Monday, October 22, 2012

Alta Peak

View to Triple Divide Peak

Another of the great day hikes I did on my recent trip to Sequoia National Park was the hike to Alta Peak. This is a back post from that late September trip. I had not ever completed this hike before doing this trip, so it seemed like a new experience. Some years ago before starting up this blog, I made use of this same trailhead to hike to Pear Lake which was a memorable day, but my only other hike from Wolverton was an early season attempt at Alta Peak which I couldn’t complete. I was too early in the year and encountered dangerous conditions with deteriorating hard pack up in the higher reaches of the trail.

This time I had near perfect conditions except for the usual faint hazy/smoggy muck that always hangs in the air when you are this far south. Even in spring that kind of SoCal haze; partially natural but mostly human origin; has a tendency to hang in the air like a cheap suit on a sumo wrestler. Unless you hike right after a rain shower, you can always expect at least a slight haze effect stubbornly reminding you of our society’s over-dependence on fossil fuel. The best route to Alta Peak begins at a place called Wolverton. There are other routes to get there, but this hike has about 4,000 feet of vertical gain to the peak, so extra distance will only burn more time and energy. Better to use the shortest route leaving you time to enjoy the stellar views from summit and still make it back before the coin-op showers close at Lodgepole. Not to mention the store with its unexpectedly good selection of cold beer. Having these niceties at hand is rare and I took full advantage during my stay. Wolverton has plenty of trailhead parking and is easily reached from a signed turn off from General’s Highway a short distance from Lodgepole.

View from Panther Gap
Beginning on the Lakes Trail, the hike predictably begins within tall stands of mostly Red Fir at about 7,200 feet and immediately begins gently climbing. The forest is beautiful and fragrant leading past pretty meadows, and lush water courses, while climbing steadily but gradually. It didn’t take long before spotting wildlife. I spotted one large adult black tail buck, which managed to elude my camera, and further along I came across a couple of yearling black tail bucks, undoubtedly siblings, play-jousting as is typical of growing males in the wild. I tried my best to go unnoticed, but it was funny when they spotted me on the trail. They stopped for a few moments appearing slightly startled. They both stared at me as if puzzled, and seemed to size me up for awhile. Before long I suppose they determined that I was not threatening enough to be concerned with, and they just continued their antler wrestling shoving match for my amusement. I sat on a log and quietly watched several “falls” of play-jousting and even shot some video before they finally wandered off. It was all very cute. I posted a video at the bottom of the post.

View south from the peak
The first junction comes at 1.8 miles where the Lakes Trail goes left toward Pear Lake, and to the right the trail continues another 1.1 miles to Panther Gap at 8,400 feet. Up until this point the hike has been a gradual uphill forest hike with a thick canopy overhead. At Panther Gap you begin to get great views to the south across the chasm that holds the Middle Fork Kaweah to the green mountainous range beyond and you can see the Castle Rocks. Not bad for only just under 3 miles of hiking. After making the turn toward Alta, the trail follows along the southern slopes of a high rocky ridge which provides really great uninterrupted views to the south as you walk. Looking up to the other side you can spot many interesting rock formations high above. The trail along this section is mostly exposed and at some points has some steep drop-offs on the down side. You don’t want to be careless with your footing along there, but the visual input should easily inspire this caution to intelligent beings. Several water courses still had a few wild flowers even this late in the year. After just about 2 miles of admiring very nice views you have already passed the cutoff to the High Sierra Trail and have reached the junction to Alta Meadow. The meadow area is a great little side trip, and camping permits available. At this point, if you start running the numbers in your head you can start to get a little feeling of dread. My altimeter was reading 9,251 feet with the odometer reading 4.83 miles. The peak is known to be just over 11,000 feet and about 6.8 miles. Even using new math that still means the final 1.9 miles or so to the summit needs to climb over 1700 feet, which only reminds me why I waited until the last couple of days of my trip before doing this hike. Better to wait until you’ve had some acclimation time because heavy breathing follows.

Looking east from Alta Peak
If you look up from this junction you can see the rock outcrop called Tharp’s rock, and if you are unfamiliar with the trail could maybe mistake that for the summit. But by the time you reach Alta Peak you will be well above looking down on Tharp’s Rock. After making the turn the trail at first has led back into the tall red firs and you get some nice shade. There are a couple of well place watercourses on the way which seem perfectly located for topping off your water supply (using a filter) before making the final push to the summit. Soon the trail bends around and you begin to get views to the east and the stark peaks of the western divide. As you enter the sub-alpine the firs are gone and sparse weathered foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana) dot the rocky landscape. The trail then begins a series of steep exposed switchbacks marked with cairns. The trail is easy to follow just by the usage evidence, but the cairns are the best reference. As you approach the top you can see that the actual summit is a jagged peak. With careful scrambling, you can reach the summit register locked in an old ammo box. The panorama is amazing. To the east you can see the entire serrated peaks of the Great Western Divide dominated by Triple Divide Peak and spreading as far as you can see. To the south you can see the landscape falling away in gradually descending mountain waves, all the way out to the central valley. And all around are mountainous views and deep valleys. You can see down to Alta Meadow in the shadow of the divide, and on the other side to Pear and Emerald Lakes. You need to spend some time to take it all in while enjoying the breeze. My altimeter was reading 11,120.3 feet. The hike back is really nice because you can still admire the views while heading down. The trail never does climb up and over any pass or gap, so the way up is all up, and the way down really is all downhill with the lower sections being a gentle grade. I absolutely love this trail. I uploaded a photoset to flickr and a created a trip report with a track log on EveryTrail.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reprieve for Umunhum’s Tower (for now)

Mt Umunhum's skyline will feature the "cube"

This is late news by now, but I will go ahead and follow up on it. Midpeninsula’s public meeting on the evening of October 17 to vote on a resolution concerning Mt Umunhum’s radar tower was well attended and productive. Sue and I both attended, but didn’t stay until the end. I had an early morning ahead, and couldn’t help wondering what was happening with the Giants in the playoffs. I would estimate that 25 to 30 people in all got up and gave their comments which were limited to 2 minutes. Sue decided to get up and speak, and I declined. Of course the majority of the speakers were indeed a vocal minority in favor of preserving the cube, and for “going all in” on the idea of saving the cube; which was the phrase they seems to rally around, which basically translated into; You people at MidPen should quit messing around and just do whatever we ask, and by the way, you should also pay for it regardless of cost. According to a survey conducted by the board of the district constituents, about 1/3 of respondents were in favor of keeping the tower. The rest were split between the other 2 options, so the meeting attendance was obviously not truly representative of prevailing public opinion. Even still the meeting was polite and respectful, and eventually had a very productive outcome. The option decided on was to adopt what was called interim action A. The district will do temporary repairs on the tower in order to arrest decay and mostly preserve the tower for a period of 5 years. During that time the proponents of the save-the-cube petition will have time to raise the funding for doing a better job of permanently preserving the tower. There are already some pledges of support, and the County Historic Heritage Commission sent the board a letter stating it is willing to work with the board to designate it on the county inventory for landmarks, which would make it eligible for grant funding. But the best part is that in the interim, the district can go forward with plans to open the site for public access.

I am quite happy with this outcome. My biggest dread was that all this wrangling would further delay the opening, but now it appears it won’t. I am also actually happy that there is a way forward that provides for preserving the radar tower without burdening the district with the additional costs. In my opinion this seems like a win-win scenario, and is fair for the very reasons I stated in my last post. I am expecting that the deal will eventually come together to preserve the tower, and that the cube is now here to stay.

Click here to read the article posted in the San Jose Mercury News dated 10/18.
Click here to see MidPen’s updated project page.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Whither the “Cube”

Mt Umunhum's radar tower

Look to the southwest from anywhere in the south San Francisco bay and you can spot it up there on the mountain. If you get high enough in the Diablo range you can spot it from more than 50 miles away with the naked eye. So what is that huge boxy looking thing way up there? Its Mt Umunhum’s derelict remains of a cold war era radar tower. Long decommissioned, it sits there crumbling. So the question is; is that huge monolithic “cube” sitting there on the summit a glaring eyesore marring the skyline of the coastal mountain range, or is it really an important historical relic that deserves to be preserved? That is one of the most important questions to be addressed at the next public meeting scheduled for the evening of October 17th in Sunnyvale. Go to the Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen's website to learn more.

It seems that history can have a very different context depending on how you choose to look at it. Natural history of course would be that of the flora and fauna that flourished unimpeded across this range for untold centuries. Make no mistake; in times past, the natural beauty of this region as documented by first hand accounts in early times is nothing less than glorious. One only needs to read the personal account of John Muir’s 1868 ramble from San Francisco to Yosemite in order to get a sense of what the overall San Jose area looked like before being overtaken by modern times. It’s a classic. Sierra Azul is actually one of my favorite wild flower sites. Also of significance is the role of the mountain in the lore of the Ohlone people that dwelled here for many generations, long before Europeans had ever come to these shores. Modern history however is a very different story. Modern history brought us the history of the cold war and of the Almaden Air Force Base. The radar station that was built on top of Mt Umunhum was one amongst a series of similar sites that formed part of a defensive network of outposts keeping watch on the coast. First operating in 1957, and evolving thereafter, there were probably thousands of military personnel that once worked and/or lived there in the line of duty. The base was a bustling nerve center before technology finally outpaced it making it obsolete and leading to its decommissioning.

View to Mt Umunhum
Fast forward to present time; the site is now owned by MidPeninsula Open Space District. The district has been involved in a long and laborious cleanup and restoration project for years, with the eventual goal of opening the summit to public access as open space. The original vision was for a return to natural habitat, demolishing all remnants of the former Air Force base following toxic material cleanup. Following that the site would be allowed to slowly return to something like its former glory. The more simple and cost effective plan is for an unobstructed panorama of view, a decent road, parking areas, restrooms, a few picnic tables, some interpretive boards, additional hiking trails, and that’s about it. Give it back to nature. After all, lots of people see the tower merely as an ugly intrusion on the natural landscape, my own wife among them. Personally I am fine with that plan, and in fact have been eager to welcome the public opening, but there are others that have a different vision for what should happen on the site, and how the site should be developed.

There is a petition now being circulated to save the radar tower. The proponents of this petition, which appears to have been spearheaded by a group of retired service personnel, are of the opinion that the radar tower has historical significance and should be saved regardless of cost. They offer no financial planning or support for this idea, but that is their desire. This group has further deemed that they would like to have a visitor’s center constructed which would contain historical information about the cold war military history of the site with the centerpiece being the preserved radar tower. They further expect for the site at Umunhum to be grand enough to rival those of Mt Diablo or Mt Tamalpias in order to properly pay homage to what they see as the important historical context of the former Air Force base. And to top it all off, they expect for MidPen to cover all the additional costs to preserve the crumbling concrete cube, and construct all of the elaborate accruements they desire. One newspaper article published in the San Jose Mercury even makes a passing reference to the possibility of a lawsuit being files in an attempt to prevent the district from demolishing any of the remnants of the former Air Force base without being formally reviewed by the county for any historical significance that they might deem exists in all that decomposing and formally toxic debris.

In any case, The Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen’s website includes three possible options for how to approach this issue. The first option is to go ahead with the original plan to demolish all remnants of the base, including the tower, and return the summit to as near as possible to a natural state. The second option is to partially demolish the tower, and keep only the first floor outer wall of the structure, forming it into an open air monument. The third option is to completely seal and preserve the immense cube. Artist conception drawings are presented of all three options. The MidPen website makes no mention of any visitor’s center structure.

With all due respect to the military history of the site, and to those who performed their duty by serving there, in my opinion the real historical significance of the Air Force base is quite minimal. The site is not unique, and there were no battles fought there. It’s not like it was freakin Omaha Beach or Gettysburg or something like that. I suspect these guys actually had it good there compared to those who served in a real fighting war in some God forsaken corner of the world like some of my old friends. I would imagine that it was not unlike the duty that I myself performed when I in the service. I too am also a former serviceman, and during my 4 year stint on active duty in the 70s, I was stationed at Teufelsberg in Berlin. Teufelsberg was at the time a top secret facility with an intensive, live, cold war ear mission shrouded in mystery. We worked very hard, but we always had it comparatively good. I have to admit it makes me a little sad to see pictures on the internet of the dilapidated condition of the Teufelsberg site following it’s decommissioning after the close of the cold war era. And like Umunhum, it has a group of former servicemen who are trying to save it. In my opinion it’s really up to the people who live in the region to decide whether they think Teufelsberg is important to their history. Or is it just an eyesore?

Let me be clear about one thing. I would support the idea of preserving the tower, and even of constructing a visitor’s center, provided that some alternative funding can be worked out. I do not support the idea of forcing MidPen to pay for these costly developments if that is not part of their vision. As stated earlier, I do not support the idea that the tower on Umunhum has significant historical value. Just because it was military doesn’t make it noteworthy enough to sweat over. Sorry, but nothing really historical happened there. Sorry if that make anyone angry, and I mean no disrespect, but it’s the truth. If some county historical board decides to declare different, then we will all be forced to accept it, but in my opinion the natural value of the site and the profile of the landscape are more important than a gigantic monument to a bunch of people who were, at the end of the day, just doing their duty, like the countless many who served at other military outposts all over the world who have no monument to their service. Not to mention those who really sacrificed, and even paid the ultimate price, and likewise have no monument.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Twin Lakes and Silliman Pass

The larger of the Twin Lakes

In summertime the front country of Sequoia National Park is awash with tourists and their associated noise and traffic, but by mid September, it’s much more peaceful and far less populated. Labor Day is past, and most families have headed home from their vacation outings. Many of the campgrounds and services have already closed up for the season so it’s much quieter and much cooler in exposed areas. You are more likely to spot wildlife this time of year. On the downside; this late in the year the trails are dry and dusty, especially in a drought year like 2012. All but a few wildflowers have already gone back to seed, and the snow in the peaks is gone slowing water levels in creeks and streams to a mere trickle. You definitely don’t want to waste your time on waterfall hikes. The tradeoff is obvious. But the late summertime, only days before the fall equinox, is a good choice for day hiking to the more remote higher areas that are mostly exposed sub-alpine and above, while enjoying the cooler temperatures. If you are too early in the year you could find dangerous conditions at higher elevations created by still melting hard-pack. Wait too long and you will have more heat, and will have to deal with the crowds in the campgrounds.

Towering Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine
On my recent trip to Sequoia, one of the trails that captured my interest was the trail to Twin Lakes, and beyond to Silliman Pass. High mountain lakes have always been one of my favorite hiking destinations, and I was intrigued by the possible view opportunities offered by hiking on up to the 10,000 foot Silliman Pass, which is one of the popular backpacking routes that provide a passage over into the King’s Canyon side of the Kaweah Divide. I had already been camped out for a couple of nights getting acclimated, and amusing myself by hiking some of the sequoia groves and little offshoot trails, most of which I had to myself except for the wildlife.

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
The Twin Lakes trailhead is located at the eastern end the Lodgepole campground just beyond the bridge over the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River at an elevation of 6700 feet. The trail is well maintained and begins climbing immediately but gradually heading north. The grade is easy as you hike completely shaded by tall stands of Red fir and Lodgepole Pine. As you hike you can notice the yellow triangle shaped markers placed on trees at about 15 to 20 feet. These are used to mark the way for cross country skiing when the trail is burried. Along the way there are a couple of moist meadows that seem like good places to watch for wildlife. Often bears are foraging in areas like these where there is lots of greenery. My first day up here I was hiking out to Muir Grove from Little Baldy Saddle and came across about a 3 or 4 year old chocolate brown black bear down in the creek alongside the closed for the season Dorst campground. It didn’t seem very concerned about me; but noting the direction it was headed, I held up my pace and diverted a bit so as not to encounter it on the trail. It looked at me for a few seconds from about 20 yards; assessing me to be just another bloody tourist; before casually strolling across the trail and up the hill. I could only imagine what a meadow like this would look like with the spring wild flowers all around. Perhaps some thoughts for next trip.

Looking across Twin Lakes (the "big lake")
The gradual forested uphill continues for about 4 miles before leveling out briefly at Cahoon Gap at 8659 feet. There aren’t any views to be had here to give you any sight bearing as the woods are too thick. Heading back downhill a bit the trail leads down to a lush creek bed area at 8437 feet where you can make a crossing using the rocks. It’s easy this late in the year without much water flowing. Shortly beyond the potential water stop at the creek, the hike transitions quickly back to uphill. After passing the junction for JO Pass at about 8900 feet, the trail soon makes a bend heading more to the east. You can notice how the environment changes as you begin to enter the sub-alpine region. The terrain shows lots of exposed rock and the weathered trees become fewer. The trail gets steeper for awhile and soon breaks out onto a little plateau where the twin lakes lie at 9400 feet. The area around the lakes has lots of tree cover and just beyond is the jagged granite bench where Silliman Pass lies; forming a natural wind break, with the larger lake just below (see photo at the top). On the other side of the pass are Ranger Lake, and Silliman Lake, and camping permits are available for all of them. Twin Lakes even has a bear box and a trail leads to an open air pit toilet. It was unclear to me whether this nicety was designed to be used with WAG bags or not. Who knows how they would pump it? I don’t know whether the other lakes have such fine appointments as that. No fires are allowed at Twin Lakes but apparently this rule only exists on the Sequoia side. Read the signs and be aware.

View east from Silliman Pass
I picked a nice shady spot and filtered some lake water to mix some hydration fluid and sat for awhile enjoying the beauty of this place, and contemplating what views could be had from the pass. My energy level felt good, so after refreshing myself with food and fluid, I continued on up the switchbacks to Silliman Pass. The trail is steep with lots of exposure. At this altitude the cool umbrella of the red fir and lodgeplole forest has disappeared. The terrain is mostly granite and rocky soil and the predominant trees are the high country Jeffery Pines which look stunted and weather beaten. After hiking up many steep switchbacks the trail levels out and reaches the top of the Silliman Divide at about 10,218 feet, with my odometer reading 8.3 miles (as always GPS margin of error applies). Looking around I was quickly aware that it was a great choice to continue on to the pass. The Silliman Divide spreads out roughly north to south, and the bench has a smooth level summit area that is easily walked like a trail along its length. As you look out to the east, far below is a deep forested canyon, and you can spot Ranger Lake and Silliman Lake, perhaps 1000 feet down surrounded by heavily wooded terrain. Looking up scanning the easterly horizon looms a high range of barren, foreboding, jagged peaks stretching northward into King’s Canyon as far as vision allows. There are some interesting rocky peaks and outcrops along the bench, some of which can be easy class 1 or 2 scrambles. I found one such outcrop that provided a view back down to Twin Lakes, and another that provided great views to the east. But great views are provided by simply walking along the bench as well. More advanced rock climbing opportunities abound. Along the pass you get plenty of cooling breezes, and there are quite a few interesting Jeffery Pine specimens that tell a story of the seasons. This is a fantastic inspiring hike, and would be a great short backpacking route for a few days of lake hopping. On my way back down the trail; back into the red fir territory near those meadows, I had my second bear encounter of the trip. I noticed what looked like some movement and a dust cloud below me. A young black bear which must have been alone had seen me coming down the trail and lit out into the woods on a run. I only caught a brief look at it on the run, and didn’t see it again, or any others around. I continued on and made it back to Lodgepole campground in time for a $3.00 hot shower and a cold Mammoth Brewing Co craft beer. Sometimes the simple things in life can be so satisfying. I uploaded a photoset to flickr and created a trip report on EveryTrail for further topographical reference.