Robber's Roost & Mt. Hopkins
(Springtime in August)

31 Jul - 2 Aug 2006 - by Douglas Smith

My explorations of the various regions of the upper Sierra have proceeded gradually and sort of randomly, from area to area over fifteen summers--not really with any forethought to do it that way, but because as I have gotten to know the specific districts that have caught my attention, I can't prevent myself from taking more intricate journeys into that chosen section of the range. As a result, while I know a lot about nearly every place you can get to from such trailheads as Kanawyer's, Bishop Creek, and Mineral King, there remain wonderfully huge gaps in my experience, waiting to be filled. Such were the Little Lakes Valley and upper Mono Creek drainage--until this past summer, when I took a quick and long-anticipated introductory trip into the Pioneer Basin by way of the Mono Pass trail.

Those who have been to this eastside roadend--with its conveniently high altitude of about 10200' at Mosquito Flat--already know how astonishing the scenery is as the trail ascends 1900 feet to the barren icefields of Mono Pass. Some of the views from above Ruby Lake are jarringly beautiful, and my frequent open-mouthed doubletakes at certain switchbacks proved to me (again) that I will never tire of these mountains. And, to add to it all, the conditions on this Monday morning were almost absurdly perfect: a sky dotted with scenic but unthreatening clouds, a breeze strong enough to keep most of the mosquitoes at bay, and an air temperature cool enough for a fleece top but warm enough for shorts.

The trail was fairly uncrowded during the two and a quarter hours it took me to get to the pass, although I did have one odd encounter while overtaking a pair of men, one of whom seemed to not want to let me pass. His partner, slower and clearly ill at ease on the rocky trail, struggled to keep up but tripped on a water bar. He overcorrected against his fall and, in trying to right himself, stumbled a second time, bloodying a knee. (As a practiced klutz, I know there is an art to tripping. In short: don't fight it once it's started.) His older companion, a maniacally grinning man with distracting nose hair, offered him no sympathy but instead turned to me with the observation "He's gotten so fat he can't hike any more!" I couldn't help but voice disagreement and offered the other fellow some words of encouragement about how enjoyable a slow and methodical pace can be. As it turned out, while I proceeded onward I took this very useful thought along with me; one of the things I brought home from this journey was a more complete understanding of what it means to slow down, or to under-achieve and "waste" time. Isn't that the true goal of coming here?

After six hours on the trail I was well beyond the Sierra crest and at the second lake in Pioneer Basin, where the mosquitoes were enjoying their annual heyday--and very happy to celebrate my arrival. I guessed that a campsite more out on a promontory might be breezier; so I dropped my pack at the largest of the lakelets on the bluff in the middle of the Basin's southern end, sharing the spot with many Clark's Nutcrackers. The Basin itself sports a very healthy population of Pikas, and all the year's snowfall gave it the appearance of a typical June day, rather than August.

By the next morning I still hadn't decided what my peak goals would be--I had the vague notion that the choice between Stanford, Crocker, Hopkins, or Robber's Roost would emerge as I got closer the the base of each mountain. The farther up (north) into the Basin I got, the less enjoyable Stanford looked, and the more appealing the idea of an early finish to my day (with some sedentary reading) became. Meantime, the NE ridge of Robber's Roost--a steep but unscary buttress leading straight to the summit--jutted out before me, luring me on. I decided that if I got to the summit of Roost I could decide between Crocker and Hopkins. This NE ridge of Robber's Roost (a peak not named on some maps) is a really fun scramble, the crux being an easy, short 3rd class section that I encountered about 3/4 of the way up. At the 12404' summit I found no register but an excellent vantage point for what the map calls the Mono Divide. This doesn't appear to so much of a "divide" as a 10-mile wide assortment of high peaks, near and distant, jutting into the southern sky, and running from Mt. Morgan in the east through Dade, Abbot, Mills, Gabb, Hilgard, and Recess as the eye scans westward.

As I sat regarding this agreeable prospect, the increasingly appealing idea of under-achievement made Hopkins the best option. From the Roost it's a very pleasant half-hour ridgewalk to my favorite type of summit, a spur highpoint (12302'), with terrific vistas into adjoining canyons--specifically, the famous Mono Recesses. Hopkins' summit register contained a bank check written out to Mt. Hopkins for $12,302 with the note "Take this check over to Mt. Crocker and cash it." Remember Crocker Bank? After lingering and soaking up the panorama, I descended into Pioneer Basin over the extremely sandy SE slope, a route that I would never recommend as a way up this mountain. What a Stairmaster from hell that would be. I was back at camp by 1:30pm, in time for a delightfully lazy afternoon.

On the third day, the hike out was on its surface uneventful but of course laden with experience for future savoring. The highlight was following Pioneer Basin's outlet stream through its musical cascades and quiet meadows, and fish-herding small schools of trout along its ox-bowing meanders under Mt. Huntington's western slopes. Across Mono Pass, the flanks of Rock Creek's canyon showed fresh evidence of last winter's avalanches, which I'm guessing were more numerous than usual. I reached my truck with a familiar feeling of exalted exhaustion. This introduction to the region will surely be followed by more detailed and ambitious "journeys of underachievement" in the seasons to come.

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