One scalding hot April day in 1872, in the valley of the South Fork of the Kaweah River, surveyor John Orst turned to pioneer John Homer and bellowed, "Hey Homer! Yonder crag looks jest like yore nose!" Orst's jibe endured. Because the granite dome in the Kaweah bears the whimsical name "Homer's Nose", we decided to climb it one scalding hot April day in 1996. There couldn't have been any other reason. If it were named "Bald Dome" or "Rounded Knob" we surely would have gone somewhere else.
Our approach was on a trail that had been abandoned by the Park Service decades ago. It has not appeared on any map printed since 1955, but we were using the 1955 USGS quadrangle. Our guidebook, Self Propelled in the Southern Sierra, referred to it as an abandoned trail, and the author, Peter Jenkins, died during the 1970s.
Since it was only April, we were equipped with snowshoes, poles, crampons, and ice axes. We would have been better served by brush saws, hedge clippers, and forestry gear. The combination of a low trailhead, the location at the southern flank of the range, and a south facing exposure, meant that we hardly saw any snow at all. We did see two tremendous thickets; ceanothus and poison oak up to 5000 feet, and manzanita up to 6500 feet.
We set out from the Clough Cave campground (only 3670 feet) at the end of South Fork Road, out of the town of Three Rivers. Our first quarter mile was on the well maintained Ladybug Trail. We crossed the rushing South Fork of the Kaweah River on a sturdy bridge. If you decide to follow our footsteps, you'll benefit from knowing a few features that we missed. The turn off from Ladybug onto the overgrown Pigeon Creek trail is at 4010 feet, just beyond some prominent rocks. After battling the brush up to the ridge to the west of Pigeon Creek, it is easy to lose the trail at 5890 feet. The trail doesn't follow the ridge at all, but crosses it immediately, and traverses Burnt Canyon to a notch below Palmer Cave. Burnt Canyon is aptly named. It looks like it burns about once a decade, and gives rise to a lush, dense growth of manzanita. Crossing it on the trail is beastly, but crossing it off the trail is hell.
Jenkins described Creekside Surprise Camp as being an unexpected, lovely, broad, flat area where the trail crosses Bennett Creek. The surprise was that the campsite had been buried under a log jam during a flood. We found a small, not-so-flat site downstream. In spite of its size, it was a pleasant place with a waterfall and a deep soft bed of pine duff. We had expected to set up our tents on top of snow.
At dawn we headed for the peak. We quickly climbed up Salt Creek Ridge, out of the brush and into an open forest of Ponderosa and White pines. At 7800 feet we finally encountered snow. All of our snow gear but the ice axes were left at camp, but the ice axes were all we needed. All eight of us reached the 9050 foot summit. It's an infrequently climbed peak. Imagine that! The last party had signed the summit register two years ago. We only saw the names of two PCS mountaineers in the book - Bill Rausch, more than 25 years ago, and Chris Yager, who will climb anything that stands still.
We returned to Bennett Creek, broke camp, battled the manzanita, crawled like rabbits under the pollen laden ceanothus, and reached the trailhead before 6 pm. We washed off the grime in the Kaweah River. Now I can call the water chilly, but at the time we employed more ardent adjectives.
It was a trip of Firsts and Mosts: the first time we hiked in poison oak in the Sierra Nevada, our lowest trailhead, the densest brush, the warmest night, the softest bed, the rarest destination.