Lyell, Maclure

Lyell and Maclure from near the JMT.


Mount Lyell is the highest peak in Yosemite, and home to the Sierra’s second-largest glacier. Maclure is its northern neighbor, with its own substantial glacier. Lyell and Maclure are therefore distinctive features in many northern Sierra views, but they lie far from any trailhead. The shortest approach is a 10+ mile hike south along the John Muir Trail (JMT) from Tuolomne Meadows, followed by a cross-country hike to the base of the Lyell glacier, a glacier climb, and a bit of class 3-4 rock.

Laura and I got front-row parking at Tuolomne, and an early start at 5 AM, then spent 20 minutes in the dark finding the trailhead. We suck. Once we were on the right track, we had no problem following the sometimes multi-lane, often trench-like, often sandy, always horse-turd-strewn JMT south to the Lyell River. This “river” is actually more like a very long, thin lake in many places, strangely lacking the usual bends and oxbows typical of rivers in flat terrain.

After a brief diversion up Maclure Creek, we continued along the JMT to a point where it turns sharply north, then left it for slabs and meadows along a water course to the Lyell glacier. The glacier, once we finally reached it, was a sad and miserable thing, with bare glacial ice, ridiculously deep suncups, and streams of melt-water. We donned axes and crampons, and I thought it looked “most direct” to climb to the southeast side of the summit rocks.

Well… the glacier was longer than it looked, and the rocks on the southeast ridge were surprisingly slick, but it worked. There were some cairns leading back onto the face, and a nice old register box with a book and a half-dozen pens and pencils. It was threatening to the south, and sunny to the north, but Lyell was merely overcast, cold, and windy. Comfortable enough for fish.

Maclure looked like a long, painful slog from the summit, but it would be a shame to hike all that JMT without getting both peaks. As it turned out, Lyell’s northwest ridge was much easier than the way we came (in fact, you can completely avoid the glacier that way), and Maclure’s southeast ridge is more stable and fun than it looks. Apparently many people are discouraged by the traverse, because there were far fewer signatures in Maclure’s register, and only one writing implement.

Every climb is a learning experience, and the learning continued as we found a relatively easy, direct return south of Maclure’s west ridge, then northwest to the easy slabs above scenic Maclure Creek. Yes, the creek that we started up in the morning. If you’re planning to do Lyell, do it this way and leave your snow gear at home.

On the other hand, this isn’t one I plan on repeating; I didn’t notice the JMT stretch so much in the morning, but it felt much longer and dustier in the evening, its scenic meadows endless. It was time to put in the headphones, put myself on cruise, and try to make it back without needing the headlamp again.

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