Donahue Peak is a 12,023-foot (3,665-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. Though not particularly aesthetic, it offers an incredible perspective not only of the highest peaks in Yosemite National Park, but also of the iconic Ritter Range backcountry. Given that both regions were beloved stomping grounds of the influential 19th-century naturalist John Muir, an ascent of Donahue Peak awards one with a new appreciation for the wildness of the High Sierra.
The summit is reached by a simple jaunt up the gentle southwest ridge of the mountain from Donahue Pass. This pass is located along the popular John Muir Trail as it climbs the length of Lyell Canyon. Its convenient location with respect to the trail, relatively meager summit elevation, and lack of technical challenges combine to make this summit a justifiably popular side-trip for thru-hikers who would otherwise refrain from straying off the path.
SUMMARY: I climbed Donahue Peak with Giselle in late July of the year 2015, during our summer of mountainclimbing in the High Sierra. We tagged the summit via the southwest ridge on our way over Donahue Pass, between the previous day’s ascent of Mount Lyell and the following day’s adventure on Mount Ritter.
25 July, 2015
Daybreak brings us a perfect bluebell day, and we’re excited to keep heading south toward the town of Mammoth Lakes. As the sun creeps over the walls of upper Lyell Canyon, we pack up our tent and prepare for a glorious day in the high country. Max elects to snooze in, so it’s up to me and Giselle to lead the charge up and over Donahue Pass.
In less than half an hour we find ourselves at Donahue Pass, clapping eyes on the outstanding cluster of glaciated peaks centered on Mount Ritter. Collectively, this massif has been called the most prominent in the entire Sierra Nevada, meaning that their steep rise above their immediate surroundings is unmatched in the range. Bold ridgelines and stark faces comprise this awe-inspiring group of mountains.
Just north of the Donahue Pass we find a pleasant little alpine tarn sitting at the base of Donahue Peak. We haven’t yet decided whether or not to make the side-trip to the summit, but we come to the “why not” conclusion when we see the smooth ridgeline leading up to the sharp summit. Little do we know, however, that the true summit is actually out of view and protected by a string of false summits.
So we strap on our helmets and begin picking our way up the class-2 boulderfields on the southwest ridge under a tranquil blue sky.
Once on the upper section of the ridge, we come to the realization about the multiple false summits. We’re temporarily dissuaded from going all the way, yet we decide to keep pushing along the ridge toward whichever one of these little granite bumps contains the official summit register.
We’re glad that we decided to continue, because the summit views are spectacular – though not necessarily any different than those along the length of the upper ridge. The line of rugged peaks on the southern horizon extends from the Ritter-Banner massif all the way to the Lyell-Maclure massif, with innumerable summits in between. Besides being undeniably tantalizing to the eye, both of these bookend features were deeply beloved by John Muir himself. Surely he would have climbed to this 12,023-foot summit in order to survey his own stomping grounds.
As the clock nears noon, the two of us take to descending the southeast ridge back to the tarn above Donahue Pass, where we’ve left our rucksacks.
In maintenance of our adventurous spirit, we neglect the John Muir Trail and instead choose to bushwhack down the wildflower-smothered slope south of Donahue Peak.
We hit the floor of the basin while the sun is directly overhead, a perfect hour to relax and drink some fresh creek water.
After our rejuvenating break, the two of us rejoin the John Muir Trail and follow it on its well-graded descent to Rush Creek itself, spurred onward not only by the profusion of varietal wildflowers, but also by the spectacular Ritter-Banner massif on the horizon.
At 2:30pm we hear the gurgle of Rush Creek, a veritable subalpine Garden of Eden at 9,700 feet.
From the babbling brook of Rush Creek, we continue along the John Muir Trail as it climbs gradually up to Island Pass. Just below the 10,206-foot pass, we glance over our shoulders and savour the final view of Donahue Peak, standing tall and mighty on the northern horizon. We also share a chuckle due to the fact that, from this angle, the presence of multiple false summits is quite apparent.