Dragon Peak To Gould Ridge Traverse With Bonus Kearsarge

  • Updated: July 13, 2014
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 12th & 13th, 2014
Kearsarge Peak (12,615’)
Dragon Peak (12,927’)
Mount Gould (13,005’)

This was originally planned as Jeff Atijera's Sierra Club M-Rock provisional to certify him for leading trips involving 3rd class rock.  We ended up doing it as a private outing after running into disagreements within the club over what the actual rating of the peak was.

This is a fun trip because it's an easy drive and you get three Sierra peaks in two days with two (Dragon & Gould) involving 3rd / 4th class terrain.  Dragon is the real draw due to a somewhat unique and heavily photographed bit right below the summit.  It involves doing an exposed traverse that would be terrifying except the rock slopes away, you have a huge crack for your feet. and on top of that there's decent handholds.  The result is it feels super secure but looks absolutely terrifying in pictures.  So basically it's the perfect Facebook profile photo.

Currently Sierra Club is classifying it as an E trip (meaning 4th or 5th class) but when I led it officially back in 2010 it was considered a low level M.  It comes down to the argument that it's 4th class since if you fell you would die vs it's barely 3rd class since you're basically walking across a sidewalk with no climbing moves involved.  Personally I tend towards the later interpretation and consider the route finding below the peak and on the traverse to Gould to be the main challenge.  Regardless both times I've done it I've brought a rope just in case.

Day 1: Cars to Camp and Kearsarge (5.25 miles, 3,400' gain)

The trailhead for Dragon is the heavily used Onion Valley lot.  This means a fairly easy drive even for us south Orange County types.  We even started comfortably late since it's a short hike to camp and even doing Kearsarge doesn't take long.

You start up the normal Kearsarge Pass trail and make a right at a very small sign which is sometimes hidden by brush.  It's before you even finish the initial climb out of the valley.  The trail then cuts off to the right and heads up a drainage north of Kearsarge.  You can also access Golden Trout Lake and the standard ascent of Gould up here.

It gets a little bouldery in a few places but nothing too difficult.

I'd forgotten that it was rather pretty up this canyon.  My main memory of the trip from 2010 is the fact we had smoke blowing over the crest at us the first night.

The lakes are also nicer than I remembered.  We stayed at the lower of the two since it's located right where you can cut back across from Golden Lakes canyon while descending from the end part of the Dragon to Gould loop.

It makes for a nice camp.  We stayed on the south side near a small outcropping into the lake.  No one else was camped there but we had a few parties come by dayhiking.

To climb Kearsarge you go up Lilly Pass and follow the ridge to the right a short distance to the summit.  It's an easy climb which is why we were doing in on the first day but it looks like it's going to be a painful sand slog.

Lilly Pass is in the center hidden behind the rock outcropping
Looking back down while climbing Lilly Pass
Looking up Lilly Pass
Looking back at University from the top of Lilly Pass
As promised it went surprisingly quickly.  Kearsarge is a quick stroll east from the pass.

The view from the top is nice but you're mostly looking down at Independance.  We did see some mountain sheep below us.

Mountain Sheep on the north side of Kearsarge
Returning to Lilly Pass via the north side of Kearsarge
Descending from the top of Lilly Pass

We were back in camp with plenty of daylight to swim and set about having a happy hour.  The lake is fairly shallow and so was a lot warmer than some of the others I'd been in recently.

We had an incredibly bright moon that night

Day 2: Dragon, Ridge Traverse to Gould, and Out (7 miles, 2500' gain, 12 hours)

Sunday was our long day and we were up and moving early.

Looking back down at the two lakes below Dragon
The first couple of hours are spent climbing up the drainage.  You reach the second lake and then set up the drainage south of Dragon aiming for the headwall.

Aim for the small shadow in the center
Right at the headwall you duck around a corner and find a way up the rocks.

I've done this part a few different ways.  It all comes down to what you feel is easiest vs what looks the most fun.

From the ridge it's a little less clear which way to go.

Jeff scouting ahead
Dragon on approach

This is the last part under the crack and where you end up staging people.  And then it's crack time...

Note that this is tilted a little but it shows what's below
In reality it's comfortable enough to do this
Or you can try and sell the drama a bit...
Already across looking back
As I mentioned before the feet are large, there are handholds, and the rock slopes inward.  Some folks were nervous until we got there but once they saw it had no problems.

Summit of Dragon

Looking down at Dragon Lake & Rae Lakes
Looking across towards Gould from Dragon

This was only the first part of the day. The traverse to Gould gives more 3rd class and some interesting route finding along the way.  At some points we had to get off the ridge due to it cliffing out.  Notice the small backtrack on the map.

Gould in the distance

It's solid fun climbing for the most part.

Gould itself is interesting.  It's easy 2nd class to the base of the summit, 3rd class from there, and 4th class for the last 4 feet or so.

Gould summit turning 3rd class
Gould the last few feet.  You go straight up
It's also rather cramped up there so I don't have many pictures that show it off well.  The view is awesome though.

Dragon from Gould
From Gould we dropped down the Golden Trout Lake drainage though we stayed high since we needed to traverse back to our camp.

In retrospect staying high was probably more trouble than it was worth.  Down by the lake it looked like a lot easier going and some of the slopes we were crossing were a bit close to the angle where things start moving.

At one point Jeff and I were behind trying to catch up with the group a loaded hillside started to slide on us.  So just imagine all those rocks in the picture above suddenly starting to move around you.  We managed to avoid injury but were both badly shaken.  One of my carbon fiber hiking poles had snapped while Jeff had a strap on his pack break.

Once you swing around to the north it's a lot easier going and we were able to drop right into camp.

From there it's just a stroll (-ish) down the trail.  Total time from leaving camp in the morning to getting to the cars at the end of the day was 12 hours but we weren't moving very fast.

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