We met at 7am on a balmy morning at road's end in Cedar Grove. I was really looking forward to not having to camp on snow for the first time this year - it was the 10th of August after all, and Cedar Grove trailheads had been reported to have a higher snow line than most. Participants were Steve Eckert (leader), Karl Josephs, Suzanne Remien, and Aaron Schuman (coleader).
The rangers here insist on each member of the group hearing a pep talk about bears and fires and all that, but they were not there at the scheduled opening time. We got a somewhat later start, but still completed the 15+ miles to the far end of East Lake by 6pm.
Bear boxes abound at East Lake, as do the bears! We watched two walk through camp before dark, and Steve got to test his new bear-resistant cannister when another kicked it around several hours later. If you want to test your technique, this is the place: We heard stories of properly hung food being taken, food hung over a cliff being pulled up and taken, even a bear following his favorite targets to a new campsite when they tried to get out of range.
The next morning we left the trail between Reflection and East lakes, heading between the Minster and Ericsson Crags to drop our packs for an attempt on Deerhorn. We never did match up the route with what we saw: This mountain is "feature rich and view deficient" according to Karl. You never know if you're really in the right chute! Two of us got close enough to see the twin peaks, but it was late in the afternoon and it was getting vertical enough to want a rope so we backed off.
Retrieving the packs, we camped below Harrison Pass, which was climbed easily the next morning. Crampons were not used, and all chose to stay on the rock except one fool who wanted a little practice chopping steps on steep icy snow. I sure wished I had put on the crampons by the top, but the runout was safe and it was good practice.
Ericsson was a straightforward climb (3rd class from the east side) and has stunning views into several drainages. The top has one or two tricky moves, but nothing too bad. Aaron and Suzanne then headed around Caltech Peak by way of Lake South America. This route is very easy walking, and seems to have few visitors even though the snow is gone. Steve and Karl stomped up the class 2 slopes of Gregorys Monument, the south summit of Mt. Stanford, after agreeing to meet the advance team below Forester pass by the next morning at the latest (full moon and all).
From the south summit, the route to the higher north summit does not really match either Roper or Secor: Roper says to stay "on the east side of the classic knife-edge ridge", which is fine advice for about 10 feet. Secor mentions the chockstone and suggests descending to a ledge on the east side, but forgets to mention that those two things don't happen next to each other! The ledge starts quite a ways north of the chockstone, and drops sharply downward before turning up again to bring you back to what becomes a true knife edge ridge where the climbing gets much easier.
We agreed that this climb has some of everything, from chickenheads and cracks to chimneys and even the chance to crawl along a ledge under a low overhang. It is tougher than you might expect, because on the way UP to the peak most of the tough moves are done DOWNCLIMBING onto or along the ledge. Coming back is much easier and you can't get off route. I thought the climb was more rewarding than Ericsson, but the views are not as good as you might expect from a 13963 foot peak.
The Stanford crew never caught the advance team, and made camp separately about 8:30pm along the John Muir Trail just west of Diamond Mesa. We all got together the next morning at the lakes below Forester Pass, where the advance team had frozen overnight. It was cold enough for toe heaters in the boots, and we had to chip through the overnight ice to pump water out of the lake.
Climbing to Forester Pass (13200 feet) we encountered some snow, but the trail is clear for the most part. The Polemonium is in bloom and abundant enough that you don't have to lean over to smell it. From Forester, we hopped over the hill to Ski Mountaineer's Pass and headed up Junction Peak. There is no clearly good choice between these passes, but the rock is more stable higher up (as we found out on the way back).
Junction Peak has two summits, and we had little trouble getting to the higher north peak by skirting many towers and ridges on the right south side of the main west ridge. If you cut too far south too soon, you'll wind up in a slabby bowl, but it's pretty obvious how to get around and there are no exposed moves required. From the high point, which has no register, we started to wonder if the other summit was closer to the junction of the ridges (and therefore might be the TRUE peak). I did the airy traverse just to see, and found a small film can with two scraps of paper. I returned it to the USGS benchmark on the higher peak by way of ledges below and west of the airy ridge. Anyone planning to climb Junction Peak should take a better register!
Still on our fourth day, we hoisted our packs again and headed back down into Bug Land (we tried to do Manhattan Transfer and Paul Simon take-offs on BugLand, but none are worth mentioning here - or did I just mention them?). Camp was just east of East Vidette along the JMT. We stayed away from the crowds around the bear boxes, choosing to hang our trash and stuff everyone's remaining food in my bear cannister. No visitors this night, aside from clouds of mosquitos so thick they got stuck on your spoon while you were trying to eat.
Suzanne had found a log jam across the creek at just the right place to climb slabs to the bowl south east of East Vidette, so Karl and I headed out of camp around 6am to climb it. A nice easy finish to a pretty hard trip. Roper forgets to mention the scree chutes that Secor notes, so he calls it class 3. Secor, on the other hand, seems to imply that the chute goes all the way to the top (which it does not). You can loop around onto the north face for the last few feet and pretend it's a class 2 climb without too much of a stretch, but we stayed on the solid rock for the ascent. If you go straight up from the chute, you're on class 4 getting to the peak from where you hit the ridge.
The hike out was about 18 miles with packs, which pushed us to a 10 hour day including the peak climb. Signs along the trail show the distance not changing after over an hour of hiking, so trust the trail guides and maps, not the signs! The showers at Cedar Grove had long lines, so we all jumped in the stream. The advance team apparently was video taped by tourists, but the peak baggers had the stream to themselves.
Looking back on the trip, the variety was greater than I expected. Each peak had its own type of rock: Deerhorn is fractured with Hail Mary holds everywhere, Ericsson is mostly boulders stacked on each other, Stanford has a single long ledge that lowers the climb from class 4-5 to class 3, Junction is a little more slabby, and East Vidette is rapidly eroding granite that looks almost like sandstone in places. The valleys and plants below each are just as distinct, making for a very interesting loop. I highly recommend it, and would like to hear from anyone who knows the secret class 3 route up Deerhorn!