Tuolumne County High Point Trip Report
Date: August 17-19, 2001
Author: Edward Earl
Quantitatively, Mount Lyell is 13,114' feet above sea level, the highest in
Yosemite National Park and in Tuolomne county. Qualitatively, Mount Lyell is a
magnificent crown jewel nestled in the heart of the northern Sierra. Alpine
scenery abounds on the approach and in the view from the summit. The climb
involves a traverse of the Lyell Glacier, the second largest in the Sierra
Nevada after the Palisade Glacier, followed by a good quality class 3 scramble
up a series of rock ledges.
The Lyell team consisted of myself, my friend Adam Helman, and Kurt Mitchler,
brother of the legendary county highpointer John Mitchler. On Friday 8/17 we
convened at the Lyell Canyon trailhead and, after arranging gear and depositing
unwanted food in the mandatory bear proof boxes by the parking lot, began the
nearly level 8-mile trek up Lyell Canyon. Two small fires on the east side of
the canyon made us wonder briefly if the park rangers would close the route,
but they were pretty confident they had things under control. The trail climbs
to about 10,500' at which point we headed cross country a few hundred yards to
our camp near an unnamed lake nestled in an elongated north-south basin.
On summit day, we headed south up low slabs above camp, then veered southwest
up more slabs, approaching a bouldery moraine above. The morainal boulders
seemed interspersed with loose dirt, which is not fun to climb. As the right
(west, as we were southbound) side of the moraine was not as high, we could
minimize moraine travel in favor of slab travel by pushing as far to the right
as seemed reasonable. We surmounted the crest of the moraine and descended
about 60 feet to the Lyell Glacier.
Once on the glacier, we placed on crampons as the surface was relatively icy.
The rangers had warned us of possible hidden crevasses, and we avoided that risk by
staying within about 50 feet of the right side of the glacier and, at one
point, heading up a narrow strip of snow between the glacier's edge and an
small boulder pile that protruded from the surface. We made good progress up
the glacier and soon reached the saddle between Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure.
The ice ended just before the saddle. The glacier did have a bergschrund, but
we did not have to deal with it directly because it was higher up and to the
left, under the hulk of Mount Lyell itself, now looming large.
From the saddle, the summit ridge of Mount Lyell rises gradually at first;
then it jumps up sharply perhaps 150' to 200' in a series of rock ledges that makes
an overall angle of 45 to 60 degrees. Just beyond this point, a very narrow,
steep, snow-filled gully attains the ridge just above the rock ledges. We had
been eyeing this crux region for some time as we approached, as the best route
is sometimes up the gully, sometimes up the ledges, depending on the snow level.
Since the ledges were snow-free, and the gully was exposed to the
bergschrund below, the ledges were probably the safer route.
Although Suttle's book says the ledges have solid holds, it wasn't obvious from
a distance what the best route through the ledges would be. Most of the ledges
were "squared off"; that is, they had only horizontal and vertical surfaces and
seemed 15-20' high, probably not climbable without a rope, which we had not.
However, I had had my eye on an angled flake near the lower left base of the
cliffed area, and the flake led to a region where the ledges seemed small
enough to surmount easily.
Adam wanted to move onto the rock owing to our proximity to the bergschrund, and
also because he saw a possible route to the flake in question from our current location.
Thereby Adam removed his crampons and I directed him to a point where he was sure we
would be able to move onto the flake.
Kurt and I followed to meet Adam at the base of the crux move. Adam and I took
off our packs to improve our balance. I went first, Adam
passed up our packs, and then he and Kurt followed.
Once past the flake, there
are a gazillion ways to climb the ledges up to the apex of the steep part.
After passing a couple of gaps with sheer gullies dropping far down the south
face, we attained the broad sloping summit plateau. From here it was an easy
class 2 boulder scramble to the summit.
All in all I found Mount Lyell to be a wonderful climb. It's a backpack trip
that totals three days amid gorgeous alpine scenery. The upper part of the
mountain was a slight challenge but not at all daunting. The class 3 ledge
section is very good quality with bomber holds. The glacier traverse adds
variety that rounds out the alpine climbing experience.
As Kurt and myself broke camp for returning to the trailhead, Adam set out alone
to explore a possible cross-country route to the
Mariposa County high point.