Crystal Range Traverse Day 1: Lyons Creek Trailhead to Silver Saddle

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February 14, 2015
It was around 4:15 in the morning as Mason and I woke up and groggily began stuffing things into our packs, with thoughts of the 12.4-mile approach to the Silver Saddle ahead of us. By 4:30, we were off, slipping and sliding on the ice. We had parked a short distance before of Lyons Creek Trailhead (the "official" start of the route) due to icy roads. The first few hours of the day would involve walking 4.8 miles on Wrights Lake Rd from Lyons Creek Trailhead (6,700 ft) to the north side of Dark Lake (6,910 ft). After walking for about a mile, Mason said that his ankle was bothering him too much for him to make the traverse. He would do his own thing for the next three days while I headed solo into the Crystal Range.

Aside from the ocassional gurgling of a nearby creek, all was silent and still. The white snow covering the road stood out against the even darker darkness of the forest surrounding it. It was like a lit pathway guiding me closer and closer towards the large icy peaks of the Crystal Range. A faint half of a moon ocassionaly made itself visible amid the think wispy cirrus clouds in the dark sky.

The sky began brightening up as I made my way past Wrights Lake and around Dark Lake. By the time I had reached the north side of Dark Lake, where I would branch off north onto the Barrett Lake Truck Trail, it was light enough to put the headlamp away. I would remain on the Barrett Lake Truck Trail for 5 miles to Barrett Lake (7,660 ft).

sunrise from the Barrett Lake Truck Trail

After about an hour on the truck trail, I donned snowshoes as the morning sun was already softening the 1-2 ft of snow on the ground. It was an unusually warm and fine winter day with temperatures seemingly in the high 30s, which had me hiking in nothing more than a T-shirt and shorts. Compared to the previous month, conditions couldn't have been better. The first half of the truck trail had partially melted out, allowing me to walk on mostly dirt compared to the agonizingly tedious postholing and breakable crust Mason and I had encountered in January. The snow itself was also much more consolidated due to a recent spell of warm temperatures, allowing me to move over it at a much faster pace. In January, the approach had felt like nothing less than tedious work. A month later, it felt like luxurious hiking.

Upon reaching Barrett Lake, I made my way along the west side of the lake, then followed a trail north for a short distance before it became entirely blanketed with snow. From there, I continued in a general northern direction, passing by Lake No. 5 (7,930 ft) and eventually arriving at Lake No. 3 (8,230 ft), which was frozen enough that I was able to walk across it. From Lake No. 3, my planned camp 1 at Silver Saddle (8,740 ft) was visible to the north. I made a beeline towards it. The snow became slushier, and the snowshoes sank deeper as the slope became steeper.

view of the Crystal Range from somewhere around Lake No. 5

Lake No. 5

looking north from Lake No. 3

It was around 10:30am as I reached Silver Saddle, happily plopping the heavy pack down onto the snow. Last month, Mason and I had spent two nights here before bailing off the ridge. This time, I hoped to only spend one night here. My plan for the remainder of this day was to do an out-and-back traverse of the four peaks north of Silver Saddle: Silver Peak, LeLand Peak, McConnell Peak, and Tells Peak.

After setting up the tent and throwing most of my stuff inside, I took out the ice axe, put on the daypack, strapped on the crampons, and began climbing northwest along the ridge towards Silver Peak. The terrain was a class 1-2 mix of rocks and compacted snow, and it took under 30 minutes to reach the summit of Silver Peak.

heading up Silver Peak's southeast ridge

view southeast from Silver Peak's summit


The descent of Silver's northwest ridge contained knee-deep postholing and a few short class 3 moves with some bushwhacking, but thankfully it was a short ridge. Within 20 minutes, I found myself ascending LeLand Peak's broad class 2 southeast ridge.

looking back at my descent of Silver Peak's northwest ridge

heading up LeLand Peak

LeLand Peak's summit itself was not very interesting. It was nothing more than a plateau with a few scraggly trees sticking out of the snow. There were great views from the eastern edge of the plateau though.

Next up was McConnell Peak. Looking at the topo map, there were three bumps north of LeLand Peak, with the northernmost one being McConnell. Each one of these bumps involved easy class 1 terrain. The middle bump contained a misplaced register calling it McConnell Peak.

view from the edge of LeLand's summit plateau

misplaced register on the middle bump

view from the middle bump

view southeast from McConnell Peak


The next part of the traverse between McConnell and Tells would take just over an hour to complete. The descent of McConnell's northwest ridge was pretty straightforward class 1. As I came closer to the lowpoint between McConnell and Tells, the ridge narrowed and became increasingly blocky. As the ridge began rising again shortly after the lowpoint, a large hard-to-miss pinnacle came into view. I skirted the pinnacle on its eastern (right) side, climbing up a 8 ft snow-covered exposed class 4 slab. This section was somewhat sketchy in that the only thing holding me in place was the snow. If the snow were to peel off the slab, I would peel off with it. After the slab, I weaved back and forth along the ridge for a short distance, then slogged up to the summit of Tells Peak.

Tells Peak's southeast ridge

bypassing the pinnacle

looking back at the class 4 snow-covered slab

views from the remaining slog up to Tells Peak

I spent some time on the summit of Tells, snacking on some candy bars and gazing out on the Desolation Wilderness. I was on the northernmost peak of the Crystal Range. Everything south of where I was standing was just waiting to be traversed over the next two days.

view northwest from Tells Peak


I spent the rest of the day retracing my steps back to Silver Saddle, climbing back over McConnell, LeLand, and Silver along the way, getting back to Silver Saddle at around 4:30pm. After eating a quick dinner of cold pizza, I crawled into the tent and was asleep shortly after sunset. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

heading back along the ridge to Silver Saddle

go to Day 2