Spillway Day

August 6, 2014

The John Frames arrived last night. In tow were two extra 13-year-olds: Matthew’s friend Jeffrey and Dean’s friend Tyler. We all–nine of us–had dinner together in the lodge and plotted our plans for today’s intro hike (their intro hike, our day two).

We decided it’d be Spillway. Man, I love Spillway. The John Frames had never been up to the Mono/Parker Pass area.

In for a treat.

We got to the Mono Pass Trailhead (9,700′) and hit the trail at 10:15 under sunny skies and cool temps. Off to the right (west), a great view of the Kuna Crest the whole way and its northern-most edge, Mammoth Peak (12,117′):


Yes, as a matter of fact, Jim, Peter and I did climb that… about four years ago, I think.

The meadows at the lower part of this hike are beautiful (you can see a small bit of Parker Pass Creek off to the right) :


I love this part of the trail where you follow this creek which eventually flows into the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne. The wild flowers along here can be stunning if you hit it just right, and the sound of the falls can be deafening in good water years.



After about four gentle miles, you get up to Spillway Lake (10,450′). The setting is truly magnificent. It’s open and expansive and just looks like a giant, giant grassy, rocky park, surrounded by mountains–the entire Kuna Crest to the west, and Mt. Gibbs (12,764′) and Mt. Lewis (12,296′) to the east (and Mono Lake on the other side of that). You can see Mono Pass and Parker Pass, both incredible destinations (and Yosemite Park boundaries).

This is right near the edge of Spillway, looking north, back from where we’ve come; this water will flow out to the drainage we followed coming up (Parker Pass Creek). Gorgeous day, cool.

Clouds are forming.


Maita, John and their four charges arrived after a little bit (they had a couple of new hikers). We all found rocks to sit on and had lunch.


Jim, Peter and I decided we were going to climb up to a massive shelf at the base of the Kuna Crest and explore a bunch of lakes up there and come back a slightly different route. We parted ways here.

We started by following the drainage of Lake Helen, our nominal destination:


Then headed up out of the basin..


…and arrived at Lake Helen (10,952′), super pretty up there:


The two peaks Peter and Jim climbed last year, part of the Kuna Crest, Kuna (13,002′) and Koip (12,962′) are off to the left.

One of our books says this about the area:

The jewel of this trip is the extended cross-country traverse along the base of Kuna Crest from Mammoth peak to the crest above Helen Lake. This is a rocky upland with marvelous views in every direction–just the thing for those who yearn, at least occasionally, to get off busy trails and enjoy some soothing solitude.

We definitely had the place to ourselves, saw one guy once, but he disappeared at the top. The trail coming into the Spillway area?  I’m not sure we saw more than half a dozen people all day. If that.

We got to a good view spot and planned our next move. We were trying to decide 1) whether to bail because of imminent weather or go explore a couple more lakes (Bingeman and Kuna and a couple smaller ones, which we’ve been to before, but from the other side), but if we were going to bail, 2) which direction would be best for descending to rejoin the trail back to the trailhead. It looks reasonably nice here, but thunderstorms were in the forecast and thunderheads were definitely forming:


Here’s the view; that’s part of Spillway below, about 500′ down:


We decided to do a bit more exploring. We traversed a couple of largish cirque-y things, and ended up scrambling down one fairly challenging (for me) slope with giant boulders. It was getting storm-dark… I was starting to feel like we’d overstayed our welcome.

And then it started getting really windy and thundering like crazy; the storm was hitting the mountains on the east side of the basin, so we decided to forgo the other lakes and head down.

Which we did at somewhat of a run. Which, if I hadn’t been so freaked at the prospect of getting zapped by lightning, would have been really fun. We were high-tailing it (well, I was) down this sort of soft, moist (but not yet wet) slope with beach-ball-sized rocks and scrubby trees all over making it seem like a giant obstacle course. Fun, but would have been funner if I hadn’t felt like a moving target.

It thundered and thundered, super loud and very dramatic. After about an hour of mad down-scrambling we rejoined the trail, which made things seem a bit safer, and then had about three miles left to go. We avoided rain until exactly the moment we got back to the car.

And then the skies just opened up. Hardest downpour of rain and hail I’ve ever been in. And such the noise! Within minutes the hail piled up on the sides of the road looking like snow drifts, it was also piling up on our windshield, and we had to pull over because visibility was almost zero. Plus, we were laughing hysterically and trying to shoot videos on our phones.

Talk about Spillway.

Here’s our car back at the lodge, after most of the ice had blown off:


The rest of the evening was the usual… hot showers, then hung out in the cabin and snoozed and read until dinner. So tired, but so great.