Rockhouse Jail

18 Oct 1998 - by Aaron Schuman

Northern Californians rarely see the Domelands Wilderness, its sparse pine forest interspersed with dry arroyos of yucca and prickly pear, dotted with dozens of blocky granite domes. But it was mid October, and threat early snowfall was already closing northern passes through the high Sierra, so we set out to see some more southerly country.

The sun broke through the horizon with a tinkling sound like shattering ice. It was 18 F, or -8 C, at our camp at 7800 feet at Big Meadow. I counted the party that had assembled during the night: David Harris, Kelly Maas, John Hossack, Charles Schafer, Debbie Bulger and myself. We warmed our bones with oatmeal and tea. (I ate instant grits that I had brought back from a recent trip to Georgia, much to the amusement of my Yankee companions.)

We set out on the trail to Manter Meadow, with Taylor Dome as our morning's destination. With Steve E.'s help, I had prepared maps of our route from the Wildflower Topo CDROM cartographic database. Each map was zoomed in very close to the area we would hike through, to show us the maximum level of detail. This was my first experience using computerized mapping for the backcountry. On every trip I strive to learn something new about the mountains, and on this trip I can summarize the lesson in a single phrase: Use Multiple Scales.

We quickly discovered that the terrain didn't match our maps very well. We struggled to correlate this ridge we could see to that region of contour lines on the printed page, but something was awry. It didn't help us at all that neither of our destinations this weekend are named on any map. We traveled off trail to where our mountain ought to be, but there was no mountain. Maybe it was down the next canyon and up the rise after that. To our amazement, at the bottom of the canyon we found a well maintained trail that shouldn't have been there at all.

The discovery of the trail was the turning point that finally forced us to challenge our paradigm of where we were. David produced a map of the Domelands, printed by the US Forest Service, and with its considerably zoomed out view, we could see that there were two parallel trails from Big Meadow to Manter Meadow, about one and one half miles apart. All of the features that we couldn't interpret made perfect sense when seen from the North Manter trail; because our zoomed in maps showed only the South Manter trail, we mistakenly thought that was where we were.

Properly oriented at last, we quickly reached the summit block, a knob of two hundred feet of unbroken high quality granite slabs, and scrambled to the 8802' top of Taylor Dome. Our return, down the South Manter trail, went much more quickly than our entry. We finished with a hike up the Big Meadow road from the south trailhead to the north, and returned to our camp by 3:00 pm.

We had intended to finish our climb of Taylor Dome by midday, and climb Sirretta Peak in the afternoon, but my routefinding mistake set us back a few hours. It was too late to start another mountain. We loafed, ate, and moved camp to the south trailhead for Sunday's adventure.

We began our hike to Rockhouse Peak with a crew rotation. Debbie returned home Sunday morning, and Greg Johnson arrived to round out our group.

Peter Jenkins, in his book Self Propelled in the Southern Sierra, recommends climbing Rockhouse Peak from the east side, with a ford across the South Fork of the Kern River. Our route, from Big Meadow, was longer than his, but involved no ford.

Although Sunday's walk was three times as long as Saturday's, we did it in about the same amount of time. What a difference it makes to have a correct concept of the lay of the land!

When we sat on top of the smooth granite slabs that form 8383' Rockhouse Peak, the whole of the Domelands unfolded before us, row after row of rounded rocky tops breaking through the dry southern forest, from Lake Isabella all the way to Mineral King and Mount Langley. It was there that we got the sweet taste of California mountaineering as it is done far down south.

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