Ski Mountaineering

Comb Spur, Volcanic Lakes

Aug 6-9, 2009

Reiner Stenzel

Summer trips into the Sierra Nevada are a real pleasure. Looking for some orphin peak to climb in some remote areas I decided on the Comb Spur in the Monarch Divide. It has no trip reports on climber. org or the SPS Archives and the peak has not been climbed for many years.

In addition, nearby are some great lakes, the Volcanic Lakes, which are infrequently visited. You can have your favorite lake all for yourself, after "earning your turns". After driving the winding roads 189 and 180 through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks I arrived Thursday evening at Cedar Grove. Since one can get a wilderness permit only at the Ranger station closest to the trailhead I had to wait till Ranger Rick showed up next morning and went through all the regulations to justify charging $15 for a wilderness permit now.

At 7:30am I headed up the Copper Creek trail. It is 10+mi and 5300' up to Granite Lake, my first night's destination. No pain, no gain, but at least I avoided the hottest time of the day on the lower sun-baked switchbacks. Memories came up that 7 years ago we skied the upper slopes on the Cirque Crest Traverse. By 2pm I was at the 10,347' pass leading into Granite Basin and by 3:30pm I made it to the beautiful Granite Lake.

But what a difference a day makes: In the morning it was sunny and hot, but in the evening at the lake low clouds rolled in and a cold wind was blowing. A predicted low pressure cold front was moving through. Clouds sank down to the lake and at times I was in a white out. To get out of the wind I relocated my camp from the lake into a forest. After a few hours the spook was over and the clouds lifted again. The day ended with a colorful sunset. The only casualty was my trout dinner. Many trout were jumping before darkness but it got too late for fishing.

The next day's plan was to climb a peak and to relocate to the Volcanic Lakes. By 7:30am I hiked up a ridge on the east side of the Comb Spur (11,618'), a straightforward cl 2 climb of about 1,500', made more rewarding by carrying a full pack. At 9am I found on the summit a tiny peak register in a glass jar, the kind used for salmon eggs. Since the peak is on no list the usual peak bagger names are missing. The earliest signatures date from 1979, a few from each decade, hardly any after 2000. An advantage of the disorganized loose sheets is that does not seem to attract register thieves. Anyhow, I left a new spiral notebook in a plastic container on this summit.

The Comb Spur is actually a ridge with about 8 numbered peaks, all around 11,500+-100'. The east side looks benign, but the west side has nearly vertical drop offs. The main summit is at the NE end. There are patches of Columbines growing between the summit rocks. The views from the summit are unobstructed, only limited by the usual mid summer haze. You can see Silliman, the Great Westen Divide, CK and Gardiner, the Goat Crest, the Palisades, the Black Divide, Goddard, even obscure Tunemah,... you name it. I enjoyed a relaxed time on the summit since it looked like a short distance to my next destination, the Volcanic Lakes.

The Volcanic Lakes are separated from Granite Lake by a significant ridge. From the upper Granite Lake there are easy but long chutes to the ridge, one of which I climbed up. But the other side, leading north to the lakes, was a surprise. Most of the chutes were class 4. Safe chutes were only visible at the far right (east) or far left sides of the ridge which forms a long cirque for the upper Volcano Lakes. Since I could not clearly see the chutes on the right side I decided to traverse to the left side. It was a long hike but a safe descent which is important when going solo with a full pack.

In the early afternoon I cruised from lake to lake. Some lakes had a few fish, most had lots of tadpoles. I decided to hang out at the eastern upper two lakes because they seemed the prettiest. There were gentle rock slabs leading into the lake for a refreshing dip and drying in the sun. There were no people at the upper lakes, presumably because of the difficult access. However, the Kennedy Pass trail leads past the lowest lake. There are no volcanoes around the Volcanic Lakes. As at all high altitude lakes the sun is intense by midday but at night it is cold. Frost covered my sleeping bag in the morning since I used no tent.

I decided to hike out on Sunday. By 6:30am I ascended the slopes east of the Volcanic Lakes which leads to a plateau to Granite Pass (10,673'). Back on the trail it was easy cruising down into Granite Basin, but then came a stretch of uphill to an unnamed pass from where the trail descends down to Copper Canyon. It was a pleasant hike in fine summer weather. In the early morning I met a deer on the trail, later some hikers sweating their way up in the summer heat. By 2pm I was back at the car, washed up in the roaring Kings River, and drove 6 hours home.

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