Hiking to Italy (Pine Creek trailhead to Lake Italy)

Making Plans

During an east-west traverse of the Sierra over the top of Stanford N, I had seen the
towering peaks over the Mono Recesses and dreamed of climbing them.
Finally, the opportunity came and my friend Larry and I started out at
Pine Creek trailhead toward Italy Pass for a week. Spectacular
climbing weather turned into significant atmospheric instabilities,
which forced us to adapt our ambitious climbing plans.

Taking it up and away

After we parked our car at the Pine Creek trailhead, it took us a while to assemble everything and get started. At 9:30 am we finally got going, and then were immediately thwarted by our attempt to find the trailhead. Yes, you have to walk into the pack station. Then make a right turn to pass between the paddock to your left and the trailers on your right. There is a sign marking the trailhead, but when we were there it was rather overgrown and really hard to see. The trail winds through some forest to meet an old mining road just above the big Pine Creek Tungsten Mine. There are still old mine shafts, tools and structures to be found in two smaller mines along the old road. I am still amazed the old cars got up that rugged, rocky trail.

Just above where the last abandoned mine sits perched and hidden high above Rovana town, we encountered a friendly dog hanging out on the trail and voices high above. Behold, a doggie guarding the possessions of two climbers high up on the wall! It turns out the area is a good rock climbing spot. Turning the corner, a remarkably striped mountain guards Pine Creek Lake outlet. It looks indeed challenging to climb, although the impressive Geology which does not quite come out in a mere photograph makes it very tempting.

Nice Geology! Looking difficult to climb, though.

Nice Geology! Looking difficult to climb, though.

We reached Pine Lake and then a mile later Upper Pine Lake, and around 4 pm we arrived at Honeymoon Lake. We sat down for a snack, talked a bit about staying vs going, and decided to keep on heading toward Italy Pass until we were too tired and/or found a nice campsite. The trail at this point is very easy to follow; we met lots of dayhikers who went to Italy Pass and were coming down to their campsites around Pine Lake. Nearing 3000 m (10,000 ft), we found a flat campsite near the trail and a small waterfall where we put our tent down for the night. We had to hang some food in the trees. As usual, I over-packed on food because I keep forgetting how much the altitude dampens my appetite, especially in the first 2-3 days. Despite my best efforts, I can only eat so much without feeling worse. On the other hand, I certainly carry enough reserves on my body, and my body seems to be quite efficient to draw on those reserves while I am adjusting to altitude without impacting my performance too much.

All Trails Lead to Italy

Well, there was really only one trail. By 8 am we were on it again and slowly wound our way up and back into a gorgeous Sierra valley filled with lakes, tarns, and meadows framed by granite.

Lovely high mountain meadows, lakes and tarns just below Italy Pass.

Lovely high mountain meadows, lakes and tarns just below Italy Pass.

And filled with frogs. One had to really pay attention not to flatten any of them while hiking!

One of the many frogs living near the streams and tarns.

One of the many frogs living near the streams and tarns.

The valley is longer than it appears to be. It took us much more time than expected, but on the other hand we were not exactly rushing through either. The unmaintained trail is quite easy to find until it reaches the highest lake. From there, it is well marked with cairns once the snow cover is gone. On the other hand, as the photo below shows the terrain leading from the lake to Italy Pass is quite gentle, easy to navigate and covered with easily hiked granite slabs. One could just forget about hunting cairns and make a beeline for the pass.

Mount Julius Caesar standing guard over Italy Pass.

Mount Julius Caesar standing guard over Italy Pass.

A Visit to the Emperor

By noon on our 2nd hiking day, we had hauled our still food-filled packs to the crest of Italy Pass at 12,400 ft. Larry had some altitude issues, so I left him, the packs, the SPOT and my binoculars behind and set off to visit the Emperor Himself via the south ridge from Italy Pass. For the most part, there are sandy ledges making up a use trail for the various alpine-dwelling mammals. The talus is made up of nice granite; solidly stacked and not prone to kicking down rocks should a multi-climber party ascend. I reached a small saddle near the top where multiple routes converge. From there, I found the summit block to be easy, non-exposed 3rd class simply because of the comparative size of the boulders vs. me. I easily located the summit register, signed, and left some Trader Joe Ginger Chews for the next climbers.

The Feather Couloir as seen from the summit of Julius Caesar. Merriam, Royce Peak and Royce lakes are just behind Feather. Gemini is visible on the far right horizon.

The Feather Couloir as seen from the summit of Julius Caesar. Merriam, Royce Peak and Royce lakes are just behind Feather. Gemini is visible on the far right horizon.
Lake Italy is very, very long. Toe Lake in the forefront. The S couloir ascent route leading to the headwall of Mt Gabb is nicely visible.

Lake Italy is very, very long. Toe Lake in the forefront. The SE Face ascent route leading to the headwall of Mt Hilgard is nicely visible.

I also took a look at the West Ridge, which in Secor 3rd edition is called a classic class 3 climb. No kidding. I thought David Harris’ trip report to be a bit exaggerated at first. On seeing this ridge, I have to agree with David that it is definitely not class 3, or I am a way better climber than I make myself believe! It looked like a solid class 2 to me, and certainly an easier climb than the SW Ridge on Mt Gabb. After studying the route up Mt Gabb, I returned to Italy Pass about 2.5 hours after I started. Not bad for a 2nd day at altitude.

Red Sonja just below the summit blocks of Julius Caesar.

Red Sonja just below the summit blocks of Julius Caesar.

The Home Stretch along Jumble Lake

Picking up Larry and the pack back at Italy Pass, we headed down through Marmot Heaven along the little creek leading to Jumble Lake. There are ducks, but you could go cross-country as long as you catch the sandy trail skirting the east side of Jumble Lake about 200 feet above the lake. I remember being absolutely flabbergasted how someone either build or found this trail through, well, a jumble of rocks! You definitely don’t want to rock-hop here unless you have boundless time or energy. We had not. At the outlet of Jumble Lake, we found the first glimpse of Lake Italy but lost the trail again. We spotted some hikers and their dog near headed our way along Lake Italy and just headed straight for them. Meeting them near the lakeshore around 5 pm, we learned they were aiming to hike all the way back to Pine Lake the same day. They had only daypacks. I wonder what became of them, since they were not hiking very fast and the dog was visibly tired.

We were pooped at that point as well. Maybe a bit dehydrated too, because I was pushing hard and eager to get to the camp for the night, while foolishly not stopping for water. I have a tendency to do that toward the end of a long hiking day; I really need to get rid of this habit. Anyway, there was a group camping east of the inlet from Jumble Lake to Lake Italy. We headed west on the fishermen’s trail toward the outlet of Italy. A few hundred yards before reaching the outlet, there are campsites where folks have build low walls for wind protection. There is one big campsite including kitchen area near the outlet close to the trail. We chose an earlier set of two campsites higher up and away from the trail. We were glad to huddle our tent behind the windbreak wall, because the updraft wind really builds up along the lake in the evenings.

Good night!

Posted in Hike, peak climbing, Sierra Nevada | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Dome Land Wilderness: A no-snow MLK weekend trip to Taylor Dome and Sirretta

This winter was highly unusual. Mid-January and with it MLK weekend rolled around, and no snowfall yet in the Sierra. What to do? I poked around on the SPS list and decided Sirretta, Rockhouse and Taylor Dome would be fun. They are fairly low, and far away from the Bay Area which made having a 3-day weekend for driving really nice. I went to the USGS Map room in Menlo Park, stocked myself up with maps (also for Moses, Maggie, Coyote and Angora for the future), and figured out how to get to the Big Meadow trailhead.  Terry Cline and Larry Jang decided to join me. Ironically, this was the same group that got stuck in too much snow last July in the Desolation Wilderness.

Waking up in the truck? Must be on an adventure.

We took off Friday night to get part of the drive behind us. We stayed at Leary Flat FS Campground on M-99 just before the hamlet of California Hot Springs.  The CG has a running stream, which made for a cold and damp night. The water pipes were still working, so we did not even need the stream for water. I loved crawling into he back of the truck, seeing brilliant stars above me, ready for adventure.

Saturday morning, we drove the two hours to the Sirretta trailhead (7800 feet) at the Northwestern end of Big Meadows. Cherry Hill Road is paved at first, then a well-graded dirt road. In shady patches, there were some patches of snow and ice on the road. We also met two dudes who tried to find Church Dome using a AAA map. Whatever?! Without the snow on the ground, I would have gotten my VW Jetta to the trailhead without too much trouble, although having a high-clearance 4WD was nice. The Sirretta trailhead has plenty of flat spaces for tent spots, but no water. Someone even left a smoker next to the fire ring. We should have brought the shortribs!

At noon, we took off from the clearly marked Sirretta trailhead. The trail leads about two miles uphill to Sirretta Pass. I was thrilled to feel really fit and energetic. The altitude did not bother me much, other than fast heart beat. Less stress and better nutrition is starting to work :-)

The use trail to Sirretta Peak, well marked by ducks, takes off to the left before you get up to Sirretta Pass. If you find yourself at the pass, you missed it! We traversed over to the ridge between Sirretta Pass and the peak to the west and soon found the ducks. The trail leads up the ridge and then toward the summit ridge connecting the three high points. The LOWEST summit to the south is indeed the actual, named, Sirretta Peak with the summit register. The summit is an easy scramble on solid granite boulders with a unique summit “block”. Views over the southern Sierra are gorgeous. We did not backtrack, but bushwhacked down from the summit toward the drainage in southeastern direction, where we met the trail again. Getting down through the brush was not too bad, but I would not recommend taking this direct route up.

Back at Big Meadow, we moved our car clockwise around the meadow to 3 o’clock, where the southern trailhead to Manter Meadow and the trailhead 34E15 to Taylor Meadow are located, with a corral in between them. After the sun set at 5:30 pm, it got chilly really quickly. We cooked dinner, prepared our packs for the next morning, and crawled into our sleeping bags. The night felt warmer, even though I remember waking up a few times worrying about the next day’s climb. I always tend to do that, although it is getting better as I get more experienced.

The next morning, we started (30 minutes later than planned) at 7 am on the Manter Meadows trailhead toward Rockhouse. It took me a bit to see the actual trail, probably because the truck was parked right on it! We expected a long 17-mile day, with the sun setting at 5 pm this early in the year. 10 minutes into the hike, we discovered there was still plenty of snow left on west-facing forested slopes. This made navigation challenging, cost time,  and wading through a foot of snow slowed us down while using energy. I would have felt ok with navigating part of the trail back to the car in the dark, with a 3/4 moon and GPS. But definitely not through snow! After 45 minutes, we decided trying to reach Rockhouse would not make sense under the circumstances, and turned back to climb Taylor Dome instead.

Taylor Dome is marked as 8802T on square #10 of the USGS Cannell Peak 7.5′ quadrangle. The (at times faint) Taylor Meadow trail heads a low ridge before making a right (south) turn up a drainage to a pass. From the trailhead to this point, there was still a mix of ice, hard-packed snow, and foot-deep snowdrifts on the ground. I was very happy to have my brand-new Yaktrax on, giving me good grip and hiking speed. From the pass, you will get a beautiful view of the twin peaks of Taylor Dome to the East. The trip report from Will Molland-Simms mentions a boulder pile marking the place where you turn off the trail. This 20-foot, really obvious boulder pile is roughly at elevation 7900′ below the saddle further down, and right next to, the Taylor Meadows trail.

We decided instead to follow the west-east ridge from the saddle toward Taylor Dome just below the rock outcroppings. You get to admire the rock formations at close view, but this approach is more of a bushwhack and takes longer. We eventually reached the lightly forested, manzanita-covered slope leading to the summit. Just below the twin summits is a large summit plateau. The northern peak is the true summit, with an exposed Class 3 crack on solid granite with good holds. It is fun climbing up the chimney on the other summit as well, although considering the strong wind we all decided against trying the last move onto this summit.

Exploring the twin summits of Taylor Dome

 

Because it was a cold and very wind day with gusts up to 30 mph, we left the summit plateau quickly and dropped down into the forest to find cover for lunch. For our descent, we mainly followed the drainage south until it turned west toward Taylor Meadow. At this point, we left the drainage, climbed over small hump, and were right back at the trail with the obvious boulder heap marking the spot.

Back at the car, we decided we would head home early. We found a nice italian restaurant in the Central Valley to fuel up, and got home by 11 am. It took a while to unload the truck and get everything cleaned & stored. Terry’s shaving kit was uncovered, so no, he won’t be wearing a beard anytime soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Solo Backpack through the Superstition Wilderness (Arizona)

It was a spontaneous idea which turned into an unplanned spirit quest.

Scheduled to attend a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I thought it might be a good idea to take my first vacation after starting a new job. What better idea than to head out for a 3 1/2 day solo backpack trip before the meeting in January 2008? I had backpacked a whopping three times before: a 2-nighter in Grand Canyon in 1997, a weeklong Yosemite trip with guide in 2005, and a 2007 Sierra National Outing in the Nankoweap area of Grand Canyon (which Backpacker Magazine a month later declared the most difficult trail in Grand Canyon, but that wasn’t in the brochure …). In any case, I identified the Superstition Wilderness 60 miles East of Phoenix as my destination. Solo. No spot.

I got a copy of “Hiker’s Guide to the Superstition Wilderness” By J Carlson and E Stewart, packed my stuff, and went to Phoenix. On the flight, I figured out my final route. I would start at the Peralta trailhead toward Whiskey Springs, where I planned to stay the first night. From there, I would head through Upper La Barge Canyon along the Hoolie Bacon Trail, touch the Tortilla trailhead (really, Tortilla and bacon?!), and spend the night at Kane Spring. The third day would lead me through Peter’s Canyon across Peter’s Mesa back into La Barge Canyon. I would hike out through Needle Canyon, passing the Weaver’s Needle.

So, I picked up some cooking fuel at the Phoenix REI, bought a map, drove to the trailhead and set off. I was very excited and also quite nervous. I remember it was quite an achievement when I started hiking in the very safe forests around my hometown in my early 20s. Here I was, in the middle of an unfamiliar environment, solo, no such thing as a SPOT yet, and on my own. As I hiked through the Coffeeground Flats, so called because of the look of the fragile cryptobiotic desert soil,  I noticed how busy my mind was. Soon, I got distracted. Spotting a bright green-leafed Ocotillo. Noticing the grave of an early settler. Spotting the Miner’s Needle. Watching the strange vegetation. And later, as the sun got lower into the sky, judging the distance to Whiskey Springs before nightfall. Yes, there was an illegal distillery there during prohibition … When I arrived there, sunset illuminated the canyon walls, with a full moon shining a bright light down on me.

Sunset at Whiskey Spring

I was in for one cold night! Deep down in the canyon, next to a creek, early sunset with late sunrise, 45 degree sleeping bag, probably not the best choice of campsite for the night. Clearly a beginners mistake! I managed to fall asleep with all my clothes, hat and gloves on. I did not know the trick with the warm water bottle in your sleeping bag either. When I woke up in the morning, the water bottle inside my tent was frozen solid. I guess this would mean about 10 F/-12 C outside at night. I waited until 9 am when the sun came up to get out of my tent.

After breakfast, I headed down the trail and met two women who had camped fairly close to me. I also met three guys hiking a few minutes later. It was then that I started my tradition of engaging most people I meet on solo trips in a small talk. Why? Well, I guess if I ever disappear and there is a search going with my description, maybe one of those hikers I chatted with might remember that desert tortoise with a german accent. The chat turned out to be a good idea for yet another reason. The junction of the Whiskey Creek Trail to the Red Tanks Trail entering upper La Barge Canyon is a bit tricky to find. The hikers gave me a pretty good description how to locate the trail on the north side of the canyon. The shaded south canyon wall was covered with frozen seeps.

Ice in Upper La Barge Canyon

The Saguaros were fascinating for me. I had never seen a Saguaro “Forest”. Saguaros develop their first branch at age 60. There used to be a Saguaro with 40 branches somewhere in La Barge Canyon, but I recently heard this Methuselah was felled by a tornado. Even a cactus life has to end, but I hope it was a fulfilling one of several hundred years. And yes, sometimes the shape of the cactus caused me to chuckle – see upper right corner Saguaro in the picture below.

Saguaro in Upper La Barge

After coming out of the relatively short box canyon, I took the Hoolie Bacon Trail north (who came up with the names?) across Horse Ridge. The terrain changed dramatically, from deep canyons with steep canyon walls to rolling hills. The slightly higher elevation combined with a bit more available water created the right growing conditions for Juniper Trees. I had found my rhythm now, happily hiking along reflecting on my first 9 months living in California and other life events.

Junipers and Backpack

Some of the stream crossings proved to be a challenge. There just had been a period of heavy winter storms moving through the desert, causing flash floods to wash away all ducks and cairns. Especially when there were campsites adjacent to the river crossing, trail finding became a challenge. It was then that I learned how much I had relied on my hiking guides to do the trail finding for me so far. Now, I had no choice but get it done on my own. It was an exercise in paying attention to details. Openings in vegetations, footsteps. Paying attention to the map to find the general direction of the trail. And, lastly but most importantly, keeping a cool head instead of getting all flustered and stressed out about it! I eventually reached Tortilla trailhead, where some remains from cattle grazing days are still visible. With Whiskey, Bacon and Tortilla, this should make for a good dinner, no?

Tortilla Trailhead

I decided to hike on for about another hour, since I had the daylight left and figured I’d make good use of it. Smart idea, it turned out the next day. Wising up with campsite choice, I also had decided to look for a spot which would at least get early morning sun! Just before I found an ideal spot, I had the choice between crossing a stream or scrambling across a boulder with some brush. Given the temperatures, I chose the brush. At this spot was also the last time for the next 36 hours that I would encounter humans. Pretty remarkable for a place that is so close to Phoenix! Well, I found my spot, had a somewhat warmer night, and rested well.

Day 3 of my trip, I had my routine down. Only 6 miles to go on Peter’s Trail today, should be an easy hike. Or so I thought. The start of Peter’s trail was quite pleasant. I remember hiking slightly uphill, but I had forgotten about the huge boulder I found sitting next to the trail until I looked at my pictures again. Along this section of trail, I found a wide variety of smaller cacti growing, but almost no Saguaros.

Huge Boulder

To get into Peter’s Canyon, I had to hike over a small ridge. And got another lesson in desert hiking: Trails may disappear on ridges. I noticed when, hanging with my thoughts, I did not pay attention and ended up on what I first thought was trail, but turned out to be little washes crossing the trail. After a few times, I figured out that I really had to stay present and focused in this spot. Nevertheless, about 150 feet below the ridge I completely lost the trail. I spend another 20 minutes trying to find it, increasingly getting stressed and frustrated. Then, a breakthough. I looked at the map. I looked at the landscape. I noticed it was very clear where the trail had to cross the ridge. I could not possible get lost. So, off I trekked cross-country for the very first time in my life! I positively gloated when I found the trail right on the ridge where I expected it. Looking back where I came from, I got another remedial lesson in desert hiking: rails are much easier to spot from above than below. This would help me on future trips, when I lost trails, headed up the hill perpendicular to the trail, turned around, and could easily spot the trail below me.

Peter's Canyon

Peter’s Canyon was ethereal, stunning. It looks bland on the picture. But as soon as I stopped on the ridge to look down into the canyon, my ears were treated to a chorus of beautiful bird song. The cool desert air was filled with music! The mile hiking along the creek down-canyon was magical.

Finding the trail going up the wide gully you can see on the left in the photo above would have needed some magic. Again, cairns had been washed away. A campsite was on the other side of a 20-foot wide small stream. I Knew exactly that the trail had to be there. But alas, it took me a full 45 minutes to find it in the maze of deer trails, campsites, and washes. Cross-country was out of the question this time, because there was dense brush full of cat-claws. Even hiking on the trail, once I found it, left my arms looking rather bloody. Over all that trail-finding, I had lost a considerable amount of time and also forgot to eat and drink. Bad idea. I was pretty worn by the time I made it onto Peter’s Mesa. There is a photo of myself atop the Mesa I still laugh about. Another lesson learned. I took a long break before continuing the hike across the mesa. This section of the hike was not very interesting. At times, the trail came close to washes into Charlebois Canyon, but were way to steep to descent into. I was not used to canyon travel at this time and would not have dared to venture this far off trail in any case.

Nest of Cactus Wren

Towards the end of Peter’s Mesa, I had my first encounter with the famous Jumping Cholla. I saw several Cactus Wrens, the state bird of Arizona, and even found a nest. Now, how these birds can happily land on the Cholla and even live inside them without having to deal with the cactus spines remains a mystery to me.

I had contemplated camping on the mesa, but pressed on until I descended back into La Barge Canyon. I considered going all the way down, but then I spotted a wonderful campsite perched 200 feet above the canyon. It was a dry camp, meaning I would have to hike 15 minutes to water and back, but I still had enough with me for dinner and breakfast. I did not regret my choice. Being above the lowest point of the canyon, it was considerably warmer. The sun hit my tent earlier in the morning. The weather was warming up as well. Rewarded with a cozy night, I woke up to yet another remarkable view out of my tent. Take a look at the picture below. Why would anyone in their right mind trade this for a five star resort? ;-)

Good morning, world! La Barge Canyon from my cozy sleeping bag.

Have you noticed that on the last day of your trip, Mother Nature always shows her most glorious side? I almost cried (ok, I did) because I did not want to leave. Yet it had to be done. The trail along La Barge Canyon is pleasant, with Blacktop Mesa looming overhead. The fallen Saguaro below was very interesting to me, because up to that point I had no idea what holds a cactus up, and how the inside of it looks like. Well, here you go.

Saguaro Skeleton

I left the Durchman’s trail to head back to the Peralta trailhead via the Terrapin Trail. There, I discovered Saguaros can also serve as Nature’s high rise condominiums. Two birds build their nests inside the Saguaro: The Gila Woodpecker stays at mid-level to drill 2-inch holes between the ribs. The Gilded Flicker builds higher up; therefore I assume these are Gilded Flicker nesting holes.

Shortly after I spotted this Saguaro, I heard voices and spotted two backpackers coming down over Black Top Mesa Pass. Those were the first people I encountered since the evening two nights before!

Natural high rise housing development

While hiking up Terrapin Canyon, I enjoyed the view of Weaver’s needle, which is a popular rock climbing spot. There are some wild stories from the mining days surrounding this place. If you, like me, enjoy the history of the American West, Superstition Wilderness will provide plenty of material.

Terrapin Trail toward Weaver's Needle

I made it back to the car, to the conference hotel with 10 minutes to spare for the rental car drop-off. One of the most funny memories in my life will be walking into this fancy Scottsdale resort dirty, dusty, sweaty, backpack in tow and the last shower 4 1/2 days ago. The front desk clerk managed to keep a straight face. However, there were some colleagues who walked right past by me without recognizing me (yes, you, Buddy!). I had a good laugh watching their face after saying hi. It obviously took them a few seconds to compute that the hobo in front of them was the same as the professor in business attire they had spend a few conferences and conference dinners with!

At the end of the conference, as I was leaving, I loaded my backpack into the airport shuttle and sat down next to someone on the bus. His first question to me: “Are you a backpacker?” And this is how I met my friend Anuj, who joined me for a backpack trip in Lassen National Park later the same year, helped entertain me the Christmas I was housebound with an allegedly broken ankle from a solo Death Valley trip the following year, and whose wedding I have the honor to attend tomorrow.

Where I am happy - Desert Tortoise :-)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

California County High Point #4: On Top of Wine Country

While others tasted Napa wines or relaxed in the spas of Calistoga, a group of friends decided to take New Years resolutions seriously and went for a hike up Mt Helena. At 4240 feet/1281 m, the East Peak is the highest point in Napa County.

Getting there is easy. Drive Route 29 east until you reach the crest of the road within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. There are parking spaces to both side of the road. Be very careful crossing the road, people drive fast there.

From the uphill parking lot, take the foot trail zig-zaffing up the mountain. After about 0.8 miles, you will encounter an obvious large, flat space in the forest. On the other side, you may be able to spot a use trail going up the steep hill. If you scramble up there, you will find an abandoned mercury mine. The bright scarlet or brick-red rock you find is cinnabar (mercury sulfide), the ore from which mercury is extracted. The walls to either side of the mine entrance are popular climbing spots in summer, because with the exception of an hour at midday it is well shaded. harrison Hood from Hood Mountain Aventures teaches a very good anchor class there. Please do not go inside the mine if you care about life! Mines are inherently dangerous even if they look harmless.

Back on the trail, you will reach the junction with the fire road a mile from the parking lot. Remember where this intersection is; there is a trail marker, but it can be easily overlooked when you are happily headed downhill later. From here on, you will have no shade. Unless you really enjoy direct sun and heat, I recommend to plan your hike for the cooler days of the year. Soon, though, the gentle grade of the fire road will lift you above the trees for expansive views over northern Napa Valley.

Lots of good wine to taste down there in Napa Valley.

Two miles into the hike, the road makes an obvious 180 degree bend marked by a rocky outcrop. This is another popular climbing spot. S convenient wooden guardrail secures the road, providing an excellent spot to sit, enjoy a snack, and watch some athletic girls and guys get their rock time in. If no one is there, see if you can identify the routes by the bolts and chalk marks. I found 4 obvious bolted routes that looked like good fun.

Inspecting the climbing routes on Mt Helena. Looks like good fun for winter days.

From here on, the fire road gradually winds upward, steadily expanding the views until they include Suisun Valley in Solano County. 4 miles into the hike, the road levels out onto the summit plateau, from which you can see the five summits of Mount Helena shaping the form of an “M”. The summit is obvious. It is not only the highest, but has the largest antennas as well. About half a mile from the summit you can take a road to your left to climb one of the subpeaks, but it is not really worth the effort in my opinion. One last push to the summit, where you will find a small rocky outcropping with good places to sit and enjoy the view.

Eating a delicious sandwich took priority over looking pretty in the picture ;-)

We had a sunny but hazy day. Mt Tamalpais was visible, but Lassen, the Sierra Nevada, and Mt Diablo eluded us. We saw Mt Diablo later on our way down, when it cleared up a bit. Because the sun was so low in the sky at this time of the year, larger sections of the trail were shaded. Overall, the hike took us 2.5 hours up and 1 hour 45 min down, plus time for lunch.

Fun, friends, county high point, and now headed to wine tasting. Happy New Year!

Posted in CA County high points, Hike, Napa County | 2 Comments

St. Bernard of Montjoux, Patron Saint of Mountaineers and Skiers

I’m not catholic, what do I need a patron saint for? For not falling off a mountain or into a crevasse? A good climbing partner and solid technical skills should take care of that! Neither do I believe that a prayer will cause some higher entity to change the course of the world for me, other than providing a good discussion topic on the meaning of prayer for a drive across Sonora Pass to a climbing destination. So, why am I not writing about my last mountain excursion instead?

It must be the time of the year; short days, long nights, meh outdoor conditions, all of which create plenty of time to reflect on  adventures last year and setting climbing goals for next year. I talked about my physical fitness goals in a previous post. In today’s post, I want to focus on some mental/spiritual aspects of the peak climbing way of life.

What motivates you to make time in your busy life to trek to the mountains and climb? What helps you to overcome a scary crux, a frustrating day, face the inevitable setbacks, accept your limits while pushing to expand your skills? I believe we all have our inner drive, the passion for the mountains, to motivate us. Otherwise, we would not be doing this. Still, we will get to a point where our own inner strength needs a belay. Some mental walls we cannot ascent as a lead, but which are within reach if we can follow someone. So how do we identify our spiritual lead climber(s) to help us push beyond our boundaries?

Gretchen Rubin (Happiness Project)  wrote a blog entry on self-knowledge about finding the way to who you want to be through people who have become who you want to be. The Catholic Church happens to call them saints. Facebook calls them “People who inspire you”. 

Mountains inspire me. The desert does. Mountains in the desert: bliss. I did not discover the way to the mountains and deserts all by myself, though. The longing to be outdoors, to be with and in nature, has always been part of me. How this longing found its expression in my passion for high peaks, deep canyons and remote places is a story of people who inspired me to go find these places.

Good morning, canyon walls! I feel inspired by thinking about wilderness mornings.

In the country I live in, John Muir, Ansel Adams and Theodore Roosevelt should be the trinity of patron saints for all outdoor folks. Without them, the National Park system, the many wild places left wild, would not exist. John Muir’s writings about the places he visited educated city folks about the value to preserve them. Ansel Adam’s pictures provided images of places the East Coast population could not have imagined to exist in their wildest dreams. Theodore Roosevelt laid the legal groundwork for our National Park System.

Other inspirations are found in my family. While standing on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park a few years ago, I was enthusiastically telling my Aunt Regina about all the trips and climbs we could see. She was amused by this, and concluded my mountain madness wasn’t really my fault, given the genes I inherited: Opa Wilhelm, the adventurer, parachuter, curious explorer. Opa Georg, the mountaineer and hiker. Oma Marie with her strong frame and endurance. My mother, with her love for the Swiss Alps.  All have long returned home to Mother Earth, but I feel their heritage in me when I put on my pack and go.

Tante Regina in Sequoia National Park.

Lastly, nine years of Catholic Girl’s School left their mark: I decided to google the patron saint of mountaineers: St. Bernard of Montjoux. Quite a character! Sneaking away the day before his wedding to become a priest (I should have done that – ditched the wedding, not the priest/nun part!). Next, he found his calling in missionary work to convert the mountain-dwelling pagans of Lombardy to Christianity (I disagree with him there as well). What I absolutely admire him for, though, is his work in aiding and protecting travelers who had to negotiate the dangerous trans-alpine route, now called the Great and Little St Bernard pass in the Pennine Alps, on their way from Germany to Rome. In short, he founded and ran the first mountain rescue unit in recorded history, aided by the Valais herding dogs which later were developed into the St Bernard breed. His monastery and hospice also served as as much needed resource for locals who did not have access to healthcare before.

The story resonates with me because it reflects a deeper relationship to the mountain environment and its people than just going there to enjoy, relax, and be physically active. Rather than only taking in what the wilderness gives us, Bernard found a way to give back. Taking the big question of “What can you give the World?” down to a smaller level, in 2012 I want to ask myself the question: “What, in the spirit of St Bernard, can I do to give back to the mountains and its people?”.

I do have a few ideas. First, I would like to become more active in leading trips for the Peak Climbing Section or private trips to inspire others to explore. After five years of learning so much from the trip leaders, it is time for me to grow up and start passing on the expertise taught to me so generously. Right now, I do not have the time to actively join organizations such as the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit, but I will keep it in my mind whenever the opportunity may present itself.  I am still dreaming of training search and rescue dogs some day … or rescue a St Bernard?  I also want to pay better attention to financially support local businesses in the mountain communities I travel through. If I can afford to stay in a locally owned motel, I should. Or plan to buy food supplies at local markets. If I can wait to buy climbing equipment, do it in a local store in places such as Bishop, CA. Lobbying for protection of our national resources and wild places are other opportunities.

While I am still not 100% clear about who I want to be as a mountaineer and climber, I am finding my way by thinking about my patron saints, paying attention to where my inspiration is coming from. I hope my post encourages you to think about who inspires you on your path to become the mountaineer/climber you want to be.

Posted in Climbing, Generosity, Hike, peak climbing | Tagged | 3 Comments

Castle Peak (NorCal) and Tenaya Lake skating

“This is too easy. We are looking for Sierra 3rd Class, not Aconcagua 3rd Class” (Louise looking for the approach to Castle Peak)

Well, Tamarack was cancelled, but Louise and I decided we still wanted to have fun in the mountains anyway. We drove up to Tahoe to climb Castle Peak just off I-80. It had been icy when Louise was here two weeks ago, but snowfall had dumped a whole inch of new snow which provided some more traction. The first few hundred feet from the trailhead were probably the most dangerous part of this climb!

I do not know how long it took us for the 6.5 miles/10.5 km and 1900 feet/580 m to the summit. It was sunny, not too cold, but really windy. The true peak is the middle rock outcropping (turret?) above the castle walls. Most people only go up the false summit to the left, especially in winter when it is fun to ski down from there. Normally, there should be a few feet of snow on the ground, but we have had an extremely dry winter so far as you can see.

Castle Peak near Tahoe

Louise had to poke around a bit to find the 3rd class access to the true summit, but while doing that we found a small chute with some really nice rime ice on plants and rocks. The strong wind blew the ice off the rocks, making it seem like snow falling out of the sky. 

Rime ice on plants

Rime ice "snowing" out of clear skies

I should maybe say something about Louise’s comment  lead this post with, and difficulty ratings while climbing. The most popular system used in California is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). There are many descriptions of it available, but my favorite one is found here. The reason why I like this site is because it demonstrates so well how subjective the ratings are. For example, in my home mountain range, the Sierra Nevada of California, climbing has a long tradition, and many of the technical tools were developed here. Consequently, there is a tendency to show off by rating climbs differently than applications of the YDS applied in other mountain ranges. I recently found a climbing guide on the Colorado Rockies that explicitly states that “climbs rated Class 4 here would be rated Class 3 in the Sierra Nevada”.

Anyway, the top 40-50 feet of Castle Peak are rated 3rd class according to YDS, and below is a picture of Louise demonstrating what that looks like. The hand and foot holds are really solid, which is unusual for volcanic rock. Just below the 8 ft summit block, there is a ledge where two or three people could stand while one at a time goes up to the summit. I felt a bit clunky at first climbing with hiking boots. I had not done a climb like that since August, and the long break showed. Definitely need to get out more often!

Louise demonstrating a Class 3 climb on Castle Rock.

For lunch break, we found a protected spot people had used as a camp site. We looked at the barren slopes of the mountains. Even most ski slopes were rocky, except where hard artificial snow was made. On our way down, we managed to find a grand total of 30 feet ski-able snowfield with a foot of wind-loaded powder. We were glad to get back down in the forest and out of the wind. Of course, I lost my focus on the last stretch, slipped on the ice, and found myself on the ground. Luckily, I only bruised my wrist. There is a definite advantage to having strong and nicely cushioned glutes!

View over the Sierra Nevada near Tahoe. Sugarbowl and Northstar ski resorts are visible from here.

The next morning found us checking out the ice on Prosser Dam Reservoir. We had a fun time skating. There were some people playing hockey, including a German Shepard. I could not figure out which team the dog was playing on. While skating (<- link to video), the sun came up higher and warmed the ice. That’s when the noise appeared, sounding like someone was plucking the strings of a giant slack key guitar. We could not figure out at first what that sound was, until a crack in the ice right next to where I was skating twanged. I almost jumped out of my skates! It was freaky. The ice was easily 8-10 inches (30 cm) deep and the lake very shallow, but my human subconscious is smart enough to be a bit unsettled about standing on top of cracking ice! Thinking about it with my physics mind, I figured the ice must be expanding. With no open areas nor inflow or outflow to expand into, all that was left for it was cracks to release tension.

Local & Organic firewood

We then drove over to the Nevada side to drive back through Yosemite National Park to check out the ice skating. We stopped in the village of Lee Vining, where the local shop obviously has caught on to the locavore movement. We laughed heartily at their humor!

Yosemite did not disappoint. We got a good look at the ice climbing conditions in Ellery Canyon. There was a rope on one of the falls, but we did not see anyone climbing. Skating on Ellery Lake was ok, but bumpy. My skate caught on a crack in the ice, and I did a hard fall on my knees. Two bruises are starting to show today. We soon moved on to Tenaya Lake, and what fun we had! The ice was exceptional, smooth and clear of any snow. There were some open spots near the inlet, outlet, a smaller inlet and in the middle. Otherwise, the ice was thick and solid. The cracks did not catch. 30 mile per hour winds blew us all the way down the lake without effort. It felt like downhill skiing on skates! Or channeling Apolo Anton Ono … Getting upwind to the starting point was a good workout. Here is a link to the YouTube video of me practicing my inside and outside edges.

Skating on Tenaya Lake, with Tenaya Peak in the background. I would really like to climb Tenaya in 2012, and of course do Tenaya Canyon.

Shortly before sunset, we tired out as well and drove home. On the way down to the Central Valley, we caught a good view of the two sentinels of Yosemite Valley: Cloud’s Rest and Halfdome. We wondered if anybody had ever climbed the long granite slope from Tenaya Canyon up to Cloud’s Rest. It looked like a hard climb to us: no obvious crack system, and probably not too many places to place protection. Besides, most climbers would probably balk at the approach “hike” ;-)

Cloud's Rest and Halfdome

It was a lot of driving for two days, but I enjoyed spending the time with Louise. She has a lot of good stories to tell. As we were driving by peaks and places, she gave me a lot of advice on good places to climb, ski, eat, and sleep. I tried to memorize all, but it improved impossible. The drive home found ourselves talking about work, life, family, and men. It’s not easy to find the right guy when one spends many weekends roughing it on rock and ice, being more impressed with Black Diamond than the de Beer’s diamonds. I should turn that thought into another blog post titled “Want to date a mountaineer? 10 Steps to win her heart and a space in her tent.”.

(Side note: I really like gemstones EXCEPT colorless diamonds, which remind me of the scary fairy tale of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. Try explain that to a guy who wants to propose to you with a very traditional ring … we divorced. I should have seen it coming right then and there. )

Update on Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer:

Doing well so far. The climb and ice skating days were good exercise and good nutrition. Parts of the drive were spend on conversation about what good nutrition is. Overall, I have been doing pretty well in the artificial/junk food category compared to the average american. If I eat cookies or sweet breads, they are mostly baked in my own oven with good ingredients and 2/3 of the sugar content, european-style sweetness.

Today, I gave my body a break, although I am still working on my pushups. I should get a pull-up bar for my home as well. I pulled a muscle while sleeping, probably trying to position myself around the two cats, so swimming is out of the question. Bikram Yoga tomorrow morning sounds like a good idea. My muscles need a good stretch, and the heat might help the tension in my injured rhomboid.

Overall, I was really happy about my hiking speed and endurance going up Castle Peak. The tortoise is getting her groove back :-)

Posted in peak climbing, Sierra Nevada | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Ski Touring Ascent of Tamarack Peak (not)

You’ll get Entwives, Golden Eagles, President Hoover and plenty of mistletoe instead.

My intent today was to write about my first backcountry ski touring peak climb of Tamarack Peak near Tahoe. Crappy to nonexistent snow, at this time 1-2 inches of snow/ice covered by 1.5 inches of new snow total, caused all but the trip leader and myself to cancel on the trip. Nobody wanted to pull out their rock skis? Come on, folks!Louise and I are passionate enough about getting into the mountains that we will still go, but Monday/Tuesday instead to avoid traffic. We still have not quite figured out what we plan to do, but between ice skating, nordic, peak climbing with the help of Yaktrax, we should have plenty of fun at altitude.

Admittedly, this time of year is probably the most difficult season to be in the Sierra Nevada. Snow cover strongly depends on the number and strength of early winter storms in combination with whatever melt cycle happens in between. Passes open and close somewhat unpredictabl. The cold is not too bad given our southern latitude, but somehow sub-freezing temperatures are a lot more fun to hang out in if there is lots of snow coming with it. Nights are long, and unless you are a comfortable introvert capable of entertaining yourself for 14 hours a night stuck in a single-person tent, it can be boring. There is only so much sleep to catch up on. Personally, this all does not bother me too much. I am passionate (or nutty?) enough about the outdoors to enjoy it anyway. Besides, adversity does not only cause very intimate knowledge of your outdoor buddy’s personalities, but also create a good library of stories to tell later.

All was not lost, though. Now blessed with a wide open Saturday, I chose to go for a long training hike with the Loma Prieta Day Hiking Section. They are a fun, diverse group, suckers for hiking up steep hills, and rarely bother with hikes less than 16 miles and >3500 feet. I think a 3C is the lowest rated hike I have ever spotted on the schedule. There may be some, but they are definitely fewer than the occasional 5Es showing up! I really like their hike rating system, and recommend adoption for meetup groups or other outings with friends so folks know what to expect.

The hike rating system is as follows:

1 = Less than 5 miles of total distance
2 = 5 to 10 miles
3 = 10 to 15 miles
4 = 15 to 20 miles
5 = 20 to 25 miles

A = Less than 1000 feet of total elevation gain
B = 1000 to 2000 feet
C = 2000 to 3000 feet
D = 3000 to 4000 feet
E = 4000 to 5000 feet

Yesterday’s trip was my first to Grant Ranch County Park on the foothills of Mt Hamilton in Santa Clara County. We started hiking at 8:30, with the ground still frozen. Soon enough though, the fleeces, hats and mittens came off, and most of us where in T-Shirts. We saw some California Buckeye trees, looking dead and barren since August. I collected some, but not enough, seeds for home decoration.  The first two hours we were accompanied by  cattle, some of them running along at impressive speeds and agility. One black cow decided to be the hike leader for about 10 minutes, setting up a good trot about 50 feet ahead of the group. She faithfully led us to a watering hole, but we declined. Cow-patty hopping was challenging enough :-)

Watering hole

We crossed one lower ridge to discover a grove of ancient Valley Oaks. Some of them must be 500 years old, with trunks of 6 feet in diameter. Lisa, our biggest tree fan in the group, was in 7th heaven. It is impossible to capture the presence of those trees in a picture, although several of us still are optimistic enough to try. Sassan’s pictures will probably come out best; he is an excellent photographer. The trees spurred us to talk about Lisa’s and Brian’s wedding. They have found the oak to get married under, but are still looking for a suitable officiant. From here, the conversation meandered into paganism. To my surprise, I learned one of the hikers knew Starhawk personally. But then, given where I live and the diversity of folks I hang out with, it shouldn’t have. I just leave you with my best 2D attempt of a magnificent oak growing out of a rock. Or maybe we did find the missing Entwives after all.

Valley Oak

After we left the Valley Oak Grove, we spotted three Golden Eagles circling on the ridge above us. They must have found some carcass or prey. Big raptors are always fun to watch, especially if I am smart enough to bring along my binoculars like I did on this trip! Soon after we watched the Eagles, Brian went of trail to climb a small knoll with a rocky outcropping. He very convincingly told us that this was the very spot where President Hoover retreated to re-build his life after having been voted out of office. My face must have been a mighty question mark, because people now started filling me in on local history. Joseph Grant, owner of this huge ranch which is now the State Park, was not only a rich political supporter, but also close friend of Hoover. After leaving Washington DC, Hoover spend large stretches of time on the Grant Ranch, before resuming his new normal life.

Next, the hill! What a perfectly shaped Jeep trail up to the ridge it was. Jeep trails run in straight lines between high and low points, because they can deal better with steep terrain than sideways tilt. This particular road featured sections of steadily increasing steepness with short, flat stretches in between to catch your breath. The last hurray before the ridgeline seemed vertical looking at it head-on. If this was rocks not road, it would probably be rated Yosemite Class 2?

Day hikers: we love hills!

After lunch, we hiked further along the ridge with a nice view on Mt Hamilton with the Observatory on top. We spotted a kestrel, very few other humans, some bikers headed up the road to Hamilton. With easier terrain, warm sunshine, and a brisk pace, the conversation started flowing.  At some point, we asked ourselves two questions: (1) Do you kiss when you hike under mistletoe outdoors? (2) What controls mistletoe from spreading uncontrollably, i.e. is there a natural enemy? As hikers speed up and slow down, the conversation partners change. Sometimes, I found myself between groups, mulling over my own thoughts, enjoying to be in company while being in my own world at the same time.

Mt Hamilton with the observatory, visible for the 2nd half of our hike

As we reached our 16th mile, the sun started to go down, temperatures dropping. Around 17 miles as usual, my feet decided they would be perfectly happy to bring this hike to a close. They did not have to wait long: 18 miles, 3875 feet and 7 1/2 hours after take-off, we had our customary beer, chips and salsa in the parking lot.

PS: Update on Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer

Two weeks in, so far so good. The day hike felt very good. Waking up the day after, I was neither stiff nor sore, just felt the exercise in my legs. Hiking speed was good, hills need a bit of speed-work though. I went running twice, the second time back to an easy cruise speed of 10 minutes per mile. I have had one really strong Bikram Yoga practice. My office chair went out the office to be replaced by an exercise ball. It definitely cheers up people who come into my office to see me happily bouncing on my big purple ball while I do my work. Sitting on a ball makes me feel better, I feel like someone released the chains to let me flow more freely. Mornings have a renewed push-up routine before showering now, crunches to be added in the next days. Given that it is Christmas season with plenty of junk food and sweets around, I have been doing very well in portion control and steering toward healthier choices. There have been setbacks: Sundays in general and workdays around 4 pm are the challenge times. The musical winter solstice celebration at my church helped as well, reminding me to appreciate and welcome the darkness. My newfound kindness toward winter makes winter treat me more kindly as well. Namaste!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments