After a restless night’s sleep in the car in Bridgeport (restlessness enhanced by the white Prius which pulled in sometime after 1:30, set off it’s own car alarm at 1:50, and was gone again by 2:30), I ate some breakfast and headed off for the trailhead at Mono Village at 5:00. Unfortunately the clear skies of last night were gone and replaced by a smokey haze.
I pulled into the empty lot in the dark around 5:30 am and within minutes the lot started filling up as I tried to catch a few more winks in the drivers seat. With the draconian 6:00 am start approaching I willed myself out of the car, got dressed and put together my pack and snacks for the day. Soon the lot was full and it was obvious that we would have a big group for the hike today despite the impending threat of smoke.
This is far and away both the largest and the most experienced group of people I’ve ever hiked with. Bob is almost certainly one of the five most accomplished hikers in California of all time and Michael whom I soon met is on track to complete the SPS Peaks List this week and it seems like everyone else is well on their way to that or some other peak-bagging goal. I don’t imagine I will have to worry about the group slowing me down much during this trip!
In fact, I quickly found myself at the back of the pack thanks to my frequent stops for photos, but it wasn’t so hard to catch up. We stopped for a group photo at the wilderness sign and almost immediately two or three people shot out ahead at a serious clip. I might normally be inclined to join them, but I wasn’t really sure what sort of pace to expect from this group and decided my photos and I would be best served by hanging in the middle of the pack at least for the first day.
Soon we came upon Barney Lake with Crown Point looming high above. My plan for the day was just to climb Suicide Ridge and head back, not wanting to put on too many miles too early, but after seeing Crown Point I thought maybe one more peak would be worth it. Either way I would wait until the first summit to make a decision.
The trail is well maintained and easy to follow, contouring around Barney Lake and then gaining another 1000 feet of elevation on what seems like some of the most unnecessary switchbacks I’ve ever found. Most of them gain only five to ten feet over a distance of one hundred feet! They managed to go by quickly though as I found myself in a discussion of modular forms and Fourier series with Mason — dredging up memories of arcane math that I learned 8 years ago is very distracting!
We reached the beautiful Robinson Lakes and then passed Crown Lake as we rounded Crown Point from north to south on its east side. We then climbed Rock Island Pass, a very gentle climb with more annoyingly shallow switchbacks, between The Juggernaut and Crown Point and finally entered Yosemite!
Finally after almost 11 miles of hiking we would be leaving the trail to cross into Rock Island Canyon. This was some fun cross country travel with minimal chaparral to deal with and only some small cliffs with wide ledges to negotiate. We quickly came to Rock Island Canyon and had our first sight of the goal!
We crossed the meadow and I started up the obvious bench on the right side of the ridge. After reaching the top of the bench, I took a class 3 route up some slabs to gain the ridge, however as I came around to the other side of the ridge I found that I was still several hundred feet below the summit! Worse, there was a fifty foot cliff separating me from it and running several hundred feet down the slope!
After a bit of downclimbing I found my way over to the summit across some very interesting terrain. Nothing was too steep so it wasn’t difficult to navigate, but there were lots of deep couloirs that required more sideways and downwards climbing than I would have liked this close to the summit! By the time I got to the summit there was a big party and it seemed like most had made their way up by a different route. It turns out that the talus slope on the left side of the ridge was easy climbing and resulted in a much easier traverse once the ridge was gained.
While having some lunch I resolved to climb Crown Point while most of the others decided that they would head over to Slide Mountain before going down. Within minutes it became so hazy that the peaks around us started to disappear. Tower Peak and Mt Conness which were just visible were now completely gone and even Crown Point and the Sawtooths were difficult to make out. In these conditions, I decided it wouldn’t be worth climbing up another peak to see what the smoke looks like over there… I’ve seen smoke before!
Mason and I headed back down the leftward route (which he had come up) and we crossed the meadow much higher up. Here the meadow was brimming with beautiful Sky Lupine! Some yellow flowers dotted the meadow along with brilliant pink Indian Paintbrush, and some wild onions and Heather which was past its prime.
By the time we reached the opposite side of the valley it was so smokey that the whole character of the valley had changed. It was difficult even to make out the bench on Suicide Ridge which I had so easily seen earlier.
We made it back to the top of Rock Island Pass where we met Jim (the top of the pass was his goal for the day) and went for a swim in Snow Lake. I decided that I would swim across the lake and Mason offered to carry my bag to the other side so off I went. Despite the name, the lake was not all that cold and it was incredibly refreshing to get off my feet and get the sweat and dirt off my body. Even though we had nine miles to get back to Mono Village it was well worth it!
From there it was just a matter of getting down. We traveled together for a while but soon I found myself alone and I didn’t much mind. I passed lots of backpackers heading into the backcountry for the weekend, and saw a deer wading in the marsh above Barney Lake. There were several people fishing on the far side of Barney lake and the beach on it’s north end was so inviting I almost decided to go for another swim, but decided I would rather get back to the car a bit earlier and go for a dip in Upper Twin Lake.
I made it back to the lot around 4:30 pm, went for a swim and lounged on the shore in some shade trees while challenge members started to accumulate and we discussed the high points of the day. After some time most people decided to head to the Woah Nellie Deli in Lee Vining which I don’t much care for, so instead I headed to June Lake brewing for a drink or two before a well earned rest!
Tomorrow’s schedule calls for San Joaquin Mountain, just north of Mammoth. I have been up this peak before and it has one of the most stunning views I’ve seen anywhere in California. However the Lyons fire is still raging nearby and is producing a lot of smoke (here at June Lake Brewing it is occasionally raining ash), so I don’t have high hopes for a vista. Nearby Mt Ritter is another peak which has eluded me for quite some time and I’d much rather climb it as I’ve not been there before, however it will also suffer from the same smoke issues as San Joaquin.
So tomorrow morning will be a game time decision depending on how I’m feeling and how the smoke looks!
Estimated Elevation Gain: 5,800 ft