Matthes Peak

Matthes Peak lies along Glacier Divide which separates the Piute Creek watershed from the Evolution Creek drainage, and at its western terminus, Piute Creek from the South Fork San Joaquin River. The long ridge also serves as the border between Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. The mountainous terrain surrounding Matthes Peak encompasses some of the most spectacular scenery in the High Sierra and that scenery is pretty much all visible from this lofty perch. You won’t find Matthes Peak on a map as it’s an unofficially named peak, but as the second highest summit along Glacier Divide (just shy of 13,000 feet; 12,980 ft to be exact) with quite a bit of prominence and a stellar view, it’s certainly worthy of a name.¬†From the south Matthes Peak and much of Glacier Divide looks mostly benign as large mounds of talus, but from the north Glacier Divide has an exceptionally rugged character as glaciers carved up the terrain resulting in towering cliffs and beautiful lakes nestled in deep polished granite basins. A collection of pocket remnants of once proud glaciers remain today and are known as the Matthes Glaciers, hence the adoption of the name Matthes to this summit. Unfortunately, the Matthes Glaciers appear largely stagnant and during the drought melted all the way back to the shadiest locales immediately below the north facing cliff faces. In the current regime of our warming climate, it won’t be long (i.e. the next drought) before these glaciers disappear entirely ūüė¶ ¬†The Matthes Glaciers and the Matthes Crest in Yosemite National Park received their names in honor of Francois Emile Matthes, a USGS geologist for 51 years who made extensive studies in the Sierra Nevada. Mr. Matthes now has an additional unofficial name in his honor too! ¬†Full photo album here¬†(note photos are from mid July on a snowy year). ¬†

Matthes Peak can be climbed from the southwest via a class 2 talus hop, but the more scenic routes climb from lovely Packsaddle Lake on the north side of Glacier Ridge. In order to access Packsaddle Lake, the easiest access is via North Lake and Piute Pass, which features lovely scenery along the entire route. ¬†From Piute Pass, continue along the trail past Summit Lake. At an unsigned junction, one may either take a usepath left toward Golden Trout Lake or stay on the main trail as it passes through the lower part of Desolation Basin and then descends into the Whitebark pine forest. Either route works, but note that in early season Piute Creek is functionally more like a river so care must be taken to find a safe crossing. In very high snowmelt flows, I found an easy crossing near the outlet of Golden Trout Lake where the stream braids resulting in low depth. In addition, taking the usepath provides an upclose view of the Golden Trout Lakes which are pretty. ¬†By either route, once across Piute Creek it’s a pleasant off trail walk through the pines and then meadows to the shores of Packsaddle Lake. Nestled beneath the cliffs of Glacier Divide with the Matthes Glaciers gleaming, it’s a wonderful spot!

Packsaddle Lake is most easily rounded on its west side. From the south end of the lake continue up loose talus and scree (or snow in early season) or scramble up slabs to climbers left. The system of ledges and slabs can be preferable to the loose mess after the snow melts. After ascending the slabs or talus the easiest route traverses across the glacial moraines toward a small bowl which holds snow late into summer. An alternative steeper route, only recommend when adequately snow-covered, ascends an obvious chute directly above and deposits one along the Glacier Divide crest to the east of the Matthes Peak summit. If taking the easier route, after traversing the glacial moraine west a broad saddle comes into view, known as Packsaddle Pass. Most of the way to the pass is either straightforward snow or glacial boulders, but the final couple hundred feet up to the pass is quite steep and likely requires ice axe and crampons whenever it’s snow covered. From Packsaddle Pass, turn east and climb talus for several hundred vertical feet to the summit, which is situated on a plateau with gravel interspersed with rocks. This plateau contains lovely alpine flowers in season with Alpine Gold and Sky Pilot particularly prominent. The east end of the plateau contains the feature view above lake Frances Lake with Evolution Valley and the many peaks of the Evolution Basin area in the background. To the west is the Le Conte Divide and to the east is Mount Humphreys towering above Desolation Basin. Immediately below the summit is Packsaddle Lake and to the north are views to Lobe Lakes and Bear Creek Spire group of peaks. It’s an excellent view and worth spending some time on a local flat rock to admire the surroundings! ¬†Numerous options exist from the summit besides simply retracing steps, including descending toward Frances Lake and out via Darwin Bench and Lamarck Col and further explorations into Evolution Basin.¬†Full photo album here.¬†

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Bear Creek Spire & Dade

Bear Creek Spire rises above one of the most scenic alpine valleys in the Sierra dotted with wonderful alpine lakes and meadows. Its chiseled profile and position above the valley make it one of the most photogenic peaks in the range of light.  The easiest route up Bear Creek Spire starts at the Mosquito Flat Trailhead and takes the trail through gorgeous Little Lakes Valley. Starting early avoids the crowds and also provides a better opportunity to catch a clear reflection of Bear Creek Spire in one of the many lakes in the valley.  After Long Lake the main idea is to reach the vicinity of Dade Lake and there are many possible routes through easy cross country terrain to accomplish this objective. At Dade Lake continue into the bowl below Bear Creek Spire and then angle west toward Cox Col. The angle steepens toward the high notch and when snow covered this slope could require crampons and ice axe, especially in the morning or later in the season when freeze thaw cycles have turned the slope into hard neve or ice.  From Cox Col, a short talus hop commence with a relatively short class 4 finish to reach the summit pinnacle. Bear Creek Spire has a commanding 360 degree view of everything from the Evolution Region to Ritter and Banner. The triumvirate of Merriam Peak, Royce Peak and Feather Peak are particularly stunning, as is Seven Gables to the southwest and Mount Goddard rising above the rugged Glacier Divide.  Little Lakes Valley is spread out at ones feet and to the west is an excellent view of Lake Italy.  Full photos album here.

After returning to Cox Col, one can traverse along the west side of the crest and take a class 2 ramp up to the low point between Mount Dade and Pipsqueak Spire. This ramp allows for efficient passage over the crest to climb Mount Dade in connection with an ascent of BCS.¬† From the notch, traverse snow slopes to the final talus climb up Mount Dade. In early season this final talus climb features a marvelous high alpine garden of sky pilot and alpine gold flowers. Between Mount Dade and Pipsqueak Spire also resides a landlocked bowl that contains ice and snow for most of the year but becomes an high tarn in middle to late summer depending on the prior winters’ snowpack. If timed correctly, one can witness a magical display of blue ice as the snow sinks into the water and turns into a giant ice cube. The easiest descent off Mount Dade is the hourglass couloir which holds snow well into summer on a normal snow year but the best coverage is obviously earlier in the season. Later in the season or on a dry year the hourglass turns into a steep climb of loose gravel and scree, which may still work as a descent but would be crappy to ascent.¬† The hourglass couloir deposits one at the beautiful Treasure Lakes, a collection of four lakes with tremendous views of the headwall of the Little Lakes Valley. A usetrail begins at the lowest Treasure Lake and leads all the way down to the south end of Long Lake. For grand High Sierra scenery that is quite accessible it’s tough to beat Rock Creek Canyon, Little Lakes Valley and surrounding peaks!¬† Full photos album here.¬†

 

Sawtooth Loop

Catching up on a route from July 4th that was a variation of the Sawtooth Loop I did back in 2013.¬† The ‚ÄúSawtooth Loop‚ÄĚ is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I’ve come back to this area many times over the years and can’t seem to get enough of the scenery.¬† I call this loop the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates the impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park‚Äôs northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness.¬† The base loop utilizes Horse Creek Canyon, Slide Canyon and Little Slide Canyon. This deeply serrated Sawtooth Ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. Full photo album here.

There are numerous variations and objectives in the region to include in the Sawtooth 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. All of the canyons that surround Sawtooth Ridge are glacier-carved and spectacular with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. On this day I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak and Finger Peaks, both summits I had climbed previously (Matterhorn several times) but the extensive snow cover from the unprecedented winter it made the experience different. In addition, this was an opportunity to climb Matterhorn’s east couloir again, my first climb in the High Sierra back in May 2007 (10 year anniversary climb!).¬†The loop starts at the Twin Lakes resort and ascends Horse Creek Canyon, first on well maintained trail and then a use path with wonderful scenery. At the first headwall, the trail disappeared for good under deep snowpack and it was time to put on crampons. Instead of continuing up Horse Creek Canyon, I turned right to head towards the Matterhorn glacier. On the way I passed a stunning ice pool with a light blue color and spent quite a bit time photographing this gem with the spires of Sawtooth Ridge in the background. From this tarn it was all snow up the snow covered glacier to the east couloir which made for an efficient ascent. The snow steepens in the couloir requiring ice axe and crampons. This is not a fun climb after the snow melts as it becomes a combination of loose rocks and gravel. I got to experience a bit of the loosness on the top 30% of the couloir which had already melted out.¬† That being said, it was amazing how much snow remained in the region for July 4th.¬† From the top of the couloir it’s a short climb with a few class 3 moves to the summit, with its wonderful 360 degree view of the region from Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the south to Tower Peak to the north. In addition, alpine gold wildflowers were in full bloom and put on quite a show on rock ledges near the summit. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of the rrapidemote region south of Sawtooth Ridge.¬† The SW chute/slope of Matterhorn Peak offer a straightforward class 2 descent toward Burro Pass on the remote south side of Sawtooth Ridge. With the abundant snow cover I was able to angle over to the ridge descending from Matterhorn summit which separates Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon and take that scenic ridge all the way to Burro Pass. From Burro Pass I traversed more snow to a couloir beneath the East and Middle Finger Peaks. After a moderately steep snow ascent the east peak is a short scramble. The East Peak has the best view of the ridge to Burro Pass and close-up views of Sawtooth Ridge. It also has an excellent angle on the precipitous east face of the Middle Finger Peak. Finally, it’s got a broad flat top which provides many spots for an alpine nap. A worthy summit despite being lower than the higher Middle Peak.¬† After a nap I traversed around to the Middle Peak and climbed the fun class 3 route to the Middle Peak, including the improbable ledge that cuts across the face that keeps the climbing to class 3 versus a harder grade. The Middle Finger Peak is the highest and therefore has the best overall view of the region with the entire Sawtooth Ridge, Whorl Peak and much of northern Yosemite in view. After enjoying the summit I took the snow slope down between Middle and West Finger Peak to Upper Slide Canyon. This area has wonderful meadows later in the season, but the views of Sawtooth Ridge were equally impressive despite everything still snow covered.¬† The heavy snowpack made finding the trail difficult so I went cross country for the most part.¬† The approach to Ice Lake Pass included abundant, deep sun cups which were draining. Ice Lake was partially melted and beautiful while the Incredible Hulk was stunning as ever. Heavy snow in Little Slide Canyon made the descent quite a bit easier than normal as snow covered much of the talus. There was plenty of avalanche evidence with trees toppled over like toothpicks and deposited far down the canyon from where they once stood.¬† Full photo album here.¬†

Tableland & Winter Alta Snowshoe

The Tableland is a broad granite plateau¬†in Sequoia National Park along the Kings-Kaweah Divide. While not flat like a table, the topography is relatively gradual and the terrain is almost entirely granite slabs so the name is fitting. Access is from the west side at the Wolverton trailhead and the Lakes Trail. Wolverton is a relatively short and straightforward drive from the SF Bay Area and the Lakes Trail is efficient at getting one up into the alpine (relative to many westside approaches) while passing by some very pretty scenery including Pear Lake and Aster Lake. Once above treeline, it’s a beautiful walk along miles of user-friendly granite slabs to more rugged and remote parts of the Great Western Divide to the east. The¬†open terrain and granite slabs facilitate easy cross country travel. In the winter when everything is snow covered it’s arguably even more efficient! Along with the amazing views, these factors make the Tableland one of my favorite spots in the Sierra¬†and I have visited many times over the years in all seasons.

What makes the Tableland so special is the dramatic 360 degree vistas taking in much of the High Sierra. On a clear day one can pick out familiar features including the Palisades, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak far to the north, and Mount Goddard rising above the Evolution area peaks. Closer at hand is a sweeping view of the Great Western Divide from its northern terminus at Mount Farquhar and North Guard all the way down to Farwell Gap (the end of the rugged portion of the Great Western Divide). In particular, the area around Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap is particularly striking with numerous domes and jagged crags. The Kaweahs rise behind the Great Western Divide adding another layer of ruggedness.¬†One of the best views of the Tableland and surrounding terrain is from Alta Peak. In summer a trail leads from Wolverton to Panther Gap and on to Alta Peak’s summit. However, in the winter the preferred summit is the higher Winter Alta (peak 11,328) which is accessed from the Pear Lake hut vicinity. ¬†The Pear Lake ski hut is a popular ski and snowshoe destination and skiers enjoy the slopes above the hut all the way to Winter Alta. The hut is open to the public during the winter, but reservations are required via a lottery system. If you can’t snag a place at the hut, the winter route to Pear Lake cuts off all the switchbacks and comes in at only 5 miles each way (10 miles roundtrip). After a fairly steep climb up to “The Hump” the Lakes Trail drops into the basin and traverses by Heather Lake. At this point one is presented with options: either stay high and traverse to Aster Lake and Emerald Lake or drop down lower and traverse directly to Pear Lake Hut. The former is much more scenic as the Aster Lake area is very pretty but the latter is quicker and avoids the sidehilling often encountered on the route around Aster Lake. The Pear Lake Hut is not at Pear Lake itself but about a half mile downstream. If heading for Winter Alta, one can either ascend slopes directly above the hut or continue up to Pear Lake before taking¬†relatively steep slopes up to the ridge. Winter Alta is certainly a dramatic destination because it is not until one reaches very close to the top that most of the Great Western Divide is revealed. Beyond Winter Alta most of the winter visitors are skiers doing the Winter Sierra High Route from Shepherds Pass to Wolverton, although the established Skiers High Route goes to Table Meadows and follows the headwaters of the Marble Fork Kaweah River instead of the traverse to Moose Lake Winter Alta (which is far more scenic). I’d like to do the full Winter High Route someday, but it’s certainly a long car shuttle to organize! ¬†I have made three snowshoe visits to Winter Alta. On my first snowshoe out of Wolverton in 2011 I just visited Winter Alta as an out-and-back. On the second trip in 2013, I continued on to a snowbound Moose Lake and crossed the lake on snowshoes. Moose Lake is a large alpine lake with a grand view of the Great Western Divide. It’s among my favorite Sierra lakes and to walk across it was surreal. Unfortunately, the drought happened and winter conditions never came together for a couple years to repeat that trip until this historic snow season. It was time to visit again and adventure beyond Moose Lake. This year I trekked across the Tableland to the east end of the Tableland rim and crossed Moose Lake on the way back. I had initially hoped to reach the summit of Big Bird but found that I needed crampons and ice axe to ascend the final hundred feet of the very icy ridge (and more importantly, for the descent!). For most of the day I had been plowing through 6-8 inches of unconsolidated snow that had recently fallen over a base that was only partially consolidated (so snowshoes were essential) but that same storm also came with strong winds and the snow off exposed ridges leaving a sheet of ice. Without snow Big Bird is a very straightforward talus hop, but with icy conditions a fall on either side of the ridge would be serious (particularly on the east side with sheer cliffs of several hundred feet topped with 50+ ft cornices). After resolving to come better prepared next time, I traversed to Pterodactyl Pass where I enjoyed a similar view, albeit at a slightly lower elevation and with ample room to sit down and eat lunch. After a long break I ascended a high point north of Big Bird for excellent views down to Big Bird Lake, Glacier Ridge, and Mount Brewer. Next time with an earlier start I’d like to snowshoe¬†farther along the Winter Sierra High Route to Horn Col and Copper Mine Peak. This is a route I’m very familiar with during the summer but it would be awesome to see the tremendous view from Copper Mine Peak in winter.

What made this year’s visit to the Tableland so special was the immense, historic snowpack present in the high county. It’s estimated that the high country above 10,000 feet was over 200% of average. Parts of the Tableland looked more like a scene from the arctic than the Sierra with all land features buried in many feet of snow. The snow was so deep over Moose Lake that it had formed snow dunes over the shallower east end of the lake and Alta Peak was like a nunatak rising out of the snowbound plateau.

Full albums: 

Robinson Slide Loop

Robinson Creek canyon is a prominent U-shaped glacier carved valley spilling into Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport. Sawtooth Ridge towers above the canyon, and despite being relatively lower in elevation than peaks to the south, it’s one of the most rugged segments of the High Sierra. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I also appreciate the comparatively lush environment including extensive stands of mountain hemlock. It’s no wonder I’m a regular visitor to this corner of Sierra. On my several visits to the region I made note of the aspen groves in the canyon and a point to return during fall color. Last year was a drought year and while there was some color, I knew that it wasn’t near its potential as there was extensive leaf spot caused by winter drought and then a very rainy summer. This year was much more normal with average snowpack and a drier summer. The result was a phenomenal fall color show that was virtually unabated from just outside the Twin Lakes trailhead all the way to a mile beyond Barney Lake. That’s 5+ miles of virtually non-stop fall color. What I love about the fall color show here is the exceptionally rugged setting and the fact that the best stuff is not roadside. You’ve got hike at least a couple miles to find the better groves and it only gets better the farther you go. The result is a peaceful experience without the tourists and without the tripod-toting shooting gallery. The most mature old-growth aspen stand is just before Barney Lake but some of the best colors can be found in the “fields” of stunted slide aspen. Unlike many other regions where aspen are usually very straight in stature, the aspen in the Sierra Nevada are often contorted due to the harsh growing environment with high winds, deep snowfall, and in this location, avalanches. When combined with the dramatic peaks rising above the canyon and the wilderness character, this fall color show is tough to beat. Perhaps my favorite grove is at the base of Little Slide Canyon (first picture below) where one can obtain a nicely framed shot of the aspen and the rugged backdrop of Little Slide Canyon including the Incredible Hulk and Kettle Peak. GPS route here.¬†The focus of this trip was the outstanding fall color in Robinson Creek canyon but I also found the loop of Robinson and Little Slide canyons to be an excellent run or hike any time of the year with scenery including several charming lakes and panoramic views. In addition, there are opportunities to scramble many nearby peaks including Crown Point, Eocene Peak and Kettle Peak. I chose to make the quick trip up Slide Mountain this time as I had never been there before. At the head of the valley beyond Barney Lake, the trail leaves the aspen and switchbacks up a slope toward Peeler Lake. Shortly before Peeler Lake is a junction: veer left to head toward Rock Island Pass. The trail climbs through an old-growth Mountain Hemlock forest before reaching a magical emerald tarn with hemlocks surrounding and Crown Point looming above. Right after the tarn are the Robinson Lakes nestled within the granite rocks. The incredible scenery continues at Crown Lake with granite buttresses descending into the water and picturesque mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines sprinkled about the lakeshore. The trail climbs once again above Crown Lake before reaching a pleasant meadow and another trail junction. Head left to take the trail to Mule Pass. This stretch of trail switchbacks up a north facing slope and often holds snow until well into summer on a normal snow year. In fact, it might be one of the latest melting stretches of trail in the high Sierra. The terrain flattens out next to a tarn with a thick krummholz stand of Whitebark Pines. From this tarn it’s a fairly gradual finish to Mule Pass. While Mule Pass has an excellent view in its own right, the quality of the vista improves greatly if one ascends to Slide Mountain, which is the high point above a distinct feature known as “The Slide.” ¬†Slide Mountain is a fairly nondescript summit with several rock outcroppings vying for the highpoint, but the grand view is essentially the same and includes the Incredible Hulk, Sawtooth Ridge, Finger Peaks, Whorl Mountain and Mount Conness. One can reach Slide Mountain directly from the tarn below Mule Pass by taking a steep rock and snow gully or the more moderate route ascends sand and granite slabs from Mule Pass. Back at Mule Pass follow the trail down as it traverses through lovely parkland with meadows mixed with granite slabs. At a flat area, leave the trail and walk through meadows and tarns toward Ice Lake Pass. Ice Lake can be traversed either on its west or east side, but both sides require some climbing to get up and around granite cliffs that descend into the lake. While the eastern traverse may be easier, my preference is the west side traverse¬†since from this route one obtains a breathtaking view of Maltby Lake nestled among reddish slabs that precipitously descend into its waters with Kettle Peak to the left, the Incredible Hulk to the right and Little Slide Canyon below. On the north side of Ice Lake a use path appears in the sand and can be followed toward the base of the Incredible Hulk with some intermittent talus fields to cross. The Incredible Hulk is one of the most amazing rock features in the high Sierra. Words and photographs do not do this gleaming 1,200 ft face justice. Every time I pass underneath the cliffs I’m in awe of the striking white cliffs contrasting with the deep blue Sierra skies. Below the Hulk, the use path descends into Little Slide Canyon utilizing small gullies and then crossing some talus fields. While there is a path that is followable, it’s a fairly rugged descent all the way to the base of Little Slide Canyon where it crosses Robinson Creek. On the north of Robinson Creek the climbers path quickly joins the Barney Lake Trail and from there it’s only a couple miles back to Twin Lakes. This post describes only one potential loop and it’s impossible to go wrong in this region, but I feel like this loop does a great job hitting many of the scenic highlights in the area. When combined with fall color at its peak it was one of my most memorable days in the Sierra all year.¬†

Eisen & Lippincott

Mount Eisen and Lippincott Mountain are two peaks along a remote stretch of the Great Western Divide between Black Rock Pass and Kaweah Gap. Both peaks are perfectly situated to provide jaw-dropping views of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge that dominate the view to the east. As Bob Burd showed in 2007, a fairly efficient traverse can be made between Eisen and Lipppincott enabling both peaks to be climbed in a long day from Mineral King. My last visit to Mineral King was way back in 2007 for a climb of Black Kaweah. I had been wanting to climb Eisen & Lippincott every since, but was deterred by the infamous Mineral King marmots that eat through hosing and have disabled cars from spring through August. I had pegged a late season visit when the marmots were gone, but each time other parts of the range called me elsewhere.

Nine years later, I was ready to drive the very curvy road up to Mineral King and climb Eisen & Lippincott. My¬†route taken largely follows Bob’s 2007 trip. The only non-minor deviation was cutting over toward Eisen half way up the switchbacks to the Black Rock Pass. This allowed me to avoid some of the ridge traverse and extra elevation gain, likely saving a few minutes. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge commands attention for most of the day and this collection of rugged rocks is so inspiring that I easily took over 1,000 photos of it with my iPhone and dedicated camera. Despite culling the majority, there’s probably still way too many Kaweah photos posted here. The following day I did a very nice loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain, Amphitheater Lake and Sawtooth Peak which I look forward to sharing on the blog soon. It took nine years between visits to Mineral King and I hope the next time will be much sooner! ¬†Full photo albums: Camera; iPhone¬†

The route to reach¬†Eisen & Lippincott begins in the charming Mineral King valley. After an initial climb on the Sawtooth Pass Trail, the most efficient route to Glacier Pass leaves the maintained trail at a small meadow and begins a traversing climb on an old unmaintainted trail. There’s some brush and some boulder hoping in sections, but the old path is followable all the way up to another meadow area above a headwall of Monarch Creek. The path disappears in this meadow, but veer left into a broad gully that leads toward Glacier Pass. On the left side of this broad gully the use path can be regained. With careful routefinding the use path can be followed most of the way to Glacier Pass. ¬†Alternatively, one may stay on the maintained Sawtooth Pass Trail which reaches the Glacier Pass vicinity after a long series of gradual switchbacks, a circuitous trip to the lower Monarch Lakes and an annoyingly sandy climb. The correct crossing of Glacier Pass is slightly south and above the low point.

After passing over Glacier Pass, a use path descends to the gorgeous headwaters of Cliff Creek, one of the most enchanting places in the Sierra. The descent features picturesque small tarns and grizzled Southern Foxtail Pines with increasingly closer views of exquisite Spring Lake, which sports a spectacular blue color, particularly when contrasted with the red bark of the foxtail pines. Rising from Spring Lake’s shores is a impressive granite buttress which is the terminous of Sawtooth Peak’s north ridge. For Mount Eisen, follow Cliff Creek downstream from Spring Lake moving through a talus field and then easy meadows to join the Black Rock Pass trail. One may ascend the Black Rock Pass Trail all the way to the Pass or depart about halfway up the slope and angle toward Mount Eisen to save some time and extra elevation gain. Once the ridge is gained a false summit is reached with one of the most memorable views of the Kaweahs as Lake 10410 (one of the Little Five Lakes) is perfectly framed. ¬†Some scrambling leads down to a pass between the false summit and Mount Eisen before the final scramble up Mount Eisen commences. Pursuing¬†the summit register I learned that a ridge traverse from Eisen to Lippincott has been done in the past by staying right on the crest, but the easiest and most efficient route follows a route underneath the ridge.

From Eisen retreat back to the pass between Eisen and the false summit before picking one of many class 3 possibilities down the east side of the ridge to friendly granite slabs below. Traverse north to a gap along Eisen’s east ridge with a distinctive horn to the east of the gap and then descend a gully (likely containing snow) to a rockbound tarn. From here aim for a pass¬†between the two unnamed peaks on the Great Western Divide that are between Eisen and Lippincott. There’s some slabs to descend followed by a large talus fields that leads to the pass. On the other side of this pass one is on the west side of the Great Western Divide and the traverse to Lippincott’s southeast ridge is fairly straightforward. It is recommended to loose some elevation to reach easier terrain versus remaining high. Lippincott’s southeast ridge is a fun class 3 scramble with lots of options to make it interesting on the ridge proper or tone down the difficulty by moving left off the ridge. Lippincott’s summit is a wonderful perch with views toward the Tablelands, Nine Lakes Basin and the Great Western Divide stretching to the north all the way to Mount Brewer and North Guard. The Kaweahs continue to command the greatest attention, particularly Black Kaweah and Red Kaweah, but with an added twist: at the base of Lippincott’s precipitous north face is¬†an unnamed lake (“Lippincott Lake”) with¬†a wonderful deep blue center ringed by a turquoise shoreline.

Some class 3 downclimbing is required on the upper part of the Lippincott’s east face, but it soons transitions into pleasant granite slabs. Following the drainage down leads to a wonderful parkland of Southern Foxtail Pines and small lakes. At the outlet of lake 10,295 curve to the south to reach the Big Arroyo Trail. The Big Arroyo Trail passes through one of the most pristine Southern Foxtail Pine woodlands in existence with some truly amazing trees. The scientific name for Southern Foxtail Pine is Pinus balfouriana subspecies austrina and it is endemic to the high country of the Southern Sierra Nevada. Most of the groves are within Sequoia National Park and the Big Arroyo and Upper Kern River watersheds contain the highest concentration of Southern Foxtail Pines anywhere. This fascinating tree occurs in nearly pure stands of widely spaced woodlands and the bark has a distinctive reddish color which is particularly striking in sunlight. The Foxtail Pine is slow growing and the arid, high-elevation conditions also mean it is slow to decay. Some living trees are thousands of years old and woody crowns can persist for much longer. In exposed places near tree line, numerous winter storms with high winds and ice sculpt and twist the trunk and branches into picturesque snags peeling away the bark to expose complex inner layers and striking colors.¬†

After some rolling hills through the Southern Foxtail Pine forest, the trail reaches Little Five Lakes with more great views of the Kaweahs. The shortest route back to Spring Lake and Glacier Pass is via an off trail traverse to Cyclamen Pass (point 11,145 on USGS). The east side of the pass is fairly straightforward with wonderful views down to the Big Five Lakes while the west side of the pass is a fairly arduous descent with sand in the upper part that transitions to talus below. Ultimately, one returns to beautiful Spring Lake where a use trail¬†leads up to Glacier Pass. Here, the climbing is done for the day and it’s all downhill to Mineral King. ¬†¬†

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 ūüôā

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.