I happened to find myself in the Bay area of California for a work-related course in mid-August. I couldn't help but try and fit in some time in the mountains before heading back east. I chose the northern Sierra as my target, but something a bit off the beaten path: a climb of Mt Conness, highest of the Sierra Peaks north of Tioga Pass and full of interesting routes, from easy to challenging.
Yosemite National Park
Nasty traffic resulted in a seven-hour drive from the Bay area to the start of my chosen route, in the Saddlebag Lake area on the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. I had hoped to camp at the Saddlebag Lake campground, but that was full by the time I arrived (on a Thursday evening, no less). I reverted to the nearby Sawmill walk-in campground, but I discovered (as I was walking in with my gear) that it too was full. Since it was now fully dark, I decided to simply continue a little ways up and off into subalpine terrain until I found a flat bit of unvegetated ground.
Although the forecast was good, I wanted to get a nice early start to minimize the chance of encountering afternoon showers or thunderstorms. I awoke before dawn and packed up, quietly walking back through the Sawmill campground to my car. A five-minute drive brought me back up to Saddlebag Lake, where I stopped at the large trailhead parking area.
The specific objective for my climb of Mt Conness was its east ridgeline. Almost entirely off-trail, the route would be mostly easy class 2 - except for a stretch of class 3 along a more jagged section of the ridge. I figured that - given I was alone and not an experienced Sierra climber - that this would be about the right level of difficulty for me.
To do the entire stretch of Mt Conness' east ridge, one starts at Saddleback Lake - a roughly 10,000-foot high body of water not far from Tioga Pass, and accessible via a short intermittently gravelled road off of highway 120 near Yosmite National Park's east entrance. The lake sits beneath a rounded buttress that forms the ultimate termination of Mt Conness' eastern reach.
Two trails encircle the waters of Saddleback Lake. I chose the western one, crossing over a dam that harnesses the water of the lake - although at this point, the water level was so low as to nearly render the dam useless. Beyond the dam, a few hundred yards of easy trail walking brought me to a point beneath the buttress that seemed to offer the best possible ascent line, and I turned off, heading uphill over loose, blocky talus.
Looking forward to more solidness
Nearly a thousand feet of rather tiring talus ascent (sometimes a little steeper, sometimes a little gentler) brought me to a reasonably flat shoulder of the buttress. Above, another few hundred feet of crags and talus would bring one to its crest - but instead I chose to start traversing along at a constant elevation, hoping to avoid unnecessary elevation gain and loss. The objective was not the top of the buttress, but rather the start of the east ridge beyond it.
The traverse idea worked out fairly well - the terrain at the roughly 11,000 foot level on the southern slopes of the buttress was fairly good - compacted gravel, or nice little stretches of subalpine grass or low scrub. The scrub was the only thing that caused a bit of obstruction, but a bit of searching usually revealed an easy way through.
Approaching East Ridgeline
Approaching base of ridge
Easy walking mostly on the level allowed me to enjoy the scenery and make good progress. Soon I was approaching the shallow saddle separating the buttress with the "real" start of the Mt Conness east ridgeline. The rock began to transition to classic white Sierra Granite as I approached the saddle.
I wasn't quite sure where the more challenging part of the ridgeline started. From my vantage point, it appeared as if the first bit of the crest was an easy walk-up, but beyond a prominent looking point the ridge disappeared from view. Not knowing precisely when things might get more technical, I relocated my camera harness to my hip (for easier scrambling) and got out a sling for good measure (just in case).
Under crystal clear skies and still air, I started up the ridgeline. The first bit was moderately steep, but wide and composed of solid, minimally-fractured granite. Easy walking, therefore, up grippy bedrock. Fantastic views were now available both north and south off of the ridgecrest; to the north, the Conness Lakes Basin, and to the south, the basin of the Monroe Hall Research Natural Area, plus many craggy and high peaks of Yosemite National Park beyond. To the west, the angle of the ridgeline afforded me my first view of the 12,591-foot summit of Mt Conness - bare, solid, and still about 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) away.
I'd read in various trip reports that it may be required to occasionally dip off of the crest of the ridge and climb just below it on the southern side. I wasn't sure where along the ridge these points occurred, so I was on the lookout, preferentially looking for 'ways around' off to the south of the ridgecrest. This caused at least one situation where I elected to briefly leave the crest and follow some reasonable-looking ledge. In retrospect I was searching for workarounds to a problem that didn't exist - at least not yet: for this lower section of the east ridge, staying on the crest is easiest and most straightforward.
Approaching a ridge highpoint
Pleasant, super-scenic ridgecrest walking brought me to a high bump along the ridgeline, roughly at about 11,700 feet. The bump drops off sharply to the east and south in ribbed cliffs; to the west, the bump gently merges with a small, gravelly mini-plateau. On the opposite side of this mini plateau I could see a small knob of highly-fractured granite. Based on the remaining ridgeline, I could only assume that this little bump was the beginning of the knife-edged portion (and therefore most challenging) part of the ridge.
Off to the north the ridge fell away steeply into the upper Conness Lakes basin. Shaded by the northern aspect, there were several fairly large snowfields below me here. Nothing on the ridgeline, though, and looking at the higher terrain above, it looked like I wouldn't have to cross any snowfields at all (I had brought my lightest ice ax just in case).
I wasn't sure what the knife-edge would bring, but for a few more minutes the going was easy as I walked across the firm gravel of the "mini-plateau". What appeared to be a weather station was installed in the middle of this stretch of flat gravel. It would certainly be easy to access, as you could definitely land a helicopter here.
Getting closer to mini-plateau
From the ridgeline's little mini-plateau, I could also now see - off to the south - a little body of water perched on the southeastern slopes of Mt Conness. This was "Alpine Lake" - an important waypoint along the easier south-eastern route.