Tuolumne County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Lyell (13,114 ft)

Date: August 17, 2006
Author: Peter Maurer

After picking up our wilderness permit at the Tuolumne Meadows ranger station (reserve one early on-line or arrive a day in advance for a non-reserved permit), we headed up the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River for base camp. Bear canisters are required due to increased bear activity in the Lyell Canyon (the first stop for incorrigible bears from Yosemite Valley). The first 8 miles are an easy, gradual hike on the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail until the head of the canyon, then it climbs steeply for the next 2 1/2 miles to the point where the route leaves the trail. We camped overnight about a mile short of the jumping off point, shortly after a bridge crossing of the Lyell Fork.

The next morning dawned clear and warm and we hiked up to the base of the bowl below Mounts Lyell and McClure. Here the trail makes a sharp turn to the east before heading over Donahue Pass. We dropped our packs prepared for the ascent. There are two options. One way is heading directly up the bowl to the foot of the glacier, or going to the right (north) of the granite ridge, crossing a smaller bowl, then ascending a rocky ridge off of McClure. The ridge takes one up to the base of McClure and on up to the saddle between the peaks. This avoids the glacier and, if doing the peak as a day trip, the route could be shortened by leaving the trail at McClure Creek. Since we were continuing south on the PCT, we opted for the more traditional route up through the bowl and across the glacier.

A third member, who had hiked up from Tuolumne Meadows earlier that morning, joined our party. His was a long single day outing, covering about 25 miles and 5000 feet of elevation. The first part was literally a walk in the park, easy scrambles over boulders, across wildflower-strewn meadows, and hopping across numerous snow-melt freshets. Once we got around the granite ridge that forms the eastern edge of the bowl, the full mountain was in front of us and, after a short level stretch across the bowl, the steeper scrambling began. About an hour of class 2 climbing got us to the moraine at the foot of the Lyell Glacier (the largest in the Sierra Nevada). We then angled across it to the saddle between Lyell and McClure. This was easy going, no need for crampons, and in 1/2 an hour we reached the saddle.

The class 3 bouldering came next. Although not difficult due to lots of cracks and easy toe and hand holds, the exposure is pretty great and not for the faint of heart. Once past this steep pitch, with a sheer drop of several hundred feet to the west, the summit plateau is an easy scramble over stable boulders to the summit.

The view is spectacular! Koip Crest lies to the east, the Cathedral range stretches off to the north towards Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite's northern peaks in the distance, and the seemingly never-ending chain of the central Sierra going beyond the horizon to the south. Half Dome and Yosemite Valley lies to the west but the view is blocked by a ridge. Numerous lakes lie all around, many still partially covered with ice.

The descent was uneventful, as we carefully picked our way down the class 3 stretch, then glissaded down the glacier and other smaller snow fields. The day-hiker split off below the glacier and took the aforementioned McClure creek route back, while we other two continued back to the main trail. The time from dropping packs to the return was six hours, with approximately 3000 feet of elevation gain. From there, we continued south on the PCT to our next objective, Mount Ritter, Madera County HP.