South Valley responds to annual summer hiking trek

SNOWY VIEW Round Top can be seen in the distance as hikers traverse the trail to Red Lake Peak. Photo: Ron Erskine

In December 2012, I wrote this in my “Getting Out” column:

“Each new year, we resolve to lose weight, exercise more, or make some other pledge of self-improvement that usually withers and dies before January is gone. But sometimes, if the challenge has enough allure, and if we do it with the support and companionship of friends, we might follow through and maybe even come away with a lifelong memory.

“In 2013, I challenge you to join me in a special adventure—to make a bold commitment and follow through. We will prepare together, but make no mistake, you will be tested. Your reward will be a fantastic memory and the pride that comes from a very special accomplishment.” 

The rest of the column laid out a schedule of local hikes we would take throughout the winter and spring, an opportunity to get in shape and build a bit of esprit de corps. The first would be on New Year’s morning, a hike I had offered to readers for several years. On each of those prior years, perhaps 20 people would show up. When I arrived at the Mendoza Ranch trailhead at Harvey Bear County Park on New Year’s morning after that column, I couldn’t have been more surprised.

At home, I printed out five sign-up sheets to collect email addresses of those who chose to accept the challenge. Just before heading out the door, I thought to myself, “Five sign-up sheets? Are you crazy?” and pulled two out.

I waited with my clipboard at the trailhead. Cars kept coming and coming until the parking lot overflowed. My three sign-up sheets filled up, and I had to flip them over. About 150 people came. The Clouds Rest Challenge was born.

That summer, on July 13, 70 South Valley challengers, some of them no doubt your friends and neighbors, came to the Sunrise Trailhead in Yosemite National Park. Each of them walked 13 miles and climbed 2,450 feet to stand at the top of 9,926-foot Clouds Rest, a perch 1,000 feet above Half Dome. Late in the afternoon, as I descended the mountain, a trail companion asked me, “Well, Ron, where are we going next year?”

Next year? 

As it turns out, there have been six “next years.” The notches in challengers’ belts include: Clouds Rest, 9,926 feet; Mount Tallac, 9,735 feet; Mount Hoffman, 10,850 feet; Round Top, 10,381 feet; Snow Valley Peak, 9,213 feet; Brokeoff Mountain, 9,236 feet; and this year’s challenge peak, Red Lake Peak, 10,063 feet.

Red Lake Peak was an ideal candidate for this summer’s challenge. The mountain is near Carson Pass where Highway 88 crosses the Sierra Crest, a region we visited several years before when we tackled Round Top just across the road. This part of the Sierra, above Hope Valley, is a gateway to some of the most beautiful and accessible mountain scenery you will see.

Winter dumped record snows in the Sierra. Throughout winter and spring, I worried whether the mountain would be free of snow by our mid-July challenge date. The 9,943-foot Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park is nearly the same elevation as Red Lake Peak. Snowplows worked steadily to open the pass on July 1, just two weeks before we would come to the Sierra. Would our mountain still be buried?

Two Red Lake Peak challengers, Maarten and Cathy Kalisvaart, erased that concern. They went to the mountain in late June and reported that the way to the top was largely clear. While remnant snowfields remained, the sun had done its work on the bare southwest-facing slope we would climb.

Challenge morning dawned calm and crystalline. Our route up Red Lake Peak began with a gently rolling approach through a forest of stately Sierra juniper. A mile out, we popped into wide-open country and a spectacular nonstop wildflower show. Bright yellow mule’s ears and blue bush lupine predominated, but their palate was accented with irises, paintbrushes, penstemons, scarlet gilia, blue flax, buckwheat, Sierra onion, and on and on in gaudy profusion.

Atop a rise, we passed a small pond and edged across the slope, our objective still out of sight behind the shoulder of an intervening peak. Then, there it was. I had warned everyone that this would be the “Oh, s**t” moment, and indeed it was. The huge summit cap rock looked like a tiny thimble 1,200 feet overhead. The way was wide open. Only a few stands of whitebark pines and a couple remnant snowfields interrupted the long steep slope above. Here was the “challenge” part. There was only one way to get up there: take a step, then another, and another.

No trail showed the way. Hikers speckled the mountainside as all 56 of us zigged and zagged up and across the slope guided by our whim. Now and then, each drooping head looked up to see the cap rock slowly grow larger. Finally, finally, the top, where heaving chests and pounding hearts gave way to wide smiles and the buzz of chatter.

Not a single cloud marred the sky. Looking north, Lake Tahoe was visible. To the east and south, the still snow-covered Sierra crest disappeared in the distance. The sky was so clear that to the west, we could see our own Coast Ranges across the Central Valley.

Little did I know what that 2012 “Getting Out” column would bring. That so many wonderful people—all sorts of people—take the trouble to come has been gratifying. This is not the lycra-clad crowd. All shapes and sizes, your friends and neighbors, from teenagers to octogenarians, have come. Some have taken me aside and said they thought they couldn’t, and they certainly wouldn’t until someone said, “Come with me; I know the way.” So, they came and learned they could. To them, and to all who came over these seven summers, I tip my cap.

Red Lake Peak Challengers

Jean Blomquist

Greg Kepferle

Maarten Kalisvaart

Cathy Kalisvaart

Vicki Wanken

Liz Ramirez

Ayde Colin

Kris Hernandez

Nancy Durham

Brian Jones

Pamela Jones

Beth Ludwig

Stefanie Selck

Jason Sugimura

Dawn Theirl

Belinda Allen

Nicholas Tindall

Denise Giffin

Carlotta Lopez

Stephen Toste

Jeff Ross

Lorraine Ross

Dave Bonsall

Marty Bonsall

Carolyn Barbaglia

Lina Velasquez

Lita Hall

Dolores Kent

Yvette Weislak

Lisa Cartwright

Claudia Cameron

Anita Schaack

Ava Musgrove

Gale Marshall

Paul Marshall

Bill Moton

Sandy Takako

Dan Brown

Ken Johnson

Chris Barreras

Eric Giordano

Sheri Giordano

Lynda Chase

Jean Robertson

Ray Reed

Norma Prada

Steve Sheffield

Susan Signei

Tom Nagy

Kim Johnson

Craig Parsons

Carol Johnson

Jim Marsh

Jayne Marsh

Ron Erskine

Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.
Ron Erskine

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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.