Nelson Mountain

11 Aug 1997 - by Pat Ibbetson

After repairing (or trying to) the damage I had done to my brakes last week by driving through Yosemite, I headed up into the hills near home to check them out. Somehow I ended up driving up Auberry Road (how'd that happen...) towards Shaver Lake. Well, what was I to do?

The drive to Dinkey Creek was very enjoyable. I hadn't been in the area for over a year so it was nice to see that everything was still the same (except the range cattle grazing on the shoulder...). From Dinkey Creek I took McKinley Grove for a few miles and then turned left onto the Big Fir Loop, which I had surveyed in '95. One third the way around the loop I again turned left, this time onto road 10S66. Luckily I remembered my way through the maze of unmarked logging roads and was soon on my way to Nelson's south ridge. After a dry ford of Bear Creek, a few switchbacks and some more confusing junctions and I reached the crest of the ridge, where two years prior a co-worker of mine had stranded a 4WD Ford Aerostar on some rocks. Fortunately I had no trouble and gained another 100 feet of elevation before a downed fir tree blocked my progress.

Already at 8.800 feet the route was simple: go up. The initial hiking was enjoyable and quite relaxing, but fairly steep. The predominant species in the area is the Red Fir, which grows almost as large as Sequoias on the west side. Before reaching 9,400 feet I came upon a large bench where a lovely meadow hung its hat. Perhaps most impressive was the Indian Paintbrush and the Alpine Lupine. The trees thinned out and the view east to Eagle Peak from my carpet of color reminded me of the Sound Of Music, although I didn't breakout into spontaneous singing... Higher up, Lodgepoles replaced the firs and gave way themselves to beautifully gnarled wind-sculpted Whitebarks. Nelson peeked at me from time to time through the trees. Even from the least impressive side, the peak was quite imposing but I figured at 10,220 it couldn't be that bad.

The trees finally gave way to Chinquapin around 9,600 and 200 feet later I was presented with Nelson's south face. Faced with 400 feet of dramatically steep talus, I found a nice rock and took a rest. The ground showed heavy activity by burrowing rodents but the only company I had were the songbirds in the few remaining Whitebarks. I was now above smog-line and I could see forever. Hengst and Eagle Peaks (of Mineral King) were easily distinguishable and the always visible Kaweah massif stood guard over the southeast horizon. And, nothing new here, Alta and Silliman were shrouded in a small local band of clouds.

After soaking up all the view I could, I raced up the slope in a few minutes. The south ridge had now become a class 2-3 rib so I chose the easier eastern slopes which brought me to the summit plateau with little trouble. The summit of Nelson is a large sandy flat rimmed by class 2 outcrops of nearly equal height. This would make a windy but excellent campsite. I methodically hiked each one only to discover that outcrop that I ascended first was the highest. The best views were had from the outcrop at the northeast end of the flat. From here I could see...everything. I saw many peaks that I'd never seen before from the west. Darwin (with some snow on the north side of the plateau), Mendel and Goddard were the show stoppers, but the peaks of the Glacier and White Divides were also quite impressive. The most interesting sight of the day was that of the Abbot group. One week ago I had seen Nelson from the summit of Abbot. From my vantage point I could clearly see Gabb, Abbot and Dade...and the 3000 foot fall that a mistake would have resulted in!

A "normal" thing to do is to press on to Eagle by traversing Nelson's east ridge, but I could see the sun setting through the smog, so I chose safety over another trophy and headed back down to the car. The trip took a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes, including the 45 minutes of sight seeing I did. Not bad for a peak of Nelson's prominence.

The drive home was perhaps the most interesting part of the trip. Right as I rounded a blind corner a small calf and a young bull walked on to the road. My brakes were obviously more damaged than I thought and I came within inches of hitting them. My evasive maneuvers placed the front of my car in an enormous rut in the road, and it took some serious rocking to get the car out. Meanwhile, the bull was in a defensive stance with the calf behind, behavior that I'd never seen from a bull before. I would drive an inch and he would back up and get into a charging posture. I played games with him for almost an hour but managed to escape without incident. Nothing like a little adrenaline after a nice hike in the woods...


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