American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Watchtower, New Routes

United States, California, Sierra Nevada

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Dan Merrick
  • Climb Year: 2009
  • Publication Year: 2010

While planning a trip to remote Tower Peak (11,755'), on the northern border of Yosemite National Park, my interest shifted to an unnamed subpeak ¾-mile north, locally called the Watchtower or Watchtower Peak (10,820'). My research found no record of climbing, beyond the 2nd-class route from the saddle between Watchtower and Tower Peak.

In August Alyse Bertenthal, Jay Kumar, Bob Steed, Paul Tieslau, and I hiked 15 miles from Leavitt Meadows on the Sonora Pass highway, up the West Walker River to the base of the north face, which rises 1,500' above an avalanche meadow. Over 10 days our group established four routes. While we were there, a second party, whose research had also unearthed no climbing history, arrived and established one route. All five routes lead to the north summit.

We found no evidence of previous climbers on the routes or the summit. This is not the highest of the peak’s three summits, but it is the hardest to reach and to descend from. (We left rappel anchors.) At an obvious ledge on the Beacon we found a 30+-year-old pilots distress beacon that we think was accidentally dropped, since it was still in its pouch. We also found an old military-type piton near the summit, but it was not where it would be useful as a belay or rappel point. We assume the summit was reached by helicopter, perhaps in connection with the nearby Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. The beacon could have been dropped from the summit and ended up where we found it. We have contacted the Navy and other agencies to see if they know anything.


(1) Northeast Face (the Beacon; Merrick-Steed, 9+ pitches, III 5.7). Approach the left side of the north face and begin at a ladder of small horizontal dikes. Ascend directly up and enter the gully to the left of the large arête.

(2) North Face (Bertenthal-Kumar-Steed, 10 pitches, III 5.7+), begin 300' right of the Beacon. The first pitch ascends the right of an obvious pair of parallel, vertical cracks. Continue up and right of a large arête.

(3) Where There Is a Will There Is a Way (David Blattel-Bill Leventhol-Will Oxx, 8 pitches, III 5.8), starts at a black water streak 200' right of the North Face.

(4) Where There Is a Wall There Is a Way (Steed-Tieslau, 5 pitches, II 5.8), starts at a double crack system 150' right of Will…, after five pitches joining Will. Continuing to summit via Will is nine pitches (III).

(5) Over the Hill (Steed-Tieslau, 9 pitches, III 5.8), begins right of Wall…, at the right side of the north face.

Descent: Rappel from bolts in a large block facing the south summit, pass around the south summit on the left via 3rd/4th-class ledges, and go west to the saddle above Tower Lake. Hike down past Tower Lake to the trail.

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