In 2009, while hiking the John Muir Trail, we (Penelope May-Smrz and Alois Smrz) could not help but notice the dramatic skyline of a peak in the distance. After some study we realized we were looking at the sweep of the North West Arête of Mt. Clark: must climb it some day!
Mt Clark and its striking NW Arete as seen from John Muir Trail
That day came when we were able to snag a 6-day backcountry permit at the last minute, from Mono Meadows Trailhead in Yosemite National Park. One of the advantages of the system is that you can then stay in overflowing Yosemite Valley in the walk-in permit-holders campground, behind North Pines, both the night before your trip and the night after, without a reservation!! We gloated.
Since we also planned to climb Mt. Starr King’s East Face while we were in the area (wouldn’t want to waste any time or forward movement!), we backpacked in with very heavy packs which included full climbing gear with two 8 mm ropes.
Although Mono Meadows has been burned, the recovery is beautiful…the flowers resplendent.
The Mono Meadow in its full splendor
After about 3 miles is the Illilouette Creek trail crossing: National Park Service reports had suggested a wild and high raging waterway: disappointed, we found it only knee high but enjoyed the pleasure of the refreshing cold water!
The Illilouette Creek crossing was uneventful
After the creek crossing, views of the South Face of Half Dome dominate the area.
The South Face of Half Dome dominates the view after the creek crossing
We then passed our 2nd objective, Mt. Starr King, as we were hiking along. The left-hand dome is the summit.
Mt Starr King massif from the Mono Meadow trail.
It is about a further 3 miles on the trail to where the trail crosses the Clark Fork of the Illilouette Creek. Here we hiked off-trail some distance and found a flat, private campsite with a spectacular view of our current objective, Mt. Clark.
The magnificent Mt Clark at sunset.
Summitpost’s route description describes the climb as 4th Class/Easy 5th, where a rope is not needed. Nonetheless, once bitten twice shy, we planned to take one of our double ropes and a small selection of pro with us. So, we stashed the rest of the climbing gear in a tree, extra food in one of our bear canisters, and took a GPS reading of the hiding spot, just in case our memory deserted us.
The next day we left with somewhat lighter backpacks and hiked NE, staying left of the No-name Fork of the Illilouette Creek, and skirting the marsh in a clockwise direction until we reached the valley between two granite outcroppings. We discovered the best way up and through the manzanita and prickly brush was staying close to the granite on the left side.
After reaching the saddle, we descended to a tributary creek and enjoyed a pleasant if small lunch.
Pen is hiking just past the saddle between the two large granite outcroppings
Then the real work started….up the steep western slope of Clark: we ended our day after 2,400’ of gain and just 4 miles, to a flattish camping site above the beautiful marsh (about 9,600’) surrounded by a swath of colorful wildflowers of numerous kinds (and mosquitoes).
One of the very few flattish areas is close to the source of the Clark Fork of the Illilouette Creek at about 9,600'.
At about 2 AM, voices coming from the west face area of Mt. Clark woke us up. Two or three people were coming down from the summit, just barely missing our tent, talking loudly about their need to get to Mono Meadow TH, some 10 miles away. Good luck with that! We commented that, just possibly, there might be some complications with this route and/or the descent.
Next morning we started early and gained the final 1,400’ or so in the last ¾ mile to the notch in the skyline. En route we passed the gendarme rearing up toward the summit…hmm, that is supposed to be 4th Class too!
Pen on the way to the notch and passing by the gendarme
Alois is at the notch of the upper NW Arete
What a fantastic view met us when we reached the notch of the arête: Yosemite National Park spread out before us…northwards toward Tuolumne sprouting domes galore…like Hershey Kisses. We thought about Galen Clark, the 1st Guardian of Yosemite, for whom the peak was named, and how apt that this peak was selected in his honor, as his entire domain was laid out before him.
After reaching the notch, the view of Tuolumne High Country is absolutely awesome.
We got on the arête right at the notch and looked down the dramatic steep ridge that we had once seen from the Half Dome area.
The view down the lower section of the NW Arete.
Pen looked up the arête and commented that it looked harder than 4th Class. How things can be illusionary! Not to worry, said Alois, I will find the way!
Alois on the crest of the Arete above the notch
Penelope climbing the clean and steep lower Arete
The Nw Arete a few hundred feet above the notch.
After a few hundred feet from the notch, we came to an impenetrable overhanging gigantic boulder, through which he could not find a way. We looked everywhere for a 4th Class way to go around it and could not find one, after trying several unsavory options….so we proceeded along the easiest way we could, and with Pen in the lead, and soloing increasingly steep and difficult 5th Class….at a 5.6 crack above a small ledge, she stopped and Alois willingly roped up!
Our 5.6 version of the access to the top of the arete.
Past that obstacle, the going was back to 4th Class and the exposure was magnificent all the way to the summit.
Alois on the clean and scenic crest of the Arete.
The complete NW Arete is visible in this photo.
Alois on the now flat section of the Arete.
Pen is looking at the summit block.
We found the summit view to be one of the best in the whole of the High Sierra. As far as one can see, there are peaks and domes visible on the horizon. From Yosemite Falls, Lost Arrow, to the South Face of Half Dome, Mt Starr King, Mathess Crest, Cathedral Peak and most of the other Tuolumne Domes, Mt Conness, the Ritter Range, the Minarets… the views just keep coming at you. This Mt Clark is the gem of the Southern Yosemite High Country!
The sea of Tuolumne Meadows peaks and domes as seen from the summit.
Mount Ritter and Banner and the Minarets view from the summit
Mt Starr King massif seen from the summit.
Yosemite Falls, The Lost Arrow and the South Face of Half Dome.
Since Summitpost indicated that the SE Ridge was 3rd Class with a touch of 4th, we planned to descend it. Starting down it, we found it steep and precarious, and without being familiar with it, decided to return the way we came. We had spied two places with rap slings earlier and returned to them, not wanting to risk down-climbing that miserable 5.6 crack. One of them had rings but deteriorated webbing, so we removed it; the other one had good quality doubled webbing but no rings: we added the two rings here….some distance above the 5.6 crack, coincidentally and conveniently. Fortunately, even with one rope we were able to reach easier ground above the saddle of the gendarme and lower down, we found another sling rap station…we improved it and rapped down to stable ground from there.
Alois on the first rap to the gendarme saddle. Note the location of the second rap station.
Penelope is hiking down to our tent. The lower NW Arete is visible.
By early afternoon we were back in camp thirsting for our Turkish coffee treat with “cake” (energy bar). We swiped a few mosquitoes and relaxed, thankful that we had taken a rope and wondering how many people relied on the assumption that a rope was not needed. It had saved our bacon.
Next day we returned to our stash at the Clark Fork intersection with the trail and re-organized our gear in order to climb Mt Starr King the following day.
TOTAL: 22 miles, RT (12 miles on trail, 10 miles x-country/climbing), 4500’ Gain, Plus another 800’ Gain on the return to the Mono Meadows Trail Head.
The Arete is rising up from the notch in dramatic fashion and contains excellent quality rock. It is steep, clean and absolute delight to scramble on.
Rarely do you find high quality, almost Yosemite like rock in the Sierra backcountry. Mt Clark NW Arete is of that quality. The route is a wonderful outing and highly recommended.
A FEW NOTES FROM ALOIS: We spent about ½ hour searching for the reported 4th/5th class line somewhere to the climber’s right on the arête, but we didn’t find it. After I found no feasible route on the left side of the arête, we found about 90-100 feet of almost vertical terrain with some mid fifth class moves on the right side. Pen went up this for some 70 feet and stopped on a tiny ledge below an almost vertical, fist-sized crack. Not seeing what was above us, we roped about 20 feet of the crack (turned out to be an awkward 5.6). That got us on the arête again. We un-roped and enjoyed the tremendous views in all directions. If you are like us, there for the first time and not knowing where the “easy” 4th/5th class route is, you have two choices: search for it until you find it, or bring a rope. Judging from the summit register, more than one party wished they had a rope with them.
Who knows, maybe the description of easy 4th/5th class really refers to the almost vertical, 90-100 foot section of fifth class with a tail of 5.6. If so, make sure you can downclimb the crack un-roped or else…
The second issue is, since we came up via the NW Arête, descending the SE Arête only made sense if it was truly 3rd/4th class, and/or if you knew the “easy” way. The first few moves going down via the steep SE Arête do not inspire much confidence. The SE Arête actually looks pretty impressive (and quite long) from the summit. I looked around for a while, but didn’t see anything that would easily and quickly go. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but…
There is much safer, shorter and easier way down. You can rap from the existing station directly above the gendarme which will get you to the saddle behind the gendarme. A bit lower is another fixed rap station which will get you to Terra Firma pronto.
Why am I spending time on this? Simple. If you know the “easy” way, have been there before, or somebody in your party has, there is no need for any guess work. Everything is simple and clear. But if you are there for the first time, things could get a bit complicated. Like for those three people who (for whatever reason) descended Mount Clark at 2 AM. I bet they would have a good story to tell!
This was our first ever trip to the backcountry of Southern Yosemite. We both think, the area is an absolute must to see, there are many domes to climb and the Clark Range is full of beautiful peaks. And compared to the neighboring Yosemite Valley, you’ll find similarly wonderful scenery but almost complete solitude. That is worth every tired step!