Danger on Dunderberg Peak—Part 1

Dunderberg Peak is a large lump of rock east of the Sierra crest that may not offer much excitement for the hard-core mountaineer, but it did for our curious adventurer who wrote this two-part cliffhanger. The location offers unparalleled views for a mere twelve-thousand-foot peak but the rounded portion of the lower ridge soon runs out of the brush and steepens when it reaches the talus. This is small, flat, loose volcanic rock and if you stray into the gullies on either side, the rock is loose and dangerous. Photo of Dunderberg Peak from Mt. Olsen courtesy of summitpost.org

After a wonderful, almost thirty years with my wife, Paula—kids, loving, living, then pain and tragedy, she died January 4, 1984, still a young woman, ravaged by breast cancer at forty that metastasized to bone cancer, living in pain another nine years. After her death, our daughter Gaby moved to Mammoth working summer at a lodge and bought a horse, Daisy; Justin was at college in Santa Cruz; Noah was just out of junior high school, surfing with some friends with their parents in Baja.  

It was June,1985.

Now, an experienced hiker having taken many camping trips lasting from two days to two weeks, a member of the Sierra Club, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and the kids away, I decided to take a weekend trip north in the eastern Sierra. In Paula’s last years I did many solo and risky early morning hikes, confident in my ability. Perhaps illogically so.  

I was in my early sixties, still agile, doing morning pushups, jogging. For thirty years, I’d haunt the 300-mile area from Lone Pine north to Bridgeport and on occasion to Tahoe, had taken many backpack trips, exploring many trails into the dazzling Sierras through John Muir’s “Range of Light”—the steep eastern side.  

This time, I was drawn to an area I had taken Paula and the kids, a trail north of Mono Lake, about forty miles past the eastern entrance to Tioga pass and Yosemite. The snow mostly melted, except for patches up above, mostly on the north faces. I was alone after a year of grief. 

At Conway summit, on the I-395, at about 9000 feet, branching off the paved road, there is a narrow secondary road that leads west up the mountain to Virginia Lakes Basin to about 9800 feet, turning into gravel near the top.

If you’re ever in the area in late June, drive up, as I have many times. You’ll be dazzled by color, the spring bloom. The aspens will be newly in light green leaf, the road bordered by cadmium yellow rabbitbrush. You’ll pass fields of violet and purple—wild iris, lupine, and delicate shooting stars in wetter places along rushing streams and contrasting flashes of red and orange of paintbrush and poppies.

Looking west, snow glistens on jagged mountain cliffs ahead, the sky almost ultramarine blue. The trees get dense as you leave the high desert plateau and climb, from single-leaf pinions to Junipers, then the three-needle pines, Jeffries, or Ponderosa, to Red, then White Fir, and on to the ubiquitous Lodgepoles, and at higher elevation, to the Mountain Hemlock, to the five-needle pines and the Western Whites that grow less dense as you approach timber line and hit the glorious whitebarks.

In late fall, the aspens will be afire with reds, oranges, and yellow, against the green of the conifers and the greys of granite. You go from Sonoran zone to Hudsonian zone, six “life” zones in a relatively short horizontal distance. 

In the many years of Paula’s suffering from cancer, she was not able to take long hikes, and I wanted her to be able to enjoy the high country she so loved, so I explored ways of going up toward timberline by car for shorter hikes. This was a favorite trip.  

Again, I can’t seem to tell a simple story without elaborating on circumstances, background, other experiences, but what the hell. In the telling, I’m uncovering reasons why I took the particular trail in the first place.

Paula had an amazing brain for flora, being able to identify and retain their Latin names, families, species, etc., and quietly elaborate and explain. Our daughter, Gaby, inherited this ability. Walking with them was an education. Walking with Gaby still is.

In the Sierra, after snow melt, by changing altitude levels, you’re in constant Spring where, if you know where to look, you can follow the flowers. In May and June, the foothills start blooming. As the summer progresses, so does the blossoming, but higher and higher. In this particular glacial basin, above ten thousand feet climbing to about 11,500 in late August and even into September, new blossoms appear, often miniature in size: Gentian, Columbine, Penstemon.

If you’re patient and quiet you see fauna, as well. Once, passing a small tarn in late August, we discovered it was alive with tadpoles in the act of transforming into frogs, or rather Western Toads—thousands of them. It would snow soon, so they had a lot of living to do before hibernating, a complete life cycle, becoming toads, jumping around, croaking little toad croaks, mating, and laying eggs in a matter of weeks.

So, this road, Virginia Lakes Road, relatively little traveled, leads to truly beautiful alpine country, winding a dozen miles and dead ends at a small lodge on beautiful Blue Lake. After that—wilderness.  

If it’s cold, park and get a bowl of hot homemade soup at the modest lodge. Then, a few hundred yards north, a jeep dirt road ends at a small campground and a second lake. There are a few cabins on public land with 50-year leases. My friend, Jim Stevens, who hiked with me around Mont Blanc in the alps (the TMB, Tour Mont Blanc), owned one. A trail follows the stream leading higher and after about five or so miles enters the northeast corner of wild Yosemite—very little traveled. Once past the few cabins, the trail follows a stream through woods and then, wilderness as it climbs past successive step-stair lakes with cascades and falls in between, typical of glacial basins.

Eventually the trail arrives at an exquisite garden valley above timberline, above ten thousand feet. Tundra, dotted with many glittering small lakes, ponds, tarns—Frog Lakes Basin. In late summer it is an Eden, a Shangri La, a hidden paradise.  

Along the terrain levels, the rise is more gentle for about two miles of lake-filled meadows before climbing steeply to Summit Lake, over tree line and into the northeast, untravelled corner of Yosemite National Park. It’s a place of magic—a place for wandering. It extends through several miles of green alpine tundra, with a few groves of whitebark pines where protected and facing south, some saplings straight and young, some twisted and perhaps millennia old. John Muir once counted rings in a quarter-inch twig—it was 200 years old. There are also scattered and stunted lodgepole pines at the upper limit of their range. In August and September, after snowmelt, flowers and meandering streams are everywhere, but rarely people. Although steep for the first mile or two, you’re in gentler, meadow-like country within about two miles—perfect for kids, and even for Paula, though ailing.

As long as I’m diverging further from telling about my freaky hike, I’ll add a few experiences in Frog Lakes Basin.

When my younger son, Noah, was about nine or ten, Paula ill, I felt he needed some special father-son time, so we spent a few days there. What could be a better place—though steep, only three or four miles up, doable for a youngster, with isolated places to camp, sleep under the stars?

Tired when we arrived at the small, scattered Frog Lakes, we took advantage of the meadow-like tundra and took an afternoon nap. After about twenty minutes, aware of munching and shuffling sounds, I opened an eye to discover we were surrounded by foraging deer. Apparently, with us sleeping and not moving, they were not afraid, and one fawn was so close to Noah he could have touched it. I gently shook Noah, and awakening, seeing a fawn only a foot or so away, his face lit with an astonished smile.

Higher up, the next morning, I heard from our secluded campsite, this short, sharp, piercing whistle. It was a golden mantle marmot, nervously peering out of its rock den. It had the typical wide “V” stripes of burnt orange color on its chest. I told Noah how they winter up there, survive the dense snow. He wondered what they eat. I had read they were stercoricolous, a fancy word for saying they live in or eat feces—poop, and survive by eating their own dung, their doo-doo. Noah’s response, making a barf face, was a loud “yuck.” The marmot, insulted, or embarrassed, ran back into its den. I explained they eat grass and when they poop, it’s not too stinky. They leave it in their dens, where it eventually decomposes, forms mold, and changes, becomes edible, nutritious (to them at least), and keeps them alive in winter.

Another time, I took my older son, Justin, and his friend David Nash, ages eleven or twelve, during a new or dark moon jaunt, to watch the night sky. They were studying constellations. We were up every few hours through the night, checking the unbelievable—for city folk—brilliance of the night sky, as the stars and constellations traveled east to west. On that particular trip, when I rigged a line to hoist our food into a tree (there had been a bear the previous year), I cut my thumb on a lodgepole snag. It was deep and needed stitches. I usually take a small flask and asked Justin to find the scotch. He was surprised when, instead of a drink, I poured it over the cut to cleanse it. Then, naturally, when I saw how deep it was, I did take a big gulp. In order not to go back down and have it stitched, Justin made an improvised “butterfly” bandage, and it healed beautifully. 

Another time, Gaby and I decided to trek further up the same Frog Lakes Basin to the crest at Summit Lake, aptly called. We started the hike in beautiful warm sun. On that particular day, typical of what can happen in the Sierra, a sudden storm blew in despite it being August. It started snowing, light flurries at first, then heavier, finally turning into a blinding “whiteout.” Dangerous. We could barely see. Luckily, we had layers of warm clothes and shells in our packs.    

We had a harrowing time getting down the next few hours, and if we weren’t so familiar with the terrain, we should have made shelter and stayed warm.

In addition, there were countless times when Paula, before her illness, the kids and I just wandered. With Paula it was a tutorial. At the time, my bedtime reading to the kids was Niko Tinbergen’s book, The Curious Naturalists, or Conrad Lorenz or other like-minded books because that’s what we were trying to be: curious naturalists, learning to observe, understand, and delight in new knowledge.



All the above and more was on my mind as I was hiking in this same spot, up toward Frog Lakes, above Virginia Lake, Blue Lake, leaving the few fishermen far behind. I was alone, had a day pack, reliable boots, emergency stuff—sensibly clad and sensibly equipped, but again, not sensible.

I often fantasize when looking up at surrounding high places, cliffs, mountains, canyons, how I would find a way up, wondering how early explorers, geologists from Major Powell to John Muir, would wander. Looking north to my right as I hiked, I saw the ridge of mountains that comprise the north border of Frog Lakes Basin, before they drop off to Green and Hoover Lakes canyon, where I had also been.

The highest peak was Mt. Dunderberg, snow at top. Looking at my topo map, I saw it was 12,200 feet high, not a particularly dramatic mountain, being only two or three hundred feet above the ridge to the west, but about 2500 feet above me and what seemed only modestly steep.

I imagined how, leaving the trail, I could climb to the crest, what routes I’d take, what mini-saddles I’d cut through, etc. Of course, there was no trail, just granite, a 2500-foot scramble up, around or over boulders, crossing rugged talus or scree (rock on rock), somewhat steep in places. Two hiking buddies, Jim Stevens and Al Robbins, both younger than I, had been up there once, the correct way—coming from the ridge accessible from the west. But it looked doable from where I was, much lower on the trail, and much, much steeper.

Instead of just fantasizing, on a whim I simply left the trail, bushwhacked and climbed. At first, though not too steep, I had to pick my way through the underbrush, manzanita, small wooded copses, small streams, rivulets, and then I reached, eventually, the granite mountainsides onto the granite talus. Steep, but easy. At first, the talus was composed of a jumble of large stuff and boulders, so I boulder-hopped—none of it serious, but a bit trickier than anticipated.  

On boulders, I could hear snowmelt water running below me. Again, I always thought I was part mountain goat and was sure-footed at the time. Not smart. Alone, without letting anyone know, I went on, picking my way.

I loved that little sense of adventure. Off-trail, in rough terrain, it’s like a puzzle. It’s instructive, like “life” trials, although I often thought I was better at them in nature, than in career situations. In any case, the fun is figuring out how to get from this point to that. If you make a mistake, run into danger, then go back, revise the plan, try another route. Think! It’s a kick and just a little challenge. There was no serious climbing although in a few places climbing required handholds, leg-up stuff and south facing so most of the snow had melted. I had no climbing gear and wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. I did have nylon rope in my small daypack, just in case.

Somewhere, I had picked up the knowledge of “three points,” two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand. Underfoot, it was mostly talus alternating with rough ground, some slick rock, some bare granite, and as I got higher, scree (essentially more talus, but I always considered the word, “scree,” represented smaller stuff). Going up, looking up, finding the next route, easy, even though it was steep. In places I had to find places to handhold or put my feet—a real climber would laugh, but it seemed a bit longer than the two miles I had estimated. And steeper. In my sixties, I should have let someone know where I was, just in case.  

I spotted columbines on the climb peeking out of the rocks. How’d they find enough soil? Where’d the seed come from? They amaze me; their soft petal texture, their elegant shapes and subtle colors against the Sierra granite, was like someone handing you a slush cone in the desert; you could almost savor them. Silly in my anthropomorphizing, I’d talk to them: “Sweetheart, what’s a delicate beauty like you doing in a rugged place like this?”

The air was brisk, my leg muscles burned, but I felt euphoric and strong. Eventually, after climbing one or two places, sliding a bit as rocks slid beneath me, I scrambled to the peak in patches of snow. The view was spectacular. Looking north to the lakes in Hoover Canyon below, and south to the Frog Lakes below, and east to Mono Lake for god knows how many miles, I spotted ten or more lakes from my aerie and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. This wasn’t K2 or Everest but seeing the endless Sierra mountains rolling to the west was inspiring, therapeutic, healing, after a year of grief. Getting up was no problem. I felt tough.

  The problem came after I started down. After leaving the crest, instead of following the ridge, I angled, traversing to avoid the steepness where I had climbed up, heading west and down to cross into the trail as it also climbed. Because of the steepness and slipping rocks beneath my feet, however, it was difficult.

I was crossing a patch of scree, steeply angled, a slope of about 45 degrees or steeper, when the rocks under my feet slid out on my downhill side (my left). My legs followed as I bounced on my right side and couldn’t catch myself. Trying desperately, but failing to catch my footing, I slid, tumbled, bounced like a rag doll about twenty or thirty feet and felt I was gathering speed, going faster, unable to stop myself. Vaguely, the formula, “32 feet per second, per second,” ran through my head as I was heading to an ever-steeper incline, dropping hundreds of feet.




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