Tower Peak is a towering (sorry) 11,762 foot peak on the northern border of Yosemite. I’ve had this peak on my radar for a number of years now, but the very long approach and a questionable scramble to the summit block deterred my ambitions.
The stars aligned this year after I moved back to the Bay Area for a late season attempt. Grant and I decided to make a go of the thirty mile round trip in a mere two days, including driving to and from the Bay Area. The forecast looked cold but dry.
We met up in Dublin (free parking at BART stations on weekends) and carpooled up Hwy 108 to the trailhead at Leavitt Meadow. The actual trail is on the far east end of the campground, a good five to ten minute walk from the backpacker parking and permit box. A helpful hiker at the trailhead who had recently visited Tower let us know that the snow was avoidable and that the scrambling was easy.
The first few miles took us through open meadow alongside the West Walker River. We could see Tower Peak far, far to the south. It looked impossibly distant from this vantage point. The weather was cool and cloudy, but not too threatening. We powered down the trail, passing some nice groves of aspens near the Hoover Wilderness boundary. From the Wilderness sign, the trail carried us past pretty Lane Lake. Grant stopped a few times to capture some fall color photos with his medium-format camera.
We continued through a number of unexpected canyons as we slowly gained elevation. As we entered drier terrain, the aspens disappeared. The hike through this center segment is long, sandy, and boring. Our spirits were lifted upon our arrival at Upper Piute Meadow. Hawksbeak and Ehrnbeck peaks dominate the view from the open grassland. We passed the unoccupied ranger station and continued up the spur trail to Tower Lake. Now about twelve miles in, the final three miles up to the lake are tough, climbing over one-thousand feet. We arrived just as twilight slipped into darkness. I was startled by a backpacker who had set up camp just off trail near the lake. Until that point we had seen no one all day. The wind picked up, so we set camp in a developed site with a small windbreak and tree shelter. The night was below freezing, but thankfully the wind was not a problem.
We awoke at sunrise and prepared to climb. Our route took us around the south shore of Tower Lake and up a faint use trail to the snowfield on the north side of Tower Pass. Here we skirted it by climbing rock to the west. At the pass proper, I accidentally found a wildlife camera. I like to think that some researcher will see my confused face in a few months.
Secor describes a rising traverse across the west side of the north ridge to approach the clearly visible northwest chute. There is a large permanent snowfield between two spurs on the north ridge that must be avoided. We chose to climb the northwest spur which was both brushy and steep; not a good combination. After much profanity, we topped out on the north ridge proper. The footing was much better here, and after a fun ridge walk we found ourselves at the bottom of the route up the northwest chute.
This is described as class 3 in Secor and in most trip reports, but it’s class 2 until about the last fifty feet when it becomes very easy, ledge-y class 3. Both Grant and I had brought helmets, so we donned them, but the rock is solid and we did not have any hesitation climbing this section.
We arrived at the summit to an expansive view of the Yosemite wilderness. It had been quite some time since I had been this far north, and it took me a few moments to reacquaint myself with all of the summits of the northern Sierra. Ritter/Banner and Lyell/Maclure were obvious to the southeast. To the east we could see the Matterhorn Peak/Whorl Mountain area which I hope to visit next year.
Grant had hauled the camera and tripod all the way to the top, so we spent some time hanging out on the summit before beginning the long trek back to the car. On our descent we opted to stay on the north ridge longer, skirting the snow field to the east. This is a much better route and has a use trail for much of it. We passed two climbers from San Francisco who had begun their day in Piute Meadow. We weren’t the only crazy people out this weekend!
It was long. We played leapfrog with the climbers we met ascending Tower, passing each other a few times on the way out. We had to use our headlamps for the last hour or so. It was 7:40 by the time we finally arrived back at the car. Total stats: 33.2 miles, 5,400 feet elevation gain.