Thunder Mountain

I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an  alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday! 

Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising  to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.

From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above. 

The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble.  I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides. 

Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome.  As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection🙂

Full photo album (iphone) here.  I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.        

2016 High Sierra Adventure Ideas

I had a great winter and spring compiling 116 waterfalls (as of May 28th) in the Big Sur Waterfall Project visiting as many nooks and crannies in the northern Santa Lucia Mountains as I could find. There will always be more waterfalls to chase in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness, but as the calendar flips to June most days are now uncomfortably hot and buggy (ravenous biting flies😦 ) in the Santa Lucias and I find myself thinking about the cool breezes and alpine lakes of the high country (but not so  much the mosquitoes🙂 ).  Last year I didn’t get around to putting my ideas list into a blog post but I’m back to the tradition for 2016. These ideas are in no particular order and they all involve substantial off-trail travel and scrambling. I hope to get to many of these, but there will certainly be a few that will have to wait for future years, and at the same time, other adventure ideas will likely come to mind and supersede these ideas. In addition, I hope to do some more adventures in the Trinity Alps and maybe a trip up to the North Cascades to revisit some favorite spots.

  1. Glacier Ridge and Whaleback: It’s been five years since I climbed Whaleback, one of the cooler peaks in the High Seirra, especially when viewed from Big Wet Meadow. I’ve yet to stand atop Glacier Ridge and see the excellent view of the Great Western Divide from its lofty perch.
  2. Centennial Peak and Colby Lake: Perhaps I’ll find my way up to Centennial Peak and the shores of Colby Lake as part of a two day fastpack including Glacier Ridge and Whaleback.
  3. Deerhorn and West/East Vidette: Deerhorn is a fine looking mountain at the head of Vidette Creek with an excellent perspective on the Ericsson Crags. The Videttes are well positioned for spectacular 360 degree vistas. For access I’ll likely make the familiar run up Bubbs Creek from Road’s End, which was closed for the second half of the summer last year due to the Rough Fire.
  4. Dumbell Basin and Lake Basin: I enjoyed the fastpack through Lake Basin last year and look forward to exploring Dumbell Basin and the remote lakes west of Observation Peak.
  5. Scylla and Solomons: Some remote peaks above Ionian Basin that I still have not climbed. It’s always fun passing through Evolution Basin and exploring the desolate lakes of Ionian Basin.
  6. Tunemah Lake and Finger Peak: Tunemah Lake and nearby Lake 10548 are some of the most remote lakes in the Sierra which in itself is intriguing to me. It helps that the lakes have a beautiful view overlooking the Middle Fork Kings Canyon. This seldom-visited area is definitely worthy of fastpack.
  7. Glacier Divide, Goethe and Pavillion Dome: Glacier Divide has a nice position for views into Evolution Basin on one side and Humpreys Basin on the other. Pavillion Dome is at the end of the divide and promises to have excellent views looking down at Piute Canyon and Goddard Canyon.
  8. State Peak: I was hoping to climb State Peak on my return from Marion Peak in 2014 but ran out of time. State Peak should have an excellent vista looking down the Murro Blanco and the peaks of the Cirque Crest. The route to the peak should also give me a refresher on the climb out of Road’s End which is the start of the Sierra High Route.
  9. Fiske, Warlow and Spencer – Evolution Basin: A collection of peaks to do in Evolution Basin that I haven’t done yet.
  10. Hooper and Senger: When I did the JMT I passed by this area in the dark, but it looked really pretty from Gemini and Seven Gables.
  11. Feather, Merriam, Royce: One of my first climbs in the Sierra back in 2007 so it’s time to return to this beautiful link-up.
  12. Pettite and Volunteer via the Northern Yosemite 50: The Northern Yosemite 50 is an outstanding loop I did in 2011. I have some ideas to modify it and add some new features to motivate me to do it again, including an ascent of Pettite Peak and visiting Rodgers Lake.
  13. Mount Francis Farquhar: With excellent views and a solid 1,000 vertical scramble, this peak is a gem and has begged to be climbed each time I’ve passed it on the way to Mount Brewer and the Guards.
  14. Big Kid: This mountain is nothing more than a colossal pile of rubble, but what it lakes in aesthetics it more than compensates with an outrageous view of the Palisades. It’s basically the sister vista of Sky Haven, which focuses on the North Fork Big Pine Peaks while Big Kid’s focuses on the South Fork Big Pine Peaks.
  15. The Thumb: I’ve been wanting to climb the Thumb for awhile! It’s a beautiful peak with an excellent view of the Palisades.
  16. Mount McGee: Another remote peak with great views of the many surrounding lakes.
  17. Eisen and Lippincott: Likely for the fall when the crazy marmots at the Mineral King parking lot are getting ready to hibernate and not interested in eating my car!
  18. Sierra High Route: The big route that passes through some of the best terrain the Sierra has to offer. The route comes in at over 195 miles with close to 60,000 feet of elevation gain, the majority of which is off trail. I’ve been on most sections of the Sierra High Route over the years so hopefully my accumulated knowledge will allow me to be dialed in on the route. I look forward to refining my fastpacking setup and getting accustomed to long, successive days in the mountains. It should be fun!

The Window & Kandlbinder

“The Window” or “La Ventana” is a prominent and historically significant feature in the most rugged corner of the Ventana Wilderness. The deep notch along the high ridge between Kandlbinder Peak and Ventana Double Cone is clearly visible from the north and south. The first visitors to the Window were almost certainly Native Americans who intimately knew these mountains. The name “La Ventana” likely originates with Spanish explorers and the significance of the feature resulted in the entire wilderness of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains bearing the name “Ventana.”   Modern interest in the Window began in the 1960’s with a multi-year effort to clear a route to the Window highlighted by a 25 person meeting at the the Window in May 1968 with parties arriving from three different directions (likely from Venatana Creek to the south, Jackson Creek to the North and Ventana Double Cone to the east). More details on the history and route can be found here.  

Unofficially named Kandlbinder Peak is the high point at the west end of the ridge. Formerly known as “No-Name Peak,”  members of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club renamed the peak in 1971 in memory of then-recently passed Dr. Alfred Kandlbinder who was a founding member of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and an avid hiker of the Ventana. The 360 degree vista from Kandlbinder if arguable the best summit view in the Ventana Wilderness with the centerpiece feature being the wild and rugged west face and entire drain feature of Ventana Double Cone. To the north the expansive Little Sur drainage is at one’s feet including Pico Blanco’s distinctive southern apron of white limestone. To the west is Point Sur, the Cabezo Prieto ridgeline, Coast Ridge and the mighty Pacific Ocean. To the south is Cone Peak, Santa Lucia Peak and the Big Sur river drainage. 

Close to 50 years and several large fires after the famous meeting of the paths to the Window, access has deteriorated substantially with innumerable blowdowns and brush making for an arduous adventure by any direction. However, the Jackson Creek route via the Little Sur River is still the shortest and quickest approach to the Window and several parties visit the Window each year via this route. Most of the entries in the register are from boy scout groups climbing up the Jackson Creek route from nearby Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp although it seems scout interest has waned in recent years. Parties who backpack tend to camp in the Window itself where there’s a large flat spot and fire ring. Most of the register entries are in the summer months when the many biting flies who inhabit the Window are at their peak intensity and aggression.  The other formerly-established camping spot at Happy Fork was largely destroyed by a large oak tree that fell directly over the camp last year though camping is still feasible in the grass next to the blowdown.  

The old route that once traversed the ridgeline to Ventana Double Cone has completely disappeared and is now an advanced bushwhack with a grueling combination of dead wood from the Basin Fire and aggressive new chaparral growth. Approaching from the south via Ventana Creek entails a long creek walk and then a sketchy scramble around Ventana Falls. The traverse to Kandlbinder is an entirely off-trail route, but one can avoid the worst brush by staying on the north side of the ridge when leaving the Window and then returning to the ridge crest for the final couple hundred feet to the summit. Inside the Window the view is largely obstructed by trees and the surrounding cliffs. However, one can climb a pinnacle on the SW side of the Window which has a magnificent view of cliffs descending from the Window down more than two thousand feet to headwaters of Ventana Creek and the impressively rugged west face of Ventana Double Cone.  

Stone Ridge & Aerial Falls

Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. Such steep topography leads to many awesome features, not the least of which is waterfalls! On this day I visited an ephemeral waterfall on the backside of Cone Peak in the headwaters of the San Antonio River, my first adventure into the San Antonio watershed. This falls only flows with any kind of noticeable volume after a period of substantial winter rainfall so on all my times standing on Cone Peak I never noticed the falls. However, when in flow the falls is striking from the summit particularly in the afternoon sunlight. Technically the falls does not drain Cone Peak itself, but from the summit one can gain a great birds eye view of the main 100+ ft drop across the canyon. I named the falls “Aerial Falls” because of the aerial style of the view from Cone Peak and also when standing beneath the falls it seems as if the water is falling from the sky as it plunges off the massive conglomerate rock facade. Beneath the main drop is a series of additional falls and cascades so the total height of the falls from top to bottom likely approaches 200 vertical feet. In order to view the falls from its base one must earn it: first in terms of timing to see the falls in flow (which is admittedly rare) and second in the arduous off-trail adventure down into the depths of the remote, trail-less headwaters of the San Antonio River (it’s farther than it seems).


The most prominent ridge on the Cone Peak massif (which includes Twin Peak) is Stone Ridge. The direct route up this ridge is tremendous and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of beautiful grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind. I’ve blogged about Stone Ridge and the “Sea to Sky” route many times before so there really isn’t anything to add except some photos from the latest trip. 

Little Big Loop – Santa Lucia Wilderness

The Santa Lucia Wilderness is a little-known 20,412 acre wilderness at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Range near San Luis Obispo. Only a few trails traverse the relatively small wilderness, including Lopez Canyon Trail, Big Falls Trail and Little Falls Trail. The Little Falls and Big Falls Trails can be connected using dirt roads to form an attractive loop. The dirt road on the ridge is a fire road (closed to vehicles) with stellar views of the surrounding ridges while the dirt road at the bottom is the access road for a surprising number of homeowners holed up in lower Lopez Canyon. While the road in Lopez Canyon is publicly accessible, high clearance is required, especially if there is any kind of flow in the waterfalls since the road crosses Lopez Creek many times (and often quite deep). There is therefore little vehicle traffic on the road. For most folks it makes much more sense to park on the other side of the ridge at Rinconada Trailhead.  From Rinconada, a great 13+ mile lasso loop includes the Big Falls and Little Falls Trails which feature three waterfalls, excellent views of the surrounding mountains and great diversity of flora. Moreover, the out-and-back trail from Rinconada to the ridge is not very long (~1.5 miles) and enjoyable in its own right.    

My last visit to this area was in autumn when the falls were mostly dry so it was a completely different experience with the falls and streams gushing at high flow after recent heavy rain. The centerpiece waterfall feature is Big Falls at around 80 ft in height with a beautiful rock amphitheater surrounding the falls. Lower down the Big Falls Trail is a smaller “slide” falls that plunges into a deep pool that makes for a lovely swimming and diving hole on warm summer days. The third falls is “Little Falls”  which is about half the height of Big Falls but has very charming setting and pretty plunge pool. Little Falls is not visible from the Little Falls Trail; instead one must take a usepath that departs the main trail at the last crossing of Little Falls Creek before it embarks on a lengthy ascent up the Little Falls canyon. If there is flow in the creeks expect dozens of creek crossings, both on the trails and the Lopez Canyon road with guaranteed wet feet.

Silver Peak Traverse

Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir.  Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.  

The Lost Grove

I’ve written in great detail about Santa Lucia Firs recently so I won’t repeat myself and describe the awesomeness of this tree again. The highest concentration of Santa Lucias (by far) is in the Carmel River drainage where the rocky, rugged terrain provides an ideal fire-proof habitat for the trees to thrive. The second greatest concentration stretches from Devils Canyon up to Cone Peak, also very rugged and rocky. South of Cone Peak there are only a few isolated groves in existence, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, making each of these groves especially unique. The most accessible of these groves is located in the upper part of Villa Creek in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail passes among the firs with good views into the canyon bottom where the firs are highly concentrated.  As I’m a Santa Lucia Fir aficionado, I decided to visit a more remote stand that has piqued my interest ever since I saw the familiar narrow conical crowns of the Santa Lucia Firs from a nearby ridge. Since the grove is tucked away in a hanging valley with no easy access I decided to name it the Lost Grove. Unlike the larger stands in the Carmel River drainage and Cone Peak, the growing habitat in the Lost Grove is restricted to a narrow mile-long strip along a rocky stream.  The vast majority of the trees reside on the cooler northeast facing slope and the density of firs is some of the greatest I have seen; it’s almost as if the trees are huddling together to keep cool. There is a sharp gradient between the Santa Lucia Firs and the hot chaparral slopes with only a few Coulter and gray pines mixed in. It appears destructive fire has largely avoided this grove for many years and the result is some amazing old growth trees with impressively tall spire-like crowns that epitomize the Santa Lucia Fir. A few of the firs appeared drought stressed or have already succumbed to drought so hopefully this winter’s rain will be sufficient to help these trees survive the next summer. This grove resides in a relatively hotter and drier location than most Santa Lucias so it did not come as a surprise that the effects of the drought were visible, but the vast majority of trees still appeared healthy and there were hundreds of new saplings on the shady forest floor poised to become the next generation. I also suspect that the lifespan of the Santa Lucia Fir is not all the great as every grove I have visited includes several old snags. Access to the grove entails either a moderately brushy approach from a nearby ridge with excellent views to the Pacific Ocean or a creek walk with an extended stretch of beautiful bedrock and boulder cascades.