We got rolling from the ranger's kiosk in Tuoloumne Meadows at about 9.15 am on Friday, the 3rd July. Due to the late opening of the Tioga Road this year (just 2 days ago) there had been hardly anybody going into the Lyell Canyon/Donahue Pass region this year. The rangers were singularly uninformed about the whole region vis-a-vis snow and they stared at us incredulously upon hearing that Lyell was our destination.
So, we decided to take our chances by leaving snowshoes behind but were otherwise prepared for early spring conditions and carried ice axes, crampons, extra warm clothing and even a couple of bear cannisters between the five of us (Scott Kreider, Stephan Meier, Rick and Dee Booth and myself,Arun Mahajan). Turned out to be a wise choice.
The trail is long but even and goes thru spectacular country. Tuoloumne never disappoints. We stayed on the right of the creek on the PCT taking numerous breaks, enjoying the warm sun and the sounds of the fast flowing creek. The trail was surprisingly free of snow except occassional patches in the wooded parts. One river crossing proved a little troublesome but there are fallen logs and some careful balancing over them can get you accross. About 7 or 8 miles in, the trail disappeared in the snow and starts to climb quickly. We ran into 3 thru hikers of the PCT whose footsteps we traced till we got to the footbridge shown on the Vogelsang 7.5 min topo (9400 ft+). We headed up and right till we came to a flat spot which was mostly snowbound but had patches of bare ground showing and a slowing moving stream barely visible. The weather continued to be warm as we cooked dinner and stashed food away and planned the next day's route before turning in for the night.
We started hiking at 7.15 am. The snow was hard and suncupped and we put on crampons right away. We were aiming to top the steep ridge plumb in front of us but to get there we had to do some route finding thru the forest before it. Maclure Creek crashes down here and the crossing is fairly hairy. Since it was early morning, the snowbridges were firm but we were quite anxious as we crossed them as it was never clear which one would give. A lot of the stream is hidden under what looks like dubious snow but everything that we walked on, held. We broke thru the forest and climbed the first steep ridge and were greeted by the alpine grandeur of a huge snow bowl ringed by Lyell and Maclure and other other surrogate peaks and ridges. The route finding of Scott and Dee and Rick was on the mark to get us here.
There is plateau with 2 lakes but there were barely discernable as we walked past them on the suncupped snow and then the steep climb towards the Lyell-Maclure notch begins. Here we kept switching leads, as breaking trail in the snow was hard work. Below the north wall now, we decided to go straight up. We aimed for the first chute to the right of the large band of cliffs and that the snow was a little rotten in the section right between the rocks, where it was obviously melting fast. There was only a very slight discoloration in the snow that might have been the bergschrund but it was all covered up anyway. Stephan took the lead in this steep section and we climbed straight up, glad to have him kick steps for us. I thought that the angle was comparable to that on Mt Hood above the bergschrund on the Palmer Glacier, and this puts it to atleast 35 or above. Be very careful and cautious here. We took our time doing it and after some anxious moments topped the ridge to get to the summit plateau. Then it is a class-2/3 scramble to the summit of Lyell. It was 1.45pm then. We were pleased to discover that we were the first party on top this year.
We relaxed in the warm sun and cloudless skies for about 45 mins here. We had great views all around. The view of Ritter and Banner is awesome from this vantage point. We looked over to Maclure. It looked very hard due to all that steep snow that covered the ridge that PCS parties of yore have suggested taking. Harder still was the final snowfield with an unsafe runout right near the summit. So, we decided to leave it for another day and again we down climbed the steep wall that we had come up with much caution, sometimes even switching to facing the wall as we down climbed. Luckily for the most part the axes held firm but they sank upto the hilt as we cautiously climbed the steepest section. A couple of glissades and some tiresome walking on suncups got us to the forest where again the route finding skills of Scott and Dee and Rick and Stephan's GPS helped us find our way back to camp. Crossing the stream here was quite hairy as the snow was softer. By the time we got back to camp, it was 6.15. It had been a 11 hour day.
Sunday, we hiked out under perfect conditions and made it to the cars in just about 5 and half hours and then pizza at 'The Two Guys' place in Groveland before fighting with the home bound traffic getting into the Bay area and yet another great PCS trip drew to a close.
A note of caution: The snow conditions are changing very fast day by day. The bergschrund on the Lyell Glacier may open up. The snow wall (maybe there will be a chute when some of the snow goes away) is steep on the north side, left of the Lyell-Maclure saddle. The stream crossing after camp, will be harder as more snow melts away, maybe it will be safer to cross it higher up. There is some route finding needed in the forest where this stream flows. Maclure will be doable when all that snow goes away, but right now it looked unsafe.