the North Cascades. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there by any approach so it comes as no surprise that this is an infrequently visited corner of the range. From the west it’s 18+ miles via Hannegan Pass and down the Chilliwack to Brush Creek. From the east it’s 17+ miles along Little Beaver Creek. By either approach, it’s a long way in the woods with relentless flies and mosquitoes along with a healthy dose of quintessential North Cascades brush. I last visited Tapto Lakes eight years ago and it was one of the fondest memories in all of my travels in the North Cascades (which have been fairly comprehensive).  Coming away from this trip I found the basin to be just as spectacular as I had remembered. As with eight years prior, we found a true wilderness with nobody else at the lakes, Whatcom Pass or even miles from the pass.

On this trip we took the boat shuttle from Ross Lake and hiked in via Little Beaver Creek. Progress along the first 10 miles to the junction with the Big Beaver Trail was reasonable as most of this stretch had recently been brushed out and the trail is fairly flat. Moreover, there are several sections in ancient cedar forest that are breathtaking. The upper part of Little Beaver, however, was chocked with waist-deep brush, including copious scratchy salmonberry (i.e. very slow going). Virtually all of the elevation gain on the Little Beaver occurs in the last couple miles to the pass; a 2,500 ft gain along steep switchbacks. Compared to the western approach via Hannegan Pass, the Little Beaver is much more scenic with excellent views of the “wall of thousand falls,” Mount Challenger and the immense Challenger Glacier. Whatcom Pass itself is very small and shielded from most of the views, but a short walk above the pass in either direction reveals sweeping views. If flies, mosquitoes and brush are the price to pay, then it’s worth it. Ascending north from Whatcom Pass on a rugged use path, one enters the alpine zone complete with wildflower meadows and clumps of picturesque alpine firs with Challenger Glacier gleaming in the background. Cresting the ridge, a magical basin of alpine lakes is found. There are at least four lakes in the Tapto Lakes basin and the lake furthest West provides the best view in my opinion. To the east lie Middle Lakes and East Lakes, but from my experience the Tapto Lakes basin is the most scenic. While I spend most of my time in the high Sierra since I live in California, it’s always great to return to the range that inspired me as a youngster. I look forward to many more adventure in the North Cascades.

Mount Florence

Mount Florence is one of the most prominent peaks in the Yosemite high country visible from many spots along Yosemite Valley’s rim. The peak has a sweeping 360 degree panorama of virtually the entire park. While there are several routes to climb Mount Florence, the easiest and quickest route utilizes the Rafferty Creek Trail and Lewis Creek Trail via Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang Pass. After ascending Vogelsang Pass, one descends around 1,000 feet along the Lewis Creek Trail before setting off cross country to beautiful Lk 10,541 (around 10.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows). The cross country travel to Lk 10,541 is fairly straightforward with some boulders and slabs. Lk 10,541 is at the foot of Mount Florence with a stellar view up a remote valley to Mount Simmons, Mount Florence and other rugged unnamed points along the ridge. Beyond Lk 10,541 is a short steep section of talus up to the ridge crest at 11,000 feet. From the ridge, it’s a straightforward class 2 scramble up another 1,600 feet to Mount Florence’s summit – a great workout.

One of my favorite photos of the day was a 360 degree annotated view from the summit of Mount Florence.

I enjoyed the summit for well over a half hour, enjoying the views, which include the heart of the “roof” of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Maclure and the entire Cathedral Range. Mount Florence also provides a clear vantage of the Merced River Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and points along Yosemite Valley’s rim. After the summit rest, I retraced my steps back to Tuolumne Meadows. Instead of an out-and-back, one may descend Florence’s south ridge and traverse cross-country up and over the ridge to Lewis Creek Basin and then the pass near Parsons Peak to Ireland Lake. This scenic route would form an aesthetic loop, but includes a substantial amount of tedious off-trail travel. Since I had a very long day planned for the following day, I decided to leave this loop for next time. Even with climbing Mount Florence as an out-and-back, the route comes in at nearly 14 miles each way (28 miles total) with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Below are some photos from Florence’s summit, Lk 10,541 and Vogelsang Pass. Strava route here.

Goddard & Reinstein Fastpacking

I joined Joel for a two day fastpacking adventure to one of the most remote and incredible regions in the High Sierra.  The route included Mount Reinstein, Mount Goddard, Ionian Basin, Goddard Creek, Finger Basin, and Cathedral Lake.  We accessed from the westside via Courtright Reservoir/Maxson Trailhead which entailed many trail miles. On the way in, we approached via Guest Lake and Blackcap Pass (easy class 3).  Beyond the pass, we traversed through gorgeous Lightning Corral Meadow with streams, tarns, wildflowers and views to the White Divide including Mount Reinstein and Finger Peak. We ascended Mount Reinstein via its easy class 3 southwest slopes. Reinstein provides a fine vantage including Goddard Canyon, the White Divide, Martha Lake, Ambition Lake, and Lake 10,232.  After enjoying the awesome view from Reinstein, we descended class 3 slopes on its northeast side and skirted an extremely loose chute to end up near Reinstein Pass. From there, I continued on to Martha Lake and Mount Goddard via its west chute and southwest slopes. This climb was striaghtforward and proved to be a good workout with 2,600+ gain and inspiring views the entire way. As I had remembered from my climb of Goddard in 2007, the summit’s position west of the crest provides a panorama of the high Sierra that is simply spectacular and among the best.

Descending off Goddard I passed through desolate Ionian Basin with it’s numerous lakes. Travel through the basin is not technically difficult, but tedious with numerous impediments. After a tour through Ionian Basin, I continued down to Goddard Creek Canyon and Lake 10,232. The waterfalls on the granite slopes were amazing. I must have been distracted by these falls as I descended a bit too far into the drainage where there is a deep chasm where the water flows into Lake 10,232. Fortunately, I was able to climb out of the chasm without too much trouble and complete the descent to Lake 10,232. The lake was quite mosquito infested, although still beautiful. This is impressively remote country with essentially no evidence of human impact. I wonder how many make it into this remote canyon each year.  The following morning my expectations were blown away on our ascent through gorgeous Finger Basin, which contains a chain of spectacular alpine lakes that reflect the rugged granite walls of Finger Peak. We made our way up the basin taking many photos and ultimately arrived at Finger Col, an improbable window in an otherwise solid cliff band. Descending from Finger Col is tedious on massive talus blocks but we we arrived at Cathedral Lake in due course, another highlight spot of the loop. From Cathedral Lake, the most straightforward route to Portal Lake is to head north to Chapel Lake and descend easy slopes to a use path heading to Pear Lake. We had initially tried to descend directly to Portal Lake from Midway Lake but found the down climbing tricky without seeing the route from below.  After Portal Lake, we began a long trip back to Courtright Reservoir. After being ambushed by mosquitoes in the upper part of the canyon, the bugs tapered off and the miles clicked off quickly. Overall, a great fastpacking experience and I’m already looking forward to more. The photos below are some of my favorites from the trip.  Route on Strava here (missing last 10 miles).

Mount Starr & Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley (aka rock Creek) is one of the easiest spots to access the high country in all of the Sierra. With the Mosquito Flat trailhead over 10,000 feet, one is literally a few minutes walk away from incredible scenery. The Valley is aptly named with a chain of spectacular alpine lakes. The centerpiece feature of the region is Bear Creek Spire with its renowned north arete creating a spectacular backdrop in the lakes and often reflecting in the early morning light (which I have experienced a couple times in the past on climbs of Bear Creek Spire).  The Sierra crest at Mono Pass is only a few miles up a smooth, well-maintained trail and views broaden as one ascends toward the pass, including Ruby Lake, Mount Dade, Mount Abott, and Mount Mills. In my opinion, this cluster of peaks is one of the apexes of the Sierra crest. It’s no wonder this is a very popular trailhead. On this day, we only had time for a quick morning trip due to weather rolling in and obligations so I made a quick jaunt beyond Mono Pass to Mount Starr, which is an awesome viewpoint of the region. To the north is a great view of Pioneer Basin, Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain. To the south all of the lakes in Little Lakes Valley are visible along with this rugged section of the Sierra crest to Bear Creek Spire. Beyond Bear Creek Spire, Glacier Divide and Mount Humpreheys can be seen on the horizon. After coming of Mount Starr I toured Ruby Lake and traveled cross country to Long Lake and Chickenfoot Lake, passing through some unnamed lakes along the way.

Volcanic Ridge and Minaret Loop

The Minarets are one of the most scenic and rugged corners of the High Sierra. Ranging from 10,560 ft to 12,261 ft, the peaks that compose the serrated ridge rise impressively from a series of breathtaking alpine lakes, including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Lake Ediza. Both Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake often harbor snow late into the summer and true to name, Iceberg Lake contains many icebergs during its summer melt-out. The name Minarets is derived from their resemblance to Islamic mosques and seventeen of the pinnacles are named after one of their first ascentionists.  Arguably the finest view of this magnificent region can be had from the summit of Volcanic Ridge, which possesses a staggering panorama of most of the Minarets to Mount Ritter and Banner Peak.

The first and only other time I have been in the Minarets was during an ascent of the Rock Route on Clyde Minaret in July 2009. I had great memories of that outing and was eager to return and explore. On this day I climbed Volcanic Ridge as part of a “Minaret Loop” starting and finishing at Devil’s Postpile, passing through the chain of lakes from Minaret Lake to Lake Ediza, and finishing with Shadow Lake and the JMT back to Devil’s Postiple. I ascended Volcanic Ridge first thing in the morning via grass and talus slopes from Minaret Lake. After the enjoying the amazing summit view, I returned to Minaret Lake where I took many photos and met up with Erica. From Minaret Lake, we continued beyond Minaret Lake via use paths and a short bit of scrambling to Cecile Lake. Cecile Lake contained some steep snow patches around its shore where we used ice axe and microspikes. The descent from Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake contained the usual early season stretch of steep and hard snow (that I recalled from 2009) where we utilized the crampons and ice axe that we brought. At the outlet of Iceberg Lake we ate a snack underneath the towers of the Minarets and took photos of the icebergs floating in Iceberg Lake. Continuing down from Iceberg Lake, we found some more patches of snow and then arrived at always beautiful Lake Ediza. The remainder of the loop is not as scenic although the trail is still pretty. From the highpoint along the segment of the JMT from Shadow Lake to Devil’s Postpile is a nice gradual downhill stretch that brought us back to the trail head. The Minaret Loop itself (without climbing Volcanic Ridge) is around 23 miles with the portion between Minaret Lake and Iceberg Lake generally off-trail. This is a top notch route, one of the best, and I will definitely be returning to this region for further exploration!