7 a.m. on a Friday morning in July, and there we were in the parking lot by the ranger kiosk in Tuolumne Meadows, eating breakfast and packing our gear to head up the trail to Mt Lyell (13,114). But first we had stand in line to get our pre-reserved trail permit, which involved an amazing 1 hour and 20 minute wait while the ranger chatted with other hikers and answered the constantly ringing phone. Maybe they recruited him from the DMV.
Finally we obtained the precious scrap of paper, and the six of us headed up the trail -- leader Cecil Magliocco, her husband Paul, Tawna Wilsey, Janet Condino, Lenore Cymes, and myself (Jim Ramaker). The first 7 miles of the trail up Lyell Canyon are almost completely level -- probably the longest stretch of flat hiking in the Sierras. To add to our hiking pleasure, we looked up at peaks on both sides of the canyon, watched trout swim in the transparent waters of the Tuolumne River, and saw a deer with two tiny fawns barely bigger than house cats. We reached our camp at a footbridge at 10,000 feet by 2 p.m., and after pitching tents and resting a bit, Cecil, Paul, and I strolled up toward Donahue Pass. The clouds that had been building all day let loose around 5 p.m., but after a just a few minutes of hail and three or four deafening thunder claps, the storm broke up and left us with nearly perfect weather for the rest of the trip. Back at camp we cooked, socialized, and undertook the backwoods evening entertainment known as bear bagging. We found a couple of good bear trees near our camp, and apparently the bears agreed too because the tree trunks were scarred with hundreds of deep bear claw scratches. Amazingly, the bears didn't appear that night.
Next morning we were rolling by 6:45. We hiked up the trail through the woods, passed two beautiful lakes at timberline, and began working our way up the beautiful granite slabs between 11,000 and 12,000 feet. We hit the glacier about 10 and found it in perfect condition -- soft enough for comfortable footsteps and free of suncups. Soon we arrived at the Lyell-McClure saddle. We tried going directly up the rock on the west ridge of Lyell, but Cecil climbed 20 feet or so up the steep slabs and then said "Ummm, this is not third class."
So we traversed left on steep snow for a few hundred feet, climbed a snow gully that steepened to about 40 degrees, and then stepped off onto the rock, which gave very reasonable class 2-3 climbing up rubble-covered ledges. A small snowfield, a short walk up the summit ridge, and there we were. The weather was so nice we took a full hour to admire the view, eat lunch, read the register, and take hero photos on the detached pinnacle at the very edge of the vertical south face.
Then it was back to the saddle for a group pow-wow about Lyell's neighboring peak, Mt. McClure (12,960). Tawna and Janet decided that one mountain was enough, while Cecil, Paul, and I were eager to have a go at it. (Lenore had stayed in camp). McClure looks like kind of a crud heap from the saddle, but we were really fooled. The first half of the climb is on solid talus, and the second, steeper part offers fun third- class climbing on excellent dark grey rock spattered with bright yellow lichens. Toward the top, the ridge narrows to an airy knife edge, with more fun third-class. Round trip from the saddle took just one hour.
The rest of the trip offered more uninterrupted good times, with a leisurely descent down the slabs and snow, and another sociable evening in camp. A young lad dropped by to chat, and told us he was starting out to do the whole Muir Trail. Later conversation revealed he had no maps, no warm jacket, and lived in Marin County. Interesting. The long-awaited bears made their appearance that night, and we could hear people in the neighboring camp yelling and banging pots together. But for some reason, the bears never bothered us. Was it our expertly counterbalanced food bags? Tawna's ultra-healthy organic food? The boots we'd left outside to air out? We'll never know.
Sunday morning we drank lots of tea, packed up, and hiked out under cloudless skies through the beautiful meadows of Lyell Canyon.