Ski Mountaineering

Mt Lyell

Sep 17, 1988

Reiner Stenzel

When it is getting late in the climbing season one often gets that urge to do another peak before the snow arrives. Two easy emblem peaks were on my wish list, Matterhorn and Lyell. On Fri, 9/16, I day-hiked Matterhorn Peak from Twin Peaks. In the late afternoon I drove up to Tuolumne Mdws to get a wilderness permit for Lyell. But the Ranger Station was closed, no self-issue permits available, and I would have to wait till 8:30am, which was not my idea. So I decided to try the 25 mi, 5000' trip in a day. The conventional estimate is 12.5+5=17.5 hrs, a typical death march.

For Sat, 9/17, I set the alarm clock at 3am. It was pitch black and cold. I hiked along the dusty John Muir Trail with the flashlight occasionally on and off. After three hours it slowly became light. Now one could see the pretty Lyell Canyon with a meandering stream, frosted meadows and distant peaks in the background. Mt Lyell with first sunlight reflected in a quiet pond formed by the Tuolumne River. I did not see anybody at this time of the day, not even the notorious bears of Lyell Canyon.

At the end of the canyon the trail climbs steeply up to Donohue Pass. Before reaching the pass an obvious broad canyon opens up to the right leading to Lyell and MacLure. The XC climb is easy until one reaches the glacier. It was frozen hard snow, more like ice. Luckily I had brought ice axe and crampons along without which it would not be possible to ascend. The next obstacle was the wide open bergschrund at the upper end of the glacier.

It was a mixed rock and snow climb to reach the ridge of Lyell. After that the summit was in easy reach. By 12:20pm I was on the top. What a great view! It was pleasantly warm. Someone else came up. We we chatted a bit and he asked me from where I had started and where I would go next. Tuolumne Mdws I said, but he thought I must be kidding. After lunch on the summit, signing the register and picture taking I had to stick to my words and walk back to Tuolumne Mdws. Nearby Maclure was tempting but there was no time for it and it would have to wait for another opportunity in 1996.

After a careful descent I was soon back on the JMT and began the long hike out to Tuolumne Mdws. Although Lyell Canyon is very pretty the trail has often deep dry sand which slows down the pace. The hours went by with little change in scenery, just like the rolling Kuna Crest to the right of Tuolumne River. Finally, the day was coming to an end but there was no time for happy hour or dinner yet. Just before darkness, around 8pm, I arrived at my VW van. What a relief to get rid of the boots.

I spread all my gear out in the parking lot and started to cook dinner. The ranger must have smelled the food and stopped by with a stern warning that he will cite me if I camped in the parking lot. I was thinking of an appropriate response but decided to finish my dinner instead. I had a peaceful night at Warren Canyon and drove home on Sun morning.

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