Routes: Lyell Glacier, West Ridge, Mt Maclure via Southeast Ridge
Elevation Gained: 5,041'
RT Distance: 26 mi
RT Time: 15hr 30min
Trailhead: Toulomne Meadows
Summit Elevs.: Mt Lyell: 13,114' Mt Maclure: 12,960'
Rating: Class 3
Dave Wright’s ankle had been giving him trouble from the Conness climb, so he decided to take a rest day. Fortunately Michelle Peot was willing to pick me up on her way to the Tuolomne Meadows trailhead. I hopped into her pickup and we were at the trailhead by 3:50 am. Everyone was meeting extra early today – the trailhead start time was scheduled for 4 am to account for the extremely long distance to be covered that day. We had a 28 mile day hike to look forward to, and it looked to be quite a grind – during the first 8.5 miles of trail we would only gain about 500 ft of the 5,050 ft to be ascended that day.
A lot of people showed up at the trailhead. The hike the day before had had record attendance for the Sierra Challenge, and many of the participants had come back for another beating.
We left at 4:10 am at a blistering pace – Matthew Holliman was in the lead, followed by Michael Graupe and me. Michelle and others were right behind me. Hiking by headlamp became difficult at such speeds as we kicked up a lot of dust. My problem became worse as my headlamp light began to fail – I was trying to squeeze as much life out of the batteries as I could, and I had the bad judgment to start of with this group of fast hikers without a fresh set of batteries. My light kept flashing on and off, usually at inopportune times, causing me to trip on the rocks and bridges that we crossed.
I knew that we had a long approach to get to the cross-country travel and scrambling, and I couldn’t get left behind this early. If I did I would only fall further behind since I would have to do my own route finding and I wasn’t as familiar with the area as other were. Since someone was still right on my heels I assumed everyone was and kept going. As I tripped left and right I left my momentum carry me along the trail, landing on my other leg and continuing to hike along, half jogging.
We passed through the occasional meadows in Lyell Canyon. They looked very surreal as they were bathed in the cold azure glow of the full moon. We pressed on in the dark without a word, hiking at a pace I could barely sustain, with only the sound of boots clomping along the trail – time seemed to stand still. Meadows came and went, and in the dark everything looked the same. Suddenly the stillness of time was broken by the yipping of coyotes somewhere out in one of the meadows – we were certainly in wild country now.
Oddly enough it was a relief for me when we reached the first set of switchbacks. My legs were dying from the brutal pace – I had never hiked so fast for so long in all my life. We slowed down a bit on the hill. In addition to this, my legs were further relieved by pushing upward for a change rather than forward. I’m used to the steep trails of the Wasatch, not flat expanses, so now I was beginning to be in my element. Heading up the hill offered a slight reprieve and I no longer felt like I would collapse – I might keep up after all! Soon the need to dig a cat hole became too great and I had to give up the chase. Even though everyone was still right on my tail, I just had to stop. As I dropped off the trail I noticed that Michelle wasn’t behind me. Dmitry seemed to be the only one following me – no one else was in sight!
I took care of business and was ready to head on 10 minutes later when I saw Bob Burd and some other mountain goats rushing up the trail. By this point my legs had begun to cramp up a little and I was hiking a little slower – I had been hiking at about 4 mph for the last 2 ½ hours and by this time my legs were spent. Bob soon caught up and I inquired as to whether we were going to take a brief 10 minute breather for some food at some point soon.
“Break?!! What are you talking about? We’re not taking any breaks!” he chirped as he passed me. Oh boy, today was going to be a rough day.
Soon we were above tree line. Just as we reached a bend in the trail at a picturesque alpine lake, Bob kept heading straight. Now we were beginning the two miles of cross country remaining before we reached the peaks. Bob and Joel Wilson had gotten ahead of me at this point, and I struggled on just to keep them in sight. They slowed down a bit as we reached the beginning of some granite slabs and our first views of Mt Maclure for the day. At one point I caught up to Bob as he stopped to photograph the bones of some deer or mountain goat. He turned to me with a grin on his face, and with a gesture towards the skeleton remarked “Don’t let this happen to you!” Perhaps that was the skeleton of one of the slower hikers on an earlier Sierra Challenge?
Bob and Joel soon gained about 100 yards on me as we headed up the seemingly endless granite slabs. I felt like I was scrambling in southern Utah as I walked up all of these rock slabs – there was no vegetation in sight, only the smallest turf and a desert of crystalline rock.
I caught up with Joel at the toe of the Lyell Glacier. Bob had already rushed up the glacier, but Joel was still putting on his crampons. By this point I could see both Lyell and Maclure and the route finding seemed straightforward. Joel and I hiked together from this point, heading up the glacier straight toward the rocky cliffs of Mt Lyell. I saw a figure stop at the bas of the cliffs and watch us for a little while. I figured it was Bob. By the time we finished cramponing up the awkward runnels on the glacier I had lost track of the figure. According to the purple line on Bob’s topo we were to head toward a low point in the ridge on the east side of the mountain, so Joel and I angled towards the saddle.
At the saddle we had an awesome view of Banner Pk & Mt Ritter. After taking a few photos we attempted to follow the route shown on the topo, but it soon became obvious that the ridge was NOT 3rd class like it was marked in the topo. We crossed the moat along the cliffs several times as we headed west, looking for a break in the cliffs. After about 200 feet I saw a series of steep ledges that looked to be high class 3 to class 4. Joel and I scrambled up the ledges and the route seemed to go through. The rock was solid and the climbing exposed. After zigzagging up the cliff face we reached a subtle ridge and followed it to the summit of Mt Lyell.
Bob Burd had signed the summit register a full half hour before us! Our route finding difficulties had really slowed us up. Joel and I headed northwest toward the class 3-4 west ridge of Mt Lyell. We angled away from the main ridge and dropped straight to the glacier down some steep sandy ledges. The snow was very steep and hard packed, so we put on our crampons and down climbed the slope facing into the hill. Just at this time Matthew Holliman was topping out of the glacier, looking very flustered. He had no crampons! To save weight he had only brought an ice axe, figuring that the snow would have softened up by the time we reached the peaks. Now he was climbing precariously up the slope, chopping foot steps for himself with his ice axe. He had chosen to climb Maclure first and was now heading up Lyell. We wished him luck on the unpleasant loose route up that part of the mountain and headed down to the saddle separating Mt Maclure and Mt Lyell.
Joel took off ahead of me at this point and soon disappeared. I trudged up the unpleasant class 2 boulders, heading towards the horizon of the hillside in front of me. Finally I reached the beginnings of some solid rock just as Joe Dawson, John Fedak, and Michelle Peot were heading down. As I waited for them to climb through the bottleneck I questioned them about the remainder of the climb. Apparently some good class 3 was all that I had left!
I scrambled up onto the ridge and followed the sheer knife edge over to the windy summit. By this point I figured that I was the last one up there and became worried of getting left without a ride at the trailhead again. I hurried back along the ridge and dropped down to the glacier. I was pleasantly surprised to find a snowfield that cut through the tedious talus slope and glissaded down the slope. Traversing across the glacier I soon caught up with Joe, John, and Michelle.
At this point we were all tired out and moving slowly. Since I knew that Michelle could give me a ride I relaxed and hiked with the rest of the group at an easier pace. Soon we reached the never ending cycle of meadows and trees filling Lyell Canyon. It was mid-afternoon and now the trail was full of backpackers. Most were carrying fishing poles and nearly all of them were about 30 lbs overweight and sitting alongside the trail. Apparently this easy stretch of the John Muir trail was popular for easy backpacking fishing trips!
We stopped for a short break, ate some food, and soaked our feet in the cold creek. The rest felt nice and the cold water felt nice against our bruised and battered feet. Then we were on our way again. By this time I had developed a coping mechanism to deal with the torture of Lyell Canyon. I picked out a patch of rocks on the opposite hillside as far down the canyon as I could see. I watched with excitement as these rocks slowly got closer to us. By the time we were even with them I rewarded myself by picking out another marker as far down the canyon as I could see. This psychotic exercise and our group’s incessant fantasizing of that night’s dinner kept me going.
As we neared a bend that I excitedly pointed out as the end of that godforsaken Lyell Canyon John began to fall behind. He assured us he would catch up and we continued on. Once we reached the meadow we got confused as to which trail to take – there were a lot of forks in the trail that we had missed hiking in the dark earlier that day. Joe directed us on right fork after a bridge crossing and we soon reached an inconclusive break in the trial at another river. We waited here a while for John to catch up and eventually gave up waiting for him. I took my best guess as to which way to go and we hiked on. We crossed a bridge and passed the Tuolomne Meadows lodge. Now we knew were we were going – we had ended up somewhere east of the trailhead. Joe and Michelle recognized were we were and we headed down the road to reach the trailhead parking.
I was exhausted. We had been hiking for about 14 hours at a very fast pace and my legs were beat. I knew that I probably wouldn’t have the strength in me to cover the 18 miles and 6,240 ft vertical gain to climb Mt Julius Ceasar the following day. I had pushed myself to my limit.
A lot had happened the previous day. I had hiked way too fast and my legs were a wreck. I also experienced some very bad chafing to the point of bleeding and as a result I could hardly move my legs. I stayed in a motel in Bishop with Dave Wright that night, but because of our differences in schedules on the Challenge, he suggested that I ride and stay with Bob Burd for the rest of the trip.
Dave headed out to climb Julius Ceasar with the rest of the group while I stayed in Bishop to recuperate. The motel room was only booked for one night, so at 11 am I gathered all of my gear together and checked out. At this point I had nowhere to go and had all day to spend in Bishop. I headed to the park to lay in the shade and read a book. I looked rather odd walking around town, as I was carrying one large backpacking pack stuffed as full as I could get it, a full daypack, and a rolling suite case. I was also looked disheveled and walked with an awkward limp.
I laid against a tree in the park and read my book. I noticed some other people waiting around in the park who waved to me. They were homeless people! They must have thought that I was one of them!
Spending all day in the park with nothing to do nearly drove me crazy. I finished my book and tossed & turned beneath the shady trees until it was time to head over to where we had agreed to have dinner. I was VERY bored, but luckily my legs had healed well enough to hike again the next day.