Alta Peak

After getting a late start on Silliman Wednesday I was determined to get a jump on the day Thursday, but managed to only hit the trail at 8:30 am. I hiked across the Lodgepole Visitor Center lot and found a place to climb the frozen snowbank, throwing my skis up above my head so that I could use my hands to climb.

First sun hits the Lodgepole Visitor Center.

Just as the day before, I started hiking uphill from the canyon of the Marble Fork Kaweah, this time on the south. The climb was straightforward and I soon came across a winter trail which I knew to head west before switching back and gaining the ridge. I thought for a moment before deciding that I’d prefer the more direct climb and crossed the trail, continuing straight uphill.

The winter trail cuts through the hillside.

I soon gained the ridge and met up with the trail again, following it for a bit. This trail was much more popular than the one I’d crossed climbing Silliman — it was practically a highway! There’s a beauty in winter hiking, crossing pristine fields and leaving a single track behind. This was quite different, seeing all of the others who’d travelled the same route.

A well worn winter route.

The standard route to ski Alta would probably be to travel along the well worn winter route to Pear Lake (where there is a ski hut) before climbing the north bowl. I wasn’t keen on this route as it involved lots of elevation gain and loss as well as additional distance traversing several lake basins. Instead, I planned to traverse Panther Gap and climb the south side of the peak. Panther Peak was a small detour on this route so I crossed Wolverton Creek and headed up the north ridge of the peak.

Wolverton Creek peeks out through a deep snowpack.

I noted that there were a few steep sections along the ridge and managed to surmount the first without too much effort. To the north where the trees parted I had a view of Mt Silliman’s south ridge. The second steep section however was not a reasonable climb on skis and I wasn’t willing to bootpack up this peak which was not part of my main objective. After inspecting the map, I realized that there were several sections along my planned route which would be similarly steep. I decided that the Pear Lake route would provide less surprises since it’s so frequently traveled and I quickly transitioned and descended to Wolverton Creek, trying not to lose too much elevation.

Mt Silliman’s south ridge from below Panther Peak.

I put my skins back on and started the climb up “The Hump,” the small hill which separates Heather Lake from the Wolverton Creek drainage and which implies a 400 ft climb on the way out. The climb was easy and fairly quick, occasionally affording views west toward Panther Peak.

Clouds build in around Panther Peak.

I knew that there was a 30% chance of snow and tried to keep a good pace, hoping that the weather would hold off until after the summit. Looking around, however, it was obvious that the clouds were already building in. Near the top of the hump I encountered another skier heading back towards Lodgepole. I stopped and talked to him to see if I could get any information about the route to Pear Lake but it seemed that foot pain had turned him around before he could make the trip. I tried to offer him some solace that it would be downhill from here, but that didn’t seem to perk him up much.

Dark skies above the Marble Fork Canyon.

I gained the top of the hump after another hundred feet of climbing and decided that the upcoming descent was not worth transitioning. I started the descent with my skins on and bumped into a snowshoer heading up. He was coming from the Pear Lake Hut and warned me that the traverse past Emerald Lake was exposed but that I’d probably be okay on skis. He was curious about my plans and when I told him I was heading to Alta he inquired as to my timeline. It was currently 11:30, and I guessed that the trip to Pear Lake would take about two hours and the climb to the summit another two. He seemed to agree with that estimate because he offered no other input other than to wish me a good hike.

Gloomy vibes and icy waterfalls at Heather Lake.

The descent was more eventful than I’d hoped, as I took a tumble down the hill, scratching my bare elbow — it’s not easy skiing with skins on and loose boots! I arrived at Heather Lake, which I’d visited three years ago, but I didn’t remember it — even if I’d been there last year, I’m sure the snow had drastically changed the landscape. Another short uphill brought me into the Emerald Lake basin and I started another skins-on descent. Before starting the next part of the traverse I decided, based on what the snowshoer had said, that it would be worth equipping my ski crampons. The traverse out of Emerald Lake was indeed quite steep, but thanks mostly to the cloud cover, the snow was firm and supportable. It was not a comfortable traverse, but it was not too difficult.

Peak 11,462 dissolves into the clouds.

As I traversed out of the Emerald Lake drainage and into the Pear Lake drainage, the clouds became increasingly denser and the peaks above disappeared. I was planning to hike directly to Pear Lake before beginning the climb, but with the clouds building in, I wasn’t sure it would be worth summiting. I decided to head slightly downhill to the Pear Lake Hut to see if anyone there could offer some advice. At the very least, the hut would provide a place to sit and have lunch and let my gear dry off.

The Pear Lake Hut weathers a severe winter.

I came to the hut at 12:30 pm but found it completely unoccupied. I searched around for a resource which would give some insight as to how to climb Alta from the hut but could not find any. I was concerned that the peak might not be climbable at all — I hadn’t been able to see it at all and knew that the entire ridgeline was very steep. I saw on my map that there was one point, just east of the summit, which was the least steep and hoped that it might provide a way up, but was uncertain whether it was too steep or if it might be guarded by a cornice.

The “Community Table” provided scant useful information.

I’ve always been skeptical of how enjoyable a hut trip could be, but this seemed pretty great! Maybe I’ll come back for a multi-day tour in the future! After having a small lunch I signed the register (hopefully no one take offense to my entry despite not staying the night) and headed back out to grab my skis and return to Lodgepole. To my surprise however, the clouds had cleared! Alta was not in my line of sight, but most of the surrounding peaks were once again visible. I decided that I might as well head uphill and test my luck.

Alta Peak towers above Pear Lake. I hoped to gain the ridge between the summit (right) and the highpoint in the middle.

I arrived at Pear Lake and had my first view of Alta Peak! The ridge was very severe, as expected, and a cliff above Pear Lake held a massive frozen waterfall of blue ice. The section of ridge I was hoping to climb was definitely the shallowest angle, but I was still unsure whether it was climbable. It looked like I should be able to boot up it in the worst case, so I continued climbing.

Clouds dance among the cliffs above Pear Lake.

I headed east uphill from Pear Lake, following some old skin tracks and some more recent bobcat tracks, eventually entering the large bowl north of Alta Peak and above the large cliff bands. The hike up the bowl was made difficult by the flat light and the falling snow. I couldn’t tell how steep a slope was until I was atop it. I made my way to a prominent part of the ridge near the route I hoped to climb and started traversing toward the summit. Every couple steps I stopped to check if I could see a way up, but the route still wasn’t visible and with every stop, the clouds grew denser and the visibility worsened. By the time I should have been able to see the route, visibility was less than 50 feet, so I decided to continue up the slope to my left, hoping that I wouldn’t arrive at a cornice.

Pinwheels adorn the slope below Alta’s rapidly disappearing summit.

For the second time in my life (the first being my first attempt to climb Mt Shasta) I had the gut wrenching fear of being on a steep slope with steep slope above, below, and on either side with no visibility. I tried my best to ignore the feeling and continued making kick turns as confidently as I could up the blind slope. Eventually I saw a faint shadow above and realized that I was at the ridge. I climbed onto the ridge and began traversing west toward where I knew the summit was. The south side of the ridge was less steep than the north, but still challenging. I stayed as high as I could but found that many of the rocks had significant bergschrunds growing below them and several times my pole stabbed through the snow and into the void.

Alta Peak rises into obscurity through the fog.

After a few hundred feet a massive block appeared above me through the fog and I realized that this must be the summit block. The rock stood 20 to 30 feet tall and I realize I would not be able to climb it from the east. I traversed south around it, minding the bergschrund and hoping for an easy way to the top.

Alta’s summit block materializes out of the clouds.

Unfortunately I found the summit block as intimidating as the rest of the climb. Sloping a little too severely and topped with both too little and too much snow, I decided to take off my skis and climb to the summit with my boots.

Alta’s summit block provides an intimidating finish to the climb.

I stood atop the summit at 3:30, or what I assumed was the summit — visibility wasn’t great, but I could see that the ridge sloped down from this perch in either direction, and my GPS indicated that I was on the summit — and was disappointed by the view. I had brief and limited glimpses into the bowl below, but not much else.

Clouds all but obscure the view below towards Pear Lake.

I crawled on hands and knees back down the summit block, not wanting to fall eastward off the thirty foot cliff nor wanting to slide off the west side and down the massive southern slope with only ski poles to arrest my fall. After carefully clipping back into my skis I began the descent. Since I couldn’t see either the Pear Lake or Emerald Lake drainage from below, and since I wasn’t very interested in more traversing, I opted to travel south along the ridge, reversing my original plan for the climb.

Cliffs tower over Alta’s southwest slope.

I traversed the southwest slope, staying as high as I could, so that I wouldn’t have to climb to get over Panther Gap. Huge granite cliffs and spires rose to the right above me.

Fog creates an eerie scene near Panther Gap.

I managed to traverse high above Panther Gap and make it into the Wolverton Creek drainage. Finally I was able to make turns and descend without worry of missing the route home. Across the drainage I once again spied Panther Peak, cloaked by clouds.

Panther Peak sheds some clouds.

I found several ancient avalanche paths where only small saplings grew and found them to be fun skiing. After arriving at Wolverton Creek, I found a winter trail and followed it back to the ridge before abandoning it and taking the direct route back to Lodgepole.

This avalanche path provided some delightful corny turns.

I lingered in the Visitor Center parking lot long enough to dry my gear off before hitting the road and starting the long journey home.

Snow Discussion

Snow Observations

  • Firm snow on all aspects from overnight freeze
  • 100% cloud cover after 11 am
  • Intermittent fog
  • Dusting of new snow starting at 2 pm
  • Light winds

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 6,100 ft

Total distance: 13.53 mi

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