After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.
To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope. From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes. Strava GPS here. High on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.