MOUNT CLARK, GRAY PEAK, RED PEAK,
MERCED PEAK, MOUNT STARR KING
Ascents of Mount Clark (Northwest Arête, class 4), Gray Peak (West Ridge, class 3), Red Peak (North Ridge, class 2), Merced Peak (North Ridge from Snow Pass, class 2) and Mount Starr King (Southeast Saddle, 5.0), with Robert Zeithammer, August 24-28, 2017.
August 24, 2017. We left Mammoth around 8:00. After a stop at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center to pick up our permit, and another stop at the Crane Flat gas station to buy sandwiches, we parked at the Mono Meadows trailhead, had a quick lunch and departed on the trail at 12:04. We descended toward Illilouette Creek, crossed it, and continued on the trail toward Mount Starr King. Just before the trail crosses Red Creek, we left it and proceeded cross-country, following Red Creek to Grayling Lake. This involved a lot of bushwhacking through meadows with downed trees and on the steep banks of Red Creek. We reached our basecamp at Grayling Lake at 18:15 and had a nice evening getting ready for the next day and reading the lake's logbook (it is apparently a popular destination for fishermen). (A 6:11 hour day).
August 25, 2017. We left camp at 7:29 and proceeded North toward Mount Clark. Our path took us in a rather straight line north of Grayling Lake, skirting through forest the West ridge of Gray Peak into the Gray Creek drainage, and further north over a ridge to the base of the Northwest Arête of Mount Clark. We reached the base of the roped climbing at 10:49. I led a steep crack (5.5) to the crest of the arête proper. Robert then led a long (60m) pitch on the arête proper, mostly 3rd – 4th class with an interesting 5th class crack in the middle. We then switched to simulclimbing and I led us to the summit, reaching it at 12:09. We had a quick break and proceeded to descend the Southeast Arête, which we found to be easier and shorter than advertised. The NW Arête is a much better climb. We descended the South Slopes of Mount Clark, aiming for a prominent notch in the N-NW ridge of Gray Peak. Near the notch, Robert saw a bear (I was not so lucky). From the notch we proceeded southeast on vegetation-covered slopes, till we reached the crest of the West Ridge of Gray Peak. This was a very enjoyable 3rd class scramble on an often very narrow and very exposed ridge – actually a very good ascent route for Gray Peak. We reached the summit of Gray Peak at 15:52 under worsening visibility, due to Yosemite wildfires. We stayed a few minutes on the summit. The register dates back to 1979. We then descended the Southwest slopes of Gray Peak, which seem impossibly steep from the drainage below, but are actually only class 2. This consisted of sand, scree, and continuous granite slabs in the lower half – just the right angle for walking. We were now well-positioned to descend directly into our basecamp at Grayling Lake, and reached it at 18:18. On the way we encountered the most extraordinary Sierra Junipers, some probably many hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. (A 10:49 hour day).
August 26, 2017. We left camp at 8:30, expecting an easier day, and proceeded East toward Red Peak. We skirted Lake 10,425 on its northern shore (taking a nice break near the lake) to reach the low point in the crest directly to the east. We then proceeded to climb the easy, class 2 North Ridge of Red Peak. We reached the summit at 11:50 and had lunch on top. We then descended the south slopes toward the trail that crosses the Ottoway basin. We proceeded a short way along the trail toward Red Peak Pass but very soon left it to skirt southeast toward Snow Pass, on slabs, talus and snow, in a pretty direct line. From Snow Pass we ascended the N-NE ridge to the summit of Merced Peak, a class 2 route. We reached the summit at 14:50. We then retraced our steps down the ridge and across the upper Ottoway drainage to regain the trail. This drainage is a true marvel and, in terms of scenery, was the highlight of our trip. Lower Ottoway Lake, in particular, was especially magnificent. We left the trail below Lower Ottoway Lake and skirted the Western aspect of Red Peak, in the forest, along a constant elevation, dropping down into Grayling Lake from the southwest. We reached camp at 19:05. That evening we made a campfire and Robert worked on his entry into the Grayling Lake logbook. (A 10:35 hour day).
August 27, 2017. This was supposed to be an easier day. We left Grayling Lake at 9:15. Our intent was to set up a new basecamp near the eastern aspect of Mount Starr King, but instead of retracing our steps in the forest along Red Creek we opted to follow a convoluted series of granite domes and ridges leading toward Starr King Meadow. We did this to avoid harder terrain in the forest, and indeed the terrain was easier. The path was less direct, however, involving twists and turns, but with a more gradual ascent toward Starr King than the alternative along Red Creek. On the way we had great views and as a side trip climbed a steep finger of rock topping one of the ridges we had to traverse (elevation 8,796 ft.). We reached camp atop the last of these high ridges, directly east of the middle summit of Mount Starr King, at 15:15. However, the campsite had no water supply. Believing we would find water directly East of Mount Starr King, we proceeded North in search of streams appearing on the map – finding none. We had to walk all the way to Starr King Lake to find water. Starr King Lake, in this season, was a marshy area with neither an inlet nor an outlet. Filtering the dubiously colored stagnant water took some time. The place is made particularly desolate and grim by the fact that the entire surrounding forest recently burned down – imagine charred trees rising in a bog. This little water excursion lasted almost 3 hours and we were back in camp at 18:10. We again made a fire, and had a leisurely evening. (An 8:55 hour day).
August 28, 2017. We left camp at 7:40 to climb Mount Starr King by its easiest route, from the Southeast Saddle (5.0). To do so, we hiked to the notch between the southernmost dome and the middle dome. We then hiked over the entire middle dome (class 2), to reach the notch separating it from the main summit. Robert led the first pitch, to a ledge (5.0). I then led the second pitch to where the dome becomes less steep and it becomes possible to walk to the summit. We reached the summit of Mount Starr King at 9:07. We took lots of pictures, and regaled ourselves with the summit register, dating back to 1982, including numerous entries by RJ Secor, Ron Hudson, Bob Burd and other Sierra legends. We were back in camp around 11:00, packed up our gear and left at 11:28 to rejoin the trail. We had lunch at the Illilouette Creek crossing at 13:45 under worsening visibility and air quality, due to wildfires. On the return to the Mono Meadow trailhead, we could see a huge plume of smoke emanating from the Empire Fire, a short distance away from our location. This made for eerie photographs. We reached the car at 15:25, took as dip in Tenaya Lake, went for dinner at the Whoa Nelli Deli and were back in Mammoth around 20:15. (A 7:45 hour day).
Robert Zeithammer's entry into the Grayling Lake log book:
Morning of August 26, 2017: This humble speck of water has been our basecamp for a few days because it seems like an equally inconvenient place to climb both Clark and Merced without having to lug camping gear around. Why try and climb both peaks on a single trip you ask ? Because one of our party - the one currently muttering in the tent about more sleep despite the dawn's early light - is chasing a dream of completing the outrageously long SPS list. So here we are, one mountain behind us, one to go. Yesterday, we discovered that this place is indeed inconvenient as a base for Clark – one has to traverse many ridges and climb up through many forests only to find that he still far away and above. Luckily for us, our overblown belief in our abilities got us through the ordeal. Speaking of ordeals: getting here from Mono Meadows was no joke! People in this book mention bringing horses… How do they get them through the Meadow of Pickupsticks Logs? They must carry them! Insane…
But back to yesterday: we eventually found Mount Clark, and traversed it in the most excellent style – up the NW ridge, down the SE ridge. And with the technical difficulties over, Mr. Peakbagger aimed us straight at Gray Peak with its "fun and easy" West Ridge staring us in the face. So we frolicked over some meadows, walked up interminable slopes, and found ourselves pretty tired and pretty terrified (me) / relaxed (peakbagger) on top of a long loose knife edge. Again, delusions of superhuman ability kicked in and got us to the summit. Deep below, Grayling Lake looked within easy reach (by paraglide). On the descent, we found nasty steep slopes, fun even steeper slabs, a magical bog bursting with green, more nasty boulder-strewn slopes, and a large family of ancient junipers. You can easily visit the latter from here – they are just across Red Creek on a slabby slope.
The muttering peakbagger is up, so we must go. Our plan is to to pop over Red to Upper Ottoway Lake, bag Merced, and skirt the mountains back here – precisely the route not recommended elsewhere in this journal. So this may be our last entry here. But we will probably barely make it, as usual.
Morning of August 27, 2017: Another morning in paradise: We survived! I considered writing about people you don't know at this point, but then I figured you might find a map more useful. On the map, you can easily follow yesterday's route (except for the Clark portion, which was so tedious I forced it from memory by now, and hence can't draw it).
But enough about yesterday, you need to hear about the next adventure. We started by falling into Red Creek (me) and crossing it on a log (Peakbagger), only to re-cross it again at the bottom of the Cleft Gorge – a magnificent sight. Compared to the agony of yesterday's descent, ascending the Slabs of Morning Glory toward the sun was a pleasure. Highly recommended!
Above the Lake of Morning Anticipation, our hopes were crushed when the nice red mountain above turned out not to be Red Peak, but only a minor ridge thereof. Red Peak is inconveniently the farthest of all the perfectly mountainous prominences, all perfectly red. We climbed it via the Class 1++ (i.e. scary) ridge. A large gendarme tower blocks access to the Red Pass, so we descended down towards the Ottoway trail as suggested by the Good Book of Secor. The path is really a highway paved with flagstones and equipped with perfectly chiseled stairs whenever the slope is positive. So bring your high heels, your strollers and your infirm brethren. We found out from the Red Peak register that the trail was built by demigods named Bonnie and Thor, after consuming "whiskey by the jug". Given their alleged inebriation, the result of their labor is all the more impressive.
Onwards to Merced! The Peakbagger was unrelenting… so we soon left the smooth trail, and hobbled our way up through talus, snow and the occassional slab to Snow Pass (BTW, I am aware that I can't spell "occcasssional, but my trusty spellchecker is back home on my computer). Contrary to the good book, there was no register there. Angry at the presumed Greenpeace vigilante who must have taken it to "leave no traces", we soldiered on.
Up and down we went, there was a view, yada, yada, yada… What I really want to talk about is Lower Ottoway Lake. Peakbagger and I have seen our share of lakes, but LOL had us grinning out loud! And good news: you too can behold its beauty if you follow our route back to camp. Here is how you get there: climb onto the little saddle at the opposite end of Grayling Lake, and ascend left to 9,200'. Hold that altitude as you skirt Not Red Peak. When you get to Stag Meadow, after passing through the Eerie Forest of Death by Flame, you will be about half way. Say hi to the stag for us! Keep holding 9,200' through the Nasty Ridge of Bouldery Brambles, and you will be rewarded with granite goodness. Going will get easier until you reach the Land of Domes. You are almost there.
Now we must go on to Starr King.
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