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Mount Lyell: Adventures on the ‘Crown’ of Yosemite

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Mount Lyell: Adventures on the ‘Crown’ of Yosemite

Postby ERIC » Wed Sep 24, 2008 8:44 am

Mount Lyell: Yosemite’s Highest Peak - Adventures on the ‘Crown’ of Yosemite

Sierra Mountain Times
September 15th, 2008 · 4 Comments

The setting sun peeking behind the 13,114-foot summit of Mount Lyell, slowly
melting the massive Lyell Glacier.

Story and photos by Thomas Atkins

When visiting Yosemite Valley it is easy to forget that this wondrous granite gorge is just a fraction of what the national park has to offer. If one is not careful, the steep granite walls can act like blinders, distracting one from witnessing the impressive peaks surrounding the valley. From the valley floor, at an elevation of 4,000 feet, it is difficult to see beyond the heights of El Capitan, North Dome, Glacier Point and Half Dome, all of which fall well short of the towering ridges and peaks protruding from the park’s backcountry wilderness. The best way to reach these lofty heights is to drive on Highway 120 until reaching Tuolumne Meadows in the park’s northeastern corner. At an elevation of 9,000 feet, this massive mountain meadow is already at a greater elevation than anything the valley can offer, and in all directions jagged peaks pierce the Sierra sky. In fact, within hiking distance from this pristine pasture looms Mount Lyell, the highest point in the park.

At an elevation of 13,114 feet, the rocky, snow-clad crag towers in the distance – luring adventurers to its inhospitable heights; calling them and challenging them to conquer its skyscraping summit. It is a powerful call. Even before I had seen the peak, I had heard its whispering words and was easily swayed by its promises of adventure. Both my friend Torrey and I couldn’t resist the mountains calling and a few summers ago we decided to attempt the treacherous ascent.

Like most of our adventures, this one was a spur of the moment trip and we left Tuolumne on an early August morning to make up for the two-hour drive to Tuolumne Meadows. Like all trips to Yosemite National Park, it was well worth the drive, and by the time we reached Tuolumne Meadow, the morning light was cascading over the rocky ridges and flooding the dewy meadow. The flower-filled field alone was worth the travel time and we soaked in the scenery of the meadow John Muir once described as “the widest, smoothest, most serenely spacious, and in every way the most delightful summer pleasure park in all the high Sierra.”

Although it was difficult to do, we eventually left this ‘pleasure park’, and by 9 a.m. we began hiking toward our destination. Knowing it was about a 25-mile journey round trip we packed lightly, but also with enough gear to stay overnight in case darkness defeated our return. Although the well-traveled trail is home to both the popular Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, after a few miles, we seldom saw other hikers. Meandering alongside the Lyell fork of the Tuolumne River, the trail is possibly one of the most scenic in Yosemite. In the poetic words of Muir, “Mount Lyell and Mount Ritter, the culminating peaks of the grand mass of icy mountains that form the “crown of the Sierra”; down through the open sunny levels of the valley flows the bright Tuolumne River, fresh from many a glacial fountain in the wild recesses of the peaks. Along the river are a series of beautiful glacier meadows stretching, with little interruption, from the lower end of the valley to its head, a distance of about twelve miles. These form charming sauntering grounds from which the glorious mountains may be enjoyed as they look down in divine serenity over the majestic swaths of forest that clothe their bases. The most beautiful portions of the meadows are spread over lake basins, which have been filled up by deposits from the river. A few of these river-lakes still exist, but they are now shallow and are rapidly approaching extinction.”

The Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River twisting through a meadow
along the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail.

Muir goes on to say that the best time to visit this valley is in August or September “when the meadows are dry and warm, the weather is mostly sunshine, reviving and exhilarating in quality; and the few clouds that rise and the showers they yield are only enough for freshness, fragrance, and beauty. Towards the upper end of the canyon the grand Sierra crown comes into sight, forming a sublime and finely balanced picture, framed by the massive canyon walls.”

The first views of the ‘grand Sierra crown’ were breathtaking and Mount Lyell and the surrounding peaks dominated the skyline. Located at the southeast end of the Cathedral Range, we could see that the peak was located in a rugged and remote section of the park and we were eager to begin our climb. With our target in sight, our pace quickened and we made good time through the beautiful basin. The first eight or nine miles had very little elevation change, but eventually we came to the head of the canyon where the creek cumulates into Kuna Falls, and we began to enter a steeper, more forested terrain.

Gradually climbing in elevation, we reached an open area where the now relatively small stream of the Lyell Fork was pooled up in a small meadow. We were at about 10,500 feet and had excellent views of Mount Lyell (although at the time we had no idea which mountain it was because we couldn’t tell which peak was the tallest). From this point it would’ve been safer and faster to cross-country up the ravine to the base of the mountains, but being unfamiliar with the terrain we decided to stay on the trail and followed the steep, switch-backing path up to Donohue Pass at the Yosemite Wilderness boundary.

Mount Lyell and surrounding peaks towering above an alpine pool.

At an elevation of 11,056 feet, the pass offered incredible views into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, but the route had taken us further away from our precious peak. From here we still couldn’t tell which peak was the tallest, and decided to follow the ridge until it was obvious that we were on the highest peak. This idea quickly came to an end when we discovered that the ridge was way too narrow and loose to scale, forcing us to cut down along the backside of the mountain range and to traverse along the talus slopes. The going wasn’t easy and we were experiencing the same challenges that the first explorers of Mount Lyell had dealt with…most noticeably, shortness of breath.

During the years of 1860-1864, the California Geological Survey Crew explored and mapped much of the Sierra, and in 1863, crewmembers William Brewer and Charles Hoffman attempted to summit the peak. In fact they were the one’s who named the peak. Having climbed Yosemite’s second highest peak (Mt. Dana) earlier that year, and naming it after the most eminent of American geologists, they decided to name this peak in the same manner, after the most eminent of English geologists (Charles Lyell).

Brewer describes the trip up Mount Lyell in his journal: “We crossed great slopes all polished like glass by former glaciers. Striking the last great slope of snow we only have 1,000 feet more to climb. At places the snow is soft and we sink two or three feet in it. We toil for hours and it seems at times our breath refuses to strengthen us.”

Like Brewer and Hoffman we felt as if our lungs had reached their limitations, but we slowly continued along the backside of the ridge. At this wind-blown elevation there was no vegetation, and deep turquoise glacial pools were the only features that brought color to the desolate, rocky landscape. We carefully tried to pick our way down the safest routes, but we seemed to be running out of ‘safe routes’ and were constantly scaling along narrow razorblade ridges (some times straddling them) as we kept trying to climb back over to the other side. Unfortunately, the other side was just as steep and we had to keep searching for another route. It was as if we were trapped behind a massive wall, which was separating us from trees, trails, meadows and rivers. The side we were on offered nothing but rocks, and as it got later, the thought of sleeping in this no-man’s land was very uncomforting.

A narrow eroding ridge on the backside of Mount Lyell (far left).
If you look closely you can see Torrey straddling the razor-like precipice.

By this time we were directly on the backside of Mount Lyell and we were starting to panic as we watched the sun getting lower on the horizon. We continued to search for a flaw in the mountain armor and eventually spied a notch in the ridge high above us and scaled the eroding rocky slope in hopes of finding a pathway to the other side. Brittle rocks slid below us like broken glass as we scrambled up the steep slope. Reaching the notch we were confronted with a wall of snow, but somehow managed to climb on top. We had made it! Or had we? Stretched out in front of us was a massive, seemingly impassible, field of snow.
It was this snow field that had caused Brewer and Hoffman so much trouble…and in the end, they were too fatigued to reach the summit.

“After several hours of hard climbing we struck one single pinnacle of rock that rises through the snow and forms the summit – only to find it inaccessible,” wrote Brewer.

We were now standing at the base of this pinnacle that made up Mount Lyell, and we knew that it was not inaccessible…we could see the top! But we could also see the trail, many miles away, far, far below and we were starting to think that IT might be inaccessible. Although we only had about 100 feet of scrambling up the opposite side of the pinnacle to reach Yosemite’s highest point, we knew that we needed all the daylight we could get, and reaching the summit was no longer our top priority. Our main concern was getting across the immense snow field (which seemed to stretch for hundreds of yards) before dark.

The Lyell Glacier.

Although it seemed like a grueling task, we had it much easier than they did a hundred years ago. When John Muir surveyed this snow field (which is actually the Lyell Glacier), it was twice the size it is today! Muir, who discovered the snow field to be a glacier, writes about its monstrous size in his journals: “The Lyell Glacier is about a mile wide and less than a mile long, but presents, nevertheless, all the more characteristic features of large, river-like glaciers – moraines, earth-bands, blue-veins, crevasses etc., while the streams that issue from it are turbid with rock-mud, showing its grinding action on its bed. And it is all the more interesting since it is the highest and most enduring remnant of the great Tuolumne Glacier, whose traces are still distinct fifty miles away, and whose influence on the landscape was so profound.”

Muir discovered the glacier in the fall of 1871 when he ascended Mount Lyell, which he describes in his journal: “At one place near the top careful climbing is necessary, but it is not so dangerous or difficult as to deter any climber of ordinary strength and skill, and the views from the summit are glorious. To the northward are Mammoth Mountain, Mounts Gibbs, Dana, Warren, Conness, and many others unnumbered and unnamed; to the southeast the indescribably wild and jagged range of Mount Ritter and the Minarets…”

Although Muir is usually credited with the first ascent of the mountain, a journal of John Boies Tileston claims that he reached the top first. On August 28, 1871 Tileston wrote: “I climbed to the top of the highest pinnacle of Mount Lyell (‘inaccessible’ according to the State Geological Survey).”

Yet being the first to reach the summit of the peak was not as important to Muir, as was his discovery of the glacier. It was the Mount Lyell Glacier that helped Muir prove a lot of his glacial theories, and because of it he is recognized as the discoverer of living glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. Today the Lyell Glacier is the largest remaining glacier in Yosemite.

So there we were, turning our backs to the majestic mass of Mount Lyell, and attempting to cross Yosemite’s largest glacier. This was no easy task. Although, according to John Muir, if we were crossing it during a different month, it would’ve been much easier.

“In making the ascent in June or October the glacier is easily crossed, for then its snow mantle is smooth or mostly melted off,” wrote Muire. “But in midsummer the climbing is exceedingly tedious, because the snow is then weathered into curious and beautiful blades, sharp and slender, and set on edge in a leaning position. They lean towards the head of the glacier, and extend across from side to side in regular order in a direction at right angles to the direction of greatest declivity, the distance between the crests being about two or three feet, and the depth of the troughs between them about three feet. No more interesting problem is ever presented to the mountaineer than a walk over a glacier thus sculptured and adorned.”

Mr. Muir was correct. It was a very ‘interesting problem’…but a problem that had to be taken care of…quickly. The rows and rows of jagged, dagger-like ridges glistening in the fading sun, dared us to cross, and I felt as if we were stepping into a trap…or a giant shark’s mouth! But we had no choice but to continue and soon we were carefully picking our way through the sun-cupped glacier. It reminded me a little bit of an egg carton…except with razor sharp edges. Delicately stepping over each eggshell ridge we slowly (very slowly) made our way down the glacier.

Trying to be positive, Torrey and I discussed how the timing of our descent was perfect. If it were any colder the snow would’ve turned to ice and maneuvering through the dagger field on a slippery surface would’ve been much more challenging. We were also lucky it was sun-cupped, because if it wasn’t, there would be no way to stop us from sliding down to the cliffs below. So although we were relatively safe, in the back of our minds there was still the fear of falling through a snow-covered crevice, and I had plenty of heart attacks when my foot would sink a little deeper than usual and I’d expect the mountain to swallow me alive. Yet thankfully we managed to make it off the glacier alive and without too many cuts and bruises. Of course we still had to maneuver down an avalanche of haphazardly balanced rocks, which was probably just as dangerous, but we eventually worked our way to the bottom of the slope in the fading light. By following the trickling beginnings of the Lyell fork, we were led back to the trail, which we reached as the stars displayed their beauty in the darkened sky. Stumbling off of the trail to a quiet clearing, we quickly found a place to lay out our sleeping bags…and collapsed.

In the morning we both were grateful to have experienced such an exciting adventure, but we were tormented with the fact of being so close to the top…and not making it! However, 13,000 feet is a good warm-up, and I plan on returning soon. Until then, I will always have those elusive 100 feet to look forward to…
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