We passed through fire and ice to make the summit of Mount Lyell. Really. Smoke from the Manter Fire, which scorched much of the Domelands, darkened our drive north to Yosemite on Thursday. More on the fire later.
The five of us - Ken Wagner, Nile Sorenson, Tom McDonnell, Tun Everett and Ron Campbell -got off to a leisurely start from Tuolumne Meadows at 8:15 a.m. Friday. Ken, who had wanted to start at 7:30, quickly made up for lost time by setting a fast pace. The rest of us begged for mercy after the first 100 yards or so, and we settled into relaxed stroll mode.
The pace fit the scenery. For the first eight miles the trail to Lyell meanders through the meadowy canyon of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. The river curves sinuously through, the,,grass and washes across polished boulders, inviting even hard-core mountaineers to pry off their boots and cool their toe; in the water. Unfortunately, things got ugly somewhere past -Mile 8. With no decent warning at all (unless you count all those squiggly lines on the topo), we left the canyon and hauled our 40- and 50-lb. backpacks 1,000 feet up a steep, winding trail. After 2.5 miles or so, the trail topped out at 10,200 feet near an unnamed lake. There we made camp.
The potluck featured a garlicky humus, served with pita bread, as well as Swiss cheese and crackers, fresh bell pepper and pasta with pesto. Nile provided the evening's entertainment: an exhibition of virtuouso bear-roping. Nile claims to be undefeated in single combat with Mr. Bear. It took him no more than eight or 10 attempts to get his rope over a good branch. Then a pair of nearby campers told us that a bear had raided our camp the night before and taken food from the branch Nile had just snared. Nile immediately hauled down his rope and tried, with great enthusiasm, to find a second branch. As he flung rocks at trees, his companions -at great personal risk - dug out Nile's climbing helmet and suggested he wear it.
We got to bed at 8:30 p.m. and arose at 5 a.m. Saturday. We left camp at 6:15 a.m., taking a minimum of water. We followed the Pacific Crest Trail south for a half-mile, abandoning it when the trail veered east toward Donohue Pass. We worked our way southwest, around a 10,800-ft shoulder of Amelia Earhart Peak, to a series of small lakes and rivlets where we filled our water bottles. Ken led us up a series of steep, rocky ramps until we reached the foot of the glacier at 9 a.m.
Thousands of sun cups pocked the ice like potholes on a back alley. The ice was hard, but the unpredictable spacing and depth of the sun cups -some hip-deep - made for slow traveling. Those with trekking poles moved fastest; ice axes were poor substitutes. We reached the bergschrund at 10:30. Ken led us over a snow bridge on Lyell's west ridge and then up a tricky 50-foot section of ice, snow and wet granite to dry ground. We reached the summit (13,114 feet) at 11:15. All the way up, the sky was a cobalt blue. But when we reached the top we found ourselves in a shroud of smoke. Lyell Canyon, just five air miles away, was barely visible. Ritter and Banner were shadowy rumors. The Manter Fire had grown, and we were seeing its work.
We descended via third-class rock and a short glissade (interrupted, inevitably, by sun cups) to the Lyell-Maclure saddle. It was now 1:45 p.m. Four of us decided to try for Maclure while one remained behind. We climbed a knife-edge ridge, reaching the top (12,960 feet) at 2:25. In the meantime, .the wind had risen, blowing smoke far to the east. The summiteers enjoyed a crystaline view of Half Dome.
Now came the hard part. By midafternoon there was no hard snow anywhere on the glacier, and the sun cups were as big and ugly as a fleet of Edsels. All of us fell at least once, most several times. Nile, the fastest, took 18 minutes to trudge the half-mile from the saddle to a moraine at 12,000 ft. The glacier extends a few hundred feet lower on the east side of Lyell. We decided to pick our way down a series of stone ramps to the south and west, avoiding the snow wherever possible. We reached camp just before 7 p.m.
The trip out Sunday was uneventful. Two rangers we met along the way seemed unimpressed by our account of the killer sun cups. Oh, they told us, you can see them from the road. Now they tell us.
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