Half-full Palisade Traverse

Palisade Crest silhouette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huayhuash trekking

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.

Cordillera fail part 2: Quebradas Cayesh y Quillcayhuanca

Rough map of the area

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.

Be fruitful and multiply
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.

Don’t drink the water
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.

Quebrada Cayesh in one picture
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.

Maparaju? Nope…

Head of Cayesh valley
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.

Lots of side-hilling
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.

At least camp is nice
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

Chinchey from camp

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.

Lower glacier
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.

Difficulties to the left
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.

Not much better to the right
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.

Heading home
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.

Badwater to Whitney (L2H route, 53h09)

I come from the other side of that

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

Starting out (second time…)
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!

Badwater from Panamint crest
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.

Up Tuber Canyon
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.

Moonrise over Telescope
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

Let the tedium begin

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.

So much of this…
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.

Evening Owens Valley
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.

Inyo mine trail
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.

Sierra sunset
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

Whitney at last

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.

Portal crags
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.

Ice blocking slab route
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.

Me, hut, and Kaweahs
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

A warrior must eat

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.

Ericsson Crags 2 and 3, Minster

Ericsson from Crag 3

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.

Deerhorn from Ericsson Crags
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.

Buried glacier below Ericsson
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.

Crag 3 register
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.

Bob on 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.

Minster from stream
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.

Things get complicated
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.

View from the wrong 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

Climbing the Minster
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.

“Marmot Ridge,” “Sheldon,” “Sky Pilot,” 13,110, 13,228

Brewer and North Guard

Since I was already awake well before first light, I followed Kristine’s military schedule, eating breakfast in the dark and starting hiking just before the end of headlamp time. Robert and Kristine were headed for “Marmot Ridge,” then North Guard and onward; having already done the Guards in 2012, I decided to join them for the first, then figure out something else to do afterwards. We made our way up the Ouzel Creek drainage, which contained pines, willow brush, and no water-ouzels.

North Guard, Farquhar, Cross
Marmot Ridge the high-point of North Guard’s long northeast ridge, and its true summit is not clear from below. At some point we left the creek, trying to pick the best way up and left across the face toward what seemed like the summit. Robert was dragging a bit, but Kristine kept up a solid pace, fused ankle and all. She turned out to be not only a solid scrambler, but a jack-of-all-trades: she made her own pants and pack, mixed her own powdered drink mix, tended a small farm at home, and probably all sorts of things I didn’t think to ask about. The slope was a mix of scrub pines, sand, and talus, but there always seemed to be a class 2 route that was not too unpleasant up to the base of the summit rocks.

Approaching North Guard
We ended up somewhere east of the true summit, and had to navigate a bit of a class 3 maze around and over various blocks and pinnacles to what looked like the highest. This seemed like the kind of obscure peak that might hold an old register, but we failed to find one in about 10 minutes’ search (it was too well-hidden), and settled in to eat and wait for Robert to catch up. After regrouping, we dropped to a plateau on the ridge east of North Guard, then diagonaled down to a nice lake below its east face. Here we parted ways, I toward the first notch south of North Guard, they toward the northeast ridge route I had apparently descended in 2012.

Notch south of North Guard
The notch looked like it could be either ice or a hideous dirt-chute, but was short and fairly pleasant, with reasonably stable rocks on its north side. In a heavier snow year, however, it is probably icy and impassable without crampons late in the year. From the notch, I had to make a long traverse around Mount Brewer’s west side, which required dropping down to upper Brewer Creek, then reascending easy slabs to the two nice little lakes I remembered from my last time through.

The next peak on my ad hoc agenda was “Sky Pilot,” a minor summit south of Longley Pass, but a 12er southwest of the col had looked interesting from the traverse, so I decided to tag it on the way. The climb proved less interesting than I had hoped, a long, flat talus-hop along the ridge followed by more talus leading to the summit. However, the summit proved more interesting than I had anticipated. It contained a large brass plaque, explaining that this was “Mount Sheldon,” named for Mrs. Mattie C. Sheldon, born in 1871 and still alive as of the plaque’s installation in 1959. Her grandsons seem to have christened the peak on their own, as the Board on Geographic Names is unaware of the name. I also found an old film canister, which may have once contained an older register, but now only contained a single sheet of paper signed by the ubiquitous Brian and Marie.

South Guard Lake and Longley Pass
It was almost a straight shot from the summit, around the south side of South Guard Lake, and across Longley Pass to Sky Pilot. Unfortunately Longley Pass sucks, with lots of sand and awkwardly-broken slabs, so the journey to Sky Pilot was more exhausting than it looked. Also, there is a surprising gap between the visible and true summits. It looked like I might be able to downclimb a steep class 4-5 chimney, but I took the safe and easy route around the southeast side.

I had two options to return from here: either drop straight down Longley Pass, or continue south along the ridge to just before Thunder Mountain, then follow the lakes northeast to join the Longley route just above Lake Reflection. I didn’t want to hang around camp all afternoon, and there were rumors of treasure on Peak 13,110′, so I decided to take the long way home. The ridge from Sky Pilot to Point 3852.1m is jagged, so I bypassed much of it on annoying terrain to the right. The rest of the traverse toward Thunder is easy, with the highpoint of the final plateau near its southern corner. The promised treasure was still intact, and I happily signed in as the sixth summit party.

Lakes along return
I really should have stopped there, but I had yet to climb the ranked 13er east of Thunder, and for some reason my upcoming meeting with Bob made me care about such things. I dropped off the southeast side of the plateau, descending below the snowfield/glacier on Thunder’s north face. After contouring around, I crossed a small glacier, then climbed some horribly loose fresh moraine to the ridge northeast of Thunder Pass (?). I climbed easy talus along the ridge east, then dodged some unusual chossy towers to find the register on the farthest one.

There was no treasure here, just a modern register with a few familiar names, including Robert’s from an early ill-considered adventure. I added my own, then continued north along the spine of the Kings-Kern Divide to the next saddle, where I found a reasonable descent to the unnamed lakes. From there, I had a dismally long and flat boulder-hop to rejoin the route from Longley Pass to Lake Reflection.

Lake Reflection logjam
I was hoping for some sort of use trail, but was disappointed. Reflection’s south side is a brushy, talus-y mess, while the west has cliffs lower down. I stayed high on the west, picking up the occasional cairn or bit of game trail, but nothing resembling a regularly-used route. At the north end of the lake, I crossed the stream on an impressive log-jam, then joined the trail down to East Lake. I was thoroughly tired by the time I returned to camp, having put in a bit under 12 hours. Bob and Tom were preparing to camp in style, with a tent and clothesline. Robert and Kristine returned a few minutes later, then Scott and Iris just before dark. With a larger crew, we were able to stay out of our sleeping bags a bit longer, but still retired pathetically early to endure a slightly longer and colder night.

West Vidette

Previous “Backpacking with Bob”

“Backpacking with Bob” is a regular late-summer Sierra occurrence, and an irregular feature on this blog. Perhaps growing tired of repeating a handful of grim headlamp approaches for remote Sierra peaks (e.g. Shepherd Pass, Bubbs Creek), Bob has resigned himself to the dubious pleasures of camping out. In typical Bob fashion, he has also managed to convince others to join him in this strange activity. Previous instances have involved such fun as being snowed on while on the wrong side of the range (sorry for the broken images).

This time it was a trip to East Lake, a drainage in the middle of the range between Independence and Kings Canyon. About half of us came in from either side of the range, setting up camp for 2-3 nights near the bear box at the upper end of the lake to tag various obscure surrounding peaks. Bob seemed to be on a mission to tag every potential 13er with potentially 300 feet of prominence in the Sierra; the rest of us were mostly just along for the ride. I had planned to hike in from Onion Valley with Robert and Kristine, but when informed that they were starting at 5:00 AM, I decided that they should scout ahead. With stable weather and later sunrises this time of year, I saw no reason to put in headlamp time on an overnight. Instead, I slept in, listened to a bit of Supreme Court fiasco on the radio, then got a mid-morning start over Kearsarge Pass.

Bullfrog Lake
It had been awhile since I had come this way, and I stupidly took the Charlotte Lake trail instead of the shortcut via Bullfrog Lakes, reaching the Lower Vidette Meadow junction. Here I had lunch, stuffed a bar in my pocket, and stashed my pack to tag West Vidette, an unremarkable SPS peak. A few minutes up the trail, I spotted a bear box, and returned to grab my pack and food, figuring I might as well store them legally. It turns out that I should have inspected the bear box more closely: it was padlocked, with a passive-aggressive note from the ranger to the effect that “if you keep leaving trash in bear boxes, we’ll keep locking them.” This was, of course, a bone-headed response, since simply not emptying the box and allowing it to fill with trash would either prompt people to empty it themselves, or effectively close it. So I re-stashed my pack and food as before, just slightly farther up the trail.

Upper Vidette Lakes
I had been up Vidette Creek once before, to climb Deerhorn on my first Sierra Challenge in 2009, which made it vaguely familiar. However, I had more trouble finding and following the use trail this time, crossing Bubbs Creek too soon, then losing it a couple of times in some willows before the first lake. I followed the creek to just below the first of the upper lakes, then angled southwest toward the saddle between West Vidette and West Spur. The route description said to go up a steep chute to the saddle, but I chose a slabby ramp to its right, leading more pleasantly to the ridge. From there, it was an easy hike to the summit. I should have tagged the higher West Spur as well, but it is not on the SPS list, and I had miles to go, so I ignored it. I retraced my steps, stopping a couple of times to drink from Vidette Creek, taking off my hat and crouching to suck water from the surface. I don’t have a cat’s mastery of fluid dynamics, but I do have lips.

Bubbs Creek Wall
I returned to my unmolested pack, then began the depressing descent from 9600′ to Junction Meadow at 8200′ (I had started my day at 9100′). I passed the usual backpackers, then a large tent city between the East Lake turnoff and the Bubbs Creek crossing. I quickly found the horse ford, but didn’t see an obvious nearby log or rock-hop, and didn’t feel like wading, even though the water was low this late in the year. Conscious of the kids wandering around the tent city, I quickly made my way upstream toward the complex log crossing I remembered from some years back. The route probably changes from year to year, but the idea is to cross Bubbs Creek where it is braided above the junction with East Creek, then cross the latter to regain the trail. After some backtracking and thrashing, I was back on the trail to climb 1300′ to the lake.

Expecting to find Robert and Kristine, I was surprised to have the camping area at the lake’s outlet to myself. I was tired, though, and grateful for a chance to drop my pack and wash off my feet. Only after I had relaxed did I look at the bear box, where I found a note explaining that it was broken, and that the working one was at the other side of the lake. Ugh. I packed up again, circled the lake, and found the others just before dark. I ate “dinner” (instant potatoes, parmesan, flax seed meal), then chatted in the dark for awhile before crawling into my sleeping bag for a long, chilly, and mostly sleepless night. Ah, camping…

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.

Uglies 4: Finger and the Tunemah suck-vortex

Tunemah (r) from west
Tunemah (r) from west

Though it was not Bob’s longest outing, most peak-baggers would agree that Tunemah is the ugliest of the SPS list’s uglies. Not only is it far from the nearest trailhead, but it sits at the center of a vortex of every type of Sierra terrain that sucks. Giant boulders? Sure! Loose, shale-y, “surprise surfboard” talus? Plenty! Sand slopes? Of course! It even has a krummholtz maze, incongruously perched above 11,000 feet. Even before some sadist put it on the SPS list, frustrated Chinese shepherds aptly named it a curse involving one’s mother.

Blue Canyon from Finger
Blue Canyon from Finger
Despite the late sunrise west of the Sierra crest, I forced myself to get an early-ish start on what was likely to be a long-ish day linking Finger and Tunemah Peaks. I checked out Finger’s north face and northwest ridge as I made my way south past Pearl and Midway Lakes, but did not see an obvious direct route to the summit. Instead, I traversed around the base of the ridge, then climbed class 2 talus and a bit of sand to the sloping plateau at the head of Blue Canyon. I saw an old downward boot-track, so this route sees at least a bit of traffic.

White Divide north of Finger
White Divide north of Finger
After some boulder-hopping and scrambling past a couple of false summits, I found a cairned route up the true summit’s southwest side. At one point someone had constructed a cheater-step below a big step, for which hand-and-a-half me was grateful. Though most of it seems to be class 2 boulder-hopping interspersed with time-consuming class 3 obstacles — or worse farther south — the White Divide forms an elegant, sinuous line north from Finger to Reinstein, and southeast to Tunemah. To its west, the terrain gradually falls away in granite slabs, meadows, and high forest. To its east, the white granite gives way to darker rock where Goddard Creek drops sharply to the Middle Fork of the Kings River.

Finger from Blue Canyon
Finger from Blue Canyon
From Finger, I stayed near the ridge heading east, eventually reaching Blue Canyon Peak. The old and sparse register featured some of the usual obscure-peak folk, the occasional SPSer traversing like Yours Truly, and a few Sierra Club trips from back when they hiked the old Tunemah Trail, but no Bob (hah!). After a short break, I continued to Peak 11,920+, where the ridge splits, leading to tempting peaks to both east and west. To the east, Peak 12,096 looked like interesting class 3 on good granite, while Peak 11,987 (“Black Crown”?) to the west, with its rotten-looking black top, features an impressive 4000 feet of relief above nearby Goddard Creek. But I wasn’t here to have fun; I was here to bag distant Tunemah, then get back to camp without headlamp time. I was also a bit sluggish after three 10- to 12-hour days with a big pack.

Tunemah Lake and Peak
Tunemah Lake and Peak
I found a pleasant slab-and-sand descent to Tunemah Lake, where I refilled my water, then strode boldly into the Suck. The ridge leading south to Tunemah features two false summits, each with its own unpleasant character. The first starts out okay near the lake, then gradually becomes a pile of sliding dinner-plate talus. The brush begins past its summit, though it is not yet oppressive. The second peak is loose gray talus and sand, slightly less bad than the first; a steep cut in the ridge to its south prevents bypassing this summit.

Tunemah at last!
Tunemah at last!
From the second false summit, Tunemah reveals its true awfulness, a long maze of giant boulders mixed with sand and tough, scraggly pines. Worse, thunderclouds were building over camp and threatening to come my way. Worst, all this misery was self-imposed. I tagged the summit, then ate some tortillas to make myself feel better while trying to appreciate the views far down to Goddard Creek and the Middle Fork.

Looking toward the return
Looking toward the return
Instead of retracing my steps along the ridge, I decided to head straight west over a pass to Blue Canyon, rejoining my route on the way out at Kettle Ridge. The descent was pure Tunemah, dodging among trees and boulders down a sand-slope, almost cliffing out in rotten black cliffs near the bottom, then doing an awkward three-legged crab-walk across sliding debris to reach the forest near Alpine Creek. Here the terrain suddenly improved; I had apparently escaped the vortex.

The storm finally hit near the unnamed lakes at the head of Blue Canyon. Rather than a Rockies-style sudden downpour, it alternated between wind and light drizzle. My trash bag performed well as always, though I had to remove it when the wind picked up and its flapping became too loud. Finally reaching camp after a bit over 10 hours, I realized I had been incredibly lucky with the rain. Though I had never felt more than a drizzle, my (impressively waterproof) bivy had accumulated two large standing puddles, which may have helped keep it from blowing away. I shook it off, rinsed my feet, then peeled off my damp clothes and crawled into my sleeping bag for a long night. My spare socks and shirt, which I had set out to dry, were of course soaked. Tomorrow could be a long day…

Uglies 3: Lake 11,592 to Division Lake; Solomons, Scylla, Hansen, Reinstein

Sirens and Scylla from north
Sirens and Scylla from north

Waking up in starkly scenic Ionian Basin, I ate my morning glop, then left my camp in disarray to tag Solomons before packing up and heading west. Thinking I had the basin to myself, I was surprised to see someone perched on a rock a few hundred yards around the lake. I think we both wanted to pretend we were alone, so neither of us acknowledged the other, and the man and his partner had left by the time I returned from the summit. I went up Solomons’ south ridge, hoping for stable talus, and down the southwest slope, hoping for good sand-skiing. Neither worked as well as I had hoped, but I found no real difficulties. The peak is unremarkable from all sides, but commands excellent views of Ionian Basin and more impressive neighboring peaks like Scylla, Charybdis, and Goddard.

Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla
Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla
Packing up, I moved on to the lake just north of Scylla, then dumped my bedroll and food bag before heading out on an extended excursion. In addition to Scylla, I wanted to tag neighboring Hansen and the Sirens, three forbidding black peaks between Scylla and Enchanted Gorge. The Sirens were supposedly all class 3 or 4 along their west ridges, but reaching the base of those ridges looked hard. The north side, which was a friendly snowfield as recently as 2010 (a big snow year), has wasted away to an ugly mixture of packed dirt and bare glacial ice in the recent drought years. While it would be most efficient to start with the Sirens and work my way west and south, I did not want to try the miserable and treacherous slope. Instead, I headed up Scylla’s class 2 northwest slope, which was loose but bearable.

Enchanted Gorge from Scylla
Enchanted Gorge from Scylla
From the summit, I had excellent views of Enchanted Gorge, Ragged Spur and, beckoning below to the east, the Sirens. I dithered a bit, then began downclimbing Scylla’s east face, drawn by the prospect of reaching those rarely-climbed summits. Though covered with loose junk, the underlying rock on the face seemed mostly solid. The downclimb started as class 2, then gradually steepened and worsened. It reminded me a bit of the descent from Easy Mox in the Cascades, a blind downclimb that subtly draws you into ever-scarier terrain, all the while threatening to cliff out. I stayed north, hoping to hit the saddle at its high point.

Perhaps 100 feet above my goal, I reached the limit of what I was willing to downclimb. I saw that gullies to the south clearly cliffed out, as did my line, barring some kind of miracle ledge. The north approach to the notch looked just as bad from above. The south talus-slope looked easy, though reaching it would require a long detour back into Enchanted Gorge. Retracing my steps to Scylla, I managed to break a solid-looking foothold I had been using when I put just a bit more weight on it to switch feet. Fortunately I was climbing paranoid, so I stayed put even with a gimpy hand. I left a warning to others in Scylla’s register, then headed for Hansen as a consolation prize.

Lots of Hansens
Lots of Hansens
The traverse was obnoxious but not hard, following ledges over rotten class 2 terrain right of the crest. Though Hansen is higher than Scylla, it is not on the SPS list, and therefore sees far less traffic. Judging from the register, most visitors are members of the Hansen clan, who have appropriated the peak as a sort of shrine/mausoleum. I made my interloping mark, then returned to my gear stash before heading west.

Unnamed and Reinstein
Unnamed and Reinstein
There was a bit of cliff-related frustration getting through the black rock around Lake 11,818, then travel turned more pleasant as I dropped across the grass and granite benches near the head of Goddard Creek. With more time and energy I would have scrambled up the impressive pinnacle of Peak 12,432, but it was late, and my plans for the next day required camping somewhere in Blackcap Basin. I found a few cairns on the way to the pass between Goddard Creek and Goddard Canyon (which, confusingly head in opposite directions), though I doubt the pass sees more than a handful of backpackers per year.

Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake
Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake
I lucked into climbing Reinstein the right way, scrambling up some steep, stable class 2-3 talus on the northeast ridge, then bombing down the standard sand route to the south. Blackcap Basin is a wonderful place to camp, with a ridiculous number of lakes tucked up against the White Divide near tree-line. It is also far from the nearest, annoying-to-reach west-side traiheads near Wishon Reservoir, so it sees few visitors. Reaching Regiment Lake, I decided that I was close enough to reach Tunemah, and set up my camp for the next two nights.