Virginia Peak 14 years later

5-6 Aug 2006 - by Peter Maxwell

On the weekend of August 5/6 Anouchka and I climbed Virginia Peak. It was Anouchka's first time and for me it was a return after 14 years, when I did this peak as part of a PCS group in October 1992. At that time I still remember Jim Ramaker saying that the area was gorgeous earlier in the season, with lots of wildflowers. This was definitely the case, and the hike in plus the slopes below Return Lake were full of lush greenery and flowers. It was one of the most beautiful areas I've been to.

There was also lots and lots and lots of water. After last winter's extraordinary snowfall there was still a significant amount left, and the runoff caused miriad little streams and vast areas of bogs. Anouchka commented that it reminded her of New Zealand, except the bogs weren't as deep and didn't suck your boots off.

After calling in the Bridgeport Ranger station to collect our permit on Friday night, we got to a nice crash spot off the Green Creek road around 10:30 pm, at the tail end of a thunderstorm. To save having to carry a wet tent the next day we spent the night in bivvies, then left them in the car while we were away to dry out. I'd done an interesting weighing experiment, and the weight of the tent was the same as two bivvies plus the additional ground sheet that would have been required. This surprised both of us but made the decision what to take easier - more thunderstorms were predicted and it's much cosier for two in a tent anyway.

The large snowfall presented us with another surprise - a large snowbank just before Virginia Pass that couldn't be bypassed. Most of this bank was steep, with ugly runoff onto rocks, and we were wondering if we'd been wise in leaving the ice axes behind. Luckily, by early afternoon when we were there the sun had softened the surface somewhat and we were able to kick steps up the least steep part, and had our shortened hiking poles at the ready to attempt a self arrest had we slipped. With care, we didn't, but this bank would require ixe axes and crampons in the morning, with icing up overnight.

The original goal was Return Lake, but seeing we planned to climb the NW ridge and not go up the face, we decided to camp a little lower (right on 10,000') and to the northeast, in the meadows full of greenery and flowers. We were even treated to a deer, to add to the idyllic surroundings. The predicted thunderstorm arrived and provided us with some hail and light rain but we were able to prepare dinner under some trees (no, the lightning was some distance away!) and eat outside when the rain eased off. As usual, my home-dehydrated Indian curry, daal and rice tasted delicious. The chocolate and port afterwards went down well, too. This all helped to distract us from the mosquitoes, which were still prevalent and hungry, even this late in the season. It was not surprising, with all the water around.

We were away from camp the next morning around 6.45 am. The gulley leading up to the lake just north of the peak was rather wet due to melting snow higher up and care was needed in several sections. Arriving at the lake, we were surprised to see it was still almost completely frozen over and covered in snow. Only a narrow area near one edge was snow free, and that had a thin ice crust on it from overnight. The rest looked like it would in winter. It was impossible to tell where the shore was, and the banks were steep snow slopes, so we skirted it with a wide margin.

Going straight up to the Virginia/Twin Peaks saddle was out of the question because of the steep snow covering the slopes, which was still icy. Instead we had to detour further north on the ridge to find a way up that minimized snow travel. We eventually made the summit at 9 am, and were treated to perfect conditions with no wind and great visibility. The register I had signed in 1992 was still there and it was fun to read it. Surprisingly, we were only the 3rd party up this year - I would have thought this would be more popular.

It was tough to leave, but we had to. I had been concerned a bit about descending the snow bank by the pass on the hike out, but retracing our steps from the day before worked well. The rest of the hike out was able to be enjoyed for the beauty of the area.

Dinner was at the Mobil station on 120/395, where the steak caesar salad was a winner. The place was packed, every table outside was taken, music was playing, and there was a festive air. I wonder how much business this place has taken away from other establishments in Lee Vining. All in all, a great trip and worth waiting 14 years.

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