Category Archives: Activities

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Turkey tourism 2: Bryce

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point


After participating in the time-honored American tradition of eating way too much for Thanksgiving, including no fewer than four species of animal, I decided to go for a long trail run in Bryce while the others did a shorter hike. The obvious Bryce run is the Under-the-Rim Trail, a 23-mile route from Rainbow Point at the south end of the park to Bryce Point near the middle. However, with a late Spanish start from Cannonville, the extra driving time to drop me off at the south end would significantly limit the others’ day, so I instead did a 20-mile, 4900-foot meander starting at Fairyland Point and visiting most of the best parts of the park. This was probably more scenic than Under-the-Rim, and while it was crowded in places, I was rarely unable to run, and the trails were wide, smooth, and well-graded. Somewhat to my surprise, Bryce turns out to be a wonderful place for trail-running, making it a fun one-day park.

More good running

More good running

I hiked the initial descent with the others, crossing occasional stretches of hard-packed snow on shaded northern slopes during the descent from Fairyland Point. The park’s southern end is about 1500′ lower than the north, and the snow had all but disappeared by the time we reached the base of the rock formations around 7200′. I took off jogging after about half an hour, stopping to zip the legs off my pants about 10 minutes later, and stripping down to just a t-shirt after the first hour. I think the temperature stayed around 35-45 degrees, so while I was slightly cold in the shade or wind, I was mostly comfortable in summer clothing for the rest of the run.

Queen's Garden trail

Queen’s Garden trail

I cruised the generally downhill rollers to the Tower Bridge turnoff, took a short side-trip to this underwhelming feature, then ground out the climb back to the rim at 8000′ near Sunset Point. While the Fairyland Loop was uncrowded, the descent to the Queen’s Garden was a bit of human chaos. It wasn’t a solid mass, though, so I had fun dodging and weaving, launching around the banked switchbacks and startling a few tourists. The Queen’s Garden trail was built in Zion style, with tunnels blasted through what seemed like an unnecessary number of mudstone fins. This is probably the most scenery-dense part of the park, and I stopped frequently for photos of various Bryce-y things.

Climb to Bryce Point

Climb to Bryce Point

From Queen’s Garden, I continued along the base of the formations on the gradually-climbing east side of the Peekaboo Loop, then began a more sustained ascent to 8300′ Bryce Point. To my surprise, I was still fresh enough to jog the entire climb. I milled around a bit with the tourists while deciding what to do next: it was around noon, and I had agreed to fetch the car from Fairyland Point and meet the others at the Lodge at 2:30. I figured that I could do the 4-mile out-and-back to the Hat Shop, then return via the other side of Peekaboo Loop and Wall Street, thus visiting all of Bryce’s “good stuff” in one fell swoop.

Hat Shop

Hat Shop

Bombing the 1000-foot descent along the start of the Under-the-Rim Trail, I passed two other runners wearing a disturbing amount of fancy logo-encrusted Lycra (“all Euro-tarded out,” as Mike put it). I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Hat Shop, but I was glad I made the detour. It turned out to be a collect of a couple dozen caprock hoodoos, some with impressively large and overhung boulders on top. After stopping to take some pictures and eat a bit more, I steeled myself for the climb back to the rim. I was definitely slowing down by this point, and had to walk some of the steeper parts of the climb.

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

I returned almost to Bryce Point, then physically and mentally recovered as I bombed back down the snowy trail to Peekaboo Loop. The western part of the loop is longer than the eastern part, and contains much more up-and-down. I ran what I could, hiked some of the steeper bits, and distracted myself by gawking at the scenery, including a couple of impressive arches.

Wall Street

Wall Street

I felt sluggish as I returned to the Navajo Loop junction, so I walked some perfectly runnable terrain while eating the last of my food, then continued toward Wall Street at a slightly pathetic jog. I passed Mike and the Armada a few minutes from the junction, stopping to chat briefly before turning on the gas so they wouldn’t have to wait too long before I came back with the car. The climb up Wall Street was the only part of the trail where the crowds actually got in my way, but I was feeling worked by this point, so I didn’t mind the delay.

Window along the rim

Window along the rim

Once on the rim, I managed decent speed on the rolling but generally downhill commute back from Sunset to Fairyland Point. I had expected this section to be a dull forest run, but it stayed close enough to the rim to have consistently nice views of the nearby hoodoos and some more distant red cliffs to the northeast. I reached the Lodge at 2:30 as promised, then spent the rest of the day shuffling around like a tourist near Rainbow Point. At over 9000′, the southern end of the mesa offered expansive views of the Escalante plateau 2000′ below. It was also much snowier than the rest of the park, and I was barely warm enough in the shade with all my clothes.

Southern Utah food options are usually grim, but we found what looked like a decent pizza place in Tropic. It was clearly the only choice around, as there was a steady crowd the whole time we waited to have our order taken, waited for the food, and waited still more for the bill. Southern Utah: come for the scenery, lower your expectations for everything else.

Turkey tourism 1: Zion

Down-canyon from Observation

Down-canyon from Observation


Mike was spending Thanksgiving in southern Utah with a small contingent of the Spanish Armada, and had some extra room in the car. I had already seen most of the planned route, but trips with Mike and the Armada are usually good fun, so I found myself fighting sleep across the Big Res Tuesday night, en route to Page, Arizona. There is probably some scenery along the way, including Shiprock, but other than sunset on some familiar terrain during the first hour, we saw almost nothing other than the huge and well-lit smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station, a glowing symbol of our coal-powered future.

Important information (photo by Lidia)

Important information (photo by Lidia)

As usual, I was awake well before the others, and took a first trip through the hotel’s well-stocked breakfast bar before settling in to read and wait for the others to emerge. After a second, “social” breakfast and a sort-of Spanish lesson, we rolled out late for Zion. The park was filling up in anticipation of the holiday weekend, but the crowds were not yet overwhelming as we parked down the road from the Observation Point trailhead.

Slot below Observation

Slot below Observation

We contemplated the fact that falling off cliffs can result in injury or death, then headed up the switchbacks blasted in the sandstone. Zion was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when man felt the need to assert his dominion over nature, and its roads and trails were constructed using quantities of dynamite and chain that would be unthinkable today.

Exposed, blasted trail

Exposed, blasted trail

The route from the valley to Observation Point was probably somewhere between difficult and impossible in the 1800s, but is now essentially an exposed sidewalk. While it is easy walking, the exposure does get to some people: Linda was unfortunately overcome just below the rim, so only Lidia and I reached the end of the trail. We hung out with a half-dozen others for awhile, taking pictures and fending off the over-friendly chipmunks, then headed back to meet the others near the end of the short November day. We found our hotel in Hurricane, then found semi-decent and only slightly depressing food at some kind of Mormon Chipotle.

Approaching Kinesava

Approaching Kinesava

After considering several plans for Thanksgiving, the Armada dropped Mike and I off at the start of the Chinle “trail” in Springdale, then drove on to do Angel’s Landing while we headed for Mount Kinesava. There is a large dirt parking lot on Anasazi Way just off the main highway, but the useless trail dumps you right back on the road, and is probably longer. We passed some fancy houses, then found the “trail” continuing as a gated road to a water tank where it disappears. Still, Kinesava is hard to miss, so we headed in the right direction and soon found a faint, intermittently-cairned use trail through the sparse desert brush and junipers.

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

The route follows a slide through the lower cliff-band, then heads up more steep dirt and rubble to a fairly obvious left-to-right ramp leading to the plain between Kinesava and the higher West Temple. The ramp is mostly steep dirt, but there is one semi-exposed section, some third class, and a short but apparently unavoidable fourth class corner near the top. None of it slowed us down much, and we soon emerged on the grassy plain northeast of the summit.

West Temple from Kinesava

West Temple from Kinesava

Neither of us remembered the route description for this last part, but a line straight up the middle of the summit blob looked doable and mostly brush-free. The final climb turned out to be a mixture of easy steep desert stuff and enjoyable class 3 slabs, similar to North Guardian Angel. I managed not to get dropped by Mike, and we were soon enjoying the impressive 360-degree summit view. To the north, the West Temple looked both intimidating and tempting. We had neither the time nor the information to try it, but it turns out that there is a devious route to the summit with only one pitch of 5.6-5.7; now I know what to scramble the next time I’m in the area.

NW to Guardian Angels

NW to Guardian Angels

There are apparently some petroglyphs on the summit plateau, but this was a Mike hike, so there would be no sight-seeing. We retraced our route nearly to the Park boundary, then headed cross-country for a road closer to the entrance, crossing about 100 feet of private property near the end and jogging a bit of “private road.” Our road spit us out right next to the southernmost Springdale shuttle stop just as a shuttle pulled away. Rather than wait, we jogged a mile or so up the road before catching the next shuttle at another of the closely-spaced stops. Then I had an hour or so to nap and listen to the foreign tourists before the Armada returned (successful), and we were on to the next.

Oso

Oso above Moon Lake

Oso above Moon Lake


Mount Oso is the highest of a cluster of 13ers between Vallecito Creek and the Los Piños River in the eastern Weminuche wilderness. This remote area is most easily reached with a high-clearance 4WD from the Beartown trailhead. Without such a vehicle, I decided to approach Oso from the south near Vallecito Reservoir, using the new-to-me Los Piños River trail. I knew ahead of time that it would be a long outing, about 15.5 miles from the trailhead to the pass above Half Moon Lake. However, I underestimated both the difficulty of the cross-country portion in fresh snow, and the quality of the scenery along Lake Creek. This maintained but little-used trail climbs through aspens past craggy granite peaks and mile-long Emerald Lake, by far the largest natural lake in the range.

Granite Peaks Ranch

Granite Peaks Ranch

Knowing I had a long day, I got started by headlamp just after 5:30, hiking and jogging along the edge of the Granite Peaks Ranch. The pack trail continues up a narrowing valley north of the ranch, somewhat reminiscent the Vallecito Creek, though it seems less-traveled. With the previous day’s precipitation, the trail was somewhat boggy, and some normally-easy stream crossings were made more difficult by the ice that had accumulated overnight on the rocks.

North across Emerald Lake

North across Emerald Lake

The trail eventually crosses Lake Creek on a sturdy-looking bridge, then splits, with my branch climbing a narrow side-valley that broadens and flattens as it turns north. After a long, cold climb, I reached the east shore of Emerald Lake as the sun slowly made its way down the opposite slope. The lake sits in the flat bottom of an old glacial valley, dammed by either an old terminal moraine or a large rockslide. The previous day’s mixture of snow and rain had hardened overnight into a slick white crust, so it was slow going around the lake in my lousy flat-soled shoes (the better ones have all been destroyed).

Moon Lake

Moon Lake

Above the lake, the trail shows less use from fisher-folk, but is still maintained as it tunnels through the head-high willows. I found a ford where it crosses Lake Creek, and a log hidden in the brush 100 yards upstream, with a vicious willow-whack required to get back on-track. With the snow melting in the sun, the trail became a sort of “anti-trail,” a muddy, icy stream worse than its banks. I continued along this path as the broad valley narrowed, then climbed steeply to roughly crescent-shaped Moon Lake, where the trail remained completely covered in about an inch of snow.

Peters Peak

Peters Peak

From there, the trail became even fainter as it climbed up to the pass above Half Moon Lake, a dot bearing no particular resemblance to a half moon. Looking east and north, I got my first views of Rio Grande Pyramid and the flat highlands between Silverton and Rio Grande Reservoir. I finally left the trail, climbing slightly toward Oso and hoping that a route would appear up the steep-looking headwall on the ridge ahead.

Lake Mary Alice

Lake Mary Alice

Things turned ugly near the intervening bump on the ridge, with maddeningly-slow loose talus covered in fresh snow. From the notch at the base of Oso’s northeast ridge, I got a look at Lake Mary Alice, sitting like Lake Silex at the bottom of a hostile-looking talus-bowl. The third class climbing along the ridge featured a couple surprisingly steep gashes, and was made much trickier by the fresh snow. In particular, one sloping slab that I would have walked across without thinking became a thought-provoking hand traverse.

Oso from the east

Oso from the east

Just below where the ridge joins the broad south face, it becomes a near-vertical face split by two right-to-left ascending ramps. Partway up the first ramp I could have cut back right to the second. I chose instead to continue on the first, and was rewarded by finding a cairn where it turns the corner onto the southeast face. From there, a mixture of grassy ramps and class 2-3 scrambling led to the south face, where faint goat trails led toward the summit.

RGP from Oso

RGP from Oso

After a cold morning, I was pleased to find the summit sunny and calm enough not to need my windbreaker. To the west, the Needles and Grenadiers rise nearby across Vallecito Creek. Rio Grande Pyramid dominates the view to the east, while Vallecito Reservoir and the plains of northwest New Mexico are visible to the south.

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Rather than retracing my route, I descended the ridge to a red gash, then dropped southeast directly to Moon Lake, avoiding both most trickiness on the ridge and the miserable talus. My shoes sucked as expected on the steep, snow-covered grass, but I reached the trail without any mishaps. Most of the crusty snow had softened or melted, replaced by more mud and water, so it was again slow going until below Emerald Lake.

Porcupine

Porcupine

Finally on reasonably-dry trail, I had some ibuprofen and started the jog home. My legs were somehow still a bit stiff from my race a few days before, so I was more inwardly-focused than usual as I turned toward the bridge at the trail junction. I was startled back into reality by some couple’s dog acting half-heartedly aggressive. Freshly attuned to my surroundings, I noticed a porcupine a short distance down the trail, and darkly hoped that the unleashed dog would find it as well.

American marten

American marten

Since this river trail sees much less horse traffic than the Vallecito, it is actually a pleasant, slightly-downhill run, and I was making decent time toward the trailhead as I passed a man and his dog decked out in hunter orange. A few minutes later, I saw something scamper squirrel-like up a tree near the trail. It turned out to be an American marten, a cute little creature I had only seen once before in the Tetons. I stopped for a few minutes to take pictures as the creature looked down from a branch just out of reach, and the man with the dog caught up again. I was feeling more tired than expected, and was in no particular hurry to reach my car, so we walked together and talked for the remaining miles to the trailhead. I had planned another long-ish day in the area, but was feeling less than enthusiastic, so I found a nearby place to camp; I would decide what to do in the morning.

Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


These peaks on the eastern end of the Grenadiers are some of the hardest to reach in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. With a high-clearance vehicle, the Beartown trailhead is the closest starting point; without one, Molas Pass is the least-bad option, despite the 1,600′ climb back out of the Animas on the return. Being both remote and overshadowed by their neighbors, they see relatively little traffic, and are wilder than most high Colorado peaks. I was pleased to dayhike them on what may, due to approaching winter, be my last San Juan outing this season. Here is a rough map.

Unsure how long my outing would take, I set off from the Molas Pass trailhead at 5:15, committing to a bit less than 1h30 of morning headlamp time. I had been using my tiny running pack for my longer recent outings, but I chose to bring my larger dayhiking pack to accommodate a more whimsical diet: a box of pop-tarts, a box of granola bars, and a bag of Chex mix (on sale for 960 cal/$!). While the route would involve some running, much of the time would be spent on slower cross-country travel, so the pack would not be too annoying.

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

I ran the rough trail down Molas Creek as best I could by headlamp, crossed the foot bridge, then followed the trail through the swamp along the railroad tracks. I saw some glowing eyes off in the bog, turned to get a better look, and was surprised to see not elk but… three swamp donkeys! While the Weminuche is home to some northern beasts like the over-friendly mountain goats of Chicago Basin, I had either forgotten or not known that there are also a few moose. I am used to seeing them in the Tetons and parts north, and knew there were some north of I-70, but this is the farthest south I have yet seen them.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

After that bit of excitement, I put in a bit more headlamp up the Elk Creek trail, then finally got to stow it as I regained the morning’s elevation loss. Leaving the trail at the beaver ponds near 10,000′, I passed one party apparently camped on their way out of Vestal Basin, then crossed the creek on a handful of small logs and started up the steep but well-used climbers’ trail. Where the valley flattens and turns east, the trail obnoxiously dives into the bog. My shoes had almost dried after the previous day’s Vallecito soaking, so I picked my way along fainter trails on the north side of the valley.

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

Following a sort of game trail through the woods, I was embarrassed to stumble right through another party’s camp. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, but the man outside his tent said “hi” and seemed friendly, so I stopped to talk for a minute. He and his partner had been in the valley for a few days, tagging the peaks at a leisurely pace, and were waiting for things to warm up a bit before heading for Arrow. I told him I was headed for the more obscure Storm King, and he offered some beta on the best route through the Vestal-Trinity pass. They had remarkably bad timing: Arrow’s standard route and Vestal’s excellent Wham Ridge are both more-or-less north-facing, and the previous week’s snow was hardly melting on high north faces. They also turned out to be in for a healthy dose of cold rain on their hike out the next day.

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

I found a dry stream crossing near the constriction between two boggy sections, then made my way around snow-patches as I headed up to the plain between Vestal and West Trinity. There are a number of possible crossings of this broad, flat saddle; I chose one near the middle that had some obvious boot- and hoof-prints in the snow, and which also happened to be out of Trinity’s shadow. The still-firm snow made what would have been a loose scree-slog significantly easier, and I soon found myself looking across Tenmile Creek at Peaks Four and Five and, farther away, Pigeon and the Needles 14ers.

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

My recent beta suggested staying high on the traverse from the col at 12,600′ toward the small lakes around 12,200′, avoiding the drop to Balsam Lake at 11,450′. At first I found easy travel on a series of descending grassy benches, with bits of use trail and the occasional cairn. As the grass dropped toward the valley bottom, I lost the cairns and found myself on ugly, loose talus. I went back high, finding bits of easier travel near the cliffs at the Trinities’ base, but it was not a route I would want to take with an overnight pack. Looking back from near Peak Nine, it seems that the best route continues on grass, descending to around 12,000′ west of the small lakes.

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

As I made my way up the gentle slope to the Storm King-Nine saddle, I eyed Storm King’s southwest face apprehensively. I didn’t know anything about the route other than that it was on the face, and that it was supposedly easy to lose on the way down. As I neared the saddle, the correct path along the south ridge became more obvious, even before I saw the faint use trail and cairns. This may be an obscure peak, but it is also Colorado.

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

Two things became clear from the saddle: First, Peak Nine would be either a quick jaunt or a scary climb on snow-covered rock. Second, there was no way I would be getting to Silex via Silex Lake. Even without the coating of fresh snow, Silex Lake is one of the least hospitable-looking places in the Weminuche, a cold pool in Silex’s shadow surrounded by loose, lifeless talus and scree. If I were going to do more than tag Storm King, I would have to find another way.

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

I made easy work of Storm King’s standard route, which is mostly pleasant class 2-3 with a bit of loose scree in the final chute leading to the summit ridge. I suppose some people may take the chute too far on the descent, but it is not hard to remember where to traverse out toward the south ridge. Along the ridge, I passed a chute that would provide a quick descent to Lake Silex, if I had any desire to go there.

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

It was time to decide what to do next. It had taken me around six hours to reach the summit, so returning the way I had come would make for a short day. The ridge from Peak Nine to Silex looked like it had a decent chance of going, and if not, I could always drop south to Leviathan Creek and make my way back between Peaks Seven and Eight. I decided to try Peak Nine and, if I reached its summit, use the ridge as the least-bad way to Silex and the Guardian. I would figure out how to get home from there if I made it that far.

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Returning to the saddle, I made my way up talus and snow to the notch west of Nine’s summit, then descended a few yard down the south side before taking a class 4-5 chimney/corner out of the chute. Once on the south face, I made an ascending traverse east on solid class 3-4 rock covered in miscellaneous loose stuff. The easiest route apparently stays below the west ridge until east of the hard-to-see summit. I strayed onto the ridge too early, traversed back down, then found a reasonable climb up past some rap junk just west of the top. Luckily, the route never strayed onto the sketchy, snowy north face.

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

There was a bit more class 4 east of the summit, hinting at a grim, slow traverse to Silex, but fortunately the difficulty soon eased off to quick class 2-3. The traverse to Point 13,176′ was mostly fun, with the best route staying on or near the crest. I was feeling energetic, so I tagged the intermediate summit, had a bit of tricky route-finding down to the saddle with Silex, then headed straight up the spine of its southwest ridge rather than traversing the easier but looser south slope. Though it looked potentially loose the rock on the ridge was fairly solid, and offered some fun class 3-4 scrambling on incut holds, then easier class 2 to the summit.

Eyeing the Guardian from Silex, the route along the south face was clear, my route home less so. Like Storm King, both Silex and the Guardian have sheer north faces with no obvious path. The Guardian’s south face looked easy, but it would drop me to Leviathan Creek near Vallecito, way down near 10,000′ and a long ways from home. Hopefully a better way would present itself.

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

I started off on the ridge crest southeast, then dropped onto the south side to get around some sheer steps. From the first saddle, I saw what might be a route east into upper Vallecito near Stormy Gulch. I also saw a nice ledge to the south, where I soon picked up a line of cairns traversing around just below the second saddle, then up to the Guardian’s indistinct south ridge. While the ledges and ramps were easy, they did slope outward slightly, and were covered in debris eager to crash down to the valley below. I passed a couple of small high-altitude evergreens, then turned up some easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

I had just spent almost 9 hours heading away from home; now I had to figure out how to get back. Looking west, even Vestal looked far away, and Molas Pass was farther still. While it looked like I could descend to the south or east, the possible route from the saddle still looked promising, and might be a bit shorter than heading east to the Vallecito Trail and around. I retraced my steps, then headed northeast down talus and turf.

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

The route quickly became cliffy to the east, but I found a reasonable path by heading north to the head of the valley, then looping back southeast near the stream at its bottom. I had been out of water since before Silex, sucking on small mouthfuls of slush and reluctant to eat dry and salty food, so I took the first opportunity to drink and eat Chex mix. I scared off a few elk, then followed their trail downstream.

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

I knew that the Vallecito trail eventually connected to the Elk Creek trail, but suspected that I could save distance and time by going up Stormy Gulch, then either west into Vestal Basin or north to upper Elk Creek. I tried to stay high around Silex’s northeast ridge, finding either an uncairned use trail or a well-maintained game trail leading into the valley a bit downstream of Lake Silex’s outlet stream. I filled my water at Trinity Creek, debated crossing, then decided to continue along the apparent game trail on the south side.

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

I had a bit of luck here: though it does not appear on any map, and I did not find any blazes, there is a faint old trail south of the stream leading all the way to Trinity Lake. I even found a couple cairns and a fire ring. This discovery spared me what would have been quite a bit of obnoxious willow-bashing. The east side of the Vestal Basin col looked obnoxious, so I took a detour north to see if I could see my way to the Colorado Trail from the broad saddle. Seeing nothing but ugly talus in the valley to the north, I opted for the safe-but-obnoxious Vestal Basin return.

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

I took some sort of wrong line down Vestal Basin — it is best to stay high on the north side until past the first steep drop — but had no serious trouble returning to familiar ground. Passing the camp I had bumbled through in the morning, I saw no one at the tents, and decided to pass a polite distance below. However, I heard a shout, and saw the two I had met in the morning sitting on a nearby outcrop. I talked to them a bit, learning that they had successfully summited Arrow, and trying to provide some useful information from my unusual wanderings.

Then they settled in for a leisurely evening, and I took off for the evening slog. I made it about 10 minutes past the train tracks before turning my headlamp on, then jogged the flatter switchbacks out of boredom on the climb. I almost reached the car in under 15 hours, but lost a few minutes to a wrong turn in the maddening trail maze that is Molas Pass. I found my car, put my reeking, destroyed shoes on the hood, then promptly went to sleep.

Jupiter (10h50)

Jupiter from Hazel Lake

Jupiter from Hazel Lake


Jupiter Mountain lies just south of Windom Peak, the southernmost 14er in the Needles Range. Like the Needles 14ers, most people probably reach Jupiter via the train and the Needle Creek trail, but I am cheap, and I had already done the train-skipping run from Purgatory once this year. I therefore decided to come at Jupiter from the southeast, taking the Vallecito Creek trail to Johnson Creek. I had previously used the Vallecito approach to get to Jagged in 2012, and this time would be both shorter and technically easier. However, despite its taking less than 12 hours, this turned out to be “type II fun” for one reason: the log-jam I had used in 2012 to cross Vallecito Creek at the former bridge had washed away, forcing me to ford the thigh-deep water both ways.

Don't put a bridge here

Don’t put a bridge here

After a snafu the day before, I again started up the Vallecito trail by headlamp, this time slightly slower. For some reason this trail is a heavily-used horse-highway, and I passed the time dodging manure, horse-churned mud, and the occasional spatter of blood (hunting season?) on the jog upstream. I did not want to reach the ford too early, but it was still an hour before the sun would hit me when I arrived at the former bridge site. The trail-builders had foolishly sited the bridge in the middle of a huge avalanche path dropping hundreds of feet to the creek from the slope to the (wind-loaded) west. Predictably, the bridge had been repeatedly destroyed, and equally predictably, the Forest Service had simply given up rather than relocating the trail.

Fording this sucks

Fording this sucks

I found a suitable stick among avalanche debris, then sat down on a convenient log to take off my shoes and socks and roll up my pant legs. While it is much easier to ford a stream in shoes, I wanted to stay as dry as possible in the freezing morning. Finally, with my shoes tied around my neck, I grabbed my stick and waded in. Even this late in what is apparently a dry year, the water was about as much as I would have wanted to deal with: thigh-deep and reasonably fast. When I finally emerged cursing on the other bank, my legs tingled and my rolled-up pants were soaked. Moving slowly with stiff hands, I took off my pants to wring them out, put my clothes back on, and jogged unhappily up the trail until I was reasonably warm. I have forded deeper (Moran Creek for Bivouac) and faster (Bridge Creek for Goode) water, but the cold morning made this crossing my most miserable so far.

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

With the river now unavoidably between me and my car, I continued up the Vallecito trail, then left it on the better-located bridge to the Johnson Creek trail. This much less well-used trail climbs 3500′ from the Vallecito to Columbine Pass, before descending into the popular Chicago Basin. Surprisingly for such an old trail, it is plagued by endless maddeningly-horizontal switchbacks. Perhaps the miners who built it felt uncharacteristic sympathy for their mules, though its “ruling grade” is steep enough to make the flat switchbacks apparently pointless. Being a pack trail, it also features a couple of un-bridged stream crossings where it is difficult to avoid fording.

Organ and Amherst

Organ and Amherst

I passed one large party camped below treeline, drying out their stuff mid-morning before apparently packing out, but otherwise had the place to myself. Johnson Creek is a beautiful approach. Jagged Amherst and Organ mountains bound the creek to the south, and aspens cover the lower slopes. The creek flows through a narrow slot in places, far below the trail, dropping away in steep cascades.

Columbine Lake

Columbine Lake

Knowing little about the terrain, I followed the trail up past Columbine Lake to near the pass, then took off toward the standard class 2 route on Jagged’s southwest face. There was enough snow hanging around on north-facing slopes to force me onto some annoying terrain east of the ridge, but none of it was harder than class 3, and the turf and boulders to the false summit were mostly snow-free. The final traverse to the true summit traverses the north side of the ridge, and the ankle-deep snow was mostly wind-packed and frozen.

Windom and Lake 13,100

Windom and Lake 13,100

My ambitious goal for the day was to traverse southeast to Grizzly and McCauley, two 13ers on the way home, but the ridge to Grizzly looked tricky, with the usual Needles garbage-rock made spicier by the north-side snow. Knowing that I only had one more day of good weather, I decided to save my energy for the morrow. I admired Windom and an impressive lake perched at 13,100′ to its east, then headed home.

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

I retraced my steps near the south ridge, then dropped down a gully to Hazel Lake. Not only was this slightly more direct, but cross-country travel would be faster than horizontal switchbacks. While there was some obnoxious talus and brush lower down, most of the route was pleasant grass and slabs reminiscent of the high Sierra. I rejoined the trail near where it enters the woods, then switched into shorts for running comfort at the second stream crossing (easy ford required). Though I was worried about the water being deeper in the afternoon, it seemed to be about the same. I crossed in shoes and socks this time, and it went much faster, with the drying-off process fairly painless in the warm afternoon. The whole outing took just under 11 hours, giving me enough time to buy more junk food and drive around to Molas Pass to prepare for something a bit more serious.

Miscellaneous Sangre de Cristo photos

I don’t normally do photo-only posts, but here are some highlights from a couple of uninteresting days with interesting scenery.

Ruby (Ranked) Roundup (~30mi, ~12k gain, 16h15)

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas


Pigeon and Turret are the most visible peaks from Highway 550 of the Needles subrange of the San Juans. They were also the two most interesting peaks remaining to me on the list of Colorado’s highest 100. Doing them as a dayhike involves a long approach via Purgatory Creek and the Animas River, which I had done before to access the Chicago Basin 14ers. While Pigeon and Turret by themselves would be a “big” day by normal standards, I thought of my recent too-easy day on Rio Grande Pyramid, and of the Evolution traverse, and decided to aim higher. Looking at the topo, it seemed possible to start at Pigeon, traverse east to North Eolus (an unranked 14er, i.e. one with less than 300 feet of prominence), then continue west around the north end of Ruby Creek to either Animas or Peak Fourteen. Unfortunately the map is not the terrain, and I did nothing like this traverse. Still, in a bit over 16 hours I managed to tag Pigeon, Turret, Fifteen, Sixteen, Monitor, Thirteen, and Animas. I skipped the ranked Peak Twelve because it was not labeled on my USGS map (oops!), North Eolus because I needed water, and Little Finger and Index because they are both unranked and hard by their easiest routes.

I woke up at my quiet Pole Creek campsite at 3:00, drove over to the residential Purgatory trailhead, and was on my way by headlamp at 3:30 AM. The nighttime commute down from Purgatory and up the Animas was quiet and nostalgic; I should have put DJ Dan back in my musical rotation for the experience. I reached the Needle Creek sign in just over two hours, then continued north into new terrain, past the three shacks and dozen or so “Private Property” signs that make up Needleton, looking for the unofficial Ruby Creek trail.

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

I passed a tent in the first meadow, then the trail disappeared in the second. I knew I wanted to go northwest, so I searched around the north and west sides of the meadow for the trail’s continuation. It turns out that the trail exits the southwest corner, but I didn’t find it, so I continued in the direction I wanted through open woods, following a sporadic line of reflective thumbtacks stuck in trees. Maybe this was the “trail?” I eventually lost whatever I was following, and simply made my diagonally, then straight uphill on the south side of North Pigeon Creek on faint game trails. After a bit of 4th class ugliness and brush, I stumbled upon the obvious trail a few minutes below where it crosses the creek.

Sunrise on West Needles

Sunrise on West Needles

The most direct approach to Pigeon leaves the Ruby Creek trail to follow the north side of North Pigeon Creek, climbing about 2,000′ to the flat meadow due west of the peak. Guessing that the crest of the next ridge north of the creek would have the easiest terrain, I found a faint trail and the occasional cairn leading uphill. The cairns were frequent enough to be reassuring, but not enough to follow; as with many wooded ridge routes, this one would be harder to find on the way down. Climbing through the woods, I though of the Cascadian nature of the day so far: a long commute along a valley trail, then 5,500′ of elevation gain in 2 linear miles on a climbers’ trail.

Pigeon from the west

Pigeon from the west

Finally emerging into the meadow, I was surprised to see a man in a yellow jacket making his way along Pigeon’s base. I assumed our paths would converge on the northwest face, but I lost track of him shortly after spotting another figure on the grassy class 2 slope above me. He was moving quickly, and I only caught him just below the north ridge and the final class 3-4 scramble. He turned out to be an Asian man from back east, camping out for a week and hoping to clean out the Needles’ 13ers and 14ers. He had chosen the state’s best mountains, and the best time of year to visit them, but unfortunately the weather was uncooperative, with intermittent showers forecast for the rest of the week. I was glad to be dayhiking.

Pigeon from SE

Pigeon from SE

We spoke for a few minutes on Pigeon’s summit, then I tried to downclimb a gully directly to the Pigeon-Turret saddle. After some easier going, things turned steeper and chossy, on some uniquely horrible Needles rock: sharp, marble-sized gravel barely held together by I-don’t-know-what, whose surface disintegrates at a touch. I downclimbed past a couple nests of rap-tat then, chastened, returned to the standard route. Passing the Asian man again, I side-stepped and boot-skied down around Pigeon’s west face, then circled around to reach the saddle on easy grassy slopes from the southwest. Looking back, I saw that it was probably possible to climb Pigeon directly from the southeast by a convoluted class 4-5 path (the first ascent was from this side). Indeed, the traverse between Pigeon and North Eolus would be easier from east to west, going up rather than down the most convoluted choss.

Turret from Fifteen

Turret from Fifteen

I continued up the easy class 2 route to Turret, then spent a minute eyeing the descent to the saddle with Peak Fifteen. It looked like it would go on the south side, so off I went. This proved to be the day’s crux: though the climbing was mostly class 2-3, and never harder than ~5.4, most of it was on outward-sloping gravel and rock that wanted to become gravel, demanding constant paranoia. I passed a bit more rap-tat and a fixed nut near the crux, eventually reaching the saddle.

Fifteen from Sixteen

Fifteen from Sixteen

Looking down the gullies to either side, I saw that the north was near-vertical, the south steep and loose. The only way out was up and over. Fortunately, the rock quality suddenly and dramatically improved, and I had little trouble reaching Peak Fifteen’s summit. I signed the register (hi, Andrew!), then descended the standard route toward the Fifteen-Sixteen saddle. The rock quality again turned awful, but this was less steep than the descent off Turret. I passed a couple nests of rap tat near the ridge, then reached a similar saddle: vertical north, chossy south, better rock to the east.

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Just as I began the short climb to Peak Sixteen, I heard a shout behind me, and saw a man (probably the one in yellow I saw earlier) climbing up the south gully toward Fifteen’s standard route. After a short, shouted conversation and some unhelpful advice on my part, I scrambled up Sixteen on some fun, reasonably solid class 4. I looked over toward the saddle with North Eolus, but things looked complicated and likely to turn bad, so I decided to retrace my steps and contour around below Sixteen’s south ridge.

Little Finger and Eolus

Little Finger and Eolus

The man on Fifteen had found a route well left of the one I used which seemed to go, though he managed to break off a pretty impressive rockfall into the gully I was about to use. The gully itself was less chossy than I had feared, and I had relatively little trouble traversing to the North Eolus saddle. I eyed Little Finger in passing — it is indeed short, and looked doable — but I still had quite a bit of work to do on the other side of the valley.

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

At this point I abandoned the traverse, dropping down to Ruby Creek for water instead of continuing over North Eolus and Twelve. The first part of the descent was a quick scree-ski along a goat-track. Lower down, I exited right for fear of cliffs and/or ice in the chute. This was probably a mistake, as the gully looked manageable in late season from below, and I had to deal with a bit of sketchy awkwardness to reach the valley floor.

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Since I was no longer traversing, I took more or less the standard route up Monitor’s west face. The view across Noname Creek to Jagged and its long connecting ridge with Sunlight was impressive, as was the view of the strangely-disconnected Arrow and Vestal to the north. The Jagged area again reminded of the Sierra, with the large Lake 12,552′, light-colored rock, and a mixture of turf and slabs.

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

The ridge down to the saddle with Peak Thirteen was another sketchy choss-fest, but I was used to that by now, and my sixth sense for choss solidity was working well. The rock fortunately improved on the class 3-4 climb up Thirteen’s east side, and the descent toward Animas was straightforward. I found a few cairns on the way up Animas, and the Summitpost printout in the register canister confirmed my plan of descent.

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

I returned to the first saddle east of Animas, then scree-skied quickly down most of the thousand feet to the grass below. Thinking I was basically home, I unfortunately strayed a bit too far right, and had to deal with another 50-foot rotten downclimb to reach easy ground. I made my way down mostly easy grass and slabs, with only about 50 years of vicious bush-whacking to reach the “trail” below.

View from Ruby Lake

View from Ruby Lake

While easy enough to follow, I found the Ruby Creek trail both long and surprisingly brushy higher up. However, I was still feeling fresh, and the striking views ahead to the West Needles, and behind to the craggy south side of Ruby Creek, kept my mind occupied. I eventually reached the two meadows near the Animas, and saw that the guy I met on Peak Fifteen had not yet returned to his camp. Hopefully he did not have too long a day.

Lliving llamas

Lliving llamas

I removed my pant legs, then fortified myself with Pop-tarts and Ibuprofen for the long run home. I passed some campers and a herd of grazing (i.e. not dead) llamas near Needleton, then started jogging. I felt freakishly fresh on the net-downhill trail, covering the seven miles to Purgatory Creek in about an hour. I had expected to do this section at night, and was pleased both to have easier daytime running, and to see the sunset on Pigeon and Turret behind me. It took another hour to climb from the Animas to the trailhead, with only the last 5-10 minutes by headlamp. I hadn’t found the elegant traverse I had hoped, but it had still been a satisfying day.

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


The Evolution Traverse, pioneered by Peter Croft in the 1990s, connects a long ridge of peaks from “Mount Steven Jay Gould” to Mount Huxley in the Evolution region of the Sierra. Thanks to mostly good rock and to Croft’s imprimatur, it sees a fair amount of attention from Real Climbers. “Evo” has been at the outer limit of my ambitions for the past couple of years, as its 5.9 rating is out of my league. However, this is a “Sierra traverse rating,” not a true YDS rating: as with the similarly “VI 5.9” Kaweah traverse, it can be made easier with a bit of creative route-finding.

After I broke my hand on Fury, I thought I was done with technical outings for the season. But after a successful outing on Williamson’s NE ridge and a scouting trip to Darwin, I decided to give it a try. Since I would rather use this part of the summer elsewhere next year, it was now or never, and I was fairly confident Evo was within my abilities. The short September days would be inconvenient, but if I could manage the 20-21 hours I hoped, there would be enough daylight for the ridge, and I can deal with the long approach and return at night.

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

I woke to my alarm at 2:00, ate the usual Cup of Sadness, supplemented it by choking down some beet nitrates, then walked the road up to the trailhead as a sort of warmup. I didn’t remember how long the approach to Darwin Bench would take me, but I wanted to have as much daylight as possible for the technical part of the day. Moving by headlamp at the start of an anticipated 20-hour day, there is little running to be done on the Lamarck Lakes approach, as the trail is often steep and/or rough, but I at least jogged a few short flatter stretches for appearances. I had an unpleasant experience getting lost on the way to Lamarck Col a number of years ago, but had no trouble this time, even on a moonless night.

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

The other side of the col is still the same mess of cairns and boot-prints higher up. There is a fairly decent and efficient trail lower down, but with no chance of finding it at night, I just brute-forced my way to the bottom, where I picked up the on-and-off Darwin Bench trail. I walked through some people’s camp at night, reached the end of Lake 11,623′ (rather than the normal 11,592′), then headed up some part of Gould that I thought I could make work. Gould is a mess of gullies and fins from this side, and I had not planned to start up at night, but I had crossed Lamarck faster than expected, and did not want to waste time waiting for light.

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

I turned off the headlamp after a half-hour of blind class 2-3 scrambling, and continued up my gully as it steepened. It was probably a snow/ice climb 10 years ago, but such things are increasingly rare in the Sierra, and I found only dirt and dirty rock. As it got steep, I moved right onto a rib via some class 4-5 terrain, then made my wander-y way to Gould’s summit. I glanced at the register (no pencil), then headed off toward Mendel.

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Having done the traverse through Darwin in 2012, I remembered a bit of route-finding trickiness on this part, and a short headwall with a fun hand-crack. I found the latter, and had no trouble with the route-finding. Still, this is a long connecting ridge, and it took over an hour to reach Mendel.

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

Though Darwin looks close from Mendel, I remembered that this next part was time-consuming and difficult, and that I had rappeled one section in 2012. Despite this difficulty, the first part is a virtual golden sidewalk along the top of the ridge. After this easy early progress, it is a rude shock when the ridge suddenly turns serrated broken, and loses precious elevation. After downclimbing past one or two useless-seeming rap anchors above short drops, I moved to the left side of the ridge, hoping to traverse across some of the more difficult towers on the crest. While I might have spared myself some harder climbing, I certainly did not save time, as I had to backtrack a few times while climbing up and down to connect ledges on the steep, sometimes crappy face. I eventually took a dirty gully back up to the crest, and was much happier.

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

After a final, unexpected and spitefully steep downclimb into the final notch before Darwin, class 3-4 terrain lead to the summit plateau. I dropped off toward the detached summit block and then, feeling my oats, did the direct Peter Croft-style mantle up the front side. Though a friend of mine was supposed to traverse through, I was surprised to find that my scouting mission the week before was the last entry in the summit log. I signed again, then had a snack while I psyched myself up for the second scary section, from here to 13,332′.

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

I went down the back of the summit pinnacle, then continued to the first nest of rap tat. The crappy downclimb seemed less scary than a week before, and I went straight across the golden face rather than taking whatever ugly line below it I had chosen then. Even though I had done it in the other direction just a week before, from there to 13,332′ was a mess of haphazard route-finding with a bit of backtracking — this part is confusing! I stayed mostly on the crest, bypassing a few things to the left or right.

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

I got around the crux 5.9 crack downclimb that many people mention on the other (west) side this time, via a convoluted line that involved climbing up a chimney with an unreliable-looking semi-detached 30-foot pillar in front of it. (I banged and kicked it a few times beforehand, and it stayed put.) I may be pretty bad at climbing, but I’m pretty good at alpine hijinks. I downclimbed the fifth class big-talus south of the crack, then stupidly wasted a bit more time before getting on the obvious line to 13,332′.

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

I was stoked: although I had a long ways to go, it was less than 10 hours into the day, and I was done with the scary part of the traverse. I dropped off the summit and began the long, downhill boulder-hop to Haeckel Col. It would cost very little time to drop past Lake 12,345′ instead of traversing the tricky little pyramid north of Haeckel, but I was doing fine for water on a cool-ish September day, so I stayed high.

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a helicopter just before the col, and paused my music to pay more attention. It approached the col, then made several circles around the Haeckel-Huxley cirque. I made random “I’m okay” gestures when it was near me, but had no idea how I could or should communicate. Taking several trips back to base to refuel, it eventually set up a base camp near Lake 12,021′ and extracted someone from Haeckel’s west face. I saw nothing as I climbed past this section of the ridge, but learned later that it was recovering the body of a woman who had just been doing exactly what I was doing.

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

After getting past the pyramid, I found Haeckel’s northwest arête to be a fun class 3-4 romp on mostly good rock, and after mostly slow technical climbing and the descent to the col, I had the energy to move quickly. I found the register container stuck shut, and continued quickly along decent rock on the top of the ridge. Wallace is a garbage-mound, and Haeckel-Wallace Col marks the start of the traverse’s chossy section, which continues to somewhere past the aptly-named “Crumbling Spire.” I signed in on Wallace, relieved to see my friend’s entry from a few days ago, then chossed on.

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

I had done Huxley-Warlow-Fiske in 2009 or 2010, and remembered that doing it in that direction felt like “petting a cat the wrong way” — walk up boulders, then downclimb steep stuff. However, I had not remembered any particularly tricky climbing, and was surprised to find quite a few 5th class sections on what I thought was the home stretch. I was getting tired, and the long traverse to Fiske seemed endless, with each technical difficulty feeling like an affront. Only when I reached the headwall on Huxley, steep enough to be thought-provoking but not scary, did I enjoy the challenge rather than resent the slower progress.

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

While I was happy with my time as I signed in on Huxley, I was feeling worn down, and apprehensive as I looked at the long route I must take back around Gould, up near the other side of Darwin, and over Lamarck Col, in the lengthening shadows of afternoon. I dropped down the wrong (second) gully about halfway before crossing over into the northern one to pick up a faint bootpack. It didn’t matter: after so many hours on class 4-5 terrain, I barely noticed a few 4th class steps.

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

I finished my water at the base of the chute — perfect timing! — then refilled a safe distance from the Jolly Manure Trench, crammed down some pop-tarts, then took off at a jog down the trail, finding enough energy to make good time on the gradual descent. I passed the usual assortment of campers settling in for the night, then turned off on the Darwin Bench trail as the JMT dropped through the woods toward Colby Meadow.

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

I had expected to do this section at night, but was thankful to be ahead of schedule making my way up Darwin Bench. While the trail is clear in some places, it fades in and out of existence crossing slabs and boulder-fields; it would be hard to get lost in the early moonlit night, but it would also be easy to lose a lot of time. Knowing that daylight would save me time on Lamarck Col as well, I forced myself to jog some of the flatter sections, and reached the sign at the col around sunset. Realizing that I could go under 18 hours, I ran the sandy upper col in the twilight, passing a couple camping near a random snowbank, then finally turned on my headlamp on the switchbacks just above the creek crossing. I at least managed not to face-plant as I negotiated the rocky trail past Lamarck Lake to Piute Creek, then ran past a few campers to the sign to stop the clock. I whistled happily as I wound down on the walk back to the car. It had been a good day.

Splits

  • Piute TH (2:49 AM)
  • Lamarck Col (4:44)
  • Gould (6:36)
  • Mendel (7:46)
  • Darwin (9:18)
  • 13,332′ (11:31)
  • Haeckel (12:29 PM)
  • Wallace (12:59)
  • Crumbling Spire (1:19)
  • Fiske (2:14)
  • Warlow (3:12)
  • Huxley (4:04)
  • Lamarck Col (7:09)
  • Piute TH (8:31)

Gear notes

I used some trail runners I am familiar with and trust on rock for the whole thing. I took 1L of water over Lamarck Col, filled up with ~2.5L before leaving Darwin Bench, then got another ~1.5L after Huxley. I had ~4000 calories of food: 5 packs of pop-tarts (2000 cal), 6 caffeinated Clif bars (1500 cal), and 3 “sweet ‘n’ salty” granola bars (540 cal). I also consumed a half-dozen salt pills and 600mg of ibuprofen. Other than that, I had standard Sierra hiking gear.

Comparing traverses

Having now done the Evolution and Kaweah Traverses, both rated “VI 5.9,” with similar levels of fitness and climbing competence, it’s worth comparing them. Evolution has a longer traverse section, a slightly harder crux (5.6 vs. 5.4-5.5), and trickier route-finding keeping the difficulty within the realm of things I can solo. However, Kaweah’s climbing is more sustained: once past Second Kaweah, there are no long choss or boulder-hopping sections. Kaweah’s rock quality is also somewhat worse, demanding some caution, though it is better in the steeper parts than one would expect given the Kaweahs’ reputation. Kaweah’s approach (Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes) is also much harder than Evolution’s (trail or pseudo-trail over Lamarck Col).

Northeast ridge of Williamson (~13h45)

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle


While California’s highest peak, Mount Whitney, hides well back from the Owens Valley, its second highest, Mount Williamson, stands strikingly close to the eastern edge of the range. Its long, twisting northeast ridge, rising 8000 feet from the sloping valley bottom, is one of the more striking features seen while driving along highway 395. This long, waterless ridge, rated between class 4 and 5.6 depending upon whom you believe, is something of a classic “type II fun” Sierra climb.

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

After three solid days, the last a dayhike to Bolton Brown out of Red Lake (ugh), I took a day off, then drove down to Independence to camp at the base of the ridge. When my alarm woke me entirely too early, I felt stiff and unmotivated, and decided to take another day off and try a later start. An hour-plus bushwhack by headlamp was not how I wanted to start my day, so I got an irresponsibly late start around 5:45, using my headlamp just long enough to make the surprisingly tricky crossing of Shepherd Creek before pocketing it to begin the ‘schwack. I knew I had a few hours at the end of the day descending Shepherd Pass that I would almost rather do in the dark.

Looking down litterbox

Looking down litterbox

The first 3500 feet do not follow a well-defined ridge, but instead climb a steep slope of decomposed granite — basically kitty litter with trees and brush. As on the similar start to the northeast ridge of Lone Pine Peak, I was able to find some game trails to make it more manageable, but it was still a slog. Fortunately the slope is angled so that I remained in the shade for most of the climb, staying cool and saving my precious water.

View back down lower ridge

View back down lower ridge

Above this initial climb, the ridge becomes narrower and flatter, entering a new regime of suck. From 9900′ to where it turns south around 11,000′, the ridge is mostly uneven on top, with steep, sandy, brushy terrain on the south side, and often unusably steep rock on the north. The easiest path usually stays close to the crest on its south side. I found an old paint can hanging from a tree, and possibly some old boot-prints, but there were very few signs of human passage.

Looking down from above first south turn

Looking down from above first south turn

Around 10,500′, the ridge is cut by a double notch, which presents the first real climbing challenge. I got into the first notch via some 4th class on the crest or to its north, then continued along and up the right (north) side on class 3-4 ledges and slabs. The terrain on the left may have been less steep, but the lack of brush on the right made it seem preferable. From here to the southward turn I stayed close to the crest, which offered brief stretches of quick hiking broken up by boulder problems. After a morning of brush, I welcomed something more like climbing.

Crux-y section

Crux-y section

Passing the turn, I stayed right of the crest, diagonaling up class 2-3 terrain to where the ridge flattens out near another notch. It might be easiest here to head far right and climb the talus-slope, but I thought it would be more fun and sporting to stay somewhere near the ridge. I found the first crux near a step in some reddish rock that was just a bit too large to jump. Climbing down the left side of the ridge, I found a few pieces of rap tat, which I climbed past and around via some tricky traversing right and down, to where I could regain the ridge at a notch.

Arch!

Arch!

Farther up, where the ridge splits, I was again forced down the left side. This time, I was surprised and pleased to find a natural arch burrowing through the notch that had caused me to leave the crest. I passed through to the right side of the ridge, then climbed some easier class 2-3 slabs to where the ridge flattens and turns back north. I am amazed that I did not find any mention of this arch on Summitpost, since it seemed natural to pass through it on the climb.

Difficulties before East Horn

Difficulties before East Horn

The ridge becomes easy talus here, and it looks like it should be smooth sailing to the top of the East Horn. But the rock turns ominously reddish as the ridge makes another jog south, usually a sign of rotten, shale-y rock in the Sierra. After climbing the crest of the garbage-fest for a bit, I crossed again to the right side to avoid some decomposing towers, then began slogging the final talus-slope to the East Horn. Due to a combination of altitude and late-season fatigue, I was painfully slow on this final easy climb.

Crux chimney

Crux chimney

With most of the distance and elevation gain out of the way, it was time to deal with the bulk of the technical difficulty. I dropped left of the ridge a bit on some broken terrain, then returned to the crest as the left side dropped away. Where the crest got serious before the first of two notches, I downclimbed to some rap tat, where I was momentarily stymied. Looking back, I saw that I could traverse back, down a sort of dihedral/chimney, then forward again to the base of the apparent rappel. This second crux felt about as hard as the first, definitely harder than 4th class, but not 5.6 as some claim. The rock was decent, and I felt reasonably secure in running shoes.

I could have climbed back up to the ridge crest from here, but I remembered that there is a second notch, and I suspected that going too high would lead to more difficulties. Instead, I traversed some crappy dirt-ledges, crossed a partially ice-filled gully, then crossed some outward-sloping ledges to emerge near the base of the second notch. While not as hard as the chimney, this section was probably more intimidating, made worse by leftover snow from the unusual storm a week before.

Knife-edge past West Horn

Knife-edge past West Horn

Back on easier class 3 terrain, I quickly scrambled to the top of the West Horn, where I saw that the difficulties were not quite over. Rather than guessing the route, I took the time to read Secor on my camera, which said to drop 200 feet (vertically? straight-line?) on the right side before passing through a notch. I dropped part of this distance, then saw a ledge/crack system that might save some elevation loss. I don’t think it saved time or effort, but it certainly added some interest and spice. Returning to the ridge crest before the notch, I was surprised to find an incredibly sheer knife-edge. Resisting the urge to further tear my pants with an a cheval, I carefully hand-traversed along this section, gasping in relief when the ridge once again broadened.

I traversed down into Secor’s notch, and found easier terrain leading to the gap with the true summit. A final traverse left around a slabby knoll led to the summit sand- and talus-plain. I was tempted to skip the summit, but made the trudge to see if the old register was still there, and to enjoy my summit fish a bit over 9 hours into the day. The register was intact, but the talus gnats had apparently migrated up from Lake Helen of Troy since I was last here in 2012, so I moved on quickly, cramming down some pop-tarts as I boulder-hopped toward the tourist route.

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

The rest of the day was familiar: slide down the loose chute, hop across the Williamson Bowl, then make the surprisingly long hike past Tyndall to the Shepherd Pass trail. For better or worse, I was fast enough to do the trail entirely in daylight. The top section, which switchbacks down a steep scree-slope, was partly destroyed as usual. Below Anvil camp, I saw signs of a trail crew re-routing (and doubtless lengthening) the trail where it crosses a dirt-gully. Though frustratingly low-angle, the trail is at least pleasantly runnable from here to the base of the dreaded sand hill, and I had enough energy to make good time. I hiked the hill, hated life down the endless switchbacks into Symmes Creek, then appreciated the newly-improved water crossings on the final stretch to the parking lot.

As I was parked a mile or so away at the mouth of Shepherd Creek, I slowed briefly in the parking lot while preparing to jog the road. A man just packing for a late start to a backpack hailed me and asked me my name; I gave it warily, figuring I had offended some authority or other. Instead, he turned out to be the guy who had videotaped me coming down the very same trail on my 14er record run in 2012. After getting over the amazing coincidence, we talked for awhile, then he got back to packing while I jogged and hiked the remaining distance to my car. I had not felt fast for most of the day, but I think my time of around 13h45 is fairly respectable.

Uglies 5: Let’s get out of here!

Inauspicious dawn

Inauspicious dawn


I slept fitfully, waking when the wind strengthened in my unsheltered camp, lying awake to watch the clouds wax and wane. Thankfully it did not rain overnight, but the morning’s scattered high clouds hinted that it might be another day of storms. To keep my options open, I decided to head over Valor Pass and down Goddard Canyon. If things looked good, I could head up to Davis Lake, climb McGee, and pack out over Haeckel Col or something the next day. If things looked wet and electrical, I could make my way back to North Lake via Piute Pass, staying low and on-trail most of the day. I put on my least damp socks and t-shirt, packed up quickly, and took off for the pass.

Martha Lake and Goddard

Martha Lake and Goddard

With one eye on the weather, I had a mostly-pleasant hike down to Bighorn Lake, then up to Ambition and Valor, and up to the saddle near Reinstein. The other side of Valor Pass had looked like easy slabs from the Reinstein’s northeast ridge two days earlier, but proved a bit trickier in practice. The far shore of Martha Lake looked easy, but awfully far away, so I instead hopped some difficult giant boulders on the near side, hoping to pick up some kind of trail near the outlet. My map, evidently based on the USFS maps, was wrong about this; both current USGS 7.5′ maps and historical maps show the trail ending a mile or more below the lake.

Upper Goddard Canyon

Upper Goddard Canyon

After some very pleasant and easy cross-country travel, I picked up a faint trail near where the USGS maps suggest it should be, and followed it down to the unsigned intersection with the equally-faint trail to Hell-for-Sure Pass. At this point I had to decide whether to head cross-country up North Goddard Creek (connected to the San Joaquin River, not Goddard Creek — ugh!) to Davis Lake, or to continue downstream and out. The clouds looked like they were getting serious to the south and east, so I began the long march home.

More cool slot canyon

More cool slot canyon

Continuing down the San Joaquin, I enjoyed the way the vertically-jointed rock caused the river to flow through slots and cascades, while the trail followed ledges above. Along the way, I was gradually reintroduced to civilization. I met another solo backpacker headed up to Martha Lake, who was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. After we parted, the trail gradually became more defined and I began to see more horse manure — apparently packers still use the first couple miles above the JMT.

San Joaquin falls

San Joaquin falls

At the JMT junction, I could and probably should have gone up into Evolution Valley, on to the Darwin Bench, and over Lamarck Col, but the easiest and seemingly driest course was to continue downstream to Piute Creek. After seeing all of three people in the last 3.5 days, I suddenly found myself wading through the south-bound JMH herd. They wore various forms of rain gear, ranging from Arc’teryx down to ponchos, though none were quite as down-market as me in my garbage bag. While they all headed south and up toward certain drenching, I took off my rain-gear as I headed down and down to the junction at just over 8000 feet.

Up Piute Creek toward Pilot Knob

Up Piute Creek toward Pilot Knob

Fortunately I had saved plenty of battery and listening material, because the rest of the day was a mind-numbing slog along a pack trail. With no more peaks to climb or new things to see (I had run down this trail in 2012), I just wanted the trip to end. I was also in a hurry, as I needed to hitch a ride from North Lake back to my car.

I ground out the miles to Hutchinson Meadow with barely a pause, then stopped to cook myself an early dinner — I was out of non-cooking food, unless I wanted to drink olive oil. After 15 minutes to boil water and inhale glop, I was off again, climbing up and across Humphreys Basin, passing a lone woman at Piute Pass, then loathing every huge step and awkward rock on the pack-trail down to North Lake.

I reached the campground just before sunset, and cleaned up a bit at the spigot, still hoping that I might catch a ride with some other late hiker, though it was a weekday and I had seen no one below the pass. I slowed my pace after passing the hiker parking a mile down the road, but the only cars that passed me were driven by packers, who of course give no free rides. I eventually made it down to the main Lake Sabrina road before full dark, and hung out next to the sign a bit, but no ride was forthcoming, and it was getting cold.

Sad camp

Sad camp

So I ended the trip with a sad bivy on the old road-bed, watching the occasional headlights pass below as I tried to sleep. The next morning, I walked the road through Aspendell to the South Lake turnoff, whistling some Bach to myself and watching the occasional unhelpful driver blow by. I was fortunately spared the 7-mile walk back up the South Lake Road by a nice older couple who used to be fire lookouts in the Bighorns. They kindly pretended not to mind my stench, and I gave them some suggestions for their dayhike. With the ride, I was back in Bishop and showered by mid-morning, resting and planning my next move.