A 24-Hour California High

7-8 Jun 2014 - by Mike Mcdermitt

After too many years away I have a free weekend in California (LA, to be precise). After rush hour on Friday I steer my rental car north up the 405 then the I-5. At dark I exit at Frazier Park and drive up to Chuchupate Campground, 6200', on Frazier Mountain for sleep and a bit of acclimatization.

Saturday morning is hot and sunny and am back on the road. After lunch I reach the Generals Highway and wind my way up to Sequoia National Park. The road is shorter than that to Mineral King but windier and steeper and I'm not sure which is worse. But, finally, arriving amongst the Big trees is incredibly relaxing and a sure sign that I am in the mountains, the real mountains, the Sierra Nevada.

After stopping at Lodgepole to get a permit, bear canister and map I drive up to Wolverton trailhead and start packing. The weather forecast is basically perfect - cloudless and mild temps up high, and from various sources it seems clear that snow will not be an issue. Of course, with only a large daypack, I can't do an overnight, and not being conditioned for 3,000 - 4,000 gain days, I can't do any significant peaks. But - the bear canister fits in the pack! Off to Alta Peak! I leave my sleeping bag and tent in the car and will sleep with all of my clothing and a light emergency type bivy. The pack still feels quite heavy carrying a far heavier load than it was designed for but I leave the trailhead (7360') by 3pm. The trail quickly reaches then follows along a ridge, very pleasant but steadily up, in the trees all the way. Before long I arrive at the Pear Lake trail junction (8070') and make a right towards Panther Gap. Another mile and I am at the gap, a low point on the divide overlooking the vast canyon of the Kaweah River Middle Fork. A light cool breeze and the outstanding view demand a short break. Castle Rocks beckons far across the valley. Continuing on, the trail winds along the south side of the divide gradually gaining altitude. Soon I pass another junction (8940'), the trail down to High Sierra Trail, and then shortly thereafter wind around a ridge and reach Mehrton Meadow, my destination for the evening. Mehrton Creek is flowing but there is not much meadow and it is occupied. I am tired from the altitude and heat but after a short rest locate a small sandy bench about 150' above the east side of the trail with views both east and west. The eastern panorama includes Triple Divide Peak, the Great Western Divide Peaks down to Mineral King and all of the Kaweahs. Southward is a perfect view of remote Cliff Creek canyon (connects Glacier Pass to Black Rock Pass) and much farther away Farewell Gap. Lower down are Hamilton Towers and Castle Rocks. Watching the alpenglow on The Black Kaweah at sunset under clear calm skies makes for a perfect ending to the day.

Sunday morning - I did not sleep well as it cooled overnight probably to the low-mid 40s, enough to make me regret not wearing my rainsuit in addition to the other layers. But it is calm and the high bench gets relatively early morning light so eventually I rise to enjoy the luxury of a cup of hot coffee. Despite a leisurely breakfast I am walking before 8am, leaving the bear canister hidden in a tree by the trail (MUST remember to retrieve it on the way back!). The peak is less than 3 miles away and only about 2200' up and walking is much easier with a lighter pack and another night of acclimatization. Soon rounding another ridge, Tharps Rock looms large high above. Before long another trail junction - straight to Alta Meadow, left to Alta Peak. I see a pair of packs sitting by the trail. I turn left and start towards the peak, the trail now steadily gaining altitude. A couple comes by, apparently the pack owners, after having summitted at sunrise. Rounding the ridge under Tharps Rock, the tremendous view visible from last night's campsite comes back into focus. This view accompanies me the rest of the way. Apart from the technicality of summitting, this is the best part of the trip and alone is worth the effort. Apropos I meet another two down-climbers, with camera equipment. Two mountain runners pass me - I will see them at the top (no idea how they will manage if a thunderstorm pops up).

The trail is quite good and grinds steadily upward. All of the little creeks have water. As I near the summit, Tharps Rock passes to my left and the summit of Alta comes into view. I summit about 10.30am. A marmot greets me as I scramble up the summit rocks. The sky remains clear but a steady cool breeze reminds me where I am. There are only a few snow banks along the Alta ridgeline. After signing the register - ammo box fits neatly in a rock hollow - I back off the summit then sit down for a bite. Somehow the 360 degree view, nice as it is, does not beat the view from the trail at 10,000'.

The hike back down is uneventful. Back at Mehrton Meadow I pick up the bear canister and repack. Continuing down, rapidly now, I get back to the car and 80s temps by mid-afternoon, concluding a very satisfying 24 hour sojourn. After returning the canister I proceed back down the mountain, driving slowly to admire the Sequoias. Later the next week at home back east, I am inspired to pull out some old guidebooks and there it is, splashed across the frontispiece and title page of JC Jenkins' Self-Propelled in the Southern Sierra, Volume 2 - a photo of a hiker on the trail to Alta Peak admiring the same view at roughly 10,000' that amazed me.

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