Virginia Peak

27 Aug 1999 - by Mike Huhn

We started from our camp along the outlet stream of Return Lake (unnamed on map) at 10,350' under the southeast face of Virginia Peak on a marvelously sunny day after spending the prior afternoon in our tents and hastily constructed tarp shelters trying to enjoy hot soup and wondering if the rain would ever cease. It just did not appear to be one of those typical Sierra afternoon blow-over storms.

We were Scott Huhn, Jeff Mierczynski, and Mike Huhn. We left behind, at camp, Jim Myers to fish, read his book, and indulge in self-pity over his acrophobia. He actually served as a new novelty to the climbing party by maintaining radio contact with us via a pair of newly acquired PFR's (personal family radios) making their backcountry debut on this trip.

Our ascent proceeded eastward past the lake an up the saddle between Stanton Peak and Gray Butte along the cross-country route towards Stanton pass. Before reaching the pass we veered right on to a series of granite ledges stair stepping up the southeast flank of Stanton. We continued right yet upward and finally crested the ridge between Viginia and Stanton. Upon peering over the other side we noted the ridge's north face appeared to be much more precipitous than the south which we had just ascended. A glance at Virginia revealed no readily ascertainable class 2 route that would justify making the north face descent only to start a climb of Virginia from a more northerly approach. So we proceeded along the ridge.

The ridge soon became narrow, impassable and was blocked knife like precipices that would have demanded class 4 up, down and around climbing to reach Virginia. We therefore chose a route under and to the South of the ridge and proceeded ever cautiously knowing that as we traversed eastward we were approaching steeper and steeper terrain as Virginia transitioned from gray and speckled granite to the more fragile red-brown shale like rock visible from our camp below. This change of rock vertically bisects the peak from top to bottom as one views it from the South.

My caution did not however seem to be shared by brother Scott who scampered ahead of Jeff (who's knees were shaking by now) and me. We crossed into three or four couloirs before we finally caught site of him starting a vertical ascent up a steep couloir with shale hand holds breaking away as he ascended. After some discussion as to whether this was the best route and puzzlement over where Secor's easy class 2 route might be we elected to continue, despite the exposure and lack of a rope.

If one should choose to follow our route, I can only recommend extreme caution. Each step and handhold must be tested before proceeding. The rock has eroded such that fragments are positioned vertically and are not well rooted in the surrounding base rock. I unfortunately broke rock loose while testing on at least a half dozen occasions and yelled "rock" as a warning to Jeff below and cautiously askew of my vertical line.

Finally after a couple of false summits we were rewarded with the triumphant yodel of Scott on the 12,001' summit and soon found ourselves beside him taking in the magnificent view. There were a few high clouds amidst predominately blue skies and all of the northern Yosemite Peaks surrounding us. We marveled at Whorl Mountain, the Matterhorn, Twin Peaks, Camiaca Peak and Dunderberg. But were especially enthralled with the view of Conness and its glacier to the south, which the three of us had summited in the summer of 1997. Conness' neighbor North Peak and the beauty of Shepherd's Crest was similarly awe-inspiring.

We found the summit flat and comfortable and according top the register entries we were only the eighth party of the season on top. One entry from May mentioned a very skiiable descent on the North Face and upon inspection we discovered the snowfield existed even in late August bottoming out at a semi-frozen tarn at 11,100 between Virginia and Twin Peaks. The summit also provided an opportunity to take advantage of a digital cellular phone signal and make a couple of calls home. We even linked Jim, at base camp, via a radio and cellular relay to his wife in Southern California.

One should also note, the East flank of Virginia is marked by two peaks, which to the uninformed, as one of the horse packers we met in the Return Creek valley told us, is sometimes mistaken as Twin Peaks. The true Twin Peaks don't look much like twins at all from the Virginia or Southern side. Their name is an obvious reference to the view from the Northern, Bridgeport side of the Matterhorn crest.

We thankfully discovered the real class 2 ascent to Virginia to be on the Northwestern side of the peak and eagerly chose this descent over retracing our ascent route. The descent took us down to the saddle between Virginia and Twin Peaks and due to the hour of the day we elected to forego another summit attempt and make our way back to camp.

Dropping down from the Virginia Twin Saddle we traversed right back towards the Virginia north face snowfield and had an enjoyable glissade despite the sun cups. We of course cautiously stopped short of the still 12-15' crevasses indicating the edge of the sterile lake and proceeded eastward along its outlet stream. As a word of warning to others this stream, actually the headwaters of Return Creek, runs quite steep. As we descended to the right of the stream we found ourselves overlooking a 50' drop with no means of rappelling. Accordingly we found ourselves retracing our steps to select a more northerly route. When hiking down from the tarn one should keep to the left (closer to Twin Peaks) of the outlet stream. Follow the stream downhill until the terrain levels somewhat and a cross-country route can be followed back to Return Lake or the Return Creek Trail.

Needless to say our friend at base camp had become a little impatient and announced via radio that he was starting cocktail hour without us. We of course were not at all influenced by his pleas for companionship as we relished in our accomplishment taking in the last few rays of sunshine radiating from behind the Stanton crest. Upon return to camp we raised a cup of single malt to Virginia and then settled down to another wonderful pasta creation prepared by brother Scott the backwoods culinary maestro.

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