The Three Sisters

5 Aug 1995 - by Pat Ibbetson

During the summer of '95 I spent almost every day hiking around the meadows of the Sierra National Forest. For two weeks at a time I trudged around in the swamps of the west side looking for cattle activities, the whole time being taunted by the giant snow-capped peaks rising to the east. After spending two weeks at a time searching for the elusive Alpinus Bovinus Californicus the last thing I wanted to do was drive back up into the hills on my day off, but that's what I did...

Abiding the laws as set forth in the Constitution, I left home late but the long drive to the Willow Meadow trailhead didn't take too long. When I arrived at the turnoff for the Swamp OHV trail, I abandoned plans to hike in on the trails and decided to take the OHV trail. The trail along Dinkey Creek appeared to still be covered in the year's record snowfall, while the jeep trail was snow-free. Although the southern side is twice as steep as the north, I would still save time by avoiding snow.

The OHV trail begins by dropping 350 feet down to meet Dinkey Creek, which was raging like mad when I crossed it, getting wet in the process. The creek would certainly get worse in the afternoon. The trail then drops down to another creek. From here I turned left onto the southernmost road leading to the Rainbow Mine, passing some old buildings, pausing to investigate a little, and then headed up the ridge. At the 9,400 ft level I mistakenly continued in a southeasterly direction instead of making the turn north and headed to the top of peak 9,688 thinking it was the western Sister.

Once I realized my mistake, I headed north, sidehilling along the main ridge, passing the largest Sierra Juniper I'd ever seen. If I hadn't known better, I would've thought it to be larger than a Sequoia. Although the map shows the southern slopes as being forested, it is actually populated by chinquapin and large slabs of bright white granite that got larger and steeper as I got higher.

Just as it appeared as though I was running into a dead end, I came upon an exceptionally easy way up to the saddle between the eastern Sister (10,612) and the middle Sister (10,438). Without taking time to stop, I headed southeast up the ridge, picking my way through the giant blocks. Near the very top it got surprisingly easy again and I walked up what looked like a use trail coming from the north. Along the last stretch is where I got my first good views, which were absolutely amazing. At the top, I found a banana slice emerging from a small patch of snow.

The panorama of peaks is perhaps unmatched anywhere in the western Sierra. The list of peaks could go on forever. The most prominent included Red Mountain, Kaiser, and Black Peak in the immediate vicinity. Mt Givens (10,648) rose slowly to the north with a flat rocky summit showing prominently under the dark mountains to the north, with Lyell, Banner, Ritter, and the Mineretts clearly visible. The striking spire on the giant south slope of Givens that rises above Lakecamp Lake (a meadow with a small tarn, not to be confused with Lakecamp Meadow, also with a small tarn, both along Lakecamp Creek....) was quite visible as its ultra white granite pierced the sky framed by the dark metamorphic mountains and lush green forests in the background. If anyone has climbed this spire, or would be interested in trying, please let me know. The north ridge appears to be class 3, with some exposure.

To the east was a never-ending panorama of gigantic pyramidal mountains, Mt. Goddard stealing the show as it rose darkly above the navy blue waters of Courtright reservoir. Nelson, Eagle and Brown were all socked in a deep coat of white to the south, and Dogtooth Peak, which rose right below was just emerging from winter with most of the surrounding lakes, was still frozen over. To the far south was Spanish Mountain and the peaks of Sequoia, which were all still buried in winter.

As I rested and had lunch, a marmot appeared from under some rocks and joined me. Some time later he ran off quickly and hid somewhere. While looking for him I saw two people making their way up a class 2 rib that was barely showing through all of the snow. When they made it up, we chatted for a while. I was mainly interested in the conditions of the lakes below, where I would be spending the next couple of months. The older of the two wanted to know all of the peaks so I whipped out my extra large "official use only" map and we took compass shots to all of the prominent ones, while he warned me of the mosquitos that lurk under the dark canopy of the lodgepole forest below. He said he has been up here a few times before, but he had only been up the taller one. I offered to take them along with me but he declined, reluctant to take his son up the more difficult rock of the other peaks.

As soon as they appeared, they were headed back down to camp. I then packed up and headed down the ridge aiming for the next peak to the west. This being the first big mountain I had done of the year, and the first solo, I was a little hesitant as I pulled myself up the giant blocks of the middle sister. When on the summit, I noticed the blocks to the north seemed higher, so I climbed back down and ascended them. To my surprise the blocks to the south appeared higher. Although I couldn't locate the benchmark, I climbed both towers so I was safe to move on, albeit a little shaken from the downclimb. Even though it was only 10 feet, I was all alone and in rugged country. A fall would have made my great day into a dire situation.

I quickly approached the western peak, and after climbing its tower found the benchmark, not being fooled by other nearby rocks. My route was clear, so I headed west, climbing over at least 3 smaller peaks (Six Sisters anyone?). Once I entered the dense westside forest I quickly felt lost. Somehow I managed to end up hiking down next to the creek draining Rainbow and Eastern Brook lakes which brought me back to the buildings. From here I hiked down the northern road back to the OHV trail. At this point in time I was dead tired. Climbing over all of the blocks on the ridge had drained my energy, and the mosquitos were coming out in full force as it got cooler.

Just as I began having thoughts of quitting, the uphill slope killing my out of shape legs, a group of jeeps appeared downhill. I was reluctant to ask for help as one jeep drove passed. The second jeep stopped and out hopped one of my high school classmates who was on a fishing trip with his father, who had a very nice jeep with some big equipment racks in back. Yes! I stowed my pack, jumped in and was spared the two miles back to my car, which would have been brutal. My feet were killing me, for I wore my work boots more suited to the trail. Sturdy climbing boots are a definite must for a painless attempt of the western two Sisters. After arriving at the gate, which was locked, (Guess who had a key....) I thanked my friend profusely and then relaxed in the car. As I recall, the OHV trail was actually closed (which would explain the gate) but I was more than willing to keep the secret in exchange for the ride. The trip home was a bumpy one, but the ice cream at the Shaver Lake Chevron made everything better. From here it was another 45 minutes or so, which I made in time for a great dinner...

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