Sierra High Route Day 20: Tuolumne Meadows to Cascade Lake, Chute, Can we Get Out?

Total Miles: 13.4
Cumulative Miles: 207.5
Elevation Gain: 3634 ft
Elevation Loss: 1999 ft
Camp: Cascade Lake
Map of our track on the Sierra High Route north of Tuolumne Meadows,
I am clinging to a refrigerator-sized boulder in an almost vertical crack. My feet slide a little on the sand and  small sized talus stacked at angle of repose. Ray is up higher in the crack trying to see if we can get up. My thoughts vacillate between I wish I had done more rock climbing when I was younger to if I die now am I happy with the life I’ve lived.
On the side of Mt Conness. Can we get up through here?

The day started off a lot more mild. We decided to do a flip and do the last section of the Sierra High Route heading north out of Yosemite because of the fire by Mammoth Lakes. We parked our car at the Wilderness Parking Lot at Tuolumne Meadows and got started hiking by 6:20am. It was cold when we started, frost sparkling on the grasses, and the crisp feel of Fall in the air.

Frost on the grass

It is August 22nd after all.

We start the first five miles on the trail that goes to Gaylor Lake. From Gaylor Lake the route is all cross country for 30 miles until it ends in Mono Village. This three day section is perhaps the hardest on the Sierra High Route. It includes the passes of Mine Shaft, Sky Pilot Col, Grey Butte, Stanton and Horse Canyon. Stanton Pass is supposed to be the trickiest terrain on th High Route (Talusfield). It also ascends the east ridge of Mt Conness in what Talusfield describes as one of it’s boldest lines. It certainly ended up being bold for us…

Ray navigating through perhaps the easiest off-trail hiking north of Gaylor Lakes in Yosemite National Park

 We have given ourselves 3 1/2 days for this section. Lew Hill’s Shuttle service will pick us up around 2pm four days from now in Mono Village and take us back to our car at Tuolumne Meadows. This seems like plenty of time.

We took the trail up to Gaylor Lake. This is a lightly used trail in Yosemite National Park. As crowded as Yosemite gets around Tuolumne Meadows, this is a true gem and we see no one hiking this trail. Perhaps it is because there is no overnight camping allowed within four miles of Tuolumne Meadows or at Gaylor Lakes. This makes it a little challenging for the Sierra High Route hiker as camping is also not allowed in the Hall Natural Area north of Yosemite either. We are planning on getting to Cascade Lake which is beyond all the non-camping areas. This will make for a long day with eight miles off trail and five miles on trail.

After Gaylor Lake, the trail is done and we cross the meadows heading towards Mine Shaft Pass. It is pleasant walking through the meadows weaving between glacial erratics abandoned by the glaciers as they melted and retreated 10,000 years ago.

Glacial Erratics north of Gaylor Lake

As we climb up towards Mine Shaft Pass, the geology and terrain changes dramatically. We are no longer in the smooth polished domes and cragged spires so classically associated with Yosemite. To the north is another world, dark metamorphosed rock traumatized by hot fluids and shot up by lightning bolts of white aplite dikes and quartz veins.  It is here that miners from the late 1800s hunkered down and fought the cold to mine silver in the winter. Yes, in the winter. I can’t even imagine.

A building from the late 1800s where miners worked through the winter to mine silver
But I can imagine what it is like to hang from a boulder, my fingers beginning to get tired of holding me up. The talus shifts under my feet and I dig in my toes. “I’m coming up” I call to Ray. He isn’t sure that we can get out the top of the vertical crack but we are in this together. If we climb up and can’t get out of the vertical slot, then we will climb back down together. “I can do this” I tell myself. I wish I had done more climbing in my 20’s. I could have been good at rock climbing. Is it too late??

Now I go into hyper focus. Just get to the top becomes my only goal. I climb up the snow. Then I pass my pack up to Ray so I can chimney up  a crack that is too narrow and steep with a pack on.

Coming out of a crack where we had to wedge ourselves against the wall without a pack to get up

This is definitely class 4 on the Yosemite Decimal System. Class 3 is described as easy and moderate scrambling with some exposure. Some of the passes on the Sierra High Route are class 3. Class 4 is a very exposed scramble or basic climbing where a fall could be fatal and ropes are often used. But we have no ropes. Yikes. 

Breathe. Put pack back on. Focus. One step at a time. I can get through this. I keep telling myself all these things. It is a mantra to keep me going.
Our route on the side of Mt. Conness. We went too low and got into steep cliffs and had to climb out a narrow chute.

And then we are out of the chute and up high enough we can take “the conspicuous curving spur that drops abruptly towards the lowest Conness Lake” as described by Roper. Ok, now we got it but definitely took a route too low on the slope.  I breathe or more like gulp in the air knowing I am probably safe for another day.

The next few miles are a blur as we scramble our way down and around to Cascade Lake. That night I go to bed thinking about the harder passes ahead. It is so easy out here to miss a route just by a little bit. These mountains do not suffer fools.

Camp at Cascade Lake


  1. Interesting to see the trace of your route on Mt Conness – I remember that being quite tricky terrain even on the ‘correct’ route!

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