Sawtooth Ridge and Environs

16-19 Aug 2003 - by Douglas Smith

"Look Joe, there's a guy lying here."

When, at midnight on Friday August 15th, I had finally parked my little car--looking pathetically urban and out of place on a turnout along Mono County's Little Walker River Road--I felt I had accomplished the first challenge in any Sierra climbing trek: where to unobtrusively pass the night (i.e., sleep on the ground until the USFS counter staff shows up at work in the morning) before I lace up my boots in the dawn and get cracking. But as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss: there are whole worlds that reveal themselves to us at the most unexpected moments. On this occasion it was a reminder of a youthful, formative time when I did pay attention to when deer season takes place. This small fact of the regulatory calendar explained why the traffic along this small Forest Service road suddenly spiked roughly an hour before sunrise, why two outlandishly camouflaged dudes in a shiny Ford Expedition had pulled up next to my outspread ground-cloth after I'd managed to grab four hours of shuteye, and why Joe's friend made what to me sounded like a surreally obvious comment: opening day of hunting season in the Toiyabe National Forest. But in parking next to me, I'm certain these guys must've intuited my impeccable wildlife mojo getting cranked up, for this turned out to be the inauspicious debut to a weekend filled with magical animal encounters as well as memorable summits attained.

Thankful for the simplicity of my own alpine couture, I wished Joe and his pal the best of luck and, knowing there was no chance I'd get any more sleep, cooked up breakfast for myself before driving to the Green Lakes trailhead to start my first trip to the Sawtooth Ridge region. The only notable occurrence of that morning's entry hike over Virginia Pass was an encounter with an overweight man who exhibited some frightening signs of physical collapse: glassy eyes, bloody mouth, anxious inquiries about the distance to the trailhead. After I answered his questions (his diffident teen companion looking bored all the while), I plodded on, my focus on my own goals clouded by retrospective doubt as to whether I should have offered more assistance to this man--who at least had had the courage to come here in the first place--and if he'd ever leave the Barcalounger again after he was safely home.

Once I'd reached a beautiful camp near the outlet of Return Lake--a large, gorgeous bit of water nestled beneath what would soon be the familiar east escarpment of Virginia Peak--I reveled in the knowledge that I had two full days ahead of me to do nothing but explore the higher reaches of all these monoliths towering above me. Oh, would that flatland life were like this! On the first day, although I had ambitious summit goals none of them were outside the tight little cirque ringing the western inlet streams of my scenic lake. Hiking under blue skies and a daytime moon, I headed toward Stanton Pass and the "easy class 3" route to the top of Virginia described in my 1st edition of Secor. Just upstream of Return Lake there is an example of a recessional moraine which is so perfectly-shaped as to deserve an illustration in a first-year geology textbook. Stanton Pass is easy to get to, and once there the most likely class 3 route to Virginia's summit appeared to follow an ascending ledge system crossing the buttressed east face from about 11,300' to 11600'. Despite the constant airy sensation induced by the sight of the tiny blue dot of my tent far beneath me, this reasonably safe traverse continued to a third small buttress where I found an unnervingly teetering chockstone the size of an SUV that I had to surmount to see what ensued. What ensued was a tiny foxtail pine clinging to the cliff, and from there the only possible class 3 route going straight upward. Had there not been so much loose metamorphic rock littering every bit of terra firm, perhaps this could really have been a way to go. But since the friable choss comprising this otherwise majestic spire made any potential footholds almost liquid, one might re-classify this as "death-wish class 3". This impression was immediately enhanced by the always-disconcerting experience of dislodging small stones, that fall to dislodge larger ones, which then induce distant, minor rockslides that--in their remoteness, dust, and invisibility--produce those thoughts about how valuable life truly is, and how I wish certain parts of my anatomy didn't contract so in these settings. For me at least, this was inarguably a sign that this face should not be soloed, a decision made easier by the presence of other, more easily-climbed peaks along this small massif: Stanton, Grey Butte and Peak 11,529' above Spiller Lake. When I saw the opposite side of Virginia Peak on the next day, my best guess is that the purported 3rd class route from Stanton Pass actually requires a crossing of that pass into Spiller Canyon and a traverse almost all the way north to Twin Peaks Pass, where the NW slope appears to be easy. The other three mountains ahead of me that day were easy, nondescript climbs topped out with fabulous panoramas of the high Tuolumne country of northeast Yosemite. Grey Butte is surely the most conically-shaped peak south of the Cascades, and worth the time. None of these three mountains have a summit register.

Like a lamb to the slaughter, on my second full day of exploring I returned to my old habit of choosing peaks with long approach hikes, so I headed one canyon West towards Matterhorn. I had an avid desire to climb the mountain that Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder had been up, as recounted in Kerouac's hilarious Dharma Bums. Heading toward Twin Peaks Pass at dawn, a sudden "thump" startled me a split second before I saw a huge mule deer buck bounding into a meadowy sidehill, weaving between boulders resembling monstrous versions of after dinner mints--the ones that usually come wrapped in green foil and are found near the diner cash register. This majestic stag was immediately followed by no fewer than ten other big bucks, who followed the alpha male loping through this flowery alpine expanse. As this small herd trotted away across the green valley, I was thankful I wasn't too busy parking my SUV or loading ammo to just stand and watch them stop and turn their heads and velveted horns to check on me. Good thing, I thought, that these eleven potential targets were inside the park boundary and thus out of range of the sportsman's abattoir.

Twin Peaks Pass is everything I'd heard it to be--a glorified sandpile--yet it still manages to be gorgeous, and as I reached the top to see the breathtaking view of Matterhorn and its canyon, a basso-profundo "kerthunk" prompted me to turn around just in time to see a huge piece of the glacier calve into Lake 11,020'. Large concentric waves marched across the water with a uniformity made even more beautiful by how they mirrored the arc of the half moon above and the circularity of the small basin in which I stood. The scenery of Upper Spiller Creek may even surpass Virginia Canyon's, with its integument of floral color, smattering of stunted conifers, and Whorl Mtn.'s impressive east face. It resembled an alpine version of the "poppies" scene in The Wizard of Oz, and I did entertain the temptation to forget Matterhorn's SE slope and take a nap. In his book R.J. Secor again lets his opinions get the better of him in describing this route, which in his view is dominated by the sandy slog up the lower slopes. But the upper 200 meters offer the enjoyably protean task of picking a 3rd class line to get to the small summit plateau, which I made even more interesting by getting slightly off-route, and then by forgetting to note the way down after signing the mass of loose papers that passes as a summit register.

Going back to Return Lake camp, the extraordinarily beautiful blue-green boulders that artistically scatter the meadows beneath Twin Peaks' west slope distracted this rock-hound author long enough to obviate any desire for an attempt on Virginia's easy side. Not bagging Virginia gives me an excellent excuse to come back, as if I needed to think of one. I also ate lunch with the companionship of a family of grouse. Three young chicks curiously approached within a couple of feet of me while the stressed-out hen stood well back, issuing warning calls. Typical mother.

I woke early on my last day to make a dawn attempt on Twin Peaks, the Sawtooth Ridge's highpoint, via the south gully. This route can be described simply: interminable scree followed by endless talus and completed by a summit which is preceded by at least three false ones. Nonetheless I was on top by 9:15 am and lingered only briefly to savor my 50th Sierra summit before a speedy descent and a quick march back over Virginia Pass to the car. A delicious au naturel dunking in one of Green Creek's beaver ponds added to the sense of total fulfillment after this trip through pristine, deer-filled landscapes.

To file a trip report, please fill in the Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.