Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Discussion about winter adventure sports in the Sierra Nevada mountains including but not limited to; winter backpacking and camping, mountaineering, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.
User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 1:40 pm

My Merced backpacking trip was from Nov. 29- Dec. 6

100_0289.JPG

I returned to civilization on 12/6 after 8 short days and 7 very looonnnng nights in the Merced River country.  It was very cold and quiet, and nearly all new country for me, as I have always avoided the Yosemite High Sierra Camp areas, and had never made it into the Clark Range.  After 8,000' it was on again-off again with the snow shoes, especially on the north-facing slopes.  Due to the paucity of snowfall so far this year the post-holing was never more than knee-deep, so I found that simply walking like a moose in the boots alone was the best method in all but the deepest areas. The average depth was just to boot tops. I am glad I decided not to take crampons, as the iciness on the south slopes and melted out rock was manageable with caution.   There are two real risks I saw in traveling on this year's thin snow.  The first obvious risk is breaking through the unstable ice covering lakes and streams.  The second is the potential to punch through the unconsolidated snow found around big, jagged boulder fields.  There is a real risk of damage to one's lower leg at the bottom of these holes.  I test ahead of me with my lengthened Whippet/ski pole, and never jump from a height into a snow-covered boulder area. 

Best Merced Circle Map.png
[My first effort at including a Caltopo.] (Cl. to enlarge) The Red fire & tent symbols represent my camps, except for my camp at Vogelsang, which is marked with a "C." My route on trails is marked in Blue, and the black arrows show my clockwise circle- up Fletcher Creek, and back down Lewis Cr. The Green lines are for off-trail ventures. Black triangles mark mountains significant to the trip, and the Blue circles denote the off-route passes I used to get across the Clark Range. I hope to keep improving on these maps.



100_0559.JPG

I chose my new, light summer boots, full gaitors, my smallest snow shoes, and the Whippet tool.  I also brought extra warm socks, and plastic bags for a vapor/water barrier, and I'm glad I did because the boots were soaked nearly every day!   My original pack weight for 7-10 days was 37 lbs. [The topo map is a useful item, but one has to actually take it out and look at it.)

On the third day I crossed Vogelsang Pass, and climbed up Fletcher Peak on the way, for wonderful views. Bears broke the trail for me on many occasions- saw their tracks (only!)  nearly every day.

100_0349.JPG


Some are definitely still out and about, and I felt their presence, along with the many coyotes, whose tracks also shared my trails.  All I saw for animals were a crowd of deer in the Valley, including some sharp-antlered bucks, and the giant gray squirrels around Happy Isles.  Higher up it was just Chicarees, one Pika, and some nice bird life, including Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Townsend's Solitaires, and the other usual locals- Raven, Clarkies, Chicadees, Juncos... I did see a huge mixed flock of approximately 100 ducks on Merced Lake, mostly Mallards and Scaups, and in the forest there were small flocks of American Robins. 

100_0412.JPG
My two favorite actual animal sights were these 3 round, white Ptarmigans, who let me walk right up to them, and one big Red Tailed Hawk circling close above me in brilliant morning light.  [Having the binos on me was again well worth the weight.]

I started and ended this trip at Happy Isles, so for a few hours on each end of the trip I was among friendly crowds, and in between-- no one for 7 full days.  I had a really fine time even without a dog; that was the greatest lack, but a second was the lack of a headlamp (left in the car), so I had nothing but firelight throughout the trip.

100_0518.JPG

I had a campfire almost every night (rule is 9,600' or below for YNP), and learned to stockpile more small kindling bits, which I could use to create brightness when I needed it.  I found ways to read by firelight, but breathed in a lot of smoke for it, since I maintain smallish fires.  The nights were sometimes so long that I would arise and rekindle a fire in the early morning hours to wile away the time- full moon and star-gazing, and reading.  I had cold, clear, and blessedly windless weather till the very last cloudy night.  I only used the tent on 2 nights, slept out the rest, and stayed warm enough. I guess the coldest nights were low teens, as water in the pot formed a thick frozen layer in 20 minutes.

I feel these late coming winters can be used for easy winter mountaineering rather than just cursing the lack of snow for ski touring.  I had ambitious plans to try to also climb Simmons Peak for fun, and Parson's Peak to hunt for a sight of the recently re-introduced Bighorn Sheep population. 
I wanted to climb Fletcher Peak for the insight it would give me into the surrounding area, which I have long intended to explore on skis from the TM Ski Hut.  I only managed the climb of Fletcher, but it proved to be a good vantage point to glass the slopes all around Parsons Pk.

100_0401.JPG
View of Parson's Peak with no sheep to be seen,  "Hanging Basket Lake" in the foreground.  

On this trip I adjusted my planned route in a couple of sensible ways, but also made a mistake almost too lame to admit.  But I am among friends right, and no one will do more than call me a jackass, which is a name I am fond of.  I will provide my weak excuses along with photo documentation of my stupidity. 

The Clark Range was a happy surprise.  There are some wild crags to the east of Mt Clark, like "the Obelisk," and Mt.Clark itself is stunning, as is my own errant "Red Peak."  The granite slopes, lakes and colorful geology of the Red Peak Fork were wonderful, and I loved the view eastward from high in the Clark Range.  Being nicely separated, as a kind of "island range" within the Merced watershed, the Clark gives a unique, long clean view of the mountains to the east. 

100_0597.JPG
View east from the Clark Range-- Mt. Rodgers to the Minarets.


100_0761.JPG
From Happy Isles the trail passes by the two famous, but dormant falls, and Liberty Cap.  I should have taken the JMT just to the west, as the "Mist Trail" is an interminable series of killing steep stone steps. (This photo is taken from the south, on my way back.)

100_0307.JPG
The forest around Little Yosemite Valley is a mixture of healthy and diverse conifer forest, and a mosaic of fire events.  This old sugar pine is 24 feet in circumference!

100_0310.JPG
Incense cedar trees coming back from the dead.


100_0316.JPG
You must be registered and logged in to view the files/photos attached to this post.
Last edited by Harlen on Sun Mar 14, 2021 7:27 pm, edited 15 times in total.








User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 2:27 pm

100_0321.JPG
"Kitchen creek" for my first camp.  About 8 miles in, across from Bunnell Point.  It's still summer-like, but my next camp will be perched on a flat rock, surrounded by snowfields.

100_0338.JPG
First time at Merced Lake, and I was welcomed by a giant flock of Mallards and Scaups.  They rose in a dark mass, and flew to a foamy landing on the far side. 

100_0354.JPG
Nice meadows a couple miles below Vogelsang, but I sunk one snow-shoed foot through the snow and into the creek! It wasn't exactly a Jack London-- "to Build a Fire" situation, but bloody cold. I spend a nice hour in the dry grass here drying off and warming up. 

100_0357.JPG
 

100_0372.JPG
Above Vogelsang, the view opens to the north, Mt. Conness upper left.

100_0409.JPG
The blue line marks my route up Fletcher Peak.  After the initial steep slope there was an easy terrace, and then the series of pinnacles on the summit ridge, seen in the image below.

100_0379.JPG
The elevation of Fletcher Peak is ~11,100,' and it's an interesting summit with fun scrambling and a great precipice on the north side.

100_0383.JPG
Mt. Conness and White Mountain seen through the window, and that must be Mt. Dana to the right.

100_0386.JPG
Evelyn Lake looks like a nice ski touring destination.  It is perched 300' above Tuolumne Pass, and 7 miles from the ski hut.

100_0385.JPG
View west from the highest point on Fletcher's summit ridge, with Half Dome in the distance.

100_0391.JPG
  The nice drop-off to the north.  Frozen Townsley Lake below.

100_0414.JPG
Looking east from Vogelsang Pass, with Gallison Lake, Simmons Peak above. 
You must be registered and logged in to view the files/photos attached to this post.
Last edited by Harlen on Sun Jan 17, 2021 8:44 pm, edited 2 times in total.

User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 3:00 pm

100_0463.JPG
  Some of the many bear tracks I followed.

100_0427.JPG
This is actually a Chicaree /Douglas squirrel pathway.  In places, they will break a trail, and continue to use only the broken-in area, just like we would. 

100_0437.JPG
This year's bear cub paw prints, I reckon.

100_0456.JPG
 I chose to descend back to the ranger cabin above Merced Lake, and use the Merced River trail instead of the higher, snowier trail.

  
100_0461.JPG
View west with Merced Lake and Half Dome.  

100_0467.JPG
Washburn Lake. I went back down into summer for a few miles, then up into winter again in the Clark Range.
 
The second high country part of this Merced Circle was the crossing of the Clark Range.  I somehow managed (again!) to cross a range at the wrong pass, and this time threw in a mistaken mountain as well.  After passing Washburn Lake I made a spontaneous decision to veer up into the Red Peak Fork drainage as a scenic shortcut.  The valley of Red Peak Fork aimed right at a very dramatic red rock peak, which I just Jackassumed must be Red Peak.  I knew the pass was below and just south of the peak, and I would be intersecting the trail south of Red Devil Lake, so route finding seemed straightforward.  On my second day in the basin I found Red Devil Lake, and met the trail to Red Peak Pass, but it was deep in drifted snow; so I happily decided to choose my own path to the obvious pass, south of the obvious (?) Red Peak.  The place I deviated from the trail is exactly where it began to head south into the deeper snow, yet had I continued along it, I would have soon figured out my error.  But it was late in the day, and I really wanted to climb "Red Peak" and still make it down to Lower Ottoway Lake to camp, so I was racing along.  I got to my pass at 4 PM, and still had a tricky climb to the summit, but more concerning was the strange view over the ridge directly down into Gray Peak Fork, flowing right back toward Merced Lake.  Oh no.  So I took out the map and finally took a close look at it, and the ground around me.  Obviously off route, no trail to be found, and now the real Red Peak became apparent, as it was 300 feet higher than my spur peak, and 1 mile to the south.  Luckily, I could see a route off the ridge without going back down.  I followed my spur back to the real divide, and dropped down into Red Creek, which flows northwest into Illilouette Creek.  I was soon down past the big frozen lake, and another long mile put me into the forest at 9600 for a fire camp.  The only difficulty was a bit of stumbling in the dark, but far worse was the realization that I had been careless again.  I honestly cannot remember this sort of gross error in past trips, and I've done it twice this year!  What is it about turning 60?  Everything worked out in the end, but I have to get my mountain act together.

100_0582.JPG


100_0568.JPG
Frozen Red Devil Lake.

100_0556.JPG
The two "Red Peaks," and I chose the right one, which was wrong! 

100_0547.JPG
The left peak is much redder, and I should have known it was higher elevation too, but notice how unlikely the south ridge is to hold a pass. 

100_0569.JPG
My "Red Peak" is actually a spur peak that comes off the Clark Range divide to the north.

100_0587.JPG
On the way up, the view of mountains to the east got better and better.  Mt Lyell far left, and the Ritter Range through the Minarets far right.
You must be registered and logged in to view the files/photos attached to this post.
Last edited by Harlen on Thu Dec 17, 2020 2:10 am, edited 4 times in total.

User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 4:03 pm

100_0605.JPG
It was really beautiful on the ridge, though gathering darkness fast.

I gave up the idea of climbing my Red Peak, and weighed my many options. I could have carried on down Gray Peak Fork, and on to Merced Lake and out that easy way, but that would have felt like a real defeat. So would scurrying back down the way I had come, to camp, and then try again in the morning. I could see the real Red Peak Pass with my binoculars, and I didn't like the deep snowy north slope it was on. So I checked the map, and found 2 ways down into the valley of Red Creek, which would lead in the right direction, and soon join Illilouette Creek. The final option was to traverse across the troublesome looking northwest slope of Red Peak, and try to descend the correct side of the ridge to reach the Ottoway Lakes. But the traverse looked awful, and the descent was uncertain, and I'd be there in the dark- see the photo below where I have marked that last possibility. I chose to drop into Red Creek.

100_0617.JPG
The circle marks the crossing area of the north west ridge of Red Peak, and the dotted line the route I might have tried to reach there.

100_0607.JPG
 The valley below the ridge was clearly Gray Creek, and it was flowing north-- a nice view in the wrong direction. Find Cathedral Peak; and Matthes Crest; the many Echo Peaks; Cockscomb; and on and on.

100_0614.JPG
The best way into Red Creek basin was to climb farther up the spur.

100_0615.JPG
 The south face of Mt. Clark magically appeared.

100_0619.JPG
This is the Red Creek basin I descended into via a loose but dry talus slope.

100_0632.JPG
 It was dark, and I was pretty exhausted, so I made camp at the first levelish spot, with plenty of wood for a fire and snow for water. This is the next morning huddled around the stove melting chunks of semi-clean snow.

100_0647.JPG
Less than 2 miles up from my camp is scenic Grayling Lake, where you can scrap down to the trail on Illilouette Creek through the lovely Whitethorn ceanothus... serves me right.

100_0651.JPG
Red fir forest recovering from fire.  Mount Starr King in the distance.

100_0666.JPG
Burned tree showing inner beauty.

100_0674.JPG

100_0676.JPG
You must be registered and logged in to view the files/photos attached to this post.
Last edited by Harlen on Wed Dec 16, 2020 10:26 am, edited 5 times in total.

User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 4:15 pm

100_0691.JPG
I was so impressed by Mt Starr King and the other domes I decided to stay another night there. I had to climb nearly to the top of the golden dome to escape the trees and get this view.

100_0694.JPG
Sunset was very fine.

100_0711.JPG

100_0724.JPG
Sunrise view from the tent window.

100_0737.JPG

100_0760.JPG
Back in familiar country, full circle.

100_0291.JPG
Very little snow in The Valley.


Above I made mention of some of the risks involved in solo snowy travels, but there is a positive aspect to this as well.  The heightened focus one practices due to the risk-- watching for storms; in camp selection; and constant micro-route finding (*if not macro), lends a satisfying quiet intensity to the trip.  It's the same feeling experienced by so many of us here who enjoy off-trail traveling, and backpacking into remote areas.  The winter season just adds a few more elements to it-- the cold and the solitude.  I really enjoyed the time alone, and seeing new country, but those were some really long nights
You must be registered and logged in to view the files/photos attached to this post.
Last edited by Harlen on Sun Mar 14, 2021 7:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
Jimr
Forums Moderator
Forums Moderator
Posts: 2026
Joined: Fri Jul 31, 2009 2:14 pm
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: Redondo Beach

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Jimr » Tue Dec 15, 2020 5:44 pm

Turning 60 can lead to a bit of jackassery in one's life.
“Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”

-John Adams

User avatar
Harlen
Topix Fanatic
Posts: 1262
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2017 9:13 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: California

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by Harlen » Tue Dec 15, 2020 7:18 pm

Jimr Writes:
Turning 60 can lead to a bit of jackassery in one's life.
Thanks Jim, that's a big relief. I thought there was something wrong with me.

User avatar
brandoge
Topix Novice
Posts: 17
Joined: Mon Apr 20, 2020 2:26 pm
Experience: Level 2 Backpacker

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by brandoge » Tue Dec 15, 2020 9:17 pm

Thanks for sharing the trip report and all of the beautiful pictures! Even with all of the nice landscape shots you posted, I really like the picture of the burned twisted tree.

User avatar
CAMERONM
Topix Regular
Posts: 379
Joined: Thu Jul 02, 2015 10:04 am
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: Los Angeles
Contact:

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by CAMERONM » Tue Dec 15, 2020 10:31 pm

Nice report! It may embolden me enough to get out next week. Maybe.
Did you really need the white gas, or could you have gotten by with a large canister? Was water that hard to obtain?
I think the jackassery episode chalked up to an enthusiastic devil-may-care headlong jump into the woods is OK, perhaps even commendable. But making decisions on high passes about summit assaults at 4 PM in winter, and by the way, with no headlamp, begs coining a new term with no commendation intended.
"Ill-advissery?"

User avatar
wildhiker
Topix Expert
Posts: 780
Joined: Tue Jul 26, 2011 4:44 pm
Experience: Level 4 Explorer
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Contact:

Re: Trip Report: A Cold, Quiet Merced Circle

Post by wildhiker » Tue Dec 15, 2020 11:14 pm

Thanks for posting a nice report on an unusual adventure!
-Phil

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests