Elwell Oh Well and Kicked Buttes

3 Oct 1997 - by Aaron Schuman (view roster page)

With my computer boxed up in a moving van and my phone unplugged for the day, there wasn't much point in going to work. Steve Eckert had his latest tenant crisis under control, so we rumbled up the road to New York City (interstate 80), and turned off at the Tahoe National Forest. Our destinations: Mount Elwell and Sierra Buttes.

Both peaks are easily reached from a paved road connecting Sierra City on highway 49 with Graegle on highway 70. There is a sign for a turnoff to the Lakes Basin campground where the Grassy Lake trailhead is located; this is the best access to Mount Elwell. The trailhead is at about 6200 feet, the summit is at 7812 feet, and there is a well marked 2-1/2 mile trail all the way to the top. The summit had pleasant views of Mount Lassen and Sierra Buttes, but the mountaintop itself was just an uninspiring rounded hump. Elwell, oh well.

Ten miles south, we took the turnoff for Sardine Lake, and chose the Packer Lake road over the 4WD route. There are other turnoffs closer to Sierra Buttes, but we're convinced we chose the best one. My old Honda gasped and wheezed up an astonishingly steep paved road beyond Packer Lake to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail at about 7000 feet.

The Buttes, less than two miles away, were a tremendous jagged sheared monolith of quartz porphyry, weathered to a mournful purple. The east side, facing the road, had a five hundred foot cliff. We hoped the west side would be easier. When we approached the peak, though, we realized that it was defended by cliffs on every side. A rope would surely have been required if it weren't for the steel staircase leading hundreds of feet up the wall to the fire lookout tower. So much for mountains without handrails! We climbed the stairs to the 8587 foot summit, circled the tower on a scary open mesh catwalk with five hundred feet of air beneath our feet. We returned; 65 minutes up and 50 minutes down.


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