My usual route to the High Sierra takes me south along CA 89, first over Luther Pass and finally over Monitor Pass before dropping me off onto US 395, the great highway which parallels the Sierra crest. Although I often return along this stretch of highway after dark, the times I have been fortunate enough to traverse west across Monitor pass in the daylight I have been captivated by the twin double summits of Highland and Silver Peaks. The road stretches out toward the peaks, like a gunsight or an arrow on a treasure map, and I desperately wanted to climb these peaks and know how it feels to look in the opposite direction!
After an intolerably lazy week of recovering from a recent surgery, I decided that I had to get out and see what these peaks had to offer. As a bonus, I was hoping that I would be able to see the aspen grove which sits atop Monitor Pass and try to guess how much longer before it would start turning.
I did quick research on the two peaks and it appeared that both were infrequently climbed. There was little information about the feasibility of a traverse between the two, but my maps gave me confidence that it should be possible. It seemed like I would have reasonable access to the peaks via either the Noble Canyon trail or the Wolf Creek trail so I planned to start from the slightly higher Noble Canyon trail, summiting Silver Peak before traversing to Highland Peak and then returning to the trail for an easy jog back to the car.
I hit the trail at the crack of noon, not too worried about the late start since the planned round trip was a mere 12 miles, with the final five miles downhill on maintained trail. From the Ebbets Pass pullout where I parked, I could see several broad, grassy ridges rising up from Noble Canyon to meet the summit of Silver Peak and decided that one of these would provide for a good route. I expected the route might be quite steep, but if grass was growing on this slope, surely I could ascend it.
I followed the trail half a mile before heading towards ridge I had spotted, crossing a meadow in the bottom of the valley and picking up a use trail. I was excited that there might be a half-established route the the summit, but quickly realized that this was simply a cutoff from the Silver Creek campground to Noble Canyon. I knew from my research that there were some steep cliffs near the base of the peak that could stymy my progress but unfortunately, the map I brought with me did not have these cliffs marked and I promptly hiked straight into them. However I found not a monolithic face but a series of conglomerate pillars. I managed to climb up the chossy eroded slopes between these ancient lava tubes and found myself atop a small though distinctly isolated high point.
Alas, I wasn’t overly pleased to start a long day of hiking with unnecessary downclimbing, but I spent some time admiring the formation. The conglomerate was contorted into all sorts of interesting and unusual shapes and it reminded me of Kirkwood. Suddenly I was dreaming of returning back to this area when it would be buried under several feet of snow. Right now it might be frustrating climbing, but in the heart of winter it would be a skiers playground! From my accidental perch I had an unobstructed view of Silver Peak’s west face and found it covered with ragged cliffs of every color. I would really love to see this place again in the snow!
I also had a view of the ridges I had spotted earlier and made my way quickly down to the nearest, finding that it was covered with low chaparral rather than grass. This mixture of sage, manzanita, and gooseberry does not make for fun hiking, with each plant more formidable than the last, especially for this hiker who prefers to wear shorts. I have a special dislike for Gooseberry which, although less hardy than either of the other plants, seems to be always draped across my path in a way that catches first on my shin and then in the tongue of my shoe, raking its thorns across the front of my ankle with the following step. Delicious though its berries are, I’m not sure that compensates for the violence it visits upon my ankles. Of course, had I known to expect this, I would have worn pants!
After ascending the northern ridge for a while, I could see high above me that the shrubs eventually transitioned into talus, and decided that it was probably too steep to safely climb. I moved south across the ridge and down into the canyon so that I could gain the next ridge which appeared to continue all the way to the summit. In the bottom of this steep canyon, I found some rocks which had an unusual greenish cast to it which reminded me of verdigris — perhaps there was a copper vein running through this part of the mountain! I remembered almost immediately that I was in the act of climbing Silver Peak and it seemed more likely that this was in fact a silver patina (n.b. silver oxide, it turns out, is black so it’s unlikely that this was silver)!
I crossed through the forested canyon and gained the second shrubby ridge, but was out of both water and food, due to poor planning. In addition the ridge was becoming ever steeper and the cross country travel through the chaparral ever more frustrating. I started timing my ascent, sensing that I wasn’t on pace to make the traverse to Highland fast enough to find the trail again before dark. Although the slope was unrelenting, the views at least were becoming more expansive and incentivized my frequent pauses.
Across the Noble Canyon to the west I had an incredible view of the rugged volcanic ridge comprising Reynolds and Raymond Peaks. I’ve stolen glimpses of these peaks from Carson Pass but now that they were in full view I was even more impressed.
As I climbed higher, Noble Lake and Highland Peak came into view to the south, but I realized I wasn’t gaining elevation fast enough to leave time for the traverse. I pride myself on how few unsuccessful hikes I’ve attempted, but I realized that without food or water and moving as slowly as I was it would be unwise to continue on to the further peak. I was exhausted at this point and was tempted to turn around and return another day, but I knew I had to at least make it up Silver Peak. I could return another time to visit Highland.
The steep shrubby slope became less vegetated and more sandy, turning into talus where it met the ridge. Now I had a proper view of Highland Peak as well as the traverse that would be required to reach it. It did not look very difficult, but it was completely out of the question in the current state.
The ridge became more solid as I got closer to the summit and there was evidence for the first time that someone else had visited this place. Perhaps the east slope is the more popular route. Some easy class three climbing which would have been fun had I been more composed brought me quickly to a high point and my heart sunk.
I knew that both Highland and Silver Peaks were twin summits, and the map I was using had clearly labeled Silver Peak’s south summit. Now, standing atop the south summit, it was very obvious that the north summit was higher. Perhaps even worse in my mind, the higher northern summit obstructed the view of Monitor Pass, which was my original incentive for climbing the peak!
I reexamined my map and saw that although the south summit was tagged with a “Silver Peak” label, the north had a higher topo line. The true summit was not so far away, nor was the saddle between the two summits so deep, but I was cooked. The last hour I had been propelled only by the knowledge that I would at least make it to Silver Peak, but once I’d suffered the painful truth, I knew that there was no chance I would summit Silver Peak that day.
I swallowed my serving of humble pie and set off down the mountain, opting for a more direct route and, when possible, avoiding the rough chaparral I’d waded through on the way up.
I intermittently jogged down the ridge, though jogging was difficult between the slippery brush, loose rocks, and my exhaustion. John Muir liked to meditate on how unnatural humans were in a natural world, always needing to bath or else become disgusting — not like animals which always appear clean despite living in the wild. It occurred to me that besides apparent cleanliness, it must also be nice to live as a deer or a bear, never having to fuss with bramble and bush.
As I finally approached the bottom of the canyon, the slope began to ease up and the thicket transitioned in many places to meadows of Mule’s Ears, brown and desiccated after a long hot summer. I aimed for these patches, knowing that they would be less abusive to my naked legs and enjoyed the autumn crackle of dry leaves underfoot.
I finally crossed a creek as I drew nearer to the trail, but knowing that I had less than a mile to the car and a can of beer waiting for me there, I didn’t bother to stop and fill my water. I met the trail and continued north through a lovely forest of Juniper, Hemlock, and Whitebark Pine.
As the sun set on Silver Peak, the air was crisp and smelled of rotten leaves. Aspen crowded around Silver Creek had a faint tinge of yellow on their crowns. A strong south wind had been blowing on me most of the day and the first storm of the year was set to arrive later that week. Summer would soon be over.
I collected my car and headed home. I was tired and disappointed, but I knew that I would be back again to visit these peaks eventually.
Elevation Gain: 3,700 ft