Adams Minaret & Starr Minaret

The Minarets are a jagged collection of peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness north of Mammoth Lakes. The name is derived from their resemblance to the minarets of Islamic mosques. The scenery surrounding the Minarets, including the trio of lakes beneath them – Iceberg Lake, Cecile lake and Minaret Lake – is incredibly dramatic and inspiring. Most of the Minarets reside along a single ridgeline collectively forming a tremendously narrow and exposed arête.  There are 17 named summits, each honoring one of the first ascentionists. Clyde Minaret, named after sierra legend Norman Clyde who climbed it in 1928, is the highest minaret and most often climbed. There is much mystique surrounding the Minarets, partially due to their striking beauty and precipitous relief, and partially due to their notorious looseness as the rock is of volcanic origin.  Complete photo album here (images taken in mid-August, 2017).

Despite topping out at 12,000 feet, Adams Minaret is perhaps the shyest of the 17 named minarets owing to the fact that it lies behind the primary arête and is not easily identifiable from the east. Adams Minaret was named in honor of the famous photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, who first climbed the peak with Rondal Partridge on July 15, 1937.  Due its location off the main arête, Adams Minaret sees few visitors (including most of the climbers who traverse the Minarets), as evidenced by the register which contains only one to two parties per year on average.  The most efficient route to Adams Minaret crosses over South Notch from Cecile Lake and traverses toward Amphitheater Lake before ascending a broad class 2 chute topped off with a few class 3 moves to gain the summit ridge. The chute has copious loose rocks so any parties with multiple climbers should be extra careful.  After traversing the summit ridge a few class 3 moves are required to reach the highest rocks where an old register commemorates the naming of the peak after Ansel Adams. The route up and over South Notch is fairly straightforward, but the angle of the slope becomes quite steep near the top and crampons and ice axe are likely required.  At South Notch, enjoy the impressive view of Ken Minaret and Clyde Minaret immediately above.  Adams Minaret has a commanding angle of the backside of the Minarets, particularly Michael Minaret and Clyde Minaret, and a nearly vertical view down to Amphitheater Lake. Any trip too Adams Minaret should also include a slight detour to see the aptly named Amphitheater Lake, which is surrounded by the Minaret towers with Michael Minaret the most striking feature at the head of the cirque. Amphitheater Lake is a desolate spot with nothing but boulders and cliffs surrounding it and often remains covered in ice well into summer. For photogenic qualities I prefer the three lakes on the east side of the Minarets which hold at least some vegetation, but Amphitheater Lake is well worth a visit to see in person as the enormity of the surrounding towers is difficult to capture in photos.

Starr Minaret was named after Walter “Pete” Starr who was an attorney and famous for his adventures into the Sierra Nevada during a time when large parts of the range were still relatively unknown.  Starr went missing while climbing in the Minarets and the story of the search to find him is a riveting story. He was ultimately found by climbing legend Norman Clyde on nearby Michael Minaret. After his passing, Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region was published and it was the de facto guide to the John Muir Trail for decades and is still in circulation.  Starr Minaret is a 11,512 ft summit that is a class 2/3 scramble from Kehrlein-Starr notch – one of the easier Minarets to ascend. The most efficient access to Starr Minaret is likely still South Notch unless snow conditions on the east side of the Kehrlein-Starr notch allow for easier access down toward Deadhorse Lake. When the snow melts accessing this notch could become a more technical climb. Starr Minaret also has a lovely view of the surrounding region including Iron Mountain to the south, Deadhorse Lake below, and Mammoth Mountain in the distance.  The higher Minarets are not as dramatic from this angle owing to the southerly view which is not ideal for viewing a south-north oriented arête.

Of course, the best part of any visit to the Minarets is the spectacular lakes. All three  lakes on the east side of the Minarets are gems of the Sierra and I couldn’t really say which one would be my favorite! Each possesses unique qualities and a different angle of the Minaret spires. Minaret Lake has the most meadows and vegetation while Cecile Lake is most desolate. Cecile Lake has the most complete view of the Minarets and also a great view too Mts. Ritter and Banner, while Minaret Lake has the most dramatic view of Clyde Minaret, the highest and most famous of the Minarets.  Iceberg Lake is cradled in a deep granite bowl with the Minarets towering above and often contains icebergs late into summer, hence the apt name.  An official trail does not connect the lakes; instead use trail leads from Minaret Lake north to Cecile Lake and another use trail leads from Iceberg Lake south to Cecile Lake. Getting around Cecile Lake requires some talus hopping. In early season or a heavy snow year like this year, the route from Iceberg Lake to Cecile Lake may be covered in snow and require ice axe and/or crampons.  Complete photo album here.

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More Minarets

The Minarets are a spectacular collection of jagged spires in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Usually I like to spread my adventures throughout the High Sierra since there are so many hidden gems to explore and mix up the character of scenery, but I have a particular affinity for the Minarets with repeated visits including July 2009 (Clyde Minaret), July 2013 (Minaret Loop), October 2013 (Tuolumne to Devils via Minarets), and July 2015 (Ansel Adams Loops). There are seventeen unofficially named spires and most are along a single ridge forming an arête. I have only climbed one Minaret, Clyde Minaret, which is the highest and named after Sierra climbing pioneer and legend Norman Clyde. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag a few more spires in the future. While I haven’t stood atop many of them, I have seen them from all different angles and I can’t seem to get enough of the spectacular ruggedness of these spires and the trio of three gorgeous lakes immediately beneath them – Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. While I’m merely an amateur photographer with a lot to learn, attempting to take quality photos is a big part of my personal enjoyment in the mountains. I use the word quality because some trail runners have a tendency to focus more on their watch and braggadocio than the scenery resulting in mediocre photography results at best and at worst, video that is so shaky and random in movement that it is essentially unwatchable. This approach couldn’t be more opposite than the ethos of John Muir. Whether it’s the Minarets or other photogenic gems in the Sierra, I always find it worth the time to scope out the best angles and enjoy the scenery. Each time I have visited the Minarets it has featured different light, snow conditions etc. so it’s fun to compare the results. On this trip, I had the best conditions I’ve seen yet at Minaret Lake with excellent clarity and a few puffs of clouds swirling about the spires. My photography tip at Minaret Lake is to climb a granite outcropping near the outlet of the lake, which provides amazing composition of the entire lake and a turquoise inlet below with the Minaret spires towering behind. This balcony provided such a great view I probably took a hundred photos within a span of 15 minutes (I’ve spared this blog from most of those photos but there are still plenty). It’s one of my favorite vantages in all of the Sierra. It was great to spend some time at Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake and really enjoy the awesome surroundings. To complete the loop I recommend the River Trail instead of the JMT through Rosalie Lake. Both routes are very boring compared to the preceding section beneath the Minarets, but I like the River Trail better as it had less elevation gain and some nice peaceful single track in the forest next to the river that gets surprisingly little use.  Strava GPS route here.   

Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile via the Minarets and Donohue Peak

The point-to-point route from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows or Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile is well established among trail runners. However, I haven’t heard of anybody extending the point-to-point into the Minarets and including a summit of Donohue Peak. Both of these additions substantially enhance the aesthetics of the route making it a complete highlight tour of an immensely scenic region spanning Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. This objective has been high on my list for some time and I was happy to run it in perfect autumn weather. It was great to enjoy many familiar sights, some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer, all in a single day. This is an instant classic and I look forward to doing this route and/or variations of it next year!

A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Donohue Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image. 

The first 8 miles are along nearly flat Lyell Canyon. Cool air tends to pool in the canyon and temperatures were in the low-20s, but with calm winds the running felt comfortable. Just before Donohue Pass, I peeled off the trail and headed up toward Donohue Peak. The final bit of scrambling took a bit longer than anticipated as the high point of Donohue is at the eastern end of the ridge and entailed some traversing of talus covered with snow. The view from the summit is incredible and includes most of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range, a mirror view of the panorama I saw from Foerster Peak just a few days prior. A small tarn below Donohue Peak is particularly photogenic with Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure towering in the background. From the tarn I took a cross country route down slabs and grassy slopes to reconnect with the John Muir Trail in Rush Creek Basin. This beautiful basin was largely dry but still featured excellent views of Donohue Peak, Mount Andrea Lawrence and Koip Crest.

Beyond Rush Creek Basin I made quick time up to Island Pass. After a stop to photograph Banner Peak reflecting in the tarns near the pass, I met Joel and we descended to Thousand Island Lake soaking in the amazing scenery. The beautiful views continued as we made our way to Garnet Lake. At the Shadow Lake junction, I turned upstream to gorgeous Lake Ediza and then made the ascent to Iceberg Lake. From Iceberg Lake I encountered fairly deep snow up to Cecil Lake, but fortunately somebody had kicked steps before me so the micro spikes were not necessary. It was an ethereal view from Iceberg Lake and Cecile Lake with the jagged spires of the snowy Minarets backlit by the afternoon sun. After the traverse around Cecile Lake, I descended to Minaret Lake where I enjoyed more awesome afternoon views. Beyond Minaret Lake I was back on maintained trail and made quick time over the last 7.5 miles to Devils Postpile. Total time for the 38 mile point-to-point was 11:19 including hundreds of photos (nearly 800!), a selection of which follows. Strava route here

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!