A climb of Yosemite’s highest peak…
This summit- Mt. Lyell, is a bit hard to get to, as its glacier-guarded heights lie nearly 13 miles away from the nearest road in Tuolumne Meadows. I’ve laid eyes on Lyell before, first when I scaled Mt. Dana (Yosemite’s 2nd highest peak at 13,058 feet) six years ago (back in 2003). Most recently it was eyeballed last fall when I climbed the magnificent Banner Peak just to the south of Lyell in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Indeed, many glorious summits of the high eastern Sierra lie in protected status, from national park (Lyell and Dana) to the Ansel Adams Wilderness (Banner and Mt. Ritter) all the way south to the John Muir Wilderness (North and Middle Palisades) to the highest of them all- Mt. Whitney in Sequioa National Park. All of the eastern Sierra is gnarly and simply gorgeous, and I’ve gotten to experience and see many scenic sections of which the eastern Sierra encompasses.
Anyway, thus sets the scene to some degree of my climb of Mt. Lyell. After de-camping at the cabin in Lake Tahoe for a few days after Burning Man, I left on Tuesday, driving south down 395 to Mono Lake, where I spent the early evening hours photographing the lake’s marvelous calcium pillars that rise out of the lake and lakeshore. Some of these pillars were awesome, solitary towers stabbing the air. Mt. Dana rose tall and lofty nearly 7,000 feet above the lake, and it was a pleasing setting as I camped near the shores of Mono Lake.
In the morning, I headed up to Tioga Pass on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park, right off the shoulder of Mt. Dana. The pass sits at over 9,000 feet and provides access into Yosemite’s high country. From up there I could look south into the long defile of Lyell Canyon, my access point to scale Mt. Lyell. The morning was gorgeous with a baby blue sky that would only turn darker blue as the day wore on.
I drove from the pass down to Tuolumne Meadows (I love that name!) where I got my backcountry permit from the ranger station and then began my eight mile hike thru the meadows and into Lyell Canyon. The morning was sunny and beautiful, with the temperature a pleasant 70 degrees or so. I made my way into the heart of Lyell Canyon on the Pacific Crest Trail, where often the trail would parallel the slow-moving, crystal clear Lyell fork of the Tuolumne River, which was very scenic. It felt really good to be hiking thru the high country of Yosemite National Park, moving towards its highest peak, which I could see only after hiking seven miles in. Mt. Lyell indeed loomed high in the sky at the head of the scenic canyon named after it, robed in its white glacier. After eight joyous (but near the end, tiring) miles (covered in 4 ½ hours) of hiking, I found a nice spot in the trees in which to make camp at the head of Lyell Canyon. I then napped followed by relaxation spent in the pleasant meadows nearby, as I gazed up to the heights of Mt. Lyell, examining the glacier and possible climbing routes up its summit cliffs. Indeed, from down here at 8,800 feet, it looked nearly un-climbable without ropes and rock gear. The sunset playing off the clouds above Lyell Canyon was spectacular, and I captured it in the still waters of the little river that meandered thru the meadow in curvy loops.
I was up the next morning and on the trail by 9am. I would have left earlier, but I wanted to let the sun’s warm rays soften the glacier a bit, seeing as how on this trip I didn’t have my standard ice axe and crampons for ascending the glacier. I made my way up the first headwall that put me above Lyell Canyon, at which point I left the trail and bombed my way up a boulder-choked cirque for 800 vertical feet or so, before I topped out on a small plateau filled with a few small yet gorgeous shallow lakes, some of which mirrored Mt. Lyell’s ice and stone facade. I then made my way up another boulder field before gaining the prominent ridge that led up to Mt. Maclure. From the ridge, I could look out across the glacier, which was very close now. I passed three small turquoise melt ponds among the boulders and they resembled green gems hanging around the neck of Mt. Lyell, which was within striking distance now. I climbed up a steep sun-cupped ribbon of snow that brought me to the western periphery of the snow and ice of the Lyell Glacier, which I climbed on delicately until I reached the crux of the climb- class 3 and 4 scrambling up the cliffs of the summit pyramid. It was exciting, as the exposure was such that if you fell, you would free-fall 50 feet or so down to the ice below. From there, it was an easy scramble up to the 13,114 foot crown of Mt. Lyell, the pinnacle of famous Yosemite National Park. Its rocky block summit is located on the apex of the Yosemite mountain system, and from it radiates five giant ranges that divide the sources of Tuolumne River, Merced River, North and Middle Fork San Joaquin Rivers, and Mono Lake. Mount Lyell’s glacier is the second largest in the Sierra Nevada Range.
From the top, utterly fabulous views looked out to high mountain summits, high alpine lakes, and rugged ridges above serene forested valleys. To the south stood the twin ears of Banner Peak (12,936 feet- I climbed last summer) and Mt. Ritter (13,140 feet) as well as Thousand Island Lake, all within the spectacular beauties of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. To the north were a bunch of pretty lakes, with the glacier spilling out like an apron, the meadows and forests of Lyell Canyon, the hump of Mt. Dana, and the deep forests surrounding Tuolumne Meadows, 14 miles to the north. To the west was the rocky beak of Mt. Maclure and beyond it, one could see a bit of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Unlike from the summit of Dana, the awesome clam-shape of Mono Lake could not be seen. It had taken me 5 ½ hours to climb 4,000 vertical feet over 5.5 miles, and I was feeling somewhat tired as I enjoyed my 30 minutes on the summit. The impending descent loomed, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. But I got motivated to do it and thus began down-climbing boulders and ledges that brought me off the summit and back to the glacier, which despite its pocked surface, I glissaded down, making some of the descent pass quickly and enjoyably. Then it was down a lot more boulders and ridge traverses. I finally pulled in to camp 9 ½ hours after leaving, and my feet were screaming. I doused them in the clear river in the meadow, which refreshed me a tad, before making dinner and then passed out as the sun left the sky.
Today I packed up camp and booked back to Tuolumne Meadows, taking a little over four hours to get there, thus completing 27 miles roundtrip and nearly 5,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. My legs felt as if they couldn’t go another yard, so it was a relief to be back at the car. I then had a leisurely drive down Tioga Road, past marvelous Cathedral Peak (which I climbed in 2003), over to Olmsted Point where I got to see Half Dome in all its granite-domed glory, and eventually out of Yosemite. I am camped tonight in the Stanislaus National Forest near Hetch Hetchy, where I am going tomorrow.