Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Expedition to Cherry Point

The remarkably warm weather has me thinking of the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon. NYC is a north-flowing tributary of the North Fork, heading up along the Foresthill Divide at just about 7000 feet elevation. The principal trails into that part of the canyon are still blocked by snow, though a few miles of skiing and then walking over snow makes the Mumford Bar Trail a feasible access. Then the American River Trail can be followed up to NYC, and then--well, then it's a serious bit of bushwhacking and route-finding, merely to see the waterfall.

However, one can see it from Cherry Point, at around 6800' on the divide between Little and Big Granite creeks, south of the Loch Leven Lakes. And from the top of the NYC waterfall one can see, across the main North Fork canyon to the north, not only Cherry Point, but also two high knolls or peaklets I call Fisher Point and Loch Leven Point.

A couple of springs ago I made an effort to get in to Cherry Point via Huysink Lake, a mistake on two counts, for not only is Huysink not the shortest line one can follow, but the weather was so warm as to render the snow almost unskiable.

This morning, on impulse, I had another try. I was up at six, drinking my coffee, and by seven-thirty I was tuning my skis, that is, if by "tuning" one means filing the rust off the metal edges, and rubbing an old candle stump over most of the bases and sides. These trusty old cross-country skis have carried me thousands of miles, but I haven't done much skiing in recent years.

I was on I-80 before 8:00 and reached Kingvale before 8:30, crossing under I-80 to old Highway 40 and driving west a little ways past Donner Trail elementary school, to Troy Road. It was important to start early, for I had quite a few miles of skiing to get in to Cherry Point and then back out, and the colder and harder the snow, the better. The first presage of doom was that, even at the bottom of the South Yuba canyon, where things should be coldest, I shed my sweater and left it in the car, and set out in just plain jeans and a t-shirt.

There was no point in snapping on my skis for the climb up Troy Road. The snow was packed and frozen hard. I just carried skis and poles in my arms and stomped on up, taking the left fork, which leads in to Devils Peak. I noticed a fancy new "No Trespassing" sign hung directly over the center of this old road, which happens to be one of the historic trails for which Placer County residents fought to maintain public access, back in 1953.

Fought and lost.

The "No Trespassing" sign was signed "Sinnock Properties." I tried to contact this fellow Sinnock a couple years ago, but he did not reply. I believe he's over in Grass Valley.

Just beyond the sign, the road crosses the Union Pacific tracks. I continued on up, carrying my skis, and took the right fork just beyond, which a sign marks as a Nordic ski trail to High Loch Leven Lake. In years past I had always skied up the Devils Peak road, and though friends had recommended this side trail to me, I had never tried it.

Ron Gould and I explored in that area a while back, while following the route of one of the many historic trails which have been obliterated by logging, the Big Bend-Devils Peak Trail. So I knew my way around and soon left the ski trail for a more direct line south towards Fisher Point.

Almost immediately I found out why my friends had told me to ski there. People like Gene Markley and Steve Hunter, who know this area very very well, had recommended it to me, Gene, way back in 1985. But I had never given it a go. Now here I was, on really decent snow, hardpack with a film of soft stuff on the very surface, the true and finest silk spring skiing can offer, and there were vast expanses of easy slopes and hills and valleys, just wide open, no forest, fine views of Devils Peak and Castle Peak etc. etc.

It was clearly quite a popular area as it was criss-crossed by many ski tracks laid down over the last several days, including yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. I was startled by the sudden appearance of a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, making their odd chattering warble; they rose from the vicinity of Nancy Lake, below me to the east, which could not, cannot have any open water yet. Not that these cranes need open water. But I have never in my life seen the like: cranes in the snow. They flew away north.

I wasn't there to play around and practice telemarking, so I just kept on making my way south and a little west, and reached the summit of Fisher Point, a little over 7200', and just above frozen Fisher Lake, by about 9:30 or 10:00.

I whipped out my 12-power binoculars and looked down the canyon of Big Granite Creek and across the North Fork into New York Canyon.

Oh-oh. It was as I knew it would be. I could see Chert Knoll, the amazing overlook right beside the 500-foot waterfall, but not the waterfall itself.

Loch Leven Point was quite near, and being slightly to the south and west would offer a better angle on the falls.

Cherry Point looked to be about one air mile south, with quite a descent necessary, all complicated with ups and downs and rights and lefts, before I could level out and ski a simple line directly towards it. I thought, "Hmmm, one air mile means two ski miles, and that means four miles of skiing to get back here, and I'm nearly four miles in from I-80 already."

I didn't have a map with me, and later I found that I was not one but over two air miles from Cherry Point.

The snow seemed perfect, and I decided to just forge ahead and see how it went. A series of telemark turns got me off Fisher Point and I skied below and south of Loch Leven Point, a high granite knoll quite near Middle Loch Leven Lake. So soon as I dropped below 7000' on those south-facing slopes, the snow just went to hell. I was sinking in, and even breaking through altogether and dropping a couple feet, where the snow covered talus and brush.

A minor summit south of Loch Leven Point seemed to offer a chance of a view of the NYC waterfall, so I skied to the top and took out the binoculars.

Sure enough, I could see the upper 50 feet of the waterfall. It was in shadow and was not much to look at. The great spur ridge dropping away from the summit of Snow Mountain to the southwest was blocking my line of sight to the rest of the falls. The one and only remedy would be to ski farther south, towards Cherry Point.

But the snow was rotten and the route was nasty and I decided it would be a bit too much to take on, under today's conditions. It was bizarrely warm for a March day at 7000' elevation, with snow for miles in every direction; it was like skiing in June, yes, but not like skiing in March.

I visited the summit of Loch Leven Point, which I hadn't set ski on since about 1985, and which has truly exceptional views, from the Coast Ranges of Mendocino County to Grouse Ridge, Red Mountain, Old Man Mountain, Mt. Lola, Basin and Castle peaks, Devils Peak, monstrous Snow Mountain almost within reach it was so close, and even including Tinkers Knob and Lyon Peak. Big Valley Bluff was prominent to the southwest.

Part of the reason the view is this broad, is that the South Yuba canyon is shallow and could never hold the full flow of the great ice-field, during glacial episodes, so the ice just rode up and over the divide and dropped into the North Fork canyon. The dividing ridge was worn down low by the ice, so one can see easily into the South Yuba high country, even though one is in the North Fork basin.

In fact, the difference between these two parallel and adjacent canyons is so extreme, that it makes one of the great geomorphological contrasts of all the Sierra. The floor of the South Yuba at Kingvale is at about 6000', while directly south, the North Fork is racing along in its tremendous canyon at about 3500'. The two canyons have similarly-sized basins, hence should be similar. But they are vastly different.

The difference in form seems to reflect the difference in bedrock: granodiorite in the South Yuba, metamorphic rock in the North Fork.

There is enough in the way of bare granite on the summit right now that one could camp without touching the snow. The summit falls away in cliffs to the south.

I noted that, for all the abundance of ski tracks to the north of Fisher Point, I could not see one single track, either here at Loch Leven Point, or to the south. It's just a bit too far for folks on a single-day ski tour.

After taking some photos and looking at the distant waterfall through binoculars, and noting that Chert Knoll itself is entirely free of snow, I telemarked off the summit northward and decided to just meander through the forest until I struck the Nordic trail to High Loch Leven.

It was nice to ski in the shade of the forest, and I let myself veer west a little, hoping to strike the Nordic trail all the sooner, and maybe catch a glimpse of the lake.

I missed the lake but found the trail. A couple of miles of easy going brought me back to where I had forked away earlier, and I was soon back down at the car.

It was 1:00 p.m. exactly. I had skied about eight miles or so, with a good amount of climbing involved, and was basically thrashed. Two cars were parked there; I had seen their fresh new tracks, on my way out. They too had left the Nordic trail for the Wonderland north of Fisher Lake.

When I reached my home, at 4000' elevation, it was 75 degrees!

So, a second attempt to reach Cherry Point on skis failed. I am much of a mind now, as I was a couple years back, to just give up on the distant-view thing, and hike right to the waterfall itself, by way of Mumford Bar. But that is more than just a hike, it is a backpacking trip. I've done it in two days, one night, but that is too much, too strenuous. To visit the falls, walk back down the North Fork, and then make the 2700-foot climb up the Mumford Bar Trail, only to have to ski a few miles to one's car, all in one day--ouch!

Oh well, I guess it's time, maybe past time, to make the somewhat drastic hike via Mumford Bar, and visit the waterfalls of New York Canyon before the snow is all gone, and the trails, all open.

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