Twice the Taboose

Taboose from Ogre


I needed help with my early starts and long days, and Kim needed some with her scrambling. Somehow these goals and life’s constraints led me to spend two days at Taboose Pass, by far my least favorite of the big Eastern Sierra approaches. Upper Taboose is spectacular, with its lakes and waterfalls, towering orange buttresses on either side, and expansive view west across a plain to Arrow Peak and the South Fork of the Kings. However, almost all of the trail is horrible, ranging from sand at the start to loose softball-sized rocks higher up. Much of the lower reaches burned last summer, making the dry Owens Valley even more barren for now; it will soon fill in with buckthorn, making the trail even worse. I remembered the road to the trailhead being obnoxious but doable in a passenger car the last time I visited. This time I found it barely passable, and was forced to drive many sections at less than 5 MPH to protect my tires and undercarriage.

West from pass to Arrow

The original plan was to do White Peak, a class 3 climb slightly southwest of the pass that had been on the Sierra Challenge some years back. After taking the usual three hours to reach the pass, we decided instead to head for Ruskin and Saddlehorn, on the other side of the Kings. I had traversed from Ruskin to Vennacher Needle in 2012 during the Challenge, admiring the sharp ridge jutting east midway between them. I later learned that it was named “Saddlehorn,” and was supposedly class 4 from the east or west. Another traverse, up Saddlehorn and around to Ruskin, seemed like a good plan.

Ruskin and Saddlehorn

We easily found the old trail into the Kings, cutting the corner to the JMT, then followed the Jolly Manure Trench a short distance before climbing northwest through open woods and slabs. This area consists of three open glacial cirques, bounded by Ruskin’s southeast and east ridges, Saddlehorn, and Vennacher Needle’s east ridge. We aimed for the middle one, grabbing water below its lake before approaching the south side of Saddlehorn’s east ridge.

Ruskin from Saddlehorn

I saw a line of ledges and broken terrain that would gain the crest from there, and tried to find the easiest route. I found nothing easier than exposed class 4, which was more than Kim wanted to do, not having been on much beyond class 2 boulder-hops in a couple of years. I continued solo, making an exposed traverse, then climbing a loose boulder-slope to the crest. From there, more class 3-4 climbing along the ridge led to the summit blocks, one of which had a cairn. It looked intimidating from most sides, but was fortunately easy from the southeast. I found an old register in a band-aid tin dating back to 1979, and a newer one from the Sierra Challenge in a salsa bottle. The older one had an amusing entry from a guy nervous about his prospects for descent, while the newer one featured the expected folks (Scott, Iris, and Grundy). I added my name, put both in the bottle for better protection, then retraced my route.

Ruskin’s east ridge

Ruskin’s east ridge was supposed to be a classic class 3 line. I hadn’t read a description, and don’t remember if I climbed that or the southeast ridge in 2012, but figured it would be more Kim-friendly. We crossed the bowl south, then made our way over the toe of the ridge. I had hoped to go straight up its initial step, but that proved tricky, so we contoured around the south side until we found easier, broken class 2-3 terrain leading to the crest. This is long and fairly flat, with consistent exposure on the right. The climbing is a mixture of boulders and “sidewalk” sections that go quickly if you don’t mind the exposure.

Looking for something?

The ridge steepens a bit to a false summit, then narrows, becoming exposed on both sides, though the climbing remains mostly easy except for one step. Amusingly, I found a “chicken out register” at this step, a booklet in a red-painted can containing entries from some memorial party who had decided not to chance giving themselves something new to memorialize. Kim had been getting increasingly psyched out by the exposure, and had finally had enough just before the register. When sitting in a non-exposed place for ten minutes did not calm her down, I scampered over to the summit, finding to my surprise that Teresa Gergen had been there earlier in the day. How she had arrived, and where she had gone next, were a mystery. Maybe she came up from Lakes Basin on a backpack.

Lake near Ruskin

Rather than retracing the whole ridge, we dropped down a chute southeast of the false summit. Fortunately it did not cliff out, and we were soon back on easy terrain, passing a couple of nice lakes on the way down to the Kings. From there it was a straightforward slog back to the pass, accelerated by swarms of mosquitoes now that the morning’s winds had ceased. I took a couple ibuprofen at the pass, then settled into the miserable descent. Most of the trail is too loose and rocky to truly run, but with great effort and concentration you can move slightly faster than a walk. Only the last mile or two is fun, sprinting down sand toward the valley floor. We reached the trailhead right at sunset, with just enough time to eat and repack our bags before trying to get a full night’s sleep.

Orange Ogre

I knew I would not enjoy doing Taboose twice in two days, but I had made the drive, and perhaps could do White. We got a slightly earlier start, which kept us in the shade almost to the first water crossing and made the climb much more pleasant. This was counteracted by fatigue from the day before, and we reached the pass in about the same time. I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about White, and Kim didn’t want to try more scrambling, so we settled on the “Orange Ogre,” a prominent buttress south of the pass that is the tip of Goodale’s north ridge. While it looks like it might have some big, hard routes from the north, it is an easy class 2 boulder pile from the west.

There was a cairn on the flat, semi-exposed summit, but no register. The views east down Taboose Creek, and northwest across the broad pass, are impressive. Goodale and Striped, to the south and southwest, look like horrible talus-piles; I had done them many years ago, and did not remember them being that bad. We stalled on the summit for awhile, putting off the inevitable misery of another Taboose descent, then retreated down the west face. Rather than returning to the pass, we turned right, following the start of Taboose Creek to regain the trail lower down. The descent was slower this time, because I was tired and my ankle was more sore, but also because I was in a worse mood, already dreading the slow drive back to pavement, and the start of a very long drive north. At the trailhead, I rinsed off my feet and grabbed some water, then bid farewell to Kim, who would probably stay another day to do the pass yet again. As for myself, I would be fine if this were the last time in my life.

Half-full Palisade Traverse

Palisade Crest silhouette


The term “Palisade Traverse” usually refers to a crossing of California’s most rugged fourteeners, between Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Sill; this is a fairly popular route, seeing dozens of parties every summer. However, this is just part of a much longer ridge. The longer section between Southfork and Bishop Passes has come to be called the “Full Palisade Traverse,” and has been completed by only a dozen or so parties ever. Even longer traverses, extending north through the Inconsolable Range, northwest across the Evolution Ridge, or south over Split Mountain (formerly “South Palisade”) to Taboose Pass, have been done once or twice, if at all.

I was leaving the Sierra when I received a last-minute invitation to join Vitality and Ryan, two erstwhile mountain partners, for some version of a longer Palisade traverse. Carrying food for four nights, a rope, and a small rack, this was not my style of climbing. However, I have long been interested in exploring the unfamiliar parts of this ridge, and it is good for me to occasionally venture beyond my familiar path. I broke up the drive back south by riding Ebetts, Monitor, and Sonora Passes, summiting some peaks near each, then met the others, threw together an overnight pack, and rode up to South Lake to begin the traverse.

Sill and Winchell from Agassiz

It began with the familiar slog up Bishop Pass, which fortunately passed largely by headlamp. Unused to the cold of a high trailhead, I had neglected to sleep with my water bladder and headlamp, so the water hose had frozen, and the lamp’s batteries were weak. We filled up at a stream below the final headwall, then left the trail just short of the pass to climb Agassiz’s standard route. This is normally a class 2 boulder-hop up a gully, but the rock-hard early-summer snow forced us onto the class 3 ribs instead. Finally reaching warmth and sun just below the summit, we dropped our packs to sign the register, then contemplated the start of the real traverse.

Agassiz from Winchell

Another climber had mentioned that many people skip a tower called the “Sharkfin,” and the ridge crest between Agassiz and Winchell looked jagged and time-consuming, so we descended a choss-gully to an azure snow-lake, then returned to join Winchell’s standard east ridge partway to the summit. We had fortunately decided to bring minimal snow gear — two pairs of crampons and an axe for the three of us — because although the snow had been baking in the sun for several hours, it was still hard enough for Vitality to take a stylish but unplanned glissade. I had climbed the east ridge for the Sierra Challenge many years ago, and the rest of the route was the fun third class I remembered.

Improbable ledge off Winchell

From the summit, we contemplated the jagged ridge behind to the north and ahead to the south. As I had noted from previous outings across the valley, Winchell stands alone, with wide and deep gaps separating it from Agassiz and Thunderbolt. Realizing that we might have “cheated” by skipping some of the best and/or hardest climbing, we decided to stay on the ridge for the next stretch, the long traverse to Thunderbolt. The descent from Winchell was wild and suspenseful; we often reached a point where it seemed we must cliff out, only to find an improbable downclimb. One of these was a bit desperate, and while I nervously followed Vitality’s lead (he is a much stronger climber than I), Ryan opted for a short rappel.

Reascent after Winchell

After traversing over a sharp intermediate tower (perhaps the “Sharksfin?”), we started up the long climb to Thunderbolt. This was time-consuming but substantially fun, with many sections of the good kind of Palisades rock. At their best, the Palisades consist of solid black rock flecked with white, which forms sharp edges and knobs. The climbing is steep and exposed, but secure, making one feel like a better climber. This alternated with the bad kind of Palisades rock — shifting choss on sloping ledges — but such is the nature of this traverse. We eventually reached Southwest Chute #1, and were back on the familiar Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. As expected, this seldom-climbed section had taken a long time, but we still had plenty of daylight left.

Vitaliy leading Thunderbolt

We scrambled up to Thunderbolt’s summit block, and rather than simply lasso it, Vitality decided to lead it with a pretend belay: he would hit the ground and probably break something if he fell, but at least he would be attached to a rope as he lay wedged between boulders. A few slow, cautious moves later, he reached the summit and was lowered, then Ryan and I both toproped it. I had soloed the block in running shoes in 2012, but lassoed it on both of my subsequent trips. As before, I found that while the free climb looked difficult, it was reasonably secure. While I was glad to have a rope, it is something I could now confidently do without one.

Ugh, that pack (V)

Having done it four times now, I expected the traverse to Sill to be straightforward, but the ridge is complicated and relentless, and I had never done it in early-season snow, nor carrying an overnight pack. I felt like my old self when I dropped my pack to scramble Starlight’s “milk bottle” (or more aptly “giraffe”) summit block, but was tentative and awkward otherwise, even rappeling once on a section I had easily downclimbed between Starlight and North Palisade. I scrambled through the sharp notch and down the Clyde Variation into the U-notch, but it all felt harder than it should have, eroding my normal confidence on moderate and familiar terrain.

First bivy before Sill (V)

It was late by the time we reached the talus beyond Polemonium, now covered in slush suncups. We could have continued, but there did not appear to be any flat, dry ground on the way to Sill, and we had to melt snow for three people’s water on two stoves. We eventually found a bivy spot large enough for three people to sleep uncomfortably, and spent the remaining daylight turning snow into dirty water for dinner and the next day’s consumption. It was the highest I had ever slept in the Sierra, and cold enough to make me unhappy, with my hands always on the verge of aching. I ate as quickly as possible, shoved my water bladder, headlamp, and gloves into my bivy, and put on a podcast while trying to sleep on my slowly leaking pad on the non-flat ground.

Our bivy spot fortunately received early morning sun, so we were able to get moving at a respectable hour. The snow was pleasantly solid, with a crunchy, grippy surface, making the traverse to Sill much easier than it would have been the previous evening. The final shady climb was frigid, but the summit plateau was fairly warm, promising a good day on the ridge. We scrambled over the two towers south of Sill, where I managed to tweak my ankle while playing around, then dropped down to avoid some annoying-looking terrain on the way to the saddle with Jepson. I briefly lost the other two on a detour for running water, finding them again as they pondered how to return to the ridge.

Me about to fail (R)

Jepson is a surprisingly difficult obstacle: while it is a simple talus-hop from Scimitar Pass to the south, the connecting ridge to Sill is sharp on both sides, with steep steps along the crest, and a long south ridge with a sheer west side extending some 1000 feet down toward Glacier Creek. After crossing a bit more snow, we connected ledges and broken terrain back to the ridge. I vaguely remembered descending this ridge unroped on a scouting mission, but that was with a daypack and later in the season. I had probably followed a line generally west of the ridge, but that was now shady and held a fair amount of snow. This time we stayed closer to the crest, roping up for one pitch for psychological reasons, and another for legitimate reasons just below the summit. Vitality nervously led up a pair of cracks below a roof. I followed and almost made the necessary moves, but failed at the top, partly because of my pack, but also because I am a mediocre climber. I fell once, then gave up and pulled on a cam to put this embarrassment behind me. While I have my pride in some things, climbing is not one of them.

Palisade Crest slab

The long boulder-hop from Jepson to the start of Palisade Crest was a welcome respite. We glanced at snowy Scimitar Pass, surprisingly high on the south side of the Jepson-Palisade Crest col, then soon found ourselves back in serious terrain. The “crux” of the first Palisade Crest summit, a.k.a. “Gandalf,” is a striking, exposed slab to its left. However, as I wrote in the register after my first climb many years ago, the ridge leading up to it is far more tricky and thought-provoking. After a wrong turn where we nearly resorted to a rappel, I found a line of cairns bypassing the final bump along the left side. It was standard fare — chossy and exposed fourth class — about which the others did not seem enthusiastic. I was not overjoyed, but at least I was back in my element, traversing to the slab, then cruising up the well-featured face to the summit pinnacle. A short, steep, but positive scramble led from there to the small summit.

Along Palisade Crest

Now it was time for more unfamiliar, and very intimidating-looking, terrain. In my past experience, Sierra ridges are usually easier than their official ratings if you take the time for some careful route-finding. Both the Kaweah and Evolution traverses are rated 5.9, but I found them no harder than 5.5 and 5.7, respectively. Since Palisade Crest is offically 5.5, I did not think it would cause much trouble. Boy was I wrong: while there may be a 5.5 path with perfect route-finding, the climbing is relentless, and the ridge allows few options. The west side is often near-vertical and smooth, while the east is steep and frequently loose. The north sides of the twelve towers are also steeper than the south, making it particularly intimidating in our direction. This would normally have been my type of terrain, but mental exhaustion and a heavy pack with an ice axe and two sets of crampons to catch on things spoiled the fun. Climbing some loose exposed rock to rejoin the others, with the rope coiled around my neck, I lost it for a bit, screaming “why am I doing this?!” before putting my head back on straight. This had stopped being fun for me.

Ultimate bivy (V)

We had hoped to get at least as far as the notch beyond the Crest, but by 6:00 we had only climbed a bit over half of the towers, reaching the first flat spot that we had seen in awhile large enough to sleep three people. The others were reluctant to waste daylight, but I thought it unlikely we would find another good bivy by dark. I think everyone was a bit mentally fried at this point, because it did not take much to convince them to stay here for the night. While Ryan and I cleared off rocks on the platform, Vitaliy rappeled down the east face to gather snow for water. Afterward, we went through the usual time-consuming process of melting snow and cooking dinner, then watched the light fade from one of the most amazing bivy spots imaginable. The narrow and serrated Palisades ridge extended north and south of our platform, while the sun set on Palisade Basin, the Devil’s Crags, and countless other Sierra peaks to the west. Sleeping right on the Sierra Crest, we received both last and first light, and the weather was pleasant and almost windless, even above 13,000 feet.

Me on the Crest (V)

With only a few towers to go, we were hoping for faster going the next day. After a rappel east with a scary (to me) overhanging start, we traversed around a headwall, then scaled some fun fourth class back to the ridge beyond a small, vertical tower. Vitaliy then led an intimidating but positive pitch along the crest to the next tower. Things were going better, staying generally on or east of the crest and finding fun, positive rock, but it was still slow and exposed through the final towers. A good night’s sleep had restored my mental energy and head for scrambling, but Ryan still seemed to be suffering.

We eventually reached the end of the Crest, and were dismayed to find hundreds of feet of sheer-looking rock dropping to the south saddle. I thought I saw a feasible line of 2-3 rappels down chossy terrain to the notch, but Vitality wanted to find something shorter and/or cleaner, and traversed east along a ledge. While we had seen sporadic webbing anchors all along the traverse, we found none here, suggesting we may have been off-route. Vitality eventually found a clean line down from a large horn somewhat east of the spine, and Ryan rappeled into the void, eventually finding a platform near the end of the rope.

Vitaliy led the next rappel, trying desperately to angle back toward the notch before giving up on the sheer wall of the couloir to its east. We discussed our options a bit, but I was privately done with the whole business, and had no enthusiasm left to bring to the group. I could not think of a good way to get across the gap short of going down to the snow and around, my ankle was bothering me a bit, and I lacked the energy to regain 1000 or more feet on chossy fourth class rock. We downclimbed east, then made a rappel to the snow, which sucked until it became lower-angle.

There was some fun boot-skiing getting to the lake northeast of Norman Clyde, then an endless hike through mosquito-infested woods to the South Fork trail, where I put in my headphones for the slog of shame. I bashed my ankle again for good measure, limped to the parking lot, and threw my pack down at the gate. Fishing for my keys, I found that my olive oil had leaked all over my sleeping gear. Joy. I needed some time alone, so I did not mind walking the mile down the road to the overnight lot to fetch my car. It was a bit awkward cramming two people into my filthy and disorganized “home,” but they did not complain on the drive around to South Lake. Ryan kindly volunteered to fetch the other car, and I pulled into one of the flatter spots in the overnight lot to sleep in the high, cool air. I had seen most of the unfamiliar terrain about which I was curious, but it still felt like failure.

Minor Minarets (Riegelhuth, Pridham, Starr)

Riegelhuth at left


The Minarets are the most impressive feature of the skyline near Mammoth Lakes, a series of dark and improbably sharp peaks west of town. There are a lot of them, and while they can all be traversed in a day, their difficulty and sometimes-poor rock make it unlikely that I will ever do so. However, I have been slowly picking them off over the years, and have summited well over half, including the highest ones. With temperatures over 100 degrees in the Owens Valley, it seemed a good time to head uphill for awhile.

An easier outing the day before turned into a trail-side nap — my insatiable trail hunger suggests that I am close to having the fitness to actually do interesting things. Climbing a few lesser Minarets would hardly count as such, but it would be both an excuse to visit some scenic terrain, and a good opportunity to practice my steep scrambling on dubious rock, which has grown rusty. I briefly thought of biking from my camp along the Scenic Loop, but decided instead to start from Minaret Vista. I was glad I did so, both because the ride from north of town would have taken too much time, and because I learned that the road beyond Minaret Summit is closed. This is a great thing for many reasons: it is an excuse to bike, it keeps the crowds away, and it may even put the horse packers out of business (one can dream…).

Deadhorse Lake and home

There were too many cars parked near the entrance gate, but I found a nice flat spot near my usual camp spot, and rewatched a couple episodes of “Breaking Bad” to put myself to sleep. I was biking downhill into a notorious pool of cold air, so I took my time in the morning. A sign on the gate said “no bicycles,” but a local-looking guy nearby said he had been riding his into the valley without trouble, so I ignored it and dropped into the expected inversion. I had not been beyond Agnew Meadows in years, and was dismayed at how quickly and far the road drops after reaching the valley floor. I started catching an official-looking vehicle on my way to Devil’s Postpile and, not wanting to get yelled at, paused to let it pull ahead. Once at the Postpile, I saw a half-dozen vehicles at the employee housing, a sign saying “no bikes beyond this point” at the trailhead, and a couple of bikes locked to a nearby rack. So much for “no bicycles…”

The trail up Minaret Creek is normally frustrating, with large steps and loose, sharp rocks making it difficult to run, but I was stuck walking for a few days while my ankle recovered, so it did not bother me. I found the log bridge crossing the creek destroyed, and followed a trail along the bank, hoping to find another log farther up. I saw a potential crossing, but it looked a bit dubious, and the trail appeared to continue, so I ignored it. This turned out to be a mistake, as the trail faded to nothing, leaving me to make my slow way through the woods on the other side of Johnson “Meadow” (a swamp this time of year). I eventually crossed above the swamp, and regained the trail, which I followed on the long, slow climb to Minaret Lakes. I passed a couple backpackers coming down, but otherwise had the area to myself.

Riegelhuth from Pridham

I left the main trail at the lower end of the lakes, making my way toward a snow chute between Riegelhuth and Pridham Minarets that Bob’s trip report had suggested as the best route. I had brought ice axe and crampons for this steep, north-facing gully, but found that I was able to avoid the snow first on the talus fan, then on the couloir’s blocky sides. I reached the saddle with no more than a bit of third class scrambling, and found Pridham to be an unimpressive talus mount, hardly worthy of being called a Minaret.

Clyde, Ritter, Banner

Riegelhuth was a different matter, offering a couple of possible lines, but nothing obvious. As I approached, I spotted a series of steep gullies and ledges to the right that might work. They did not look easy, but I needed the practice, so up I went. They turned out to offer steep and thought-provoking climbing, probably low fifth class, but the rock was mostly good and positive. I reached the summit without too much trouble, finding some climber trash (old slings), but no register. After admiring the view of Lake Cecile and the higher Minarets, I took a different route on the way down, finding a fourth class gully down the west-northwest side. Though short, Riegelhuth was a worthy summit, with no easy way up. Pridham, on the other hand, was class 2 talus from the east, and the same to the west. I boulder-hopped up, looked around a bit, then continued on my way.

Starr-Kehrlein saddle

The next summit in line, Kehrlein, looked far more interesting, but I had already done it many years ago, so I instead dropped left into the cirque above Dead Horse Lake, hoping that something on the ridge north of Starr Minaret would go. Though the headwall looked steep from the approach, I found a broken third class ramp trending left to the ridge. The south- and east-facing snow had been baking long enough at this point that I was able to kick steps to the rock, not needing the crampons and axe I had lugged so far.

Adam, Michael, Eichorn, Clyde

Starr Minaret was a bit steeper than Pridham, but still only class 3 from the west; I made things a bit more interesting by staying near the ridge. I found a new-ish register in a salsa bottle on the summit, plus slightly older paper in a film canister and aspirin bottle. Of the handful of parties signing in, most seemed to be on a Minarets Traverse. This confused me, since Starr is an outlier of the main Minarets ridge. One party mentioned that it was their eighth summit that day, which made no sense in either direction.

I had thought of tagging Adam Minaret, another outlier southwest of Michael, but I had once again failed to pack enough food. Instead, I retreated down my broken ramp, dropped to Dead Horse, and regained the trail in the woods below Minaret Lakes. While the trail remained uncrowded on the hike home, there were a few more people. I first met two guys and a woman, all fit, attractive, and scantily clad, and passed with a quick, dead-eyed “howdy.” I talked a bit more with a family at the stream ford, learning that they were doing part of the JMT as I put my shoes back on.

I returned to the trailhead around mid-afternoon, finding a ranger talking on the phone outside his cabin, who apparently had no problem with my being down there. I changed into bike shorts, then ground out the 1500-foot climb back to Minaret Vista and my car. I had a nice campsite, and had thought of a plan for the next day, so I tore through a larger post-hike meal, reloaded my pack with more food, then whiled away the rest of the evening.

Verdi and Tahoe

North rim view


Verdi (pronounced like “hair dye,” not the requiem composer’s name) is a prominent summit northeast of Lake Tahoe, and a worthy reason to drive all the way north to… ah, who am I kidding? It’s a forested bump with a road to an old fire lookout on top, with enough prominence to give me peak-bagger points. In short, it was a perfect peak to tag with Renee and her not-quite-three-year-old. A few sections of the road were rocky and steep enough to be unpleasant on my touring bike, so we hiked it. The kid did an admirable job and, with steady encouragement and other devious motherly psychological tricks, walked more than his age in miles. The lookout was well-situated, with a clear view of the train tracks and highway along the Truckee River to the south and east, snowy Castle, Basin, and Lola to the west, and the peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe to the south.

Tahoe peaks from Verdi

Points accomplished, it was time to enjoy some alternatives to my recent Eastern Sierra desert slogs, including road cycling (I am slow), mountain biking (I am bad), and trail running (I can do this one, though my aging body complains). While I could never afford to live there, I am reminded every time I visit that Tahoe has a wonderful backyard. It lacks the major peaks found in the Owens Valley or the Alps, but has acres of forested public land with miles of trails and fire roads, making it a bit like where I grew up. While not a destination, it has everything necessary for day-to-day outdoor activity.

Short off-trail section

For example, there are several passes over the Nevada side, connected along the top by trails, and the bottom by the lake road. These allow excellent point-to-point runs with a bike shuttle. Renee had mapped out a run from the Brockway road to the Mount Rose road, tagging one fire lookout and a number of minor summits along the way. It would have been a better run the other way, but I convinced her to run it in the net uphill direction, then bike shuttle back. Unlike the lookout on Verdi, which was trashed, the one on Martis was well-kept, with unbroken windows and a silhouette map identifying the peaks on the skyline. Much of the rest of the run was uphill at just the right grade to be frustrating (I should have listened…), but the trail was mostly snow-free and the views were excellent. The return ride along the lake was not pleasant, with narrow shoulders and constant traffic, but both Brockway and Mount Rose roads have good shoulders and pavement, so those parts were fine.

More Flume Trail

Most Tahoe trails are rocky and “technical,” thus miserable for me with my limited mountain biking skills, but the Incline and Marlette Flume trails are much better. After mistakenly starting off on the Tyrolean trail, a “flow” trail that was more of a survival ride on my touring bike, I enjoyed a long ride on smooth trails and gentle grades. Supposedly the trails follow some old flumes, but I saw no evidence of such. It was a weekday, but the trail was somewhat crowded with both cyclists and pedestrians, making some of its exposed blind corners a bit unnerving, but I was still enjoying myself.

Fixed-gear riding

I was hoping to continue all the way to Spooner Lake and Highway 50, but at Marlette Lake’s southern end, I finally figured out why my rear derailleur had been acting up: my derailleur cable snapped. Riding back in my outermost gear would have involved a lot of hike-a-bike, so, thinking a minute, I wedged a small stick into the derailleur to hold it somewhere near the center of its range. I gingerly pedaled back toward home a bit, then bummed duct tape from some Game and Fish employees to secure my stick. With two middle-of-the-range gears, I only had to hike one part of the trail, and could pedal up to a non-pathetic speed on the flats and descents.

Cold Luther Pass

After a stop in Carson for a replacement cable and brake pads — bikes are an endless money-pit — I continued around to check out some peaks south of the lake. Most northern Sierra peaks are short climbs, so I tacked on some cycling to give myself a bit of a challenge. I camped at the junction with the Luther Pass road, where it rained overnight, then took my time in the morning, eyeing the fresh snow on the peaks and fixing my bike. When it was finally warm enough for my hands, I made the short ride to Luther Pass, then locked my bike to a tree to hike up Waterhouse. I found no use trail, but there was little underbrush, and neither the fresh nor old snow posed much of a problem. I took in the view south from the summit rocks, then returned to my bike and continued west.

Desolation from Ralston

It was a weekend, so I wanted to avoid the highways as much as possible, especially 50, with its traffic from Sacramento and the Bay. For my first dodge, I went through the closed Luther campground, cutting off a bit of 89. I crossed the highway, then took off again down Upper Truckee Road, which starts as steep single-lane pavement, then becomes a quiet residential street. I had hoped to take the Hawley Grade National Historic Trail — “grade” seemed to imply “railroad” and therefore “gentle” — but it was nasty and rocky. Instead, I found the Old Meyers Grade and Johnson Pass roads, thus avoiding the highway climb to Echo Summit. From there, unfortunately, it was pure highway to the Mount Ralston trailhead, with constant traffic boding ill for the uphill return.

I semi-hid my bike near the Ralston trailhead, then took off at a determined walk. This turned out to be a deservedly popular but not overly long hike, with excellent views of Lake Aloha and the Desolation Wilderness from the summit. I took around an hour from trailhead to summit, a respectable time, though far off the course record. The Desolation peaks were still snowy, but Lake Aloha had melted out; on my last visit earlier in the season, I had walked across it to save time while tagging the other peaks. I spent a couple of minutes on the cold summit, then ran back to my bike and retraced my route. The ride up 50 was as miserable as expected, but I’m turning into a roadie again, and getting used to close and constant traffic. The rest of the ride was much more pleasant, and I returned to the car mid-afternoon, satisfied with a full day.

Disaster and friends

Disaster from 9501


After a lengthy and clarifying stay in the Owens Valley, it was time to move on. On the way to visit a friend near Lake Tahoe, I took a side trip over Sonora Pass to tag Disaster, the northernmost of my fifteen remaining SPS peaks. I had been stymied on previous trips by pass closures and weather, but this time had no trouble reaching Iceberg Meadow. Since Disaster by itself would be very short, I roughly followed Rob Houghton’s route to tag a couple of minor neighbors. It was still little more than a half-day, but that was enough given the remaining drive.

Used to waking up low on the desert east side of the Sierra, I set an unrealistic 5:00 AM alarm. When it went off a couple of thousand feet higher on the shady side of the range, I was curled up in my sleeping bag for warmth. I reached an arm out several times to hit “snooze,” eventually making a hot breakfast and getting started toward 7:00 AM. I hiked up the shaded Disaster Creek trail in all my layers, my hands aching inside my gloves. Even down at 8000 feet there was a bit of fresh graupel on the ground from the night before.

West from Disaster’s south ridge

The route to Disaster follows the trail past the cliffy part of the Iceberg, then leaves it to ascend a steep hillside to the peak’s long south ridge. This would have been a miserable bushwhack some years ago, but a convenient fire had trimmed the manzanita, and deer had created some faint paths. The underlying dirt is the expected decomposed granite, but much more pleasant than the loose sand I had dealt with on the way to Sawmill Point a few days before. I made steady progress to the ridge, where I finally reached both direct sun and a cold west wind.

Anti-trail

Most of the rest of the route up Disaster was a gentle hike through open forest and meadows, with decent shelter from the wind. The summit itself was less pleasant, a loose pile of basalt talus, dusted with fresh snow, offering scant shelter. I briefly looked around for a register, then found a semi-sheltered spot to cram down a couple sandwiches with aching hands. I thought of returning to the car, but that would have been lame. Instead, I retraced my steps a short distance down the ridge, then dropped east through the woods to the PCT.

Columnar basalt

Conditions became more pleasant off of Disaster’s exposed ridge. While there was still patchy snow in the woods, the cold worked to my advantage, keeping it pleasantly firm for the rest of my outing. A few people had hiked this section in recent, warmer weather, so I did not have to consult my map to follow the trail. The next bump, Peak 9501′, was a larger and looser pile of basalt than Disaster. I carefully picked my way up the near side, then descended a vague ridge of columnar basalt down the far one to regain the trail.

The Iceberg

As is often the case, the PCT wanders pointlessly in this section, so I shortcut one inexplicable loop on my way toward Boulder, then left it to follow a drainage between two ridges, ending near the summit. I briefly took in the view of the higher, snowier peaks to the south, then took off straight down to the PCT in the direction of a creek leading to Boulder Lake.

This drainage started out as easy, runnable cross-country, then turned obnoxiously brushy as it dropped and steepened. I sidehilled along to the left, and eventually picked up the steep and unmaintained Boulder Lake trail. The Clark Fork trail was gentler and much better maintained, allowing me to do something like running in the final few miles to the trailhead. I rinsed off in the frigid creek, then drove back over the pass to cook lunch before finishing up the drive, with one stop at a Walmart featuring a surprising number of people not wearing masks. Sigh…

White Mountains Traverse

Traverse from Boundary


This White Mountains Traverse is a loosely-defined route between Queen Mine Saddle and Barcroft Gate (or vice versa) in California’s White Mountains. It is about 35 miles long, with more than half cross-country, and involves a bit of third class scrambling. Peaks along the way include Boundary (a bump on a ridge, Nevada’s lame highpoint), Montgomery, Dubois, Hogue, Headley, 13,615′, and White Mountain Peak. It is normally done south to north, in the slightly downhill direction, and the FKT is 11h25, set by Jed Porter back in 2014. It requires a 100+-mile car shuttle including miles of annoying dirt road, which discourages many people, but it still seems to see one or two parties per year.

I had originally planned to do it casually, with a partner and a car shuttle, but when that stopped making sense, I came up with another plan. While the drive around via the 2WD Barcroft road is close to 100 miles, it is possible to cut it to only about 60 via Silver Canyon if you have a Jeep…. or a bike. With a forecast for a tailwind up the Owens Valley, I thought I could do the foot portion north to south in 11 hours or less, and the whole thing in under 18. This was a nice theory, but ultimately I found myself spending the better part of two days doing things I did not enjoy, and failing to accomplish something about which I was indifferent, all for the wrong reasons. Call it “training.”

I enjoyed the drive up 168 from Big Pine, then endured the winding asphalt and rocky, washboard dirt north to Barcroft. This is a slow drive at best, and I had to go even slower to protect my worn tires. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and found a couple of cars at the gate, their owners returning from the hike to White Mountain. I took advantage of the chance to sleep at altitude, then stashed my bike, helmet, and some food before returning to Bishop. I had hoped to bathe for the first time in a week at Keough’s along the way, but noticed that, despite my cautious driving, I had developed a slow leak in one tire. I topped it off with my bike pump, then hurried into town and pulled into the one tire place open on Sundays, Perez Tire. I lucked out, as they sold me two AT tires for a fair price, and installed them in about 30 minutes; the other Bishop tire places I’ve visited are ripoffs.

Peak happiness

Greasy and in a bad mood from the unexpected expense, I drove up to the north end of the valley, then turned on the Queen Mine road. It starts out as good graded dirt, then slowly deteriorates as it climbs. I eventually stopped about 2.2 miles from the saddle; while I could probably have driven farther, this seemed about as far as I would be able to ride a bike, so there was no point in continuing. I packed some discount energy bars and eight PB&Hs, set my alarm for 3:00, and got some amount of sleep.

Sunrise before Boundary

I hadn’t done such an early start in awhile, so I did not get going until almost 4:00. I spent about 45 minutes hiking the road to the saddle, then easily found the popular trail up Boundary. I jogged some of the flatter sections leading to Trail Canyon Saddle, then hiked up one of the braided trails through sand and talus toward the summit. It was already somewhat breezy at the top, and bitterly cold, so I did not even pause before starting down the ridge to Montgomery. The route was slow going but mostly only class 2, alternating between the shaded northwest side, and the sunny but windy southeast.

Descending Montgomery’s N ridge

At Montgomery’s summit, I stopped to take a few photos and sign the register. The forecast had anticipated temperatures in the 30s or 40s, but it seemed colder, and my phone battery died when I tried to send a text. Fortunately I had brought my battery pack, so I plugged it in and stashed it closer to my body for warmth. I continued in all my layers, my fingers aching inside my gloves. With steady wind and light cloud-cover most of the day, there was only about a half-hour in which I was warm enough to jog in a t-shirt. Wind and cold, plus tedious terrain, kept the day well short of fun.

Montgomery from south

Only a handful of people continue beyond Montgomery, so while I found a handful of cairns, I was mostly following faint sheep tracks or traveling cross-country. Montgomery’s south ridge is loose class 2-3, with a broken crest that is best avoided. I found a couple of short, sketchy snow traverses along the east side, but did not have much trouble reaching the saddle. From there, a long talus climb leads to “the Jumpoff” at the northern end of Dubois vast summit plateau. I had hoped for a long stretch easy jogging here, but the tundra was rolling and studded with sharp talus, making for slow and cautious progress.

White from Dubois

The summit is one of a number of minor bumps on the plateau, fortunately marked with a large stick visible from a distance. The majority of the parties in the summit register were either sheep surveyors or people traversing, including a group on skis this past April. I signed in with a bit of Rammstein commentary (“Mir ist kalt. Zo kalt!”), then took off jogging on the downward-trending plateau. White Mountain remained soul-crushingly far away, but I reminded myself that I had covered greater distances before.

This part of the Whites is not a single well-defined ridge, but a broad, rolling plain, cut by valleys dropping to both sides. Finding the best route requires regularly consulting a topo map at the macro level. It also requires paying close attention to the terrain at the micro level, as it varies unpredictably from semi-runnable tundra to tediously loose and sharp talus. I had downloaded Jed’s track, but he skipped some of the peaks along the way. I knew I never wanted to return to this place so, being a peak-bagger, I made some minor detours to tag the summits.

Dubois from Hogue

First up was Hogue, a detour east just north of where the ridge drops far down to a saddle with some springs around 11,200′. I checked out a couple of the talus mounds on its summit plateau, but found only a few pieces of broken glass, perhaps a former register jar. I jogged the descent as best I could, squelching across a bog labeled as a “spring,” then hiked over Point 11,784′, which hid horribly loose talus on its south side. A spring and snowfield fed a pleasant stream southeast of the lowpoint, where I grabbed a couple of liters of water before beginning the climb toward Headley.

Continuing my quest to tag the ridge’s peaks, I took a less-direct line toward the point labeled Headley Peak. Most of the way up, I saw that it was 100 feet lower than “East Headley,” with almost no prominence, and slightly out of the way. Annoyed at having wasted time on a pointless detour, I tagged the higher East Headley, then continued toward White. Jed had sidehilled around 13,615′, but despite the looming reality of headlamp time, I made the short detour. It was only a few hundred yards out of the way, and one of only a handful of California’s 13,000-foot peaks I had yet to climb.

Final scramble

I signed in next to the familiar names, then suffered down to the saddle with White. The talus was all sharp and loose, and though it was cold, the snowfields had turned to bottomless slush. I cursed, stumbled, and postholed to my knees for awhile, then found drier ground on the final ridge to the hut. I had eaten my last food before 13,615′, but am still fat enough not to bonk badly while hiking. The final ridge to the summit turns surprisingly tricky, with some loose class 3-4 over and around a few towers. I might have enjoyed this in different circumstances, but at this point it was a demoralizing grind.

I finally reached the summit around 3:00, eleven hours from the start and far later than I had hoped. I texted a friend that I might be screwed: the days are long, but I estimated that I would be back to pavement around dark, still over thirty miles from the car. I cut all the lame road switchbacks down to the saddle, then put in a fair amount of jogging along the road past Barcroft Lab despite my fatigue. The lab was closed, the normally reeking sheep pen blessedly empty. There were no cars at the gate, but fortunately no one had stolen my bike or my food. I hid behind the outhouse for awhile, eating and recovering, then began the thirteen-mile bike to the head of Silver Canyon. My time to the gate was something like 12h20, putting me 10-15 minutes behind the FKT. I could make the excuses that I was heading in the uphill direction, and tagged two summits that Jed had skipped, but it was still a failure.

I was dreading this portion of the trip, as the road is rough, rolling, and headed both in the wrong direction and likely into the day’s prevailing wind. Surprisingly, though, I found it almost enjoyable on a bike. It felt no worse than many of the Argentine provincial roads I had cycled this past winter, and I was not towing a trailer. The two motorists who passed me even offered encouragement. I suffered mightily on the 600-foot climb before the Silver Canyon turnoff, but still made it in just over 1h30, better than I had hoped.

I was nervous about descending the upper Silver Canyon road on my touring bike, as it is relentlessly steep and sometimes loose, but I took it slow, rode my brakes, and made it down without crashing, only putting a foot down on a few of the sharp, steep switchbacks higher up. I filled up on water at the first creek crossing, burned my finger feeling my brake rotor, then dared a bit more speed as the slope eased. I normally dismount for the creek crossings, but my bike was already filthy, so I rode through the first few, spraying my bike and myself with water and grit. The creek had hopped its banks in places, turning the road into a secondary stream, so picking my way through the crossings would have been pointless.

The descent to Highway 6 took another 1h30 or so, giving me about an hour of usable light to ride north. I started off motivated, but soon started questioning the wisdom of continuing. My 750-lumen bike headlamp had been stolen in Argentina, so all I had was a tiny 100-ish-lumen hiking lamp; not anticipating much headlamp time, I had not bothered to dig out my taillight. I felt energetic at the moment, but nearly two hours riding uphill at night on a highway, without a taillight, then another hour on a dirt road, began to seem stupid. Before getting too far from Bishop, I gave up and called my friend, who kindly fetched me and let me use a spare sleeping setup.

Having already made myself enough of a nuisance, and failed to achieve anything, I was determined to at least finish under my own power. The previous day’s tailwind had of course reverted to the seasonal headwind, so I got to relive one of my less favorite Argentine experiences: riding uphill into the wind along a truck route. I finally started bonking on the dirt road, stopping frequently in bits of shade to rest, finally crawling up to the car. I crammed down a bunch of food, then drove back down-valley to begin preparing to hit the road.

Mount Tom (north ridge)

More false summits


Mount Tom is arguably the most striking peak on the Bishop skyline, towering almost 10,000 feet above town, with its long north ridge rising around 8,000 feet from Pine Creek. While it is not technically difficult or interesting, it is striking enough to be a fairly popular climb, often done in the early season when snow covers some of the talus, or at least provides water. I was in the area and needed a workout, so it seemed like a good time to finally check it off my to-do list.

Looking at the map, I found a side-road on the way to Elderberry Canyon that looked like a good place to start, so I headed up there the night before to camp. The road was rough in places, but careful driving got my Element to a flat spur near the end with no parts lost and only moderate scrambling of its contents. I set my alarm for 4:35, planning to start at first light, then tried to get some sleep.

Scheelite Chute and Pine Creek climbing

I got started a bit later than first light, but fortunately the temperature was cooler than the previous week, and some clouds over the Whites delayed the direct sun. Like the northeast ridges of Lone Pine Peak and Mount Williamson, Tom’s north ridge starts with a couple thousand feet of miserable, brushy sand. I followed some sheep tracks and pulled at granite outcrops as I made my slow way to the crest. It was slow going, but probably better than gaining the ridge from Pine Creek to the north or west.

Wheeler Crest

Once on the crest, I found easier sand and mild brush, leading to sparse woods and eventually talus. I also found a faint path and recent footprints, confirming my impression that this was a relatively popular objective this time of year. After dodging some snow patches, I had to cross one, and found fresh boot-prints; clearly someone had been up here in the last day or two. The snow was only intermittently supportive, so I was glad to have someone else ahead of me digging the postholes.

Lower ridge

I stopped to shove snow in my water bladder at the first clean patch of snow in the woods, then continued out onto the open talus, where I encountered some mild scrambling. Looking at the ridge ahead, I was surprised to see two men ahead of me — it was a weekend, but I hardly expected company. I easily caught them, and chatted for a few minutes before continuing. They were both up from LA (filthy tourists…), an experienced guy taking his novice friend on his first Sierra peak. It seemed like a rather ambitious choice of objectives, but I did not think there were any technical obstacles, and they had plenty of daylight to use.

Upper ridge

From where I met the pair, it was 2.1 miles to the summit as the crow flies. I anticipated an endless slog through loose talus and slush, but the rock was not quite as loose as I had feared, and the snow along the ridge had been mostly beaten solid by the wind. I took one unfortunate tumble when my wet and worn-out shoes slipped on a transition from snow to rock, bruising my ribs a bit, but had no serious difficulties on my way to the summit. The many false summits could have been demoralizing, but I had mentally prepared myself for them, and was feeling moderately peppy.

Humphreys from Tom

I reached the summit in 5:25, and found the register box exposed and filled with various booklets and scraps of paper. I couldn’t find my entry from when I climbed Tom from Horton Lakes in 2009 or 2010, but added my name to the latest book. Looking south and west, the peaks still looked surprisingly skiable, though having recently suffered 90-degree temperatures in the Owens and Saline Valleys, I was not in that frame of mind. I took a few photos, sent some texts, then headed back down the ridge.

Elderberry Canyon

I passed the experienced guy a few false summits down, and was unsurprised to learn that his friend had given up. I probably should have retraced my route, but I had been told that descending Elderberry Canyon was quicker, so I turned down to the east as soon as I reached a chute that did not cliff out. I hoped to boot-ski or plunge-step the upper snow, but was forced to do a pathetic sitting glissade to stay afloat in the bottomless slush. The rock to either side was not amenable to scree-skiing, and the avalanche snow lower down had also deteriorated to slush, so it was slow and unpleasant work descending to the level of the Lambert Mine.

Not fun

Things got a bit easier from there, as I picked up the old trail to the mine, and the snow in some of the gullies was compact enough to boot-ski. The trail turns stupid and horizontal lower down, so I ignored it in favor of the easy cross-country. I eventually reached the badly overgrown stream crossing, where I found my first liquid water all day, a welcome replacement for the piney melting slush in my bladder. From there I was on familiar ground, thankful to have only a daypack instead of skis as I switchbacked through the buckthorn, then jogged the road back to my car, cutting the corner to save a tiny bit of elevation loss. I was back at the car by mid-afternoon, making for a moderate day. I doubt I will do this route again, but if I did, I would probably just descend the ridge; Elderberry wasn’t awful, but it is much better on skis.

Cerro Catedral Sur

Tronador and Torre Principal from summit


Cerro Catedral is more of a small range than a mountain, a sprawling collection of lakes and granite spires southwest of Bariloche. Most of the spires, including the highest, the Torre Principal, are too hard for me to climb unroped, but Catedral Sur is a walk-up by its easiest route, and a moderate scramble by its northeast ridge. It proved to be a pleasant outing, and a long-ish day from the wonderful national park campground at Lago Gutierrez. It also turned out to be my last scramble in the area, as I was forced to flee the next day from the world’s rising COVID-related panic.

Stream below Frey hut

I got a reasonably early start after breakfast, throwing my down jacket in my pack against the morning cold. The previous day’s storms had dropped temperatures dramatically, and it would take a couple days of sun to warm back up. I mostly walked the rolling trial around the lake toward the Arroyo Van Titter, jogging here and there to stay ahead of a group of locals who walked surprisingly fast and stopped less than I did. My mountaineering pack, the only one I have on this trip, has no stash pockets, and my water bladder is completely non-functional, so I had to stop and take off my pack every time I wanted to eat, drink, or remove clothing. I look forward to getting back to, if not the States, then at least my daypack.

Snack shop below Frey

I easily left the other hikers once the trail started climbing steeply toward the Frey hut. This was a good, no-nonsense footpath, steep and only somewhat eroded. I began meeting others descending as I climbed, mostly local hikers probably headed home after spending one or more nights in the region’s huts. Cerro Catedral has several; while Frey is the most popular with climbers thanks to its proximity to the Aguja Frey and Torre Principal, the others form an apparently-popular multi-day loop. Along the way, I passed another unusual structure, a refuge or food stand built under a giant boulder.

Hut and nearby towers

The hut featured the most American crowd I had encountered in a long time, including an older couple visiting their daughter, who was down in South America for some kind of internship. I talked to them for awhile, then met Isaac, a young climber from Seattle who was also in the area for school-related reasons. He had flown down without his rack, and was not having much luck joining another group of climbers at the hut, so I invited him along on my scramble up Catedral Sur. It sounded like it wouldn’t be too hard; the hardest part might be figuring out which peak it was among the many ridges and towers.

NE ridge from approach

We followed a use trail to a pass a short distance southwest of the hut, then stared around in confusion for a few minutes. There were dozens of spires of various heights on the ridges around us, none obviously the highest, and we had only various low-resolution maps. We eventually set off descending across the head of the next valley over, and soon found cairns and a good use trail, suggesting we were on the correct route to something. It was fortunate that we found the trail, because the brush is both dense and woody, making bushwhacking somewhere between bloody and impossible.

Bariloche and Lago Gutierrez

The trail passes under the closest large slab, then climbs toward a cluster of impressive spires, including a large flat one called the Campanile Esloveno. I thought Catedral Sur would be to the left of that, but I could not pick out an obvious summit. We headed vaguely left up talus with the occasional rock step, eventually reaching a saddle near a wildly-overhanging tower on an indistinct ridge. The tower is striking enough that I am sure it has a name and has been climbed, but I can’t imagine ever doing so without throwing a rope over the top and prussiking up.

Upper ridge with gendarmes

The climbing slowly got trickier as we progressed, with a bit more class 3 here and there, and while the ridge never grew truly sharp, there were fewer opportunities for escape. The ridge finally became truly tricky and ridge-like just before the summit, where there are a number of progressively larger and more difficult gendarmes. I immediately went into peak-bagger mode, bypassing the first few to the right while Isaac, true to his climber nature, went straight over the top before seeing how much easier I had it. One of the last few gendarmes, I tried a couple of approaches before finding some low fifth-class shenanigans to the right. My scrambling game was rusty after months of choss, but it came back quickly.

Tronador, Esloveno, and Torre Principal

The other side was dismayingly steep, covered in crunchy moss and a bit of fresh snow. We found our way off, but decided to skip the last one or two, traversing around left to the base of the imposing summit block. While it looked impossibly vertical from this side, it turned out to be just a bit of fourth class on the other, and we were soon on the summit. After climbing in a t-shirt on the protected ridge, I was shocked at how cold it was in the wind, and was soon glad I had brought my down jacket. I was anxious to get back to camp at the lake, but the view of the other needles was phenomenal, with glacier-covered Tronador looming behind them some twenty miles away. Though only 11,500′ high and 41 degrees south, it holds some impressively large glaciers on this side.

Lago Mascardi and points south

We finally headed back, down-scrambling the summit block and then scree-skiing the peak’s easy north slope. There is a perfect campsite here near some huge boulders and a small stream, surrounded by all of the towers a Real Climber could want, but we saw only one tent and no people. Once back at the hut, I quickly said “goodbye” and began hike-jogging back toward camp. My pack was awkward jogging the flats, but I wanted the miles to pass quickly.

I had initially planned to ride on to a camp along Lago Mascardi, but it was late enough that I opted to stay another night. While it was calmer and warmer, it was also a weekend, so I had a group with a bunch of noisy kids on one side, and a couple who were very bad at building a fire for their asado upwind of me, smoking me out as I ate my usual polenta with eggs and vegetables. I played with the herd of four camp kittens in the morning, trying not to let their sharp little claws puncture my flesh or give my down jacket yet more leaks as they climbed all over me and my laptop. Then I took off a bit later than planned toward the far end of Lago Mascardi and the trailhead for Cerro Bonete, another peak closer to Tronador.

Something like twenty miles into the ride, just after turning off onto a dirt side-road, I learned that Argentina had closed all of its national parks due to COVID-19. For the present, this just meant that most of the peaks around Bariloche were off-limits, a disappointment I could get past. But the longer-term implications were more worrisome: if Argentina was already shutting things down so indiscriminately (and, I thought, senselessly), there would doubtless be other restrictions coming. I thought it might be best to cross back to Chile as soon as possible, where there would be no more borders between me and either my flight out, or at least the American Consulate in Santiago.

I rode back to Bariloche to see what information I could find, learned that Argentina had closed its borders to incoming Americans, then biked on to camp on a side-road between arms of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The next morning I rode to Villa la Angostura, checked out the situation again, and was alarmed by the rate of new flight cancellations, quarantines, and other measures. I rode on as far as I could, getting through the Argentinian side of the Paso Samoré and into Chile before being forced to camp behind some maintenance sheds when the wet cold made my hands too weak to keep riding.

The next day I stuffed my wet tent into my dry-bag, rode to Osorno, and took an overnight bus to Santiago. I had no trouble finding two bike boxes — one for my bike, and a second to mutilate into a trailer box — but after packing things up in the street, I had more trouble finding a large enough vehicle to take everything to the airport. Eventually, with the help of an enthusiastic cabbie, I mutilated the bike box into the back seat of a compact taxi, shoved everything else in on top and in the trunk, and made it to the airport by mid-afternoon.

I was seriously disgusting at this point, but fortunately Ted came through with a free room at the airport hotel, where I could shower for the first time in a week, recover a bit, and create a trailer box. Recipe: cut a bike box open, fold it over taco-style over the trailer and a bunch of other stuff, cut off the ends, then apply half a roll of duct tape; finish by paying a guy at the airport $10 to wrap the mess in plastic. I had no scale this time, but the bike box came in at 20 kg, the “trailer” at 23, so my two ridiculous boxes both qualified as acceptable “sporting equipment,” and therefore flew free. One long flight half-full of often-masked people later, I was back in the States, ready to face whatever comes next on my (sort of) home turf.

Bike touring stats, part 2

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the second (blue) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Osorno, are 1625 miles and 103,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 47 days. That’s about 35 miles and 2200 feet per day, which is not so bad considering that some of those miles were over ridiculous terrain like the Paso de las Damas.

Unfortunately I only summited seven peaks, which makes me question whether I can still call myself a peak-bagger. This was partly because I did not have a “mother lode” of peaks like the Puna de Atacama on this leg, but mostly because I was burned out on high-altitude choss. By the time I reached Bariloche, where both the rock and my motivation greatly improved, COVID-19 and the world’s response to it cut my travels short. I explored the Andes from about 25 to 41 degrees south on this trip, but there is a lot more left to see. Hopefully I will be able to return sometime in the future. With almost 3000 miles under my belt on this trip, I can almost call myself a real bike tourist, though I’m nowhere close to matching Daniel, Marilyne, Kevin, or some of the others I have met down here.

Siete Lagos to Bariloche

Good riding north of Angostura


With my trip nearing its end, I was not sure where I wanted to go after Pucon. One option would be to make a loop north to Llaima and Sierra Nevada, taking a scenic back road through araucaria forests. This would take 4-5 days, after which I could return to the Panamericana and catch the bus from Temuco. Another would be to head south through the Siete Lagos region, crossing over to Argentina via the Paso Hue Hum to San Martin de los Andes, then back to Chile via Paso Cardenal SamorĂ© to Osorno. The road south of San Martin is supposed to be one of the best short bike tours in Argentina, and if I made good time, I would even have time to see Bariloche. I was getting tired of volcanoes, so I chose the latter, pushing back my return flight to give myself some time to explore the Bariloche area’s supposedly better rock.

Villarrica and something else across Lago Calafquen

It felt good to be on Chilean asphalt as I rode around the south side of Lago Villarrica, but I quickly tired of the concomitant traffic. This continued after I turned south at the city of Villarrica, so I gambled on a side road supposedly containing two short stretches of dirt. The paved sections were glorious and almost car-free, and I enjoyed tooling south in no particular hurry. The dirt was another matter: while it was not as washboarded as the Argentinian stuff, it was loose in places, and steep enough that I crashed once going downhill before learning that I had to walk my bike down the steeper sections.

Choshuenco and Lago Panguipulli

I was planning to camp in Neltume or Puerto Fuy, but I made slower progress than expected on the rolling road, and instead stopped at a nice camp-spot by a river next to Lago Panguipulli. The water looked clean, with no upstream lakes or settlements, there were blackberries all around, and I would sleep better at an undeveloped campsite, undisturbed by lights and neighbors. I took my time the next morning, reaching the ferry across Lago Pirihueico around lunch. The lake, around ten miles long with steep wooded hills rising directly from its shores, reminded me somewhat of Lake Chelan in the Cascades, where I had taken the ferry to Holden to climb Bonanza and Fernow.

Lunch in Puerto Fuy

I noticed a female cyclist as I bought my ticket, but did not disturb her, instead heading over to an eatery by the lake for lunch. It cost more than I would normally pay — about $5-6 — but the scrambled eggs with ham and cheese and fresh bread were a nice change from my normal diet of polenta and Mantecol. The lake is only at about 2000 feet, so it sees little snow in the winter, but nearby Volcan Choshuenco is home to a significant glacier on its east side, clearly visible from town.

Mika on the ferry

I looked for the cyclist while we lined up to board the ferry, and found that she was traveling with her partner and two children, now aged four and six. They were nearing the end of a three-year journey from Fairbanks to Ushwaya, which they have written about on their excellent website (sorry, only in French and German). They were both carrying full panniers, and Daniel was also pulling a two-wheeled child trailer. His rig was unimaginably heavy, apparently weighing something like 200kg including him and the kids. We talked all the way across the ferry, while the kids ate and bounced around the boat. Marilyne is French, Daniel German, and the kids were barely speaking age when the journey started, so they already spoke at least three languages, and perhaps four, though I did not hear any English from their time passing through the States and Canada. Both were friendly, but while Daniel was somewhat quiet, Marilyne was surprisingly voluble, doing most of the talking on the ride.

They were understandably slow, so I left them on the other side of the ferry, foolishly hoping to make it to asphalt in San Marcos de los Andes by evening. However, the road was classic Argentinian ripio, and the rolling hills slowed me to a crawl. Worse, I was having to stop every couple of miles to detach the trailer and re-tighten my rear quick release. I had had this problem occasionally on rough roads earlier in the trip, but it seems to be getting worse. I am otherwise happy with my trailer, but because of this problem I will probably switch to panniers for any future tours.

I saw a potential camp-spot next to Lago Lacar on the map, and was dismayed to find that it was a popular and clearly-signed day use area with a park ranger. As the sun sank, I slogged up a climb away from the lake, camping in the first open spot next to the road large enough to hold my tent. I continued to San Martin the next day over more rocks and washboard, regularly stopping to fix my quick release. They were grading the road near town, but even the freshly-graded part was not great, and they apparently did not intend to roll it after grading, so it would soon return to its miserable state.

Butte south of San Martin

I hung out at a gas station for awhile, using their internet to catch up with the world and try to plan my summer, then knocked out most of the climb out of town. There appeared to be several organized campgrounds between San Martin and Villa la Angostura, but there was plenty of water and wild camping, so I found a good spot with a fire ring and log to sit on, and had a nice, quiet evening.

Lago Falkner

My head-start made for another short day to Angostura, along one of the best stretches of cycling on my trip. The road between San Martin and Bariloche passes many large lakes, with gently rolling forest between them and low peaks farther off. For once the mountains looked as mountains should, with lakes at their base, then trees, then grass and rocks above treeline. I encountered numerous cyclists along the way, a couple of whom were even pulling Bob trailers, the first I had seen on my trip. I did more internet-ing in Angostura — planning a trip on one continent and organizing a fundraiser on a second, while traveling on a third is hard enough without a pandemic — then paid too much to stay at the neighboring campground. Angostura and Bariloche are quite touristic, with Chileans visiting from over the pass, and prices are accordingly high.

Nahuel Huapi

The final ride to Bariloche was fifty easy miles around the huge Lago Nahuel Huapi, the first 35 or so with a wicked tailwind. I started late and stopped often to take pictures or admire the view, and still made it to Bariloche by mid-afternoon. The last part of the ride, from the intersection with route 237 to town, was made somewhat unpleasant by traffic coming from the city of Neuquen, and the town was far too large and busy for my taste. However, I could see the storm approaching over Cerro Cathedral to the west, and it was forecast to rain the next day, so it would be home for a little while. I found the closest campground to town, and once again paid too much to sleep.