Hail of a Good Time

12-13 Aug 2002 - by Debbie Bulger

Mount Pinchot (13,495')
Colosseum Mountain (12,450')
Smart hikers start their ascent of Sawmill Pass at dusk or after sundown and continue at least to the first water by Sawmill Creek. This enables one not only to sleep higher than 4600' but also to avoid the desert part of the climb when the sun is out. Richard Stover and I began the climb at about 5:30 a.m. It is a botanical wonder.

Hikers can experience a progression of plant communities as they ascend over 6700' to the pass. The diversity of trees is amazing. At first there are only a few widely scattered Jeffrey Pines. As I topped the ridge projecting from Sawmill Point and descended to the Sawmill Creek drainage, I was startled by the presence of California black oaks. Next to the creek there are water birch, willow and a few towering black cottonwood. Upslope from the creek Jeffrey Pines were now abundant. (An illustration of the progression of trees as one gains elevation is on pages 41 and 42 of Discovering Sierra Trees, by Stephen F. Arno).

As one gains altitude, additional species appear, and some drop out. On dry slopes, aromatic Mountain Mahogany thickets provide forage for deer. Douglas Fir and aspen show their faces by the creek as does the delicate Elderberry, a favorite source of fire drills for the Native Americans. Above Sawmill Meadow red fir, white fir and lodgepole pine grow and the Jeffrey Pine stop. Beyond Mule Lake foxtail pines join the lodgepoles in a beautiful forest which finally gives way to prostrate whitebark pine as the trail nears the pass.

Sawmill Pass itself is a surprise, arriving sooner than expected, as I mistakenly thought it was the saddle by Stocking Lake. From the pass it is an easy descent to the John Muir Trail past Woods Lake. A short stretch brought me to the lovely valley between Mt. Perkins and Mt. Wynne.

This enchanted spot is visited frequently by Bighorn sheep, or Long Horned sheep, as Richard called them. (You have to remember that he grew up in Texas). There were sheep tracks on the ground, sheep scat by the young green plants around "Frog Lake" and even hollowed out bedding areas under the thickets of whitebark pines. We saw no sheep; but I suspect they saw us.

As we arrived at our base camp, two Fish and Game surveyors were getting ready to leave. They had come in the day before to survey lakes for threatened mountain yellow legged frogs. And indeed they found the quiet amphibians in the lake below Mt. Perkins. Quiet, the F & G folks told us, because yellow legged frogs lack vocal chords and do not call out as do their endangered cousins the red legged frog. Some of you know that Fish and Game has decided not to stock lakes that contain these rare creatures, because the trout eat the frog eggs, and that's why their numbers have dwindled.

The next morning we rose at 5:30 to climb Mt. Pinchot. Gifford Pinchot is not a very popular fellow in the Sierra Club. He was the founding chief of the Forest Service, and the man who approved the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley despite John Muir's protests. But the mountain named after this career forester has a fantastic view. We climbed the east ridge which can get a little airy in spots but is not difficult. One drops to one side of the ridge or the other at such places. At almost 13,500' the view from the summit stretches forever. Especially notable are the views of Clarence King, Split Mountain, Ruskin, Arrow, Pyramid, and Marion. And a good chunk of the Owens Valley to boot.

As the clouds were building rapidly, we started down the steep south face. As we reached the base, it started hailing and we sought shelter under some overhanging rocks. Then finally, back to camp in the light rain which continued for much of the night.

It was too tempting to sleep in the next day, and it started raining at 11:00 a.m. So instead of climbing we set up a covered eating/cooking area and hiked around enjoying the frogs, sheep sign, alpine wildflowers and speculated on routes on Perkins. Many of the flowers were new to me such as Eschscholtz's buttercup. It continued to rain and hail intermittently all day. Needless to say, we found the obligatory balloon, this one from a "Caring Community."

We left camp at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to climb the east ridge of Wynne, but alas, it started to hail at 9:30 a.m. when we were almost on top. Faster climbers would have made the summit. We rapidly descended the east face. It rained and hailed quite strongly until afternoon at which time we decided to move camp to about a mile below Woods Lake.

Finally the weather had cleared, and the next morning we strolled up the west ridge of Colosseum. This route has got to be one of the most enjoyable easy climbs in the Sierra. I highly recommend it. From the summit we could see our truck almost 7000 feet below. Rather than climb Cedric Wright, we decided to save it for another day and spent the afternoon exploring remote lakes and lots of sheep sign.

From our camp it was a quick descent to the trailhead the next day.

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