Well hidden at the upper end of a trailless valley in Yosemite, 22 miles from the nearest trailhead, lies Mt. Ansel Adams (11,770). That was our objective as we gathered at the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead on a sparkling Thursday morning at the start of the Fourth of July weekend. The group consisted of John Flinn, Patty Haight, Ron Lebard, Ted Raczek, Jeff West, Kai Wiedman (leader), Phyllis Olrich (co-leader), and me (Jim Ramaker).
We left at 8:30 and hiked up through the beautiful meadows and open forests of the Rafferty Creek trail. As we passed Vogelsang Lake around 1 p.m., one member of the party came down with severe stomach cramps and agreed to drop out of the trip -- a wise choice as things only got tougher from that point on. From Vogelsang Pass we descended 2500 feet on the Lewis Creek trail, feeling the heat a bit as we hiked through forests and across granite slabs. Halfway down the valley, we passed the spectacular 800-foot Lewis Creek cascade on the south wall of the valley.
By 5 p.m., we'd covered 12 miles and were tired and ready to camp. Plus we faced a 1000-foot 3-mile climb to the next camp with water. But we had to get closer to the peak if we were going to tackle it the next afternoon as planned -- we were still about 10 miles away. So there was nothing else for it but to shoulder our packs and head up. "I will follow him..." sang Phyllis, endlessly repeating the lyrics from a 1960's pop song. "Think of something we can argue about," said someone else. We fell into a disjointed argument about social security, medicare, radio talk shows, and whether the talk show host Dr. Dean Edell is really a fascist. Before we knew it, two hours had passed, and we were setting up camp by a creek in the woods on the Cony Crags trail.
Phyllis amused us after supper by sharing her plan to open a sexual counseling service for women, and by breaking out sparklers for a frenzied Fourth of July fireworks display. Another typical PCS trip.
Friday morning we broke camp and headed up the trail toward the elusive and still unseen peak. About 10:30 we found a beautiful camp by a waterfall, just where the trail starts to descend into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River. We hung our food, set up tents, packed daypacks, and headed up valley, finally free of our backpacks after about 19 miles of hiking. We could now see the peak at the head of the valley, bell- shaped, steep on all sides, and still far away.
We hiked across vast granite slabs and past a marshy, flooded area with clouds of hungry mosquitoes. A huge bald eagle took off from the marsh as we approached. At this point John Flinn decided to return to camp, and Jeff West attempted to cross the river, which a ranger had said would be one of the hardest challenges of our trip. Crossing a wide, shallow- looking area, Jeff was soon in water above his waist, and we left him behind and headed up valley to escape the mosquitoes. Around 12:30 we finally began gaining elevation on steep granite slabs and ledges, and the peak started coming within range. Some of us were getting tired, but not Kai. "Every muscle fiber in your body is getting stronger with every step," he roared as we plodded uphill. "It's the seventh game of the World Series, tie game, two out, last of the ninth, and you're up. What are you gonna do?" he screamed at us.
Soon we arrived at the alpine lake under the north face of Ansel Adams and were finally able to cross the river. Here we made the first of three critical route-finding decisions, and had we made any of the three differently, we probably wouldn't have summited. Spurning the advice of the guidebooks to circle around the right side of the peak, Kai had us climb a steep snowfield to the left. Then 600 or 700 feet up, the snowfield split into two snow gullies, with the right branch steep and littered with fresh rockfall. "Which way?" I yelled down to Kai. "Right," he yelled back instantly.
Some members of our party were inexperienced on steep snow, and one person took a short fall, knocking another person over in the process. But no harm done, and soon we were on a saddle with nothing but steep rock to our right, between us and the summit. To find the class-3 south face route described in the guide books, it looked like we'd have to descend several hundred feet into a snow basin and circle around.
Here we made the third fortuitous routefinding decision. "Descend hell," said Kai, climbing over a rib of rock on our right to inspect a hidden gully. After some silence came the clatter of falling rock, then Kai's voice: "Class 2 -- it goes!" Sure enough -- the hidden gully angled up like a staircase for a couple hundred feet back toward the north face. We scrambled up it, and at the top, climbed a class-3 slot on mediocre holds. A baseball-sized rock knocked loose by one of the new people on the trip whizzed past my face and bounced off my arm, and then Kai's rendition of the theme from "Rocky" wafted down to us from above. Success!
The six of us crowded together on the exposed summit ridge, and ate our snacks, took photos, and read the summit register, which listed only two ascents in 1995 and one (besides ours) in 1996. To the north, the sharp pyramids of Mt. Lyell and Rogers Peak thrust into the sky, and between us and them lay the remote alpine basin south of Mt. Lyell with its dozens of tiny lakes, all of them still frozen.
We departed about 4 p.m., circling around the south side of the peak to circumnavigate it and take the standard route down. It was another good choice -- we got in some great standing glissades on soft, easy-angled snowfields. Of the class-3 south face route described in both Roper and Secor, we saw no sign whatsoever. The entire south face appears to be a steep, loose, class-5 horror, and the saddle we climbed to appears to offer the only non-technical way up the peak. A special gear note: Ted Raczek pioneered some radical alpine footwear on this trip -- running shoes for the long hike in, and high rubber galoshes (like grade school children wear) for snow and water crossings. What the hell -- he summited.
On the way back to camp, we stayed high on the north side of the valley in order to get some additional exercise climbing up and down granite buttresses and doing an adventurous stream crossing or two. Toward camp, we walked for over half a mile on gently angled, sensuously polished granite slabs, finally arriving in camp about 7:45.
Saturday morning we had breakfast in our beautiful "kitchen," at the top edge of the granite slabs that sloped down many hundreds of feet to the bottom of the valley. To our right, the creek that formed the waterfall near camp cascaded down these slabs. We hiked out about 10 a.m. and retraced the 12-mile hike to Vogelsang Lake via the Cony Crags and Lewis Creek trails. At Vogelsang Pass around 5 p.m., I split off to do Vogelsang Peak, a fun 1 1/2 hour round-trip climb, marred only by clouds of hungry mosquitoes right at the summit.
That evening we rejoined the person we'd left behind on the first day, and camped spread out over a wide area on the granite slabs near the outlet of Vogelsang Lake -- a beautiful camp that catches the last of the evening sun. In the morning, we woke to find that a bear had stolen all of our food. It was hung well off the ground, but the bear simply climbed out on the limb and snapped it off under his body weight. Two members of our party said they had heard him sniffing around before the crime, but were too scared to do anything -- a bad mistake.
So it was with empty stomachs but with still soaring spirits that we hiked out the remaining 7 miles, for a well-deserved lunch at the Tuolumne Meadows store at 11:30 a.m. Thanks go to Kai and Phyllis for organizing the trip, and to Kai for his uncanny routefinding on the peak -- an elusive gem of the Yosemite backcountry.