VOLUNTEER PEAK / PETTIT PEAK / REGULATION PEAK
Ascents of Volunteer Peak (Northeast Slope from Smedberg Lake, class 2), Pettit Peak (Traverse from Volunteer Peak, class 2) and Regulation Peak (Traverse from Pettit Peak, class 2), with Simon Wacziarg, August 16-20, 2021.
August 16, 2021. We got off to a late start, due to pressing work commitments on my part earlier that day. We set out from the Virginia Lakes trailhead at 16:46, with the goal of covering as many miles as possible before night fell. The hike was pretty smoky, due to the Dixie and Caldor fires. We made it to Summit Pass at 19:42 and found a nice campsite just North of the trail, at the Western end of Summit Lake. It was a windy night. (A 2:54 hour day, 2:49 hours moving, 5.90 miles, 1,600 feet of elevation gain).
August 17, 2021. We woke up to perfectly blue skies, without a hint of smoke – as the winds had shifted overnight to a southwesterly direction. This was going to be a long day if we were going to make it all the way to Smedberg Lake, some 17 miles away. So we set out rather early, at 8:09, and steadily swallowed the miles of trail hiking separating us from Miller Lake (12:09). There, we set up the tent, had a leisurely lunch, a sort of nap, and played cards. At 14:03 we set out again for the remaining miles down to Matterhorn Canyon, up to Benson Pass, and finally to Smedberg Lake (both Matterhorn Canyon and Smedberg Lake were overrun with pack animals – on which more below). We found a campsite along the Southern shore of Smedberg Lake at 18:48, and settled down for a quiet evening and night ahead of the big day that was to follow. (A 10:39 hour day, 8:01 hours moving, 17.20 miles, 3,250 feet of elevation gain).
August 18, 2021. I had big plans for this day, the main event. The plan was to climb Volunteer Peak, traverse over to Pettit Peak, tag Regulation Peak, descend to Rodgers Lake and catch the trail back to Smedberg Lake – on the map, about a 6 mile itinerary (which turned to be slightly over 7 miles in reality). We left camp at 7:49 and made quick work of climbing the Northeast slope of Volunteer Peak, an easy route over a well-cairned wooded and grassy gully to a saddle just southeast of the summit proper. We were on top at 8:47, and enjoyed great views down to Smedberg Lake, North toward Tower Peak, East toward the Sawtooth Range, and South in the direction of Pettit Peak.
We left the summit of Volunteer Peak around 9:00, rejoined the saddle and proceeded over easy terrain along the West flank of Peak 10,640, toward a small lake just North of Pettit Peak. Rather than heading down to that lake, as many trip reports recommended, we hiked up a gully to the crest of the ridge running North from Pettit's summit. This was a great option (class 2) that quickly brought us to the summit area. We searched a bit for the highpoint, finding the register on the middle of three bumps (10:48). We took a long break here, eating Skittles and reading entertaining register entries (dating back to 1972). The views from Pettit Peak were even better than Volunteer's, as most of Yosemite National Park was visible from our vantage point: Mounts Lyell and Maclure to the Southeast, Mounts Conness, Dana and Gibbs to the East, Matterhorn and Whorl, along with the Sawtooths, to the Northeast, Tower Peak to the North, Piute Mountain to the Northwest, etc.
We left the summit of Pettit Peak around 11:30 and headed for Regulation Peak. The first highpoint along the way was a knife-edge of rock (class 2) that we crested at 12:06 (not finding a summit register). Further North, we saw another possible highpoint. Since the map was ambiguous on which was Regulation Peak, we headed that way – but it turned out to be lower than the first summit (there was no register there either). On the way, we spotted a steep sandy gully that seemingly led straight down to Rodgers Lake. This was our descent, and we reached the lake at 13:16 (great wildflowers on the way). At Rodgers Lake we stopped for lunch near the water, after which picked up the trail on the North shore of the lake. We made quick work of the few trail miles to camp, reaching the tent at 15:19.
There was a lot of day left, so we took a long break at the lake, complete with a bath and laundry. We dried our clothes in the sun and enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the tent, playing cards and eating snacks. Around 17:00 a cloud of smoke passed by, temporarily obstructing the afternoon sun as I was taking a stroll to explore the lakeshore. But it passed, and the crisp and clear Sierra light returned in the evening. A fitting end to a great day of scrambling among the granite peaks of Northern Yosemite. (A 7:31 hour day, 6:09 hours moving, 7.40 miles, 2,950 feet of elevation gain).
August 19, 2021. This day we were going to try to cover as many miles as possible toward the trailhead. We left camp at 9:33, hiked up to Benson Pass, down to Matterhorn Canyon (where we could see some smoke from a nearby wildfire), and then back up to Miller Lake (13:45). We took a long break there for lunch, setting up the tent again and napping a bit before setting out again at 15:20. We hiked down toward Return Creek, and then hiked up Virginia Canyon to near the junction between the PCT and the Summit Lake Trail. Shortly before that junction we headed East to find a camp near Return Creek. We found no suitable spot until stumbling upon a use trail that miraculously led us to a very comfortable horse camp – complete with a big fire ring, flat spots for the tent, cut logs for seats, and other comforts. We had a great time in camp for this last evening of our trip, and slept soundly. (A 9:11 hour day, 6:55 hours moving, 15.20 miles, 3,050 feet of elevation gain).
August 20, 2021. There were only about 7.5 miles left to the car (much of it uphill), so we hurried to try to make it to the Whoa Nellie Deli by lunchtime. We left camp at 8:48, reached Summit Lake at 9:42, the pass above Virginia Lakes at 11:08 and the trailhead parking at 12:24. We hurried to Lee Vining and had a great lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli. Then on to Mammoth, where we were able to clean up that afternoon before heading to the Mammoth Tavern for dinner. (A 3:34 hour day, 3:21 hours moving, 7.50 miles, 2,200 feet of elevation gain).
Trip totals: 33:49 total hours, 27:15 moving hours, 53.2 miles, 13,050 feet of elevation gain.
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This was a great trip. But one thing spoiled part of the fun. The trail from Virginia Lakes all the way to Smedberg Lake was covered in horse excrement – so much of it that one had to be constantly on the lookout not to step in it. The major campsites were overrun with stock animals – most of our time in Matterhorn Canyon was within earshot of mules, and we crossed numerous parties that were on pack trips. Hoof marks covered the sandy shores of Miller Lake. Horse poop covered the granite steps around Smedberg Lake, and numerous animals were grazing on the fragile meadow along the Eastern shore of that magnificent lake. Many wore bells, which made noise during the nights as the animals grazed about.
On the way back to Virginia Lakes, we met a mule train. I asked the man that was leading it if the pack operator was responsible for picking up after their horses. He answered with a wide grin: "Nope". I then said that the entire trail from there to Smedberg was covered in horseshit. To which he answered, with an even wider grin: "Yup".
Pack stations are allowed to bring stock to the National Forests and National Parks under special use permits issued by these Federal agencies. The special use permits have come under attack – most notably in a pair of lawsuits from 2001 and 2012 that were won by the plaintiff – the High Sierra Hiker's Association. Unfortunately that association appears to be mostly dormant today. The Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, of which I happen to be a member, amazingly has a Section that is devoted to mule pack trips. That's shameful. Evidence of environmental damage from pack animals abounds. Humans are subject to strict rules on burying waste and packing out TP, as well as doing their business more than 100 feet from trail and water sources. Mules are exempt from the same rules – and that's just incoherent. At the very least, packers should have to clean up after their mules. But what I would really prefer is a complete ban on stock animals in the wilderness.