Flipping Failure to Success; a Tale of the Kuna Crest Traverse
It was a brutal weekend in Yosemite with smoke. I originally set out with the intention of tackling Convoluted Bliss with a friend who invited me, but alas 6 peaks in my friend realised he was out of his depth with the technical off-trail terrain.
We made the group decision to bail.
A 41 mile, 22 hour abort...you get way way out there with this route.
But with the arbitrary goal of completing 53 FKTs in 53 weeks in 2020 driving me, my creativity immediately kicked into overdrive searching out an existing ridge traverse that had not been done in car-to-car, FKT style.
The answer: Kuna Crest Traverse
This is the FKT for the well-known “Kuna Crest Traverse”, tagging 6 named peaks from Mammoth to Koip, including one of Yosemite National Parks 13’ers, Kuna Peak, over the course of 18 miles. Enjoy this reason to get out into the lesser-visited eastern side of the Yosemite High Country.
The Kuna Crest Traverse has many forms listed on various blogs over the years but
Mountain Project lists the Kuna Crest Traverse as an easy 5th class traverse, detailing two starts, one from Tioga Road and another from Tuolumne Lodge. After mapping multiple variations, I think this loop from Mono Pass Trailhead is the most aesthetic (creating a clean loop) and environmentally friendly to the high alpine plant life (by utilizing an existing summit trail up or down from Koip Peak instead of bushwhacking).
Enjoy about 10.5 miles of trail and 7.5 miles of off-trail ridge traversing, ranging from “easy” class 2 all the way up to full-on 5th class at the crux “sawtooth” section between Kuna Crest South and Kuna Peak. (see beta on Mountain Project). One could consider this a little brother to the heinously epic 51 peak link-up known as Convoluted Bliss.
There are many high-points throughout the traverse but the “required” named peaks are as follows:
- Mammoth Peak 12,106’
- Kuna Crest North 12,170’
- Peak 12,090’ 12,090’
- Kuna Crest South 12,202’
- Kuna Peak 13,002’
- Koip Peak 12,962’
Other high-points are encouraged but not required.
In true weekend warrior form, I knew I needed to drive 7+ hours home immediately following this effort so I made the decision to opt for the early morning start, about 90 minutes before sunrise.
5:30am would be go time. (Ok, I will admit it. It was supposed to be 4:30am but my alarm was set wrong, to pm.)
This in-the-dark start meant I would need to run the trail miles out to the far end of the route first enabling fast movement under the light of my Kogalla waist light and headlamp. The brightness of this lighting system made it easy to move quickly over the technical sections of trail so I found myself more limited by the fact that this route starts at over 9,500’ in elevation quickly climbing to 13,000’ in only 9.5 miles.
I was very pleased with how I was moving. I was happy that my creativity and willingness to scramble on the spot was allowing me to experience this amazing adventure, while leaving behind an epic route for others to challenge on the FKT website.
I tagged Koip Peak first, with about 2:36:47 elapsed on the watch. The air was still smoky but clearing at this point. Crossing over to Kuna Peak is where the route gets “techy”, no rock climbing yet, but definity some boulder hopping.
I arrived at Kuna Peak at 2:52:08. I was pleasantly surprised that as I arrived at this 13,002’ viewpoint, I found the air a bit clearer to enjoy the vertical relief of the landscape dropping away around me. I found a rhythm again on the rough bouldering terrain.
It really is a bit shocking when your brain has been floating along covering easy terrain and then you just run up to the edge where the earth just falls away vertically from your feet. I was starting off the edge at what I had to face next. The true technical section of the route: “the sawtooths”. This short section has two sections that go 5th class with plenty of exposure, on less that ideal rock.
After working through two distinct “teeth” that were super memorable (read: airy with interesting moves and routefinding), I easy scrambled through the rest of the sawtooths and found a transition in the rock type back to granite. (If you love geology, you will love this traverse).
The granite boulder terrain had some sandy terrain that was easy to get back to faster moving on.
I hopped up the boulders to the top of Kuna Crest South at 4:10:11 elapsed. As I grasped boulder edges during the scrambling I noticed that my fingers felt weird. They were swollen. Oh wow, I am having an elevation reaction. They felt like little plump sausages.
...nothing to do but keep moving.
Crossed over an unmentioned high point then up to Peak 12,090’ with 4:34:57 on the clock, grasping still feeling unnatural with my own hands.
I was elated when I crested Kuna Crest North still sub-5 hours, at 4:56:44. I had predicted that if everything went well, it would be possible for me to go sub-6:30 on this traverse, and it was on Kuna Crest North that this dream became tangible. I now only had Mammoth Peak to go!!!
Come on body!
The terrain up Mammoth Peak becomes more bouldery and scrambly, nothing hard, just a bit more work than the stretch from Kuna Crest South to Kuna Crest North. I suppose being above 11,000’ for hours starts to take its toll as well.
I tagged Mammoth Peak at 5:23:40 elapsed and started down the descent.
My knees started to fuss, and then scream, from the 41 mile day just two days prior.
Come on body, it's only a couple miles of descent!
Down. Down. Down.
Some slab, some boulder hopping, and finally back into forest on pine needles and terra firma.
I rejoined the trail at 6:10:46 and knew I needed to take it up a notch to finish this thing under 6:30. I dialed out the body as much as I could on tired legs and 9,500’ air.
I tagged the Mono Pass Trailhead sign with the elapsed time reading…
And that is my little story of turning a failure into a success with on the fly thinking, creativity, and flexibility.
Peaksforfreaks.com talks about the Mono Pass Trailhead start/finish for Kuna Peak which, standing at 13’002’, is one of the three 13’000 ft peaks within the Yosemite National Park boundary. This ridge link up is a great single day way to tag this prominent peak.
Here is a blog that notes easy bailout options from this route
And here is a video from the official Yosemite National Park Service Youtube channel about the amazing flora on these so called “Sky Islands”