Mount Lyell is 13,114-foot (3,997-meter) mountain located in the Sierra Nevada of California. Forming the southeastern edge of the Clark Range, it is the highest point in all of Yosemite National Park. It serves as a triple divide for the drainages of the Tuolumne River, the Merced River, and Rush Creek. The north face of the mountain harbours the Lyell Glacier, a relatively large mass of ice that was extensively studied and monitored by John Muir in the late nineteenth century.
This mountain provides one of the best opportunities for true mountaineering in California. The easiest route to the top involves a significant glacier crossing followed by several hundred feet of difficult and exposed class-4 climbing.
SUMMARY: I climbed this mountain with Max and Giselle in late-July of the year 2015. Following a day of peak-bagging in the iconic Cathedral Range, the three of us began heading south on the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows. We followed the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River all the way up Lyell Canyon to its source at the foot of the Lyell Glacier (a distance of about twelve or thirteen miles) and set our base camp at 10,500 feet. We approached the glacier in scenic fashion, climbing directly onto the northeast ridge of Mount MacLure and following it to the bottom edge of the glacier. We climbed the glacier directly up to the summit block, then scrambled the exposed class-4 west ridge until reaching the topmost pinnacle of Mount Lyell. We descended the same route back to base camp.
23 JULY 2015
We’ve enjoyed a full day of climbing in the Cathedral Range (including an exciting class-4 traverse of the ridgeline connecting Unicorn Peak and Cockscomb Peak), and now find ourselves back at Tuolumne Meadows with the maddening crowds of Yosemite National Park. The clock reads 6:00pm when we hoist our rucksacks and begin tracing the John Muir Trail southward through the eastern outposts of John Muir’s beloved Tuolumne Meadows.
The John Muir Trail winds four miles eastward through the expansive Tuolumne Meadows before making a sharp right turn and entering Lyell Canyon, a broad U-shaped valley containing the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The eastern wall of the canyon is formed by the Kuna Crest, a 12,000′ forested plateau that now (in late afternoon) catches the supernatural creamsicle alpenglow cast by the setting sun.
The three of us march up Lyell Canyon until it gets too dark to see, making camp on a bench above the Tuolumne River at 8,950′ elevation.
24 JULY 2015
It’s a frosty morning in the depths of Lyell Canyon. When at last the sun finally surmounts the Kuna Crest to the east, we emerge from our tents and begin arranging our gear to be dried by natural means.
Once our gear is dry, we rejoin the John Muir Trail and begin following it southward under the watchful eye of Potter Point.
Almost eight miles up Lyell Canyon, we get our first view of Mount Lyell. On the fantastic wall of rock and ice to the south, Mount Lyell is the highest (and most daunting) peak. The summit itself is a small yet wicked-looking chunk of rock sitting atop the rather large Lyell Glacier.
We continue up the trail as it makes a steep 1,500-foot climb alongside the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. At 10,500′ it crosses the river for the last time; here we must leave the JMT and continue upstream in order to gain access to the Lyell Glacier. We drop our rucksacks at this point, expecting to return from the climb and set up camp in the vicinity.
Instead of simply following the Lyell drainage to the base of the glacier, we decide to improvise a scenic route along the higher, exposed ridgelines. It’s a fun class-3 romp to the upper Lyell Basin, from where we are presented with a jaw-dropping view of the great Lyell massif and its system of “small but living glaciers” (as described by John Muir).
From the upper Lyell Basin we travel cross-country to the northeast ridge of Mount MacLure. We gain the crest of this ridge and continue heading due south towards the great Lyell Glacier. Travel along this ridge is straightforward and the views are magnificent.
In short time we find ourselves clambering over the unconsolidated moraine at the foot of the glacier. There are two miniature tarns (one at 11,700′ and another at 11,800′) of such brilliant turquoise colour, owing to the input of crystal-laden glacial meltwater.
Upon reaching the bottom edge of the great icefield (elevation 11,900′) we apply our crampons, grip our ice axes, and take our first steps. The slope of the ice ranges from 30-degrees to 40-degrees, practically ideal for the kick-step method of climbing. Our obstacles include tiny crevasses and scattered talus.
We ascend the glacier for 600 vertical feet diagonally upward to a low point on the west ridge, below the summit block but above the Lyell-MacLure Col.
Soon we’ve gained the west ridge at 12,500′, and its time to start searching for a path up the rocky crest to the summit. Melting of the upper portion of the glacier in recent years has increased the grade of this west ridge from class-3 to class-4. Besides the fact that our shoes are slippery from the glacier, the granite slabs are polished and unnervingly slick.
It’s a relief to overcome the sustained class-4 section and to be left with a simple class-3 talus hop to the summit. To our right, the crest gives way to a vertiginous escarpment measuring over one-thousand feet in height.
The 13,114-foot summit of Mount Lyell is an airy stack of granite with hundred-mile views in every direction. Lyell Canyon stretches northward from the foot of the Lyell Glacier out to the northern realm of Yosemite National Park. Looking to the west, Mount MacLure stands in the foreground of the majestic Clark and Cathedral Ranges. But the most impressive view is of Mount Ritter to the southeast: this great mass of dark glacier-scoured rock seems more on the scale of the Andes or even the lesser Himalaya, towering above the town and resort of Mammoth Lakes.
An added treat is the classic-looking Sierra Club summit register, glued to the topmost boulder and containing historical scribblings of past mountaineers as well as comical comments of more contemporary conquerors.
As usual, the three of us stay on the summit until sufficiently cold, at which point we begin descending the west ridge. Downclimbing the steep polished slabs proves to be a stiff challenge, but all three of us succeed in safely getting down to the glacier at 12,500′.
Soft snow on the upper portion of the Lyell Glacier gives us the opportunity to glissade. Is there anything more childish and fun than sliding down a steep pitch of snow on your butt?
The hardened blue ice of the lower portion of the Lyell Glacier is not safe for glissading, yet it makes for a speedy descent on crampons.
Instead of retracing our scenic ridge route back to base camp, we simply follow the headwaters of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River down several hanging basins. Evidence of glacial activity is wonderfully clear in this area: jagged arêtes, scoured cirques, polished/striated slabs, erratic boulders, shallow alpine tarns, U-shaped valleys, and much more!
We find ourselves back at base camp as the clock strikes 8:00pm. We’ve enjoyed a phenomenal day of climbing, and can now look forward to a calm, clear night at 10,500 feet.