For years, I was always curious what the names of the jagged peaks south of the Carson Valley were. Earlier this year, I finally got on Google Earth and answered my question. Raymond Peak is one of these mountains. The next question was, “Could I climb it?”. I don’t have any skills with ropes, and I don’t like exposures either. Further investigation revealed that the route to the top of the mountain was hikeable, so I put it on my bucket list of things to do before the end of the year.
At 10,014 feet elevation, Raymond Peak is the 3rd highest peak in the Mokelumne Wilderness, an area which straddles the Pacific Crest between SR4 (Ebbetts Pass) and SR88 (Carson Pass). The 105,165 acre Wilderness includes portions of the Toiyabe, Stanislaus, and El Dorado National Forests, and lies in the mid-Sierra region between Lake Tahoe to the north and the High Sierra to the south. The peak lies just east of the Sierra Crest, about six miles north of Ebbetts Pass. The Whitney Survey named the peak in 1865 for Rossiter W. Raymond, a US mineral examiner and commissioner of mining statistics in the Treasury Department.
On August 18th, three friends and I planned to climb the peak. The forecast was for thundershowers later in the day, but it was already pretty dark and cloudy at 7:00 AM when we left Carson City. As we drove through the Carson Valley, Raymond Peak was blurred in gray storm clouds off in the distance. We nervously joked that we sure picked a great day to do this.
We chose the Wet Meadows Reservoir trailhead to climb the peak. To get there, we drove west on Highway 88 out of the Carson Valley, then we took the Blue Lakes Road at Hope Valley. Before arriving at Blue Lakes, we left the pavement and took the Sunset Lake Road to the east. We eventually came to an intersection with a broken and unreadable sign. We mistakenly went left, the more traveled direction, and ended up at Sunset Lake. We backtracked and make the right, and headed around the south side of Wet Meadows Reservoir.
If you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, don’t bother making the trip to the Wet Meadows trailhead. Instead, pick up the Pacific Crest Trail at Sunset Lake. The jeep road to the Wet Meadows Trailhead was rutted, washed out, and muddy from the recent rains. There was one washout that we weren’t sure we’d get the 4×4 through. We snaked through the woods, and found the trailhead parking at the very end of the road, the furthest east you can drive towards Raymond Peak. From the trailhead parking area, it’s only 1/10th of a mile up a connector trail to the Pacific Crest Trail.
As we prepared for the hike, the rain started to increase to the point where we put our rain gear on. It wasn’t the best way to start our hike, but we had just driven all this way and had to give it a shot. Thankfully, we were already stowing the gear just down the trail when the rain stopped. We followed the PCT over a saddle, and then down a hillside to a creek below. We lost a lot of elevation pretty quick, enough to make me worry that we might have taken a wrong turn at some point. We kept going though, and remarked that this hill was going to be really fun coming back up at the end of the hike.
We crossed the first creek of the day, and then began a climb to regain the elevation we had just lost. We hiked through a tranquil wooded area, and up to a great vista at 8,000 feet of Pleasant Valley below. From there the trail switchbacked up to a saddle where we left the trees and into an area of volcanic desolation.
The next section of trail was fun hiking. The mountainside is very steep, and the PCT is cut right into the side of it. We had to step over many small creeks and small mud slides from the previous week of rain as we made our way around the north side of Raymond Peak. The ground falls away steeply for a thrill and amazing views, but not steep enough to feel like you are in danger.
When we got to the drainage of Raymond Lake, the trail once again entered the trees and began a series of switchbacks up to the next ridge. Upon reaching the ridge, the trees ended, and the rain started. We got out the rain gear, then left the PCT to take the Raymond Lake trail. We started to get wet pretty fast. Hoods were up, hands were in the pockets, and the conversation stopped. I think all of us felt that there was no hope of making the peak this day. As to not set myself up for disappointment, I told myself that just making it to Raymond Lake would be a decent destination for this trip.
We entered the woods again near Raymond Lake. The trees broke the rain a little bit, and we finished off our ascent to the lake at the base of the final climb. We regrouped under a stand of trees at the lake shore, had some water and snacks, and hung up our wet jackets. As we enjoyed our view of the lake, the weather began to clear. Blue sky appeared above the peak. We’d get to do our climb after all! It was still before noon, and we still hadn’t heard any thunder yet.
With the exception of a little trail that goes around Raymond Lake, this is where the trail ends on this climb. The final ascent to Raymond Peak is just over 1,000 feet of elevation in about a half mile. From the climb descriptions we read, we knew the peak was the far left pinnacle above us. Without knowing this, it would’ve been hard to judge where the actual peak was. We also knew we were supposed to stay to the left of the peak as we climbed, crossing the face to the other side only at the end.
The mountain side was steep, and the going was slow. Although not necessary, I checked my GPS often to keep track of our elevation gain, and also to make sure we were on course. You lose sight of the peak in the trees. The data was a good motivator. There was a deep land slide area to our right with some exposure. We kept left of this the whole way up.
We crossed over the north side of the peak, and came to a rocky wall. There was an amazing view off the ledge to the west now, and you could see back to Carson City to the north. The final ascent to the peak now was to the southeast. Big volcanic rocks as rough as coral reefs were all around us. We had to use our hands to assist us with the climbing now. It was technical enough for a thrill, but I never felt like we were in danger.
Up and over the final climb, and we were up on a saddle just below the pinnacle. Awesome views to the south opened up. We paused for a while to take it all in. Up above us, the final climb looked to be technical beyond our skill level. Scott, Jesse, and I decided to stay at the saddle, but Jason took off for the south side of the peak to investigate further.
Jason disappeared around the mountain, and I decided to climb a bit further up on the north side for more photos. I scrambled around, got some good shots, and then as I prepared to go back down to the saddle, a big, “Whoo Hooo!” came from up above me. Standing on top of the pinnacle was Jason. He had found a route around the south side.
I decided to go see his route for myself. The top was just above me, and we had come all this way. I scrambled around the side, and met Jason at a rock scramble no more difficult than what we had already done. After a quick climb I was at the top. There are actually two high points at the top that appear to be the highest points. Of course they put the sign-in box up on the point with the drop off.
Jason took me over to the mountain top register. It was located in a low spot between two rocks. With the walls around me, I felt safe. Jason though, stood on the very tip-top with nothing surrounding him. Even his boots were the highest thing in the area. A gust of wind could have sailed him off into the void, but the air was calm. It sure made me nervous though. I signed in, then started creeping my way back down.
We regrouped at the saddle for a few more photos, then decided we’d eat lunch back down at Raymond Lake. I was starving, but knew it wouldn’t take too long to get back down there. We picked our way back down, loosely following our path up. I thought the going would be faster, but even with gravity on our side, you had to be careful with your footing.
We had a nice lunch break at Raymond Lake. There were still some miles to be hiked, but after the scramble we just did, it would be nice to get back on a trail for some fast walking. Leaving Raymond Lake felt like an all new experience. We hiked down from the bowl of the lake, and across the exposed ridge without the rain this time. We were free to look around, talk, and enjoy the scenery. By the time we hit the woods again, it had started to sprinkle, but our clothes seemed to dry as fast as they were getting wet.
We spoke with a couple of backpackers near the Raymond Lake drainage. They were hiking north from Ebbetts Pass, and had been stuck the day before. They said the creek was so swollen, there was no safe passage across! Today though, we were able to just stride across with one step.
When we hit the exposed volcanic area again, my body started to feel the fatigue. I didn’t recall all the ups and down I was now hiking. They were gone from my memory of the hike in. I started to take a lot of photos, my strategy for resting without looking like I’m resting. The rest of the guys started to pull ahead, and I walked a slower, more comfortable pace. On the other side of the mountain I could see the small specks of Jesse and Scott, but from their direction came the big shrill sound of Bohemian Rhapsody. Glorious song echoed down the mountainside. I laughed and it gave me more energy to keep going.
Over the saddle and back down into the woods. I was dreading the last climb back to the trailhead now. But then I remembered that I was on the Pacific Crest Trail. People walk from Mexico to Canada on this thing. Suddenly my little hill seemed like no big deal. The magnificence of this trail filled me with an honor to be hiking it. I didn’t care about the work anymore, took it slow, and smiled.
I rejoined the rest of the guys back at the trailhead where celebratory beers were already in progress. I didn’t know (but should have), but Jesse had brought us each a beer in an ice chest for when we finished. It was the best PBR I think I’ve ever had in my life! We were all pretty tired after 11.5 miles of hiking, more than we had expected, but were all proud of our accomplishment.