Mountaineering in The Sierra Nevadas

May 23, 2017

I have spent many years of my life rock climbing. I have done a fair bit of mountaineering as well.

Mountaineering and rock climbing are quite different activities. There is lots of overlap of course, and rock climbing skills are a huge asset on the peaks. What I would say characterizes mountaineering is the scale of things. Mountaineering is more of a big picture thing, whereas rock climbing is a microcosm where you can loose yourself amidst cracks and holds and pitches. Peak bagging is another game, one sort of mountaineering. It tends to degenerate into ticking off items on a list, a mindset I try to avoid getting into.

The mountaineering I get enthused about is climbing class 3 and 4 peaks. I am interested in things that I can climb within reason without a rope and by myself if I am alone. Each person must know their own limitations (and they change with time and age). Here is a short list of some really great peaks that I have climbed in the Sierra:

I actually did not climb Mt. Goddard, but climbed peak 13040+ just to the east, after climbing Starr's route (an interesting route on an otherwise dull mountain). I need to return, explore the area to the south and climb Goddard.

I have also done some rock climbing in the Tuolumne region, including ascents of some of the domes, and Cathedral Peak, but this is rock climbing more than mountaineering.

Note that class 2 climbing in most cases involves drudgery over endless talus. I have lost interest in talus slogs to simply "bag a peak". Class 3 (and definitely class 4) involves much more interesting and enjoyable actual climbing. Some class 2 peaks are worth the visit, either for the view or for the peak itself.

The mystery of class 4

There is a useless technical definition, but here is the actual truth. A class 4 peak is one that experienced people will climb unroped, but which has situations where you will die if you fall off. People beat around the bush about this, but now you have it as it really is. You can do with this as you please, and I encourage noone to endanger their lives. You either climb these peaks with ropes and class 5 techniques, or you avoid them, or you climb them solo.


Some people curse guidebooks. I understand the arguments, nonetheless I am quite grateful for them. There are several guides: Secor divides the sierra into sections, from south to north as follows: Also, you may want to look at the Sierra Peaks Section lists.

Norman Clyde

This fellow is the hero of every Sierra Mountaineer. He made many first ascents, many of them alone. I thought it would be interesting to make a list of his ascents. There are many interesting stories about Norman Clyde. One statement I found interesting is that he was by no means reluctant to repeat a route. If he enjoyed a climb he would repeat it many times. This rings true to me.

The Sierra Challenge

I mention this, and provide some links, just because this fascinates me so. I would never even know about this, except that about 7AM one morning, I was waking up a few miles below Taboose Pass. It was August 11, 2009. I expected to be entirely alone, but was suddenly surprised to see a fellow coming up the trail. And a fellow with a fairly light backpack. He told me he was on his way to climb Marion Peak. (Apparently he had started out at 4AM and in 3 hours had made his way to where we had managed in the entire previous day -- well we got a bit of a late start and had heavy packs). We met him again later in the day in the bushwhack section along the Kings River south of Mount Ruskin. He indicated he had indeed summited Marion Peak and I noticed he was wearing a Sierra Challenge T-shirt, which I remembered and looked up when I got back home. There is every chance this fellow was Bob Burd, but I don't know for sure and he never did tell me his name, but he was clearly the single lone participant in the effort the reach Marion Peak that day, that is certainly clear. This is a 30 mile day hike with 11600 feet of elevation gain (and loss). Just getting up and over Taboose Pass is an accomplishment for most (it has thus far eluded me). His achievement inspires me, whoever he may be.

Apparently the Sierra challenge concept is to climb a list of 10 peaks in 10 consecutive days as day hikes. In 2009, this was done beginning with Mt. McGee on August 7, and ending with the Miter on August 16. So if you are feeling in shape and can spare 10 days in 2010, you should keep tabs and find out what is in store for next year. This thing began in 2001 and has continued every year since.

See these links:

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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