Excelsior Mountain is a 12,246-foot (3,733-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It stands just within the northeast boundary of Yosemite National Park, and offers a unique perspective on the iconic features of that spectacular area. The mountain is composed of Jurassic- and Triassic-aged metavolcanic rocks that give it a striking red colour.
The Excelsior massif is composed of a long, gentle ridgeline of colourful rock with a centralized summit. This entire crest can be followed from any direction, and never exceeds class-2 in difficulty. It is not so much a “climb” as it is a cross-country trek, with great distances being required to reach this remote summit.
SUMMARY: I climbed Excelsior Mountain in mid July of the year 2015, as part of a geologic mapping project for my Masters thesis at Northern Arizona University. For this six-day assignment, I was fortunate enough to have Max and Giselle as field assistants. We spent three days trekking up and over the great mass of Excelsior Mountain from north to south, wherein we identified rock units along the way. This article is presented as a report of the trekking/mountaineering aspect of the trip, purposefully omitting scientific information.
14 July, 2015
Jon drops us off at Virginia Lakes trailhead (9,805-ft) in the afternoon, and the three of us spend some time relaxing by the calm waters and soaking in the beauty of this colourful alpine landscape.
Eventually we gather our rucksacks, take a deep breath, and begin our six-day cross-country trek under periwinkle skies and alongside crystal-clear lakes. We don’t have to wonder for even a split second about the etymology of Blue Lake; we simply tread along its northern shore with eyes dancing across the glittering surface. A small cascade roars down into the lake on the opposite side, while jagged metamorphic peaks beckon us into higher country.
The 1.5-mile trail through Frog Lakes basin is wonderfully rewarding, with gorgeous rock outcrops and a string of serene alpine lakes along the way.
The three of us pass the 10,000-foot elevation mark at the outlet of Cooney Lake, a large body of still-water nestled under the talus slopes of Black Mountain.
Not far beyond Cooney Lake lies the namesake feature of the valley: the Frog Lakes, characterized by shallow, emerald-coloured water.
The main Frog Lake strikes a blend between the cerulean blue colour of the lower lakes and the emerald green colour of the upper lakes, enchanting us with its mountain surroundings.
The wonderland walk continues up to the head of Frog Lakes basin, where a striking olive-coloured tarn sits below the imposing west ridge of Black Mountain.
To reach Burro Pass (11,100-ft), we put our heads down and slog upward on the horrific talus that makes up the headwall of Frog Lakes basin. The slog is duly rewarded with amazing views in all directions from the broad, talus-covered pass. To the south, Dunderberg Peak and Black Mountain stand as the massive gateposts of Frog Lakes basin.
At the pass we encounter a pair of hilarious middle-aged men coming down from Excelsior Ridge who are quite eager to share their love of the area. Their immediate fondness for us stems from some kind of belief that we are continuing a mini-legacy of conscientious naturalists. When I show them my recent photo of the Palisade Glacier (now Glaciers), they share an emotional moment together and instill within us that we have to keep exploring remote places and appreciating the raw splendor of the land.
The men are excited to forecast our route up Excelsior Mountain, professing their unconditional love for the ridgeline. They state, “the only view we like to have of Yosemite National Park is from the top of Excelsior Mountain,” implying their resentment for excessive human development within the main area of the park.
“Just be warned about Red Dog, that big mound of scree above us here – it’s a brutal slope to climb!” one of them advises. When I ask why they’ve nicknamed it Red Dog, he slaps an open palm directly on my shoulder and laughs, “because it’s made of red talus… and it’s a dog to climb!”
With low-angle beams of golden sunlight streaming in across the broad pass, the three of us elect to make camp. In order to find relief from the persistent wind gusts, we nestle our tents among a small cluster of piñon bushes. Our position between the gargantuan red ridgeline of Excelsior Mountain and the sinister black pinnacles of Black Mountain makes for a marvelous location to watch the sunset.
15 July, 2015
I take advantage of the earliest part of the morning to do a couple hours of mapping by myself, allowing Giselle and Max to sleep in. I attempt to map the entire west ridge of Black Mountain, but find myself blocked by an impassable gendarme several hundred feet below the summit. Nonetheless, the small excursion has given me valuable data in addition to gorgeous alpine views.
Back from my solo scamper, I help the other two finish packing up camp. As a trio we tackle the east slope of Red Dog, which turns out to be not nearly as bad as the two men had forewarned. The talus is actually quite stable compared to the slope coming up to the pass in the first place.
From the top of Red Dog, the ridgeline becomes a puzzling mosaic of different rock types, all of them altered to hues ranging from black to white and every shade of red in between. Trying to keep our heads screwed on, we zigzag across the polychromatic talus toward the summit area.
The three of us are so engrossed in the mapping project that we hardly notice when we reach the 12,246-foot summit block. A moment of rest (temporarily ignoring the geologic problems) allows us to revel in the surreal view of Yosemite National Park that we had been expecting from the two men at Burro Pass. The entire Yosemite high country is laid out before us, including Mount Dana, Mount Lyell, Mount Conness, and the craggy Cathedral Range – all places that were deeply beloved by John Muir and other early mountaineers who inhabited this peerless landscape.
From a geologic perspective, the summit gives a perfect explanation of the term “roof pendant”, which applies to these metamorphosed volcanic rocks sitting stop the main granite batholith of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a “pendant” of unique rock found on the “roof” of the mountain range.
After a refreshing summit break, the three of us pick up our rucksacks and continue mapping the ridgeline as it extends south toward lower ground.
Soon we are greeted by our first aerial view of the Saddlebag Lake basin, for which the entire volcanic pendant was named. The stratigraphy is laid out before us like something from a geology textbook, and we’re excited to map the terrain.
We continue along the lengthy south ridge of Excelsior Mountain, mesmerized by the late-day alpenglow that slowly and magically begins to paint Saddlebag Lake basin below us.
In the last moments of the day, we scamper down the remainder of Excelsior Ridge and make camp next to a little glacial tarn at the base.
16 July, 2015
We’re welcomed by another glorious, warm morning. Again, I spend the first couple hours of the day mapping our surroundings while Max and Giselle snooze in the tents. Our camp is squished between the south ridge of Excelsior Mountain and the east ridge of Shepherd Crest; having already mapped the first of the two, we now intend to map the latter.
Leaving camp, we heave ourselves up to the east ridge of Shepherd Crest, glancing to our left occasionally to dig the view down the barrel of Lundy Canyon to the vast sky-coloured expanse of Mono Lake, the great saline body of water that spans the arid desert below.
The east ridge of Shepherd Crest is composed of stripes of alternating volcanic and granitic rock that make for complex mapping on a mesoscopic scale. Giselle waits on the lower part of the ridge while Max and I scramble toward the summit.
I stop at a point several hundred feet below the summit in order to make detailed geologic observations and enjoy the stellar view of the north face of North Peak and the rest of the Saddlebag Lake basin. Twenty Lakes Basin, the marvelous alpine bench north of Saddlebag Lake, is now in view. Meanwhile, Max continues up to the 12,020-foot summit and communicates through a series of yodels that the summit block is composed of volcanic rock.
We regroup after Shepherd Crest and make a plan to descend into Twenty Lakes Basin. As we’re coming over the lip of the basin (still more 1,000 vertical feet above the lakes), the cloudy horizon erupts in a wicked thunderstorm. Within seconds, hail begins accumulating on the lower slope of Mount Dana; a veritable wall of weather begins advancing rapidly towards us.
Only a few minutes after seeing the hailstorm initiate across the valley, the storm slams into us. Frantically we scour the hillside for shelter as pea-sized pellets of ice ambush our heads. We take refuge under a slightly overhanging boulder while I catch up on field observations in my notebook. The three of us find it surreal to be crunched into such a tiny nook while the godly thunderstorm lays siege upon the heavenly landscape. For many, this situation would be a nightmare; for us, it’s better than a dream.
Half an hour goes by, and then forty-five minutes, until eventually the tempest ceases and we’re free to leave the cramped quarters of the boulder. Legs fresh from the extended rest, we tramp down into the basin and find ourselves in the middle of it all. The mountains now glisten with fresh rainfall, and the rapid melting of hail gives renewed force to the plethora of creeks and cascades in the basin. The spongy, mossy ground gives a pleasing relief to our sore feet, offering countless comfortable locations to sit and make notes on the geology.
As the afternoon makes its graceful transition into evening, the wind halts to a standstill. The peaks are now dappled in golden light, reflected perfectly in the now-motionless lake surfaces.
We hike through until sunset in an effort to complete our mapping of Twenty Lakes Basin. When this is accomplished, the three of us pitch our tents on the west shore of Greenstone Lake and settle down for a night of sleep.
17 July, 2015
Picture-perfect mornings are the definite theme of this trip, and this one is no exception. Once again, the conditions are ripe for me to rise early and perform some detailed mapping of our surroundings. During such times, its important for me to also appreciate the artistic beauty of the land.
Greenstone Lake is situated in a really amazing location, abutted against the silver slabs that guard the granite fortresses of Mount Conness and North Peak. In this classic Sierra Nevada roof pendant setting, the volcanic rocks come into direct contact with the granitic rocks. This relationship is also visible in the stately cluster of peaks that line the northern horizon – namely Shepherd Crest and Excelsior Mountain.
We continue our southward progress until hitting the north shore of the Saddlebag Lake artificial reservoir. The coexistence of fishermen, boaters, hikers, and marmots lets us know that we’re now within two miles of a paved road. We follow the trail around the west side of the lake, and soon the small campground and general store come into view.
The three of us are delightfully surprised to learn that the historic general store at Saddlebag Lake happens to serve hot breakfast! We don’t waste any time saddling up to the counter and gorging ourselves on pancakes and hot coffee. Given that this is roughly the halfway point in our six-day trek, this is indeed a blessing. We walk off down the paved road with bellies full, ready to climb and map the east ridge of Mount Conness.