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.
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.
It’s been two months since I last blogged but it’s not because I haven’t been busy. Between a hectic workweek in the Bay Area and weekends filled driving to and adventuring in the Sierra I haven’t had a chance to blog. This post will serve as a summary of recent trips with links to full iphone photo albums. I might blog on some of these adventures in the future. I actually brought my dedicated camera on all these trips and took just as many photos with the camera (if not more) but haven’t had a chance to go through the thousands (literally) of photos yet so all photos in the albums and below are from the iPhone. The good news is the iPhone photo quality has improved to the point that resolution is satisfactory for mobile device or computer screen viewing and it’s just so much easier for me to get photos up quickly (images below are lower resolution; ask me if interested in higher resolution). By using both the iPhone and a dedicated camera this also meant that I spent twice as much time doing photography as I used to, which was already a lot!
Tablelands, Big Bird Peak, Alta Peak (June 18th): An early season trip across the Tablelands to Big Bird Peak which has a fantastic view of the Great Western Divide, the Valhalla, and Big Bird Lake. On the way back I stopped by the gorgeous Moose Lake which still had some floating icebergs and continued up and over the Alta Peak massif.
Mammoth to North Lake (June 25-26th): A two day fastpack from Mammoth Lakes to North Lake via the Sierra High Route including Mammoth Crest, Shout of Relief Pass, Bighorn Pass, Gabbot Pass, White Bear Pass, Feather Pass and Puppet Pass. The trip also included a climb of Feather Peak, my second time on this outstanding summit.
North Fork Big Pine (July 2nd):A trip with Erica up the North Fork Big Pine to the foot of the Palisade Glacier including stops at first, second and third lakes and Sam Mack Meadows. The turquoise waters of Second Lake are some of the most beautiful in the Sierra.
SHR Ansel Adams (July 3rd): A tour of the Sierra High Route from Devils Postpile to Thousand Island Lake and back to Agnew Meadows via the River Trail. The trio of lakes beneath the Minarets are always a favorite spot to visit!
SHR Headwaters (July 4th): From Agnew Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows the long way up and over North Glacier Pass and into the stunning cirque beneath Mount Ritter that forms the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River. The route passes by beautiful Twin Island Lakes and Blue Lake on the way to Blue Lake Pass. Unfortunately the back half of the route on the Isberg Pass and Rafferty Creek Trails to Tuolumne Meadows is a relatively mundane stretch of many miles.
Mount Farquhar (July 9th): A jaunt up Sphinx Creek to a mountain that has always piqued my interest when passing by. The scramble route up the main gully to the summit is super fun and the afternoon views of the impressive north face of North Guard Peak are even better.
Deerhorn Mountain (July 10th):Another mountain that has always drawn interest, particularly from the vicinity of Bullfrog Lake and Mount Rixford. Deerhorn is a beautiful mountain and I found the scramble to be enjoyable. The views from the top are tremendous as the mountain is centrally located for an excellent vantage of the Kings-Kern Divide and Great Western Divide. I also really enjoyed the Vidette Lakes.
Evolution-Ionian Loop (July 16-18th): A 2.5 day tour through the Evolution and Ionian Regions including summits of Muriel, Goethe, Spencer, McGee, Hansen, Scylla and Solomons.
Day 1 Photo Album: Late start at 1:30 pm from Sabrina but still time for Muriel and Goethe on the first day. Muriel might be lower than surrounding peaks but it has a great view of Mount Darwin and Mendel. The traverse from Muriel to Goethe is a fun bit of scrambling and evening light descending the slopes of Goethe to Darwin Bench was amazing.
Day 2 Photo Album: Day 2 started at Darwin Bench with a field of lupine and a great reflection. The summit of Mount Spencer is well worth the ~1500 ft climb from Sapphire Lake (JMT) with a wonderful 360 degree view of Evolution Basin owing to its centralized location. The afternoon destination was Mount McGee which has piqued my interest each time I’ve been in the region. The route up McGee included passage through the lovely Davis Lakes, which turned out to be the biggest surprise of the trip in terms of exceeding expectations. The uppermost Davis Lake has mineral sedimentation creating a wonderful turquoise color but the real treat was the lowest Davis Lake which takes on the appearance of a fjord as at twists and turns between rocky buttress. The climb of Mount McGee is a bit of a grind but the view from the summit is one of the best I’ve seen with an aerial view looking down at the Davis Lakes immediately below with the Goddard Divide creating a rugged background. After enjoying the Davis Lakes one more time I took Starr’s route over the Goddard Divide and had lovely evening views from the crest of the divide before descending into Ionian Basin for the night.
Day 3 Photo Album: The day started with wonderful views from Scylla and Hansen and then a beautiful walk through the Ionian Basin to Mount Solomons. Solomons provides a great vantage of Charybdis and the Sierra Crest in the vicinity of Muir Pass. From Solomons I went directly down to Muir Pass (staying off steep snow since I had no traction device) and then up to Echo Col for more great views of lake 11428 and Black Giant. The end of the route took me through Sabrina Basin.
Rodgers Peak (July 23rd): The afternoon views from Rodgers Peak were swell, but the wildflower meadows on the way down (above Rodgers Lake) were stunning; possibly the best display I’ve seen in the Sierra. Having summited Rodgers Peak a couple years ago, I knew the best light would be in the afternoon so I got a late start from the Rush Creek trailhead (after the 5 hour drive from the Bay Area) and almost suffocated from the heat before even arriving at Gem Lake! Rodgers Peak provides outstanding views since it sits a triple point of the Ritter Range, Cathedral Range and the ridge trending SW to Electra and Foerster that separates the Merced and San Joaquin drainages.
Echo Peaks (July 24th):A short trip up from Tuolumne Meadows but high rewards with excellent vistas of Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure, Mount Florence and the Clark Range. To the north we could see Mount Conness, Matterhorn Peak, Tower Peak and a myriad of other peaks and domes in northern Yosemite.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fiske, Warlow and Spencer – Evolution Basin:A collection of peaks to do in Evolution Basin that I haven’t done yet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Thumb: I’ve been wanting to climb the Thumb for awhile! It’s a beautiful peak with an excellent view of the Palisades.
Mount McGee: Another remote peak with great views of the many surrounding lakes.
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!
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 Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap region is one of the most dramatic and inspiring spots in the High Sierra. Considering how many times over the years I’ve visited the area it’s easily among my favorite spots to explore. I consider it one of the best spots for adventure running in the Sierra Nevada with a long runnable approach, fun scrambles and most importantly, jaw-dropping scenery. I’ve climbed most of the named summits in the region over the years, including Eagle Scout Peak and Mount Stewart on separate trips, but this time I would tag both summits together since they make logical sense as a pair. While it makes for a long day, both summits are class 2 scrambles and not very far apart. On this visit I paid particular attention to timing of best light for photography and made sure to be at the right place at the right time. I spent several hours shooting photos and I hope the results reflect my efforts. On this post I’m introducing a new format for this blog – from now on I’m going to only post a few highlight photos from each adventure in the body of the post with a link to a full album on Google Photos where it’s easier to navigate through the larger set of photos and see full size versions. The complete photo album for this trip is here. Total mileage for Eagle Scout and Mount Stewart was 50 miles, of which 40+ miles was out-and-back on the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadows to Kaweah Gap. The first 11 miles to Bearpaw Meadows is on well groomed trail with gentle ups and downs making it very runnable. Beyond Bearpaw Meadows the trail descends to cross Lone Pine Creek before ascending in a rocky stretch of trail to round a shoulder into the Hamilton Lakes drainage. After crossing Hamilton Creek the trail is in ascent mode all the way to Kaweah Gap but the incline is fairly moderate throughout. The Hamilton Lakes amphitheater is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra with towering granite faces of the Valhallas including the famous Angel Wings rock wall, Cherubim Dome, Hamilton Dome and many other sweet rock features. At the head of the amphitheater on opposite ends lies Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak making them a perfect pair to tag on the same day. The area is so beautiful I haven’t figured out how to spot taking photos each time I visit, including nearly 200 photos when I did the complete High Sierra Trail for an FKT. From the beautiful sapphire blue waters of Upper Hamilton Lake the trail switchbacks before traversing to a spectacular view overlooking the lake and Angel Wings. The trail then reaches a picturesque tarn and then Precipice Lake. At aptly-named Precipice Lake, the sheer cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak tumble right into the waters of the remarkably clear lake. This stunning view was immortalized by Ansel Adams in 1932 with his shot “Frozen Lake and Cliffs.” Shortly after Precipice Lake, one reaches Kaweah Gap which opens up a new world of scenery in the upper Big Arroyo River drainage including the Nine Lake Basin and the Kaweah Range. From Kaweah Gap, go south for Eagle Scout Peak and north for Mount Stewart. Both climbs are straightforward and offer different, but both marvelous, perspectives on the Hamilton Lakes and Nine Lakes Basin areas. The view of Precipice Lake from the summit of Eagle Scout Peak is particularly inspiring. The overhanging summit block of Eagle Scout Peak is indeed the precipice with the clear blue waters of Precipice Lake 2,000 feet below the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, Mount Stewart offers an amazing view of Sabertooth Ridge, Tamarack Lake, and the rugged north side of Black Kaweah. The complete photo album for this trip is here.
After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.
To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope. From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes. Strava GPS here. High on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.
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 qualityphotos 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.