Camping is best when you can carry all the heavy stuff to one place, leave it there, and go on day trips, returning to the pile of bedding and food each evening. When that is not possible, it is better to pack up camp during the warm part of the day. Unfortunately this was the last day of our backpack, and we had quite a bit of ground to cover, so neither was possible. Instead, we set our alarms for 6:00, ate in the dark, packed up in the cold, and started hiking with full packs around dawn.
Mount Nebo is one of a group of four thirteeners southeast of Hunchback Pass. While they are a comfortable day from Beartown, and a reasonable side-trip on the way out from our camp, they would be painfully difficult to reach from a two-wheel-drive trailhead. This was their main draw to me, as my most likely access to a capable off-road vehicle in Colorado (a.k.a. Dan) was ending. He seemed fine going along for the peaks, as it would mean that he, too, had cleaned out the area’s thirteeners. While many people reach other peaks such as the eastern Grenadiers this way, they are accessible from Molas or Vallecito with only a bit more work.
We slowly ground out much of the long climb to Hunchback Pass with our overnight packs, then stashed gear at the intersection with the Nebo Creek trail. This also happens to be the Continental Divide Trail, but it is blocked by a large tree right at the junction, and shows less signs of traffic than the trail down to the Vallecito. I seem to be in the area at the wrong time of year to encounter either north- or south-bound CDTers, but it seems clear that they are far less numerous than the hordes of PCTers I saw around Ebbetts Pass this summer.
Despite its being mid-October of a dry year, the creek was flowing well far above obvious water sources like lakes and permanent snowfields, yet another testament to the San Juans’ mysterious water storage capacity. Our target peaks were arranged somewhat awkwardly: one north of a high trail pass, Nebo and its neighbor south of the pass, and the last a few miles southeast along the trail. We dropped packs to tag the first, then took the trail out to the last before returning for the last two. This maximized our chances of not skipping any, by getting the easiest done first, then committing ourselves to doing the most remote one.
The first peak was an unremarkable walk, but at least it had good views of Ute Ridge back near the trailhead, and the northern side of the Eastern Grenadiers. The Guardian, Silex, and Storm King all have impressive north faces, with Storm King in particular having an interesting-looking northeast ridge, which Dan had climbed back when he lived out here. I would be more interested in exploring these routes out of Stormy Gulch if it weren’t so difficult to reach in a day. The summit also had a view of our next peak, discouragingly far in the wrong direction. Back to work…
We returned to our packs, then took off across the head of the West Ute Creek drainage to a large lake. This would be our last water source for awhile, so we both tanked up despite the faint notes of algae. We were only separated from Rio Grande Pyramid by one drainage at this point, and with the area’s extensive trail network, it seemed very close indeed. Leaving the trail shortly past the lake, we took off up game trails and cross-country to our peak’s east ridge, finding steep but mostly easy terrain.
The ridge, on the other hand, was mostly a medley of unstable rocks. To the south, a ridge of nice slabs is rising and shaking off (in geological time) the overlaid volcanic garbage, but this thirteener is a pile of loose junk. We stayed close to the crest, finding a bit of class 3 scrambling getting into and out of the notches visible from below, but mostly just suffered, and I questioned my sanity for bringing this upon myself. I am close to finishing the 80-some Weminuche thirteeners, and about halfway through the San Juans’ 260-some; even as a lifetime goal, it’s hard to imagine doing all of Colorado’s 600-ish peaks over 13,000 feet. The rock’s color changed at the summit, but it remained loose on the descent to a sort of plateau. Where the ridge turns slightly south toward the Grenadiers, we dropped down a loose chute, crossed a low saddle, then made a beeline for the next peak. It felt good to be heading back toward our stashed gear, and the almost thousand-foot climb went by fairly painlessly.
Getting down to the saddle with Nebo required side-hilling across some of the day’s loosest terrain, aiming horizontally to make a sliding, descending traverse. Along the way we crossed a layer of clinking, smooth, dinner-plate rock, possibly slate, and took a couple pieces to eat from later. Tired of the loose stuff, I stayed close to Nebo’s sheer north face on the climb from the saddle, while Dan found his own way up some nasty-looking chute to the left. The summit had the expected Grenadier view across the valley, but it was chilly and we had miles to go, so we soon made our way back down our respective routes.
The north side of Nebo and its neighbor is mostly rotten cliffs, so getting back to the trail is actually a bit tricky. I had noticed a notch leading to a steep, rotten chute near the saddle, which seemed to be the best option. The chute proved every bit as loose as anticipated, so we each picked a side and descended together, gleefully raining death on anything below. Once across the talus-fan at the base of the face, we were done with choss for the day, weaving through a few willows to pick up the CDT and return to our gear. From there it was a short but “backpacking speed” climb to Hunchback Pass, then a faster hike down to the trailhead and Dan’s car, again finishing just at dusk.
While Dan dealt with dinner, I went over to the closest flat spot to set up my tent. This would be the coldest night of the trip for me, camping at around 11,000 feet at the bottom of a valley between two streams. It was also Friday night, and the ATVs were out in force. One guy on a quad stopped to warn us, in a familiar northern New Mexico (southern Colorado in this case) Hispanic accent that this was opening weekend of rifle (i.e. “anything goes”) season for elk, and that his party was planning to hunt near where we hoped to hike. It had been some form of hunting season for awhile, but I don’t worry much during bow season (September), since there are few bow hunters, and they have to be both dedicated to the sport, and very close to their quarry to take an effective shot. However many more people have rifles, and someone with a high-powered rifle and telescopic sight can shoot from hundreds of yards away. I hoped my red buff and faded orange hat would be defense enough, since most of my other clothes are either black or elk-colored.
Another morning, another cold start up Rock Creek. This time, though, we planned to stick together to traverse the peaks extending west of Peters, including three unnamed, ranked thirteeners. Our main information source, the Climbing Cooneys, had done the ridge in two parts, but I assumed the whole thing would work as one traverse. After all, “this is Colorado.”
We took the trail to the first open meadow, then crossed the stream aiming for what looked like a break in the cliffs on the south side. The peaks west of Peters sit on a hanging plateau containing several streams and lakes. We had decided to traverse west to east mainly because descending the trail would be faster, but it was also easier to find a break in the lower cliffs going up rather than down. Our “break” worked, but it was some of the day’s trickier climbing, in places best described as “third class grass.” Above said grass, I aimed for an obvious saddle where the ridge transitions from some red garbage to the harder Grenadiers rock. The saddle offered excellent views down into the Vallecito, and across Roell Creek to Hidden and Lost Lakes. A nearby arete drops southwest toward their intersection, with the rock layers angled so as to suggest good climbing; the approach, though, would probably be a tedious bushwhack. It was also clear that we had ascended too far west, and had some work to do to reach our first intended peak. Welcome to mountaineering, Dr. Dirtbag style!
There were multiple subpeaks along the way, and some obnoxious talus, but this section provided some of the day’s best scrambling, with stretches of sidewalk ridge and fun moderate slabs. Dan had not done much scrambling in awhile, and took a more timid line; I had not done much scrambling with other humans in awhile, and was unreasonably impatient. On the other hand, the waiting gave me time to admire the rock on this section of ridge, and temperatures were pleasant. Reaching the first major subpeak, I was surprised to find a register in a small bottle, naming the bump “P1.” We added our names to the short list of people who had travered this unranked peak, then continued toward our first “real” peak, now much closer. Only a few feet farther along, I found a second register for “P2.” This seemed wrong, so I pocketed it to deposit on a different summit. In retrospect, I believe that “P2” is the ranked Peak 13,302, which has its own register container, and is much more popular than anything on the ridge we were crossing.
There was one notable difficulty in this section, a sharp notch with a cliff to the left and a buttress to the right. I looked at a probably low-fifth-class downclimb along the ridge, then found a fourth class but very exposed alternative slightly down and right. Dan liked neither, and dropped a good 50-100 feet around the toe of the buttress on wht he described as horrible scree. Once past this notch, there were no more major difficulties along the short scramble to the summit.
13,302’s (or P2’s?) register was a tattered printout of a route description in a bottle. Evidently this minor peak rates a writeup for being one of the harder thirteeners in the area, with a slightly convoluted “Colorado class 4” route from the east. We both found the route fairly obvious and not too hard, and thorougly de-cairned it to give future scramblers the opportuntiy to experience the pleasure of figuring out a mountain for themselves.
Passing the handful of pinnacles and gullies on the right, we emerged into talus-land. P3’s north and northwest sides look attractive from this angle, but we were unfortunately approaching from the west and south, where there is only talus leading to the south subpeak. Much of this was unpleasantly loose, particularly the climb toward P3. This is typical for Grenadiers rock: when it is solid, it can be fun to climb, being featured and sticky, but it breaks to form talus that slides against itself and does not consolidate. The eastern Grenadiers around Garfield and Electric are similarly unpleasant.
P3’s actual summit protrudes slightly into the Rock Creek valley to the north, connected to the main ridge by a short, narrow ridge with a bit of third class srambling. Its position out of line affords it slightly better views of its neighbors, and of the plateau in between, including the large and convoluted rock glacier between it and 13,302. This summit also held a slightly better register, with a recent entry from none other than… Mr. Hashtag Vanlife Everywhere! I found myself torn between my contempt at the Instagram-ready cliché of a tag-line, and a growing respect for anyone else who would get out and tag so many remote and obscure San Juan thirteeners. Judge not, lest ye be judged…
The route from P3 to the next peak (P4?) was another disappointing talus slog. We decided to sidehill below the ridge on the way up the latter, which probably saved a bit of time versus going over some minor bumps along the crest. I think we were both getting tired, as the hike across the long summit seemed endless. However, Dan’s pace had recovered dramatically once past the scrambling, so we were not worried about time. My eyes were drawn to the inhospitable talus-lakes at Oso’s base, and to its imposing north face. Such a prominent peak deserves a quality route; perhaps this offers a challenging non-choss path to the summit? It looks too difficult for me to ever find out.
While Dan dodged around south, I stayed on the ridge crest toward Peters. It looks steep and improbable, but is actually reasonable, rarely (and probably avoidably) harder than third class. This part of the traverse, at least, is probably better in the other direction. Peters had first caught my attention on my long dayhike to Oso, when I had briefly hoped to add it to the day’s summit haul before realizing that would be too much work. It felt good to finally stand on its summit just over four years later.
With plenty of time to spare, we took a detour to Buffalo on the way back. It is under 13,000 feet and has less than 300 feet of prominence, so it is beneath most people’s notice, but it seemed like enough of a landmark to be worth visiting, and the south ridge was a quick hike with a short scramble through one notch. We wandered around the flat, rocky summit for a bit, peered over the north side, then dropped to Rock Lake for water before returning to camp via the familiar trail. This being our last night, we celebrated with… more potatoes for Dan, and oats for me, as I had run out of grits. I think I might have used some of Dan’s leftover potatoes from the night before to make my oats really sing on the palate.
I was recently interviewed for Buzz Burrell’s Fastest Known Podcast, discussing a mixture of biographical and speed-oriented stuff. Depending upon how well you know me and how long you have followed the blog, it may or may not be new to you. At the very least, you get to hear what I sound like on a headphone mic, and see a fairly recent head-shot from a cold sunrise in the Weminuche.
On our second peak-bagging day we headed up Rock Creek to tag peaks around Oso, some of the state’s most remote mountains. I had done Oso itself via the Los Pinos river, a long but pleasantly ford-free approach from the south, and had recently failed to reach Irvine via Cave Basin and a series of peaks to its south. I was highly motivated to tag it, “Weminuche Peak,” and another unnamed thirteener on this trip, thereby finishing the area and avoiding future headlamp time. After our normal breakfast — oatmeal with granola for me, and a thick paste of peanut butter, granola, and protein powder for Dan (even he hates it!) — we started hiking up the Rock Creek trail.
Rock Creek is an ancient glacial valley like most in the Weminuche, and after the initial steep rise from the deep Vallecito, it opens and broadens, with frequent glacially-polished slabs evincing how it was formed. The north side is an unremarkable talus mound, while the south is a series of interesting-looking peaks formed from the same uplift as Leviathan and Vallecito to the west. Each of them, from P1 in the west to Peters in the east, has its own unique character, dependent upon the angles of the rock layers and subsequent erosion. P3 falls just short of being another Arrow or Vestal, with its strata being slightly too steep and twisted to form a steep face. Perhaps the drainage’s most striking peak is Buffalo, a minor subpeak north of Peters protruding into the valley, with a steep north face nearly a thousand feet high.
We filled up on water at Rock Lake, then parted for our own individual objectives: Dan sensibly wanted to tag Oso, the area’s highpoint, while I aimed for its minor neighbors. It seemed like the trail should circle west of the lake, so I started off a few hundred yards that way before looking at my map and realizing that it actually went the opposite way. Though the Rock Creek trail is clear and well-maintained, with culverts at several water crossings, the trail over the pass to Lake Creek and Emerald Lake is much fainter. I am not sure why Rock Creek receives such attention, since it seems like just another random connector between two remote valleys in the wilderness.
Once at the pass, I left the faint trail to head cross-country straight for Peak 13,120. Most of this area consists of some type of talus; in this particular case it was large, semi-stable basalt, moderately unpleasant but not truly maddening. After the initial steep climb, the route flattened into a broad summit plateau. Both this peak and neighboring Weminuche have the steep north faces common to peaks in this area. I admired the cold side of the mountain, with its patchy lingering snow, then continued east, staying near the edge where there was more solid rock than talus.
Weminuche is slightly higher and looser than 13,120, but only a short climb from the connecting saddle. Along the way, I paused to look south past a small lake to Emerald Lake, by far the area’s largest natural lake. From the summit, I had an unobstructed view northeast across high rolling terrain to Rio Grande Pyramid, with its distinctive south ridge and “Window.” I am becoming familiar with the local peak-bagging obsessives through the registers on these obscure peaks, and noted that Mark Ott had chosen this peak to finish the Weminuche 13ers, a list I hope to someday complete myself.
Returning to the saddle, I contoured around 13,120, then dropped to pick up the trail at Half Moon Lake. Along the way I saw a speck that was almost certainly Dan, finally done with the long traverse and starting up Oso’s south ridge. Knowing nothing about the peak, I had climbed it via its east ridge, which involves some fourth class shenanigans; his route seems to be standard, both easier and less pleasant. Oso is composed of loose talus on its south and west faces, making for miserable but moderate climbing.
Based on my observations from the summits, it seemed fastest to follow the trail partway to Moon Lake, then side-hill around into the valley leading to the col between Oso and “Soso.” The valley itself is pleasantly grassy, with a couple of small streams running even this late in the season, but the climb to the col is miserable loose rock at the junction of two formations. I found a cairn at the saddle, then found that the other side was even worse, a steep slope of slippery, unstable quartzite talus. I made my way carefully through this tedium, skirted a trick meadow that was actually a bog at its base, then circled around above Irving Lake to the valley northeast of Irving.
I had thought of trying to make the climb a bit more interesting by ascending the east ridge, but it looked jagged and rotten, so I followed the known route to the saddle north of the summit. The slope was more stable than I had feared, but turned into surprisingly steep third class grass near the top. From the ridge, it was mostly easy walking with occasional bits of use- or game-trail to the summit. From the peak’s various humps, I had views south to Vallecito Reservoir, west into Johnson Creek and back east to the hanging valley of Irving Lake.
Most of the way back down the ridge, I shouted and heard first an echo, then a response. I sat down to wait, and a few minutes later Dan emerged at the saddle. He confirmed what I suspected: that Oso’s southwest side is a miserable pile of loose rocks, a nightmare to descend. While he went off to tag Irving, I went the other way to tag “Irving North,” a minor peak with views of Hidden and Lost Lakes, two seldom-seen bodies of water hidden in north-facing hanging valleys.
The obvious return path, via the Oso-Soso col and the trail to Rock Lake, seemed both long and unpleasant, so I had been thinking of another way back. Had I not encountered Dan, I would have traversed the line of thirteeners between the two lakes, then descended north to Roell Creek and the Vallecito. However, I had noticed that the slope directly west looked promising, with a grassy avalanche path leaving a clear route for most of the 3500 feet down to the Vallecito trail. This would deposit us near the Johnson Creek trail, a mere 4-5 trail miles from camp.
Dan and I reunited at the edge of the slope, then started down. There were a couple of unpleasant sections of steep gravel, and one cliff-band lower down, but for the most part it was easy terrain until we reached the aspens closer to the valley floor. Just below the cliffs, I spotted a game trail and followed it south into the woods. Here an excellent series of game trails led down through the steep, open woods, carpeted in fall leaves. With only a bit of deadfall to contend with in the valley bottom, we reached the trail.
Though we could clearly see the Guardian’s south side rising above our camp, we still had a fair amount of hiking to do. The bottom of the deep valley soon fell into shadow, but the surrounding mountains caught the sun for most of the walk. The rocks in Vallecito Creek are stained bright white by some mineral, suggesting that, like Rock Creek, it would be unpleasant to drink, so we filled up at Roell Creek along the way. Again reaching camp at dusk, we had our monotonous dinners and lay down for another long night.
With the approach and load-hauling out of the way, it was time to start bagging peaks. First up were Greylock and an unnamed thirteener neighbor, on the south side of Sunlight Basin. I had only been to the basin from the south via the 13-mile Vallecito approach, so it was a pleasant change to hike only a few miles before crashing through the woods to the creek junction. The water in Rock Creek where we camped is unpleasantly metallic (and turns the rocks orange), so we both filled up on clean water before starting up the well-worn use trail.
We left the trail where it crosses to the south side of the stream, heading through steep woods and then up slabs toward the col west of Peak 13,121. We frequently looked back at Jagged and Peak Ten as we made our plodding way up 2000 feet toward the saddle. Just below the crest, we headed up a break in the peak’s cliffs to reach the sandy plateau below its summit knob. Reaching the true summit involves a bit of non-exposed class 3 scrambling if you do it right, or some exposed class 4 if you do it my way. In either case, the unnamed 13er has interesting views in all directions. To the east, the ridge falls off in a series of reddish granite blobs, reminiscent of nearby Organ Mountain. Looking the other way, one has a clear view of broad Sunlight Basin with its open grass and granite slabs. Leviathan and Vallecito Peaks, part of the ancient uplift that forms the Grenadiers, make up the northern view east of Jagged.
Returning to the saddle, we made our way up choss, turf, and boulders to neighboring Greylock. Its summit sits at the junction of the ridge extending past 13,121, and a long ridge southwest to (unranked) Thunder Mountain. I had thought of doing Thunder as a quick out-and-back, but the slightly higher and much more rugged point 13,140′ gets in the way. It looks like Thunder is probably best reached via Johnson Creek, Grizzly Creek, and its east flank and ridge.
Dan had originally wanted to climb Peak Ten, Jagged’s impressive neighbor and a supposed class 3 scramble. However our pace and the short days did not leave enough time to go all the way across the basin, so we decided instead to tag “East Windom,” the next bump west along our current ridge. A short distance along the ridge, we were surprised to run into a guy out for a hike, with nothing but a belt pack and a jacket tied around his waist. He turned out to be a Durango local, spending the week with his girlfriend camped at Sunlight Lake. After talking for a bit, he continued on to Greylock while we headed west.
With time to spare, I decided to pay a visit to the lake at the base of Windom’s east face. At 13,100′, this is perhaps the highest lake in the United States, and a decent-sized one at that, with two lobes and an island in the larger one. I took some photos, refilled my water, and resisted a faint urge to swim. From there, we wove down some cold slabs to Lake 12,545′, then more steep terrain to Sunlight Lake, where there was a single tent and a person. We chatted with her across the lake for a minute, then circled around to pick up the use trail. Just before reaching it, we again met the guy we had seen earlier on the ridge. Displaying a sad lack of peakbagging drive, he had not continued to 13,121, wandering back from Greylock with plenty of daylight left. We gave him the latest forecast and unexpected good news from the outside world, then took off down-canyon.
Just below the lake, we were surprised to run into a herd of more than a dozen mountain goats. They are fairly common in this part of the San Juans, but I am more used to seeing them in small groups, often a nanny a her kids. As usual for mountain goats, they were not afraid of us, but unlike the tame ones in nearby Chicago Basin, who approach in hopes of food or pee, they kept a respectful distance. Beginning a pattern for the trip, we reached the tent around dusk, making the most of the short days without continuing into headlamp time. We had our usual dinner — grits and sausage for me, a gallon bag of flavored mashed potatoes for Dan (ugh!) — then killed some time looking at our phones before setting into our bags for too many hours of semi-sleep. With the tent zippers closed tight, and a stiff corpse outside as a warning, there were no more invading mice.
Waking from another frigid night in the Cimmaron valley, Dan and I made a quick visit to Precipice Peak, my last 13er in the area. The route leaves the jeep road at the trailhead, heading east along a dry wash. A use trail emerges on the north side after a few hundred yards, climbing the bank on sometimes-treacherous dirt slopes. Once out of the woods, the trail becomes indistinct as it continues to the peak’s south ridge. From there, it is a mostly-easy hike through interesting volcanic terrain to the summit.
Our business done, we drove back through the spectacular aspens (and hordes of leaf-peepers) to Ridgway, stocked up at the Walmart in Montrose, then headed back south. Our initial plan was to drive to Beartown, then hike in to camp and tag a few peaks the next day. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the trip, since I no longer have a vehicle capable of driving the rough 4WD road to this remote trailhead north of the Weminuche. Though I have reached some “Beartown peaks” in a day from Molas Lake, Vallecito, and Los Pinos, doing so is painful, especially late in the season with short days. Dan seemed keen to revisit the area, or at least tolerant of my quest to check off obscure 13ers.
Realizing that our schedule was too ambitious, we slept near Silverton, then drove in the next morning and hiked to our intended camp spot at the junction of Vallecito and Rock Creeks. Seeing new territory in the San Juans is a rarity for me, so the drive itself was a treat. The road over Stony Pass is absurdly steep at times, climbing thousands of feet out of Cunningham Gulch to 12,500′, then descending from the Rio Grande’s headwaters to Pole Creek. The two fords of Pole Creek and the Rio were easy in October of a dry year, but can float a car earlier in the season. From there, a rougher road continues four miles to the (purported but invisible) site of Beartown, then deteriorates further as it climbs to Kite Lake. Dan deftly drove the vehicle through some rocks that put it up on three wheels, then parked near the Beartown trailhead, a short walk from the Stony Pass trail.
I had never been farther up the Vallecito drainage than near its intersection with Stormy Gulch on my return from the Guardian, so the descent from Stony Pass offered plenty of new views. The north sides of the eastern Grenadiers are all impressive, with Storm King’s northeast ridge striking me as a tempting line. From the pass above 12,000′, the trail descends Nebo Creek to the Vallecito, then continues to drop to our campsite around 10,100′. We found a flat spot in the trees a bit above the valley floor, then set up the Alps Palace, our home for the next four nights. I was glad to have the unaccustomed weight of overnight gear and five days’ food off my back.
Dinner and sleep came early, reminiscent of my twelve-hour nights in the bivy in Peru. I fell asleep instantly, while Dan had more trouble due to his leaking pad and sad synthetic bag. I awoke suddenly, though, when something ran lightly across my face. Turning on our headlamps, we quickly spotlighted a large-eyed mouse in the tent. The thing was oddly slow and stupid, not having eaten any of our food, but merely confusedly ambling around the sides of the tent. Not having experienced such a situation before, I was paralyzed by indecision. Not so Dan: putting on a glove, he punched the mouse to death, threw its corpse out of the tent, and wiped up its effluvia. I closed my tent flap more tightly, then settled in for another seven hours of half-sleep. Isn’t camping fun?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I prefer not to merely dump a pile of photos on the internet, but the Cordillera Huayhuash is worth looking at, and I probably won’t write a detailed trip report. This was the last of my travels in Peru this summer, but I hope to return soon to take care of much unfinished business.
The forecast was depressingly stable for the foreseeable future: partly cloudy with a chance of snow showers. This did not suit anything ambitious like Artesonraju, Quitaraju, or another try for Huascaran, but I knew I would go crazy sitting around town. I therefore made a plan that would allow more- and less-ambitious alternatives near Huaraz. The peaks around Quebrada Quillcayhuanca range from the challenging Chinchey to the mundane Maparaju. With four nights’ food, I hoped to luck out on the weather and tag at least a few of them. Unfortunately, thanks to bad weather and weak motivation, I merely ended up taking a four-day hike with fifty pounds of training weight on my back.
To Quebrada Cayesh
I was tired of the Pitec tourist collectivo, resenting the 10 Soles I would pay as I hiked over to the gas station to catch it one more time. I expected a long wait for it to fill and depart, so I sat down on the sidewalk next to the empty van, ate lunch, and tried to be patient. Fortunately a group of three French Canadians showed up after only ten or fifteen minutes, an older man and two college kids, either a couple or siblings, and the collectivo driver helpfully arrange for us to split a cab for only 60 Soles round-trip. They got a great deal — 15 Soles apiece round-trip — and I only paid five extra not to wait.
I talked to the driver a bit, then more to the Canadians as we made the familiar winding drive. Then I flashed my pass to the park guard and shouldered the ridiculous pack once more to head up the valley. Where the valleys split, Andavite was already in the clouds by mid-day, so I decided to camp at the head of Quebrada Cayesh and climb the easy Maparaju (and/or Nevado San Juan) the next morning, hopefully getting a good view of the nearby and much more impressive Nevado Cayesh.
Other than an arriero with a surprisingly large string of burros, the livestock and I had the valley to ourselves. I found an old sign and a concrete bridge at the turn to the Cayesh Valley, surprising since it seems most people follow the Guapi Pass loop. Unfortunately the livestock continued to accompany me up the broad, gentle valley toward the glacial cirque at its head. One calf even followed me like it expected food.
Because of all the cows, I was eager to find a high and fast water source I would not have to filter. I was pleased to see a violent cascade descending from the direction of Nevado San Juan. Anticipating cool fresh glacier water with perhaps a bit of silt, I dumped out the leftovers in my bladder, filled it, and took a deep gulp, only to almost spit it out. The water tasted like nothing I had ever experienced, unnaturally acidic and almost citrus-y. Hoping it wasn’t poisonous, I dumped out the rest and continued on empty. My filter might stop giardia, but would be useless against chemical contaminants.
The cows continued well past the highest flat part of the valley, but I was too tired and lazy to look for camp spots higher up. The water in the main channel tasted little better than that from the side stream — the streambed’s red rocks had warned me to expect as much — but at least its taste was merely metallic. I filled my bladder, then spent fifteen minutes finding a flat, bivy-sized patch of ground free of fresh manure. A couple of cows watched with stupid curiosity as I set up camp, had some iron-enriched ramen, and crawled into bed. I had carelessly peed only a few feet away, so I was soon joined by a cow slowly eating the freshly-salted grass. The herd kept guard the rest of the night, as I kept my eye on them in the full moon.
Hoping to beat the weather, I had set my alarm for 4:00, needlessly early for a short, easy climb. Unfortunately it started raining sometime in the night, and continued through my alarm, so I sealed my bivy over the soaked head of my sleeping bag and waited until the rain stopped around 8:00. Things felt wetter than could be accounted for by condensation, and it turned out that my bladder, kept inside my bivy to keep from freezing, had decided to leak about a quart of water. It was sunny to the northwest, but clouds still covered Maparaju — so much for climbing today. I spread my sleeping bag, pad, and bivy over some bushes to dry, had an extra pot of hot coffee and half of my day’s rations to cheer myself up, then packed up and headed for Chinchey’s glacier camp, hoping to maximize my chances of reaching the more interesting summits, or at least to reach sun and warmth.
I shortcut the trail junction without much trouble, then joined the semi-popular Guapi Pass trail a bit below its switchbacks. I did not have much information about the approach to base camp below the Chinchey-Pucaranra col, but I knew it started up the lateral moraine north of Laguna Tullpacocha, and I saw a flat-looking spot on my topo map near the glacier around 4750m. I picked a random cow-path, and started away from the switchbacks toward the now cloudy peaks. Here I was surprised to meet my second human since the trailhead, a local who looked something between a shepherd and a trekking guide. I saw that he had a couple of faded tents below, and after we talked for a bit, I think he asked me if I could spare a caramelo. It was a weird request, but I had plenty of food, so I offered him a peanut energy bar instead, which seemed to satisfy him.
I followed cow-paths through the woody brush, passed through a flat field with a couple of horses, then continued up the flatter parts of the moraine as it disappeared into the steep hillside above the lake. When it started drizzling, I sheltered under the last trees, covered my pack with my garbage bag, and contemplated the poor life choices that had led to this place. Fortunately the rain stopped before drowning my motivation, so I shouldered my pack and picked an ascending line across the hillside toward my hoped-for camp.
I found a couple of cairns, but no trail above where the cows stopped. I climbed a somewhat loose talus slope to get above some cliffs, stumbled through some thigh-high grass tussocks hiding uneven ground, then skittered across loose dirt and scree to reach lower-angle grass on the other side. Here I found some more cairns, and even a bit of a game trail (though I saw no animals), but no sign of recent human traffic. It was rough going with an overnight mountaineering pack, but it felt like my kind of territory.
Nearing what I hoped was at least a flat spot, I was delighted to find one of my favorite campsites of the trip so far: a flat, smooth slab 10 yards from a lake, with the jagged end of a glacier just on the other side, and views of the Andavite peaks across the valley. I had just enough time to dry out my things and pack my bag before the sun went behind Pucaranra’s southeast ridge, and the cold forced me to eat my glop and crawl into bed, hoping for better weather.
Chinchey? Nope… and nope
I normally avoid fighting the weather on mountains, but the weather changes quickly in the Cordillera, and the forecasts are not always accurate. With that in mind, I started out around 4:40 despite the clouds, making my way up the moraine from camp by a combination of moonlight and headlamp. This part was as miserable as I expected it to be, stumbling up loose boulders, icy slabs, and loose dirt in mountaineering boots by headlamp.
I put on crampons and got on the glacier at a flat spot around 4900m, and did most of the long march up the flat section at night, staying near the left side of the glacier and trying to follow ridges to minimize crevasse troubles. Though it is straight and its surface is mostly gray ice, this glacier is sketchier than it appears: the “bare ice” surface is sometimes illusory, the lateral cracks have had time to become hollow underneath, and it is surprisingly deep.
Nearing the headwall between Pucaranra and Chinchey, things did not look good… well, at least as much of “things” as I could see through the clouds. The ridge from the saddle to Pucaranra looked more likely to be rotten rock than snow, and getting to it would be a problem. The broad headwall varied from fresh-looking rockfall on the left, to ice cliffs in the middle, to a complicated snow-covered icefall on the right. I could not see the supposed crux of the route up Chinchey, a west-facing climb to its north ridge, but things did not bode well. The latter seemed like it at least had potential, so I headed that way, carefully postholing up the wind-drifted snow on the safest-looking path. I made a decent effort, but the visibility was only getting worse, so after getting cliffed out a couple of times by gaps invisible from below, I gave up and retraced my steps to camp.
I intended to warm up, pack up, and give up, but the weather cleared, so I spent the rest of the day drying my gear, finishing my book, and enjoying the views from my excellent campsite, with Chinchey taunting me in the sun. Gusty wind kept me slightly chilled, though I got to warm up from time to time chasing down my gear, so when the sun dipped behind Pucaranra around 4:30, I had a hot dinner, set my alarm for 3:30, and went to bed early.
Stupidly failing to look at my watch, I only realized around 5:00 AM that I had not heard my alarm. So much for an alpine start. The weather looked a bit better than the day before, but I was not fully motivated as I once again climbed the glacier. This time I tried going up the left-center of the icefall, climbing through the ice steps to reach a snowy ramp on the left that seemed out of range of rockfall. I hiked up a fan of old serac debris, climbed a short vertical step, then traversed under another. At that point I could have climbed some moderate-angle glacial ice to reach another shelf, but the weather was turning worse, and my meager motivation ran out, so I once again returned to camp defeated.
The weather continued to deteriorate as I packed up, and I was even snowed upon while sidehilling back to the cow-paths. It was sunny down in the valley, though, for the long, flat walk back through the pastures and along the road to Pitec. I passed a Frenchman (mais bien sur!) doing the Guapi Pass loop, then slowly caught a local carrying a bundle of firewood. The old man proved friendly and, having been a porter, good at talking to gringos like me despite their broken Spanish. A hand injury kept him from working as a porter, but he had a house at the Park boundary, and apparently owned many of the livestock I had seen over the past few days, so he seemed to have a decent life. He was also still nimble for his age, easily clambering over the rock wall next to the gate with the firewood on his back. We shook hands on parting, then I took the tourist bus back to town to think of what I could do that would not involve carrying ridiculous amounts of weight for no good reason.
With only 88 miles separating Badwater and Mount Whitney, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States, it is only natural for people to want to travel from one to the other. The most popular way to do this is the Badwater 135 running race, which follows the highway and is held in July to maximize misery. However, there is also a mostly off-highway route between the two points called “Lowest to Highest” (L2H), which stitches together a mixture of dirt roads, trails, and cross-country travel to connect the two points in a similar distance and in a much more interesting way.
I had met a member of a group trying to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for this route on my recent Badwater to Telescope adventure. The group seemed unlikely to succeed, but it turns out that they persevered, completing the route in 3 days, 8 hours. I do not normally enjoy deserts, backpacking, or non-peak-focused activities. However, I am both curious and competitive, and with a little help from a friend (ahem), the seed was planted in my mind. Thus, in the last dry Sierra weather before winter, I found myself driving back out to Badwater on Saturday, with side-trips to leave water at Cerro Gordo and on the Saline Valley and Wildrose Canyon Roads.
First period of consciousness
Having learned my lesson from last time, I took a side-trip to the Natural Bridge parking lot to sleep, then woke up at 2:30 AM to drive down to Badwater. I started hiking on schedule at 3:00 AM, choosing a constellation to orient myself on the featureless salt flat after the moon had set. Feeling paranoid a mile or more out, I stopped to check my pack, and realized that I had left my phone charging cord in the car. Since I did not know the route, this simply would not do. Cursing my stupidity, I meandered back to the car, retrieved the cord, and started “for real” around 4:30. Bonus miles!
Heading just right of Orion’s belt, I plotted a fairly straight and direct course across the flats at night, reaching the Westside Road before sunrise. My pack was uncomfortably heavy with food, but I managed to jog a bit of this road before hiking the endless Hanaupah Canyon Road toward the spring. The “illegal activities” seemed not to have poisoned the water for the previous group, so I drank some and filled up with a full 3 liters before zig-zagging up the faint trail to the east ridge. I felt good on the familiar climb, reaching the Telescope trail about 7h30 from the car.
After following the trail past Bennett Peak, the route heads cross-country into Tuber Canyon. The initial drop is moderately obnoxious, but the canyon floor has an open, sandy streambed that makes for quick travel. I was feeling good enough to jog quite a bit of it, sipping away at my water as I made the endless, winding descent to the Panamint Valley. Though I saw no burros, they had left plenty of manure and faint trails, which I followed as the wash became littered with rocks and brush lower down. Closer to the canyon’s mouth, these game trails turned into a human trail and then a jeep road.
I hiked and jogged the jeep road past some burned-out old cars and other junk, finishing my water shortly before meeting the Wildrose Canyon Road. I hiked up to my water cache, drank a liter, then put three more in my pack along with the crushed plastic jug. Absorbed in my preparations, I was surprised to look up and find a woman with an overnight pack hiking down the road. When I greeted her, she replied and immediately asked if I was doing Lowest to Highest. I spoke for a few minutes to this desert native, finding out that she was doing a loop up Tuber Canyon and down Wildrose, then we took off in opposite directions.
The GPS map came in handy here, as the route leaves the paved Wildrose road to follow a nearly-invisible old jeep road northwest across the Panamint Valley. I jogged the descents and hiked the flats as the sun set over the Argus Range across the valley. I took out my headlamp near full dark, but found that the moon was bright enough to make it unnecessary. I glanced occasionally at the map on my phone, following the line as it turned left across the Panamint salt flat. This was probably my favorite part of the journey. Unlike the Badwater flat, with its sharp and uneven surface, the Panamint flat is almost entirely smooth, so I could fast-walk across it while admiring the starry skyline, and watching the sparse headlamps of the cars passing silently on the roads to the west and north.
I had been feeling fine to this point, or perhaps my mind was elsewhere going across the salt flat, but I began to feel the miles while plying the dirt roads toward highway 190. There were the expected knee and shoulder aches, but also some unfamiliar ones in my Achilles tendons and the backs of my knees. I finally reached route 190, then turned left to walk quickly up the pavement toward Panamint Springs, only turning my headlamp on to warn approaching cars.
I reached the “resort,” checked to find that their WiFi was password-protected, then sat down on a rock outside to have a sandwich and think. My original plan had been to put in 70 miles the first day, sleeping at my Saline Valley Road cache at 1:00-2:00 AM. While I was not falling asleep on my feet, my various aches and pains were becoming unpleasant, and there was substantial cross-country travel ahead. Thinking quickly, I decided instead to sleep at China Garden Spring. This would mean covering only about 57 miles the first day, and therefore almost certainly a second sleep in the Owens Valley, but I could not think of a better option.
I hiked more paved road past Panamint, then turned left onto the well-graded dirt road to the Darwin Falls trailhead. I was not loving life at this point, and eyed various flat-looking spots off to the side of the road. However, it was still relatively early, and I told myself that it made more sense to camp near water. The canyon started out broad and sandy, but narrowed as the stream surfaced and I approached the falls. Soon there were no flat spots to camp, and I soaked my feet on one of the stream crossings. I followed a faint cairned route around the falls to the left, making several unnecessary detours to overlook points and finding a bit of easy class 3 scrambling, with cactus to discourage mistakes. I desperately wanted the day to end, so when around 10:00 I found a flat-ish spot sheltered from the wind in some bushes, I threw down my pad and bag, set my alarm for 5:00, and devoured a pepperoni. It took awhile for my fatigue to drown out the pain in my left knee and ankle, but I eventually fell asleep sometime before 11:00.
Second period of consciousness
There were no pleasant bailout options from my first camp, so I feared waking up to find myself feeling the pain and stiffness of serious damage. Fortunately, my body seemed to have recovered overnight. Still, I lay in my bag for awhile after my alarm, dreading the night-time cross-country travel, and only got started at the end of headlamp time around 6:00. Barely 100 yards from camp, I stumbled onto a dirt road coming from who-knows-where, which I followed to China Garden Spring. I expected something obvious like Hanaupah Springs, but saw only a run-down shack and tire tracks. Perhaps the spring was somewhere up-canyon, but it was cool enough that I thought I could manage the 12 miles to my Saline Valley cache on the liter I had left.
The route turned cross-country again, winding up a scenic, easy wash before popping out onto the seemingly endless and slightly uphill plain of loose volcanic garbage that is the Darwin Plateau. I longingly eyed the road to my north as I slogged past the Joshua Trees, trying to take the most efficient line around hills and washes. The folks at nearby China Lake seemed unusually busy, as I frequently heard the sound of military jets overhead. Once, a straight-winged jet looking a bit like an X-1 passed low near a hill behind me, then peeked out again ahead. I don’t know why it was flying, but it did cheer me up.
I eventually reached the highway, crossing 30 feet of pavement to the well-graded Saline Valley Road. This was how I would spend much of the day, efficiently grinding out mind-numbing miles north on a smooth dirt road. Reaching my water cache, I used about three liters, dumped out the rest, and added the crushed jug to my collection. There were Joshua Trees, occasional cars, and another low-flying jet — modern this time — but I mostly just focused maintaining an efficient 4 MPH walk and turned my brain off for this part. I recognized the steep side of Pleasant Point, and it looked unpleasantly far away. I cheered myself up by reminding myself that this was the easiest way to grind out the day’s 50-60 miles.
Fortunately I had not paid much attention to the map, because it turns out that after climbing to over 6000′, the route loses most of the elevation gained since the highway before turning to climb 3500′ to Cerro Gordo. Making the best of this discouraging development, I jogged what I could of the descent, then put on some Ministry to get myself in the mood for the climb. While the west road to Cerro Gordo is drivable in a passenger car, the east road is nasty, requiring clearance, 4 wheel drive, and some amount of driving skill to get around rocks and up the loose gravel wash.
I reached my Cerro Gordo cache with water to spare, and regretfully poured out half, figuring that it would be cool hiking north along the Inyo crest, and that I would grab more water in Lone Pine. The sun reflected off the various ponds that were once Owens Lake, and the silhouette of Mount Whitney beckoned in the late afternoon light. The traverse north from Cerro Gordo (east and just north of Keeler) to Long John Canyon (just north of Lone Pine) is long, but I was feeling surprisingly good, jogging the flat “Salt Tram Road.” Where the road drops north of Cerro Gordo, an old but mostly runnable trail cuts straight across, passing an old metal shack and mine, saving some major elevation loss and gain.
My energy gradually faded as night set in and the road rolled north along the Inyo crest. The high clouds I had seen over the Sierra had spread east, dimming the moon enough to require my headlamp, and making jogging more difficult. It was cool enough for gloves, but not unpleasant, with only a slight wind crossing the range.
Once again I was lucky to have a map, because the “trail” descending to Long John Canyon and the Black Warrior Mine barely exists. I followed where it should be, finding enough cairns and trail-bed higher up to mostly stay on the route, and open cross-country travel when I lost it. Farther down, things deteriorated into ugliness. The trail and wash merge around 7400′, and things are mostly easy. However, a spring around 5900′ makes the wash unusably brushy, and the trail supposedly leaves the bottom around 6900′ feet to get around that and some more upstream nastiness. There may be some sort of trail here, but all could find were occasional cairns hinting that I was probably doing it wrong. It was Inyo bush-whacking at its worst, side-hilling on loose sand and scree through spiny, woody brush and cactus, with the menace of chossy cliffs looming below. I eventually bashed, chossed, and cursed my way to the creek-bed, dumped out my shoes, and hiked to the still-used part of the jeep road.
I was too sore and tired to jog the road quickly at night, but I could shuffle along faster than a walk, and was pissed off enough that I thought I might be able to continue straight on to Whitney and get it over with. I made slightly better speed on the smoother dirt roads of the flat, and was feeling unnaturally lively right until I ran into a sharp inversion on the valley floor. In just a few steps, I went from almost t-shirt weather to cold, aching hands. My will to finish drained away, and I only wanted to get through Lone Pine and sleep.
It took longer that I expected to reach 395, and from there to enter Lone Pine. There were still a few places open when I arrived a bit after 10:00, but I had no money, so the town held neither food nor warmth for me. I thought about trying to climb to the Alabama Hills and out of the inversion, but gave up a short distance up the Whitney Portal Road. I found a flat spot in the brush around 11:00, threw down my bag and pad, set my alarm for 3:00, and ate my remaining pepperoni curled inside my bag with the face-hole nearly closed before nodding off huddled against the cold east wind.
Third period of consciousness
My will was good when I woke at 3:00, and after taking the time to text my ride and look at the weather, I put on all my clothes, stashed my sleeping gear and empty water jugs, and started hiking up the Portal road around 3:25. The soreness faded somewhat as I climbed the silent road to Lone Pine campground, and I was pleased with my progress. I had been too cold to get more water at the Lone Pine park the night before, so stopped in the still-open campground to refill. Unfortunately the water had been turned off, but at least the vault toilet was open, so I could lighten my load without digging a hole.
I plied the sandy lower National Recreation Trail, then traversed into the canyon on easier ground to a stream crossing. Looking at my map, I realize that this water came from Meysan Lakes, and was therefore probably less fecal than the stuff flowing next to the main Whitney trail. I grabbed a liter, happy not to have to wait until the North Fork, then continued my climb to the Portal. I saw fewer than a dozen cars, and no other hikers as I walked through the picnic area to the old Whitney trail.
It felt no colder here than in the valley, and the sun rose gloriously on the Portal crags, Whitney, and its needles as I climbed to Lower Boy Scout Lake. I had never been up the Mountaineers’ Route this late in the season, so I wasted some time trying the efficient slab route to Upper Boy Scout Lake and getting shut down by ice before taking the other route up the scree and through the willows.
There was a single tent at the lake, and another near Iceberg Lake, where I saw a couple just starting up the chute. I felt like I had no power, stopping frequently to lean on a rock, gasp, and let the lactic acid drain from my legs, but I was pleasantly surprised to still leave the humans in the dust. It was unpleasantly cold in the shady chute, spurring me to stop as little as possible as I passed another hiker on my way to the notch. I hugged the right-hand side on the final north-facing climb, trying to reach the sun as soon as possible. The final, sunny walk across the summit plateau actually felt pleasant. I stopped long enough to take a summit shot, celebrate my time, and send a few texts, but soon grew cold in the breeze, taking a minor detour to sign the summit log before limping slowly down the Mountaineers’ Route to the Portal.
Gear, nutrition, and planning
I borrowed a 35-liter climbing pack, to which I attached an old chalk bag and a binocular case as stash pockets for food. I carried a full-length foam pad and my ancient “20 degree” down bag to sleep. I wore my usual summer hiking setup, which was just warm enough to get up and down Mount Whitney.
For food, I followed my usual rule of thumb for such things, packing 100 calories per mile, 13,000 in this case. I relied on 2-3 lbs of body fat to take care of hills and my base metabolic rate. Most of the calories were easily digestible carbs: 12 Clif bars (6 caffeinated, 6 non-), 12 peanut butter sandwiches, 12 packs of pop-tarts, 2 bags of Chex mix. The rest were two pepperoni sausages, which I ate before sleep each night. This worked out perfectly, as I finished my last bar before starting the Mountaineers’ Route chute on Whitney.
Since I do not enjoy worrying about water, I cached a gallon at each of Wildrose Canyon Road, Saline Valley Road, and Cerro Gordo. I originally planned to do the route in two segments: a 70-mile grunt to my water cache on Saline Valley Road, then a death march to Whitney, separated by a short night’s sleep. However, the difficult terrain and unexpected suffering on the first leg forced me to alter this plan. I instead rested for 8 hours after 57 miles, just past Darwin Falls, then again for 4 after 115, just beyond Lone Pine. While I believe the route could be done with just one rest in under 48 hours, doing so is beyond my current abilities.
With all parties assembled, it was time for the main event. I was elsewhere the year before, when a group of some of the same people climbed the harder Ericsson Crag #1 (not without incident). This time Bob, ten-fingered Tom and the others had returned for Crags #2 and #3, both class 3-4 scrambles from the saddle between them. We had breakfast at various times, then started up the trail toward Lake Reflection in a pack. Fortunately the others had been this way before, because I would never have found the old Harrison Pass trail on my own. Though it is blazed, and was once one of only two trails over the Kings-Kern Divide (Junction Pass being the other), it has all but disappeared since the creation of Forester Pass in the 1930s.
We left the old trail a bit above a lake to cross some talus west of the Crags, angling toward a chute between our two targets. The chute had apparently been filled with snow the previous year, but was now steep, loose and treacherous. With the seven of us spaced out by the approach, climbing the thing without killing those below was a slow, cautious affair. Fortunately everyone was well-behaved, and there were no injuries this time. The chute was mostly class 2-3, with a bit of fourth-class shenanigans to the right, or a lower detour to the left, required to get around a chockstone.
The chute branches and becomes indistinct as it nears the ridge. Partly because I thought it made sense, and partly because I wanted to be in the sun, I headed up one of the branches to the left, while Bob and Robert waited behind to see if I was wasting my time. I emerged on the other side, happy to be in the sun and somewhat out of the wind, to see Deerhorn’s complicated southwest face across the way, and the buried remnant of a glacier in Ericsson’s shadow below. Traversing down and around left, I found my way back up to a notch, from which informed the others that this was the way.
Above where I had hailed them, there is a steep step in the ridge. I went up some fourth class to the right, while they found another path to the left, and Scott and Iris, coming later, went up the middle; I think all routes are similar. Beyond the step, the ridge flattens out, with various class 3-4 options going over or around blocks and pinnacles leading to the summit.
I was surprised and pleased to find an old SRC register canister on this obscure and rarely-visited summit. This contained a book placed in 1991 by Fiddler and Keating, traversing the crags in 1991. Nestled between its pages was something even better: a fragile 1939 register held together by stickers, mentioning a 1921 sardine tin. I looked around a bit for the tin, then added my name to the book and sat down out of the wind to watch the others make their way along the ridge. They each in turn admired the relic, then we all departed for Crag #2.
We passed Iris and Scott at the step, then traversed past the notch on the east side of the ridge. From there, we found a variety of class 3 routes traversing up that side of the ridge, leading to a short scree-field below the summit area. The true summit was a 12-foot-high class 3 pyramid, which we took turns mounting. We found a few more scraps of paper in an inverted jam jar, far more fragile than those on Crag #3 and probably not long for this world. Bob left a book in one of his new custom register cans, then we sat around watching Scott and Iris do… something on the other summit. At first I thought they were posing for silly photos, but then they started descending and reascending different sides of the summit. Later, we found out that they had not found the old paper scraps, and were looking for a sardine tin. Sorry, guys!
When we returned to the notch, Tom and Robert returned down the death-chute we had ascended, while I convinced Bob to join me in descending the other direction, toward Harrison Pass. The chute on that side looked better, and I hoped to pick up the old trail. Also, there was the Minster… We descended the chute in tandem on opposite sides, finding it shorter and slightly less loose than the one we had ascended. The Harrison Pass trail has more or less ceased to exist, but at least the cross-country travel was fairly easy.
I stopped to wait a minute for Bob below the Minster, which looked close and easy, then glanced at it and asked “shall we?” Probably neither of us would have done it on his own, but we somehow managed to convince each other. We took off through the nasty sand and sparse brush of the lower slopes, aiming for the middle of the Minster’s various spires. We knew from Eric’s report that the highpoint was on the far left (west) side, and hoped to skip some tricky traversing.
We eventually passed through a notch midway through the formation, and began scrambling along and up the north side somewhere near the middle. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the north side is steep and composed of a disgusting mix of decomposing granite and spiny brush. I went up too early, finding myself on the third spire from the end, then made a tricky traverse back down to join Bob, whom I had advised to stay low. More class 3-4 scrambling eventually got us to just below what I think might have been the summit. I tried the final pitch, but backed off, not liking the climbing, and not wanting to push it for some obscure, minor summit.
Retreating in near-defeat, we convinced each other to give it one more shot from the other side. With Bob leading, we climbed to a gap, took off our packs to squeeze under a chockstone, then found a short, tricky descent to easier ground on the south side. We eyed the south side for a bit, and I was just starting up to check it out when we heard Kristine shouting to us from the summit. She explained that she had climbed the west side, the one aspect we had yet to explore. sigh…
We continued our circumnavigation, then made our third class way upwards, running into a line of cairns that Kristine had left to help find her way back down. I was grateful for their help at this point, and thanked Kristine as we passed her on her way down. Finding no register on the summit, Bob left another of his cool custom canisters, then we headed back toward camp, satisfied at finally solving the Minster’s frustrating little problem. We found decent boot-skiing down to a lake, followed something like the old Harrison Pass trail, and were soon back at camp. As is their wont, Iris and Scott dallied along the way, finally arriving just before dusk. We again hung around until some pathetically early hour of the night, then retreated to our shelters to pretend to sleep.