Hey Wait, This Ain't Hamilton!

5 Mar 1995 - by Steve Eckert

(another in a series of trips with changed destinations...)

The Day Hikers aren't used to trip reports, but my March 5 trip was co-listed with the Peak Climbing Section and they have been bugging me to know how it went. We had a good mix of DHS and PCS members, and even a few people who had never hiked with the Sierra Club before.

It was a dark and stormy morning... really! The rain had let up from the day before, but the fog/clouds were thick around Grant Ranch at our 8am start. Some climbers reported glimpses of the peak during their drive to the trailhead, so we thought the clouds would dissipate during the day. Right! Sure!

We detoured around some of the soggy cow pie trails that make Grant Ranch so fun, giving our 17 hikers a chance to get their feet wet in the dew-covered grass. (OK, I took a wrong turn, but almost nobody noticed.) Fully enveloped in the clouds, we watched the altimeters carefully, and left the Digger Pine trail heading for Smith Creek. No wrong turns this time! The descent was relatively clear of brush, with an exciting post-rain stream crossing.

OK so far. I had the compass out, and I was matching terrain features all the way to the stream. Relieved that it had worked (meaning my failure to scout the route was forgiven), we put away the compass and map, and swarmed up the grassy south slopes of a ridge that lead to Mt Hamilton. It should be noted that we went to the right of my intended route, but it looked easier, and several (forever nameless) members of the group pushed hard to avoid traversing left. Finally we were on the cross-country route for which the University had given us a permit.

About an hour later, the terrain started looking wrong. I had been up Hamilton before, and I never saw picnic tables with fire extinguishers and extension cords hanging from nails on the trees. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore! Pulling out the map again, we decided to have lunch and figure out just how far off course we were. There were really no points of reference, since the fog had never lifted. The valleys in local hills are not distinct in shape like most places in the Sierra, but the direction of the ridge gave us a clue... and then the clouds parted. We could finally see the 1000' valley between us and the intended peak.

Don't tell anybody, but we were almost to the peak of Mt Isabel, which is east of Hamilton. An honest mistake, but a mistake none the less. Chris Macintosh had the topo map NEXT to the one we should have needed, which showed a possible route over the peak and around some jeep trails to the back side of Mt Hamilton.

With plenty of capable leaders on hand, we split the group after we all summited Mt Isabel (4200', slightly higher than Mt Hamilton, but lower than our other intended summit of Copernicus). The hard-core never-give-up group headed down the far side of Mt Isabel, while the more reasonable group re-traced their steps to the cars. After a short distance, the hard-cores found themselves at a wall of brush. Jeff Fisher spotted a firebreak, and began crashing his way over to it, ostensibly to scout the route. The rest of us realized that he was out of sight and almost out of earshot, so we followed reluctantly.

The firebreak turned out to be connected to a road, and after some disagreement on whether the road would be faster, we again followed Jeff's leave-you-behind lead down the fire break into the valley. (Whose trip WAS this, anyway?) The route turned out to be a good one, and we crossed the stream about 800' below the peak. From there out, it was all fire road and paved road to the summit, where we dutifully filed through the observatory and listened to the droning recording of how the wonderful scientists sign up months in advance to use the big telescope.

We took the correct cross-country route down the mountain to Smith Creek, then headed out to the road since it was getting dark. We got to the cars just before flashlights were required. The clouds finally lifted, as if to taunt us, and we drove home hoping no one would pick on us for getting lost. After about 5 email and phone requests for a full recounting of the tale, I offer this advice: Don't put away the compass just because you are past the tough part! You'll never live it down.

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