Mt. Lyell DayhikeI’m working on the list of California County Highpoints and Mt. Lyell the highpoint of Tuolumne County and Yosemite National Park was my goal for this weekend. My list is pretty short at this time with only Mt. Lyell, Mt. Ritter, and North Palisade needed to complete the state.
On Friday October 27, 2006 I headed out from my home in Medford, Oregon and drove the 450+ miles to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. The easiest way to climb Mt. Lyell is from the Tuolumne Meadows Trailhead, elevation 8,700 ft. Tuolumne Meadows closes each year on October 15th. This means there is no Overnight Parking allowed at the trailhead. Depending on weather the parking lots are open for day use only.
I checked out the area to make sure I would be able to find it the next morning in the dark and then drove back out of the park over Tioga Pass and found a place to car camp along Hwy 120 outside the National Park. I knew I was in for a long hike the next day, so I made myself comfortable in the back of my Tacoma and went to sleep.
The next morning (is 3:00AM morning?) I woke up, got dressed, and ate a little breakfast. Who can eat this early in the day? My truck thermometer said it was 28 degrees outside and it felt a little cool. I drove down to Tuolumne Meadows and put my extra food into one of the bear boxes in the parking area. I didn’t need Yogi Bear making a picnic in the back of my truck. My truck was the only vehicle in the parking lot. It didn’t look like the trails were going to be busy this weekend.
It was cold. I put on my coat and gloves and put on my pack. I adjusted my headlamp and headed down John Muir Trail towards Donohue Pass. Donohue Pass is over 12 miles from the trailhead and I knew I had to leave the trail about 1.0 mile before the pass. I’m glad the John Muir Trail is so popular because it is relatively easy to follow in the dark.
I was making good time up the trail and after about 45 minutes I tried to get a drink of water from my camelback. The tube was frozen solid. Dang, it must be colder than I thought. I grabbed my Nalgene that was about half full and when I opened it there was a crust of ice over the mouth of the bottle. I broke the ice and had a drink. I also rerouted the tube from my camelback so that it was next to my neck and the end was down in my shirt. I figured it would thaw out in a little while. Sure enough, in just 3 hours I had the water flowing from the camelback. It must have been colder then 28 degrees to freeze things up like that, probably closer to 20 degrees.
The night was peaceful except for a couple of coyotes who howled at me as I passed by. In just under 2 hours I passed the turnoff that goes up to Ireland Lake and Parsons Peak the highpoint of Mariposa County. I felt good about my progress, my GPS said I was 5.8 miles from my truck at the trailhead. I forged ahead in the dark. Soon the first rays of light started to lighten the night sky and the stars started to fade. By the time I got to the head of the valley I could turn off my headlamp. I also got a glimpse of my objective Mt. Lyell.
The trail is relatively flat up to the head of the valley at about 9 miles from the trailhead and you are only at 9,000 ft in elevation and gained only 300 ft. This is a great trail. Lots of work has been done to prevent erosion on the trail as it climbs up to a small unnamed lake at mile 160 on the topo. Climbing up from the valley I saw my first person of the day. He was wearing a Forest Service hat and was camped off in the woods at the head of the valley. He guessed I was heading for the summit since I was carrying an ice axe. We visited for a few minutes and said he was helping a group that was camped ahead at the first lake. The group was from National Geographic. He said they are doing a feature on Yosemite, Mt. Lyell, and the Lyell Glacier. He was making good time and scampered off ahead of me. The trail gains about 1,200 ft to this small lake and then crosses its outlet and climbs another 350 ft out to a point. At this point Mt. Lyell is straight ahead, but the trail turns back around another small unnamed lake and then up to Donohue Pass. I made it this far in about 4.5 hours and I was about 11.4 miles from the trailhead.
This was a good spot to take a break, so I took off my coat and ate an apple. Mt. Lyell is impressive from this vantage point and the route is easy to see up the valley. From this point I dropped down about 30 feet before climbing back up following the valley. I just took the easiest route I could find. The granite slabs were easy to walk on so I sought them out when I could. There were patches of snow now that had not melted from a storm from a couple weeks earlier. The snow was easy to avoid and seemed to have accumulated in shady places or in holes. I could see up higher there was more, but there appeared to be routes through the snow patches, so I was not too concerned.
I followed the valley south and then westerly. I started climbing up to the west of the big rounded clever that splits the Lyell Glacier. I worked my way up more granite slabs, avoiding the snow patches because some of them appeared to have ice under them. I got up to about 11,800 ft just under the big clever and just a little to its west when I reached the toe of the Lyell Glacier. I was feeling kind of puny now, I think the altitude was beginning to get to me, so I sat down and sucked down a couple of Goo packets.
I brought along my crampons and ice axe just in case they were needed, so I took this opportunity to put them on. The granite slabs had given way to a big boulder field that continued around to the west of the glacier along the foot of Mt. Maclure. I could have stayed on the boulders and rock hopped around and up to the Lyell – Maclure saddle.
The glacier had developed sun cups during the summer about 18” deep and the recent snow had blown into all the little cups and only left a faint outline of the cups showing. The ice on the edge of the sun cups was very hard and the snow in the middle was very soft. They didn’t make a good mix. It was difficult to gage what each step was going to bring. It was either hard ice or post hole up to your knee in spots. I had to cross about a half mile of the glacier and climb up about 600 ft to the Lyell – Maclure saddle. This was terribly slow going because of the footing. I tripped more than a few times on the edges of the sun cups. Eventually, I made my way all the way to the saddle. The summit was within reach.
I took out my Trip Reports and read again about how others had climbed the summit block, just to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. I could see a large obstacle a few hundred feet up the ridge. I climbed up to this summit block and then tried to stay low and to the left as I climbed, but there seemed to be too much snow packed into all the foot placements. I had to back off and try something else.
The only other option was to climb near the crest of the ridge staying on the north side. The south side is a sheer cliff. The bands of rocks here are like large steps about 6 ft apart. The steps themselves aren’t very wide, so I had to be careful. I slowly made my way up this block that rises a couple hundred feet. I placed a few ducks along the way so I would take the same route going down. The hand holds here are very good and are described by some as bomber holds. I had death grips on these bomber holds. Eventually, I reached the small summit plateau area where a rock field leads to the actual summit. I looked back at the glacier and could see another climber about half way across heading my way.
I headed to the summit where I found the Sierra Club summit register box, but there was no register in the box. I took several pictures and ate some lunch. It was lunch time now more than 9 hours after I started. I knew I had a long trek back to my truck so I didn’t stay on the summit long. Heading back off the summit block, I passed the other hiker who was from San Jose and had started over 3 hours after I did from the same trailhead. Youth, don’t you hate it.
I took my time downclimbing back to the glacier, put on my crampons and headed across this miserable terrain. I took one fantastic tumble where I think I did a full forward summersault with a half twist. I could see the National Geographic crew below the toe of the glacier on the rocks. I hope they got a good picture of that one.
I was thankful to be off the glacier finally and getting back to the John Muir Trail at the bottom of the valley was easy. It had only taken me 3 hours to get back to the trail from the summit. Most of that time was on the glacier. The forest service guide for the National Geographic crew passed me on his way down and he was still moving too fast for me to keep pace. I started feeling better with the lower elevation, but I was certainly getting tired too. I still had 11 miles to go to get to my truck.
I didn’t want to take another break until I needed my headlamp again so I kept plowing along. I made it to about 7 miles from the truck before I needed my headlamp, but I was done, dead tired. Every step was slower than the one before. I passed the turn off for Parsons Peak. The coyotes howled at me again. The dayhiker from San Jose passed me with about 4 miles to go. I stumbled along.
At about 9:30PM I reached my truck a full 17.5 hours after I started. I covered 28 miles with about 4,600 ft of elevation gain. Day hiking Mt. Lyell is not for the faint at heart. Everything hurts, but there is no blood and not even one blister. Next year I will climb Mt. Ritter and North Palisade. I wonder if you can dayhike North Pal…..