Earning Our Silver
(Silver Peak (11,878') via Margaret Lakes)

20-21 Jul 2002 - by Mike Mcdermitt

This was a private trip to a rather infrequently climbed peak, via a less commonly-used approach. Silver Peak is the namesake peak of the Silver Divide separating the South Fork of the San Joaquin River from the Middle/ North Forks.

Our point of departure was the Onion Springs Trailhead, which is about five miles up the Onion Springs OHV Road, which is accessed from the Lake Edison road, off the Kaiser Pass Road, which makes this particular trailhead one of the more remote of any in the Sierra Nevada. The Onion Springs OHV road at this time is in reasonably good condition: passable by any 4WD with the clearance of a typical SUV and may be passable in a 2WD with similar clearance (there are only 3 or 4 tricky spots where a normal passenger car could not drive). Nevertheless the drive takes about 40 minutes. The road contours along the 8,000' to 8,200' level for much of the way; this section has generous views south to Mt. Hooper, Florence Lake, Kaiser Ridge, etc. and has some areas suitable for camping by small parties.

Our group of six met before 7am on Saturday morning at the Vermilion Valley Resort at the end of Lake Edison, where we enjoyed a fine breakfast before heading out. We then carpooled in 4WDs up the Onion Valley road and reached the trailhead (discernable by a couple of rather small signs) shortly after 8.30am. After a test of cell phones in this deep forest (my AT&T worked, another service did not) we were hiking by about 8.45am.

The trail is good: easy to follow and hike. Trail starts out relatively flat in deep forest, then switchbacks up to a ridge by which time views to the south (Kaiser Ridge, Florence Lake and beyond) and west open up. The two intermittent stream crossings shown on the map, actually did have water, to my surprise. At the second crossing (8880', map indicates campground) note a side trail on the far side heading to the right - it is a dead end up to Hedrick Meadow (we avoided it but not everyone does). The correct trail heads leftward at the crossing. The trail reaches ridgetop shortly thereafter and hiking is relatively level until the last set of switchbacks below the unnamed pass (~10,520', really a ridge shoulder not a pass) over a spur of the Silver Divide. Approaching the pass around 11.30am we decided to stop for lunch just below the pass, where the map indicates "Arch Rock" is located. After eating lunch we took a look around for Arch Rock. Having seen a picture of it posted at Vermillion Valley Resort I knew it had to be somewhere but it turns out the USGS map is flat-out wrong about the location of Arch Rock. So, we packed up and headed back to trail, topping out at the pass to gain an absolutely awesome view north of the Ritter Range, the San Joaquin river drainage and the mountains along the southern boundary of Yosemite. After pictures we continued on. The trail then heads down then back up to the north side of the ridge we had just crossed. Here we found Arch Rock - about 0.4 miles north and slightly east of where the USGS topo places it. It is a real arch.

After more pictures we headed on. Having a full day to reach camp and with the hot sun and clear skies making the day quite warm, we proceeded at a relatively leisurely pace. The trail is very well switchbacked down to Frog Lake (which we would greatly appreciate on the return). It then meanders to accommodate a complex topography with several 50' to 100' ups and downs to reach a lovely meadow and stream crossing at Coyote Lake. Wildflowers were at or near peak for most of the trip and were in particular profusion on this section from Coyote lake/ meadow up to Fern Lake. At Fern Lake was an increasingly rare sight - tadpoles - and seeing some caught in a drying pool I intervened to pick up a handful and drop them into another pool too deep to dry up before they matured. Finally, we had a last few hundred feet of ascending trail over one last ridgelet to reach our destination, Margaret Lakes. This ridgelet separates two arms of Silver Creek; the trail goes over the south shoulder of Cockscomb Peak (10,719') which is an impressive rugged 'fin' type formation on the ridgelet. We had originally contemplated climbing this peak on the way in but seeing the near-vertical west side there did not seem to be any route easier than 4th class at best, so upon reaching the top of the shoulder we proceeded directly down to Big Margaret Lake.

The Margeret Lakes basin is a very picturesque small area of lakes at the head of Silver Creek. There are several nice campsite areas; we selected one on a rise just east of the outlet crossing which picked up a modest breeze and kept mosquitoes at bay until after dinner. Sunset was lovely with a nice alpenglow as well. From our campsite we could see the east side of Cockscomb Peak which though steep is not vertical - mostly scree, to a level knife-edge ridge. The summit is an isolated standing block on the ridge perhaps fifteen high (hard to judge from a distance) that would seem to be 5th class.

Sunday morning we were up around 6am and walking shortly after 7am. We followed the trail to where it reaches the inlet stream to Rainbow Lake then proceeded cross-country approximately up that stream. Shortly we reached an open area with a choice of proceeding up a rock ridge to the right or to our left up steep slopes; choosing the latter as more direct, we gained a level area just above the 10,000' level where the stream arises in a small tarn. After a break, we began ascending, aiming not for the saddle southeast of the peak but directly towards the peak up steep rocky slopes interspersed first with trees and later juniper. Although the footing was not too bad, there was lots of loose rock which forced the group to move somewhat more slowly. Our route ascended to the left (northwest) of a small face that is not noticeable on the map but is clearly visible from the tarn, in one place passing through narrow defilements in a small cliff band that maybe involved a couple of class three moves. For the record, it seemed like there was probably more than one way to get through the cliff band.

Before long, we were above the trees and had nice views to accompany our labor up the steep talus of the last thousand or so feet to the summit of Silver Peak, which we reached at 10am. The peak register indicated that this peak is not all that popular; we were the second party of the year to summit. An entry by C.R. McPherson of Dunsmuir on August 1 1980 provided more information on Cockscomb Peak: "A sad day for the Margaret Lakes. At 9.40am today an earthquake centered near Mammoth Lakes area left its mark on Cockscomb Peak. A former high point called Horse fell as a result of the earthquake, and now the high point which is called the Bishop is what is left" We agreed that the summit block on Cockscomb Peak has a vague resemblance to a bishop's mitre and wondered if there was a rook or a pawn around.

It was now 10.30am. Facing a long hike out involving over 2,000' of gain and seeing that the ridge over to Sharktooth Peak was narrow with steep sides and would be very slow going, we decided to pass on bagging a second peak. We made a loop by descending Silver's northeast chute, which is typical steep and loose but easily negotiable scree, stopping for some lunch near the bottom of the chute. Steve Eckert had left our group at the top of Silver, heading for Sharktooth, and managed to reach the peak and downclimb, rejoining us near Useless Lake. We tramped down steep forested slopes just south of the Useless Lake outlet stream to the trail beside Rainbow Lake and then retraced our footsteps back to camp which we reached around 1.30pm.

After slowly packing, finishing lunch and rewatering we broke camp about an hour later, with Steve Eckert leaving the group for further adventures on Graveyard Peak. The remaining five of us marched up and over Cockscomb shoulder and on past Fern, Coyote and Frog Lakes in heat that was slightly less intense than the prior day due to slight cloud cover. Along the way one member of the group became seriously ill; ultimately the cause was determined to be the fact that this person had omitted most of breakfast and lunch. The 'super Gatorade' powder (aka Ultra Fuel by Twinlabs) I pulled out from deep within my pack, along with John's Ishiban noodles (dry) succeeded, with some forty-five minutes' rest, in creating a revival sufficient to permit us to proceed the 500+ feet up the switchbacks above Frog Lake without undue concern that in addition to carrying our dyscapacitated hiker's pack (just thread two hiking poles through the back and waist straps, no problem), we would also be carrying his body. Happily we reached the summit of the pass above Frog Lake intact and after a ten minute rest all proceeded down the trail, each with his own pack. We managed a speedy pace down the hill on a calm clear evening, taking less than two hours in getting back to the car a few minutes before 8pm. The afore-mentioned dyscapacitated hiker had apparently effected an excellent recovery and reached the car ahead of all but one of us. Five of us and our five packs then piled into my SUV and drove back to Vermillion Valley Resort, where we stopped for some food before caravanning in our three cars along the Edison Lake and Kaiser Pass Roads to Highway 168 and out to Prather. The gas station at Prather was closed (it being around 11pm) but happily the pumps were on. So after I gassed up we all sped safely home to the Bay Area with another peak gained and another adventure in the books, having "earned our silver". Readers should note, however, that Silver Peak was named not after a precious metal but after Silver Creek, named in turn for the silvery appearance of its waters. So rather than banking our silver, we drank it.

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