HIKING THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL PART 2
Reds Meadows to Muir Trail Ranch
When last we left you, it was day six of our journey
on the John Muir Trail, Jose and I were freshly showered, had clothing
laundered, and were full of burgers and beer!
Evidence of the 1992 fire, caused by a lightning strike
Smoke from a nearby fire fills the air.
We encounter a couple of fawns at the start of our day.
The smoke abated on the eighth day of our trek as we made our way to Squaw Lake. Vance wasn’t feeling well, so he and Steve remained behind at Duck Creek as the rest of us set off. We said our goodbyes to Brendan at Virginia Lake as he had to press ahead to his resupply in Onion Valley in order to hopefully meet back up with us at Charlotte Lake. After Virginia Lake we hiked down into Tully Hole and then found a nice campsite just below Squaw Lake. We saw Mike and his sons shortly after we found our camp and invited them to camp with us for the night.
The wall of smoke, hopefully behind us
Hiking down into Tully Hole
We began day 9 with the climb up Silver Pass and were disheartened to see smoke from the wildfire on the other side of the pass. After saying our farewells to Mike, Jake, and Will, who were heading to Vermillion Valley Resort for their resupply, we made our way down the pass. The smoke became progressively worse throughout the day and we began to discuss options for bailing on our trip. With smoke hanging thick in the air we could see very little of our beautiful surroundings and we were also becoming increasingly concerned about our health. We set up camp near Mono Creek, determined to make it to Muir Trail Ranch before making a final decision about leaving the trail.
Hiking up to Silver Pass
Will, Jake, and Mike
Smoke still fills the air.
Smoke still filled the air on the morning of day 10, though not as thick as the day before. At the top of the arduous climb up the 60 switchbacks of Bear Ridge, we were rewarded with a few breaths of fresh air before hiking back down into the smoke. We encountered a trail crew doing some rock work on the trail and a Forest Service officer who checked our permit and gave us some ominous news about the wildfire- it was getting bigger, closing in on Red’s Meadows and threatening the closure of the road to Florence Lake. The Road to Florence Lake was our exit plan from Muir Trail Ranch, so we were rather concerned. He also told us how a group had gotten separated, losing each other in the smoke, they had called 911, but then found each other. After finding each other, they did not notify emergency responders so a helicopter was still sent to look for them. Visibility was pretty horrible and our lungs were beginning to burn, at this point it was looking likely that our trip would end at Muir Trail Ranch, provided the road to Florence Lake wasn’t closed!
Our camp at Rosemarie Meadows
The morning of day eleven was blessedly smoke-free as we began our ascent of Seldon Pass. We stopped at Marie Lake to take in the gorgeous scenery, revelling in the fact that we could actually SEE the gorgeous scenery! At the top of Seldon Pass I grew optimistic as we couldn’t see any smoke down in the valley. The hike down was beautiful, past Heart Lake and Sallie Keys Lake, along the wooded trail. At around noon we finally reached the junction trail to Muir Trail Ranch which was a seemingly endless, steep and rocky descent. Upon arriving at MTR we checked in and were offered lemonade and chocolate chip cookies until our tent cabin was ready for us. We relaxed in the lounge where we met another couple, Dave and Deb, who were also hiking the JMT. After twenty to thirty minutes chatting with fellow backpackers in the lounge we were given the grand tour of the ranch and shown to our tent cabin. We picked up our resupply, which we had cleverly sent a 6-pack of beer in. We put a couple beers on ice in a dry bag inside our bear barrel and then headed off to the outdoor, propane-heated showers. Feeling fresh, we explored the property before an amazing feast of a dinner and went to bed that night in a real bed!
Muir Trail Ranch
Home, Sweet Tent Cabin
The “Bear” Cooler
We had now reached the halfway mark on the John Muir Trail and day twelve was a much needed and well deserved rest day at Muir Trail Ranch. We ate a huge breakfast of biscuits and gravy and enjoyed the waffle bar. We lounged in the natural hot spring baths, both the hot bath at 107° F and the warm bath at 98° F. We were also able to get some laundry done and some emails sent home to friends and family. We stuffed ourselves with sandwiches at lunch and pork tenderloin at dinner. Best of all, we got some news updates on the wildfire and found that it was becoming better contained and the smoke was mostly all to the north of us now. We very happily decided to press on south to Mount Whitney!
Stay tuned to the next Ascender for the third installment of Hiking the John Muir Trail!
WEAVER'S NEEDLE IN ARIZONA
This article is about Weaver’s Needle in Arizona, reputed by some to be the “hardest” summit on the DPS list. It’s not hard by cardio standards, and it’s certainly not hard on your car – there is a good road all the way to the trailhead. The “worst” technical climbing is short – perhaps only 50’ vertical. Yet the climate and terrain conspire to make the goal challenging. Many of the descriptions on-line are sparse, confusing, or outdated. I hope to make it easier for folks to hit this great summit. I’ll call the peak “WN” henceforth. The first part of the article is a rather bland discussion of planning, and the second part is a more detailed trip report.
Points to consider
1) The area
The map below gives a rough indication the relative locations. The summits of Flatiron, Superstition Highpoint, and WN are denoted F, S and W, respectively. The town of Apache Junction is about 20 miles east of the heart of Phoenix. From Apache Junction, one can go northeast on the “North Apache Trail” to the Lost Dutchman state campground and the Flatiron hike. Or one can head southeast on route 60, and take King’s Canyon Road to the Hieroglyphic Canyon route to Superstition Highpoint. Further down route 60 is the turn for East Peralta Canyon Road; this road leads to the Carney Springs trailhead to Superstition HP, then the camping and trailheads for Peralta Canyon, Bluff Springs, and WN. On the map, the flatiron trail is red, the hieroglyphic route is magenta, the Carney Springs route is blue, and the Bluff Springs route to WN is purple.
There are two traditional routes up WN; on the west side, accessed by the Peralta Trail; and on the east side, accessed by a combination of Bluff Springs and Terrapin trails. On both routes, one walks about 5-6 miles in on up-and-down desert terrain, then does a bit of cross-country up to the class 4/5 climb, then does a short, very steep climb. The west route is in the shadows much of the day, and is definitely more technical, containing a 165’ section with moves rated up to 5.6 (one move), to reach the prominent notch between the WN north and south summits. The east side route has the crux at the start, involving 30-50’ (vertical) of old-school class 4 (maybe 5.2 to 5.4); the crux is typically in sun in the morning. Both routes converge at the notch (by a big chockstone), then require a “trail” that varies from class 2 to class 3-4 (more on that later!) to reach the domical top. While the volcanic rock is pretty good, there is enough loose crap on ledges to make rockfall a serious issue, worse for the east side, so helmets are required. You will find wide recommendations on the gear required. For ropes, the west definitely wants two 60m ropes, at least one dynamic, especially since you will want to rap down that 165’ pitch. The east side can do with one 50m dynamic rope; but it is very nice to have two ropes, even it the second is static. There are several places on the east side where parts of the route looks like class 3 going up, but class 4-5 going down, and it is easier to rap than spend ten minutes spotting each person coming down. One of these down-climbs has several hundred feet of exposure. The recommendations for protection are all over the map. We went up the east side; my friend CP placed 3 mid-sized cams in cracks, and that was probably overkill. The east side gully has two belay stations with rusted pitons and old quarter-inch bolts, but they are adequate as long as no one wants to show-boat with bouncing raps; at the notch between the two summits is another much-slinged rock for rappels. We had extra webbing to make new slings, but there were fairly fresh slings and rap rings in most places. Bolting has been illegal in the Superstitions for at least 30 years, and that has a bit to do with the reticence (one finds on the web) to describing the route.
From now on, I’ll discuss the eastern route via
Bluff Springs Trail. This trip is conveniently broken into 5 segments:
Below is a map that shows the route and critical intersections. If you have a GPS, it would be prudent to download the waypoints for WN from Climber.org. This trail has 7 small shoulders or saddles to cross on the way to the base of WN, so while it isn’t a hard trail, those ups and downs add up, especially at night or in warm weather.
Below is a view west-northwest from the last saddle – about where the 3400’ elevation contour is crossed by the blue track on the map above. The major features of the climb are marked. The dots show where the “trail” passes to the other side of the peak, onto easier terrain.
Most emphatically, do NOT go in the summer. The trailhead starts near 2400’, and that part of Arizona is warmer than Vegas. Even though the peak is just 4553’, the accumulated gain is close to 3700’, as the trail is somewhat of a roller coaster. Recommendations are generally for October to April. The round trip is usually estimated to take 10 to 12 hours; we took less than 7, and if CP did it alone, he probably could have made it in 5.5 hours (belays would have been an issue!). However, a larger group (we had just 3) will slow you down a lot, especially on the climb itself. One must find a balance between day length and temperature. Folks often go in April, even when the daytime temperature might reach 95F, just because of the longer days. However, in April, you will probably have heavier packs with more water. Near the winter solstice (we did the climb Dec 23), there was lots of water in the potholes on the way, and it was pleasantly cool, yet the east side was in the sun at the start of the climb. Near the winter solstice, the west side is often in the shadows all day, and may be icy and scary. But in April, the shadows on the west side may be a welcome relief.
Whenever you go – be it winter solstice or near the equinoxes – it pays to get an early start, perhaps by headlamp. The trail is indistinct and rocky in places, and tripping into the many spiky plants would not be a good idea. We arranged the timing so we took off an hour before first light, under a waning (67%) gibbous moon.
3) The drive
Don’t underestimate the drive from Vegas to the Peralta Trailhead. It ends up being at least 360 miles each way, and unfortunately, at least 50 miles of that is spent driving across Phoenix. Use your smartphone or car gps to plan a route across Phoenix that involves travelling on route 60 the minimum amount necessary. (Route 60 east is nice on the far east side of the city, and makes a good place to stop for food or gas stations on the northwest. But it is a 45 mph road with many traffic lights for a long stretch near Phoenix.) Route 93, from I-40 to Wickenberg, is still mostly 2-lane on hilly terrain; there are some passing lanes, but it is an annoying section with trucks and maniacal drivers.
This is perhaps the most ambiguous issue; it won’t hurt to get updates from the Tonto National Forest rangers. Currently, there seems to be one place where it legal to camp near the Peralta trailhead; that spot is about 0.3 to 0.5 mile southwest of the trailhead. There are three fire rings across from the equestrian area (which itself is signed “no camping”), and sometimes, a port-a-potty is there as well.
Just south of this campsite, the East Peralta road has many warning signs about “Arizona Trust Land,” but those signs disappear when you reach the area administered by the Tonto USFS. Confused US Marshals, sent out to clear squatters from the AZ Trust Land, have mistakenly threatened people who were legally on USFS land. Many people discreetly car-camp at the Peralta trailhead parking (the very NE end of the E Peralta Road – see maps above), which specifically has a single “no camping” sign at the entrance. This site also has (as of Dec 2013) very clean pit toilets. If you arrived late, and backed your car in so one can’t see the sleeping area, you would probably be unhassled. I had been told about a “sweet camping spot for one or two tents” just (15 feet) south of the main parking, by a picnic table; that’s where I set up my tent. After I was all settled in, I walked up the road and saw the “no camping” sign for the first time. The location of the sign, versus the area I camped, screams ambiguity; if it had been earlier in the day, I would have packed up and gone back to the legal camping, 0.5 miles south.
There is also a backpack option. It is legal to camp almost anywhere in the Tonto Forest, as long as you are several hundred feet from a road. Technically, you could go up the trail a mile and set up. In winter, when water is more abundant, some people pack in closer to WN, so they can worry less about the day length. Northeast of Apache Junction, is the Lost Dutchman State Campground (http://azstateparks.com/Parks/loDU/index.html). You can make on-line reservations for this campground, but the place is very popular, so make your reservations as early as possible if you want this option. In the morning, you can get from the campground to the Peralta trailhead in about 30 minutes.
And lastly, you can choose to “camp” at the luxurious Best Western Gold Canyon, just east of the junction of King’s Canyon Road and route 60. With an AAA or AARP discount, a room is about $90. However, it is right next to route 60, so try to get a room well away from the highway, or wear earplugs!
Our Trip—Some Specifics
The day before our trip to WN, we went for a hike to Superstition Highpoint, via the Carney Springs Trail (I had previously been to that peak via Hieroglyphic Canyon). This was a good “warm up,” and the hike gave us some valuable information. First, we saw that the western route up WN was dark (out of the sun) all day; and second, there was ice on the trail, where it was shaded, above 3900’. The combination of those observations suggested there might be ice on the western route, so we were biased toward the eastern route.
View east to west route on WN, from Carney Springs Trail
We then headed to the Peralta Springs uppermost parking, where I set up a tent in that little ambiguous spot, and my friends CP and DB discreetly backed up their pickup/camper shell, so one couldn’t see in the back. Our Friend Tracy was arriving at 8PM that eve; I had sacked out by 6PM.
In the morning we did a brief gear check: CP carried a rack with an assortment of cams, chocks and slings; Tracy took a 60m, 10mm dynamic rope; and I took a 60m 8mm static rope with dyneema core. I had packed so the rope was in a smaller “summit pack” (REI flash 18), designed so I could lash another stuff sack on back. All my gear went into a larger internal frame pack, so I could carry lots of stuff to the crux comfortably.
We headed off “right” onto the Bluff Springs Trail at 6:04AM. It was good to have a GPS with waypoints for the important turns, as several times, spur trails branched off and were hard to distinguish in the limited illumination. Once we started walking down a clear wash instead of the trail, and I looked at my GPS and saw we had just passed a waypoint marked something like “stay out of wash”! The only other important route actions were to turn hard left onto the Terrapin Trail, then look for the use trail on the left, branching off to the eastern base. At the last saddle (out of 7!), WN was ablaze in the early morning light.
Tracy at last saddle; view of WN to west-northwest
From the Terrapin Trail, there are sporadic cairns all the way to the base of the climb – even if you miss the cairns, you simply aim for a white band and the central gully between the north summit and the lower south summit. There is one chockstone, where a brief class 3 climb on the right side will get you back on class 2 terrain. Then in a short distance, you are faced with the crux of the climb. Here we cached part of our gear, and I transferred critical items to the small pack (holding the static rope), put on my harness and helmet, and was ready to climb.
While CP untangled the dynamic rope, I tried the first part of the climb. The key was to stay on the right side of the gully, and mount the rib/ramp. It looked good ahead, so I backed down to wait my turn. The rock looks similar to Castle Peak CA (Mojave), but is far tougher and more stable; it is relatively easy to get up onto the rib, by using protruding pieces of volcanic breccia. The DPS guide suggests the leader be belayed from far to the left within the gully; it’s hard to figure out how this would work, except to help direct a fall a shorter distance into the gully, versus directly off the east side of the rib. CP didn’t like that idea, and I belayed him from just left of the rib, rather loosely, until he put in the first piece of protection (a mid-sized cam) perhaps 20-25’ up. Then I tightened up a little and he put in two more mid-sized cams, using convenient cracks.
Belaying the leader (courtesy Tracy F.)
After CP was up at comfortable belay spot (with a rusting piton and old bolt), I realized the line back to me was pretty direct, so Tracy went next and cleaned off the protection. I went next; it was no harder than some routes I have done in Red Rock, but since we didn’t know the rock, we felt caution was the better part of valor. CP then set up the dynamic rope for our bottom rap, and we proceeded with just the static rope, mainly as a convenience. While CP was working, I climbed all the way up to the notch, using the right side fork of the gully. A short distance above the first belay station is another station with many slings; the right side of this looks a little hard, but is easily climbed as class 3+. The next obstacle is a small chockstone (distinct from the other two I discuss); this could be tough for shorter folks, since the natural “handhold” above it is a bit loose. The DPS guide rates this area as mixed class 3 and 4, but the volcanic rock has lots of big pits and holds, allowing one to climb nearly vertical faces. You have to watch out for the loose rocks, which were on nearly every shelf on the way.
View east and DOWN
View east from the notch; I’m standing on top of class 3/4 wall, with a view of the notch chockstone and rap station
From the notch, one heads north; look for the wear on the rock (often whitish). There is usually a way to get around nasty-looking obstacles – sometimes via a subtle trail through brush-- so don’t do anything daring until you have checked the options. Soon one starts trending west (left) to get to the SW side of the north summit. About 100’ below the top, the route winds to the left in a bit of a crack, then climbs up what is now the rule on WN: “class 3 on the way up, class 4 on the way down.” Pass a very steep gully (which apparently sucks in many of the unwary), and keep going left, then straight up onto the grassy areas near the summit.
From near the top, view south, just above exposed class 3/4
View N from summit, Brown’s Peak on skyline at right
On the way down, you can avoid the nastiest downclimb by rapping. Trend SW from the peak, staying higher and to the left (east) of the way you ascended, to roughly 33.43292, -111.37084 (WGS84). There is a very good rap station; the rap is slightly overhanging, but clean and with a good takeoff, allowing you to skip a sketchy downclimb with 500’ of exposure.
Uppermost rap station; view south to south summit
After the rap, reverse your route to the notch. At the wall just north of the notch, either handline down or do a short rap down below the chockstone (per the photo with the "rap point” and “chockstone” labels). Then you will want to descend to the bottommost belay station, probably one at a time to avoid beaning each other with rocks. Then rap off the crux to Terra Firma, and reverse the hike!
Last rap, south of crux ramp
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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Canyons of Zion
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Cotopaxi in Ecuador and Trekking in Nepal