Thursday, September 8, 2016

Eastern California's Highway 120 - September 2016 - Part One

please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version

Our current love affair is with state route 120 on its run east from Tioga Pass to its terminus at the junction with US Highway 6 at Benton Station. Its climb to the sky up Lee Vining Canyon to Yosemite National Park make it one of the most spectacular mountain highways. And, because of this it can be notoriously crowded. The eastern section between 395 and Benton is a relatively undiscovered paradise. Each exploration we have made into this area has brought us back, drawn us in deeper, captured our attention, and has amazed us with its beauty and wonders.

Kuna Glacier

"That was one big ice cube!" The Lady was still in awe as we lay in our bunk Saturday evening talking about the day's adventure after tackling one of our toughest hikes. This was Saturday of the long Labor Day Weekend and we had decided to visit Yosemite National Park. Were we crazy, showing up on a holiday weekend? We knew chances were nil we would encounter another person where we were headed. We needed long daylight and we needed late season where remnant snow from last winter would be minimal. Labor Day Weekend fit our needs.

We figured all campgrounds would be full and the roads busy. Our necessary early start Saturday morning would take care of the busy road issue and we knew of one sure thing dispersed camping spot we'd have all to ourselves.

We set up camp Friday evening and then wandered and relaxed in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

We walked  to a high spot and took long exposures of the vehicles on highway 395 working their way along the western shore of Mono Lake.

We pulled into the Mono Pass trailhead just inside Yosemite National Park at sunrise Saturday morning. We doubled checked food and gear - that included ice axes and crampons - donned our packs and hit the trail to Parker Pass, five and a half miles out. It was a cold glorious morning. We both soon changed out our wool fingerless gloves for fleece mittens. But the cold invigorated us as we hiked through this world class scenery.

We moved at a good pace but still paid attention to the small things at our feet. The Lady loved seeing these beautiful Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

Reaching Mono Pass we were nearing tree line and the vistas opened up around us.

We continued south on the climb toward Parker Pass.

We stopped several times to look back westward at Yosemite's wonderful granite.

It is well into Fall in the high country. The grasses are yellow, scrubs leaves are brown, it is dropping below freezing at night, and the Belding's Ground Squirrels have packed on weight, ready for winter.

We reached Parker Pass in two hours. The Lady got low to get out of the wind and checked our maps. Our route forward was now cross country.

It made me remember what my Dad told me many times as I was growing up, "Son, find yourself a woman who loves USGS topographic maps and you will have a happy life."

To our south, carved out of the Kuna Crest, was the cirque that holds Parker Pass Lake. Our objective was a much larger and higher cirque around the corner to the southeast.

Here is a video panorama of the view west from Parker Pass.

We made a long climbing traverse to a bench on the ridgeline.

Our challenge was now a mile and a half of climbing loose glacial till, a series of recessional moraines left behind with Kuna Glacier's retreat.

It seemed never ending as we climbed higher and higher.

The streams and tarns were colored with glacial flour.

Glacial till is unsorted material of all sizes. In this area it was fairly settled but we still encountered loose material, booby traps waiting for one misstep.

Here is a short video view of the easy part of the climb.

Just above this point we climbed a steep snowfield. The moraine just below Kuna Glacier was very unsettled, all of it was loose rock. It was best to stay on top the huge piles. We were extremely careful on steep slopes to not be below rocks, that if became dislodged, could kill us. As it was, rock was moving everywhere. The scramble was a combination of walking a tightrope and negotiating a mine field.

When we crested the final moraine, Kuna Glacier - that "One big ice cube" - finally came into view.

The far left flank and, especially, the right flank were covered with rock fall from above.

This hike was a good break in for the Lady's new Lowa boots. She gets two years of use out of a pair and yes, purple is her favorite color.

Even with all the work it took to get here, we considered ourselves very lucky. It was so cool (sorry for the pun) to visit a living glacier high in the Sierra Nevada! This was a special and humbling experience. I found this website - Kuna Glacier - that has several historical photos that document the retreat or recession of this glacier.

There is tragic history here also, another reason for our journey up to this glacier. On the summer solstice (June 21st) in 1943 a large World War Two bomber with seven souls aboard slammed into the mountainside just above Kuna Glacier.  These young men training for war along with their B-24 bomber disappeared that day on a flight that was to take them from the airfield outside Tonopah, Nevada to Salinas, California. Their fate was confirmed when a cabin owner At Silver Lake reported to the Forest Service he had seen a large plane fly over at 9:20 pm and then heard a crash. The USFS Ranger led a team up and discovered the wreckage.

Hikers climbing to Kuna Peak from Koip Peak encounter pieces of wreckage - especially the propellers - on the steep slope below the saddle between the two peaks.  When the plane ripped apart on impact, much of the wreckage fell onto the glacier below. With our warming climate and retreating glaciers - and then add on to that our current five years of drought with pitiful snowfall - this World War Two wreckage is now emerging from the glacial ice. I have watched this unfold on Google Earth over the last several years. Planning for this trip of ours started when an obvious piece of wing became visible on updated imagery.

All four of the 14 cylinder radial engines rest within feet of one another.

We shared a deep feeling that this is hallowed ground where seven young men died for their country and never returned to their family and friends. It is hard to describe the haunted nature of this place and the profound sense of reverence and humility that we felt. Personal items such as the radio receiver the crew used for communication and, especially, a large thermos for hot coffee brought these feelings home.

Debris is pretty much confined to the fall line from the point of impact above - not visible at all to us as we stood at the base of the glacier.

I found this page on our friend Pat Macha's website with photos of this area taken in 2014. This shows the change that has taken place here in just the last two years -

A video view of the wreckage and glacier.

It was time to start the careful climb down and out of the cirque.

The glacier and terrain were fascinating.

We took a break at the top of the last drop out of the cirque.

After the drop, we climbed up and over the ridge.

that huge rock pile behind the Lady is the mentioned final drop out of the cirque and I believe this photo helps put the enormity of the glacial rubble into perspective.

We then had the final traverse back down to the trail at Parker Pass.....................

.................................and began the trail journey back to highway 120 and Tioga Pass.

With the afternoon light, the view back toward Parker Pass was breathtaking.

At Mono Pass we were treated to a wonderful view of lenticulars to the east.

The trail descended along creeks, mostly in timber, but in places it opened up along small meadows. Across one meadow I spotted a large granite boulder. We walked over to investigate and were not surprised to find it covered with Native American grinding mortars. We were surprised and humbled to find someone's offering of a small woven basket to this archeological site.

It was late afternoon and we thought it too late to meet people heading into the back country. We were wrong. Two young women approached and things looked odd. The woman leading was carrying a bear canister in her arms. The second woman was wearing two small daypacks, one on her back with the second on her chest. A bedroll was lashed to the bottom of the pack behind. The Lady was ahead, "That won't fit in your pack?" the Lady asked the woman with the bear canister.

Now I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my account of their conversation. I was distracted, distracted by their wonderful German accents and their sparkling blue eyes.

They could not stay somewhere because everything was full for the holiday weekend. They had decided to backpack and had spent most of the day getting the required bear canister. And yes, it would not fit into the simple cylindrical backpack she carried that was decorated  with "Guinness" up the side and then again around the top.

"Should we go to Mono Pass or to Parker Pass?" they asked me. "What one would be most beautiful?"

"Both are equally beautiful," I answered, "But I would go to Mono Pass. It has a few more trees for shelter from the wind and you have a view all the way down to Mono Lake. It's only about a mile and half further up the trail from here."

"So we will get a beautiful sunrise? What time does the sun rise here?" they asked.

With asking that question, the two of them had won our hearts.

"Six-thirty the sun comes up. It will start getting light at five-thirty. If there are clouds, they will turn pink around six," I explained. "You should have a great sunrise. We hope you do."

These two were a picture; undaunted and taking on the challenge, seeking out a beautiful high country sunrise.

We returned to the trailhead at around 5:30, tired after a good long day. Our distance had not been far, 15 miles or so round trip, but tackling the route up the cirque, working our way up and over the moraines, was a real work out. We'd sleep well this night.

And we did.

Our adventure continues in Part Two - Please CLICK HERE


  1. Congratulations on documenting the wreckage of the B-24 crash and reverence given.

  2. Monte, a wonderful trip report and beautiful country. Like Andy said, thank you for your reverence for the souls onboard the B 24. There is another near Denio, up in the Pueblo Mts.