Tuolumne County High Point Trip Report

Mt Lyell

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.