Sonora Pass

20 Jun 1998 - by Kelly Maas

Last weekend (June 20-21) I led a trip to Leavitt and Sonora Peaks, with the intent of allowing beginners to develop some proficiency in climbing snowy peaks. Indeed, this is a year that will demand more ice axe use than usual.

Our group of 12 climbers assembled Friday night and Saturday morning at Baker campground at Kennedy Meadows on Hwy 108. We were Ahmad Zandi, Greg Johnson, Patrick Cavender, Scott Benson, Tony Stegman, Mark Woolbright, Mike McDermitt, Landa Robillard, Sam Wilke, Nancy Fitzsimmons, Chris MacIntosh and myself (Kelly Maas). We day hiked Leavitt Peak, stopping along the way for an hour of self arrest practice in the soft snow. Everyone seemed to enjoy the practice, even my experienced helpers - Chris and Sam.

The trail wraps around the east side of Leavitt, but we chose to ignore it since it was burried in snow. Instead we headed straight for the north facing slope that descends from the west shoulder of the peak. Our numerous beginners probably wondered what we were doing, but it turned out to be mostly a matter of huffing and puffing our way to the top. Without the snow, however, it would have been a miserable scree slog - or worse.

An exciting glissade down this same slope started us on the way back to the cars at Sonora Pass, which we reached about 7:00. Everyone was tired, but especially those who had left home at 4:00 that morning. We retired to the campground for dinner and a well earned rest.

Sunday morning everyone was ready for more abuse, except for Mark, who chose to spend the day with his wife, who had remained in camp the day before. Stanislaus Peak looked very attractive, but wanting to avoid a mutiny, I limited the day's goals to Sonora Peak.

I had wanted to practice with crampons as well as ice axe, but the snow on Leavitt had been too soft to make them worthwhile. So I advised everyone that they could leave them behind for the climb of Sonora. Then as if to prove Murphy right, we actually found a patch of snow that was rather hard. We also found some steep snow slopes that I had not anticipated when viewing the peak from the road. This terrain was definitely a step or two above novice, and it resulted in some questions about what we were doing, but everyone did great. The slope eased off for the final stretch to the summit. Once again we saw snow in all directions, and had a much better view of the White Mountains than from Leavitt.

My "easier" descent was not, and was a good example of how difficult it can be to predict what a particular route will be like. But we all got down safely, and we all gained yet more experience. As I kept saying, "learn by doing." A few hours later we were all dining at Sonia's in Oakdale. The general consensus was that it was an instructive and fun weekend.

Many thanks to Sam and Chris for their assistance. It made all the difference.

A parting comment: 18 people tried to sign up for this trip, and that's more than I could handle. I strongly encourage other trip leaders to consider leading at least one "beginner" trip of some sort in the next year. It doesn't need to be a snow trip - anything will do. Team up with another leader to make things easier. I'll be glad to assist anyone in organizing such an outing.

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