Wheeler Peak

7-9 Jun 2003 - by Douglas Smith

Remembering his ordeals of primary-school in 1950s England, the blind Anglo-Indian memoirist Ved Mehta describes an inspiring essay question in his A-level exams which asked, "Imagine that you are an insect, such as an ant, and must cross your back yard. Describe the obstacles, and difficulties you might encounter along your journey". The instantaneous interspecies parallels which this mental chestnut presents to the human thinker are so compelling that I have used this wonderful idea as a starting point for dozens of bedtime stories for my daughter's eager ears, as well as my own nighttime arrhythmia. It wasn't until I revisited a favorite region along the northernmost reaches of Yosemite National Park late last Spring and attempted to hike through its intricate, brush-choked maze that I really experienced what this hypothetical ant from Mehta's childhood could have encountered.

My worst experiences in the Sierra Nevada have involved my own body being the surface upon which insects have traveled, and feasted. Specifically, I have taken a few trips during the height of the annual mosquito bloom which usually occurs, with great variation, sometime between June 15 and August 15. Therefore I try to avoid high country travel during that time of the year. But the long winter, and those many month of trip-planning, gear inventories, catalog shopping, and topo map "porn" make me too anxious by the start of June, and I love to seek out those lower-elevation, snow-free backcountry itineraries for trips to take before the thirsty little bastards hatch. There are plenty of such areas to choose from in the Sierra, but the most appealing may be the north Yosemite country accessed from the western trailheads at Hetch-Hetchy and Cherry Lake. Ben Schifrin waxes poetic about the very remote ambience of this country in his guidebook (Wilderness Press, 1990). This year, after a long and melodramatic winter, I was ripe for a challenging trip into the wild and, with most of the snow melted and a three day weekend there for the taking...I took it.

At 7:30 am on June 6, I waited at the east end of the spectacular Cherry Lake dam, gazing down at the foreshortened granite terraces descending hundreds of feet into the canyon, expecting a hiking partner to show. When, at the prearranged hour of 8, she still hadn't, my trip changed to the solo butt-kicker that it became, and I drove to the Cherry Ridge trailhead, which is now located at Shingle Spring, 1000 feet higher than it was the last time I was here in 1998.

My pace up the Kibbie Ridge trail was somewhere in between a hyperactive pack-mule and a lazy fence lizard, and I rapidly made it to Sachse Spring by lunchtime, Styx Pass by midafternoon, and to a lakeside camp under Bartlett Peak's domes on Boundary Lake's north shore by 5pm. This lake is one of the larger bodies of water in that section of the northern Tuolumne drainage, an area dotted with countless lakelets hidden in labyrinthine terrain. The following morning I was up early and walking eastward by 6:30 with the idea of reaching the summits of some of the few named peaks in the region--particularly Haystack, Schofield and Richardson, which lie in a broad arc above Peninsula Lakes. This is where the implications of being an insect confronted me head-on. Although I felt I was traveling quickly, the profoundly intricate character of this canyon and dome-filled country made for slow progress across the map. The presence of snowfields helped somewhat, where I could suddenly direct my line of travel in a straight line, but then I would inevitably find myself having to skirt around flooded meadows or one of the many small zig-zagging drainages flowing into the deeper canyons--all of which trend to the SW here. I scaled back my goals as I went, recalling the spectacular 250' waterfall on upper Kendrick Creek which I'd seen from a distance on two previous journeys. I determined to finally sit alongside this unnamed gem, which looks like a slightly smaller version of the Merced's Nevada Falls. This turned out to be a wise decision, because when after a simple ascent I sat atop Wheeler Peak at 10 am, even from a distance I could clearly see that the upper reaches of Kendrick Creek were uncrossable, and the lusted-after trio of peaks beyond were thus unreachable on this day. Wheeler, though, offered a very nice panorama of the high Emigrant country, overlain by the distant roar of Cherry Creek. According to the tiny register here (which records the elevation as a more appealing 9001'), this mountain had not had a summertime summitter in two years, when "Kevin with SAR team Delta-3" wrote "where's my helicopter? By the way, did anyone ever find Eric?" I can report that two years later, there was still no sign of poor Eric anywhere.

The roaring stream of Kendrick Creek, blithely cutting through massive ribs of granite on its way to the drop-off below, has a beauty which rivals the more famous streams of the Sierra. There are several sections where an enormous quantity of water shoots down steep granite aprons, producing tall "waterwheels" like those on the Tuolumne proper. I had a powerful and awesome companion to walk alongside on my way to lunch. One step into this torrent would mean instant death, so I stayed well back from any slope near it. As I ate my midday meal, basking in the spray blowing up from the falls, I could see well down Kendrick's canyon to its many exceptional features--the most spectacular surely being the east face of Nance Peak, a big wall which compares to El Capitan, and made even more appealing by its remoteness and inaccessibility.

The reveries brought on by this inspiring view came to an abrupt end when I returned to insect-mode, and faced the next route-finding challenge: the traverse across the south face of Peak 8884' to the Inferno Lakes labyrinth. This face, perhaps only 1/8 of a mile across, is cut by deep chutes filled with banzai-like oaks and thorny chamise. Crossing through this brushy gap felt like crossing the trenches before a medieval fortress. I made my way slowly and deliberately, searching for thick branches to step on, but still could not avoid a few deep scratches in my calves (it was only later that it dawned on me to wear gaiters through these brushpatches), and the sudden realization that somewhere back in that thicket my canteen had gotten dislodged and lost. Should a place name ever be needed here, I volunteer "Cat's-Tongue Pass" for the nature of the crossing.

Day three was reserved for exiting the wilderness, and in devising a cross-country route back to the car I again put myself into the role of an insect confronting the intricacies of an otherwise outwardly benign terrain. The trailhead ranger had given me a hint on descending Kibbie Creek from Many Island Lake to Kibbie Lake, which ultimately worked, but every 200 feet of progress was marked by sharp defiles between small domes, gully-crossings where I began to curse the otherwise attractive manzanita, and seemingly clear passages luring me on to their abrupt ends in 40-foot cliffs. This scramble from Boundary Lake camp to the north shores of Kibbie Lake--perhaps four miles as the crow flies--took an arduous six hours. The lake was flooded and difficult to skirt around, so I tied my boots together around my neck and waded in the delicious water until I found the blessed trail at the far end, looking like a superhighway compared to what I'd been walking through for two days.

Lessons drawn from this journey include: always expect dense brush at these elevations, and that gaiters offer helpful protection from same--unless scarred shins are foolishly desired as a badge of backcountry honor. Also, Murphy's Law of packing--that the least appealing liquid will usually spill in your pack--continues to prove itself correct. On this trip it was betadyne--lending an amber tint to many things I continue to carry, and prompting fond memories of this June weekend. Previous and similar experiences with tequila and Astroglide bolster this theorem. Schifrin is 100% correct when he describes this large portion of the Tuolumne drainage as remote: there are few places in the Sierra where one can feel so far from the madding crowd as in northwestern Yosemite.

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