The first time I knew I was looking at Tower Peak was from the top of Suicide Ridge. The summit loomed north through the smoke and the first thought in my mind was “what is that thing?” Being surrounded by some of the most experienced Sierra climbers, my answer was quickly answered, but before I could snap a shot the smoke thickened and it disappeared from sight.
Out of the blue Rafee asked if I would be interested in dayhiking the peak which lies remarkably inaccessible on the northeast corner of Yosemite. He proposed to hike from Leavitt Meadows which entails a fifteen mile approach along relatively flat meadows before the three mile climb to the summit. I considered an alternate route from Twin Lakes which would shave a few miles but add considerable elevation gain before agreeing to his plan on the condition that I could run the return trip with or without him. I wasn’t put off by the long approach, knowing that it should make for easy jogging, and having the expectation that I might catch the aspen in prime color during the return trip. Rafee agreed and we made plans to meet at the trailhead for a brutally early 4 am start.
Rafee had heard that we could cut off some mileage by starting from the pack station rather than the campground, so we parked at a pullout on Sonora Pass across from the pack station and set off to find the trailhead in the freezing night. Unfortunately we ended up passing the marked trail and had to double back before realizing the marked trail did not exist. We meandered through the pack station looking for the trail and, though at one point I thought I’d found it, ended up tramping back and forth across the wet meadows for twenty minutes before deciding to just head in the general direction we knew we had to go. Whatever time and mileage we’d hope’d to save with this shortcut we’d obviously lost.
Eventually we found a wide trail that was meant for pack animals and not very accommodating to hiking. In several places the trail was flooded with running water, a simple obstacle for a horse or mule to wade through, but for a hiker in the 20 degree morning with ambitions of a 30 mile day it meant a good deal of searching up and downstream for narrow portions that could be vaulted. Soon we came across Leavitt Creek and could not find an easy way to cross. I teetered as far out into the creek as I could on some toppled shrubs before hopping but managed to dip one foot in the creek before making it to the other side. Rafee wearing somewhat waterproof boots instead decided to simply ford the creek and he seemed perhaps better off for it.
My wet foot was freezing and I was hoping that the water play was over for the morning when we next came to the West Fork Walker River which was at least fifteen feet across. I resigned my feet to their soggy fate and dolefully waded across the river, deciding that my feet would get wet no matter what so I was better off splashing as little as possible. After our ford, the trail disappeared completely. This is easily the worst shortcut I’ve ever taken and I cannot suggest strongly enough that the longer route is better. There was a winter storm earlier that week, so perhaps the river was higher than normal for that time of year, but without a reconnaissance trip, I would avoid it altogether.
We hiked cross country through the meadow until we found the hikers trail and I was glad that my socks were wicking the water off my feet. It was still incredibly cold, but I didn’t feel any worse off for having forded the river. The next two hours proceeded uneventfully with pleasant conversation and occasional stops at trail junctions to ensure that we were heading the right way.
For a long time we followed the West Fork Walker along trails cut in canyon walls, sometimes departing to the forest where the trail became sandy from abuse perpetrated by overmany pack animals. The moon had set and the stars were brilliant. We never stopped to admire them, but we had a moment of confusion when we passed Lane Lake in the pitch black and saw the myriad points of light reflecting off its mirrored surface below us. Twilight arrived and we switched off our headlamps. The forest was sparse and aspen mingled with the pine.
We passed through a gate in a dilapidated barbed wire fence and the forest opened up suddenly as we entered Upper Piute Meadows. The air was noticeably crisper here and frost lay thick on the grass. Across the meadow a large peak rose up, basking in the morning sun and glistening with the remnant snow of the year’s first storm.
The trail led down into the meadow and towards the West Fork Walker and once again we were forced to find a creative way to the opposite bank. Once across we found a modern log cabin shuttered for the the season, rustic and replete with tools and adorned with a large skull above its porch.
We crossed Upper Piute Meadows in the frigid morning air. The air was so cold and dense it felt like any movement caused an impossible amount of wind that only made my skin even colder. I pulled out my phone to take a photo and it warned me that it was “too hot to use the flash” — it was so cold even my phone was disoriented! We moved quickly, trying to stay warm and hoping to soon reenter the relative warmth of the forest. Above us, two peaks were bathed in sunlight and I dreamt that soon we’d be in the warmth of the sun.
My desire was quickly sated as shortly we were making noticeable upward progress for the first time. The trail switched back for the first time and we finally saw the sun. We stopped for some snacks and to take off a layer before continuing on.
The trail bent westward and we crossed several streams, their tops crusted with ice. The trees briefly parted and high above us a granite spire dominated the view before the forest drew in again and blocked it out. We passed through a small hemlock forest growing atop a weathered moraine and I was struck by the beauty of their brown and yellow needles coating the soft forest floor. The duff was so thick and the trail so little eroded that only by paying attention to the orientation of the yellow brown needles could the path be seen. If you were to look at any particular part of the trail you might not notice it, but if you looked at the general area the trail popped out like a magic eye image. Finally the forest petered out as we climbed out of the canyon and we once again crossed the West Fork Walker, now just a small stream, being so close to its origin at Tower Lake.
We arrived at Tower Lake and discussed the route we’d take to the summit. I had read a trip report which ascended the low point on the ridge line and from our vantage we could see that there was a large pile of talus leading to a small snowfield near the ridge. It appeared to me that there was some room on either margin of the snow to climb the rock and I was inclined to take this route. Rafee on the other hand wanted to climb the granite ridge east of Tower Lake. I was hesitant to take this route because it seemed possible that we might come to a cliff which would mean retracing our path and starting over from the lake. My route seemed tedious but passable. In the end we decided to take the ridge since it seemed possible to bail to the talus field without too much backtracking should we arrive at an impasse.
The climbing along the ridge was immediately steep and frequently composed of loose talus, but it gradually became more solid and less steep. It was very enjoyable climbing and as we gained the top of the ridge we were rewarded with incredible views of The Watchtower.
From its summit The Watchtower had a near vertical drop for 1,000 feet before fanning out into a giant granite apron which ran another 1,000 feet down to the valley floor. Its imposing facade was fractured in hundreds of places with cracks running up and down its length.
We continued up along the ridge and it eased up as we approached the crest and for the first time we saw our objective above us. We were amused to find that some potholes near the crest had filled with snowmelt and frozen, creating inch thick pucks of ice we could pick up and replace like a puzzle piece.
Between us and the summit was now a large talus field, slightly convex, and filled with snow in its center. We climbed left around the snowfield and up onto the ridge north of Tower Peak. There was a surprising amount of snow left up here on the ridge, making the going slippery and difficult. I was surprised when we soon found a use trail and even more surprised that there was a boot track through the snow!
The gentle slope we’d ascended so far became increasingly steeper and we hiked to the top of the arete where the rock was more sturdy. To our right the ridge dropped off into a picturesque canyon. In its base sat Mary Lake whose northern shore was lined with an impossibly perfect beach. The Saurian Crest bounded the lake on its far side with evidence of a history full of rock slides. Further down the canyon lay Tilden Lake and the innumerable domes of northern Yosemite.
At this point the lingering autumn snow was becoming our biggest challenge but we found that by sticking to the ridge we could mostly step and grab on bare rock. Soon the rock along the ridge became too steep and difficult to climb and we were forced out into a concave between two ridges.
The snow was becoming deeper and more difficult to negotiate now that we were limited by the two walls on either side of us. We arrived at the crux of the climb where I had read that the standard route ran up the gut of this gully and was called “The Staircase.” I could indeed see the large 3-5 foot ledges and agreed that this was probably the easiest way up, normally. At that moment, however, the steps were buried in 3 to 12 inches of snow.
The boot track we had seen earlier continued directly up these steps with such confidence that I was certain the owner had been wearing crampons. We were equipped with neither crampons nor ice axe, nor did I even have a hiking pole with which to arrest a slide. If we slipped here, it could be several hundred feet before we came to a stop. We were also acutely aware of the possibility that with any step we might posthole into a void in the rock, causing either injury or a fall. Therefore we decided to climb the flakes which lined the left side of the gully.
My research had rated these flakes at class 4 and I did not disagree. Beyond the difficult climbing, it was cold! Because of the snow we were moving slowly and the last hour or so we’d been in the shade of the mountain climbing with bare hands for better grip. I had checked our elevation at 11,300 feet and guessed that it would be another 20 minutes to the summit — I never would have guessed it would take an hour to climb 500 feet!
Finally we gained the summit just before 1 pm. We had our lunch, signed the makeshift register and enjoyed the view. I’m not very familiar with the nearby Sawtooth range so I wasn’t able to identify many peaks to our east, but on the opposite side of Yosemite more than 40 miles to the south, the entirety of the Cathedral range was visible, gleaming with a fresh coat of snow.
Forty miles in the other direction I spotted Mokelumne Peak and Round Top.
We didn’t linger long on the summit, knowing that we had another 18 miles to return to the car including some difficult downclimbing. We got back through the gully and onto the easier ridge before I admitted to Rafee that I had been incredibly worried about the descent the entire time we were on the summit.
The ascent was technically difficult and when combined with the fact that a fall would land in snow and might continue for several hundred feet there was no doubt that was the scariest climb I’d ever done. I’d sensed on both the way up and down that Rafee was also a bit intimidated since neither of us really wanted to lead the climb or the descent, but I’d felt that we were making calculated and confident decisions and there was no point in sharing and possibly doubling our anxiety until we were in a more secure place. I have no doubt that had either of us told the other “I don’t feel safe here,” we would have turned around regardless of being in literal spitting distance of the summit.
Once we were back on solid ground with our objective complete, I suggested that we might also climb The Watchtower. After ogling the peak along most of the climb I was eager to reach the top and peer down its sheer face. Rafee didn’t seem enthused by the idea but he decided to join me since it seemed like a very small detour and he guessed that he might never return to this area.
The Watchtower turned out to barely be a detour at all and I outpaced Rafee on the way over, wanting to explore the summit a bit once I arrived and not wanting to keep Rafee unnecessarily long. I found the summit to be surprisingly broad and I downclimbed a bit, hoping to find a ledge which overlooked the awesome face below. I was disappointed to find none. Eventually I decided that the lower north summit was probably the normal top out for those who climb the face and that it would probably offer a more airy perch. Unfortunately the traverse between the two was steep and snowy and probably best done with rock shoes.
I’d had enough exposed climbing for the day and also had plenty of hiking left to return to the car so I climbed back to the summit and waited for Rafee.
I took one last peek over the crest and into Yosemite before heading down towards the same ridge we’d ascended. I detoured slightly, still captivated by The Watchtower and wanting to see it from more angles. I found a view down one of its broader couloirs. It would be a completely heinous approach and an obscene skin out, but I couldn’t help but think about skiing that line.
As we descended the ridge to Tower Lake we had a clearer view of The Watchtower with the sun at our backs. It really is an impressive formation, evoking Mt Tyndal’s east face.
At Tower Lake we found the trail and had a small snack. It was now 4 pm, much later than I had expected to return to the trail, so Rafee and I made plans to meet up and I ran off down the trail.
The first part of the trail was steep and quick but leveled off at the bottom of the canyon. I set a moderate pace, not intending to break any records: only to spend a few less hours on my feet and, with any hope, catch the aspen before sunset. I was back at Upper Piute Meadows by five and found a better route across the West Fork Walker this time.
By the time I made it to Lower Piute Meadow, the sun had fallen below the mountains, though not yet set and the brutal chill from the morning had returned. I stopped to put one my hat and gloves and continued running well into the twilight, not wanting to break pace to don my headlamp. Eventually I stumbled over a half visible rock and decided it was time for the headlamp once again.
By the time I arrived at the dense aspen groves, it was pitch black and the only indication of their presence was their sighing in the wind.
I realized eventually that I was gaining elevation fairly significantly. There had been a few ups and downs on the hike in, but I did not recall this portion. I took out my map and found that I had taken a quarter mile detour up the Secret Lake trail. In my haste to return to the warmth of my car I decided to head cross country towards the trail I was meant to be on rather than turn around and hike back to the junction.
Rather than deal with fording the various creeks we’d encountered this morning I planned to take the trail all the way back to the campsite and then take the highway back to the car, shortcut be damned. I suggested this to Rafee and he agreed that was probably the better idea, and I offered to wait for him at the campsite and save him the hike back along the highway. Now that I was getting close to the campsite I wasn’t happy about adding another mile to a 35 mile day and I noticed a trail on my map which seemed to be a compromise between the two routes. I decided I’d take this turn if there was a bridge, otherwise I’d continue on to the campsite.
Unfortunately, I found there was no bridge. At Tower Lake, the decision of a mile and a half in dry shoes versus half a mile in wet shoes was easy to make. Here at the bank of river the decision was also easy to make, but for the other option. I stopped only long enough to photograph my doom before wading across and up the opposite bank to the highway.
I got back to my car, removed my wet socks and shoes, changed out of my sweaty clothes, and put on every layer I had. I drove over to the campground where I told Rafee I’d pick him up and left the engine on, waiting for the heat to come.
I suspected that Rafee might also decide to take the wetter colder shortcut and after an hour drove back to his car and found that he had indeed come to the same bullish conclusion as I. We shared a laugh at our “shortcuts” — Rafees boots had actually frozen on his feet because of the water and he was waiting for them to melt enough to take them off! Since he was driving back to the bay that night, I decided not to hang around any longer and hit the road heading for home.
Elevation Gain: 6,900 ft