Catching up on a route from July 4th that was a variation of the Sawtooth Loop I did back in 2013. The “Sawtooth Loop” 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’s 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.
Continuing with the focus on Northeast Yosemite’s Canyon Country, this post describes a climb of Whorl Mountain, which is immediately across Spiller Canyon from Virginia Peak,and a tour of the Sawtooth Ridge region including Matterhorn Pass, Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. I had done a similar Sawtooth Loop last year including climbs of Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak. It’s such a fantastically scenic area I have no qualms about returning here year after year or even multiple times in the same year. Whorl Mountain is an impressive granite massif composed of three summits (the middle being the highest) sharply dividing Mattherhorn Canyon and Spiller Canyon. The rugged ridgeline reminds me of the Matthes Crest in the Tuolumne Meadows area with similar rock patterns, spectacularly steep relief and awesome scenery. The main difference is Whorl sees a small fraction of the visitors when compared with the popular and easily accessible rock climb on the Matthes Crest. From a distance, it looks like technical rock climbing is required to reach Whorl’s summit, but a fairly straightforward, albeit convoluted, scrambling route exists. My route finding was spot on and the crux for me was passage underneath the chockstone, which surprisingly still contained snow and ice in mid-summer (beware in a high snow year). After contemplating turning around, I decided to give it a try. To make space for me to crawl through I needed to remove some snow and ice. Using my hand turned out to be a bloody mess, but bashing the icy snow with a rock proved effective. Once past the chockstone it was a matter of minutes before I was on the summit. Any earlier in the season and the passage underneath the chockstone would have been completely choked and the alternatives are exposed. After Whorl Mountain I went over Matterhorn Pass and traversed the upper portions of Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon. This is one of my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra with amazing rugged scenery of Sawtooth Ridge. I completed the loop by going over Ice Lake Pass to the foot of the Incredible Hulk with amazing views to Ice Lake and Maltby Lake, and then down the climbers use path in Little Slide Canyon to the Barney Lake Trail. GPS route here.
The easiest approach to Whorl is via the Horse Creek drainage to Horse Creek Pass. This is a direct and straightforward route and if you are able to find and utilize little use paths it will help expedite passage through the talus fields in the upper portion of the drainage. Most times a snow tongue remains near the narrow pass which is an extension of a relic ice patch, but this likely disappears by late season. Travel across upper Spiller Canyon is a pleasure with beautiful meadows, gradual terrain and awesome scenery. Continue along a prominent bench below Whorl to its end and then make an ascending traverse across Whorl’s east face. There are several shallow chutes along the face, but the key is continue farther than you think and beyond a couple patches of small pine trees (see annotated photo above). Once in the correct chute, it’s a pretty straightforward ascent up class 2 and 3 slabs and talus. Near the top of this first chute, move climber’s right into a second chute. Once in the second chute ascend 3rd class blocks about 100 vertical feet to find a convenient ledge that provides relatively easy access to a third chute. The third chute contains an impressive chockstone that must be climbed underneath and through. As described above, the chockstone is likely chocked with snow and ice until well into the summer season and the alternatives to get around the chockstone entails some exposed 4th class scrambling. Once through the chockstone there is a little more scrambling before an obvious wide ledge is found that cuts across the entire west face of the middle peak and emerges near the summit. This ledge is quite miraculous since the face is otherwise nearly vertical granite and without it this would surely be a technical climb. At the end of the ledge, a few more class 3 moves deposits one on the summit. As Whorl is essentially a giant granite wedge between Spiller Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon, the views are stellar and include the Sawtooth Ridge, Virginia Peak, Mount Conness and the Roof of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. The fun does not need to end with Whorl. On the way back to Horse Creek Pass, turn uphill and ascend to Matterhorn Pass to make a loop including Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. Matterhorn Pass is a little tricky to approach from the south as you must ascend a gully to a point above the pass before exiting the gully and descending the ridge back to the low point at the pass. The north side of Matterhorn Pass is easy and the descent into upper Matterhorn Canyon is gorgeous. Once in the canyon, intersect the trail and soon after reach spectacular Burro Pass. The views of Sawtooth Ridge only improve as one descends into the upper reaches of Slide Canyon. The meadows here are among my favorite in all of the High Sierra. Instead of ascending up to Mule Pass, head cross country to Ice Lakes Pass to get close-up views of Ice Lake, Maltby Lake, and the granite monolith of the Incredible Hulk. This is really an amazing area! The descent through Little Slide Canyon is arduous and takes some time, but once on the Barney Lake Trail it’s smooth sailing back to Twin Lakes. Alternatively, keeping to the maintained trail out of Slide Canyon includes an ascent to Mule Pass with fantastic views and pretty lakes. You really can’t go wrong in this region! GPS route here.
Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon,Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.
The Sawtooth Ridge region is one of the most scenic in all of the Sierra. I visited this area earlier in the summer climbing Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak in an aesthetic loop – the “Sawtooth Loop.” The highlight view was from Finger Peaks with a complete panorama of impressive Sawtooth Ridge from the south. On this outing I ascended infrequently visited Robinson Peak (10,793 ft) which features the mirror panorama of Sawtooth Ridge from the north. This trip was all about the views and it’s truly a staggering vista with over 5,000 vertical feet of rugged terrain across the Robinson Creek valley. The climb itself is not aesthetic, but it’s a great workout. I started from a small RV park on the east side of Twin Lakes (~7,100 ft) and took an old 4wd road into a canyon until it ended (~1 mile). From here I continued up the canyon to its head and then up steep slopes with prickly sage and other high desert vegetation. This 3,000+ foot climb over only 2 miles from the start finally deposited me onto Sawmill Ridge where the tremendous views opened up. From Sawmill Ridge, it’s another couple miles of easy cross country hiking along the ridge through grass, sage and patches of pine forest to the foot of Robinson Peak. A final 600 foot climb and I was at the top gazing over Robinson Creek and the jagged crest of Sawtooth Ridge, including Matterhorn Peak, Dragtooth Peak, The Doodad, Three Peaks, the Sawblade, Cleaver Peak, Blacksmith Peak, Eocene Peak, and the Incredible Hulk. There was also some pretty fall color on the mountainsides and in the Robinson Creek drainage. In all, it’s only a bit over 4 miles to the summit of Robinson Peak and took me about 1h40m. After 30 minutes admiring the staggering panorama, I headed down the ridge. On the way back, I took a variation staying on the ridge longer and dropping down the entry canyon on it’s east side. While a bit longer, it was a good descent route and I was back to the car in a little over an hour after departing the summit. Strava route here.
Not to be confused with Robinson Peak, the next day I climbed Mount Robinson (12,967 ft) as part of a trip up the North Fork Big Pine Creek to Sam Mack Lake and Mount Winchell. Mount Robinson has an amazing view of the Palisades from Sill to Agassiz. Both Robinsons are among the finest viewpoints in the High Sierra and it was pleasure to visit both of them on the same weekend. The photo immediately below compares the view from the Robinson summits. More on the North Fork Big Pine trip in a future blog post.