By: John Paterson
Mount LeConte is a classic mountaineer’s peak and I decided to have our group climb it by the infrequently traveled Tuttle Creek trailhead. I lead this trip as a joint WTC/SPS that allowed more Sierra Club members to participate. There were seven of us, myself, Mike Adams (assistant Leader), Sheryl O’Rourke, Gary Maxwell, Kristen Mahalfey, Gary Bowen, and Tom McDonnell.
I met everyone at 6:30 a.m. at the Tuttle Creek campground, just outside of Lone Pine, on Friday, August 1 ~ From there we drove about .4 miles west to Granite View Drive, a dirt road. We drove on Granite View west for about 2.4 miles until it forked near some houses. From there we took the right fork, northwest, for 2 miles where there was a place to park 2-3 cars. We left our 2 wheel drive vehicles here and then drove in our 4 wheel drive cars another .5 miles to the trailhead. There is room for 4-5 cars here.
We stated our hike at 7:30 a.m. with light packs along a good trail until we stopped at the cabin after a mile of hiking. The cabin is in great shape with all walls, chimney, ceiling, and stove intact.
From the cabin we headed up the hill past the cabin storage shed and well and then south back towards Tuttle Creek. We hiked a very rough use trail that ran roughly parallel to, and 800 feet above, the Tuttle Creek drainage. The trail is very easy to lose and then the trip turns into a bushwhacking adventure. We were able to keep track of the trail but it was difficult because there are lots of different use trails that require different levels of bushwhacking. After roughly 4 miles we crossed to the south side of Tuttle Creek where the traveling was relatively easy for about .5 miles until we started hitting talus. I found it best to travel along the talus with the thickets on the north.
We arrived at camp at about 3:30 p.m. after a 6.5 mile hike and a 4,200 foot altitude gain. Our camp was located at the top of the tree line at about 11,000 feet. There are about 5 decent places for tents and water is located due north (5 minutes from camp) coming from the LeConte & Corcoran drainage. We spent the rest of the day chatting and resting for the long climb on Saturday.
We started our climb at 5:30 a.m. promptly. From camp we traveled over about 200 yards of talus to the base of the cliffs below me Leconte & Corcoran drainage. We followed the cliffs to the West for about 400 yards, climbed some talus, and hopped on a ledge system that lead up the cliff face. This is a wide ledge you take that goes up to the east. Where the ledge system meets the stream we followed the stream up to the northwest. After we climbed some talus we traveled to the right (north) side of the LeConte/Corcoran valley where we traversed some large ramps back and forth gaining altitude. It was best to stay as far north in the valley, along a northwest ramp, to avoid a giant talus hole in the middle of the valley.
Once we were due east of LeConte we traversed (southwest) along a moraine bench that took us to the base of Corcoran at the bottom of the North Notch. We were able to top off our water bottles from some snow runoff at the base of Corcoran. From here there is a 30-degree scree (in summer) slope that forks towards the North Notch (left) and LeConte (right). We took the right scree slope until the slope forked again. We went right again until we hit the end of the scree slope at the base of some large blocks.
We climbed onto the top of the blocks along a loose ledge that ran north until it turned into a very loose, narrow, scree gully that lead to the base of the East Arete route. At the top of the gully there is a notch that leads to the north side of LeConte and Meysan Lake can be seen. The East Arete route is on the south side of this notch (don’t go to the other side) and starts off below the arete.
We climbed from the top of the gully to the left below the top of the arete. The climbing is a mixture of class 2 and 3 but not much exposure. We followed the arete up until we eventually were able to climb on top. If you go too far to the left you hit a very steep gully and you need to backtrack about 40 feet and climb up.
Once we reached the top of the arete we could see the LeConte summit block. From here there is some easy 3’~ class climbing to the summit. We reached the summit at 12:50, had a quick lunch and Mike Adams replaced the Nalgene bottle with the register inside with a Sierra Club aluminum register container.
From LeConte’s summit we dropped about 100 feet to the top of a huge gully that eventually drops down into Iridescent Lake. We climbed into a tight chimney one at a time and lowered our packs so we would not get stuck. Tom, the first down, initially got stuck due to his pack but got out quickly. The waterfall pitch is about 300 feet below the top of the gully.
About 50 feet above the waterfall pitch we traversed south, to the left, around a rib. From there we dropped into a wide gully and dropped down about 300 feet to a notch. We traversed around the notch, dropped down again into another gully. Below we could see two notches, the higher one very narrow, the lower one a little wider and more inviting. I checked out the higher notch but the down climbing was class 4. From the lower notch it looked like there was a drop off to a cliff but we were able to traverse around to the left along a series of small ledges until we could drop into the next gully.
I think we traversed another rib or two until we reached the last rib. There are lots of cliffs but by slowly lowering and looking for only class 2-3 we wound up all right. Don’t climb up any of the gullies until you see Corcoran or you will end up on one of the peaks between Corcoran and LeConte. At the last rib we could see through a keyhole that dropped down about 300 feet into the next gully. Here we went straight up. I climbed up a short pitch of about 20 feet of difficult 3rd class where I set up a belay station. I belayed almost everyone up to the top of a 40-foot steep section. I used a short 80-foot rope throughout the trip that was a perfect length and light.
From the top of this block we traversed along some narrow ledges to the gully below the North Notch. From here we climbed up about 300-350 feet of scree to the top of the Notch where we dropped through. It is better to stay to the left of the gully where it is easier to drop into the scree field below Corcoran. We reached the North Notch about 5 p.m. which was far too late for my tastes so we skipped doing Corcoran which was a quick 30-45 minutes away.
Our group started really slowing down due to the very loose rocks and scree and everyone was very tired by now. We tried to stay very close to make sure we did not drop rocks on each other and made it down. From there we retraced our path to the cliffs overlooking our camp. It took a very long time for our group to travel through the talus so we reached the cliffs about 8:30 p.m., just as it got dark.
From here I navigated down the ramps until I hit the stream on the far south side of the LeConte/ Corcoran valley. We followed the stream until we hit the ledge system that traversed due west above the cliffs. From there we dropped back down and then traveled east and then south to our camp. We had a very long day and did not get back to camp until 9 p.m. but we found the camp right away and were all relieved!
The climb took much longer than I had anticipated. The scree and loose rocks slowed us down more than I realized but everyone made the peak. I would recommend not taking any more than six very experienced climbers on this route.
Helmets should be mandatory due to the loose rocks.
The next morning we got going at 8 a.m. and we reached the cars by about 11:30 a.m. We did lose the main trail on the way down but were able to continue traversing east along Tuttle Creek until the many use trails eventually converged. From there we dropped down to the cabin again and took the main trail back to our cars.
We all then drove to Lone Pine to have pizza at the Pizza Factory and everyone gave me a hard time about my “death march”. Everyone did great and the climb included a tremendous amount of difficult navigation and lots of sustained 3rd class climbing. This is a classic route that is rarely done.
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