I have previously explored around the eastern edge of northern Yosemite (e.g. Conness, Virginia, Matterhorn), but have seen little of this relative wilderness. Among the SPS peaks in the area, Piute, Pettit, and Volunteer would all require brutal amounts of headlamp and/or trail running at this time of year. Tower, on the park’s northern border, while still a long day, is significantly closer via Leavitt Meadows on the Sonora Pass road. I made a sort of loop of it, approaching via the Tower Lake trail, traversing west to Forsyth, then picking up the PCT near Dorothy Lake for the return. This made it a long day but, with a fair amount of jogging, still under 12 hours.
I slept in the backpacker lot then, having read Bob’s trip report, waited for first light before attempting the trail maze through the campground. In the first mile or two, I got the only glimpse of Tower I would have for the next several hours, silhouetted in the haze. Around this point I found a car key in the trail; someone, somewhere was living out one of my recurring nightmares.
The many trail junctions are all well-signed, though in an anachronistic way: almost all point to lakes and meadows, helpful for grazing my oxen, but less so for bagging peaks. At the wilderness boundary, I found an interesting historical sign describing the West Walker-Sonora route, a failed bit of boosterism by the citizens of Sonora:
Major John Ebbets followed the West Walker-Sonora route from West to East in late 1853 while exploring a possible railroad route for the Atlantic & Pacific Company. After following a trail of dead animals and broken wagons, he concluded: “This route is the worst that could be found… I advise no Emigrant to take it.”
After miles of near-horizontal trail through the woods, made more scenic by the turning aspens, I reached Upper Piute meadow, with its cabin still seemingly in use. The trail skirts the meadow, then begins climbing southwest toward Tower Lake. A granite tower emerges from the trees, lower but far more impressive than Tower Peak, which is hidden behind it. Finally emerging from the woods, I took a pleasant talus chute to the col east of the tower, from which I finally glimpsed Tower Peak.
A long climb over slabs and boulders led to a short, easy 3rd class gully to the summit. Crossing the boulders, I saw a figure silhouetted on the summit; this being the only person I had seen all day, I thought he must be the owner of the key. The figure, an older man who spoke as if he had suffered a mild stroke, was still on the summit when I arrived, though the key was someone else’s. He had been backpacking in the Sierra for decades, and though I am a newcomer, we commiserated about the abandoned trails and overcrowding of the major wilderness highways.
I let him get a lead as I perused the register and took in some excellent views of both new and familiar country — Tower Peak dominates its surroundings to the south, west, and north — then passed him again making a beeline for the col. The traverse to Forsyth is not hard, but is fairly arduous thanks to mazes of impassable krummholtz. I skipped the short detour south to Saurian Crest, then almost immediately regretted doing so, since it is an interesting feature and I am unlikely to return to the area.
After much talus, Forsyth’s summit featured some fun 3rd class on blocky, white rock. Like Tower, it is dominated by a slightly lower tower to its north, though unlike Tower’s tower, Forsyth’s is made of terribly rotten rock unsuitable for climbing. Most of the summit traffic seems to be from trail crews working on the nearby PCT.
Rather than meeting the trail directly to the west, I took a “shortcut” down a nasty chute north of the summit, then fought some loose talus to reach the plain southeast of Dorothy Lake, eventually rejoining the PCT there in a brief rain shower. The switchback crew must have been drunk here, because while the trail dropped fairly steeply to the Walker River, it was plagued with random-seeming switchbacks on flatter ground. Maybe this meandering made sense in the boggy early season, or maybe the trail was designed to emulate a river, straight on the downhills and windy on the plains.
In any case, it was a relief to rejoin the sandy but straight Walker River trail. From there it was a simple, nearly-level trail grind home, broken by one bit of excitement. Mindlessly shuffling along while listening to my music, I heard a growl to the left, and turned to see a mother bear and her cub maybe 50 yards away. Neither of us was really thinking: I clapped my hands as I would to shoo off a cat, and kept jogging; she and her cub ran away up the hillside. Then we both had time to process the situation: she turned around and looked at me as if thinking “why did I run away from that thing?”; I slowed to a walk and did the usual “hey, bear!” thing. Then we all went on with our business.
Reaching the campground around 11h30 after starting, I gave the car key to the host, then hiked on up the road to the backpacker parking.