Once upon a time, access to the Sierra was not restricted by quotas. With almost assured solitude, one could embark upon a wilderness outing in a spontaneous fashion.
Nowadays, 800 numbers, FAX machines and VISA cards pave the way to our lovely and benign mountains. And with the population of California increasing each year by the size of San Francisco and expected to double within 40 years, it isn't going to get any easier to visit our limited wilderness.
So what're you going to do?
Of these, the last two offer the best choices for spontaneous outings. Learn to ski or buy some snowshoes and you'll get to enjoy what many experienced backcountry enthusiasts say is the best time to be in the Sierra. And late September or early October is usually a wonderful time to visit the mountains.
But for those midsummer trips, when permits are scarce, consider the day hike. With a few exceptions, notably the Whitney Zone, it is possible to freely visit any part of the Sierra that your feet can take you in a "day". Exactly how one (or the parks and forest service) defines a day isn't clear. Less than 24 hours to be sure, but for many destinations, it does means stretching the limits of daylight a bit. Warren Storkman's and Steve Eckert's Mt. Clark day hikes come to mind.
Sure it's wonderful to camp in the mountains, but travelling unencumbered, in tennis shoes and with a daypack, and a cooler of beer waiting in your car at the end of the day, also has its appeal. Tony Cruz, with his recent Rock Creek day peak plans, appears to share this idea.
With this in mind, I set out recently for a day hike of North Palisade. I had attempted the U Notch a couple weeks earlier with a friend, but had been turned around above the chimney by icy winds.
I remembered how lousy I had felt at 14,000' two years ago on a day hike of Middle Palisade. So this time, I spent a lazy afternoon on an abbreviated traverse of the Cathedral Range. Scrambling up the three peaks of the Unicorn, all but the southern lobe of the Cockscomb, about half of the Echo Ridge and finally the Muir route on Cathedral Peak gave me the acclimatization I felt I'd need for the next day.
Unfortunately, I'd neglected to leave much time for sleep. When the alarm woke me at 2:30am, I wasn't very happy. Off by 3:15am, I was distressed by how heavy my eyelids felt as I stared ahead at the little yellow circle my headlamp produced. By 6:00am, I arrived in Sam Mack Meadow and realized I was too sleepy to continue. I ducked behind a rock to escape the chilly wind, zipped up my jacket and curled up in the dirt and pine needles for a 15 minute catnap (a la Tony Cruz). In minutes I was deeply dreaming...
Blink! Oh no! It's almost 7am! I thought I'd blown it and figured I'd just go up on the glacier and call it nice hike. But when I arrived, I saw four figures headed for the U Notch couloir. Maybe I wasn't so late after all? Seeing other people provided the stimulation I needed to get going.
By the time I caught up to them, we were all at the U Notch. They were a nice quartet of Washington climbers, on a two week Sierra peak bagging bonanza. I had considered soloing the Chimney -- I had climbed it two weeks earlier and knew it to be mostly fourth class and reasonably solid. But I decided it was wiser to play it safe. As the two pairs started up the chimney, I put on my rock shoes and headed up the Clyde variation. "Easy fourth class", said the book -- just my speed for soloing. Other than one "hang your butt out while gripping loose looking blocks" move, it was pretty easy and I was soon chatting with the first Washingtonian at the top of the Chimney.
Exposed third class led to the wonderful sunny summit. It was just a little after 10:30am. I spent a lazy hour there, chatting with the foursome after they arrived. Soon we all descended. I'd brought a 50m rope, figuring I'd rap the chimney and do a little downclimbing. But with my new friends and our combined three ropes, we all shared a quick rap back to the notch.
Slippery downclimbing in the couloir, horrendous sun cups on the glacier, and then a long trudge down the trail brought me to that cooler of beer at about 6pm.
I tried to find a campground with a shower, but was dismayed when asked to pay $1 per 7 minutes of hot water. Opting instead to "shower" with a Nalgene bottle of water, I retired to the Buttermilks and spent a lovely night bathed by warm winds under the moonlit face of Mt. Humphreys.