Category Archives: FKT

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.

White done Right (West ridge, 3:59:30 up, 7:01 RT)

View from top of suck


During my recent beating at the hands of White Mountain’s west ridge, I had a couple of thoughts. First, the math says that ~7.5 miles and ~9500 feet of gain (including ridge bumps), even over nasty desert cross-country terrain, should be doable in the 4:xx range by a reasonably fit runner. For example, averaging 2000 ft/hr, it would take 4:45. Second, I thought that the other west ridge looked better than what we dealt with. Looking at a map later, it seemed like the best way to do this was to start at the base of a steep dirt road to some antennas at 5260′, slightly lower than the Subaru-accessible trailhead for the Jeffrey Mine route, and almost exactly 9000 feet below the summit. It turns out that I was right: using the other ridge, I took 3:59:30 car-to-summit, and 7:01 car-to-car. Climbing 2375 ft/hr over mixed desert terrain seems reasonable given my current fitness, but there are definitely some guys out there who can beat it.

I drove the “aqueduct” road to where the antenna road turns off, then pulled into the single parking space for the night. The part I drove was definitely Subaru-friendly, and probably passable for a decent driver in a normal sedan. Figuring I would take something like 4-5 hours for the climb, I started at 7:30, so I would reach the top around mid-day. I took just enough stuff to survive: wool overshirt, windbreaker, hat and gloves, 1.5 liters of water, and 1700 calories of food (2 packs pop-tarts, 2 Clif bars, 1 pack granola bars).

Just as I started, two guys drove by to check up on the antenna. They seemed neither surprised nor concerned by the weirdo parked below their equipment. I was soon glad I had not tried to drive farther up the road, as it quickly becomes incredibly steep. I was surprised their truck made it up. When I reached the antennas, the two were apparently holding up their phones. I said “hello,” then left them to their work, following a much fainter road farther up the ridge.

That road eventually started going the wrong direction, so I took off across easy cross-country, passing the remains of a survey tripod on one of a couple of bumps. On the other side, I was surprised to see a faint old trail below. While it was hardly necessary in this open terrain, it did make it more runnable, so I jogged some of the gentler sections heading up toward the forested part of the ridge. There was prospecting all over the Whites, so perhaps this was a pack trail to some old, unprofitable claim.

Abandoned tools

The trail continued into the piñon forest, but soon faded too much to be useful. I continued up through the open forest as it steepened toward the treeless headwall that I guessed would be the crux. As usual in the Owens Valley, I had no cell service at the trailhead, so I turned on my phone’s antenna to do a bit of texting, then turned it back off to continue my woodland march. Along the way, I passed a pick, shovel, and tarp-covered supplies, of newer vintage than the trail, but apparently abandoned.

Misery crux

The headwall was every bit as bad as I had imagined, 1000 steep feet of loose talus, some of it covered in sagebrush. I started up the bottom of a shallow ravine, where talus is often more stable, then tried a rib, then some brush, then went back to the bare talus. It was all horrible and discouraging, and I briefly lost focus, costing me some time.

Technical crux (cl 3-4)

Fortunately, this is the only truly awful section of the route. Above, the ridge is open talus and dirt, stable enough to jog along the crest. As on the upper ridge, it is almost never worth dodging around small bumps, since the sides are usually steep and/or loose. I found a small cairn on 11,156′, and a larger one on 11,395′, just before the descent to the saddle above Jeffrey Mine Canyon, where I joined the familiar route. Knowing what to do now, I followed the faint sheep-trails above 12,000′, then stayed on the ridge crest over the bumps leading toward the summit. Nearing the final false summit, I saw that I had a chance at going under 4 hours, and dug deep for a bit of extra speed. Light-headed from the effort, I had to be careful on the few exposed spots. I jogged across the summit platform to the hut, and saw that I had made my goal by 30 seconds. Yee-haw!

The summit register had accumulated a surprising 4-5 pages of new entries since I had last visited two weeks before. I signed in again, put on all my clothes, then started down. Though the temperature was probably about the same, it was fortunately much less windy than before, and I even took off my shell and gloves below the false summit. I was as slow as expected re-climbing the bumps on the way down, and did not feel like pushing it on the unstable talus.

Not bad for an old guy…

Descending the headwall was unpleasant, but to my surprise, I think I went down a bit faster than I climbed it. It is easy to wander off one side of the treed ridge below, and I had to regularly correct myself by looking at my track from the way up. Once out of the trees, I picked up the old trail, and even felt enough energy to run most of the way back to the trailhead. I could definitely have descended a bit faster, but the 4-up/3-down ratio conveys the fact that much of the route is semi-loose talus that is easier to handle going up than down. Now is the perfect time of year to do this route, with overnight valley temperatures in the 40s, summit highs around freezing, and almost no snow on the route. Go get it, fast people!

Laurel (NE gully, 1h31 up)

Laurel from trailhead


As much as I claim to be getting too old for the FKT game, sometimes I can’t help myself. Laurel’s northeast gully is a classic “workout route” out of Convict Lake, just south of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra. The area’s rock is absolute garbage, but avalanches and waterfalls keep this line clean, and the crumbly rock’s layers are angled to create positive holds in what is left. After an initial hike or jog around Convict Lake, and a short boulder-hop, the climb is remarkably sustained class 3-5.easy for about 4000 feet. The first time I climbed this route, I went too far left and finished in sketchy, crumbly terrain. The second, in 2016, I was climbing with a broken hand, and could not come close to Jason Lakey’s 1h47. This time, I had two hands and decent climbing shape, and managed a 1h31, better than I expected.

I waited until I thought the temperature was about right, then started my watch and took off from the trailhead sign next to the boat dock. I reached the boulders where one leaves the trail after about 15 minutes, then spent another 5 minutes boulder-hopping to the base of the face. From there, I was redlined almost the whole way up, with only a few pauses to deal with the crux sections that pass through smoother, steeper waterfall sections. I stayed in the gully most of the way, once accidentally getting out to the left, and once to the right in the broad bowl most of the way up. However, this time I knew where to go, and generally followed the left branches of the gully system until they fade out near the summit.

Right as the gully merges into the final choss-slope, I saw someone ahead of me making pretty good time. I was surprised to have company on a weekday morning, and grateful that he had not bombarded me with loose rocks when I was down in the gully proper. I reached the summit maybe 20 seconds after he did, checking my watch before coughing and gasping for awhile.

I had planned to establish a round-trip FKT, but (1) the Strava app on my phone had crashed, and (2) I decided I would rather chat. He turned out to be a guide from the Zion area who makes semi-regular pilgrimages to the eastern Sierra. He had taken something like 1h45 for the meat of the route, an impressive time since he was carrying a pack with food and water; I had carried nothing but an overshirt tied around my waist, counting on the food and water I had chugged at the trailhead to get me through the climb.

I signed the register, then took off north down the standard descent route. The use trail started off clear, then faded more than I remembered from 2009. I knew more or less where I was going, though, circling around the mountain’s north flank, then following the northeast ridge until I could drop down a sandy gully. This was steep and somewhat obnoxious, but fast until near the bottom, where it became brushier and I had to proceed with some care wearing shorts. I returned to the boulders near where I had left the trail, then ran as quickly as I could back around the lake with all the sand packed in my shoes. It had been awhile since I had showered, and I needed to interact with civilized humans later that day, so I found a secluded spot and, against my nature, fully immersed myself in Convict Lake for all of 5 seconds. Hoping that qualified as “hygiene,” I toweled myself off, changed into fresh clothes, and headed into town.

Glacier (North Sauk, 8h38)

Ptarmigans and Glacier


Glacier Peak is the most remote of Washington’s Pacific Rim volcanoes. I first climbed it in 2014, taking about 12 hours on a semi-casual outing, and found it to be one of the most scenic hikes in the Cascades. After about 5.5 miles passing through old-growth forest by the North Sauk River, the trail climbs to meet the PCT in alpine meadows near White Pass. From there, the route follows the Foam Creek trail (not on any maps) below White Peak, then leaves it to cross the ridge north before Point 7520’+. There are bits of climbers’ trail beyond the col, but since the talus plain is covered in snow for most of the summer, most of the long talus traverse is pathless. The summit, rising 1000′ or more above its neighbors in the center of the range, would have a great view on a clear day.

Moss everywhere

The FKT on Glacier, 7h58, was set by Doug McKeever back in 1998, using the now-abandoned White Chuck River trail to the Sitkum Glacier. The new standard route, via the North Sauk, is significantly longer, but I thought I had a chance to beat the venerable record. After a couple of easier days along the Mountain Loop, I settled in to sleep at the North Sauk trailhead. Sometime around 2:00 AM, I woke to the sound of a mouse in my car. Since I had not kept the mouse traps from the last time I had this problem (two years ago, also in the western Cascades), I lay awake until the mouse went to sleep around 5:00 AM, then got a couple more hours’ sleep before downing my beet-enhanced breakfast and hitting the trail at the ludicrous hour of 8:00 AM.

Approaching White Pass

The mornings are surprisingly cool in the wet west-side valleys, so I was comfortable jogging the 5.5 miles to the cabin at the base of the climb, then hike-jogging the switchbacks to the PCT, reaching the junction in almost exactly two hours. I put on sunscreen, moved food to the front of my pack, then continued past a couple scruffy PCTers and a large cluster of mountaineers returning from Glacier with all sorts of heavy gear. The last of these, an attractive young woman putting on sunscreen at the pass, seemed concerned about my safety tagging Glacier with so little gear. She was not entirely convinced by my protests that I knew what I was doing, and skeptical of my fast-and-light evangelism.

First view of Glacier

I continued mostly jogging along the Foam Creek trail, then left at a cairned junction to cross the ridge north, finally getting my first view of the peak. I was nonplussed to see the summit covered in a lenticular cloud, promising cold, wind, and no views. I had done the peak a month earlier in 2014, so the long snow traverse I remembered was mostly obnoxious moraine, barely runnable with extreme concentration.

Broken ice at Gerdine-Cool saddle

After some ups and downs around 6600′ below the much-diminished White Chuck Glacier, the route climbs to a popular camping site around 7200′, then over a minor ridge to finally reach the edge of the Gerdine Glacier. A well-worn track follows the lateral moraine to where it becomes nasty, then drops to the edge of the glacier. I followed the boot-pack left by the several recent parties, putting on crampons near the headwall where the snow is slightly steeper. I remembered the glacier climb as being mostly snow, with one easy crevasse to avoid, but found quite a bit of bare, broken ice on the saddle with the Cool Glacier, making me glad to have brought crampons.

Crossing Gerdine Glacier

Continuing up the Cool, I jumped warily across one widening crevasse on the bootpack, then left my crampons near the summit ridge. It was slow going on the volcanic sand and loose boulders above, but I had no trouble avoiding snow on my way to the summit. I reached the top in almost exactly 5 hours, and spent about 30 seconds in the clouds before hurrying down to get out of the cold. I had both my overshirt and jacket on over shorts and a t-shirt, and was barely warm enough while moving. Also, while there was no way I could do the round trip in under 8 hours, I still wanted to put in a decent effort.

All snow last time

I jogged the upper glacier in crampons, then sat on a rock lower down to take them off and empty the volcanic sand from my shoes. I stopped again below the bivy site to refill my water at a stream and take off my overshirt, but otherwise maintained a steady effort on the return. It would have been hot if it had remained clear, but broken cloud-cover and a breeze kept temperatures comfortable as I descended back to the forest. I was slower than I probably should have been on the rolling downhill jog through the woods, but managed to reach the trailhead in a respectable 8h38. This is a runner’s course, so a better trail runner could probably do Glacier in under 8 hours.

Gear notes

I used the same setup for Glacier that I used for Olympus: running-shoe crampons and no ice axe. This is perfect for moderate-angle terrain that might include bare ice, as my crampons are light (600g) and compact enough to strap on my running pack. I thought about leaving the crampons at home, but am glad I did not, as it would have been difficult to work my way around the ice at the Gerdine-Cool glacier saddle, and incredibly sketchy to cross it in trail runners. Going crampon-free on Adams last year worked only because it is popular enough that other people put in stairs.

Sir Donald (NW ridge, III 5.4, 2h24m45 up, 4h38 RT)

Sir Donald from near Abbott Hut


Mount Sir Donald is the jewel of Rogers Pass, a quartzite wedge whose northwest ridge rises 2300 feet from the saddle with Mount Uto. I had first climbed it in 2014, approaching via the long traverse from Avalanche Mountain, and it remains one of the best routes I have climbed anywhere. It would be a shame not to climb it while I was in the area, and I figured I might as well try for speed.

I drove up to the trailhead early, packed my pack — two packs of pop-tarts, 1 liter of water, windbreaker, bear spray — then waited for it to warm up a bit before starting around 7:45. The Sir Donald trail is not optimal for gaining elevation, starting out flat along the Illecillewaet River before climbing nearly straight up toward the Uto-Sir Donald saddle, and I was still feeling a bit sore, so I only managed about 3200 ft/hr on the climb to the saddle. A better runner could probably get closer to 4000 ft/hr.

I was slowed a bit by a tricky crossing of the Vaux Glacier’s outflow stream on slick rocks, then got a bit off-route between the camping area and the ridge. There are multiple, confusing use trails of various quality here; the fastest route probably starts heading up just before the green outhouse. I passed an off-route couple on their way to Uto, scrabbled up some moraine, and rejoined a clearer trail where it crosses a ledge below the saddle.

I reached the saddle in 1h22, where a short boulder-hop leads to the base of the day’s technical climbing. Though there were no tents at the campground, I passed three parties on the ridge, one simul-climbing lower down, and two just below the summit. The climbing was as I remembered, with positive holds and clean rock along the crest, and chossier ground to the left. The best route stays close to the ridge, deviating left or (surprisingly) right to get around a few vertical steps. I reached the summit in 2h24m45 from the trailhead, having taken about 1h02 for the ridge, a substantial improvement over the 1h20 or 1h30 it had taken me in 2014.

I had mixed feelings about the round-trip FKT, partly because the view from Sir Donald’s summit is worth savoring, and partly because speed-downclimbing the northwest ridge feels risky. I spent about 10 minutes on top, eating my last pop-tarts and flipping through the register, then started back down at a steady pace. There is some sort of bypass near the top, but I just reversed the ridge. I remembered losing time on the chossy ground to either side of the ridge last time, and deliberately stayed near the crest, resisting the temptation to take easier-looking ledges to either side.

Back at the saddle, I was surprised to see that I had taken only about 1h10 descending, and was inspired to put in some effort on the run down. The trail is also sub-optimal for descending, with quite a bit of tricky running over boulders and hard-packed dirt. I scared a ranger and a couple of backpackers, then motored through the flatter section in the woods, making some noise to give the bears a few seconds’ warning as I came around the blind turns. I had expected to take about 5 hours round-trip, so I was pleased to return to the Wheeler Hut in only 4h38. This time could definitely be improved with better fitness, less enjoying the summit, and slightly better route-finding. However, I don’t think carrying a light cord to rap the ridge would be faster overall.

Temple (E ridge, IV 5.7, 3h40 up, 4h55 RT)

Summit glacier


I had other plans, but Mount Temple’s east ridge demanded my attention as I drove west along the Trans-Canada Highway in an evening rainstorm. I had previously dismissed it as too difficult, but looking at it, I was compelled to at least go up and take a look. I had already climbed Temple via the southwest ridge trail, but I had no view on the summit, and that route is hardly “classic.” I’m glad I stopped: this is an amazing route on solid rock, and it turned out to be just within my comfortable climbing ability. I mostly enjoyed myself on the way up, taking 3h40 to summit, then ran down to reach the parking lot in just under 5 hours.

Slide path on approach

It was raining as I went to sleep, so I did not drive up toward Moraine Lake and start until a bit after 7:00. I easily found the correct slide path, and headed up in trail runners, carrying an ice axe and crampons. I found what I thought was a faint boot-pack on the steep slope, and a sling above a step where the route turns right confirmed that I was in the right place.

Mount Little and Fay

Though the route is on a ridge, that ridge is so broad and complicated that it mostly feels like a face, with the best path wandering between ramps and gullies. The rock is solid and blocky, with many positive holds, and I had a great time romping up the steep class 3-5 lower ridge, following the occasional cairn or piece of tat. This was some of the best climbing I had done in awhile, and I burst into spontaneous laughter occasionally as I gained elevation.

Big Step

Shortly after a vertical step with a bolt, the ridge levels off and narrows as it approaches the Big Step, the crux of the route. It is intimidatingly vertical, and I approached with some trepidation. However, the holds remained positive, and with some cautious climbing and a couple of minor backtracks, I found a route on and just left of the crest that felt like sustained 5.6, on which I was focused but not scared. Where the angle eased, I followed a chossy ledge around left to a steep gully with a couple of vertical steps. The first vertical step gave me some trouble. I tried the right side, backed off, contemplated the left, then returned to the right, using different feet to get around a bulge and onto the chossy ledge above.

Traverse below towers

Above the gully, the rock gradually degraded to more typical Rockies choss as I approached the base of the black towers. The route along and up the towers to the summit glacier is not obvious, but fortunately I could follow boot-packs from the weekend before across a few snowfields. Not only did they show the way, but the firm steps meant I didn’t need to waste time switching in and out of crampons. The final climb through a gap in the towers was chossy, but not difficult, and I soon found myself looking at Temple’s summit glacier to one side and the town of Lake Louise to the other.

Summit cornice

I started off up the bootpack to the summit without crampons, but soon thought better of that; the slope to the north was a bit steep, the snow was still very hard, and last night’s graupel partly filled the steps. With crampons, it was a straightforward snow-walk along the ridge, safely away from cornice territory, to the summit. The abrupt transition from “climber land” to “hiker land” on Temple is shocking: after climbing thousands of feet of steep rock and crossing a glacier, one step takes you to the end of a popular and snow-free hiking trail.

Emerging from the “wrong” side of the mountain, I startled two Canadians and two Europeans who had come up the trail. We talked for a bit as I put away my ice gear and ate a sandwich, then I left them to slide and run back to the trailhead. I started off going at a casual pace, passing a steady stream of hikers on their way up, and a crowd at Eiffel Pass. From there, the crowds became more dense, and I put in a bit more effort when I realized that I might reach the parking lot in under 5 hours total. I ran the switchbacks about as quickly as I could with an awkward pack, then walked back to the car in time for a late lunch.

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


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

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

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

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

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

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

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

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

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

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

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

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

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

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

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

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

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

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

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

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

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

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

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

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

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

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

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

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

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

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

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

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

Splits

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

Gear notes

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

Comparing traverses

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

Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

Adams (2h02m45 up, 3h10m42 rt, FKT)

Sorry, no photos. This was Serious Business, and the camera would add weight.

After a couple of days recovering from Fury, and another few with a friend enjoying good food, good music, and even a casual peak, it was time to get back to the serious business of outdoor suffering. Mount Adams, one of the Cascades Volcanoes (and ultra-prominence peaks) I have yet to climb, is enough of a pain to reach that I have previously passed it by several times. This time I fought through road construction on I-5, then drove the windy paved-then-dirt-then-bad-dirt road up from White Salmon. In the dark the narrow, rutted road lined with logs and slash looked like a wrong turn, but when I pulled into the herd of cars parked among the snags just after midnight, I knew I was in the right place.

I got a short night’s sleep, then a slow start to the day, with hot Cup o’ Sadness and a PB&H. Since I was going for speed, I planned to bring minimal gear: running shoes, windbreaker, and hip belt with one bottle and two Clif bars. To make this gear work, I needed the snow to have softened enough to descend without crampons or axe, but not enough that I would posthole or wallow on the way up. At around 7:30, I thought it seemed warm enough, and had run out of patience, anyways.

My body initially felt sluggish, but soon remembered its purpose as I jogged up the wide, rocky, dusty trail. The trail deteriorates where it crosses a small stream, becoming several braided paths that roughly follow a line of giant cairns. Since the route is used year-round, changing snow conditions create multiple best paths. Looking at my GPS, I was concerned that my vertical ascent rate so far had been only slightly faster than the 2h20 ascent I wanted to beat. This worry turned out to be misplaced: while I was doubtless slowed by altitude after so much time near sea level, my increased climbing efficiency on the steeper talus and snow slopes (vs. flat-ish trail) more than compensated.

I switched between rock and snow on the climb to the “lunch counter” taking a line more-or-less straight toward the southern sub-summit, generally left of the groups I began to see ahead of me. The snow was worryingly firm toward the left (west) edge of the broad face, but crunchy enough to provide secure footing. Above the lunch counter I moved right, linking various up- and down-boot-tracks and sometimes passing people. Checking my ascent rate, I was pleased to see that I was approaching 3200 ft/hr, slightly faster than I had expected, and well faster than on pace for 2h20.

Topping out on the south false summit, I jogged a boot-pack traverse, then hiked the final grunt to the summit, where a group had congregated in the old fire lookout’s lee. I put on my windbreaker before the summit, already getting chilled in the west wind, then hiked up on the snow covering the cabin. Views were clear in all directions, with Rainier, St. Helens, Hood, Jefferson, and the Sisters all clear. I took it in for a few seconds, then started jogging down.

I cut a corner down the sand on a path I had seen on the way up, then ran to the false summit. The snow had softened enough that I felt secure fast-walking down boot-packs, but it was not soft enough to really open up. I exchanged the occasional word with people I had passed on the way up, then finally got to start running near the “lunch counter.” I made a small route error below there, going too far left, then took a few scrapes trying to use a huge glissade chute with a t-shirt and no axe (the runout was fine, but braking was hard). After that, it was a wild, fast run to the trailhead.

As I stopped my watch, took out my earbuds, and oriented myself, I heard someone probably asking me a question. He asked about my time and, when I told him, asked my name. It turned out he was Jack McBroom, the former California 14er record holder! After we got over our mutual surprise, we hung had a pleasant conversation while a few of his friends finished the hike (he had, naturally, run ahead) and stored their gear. Then they took off, and I began the important business of eating random things — better ones than usual, though — before driving on to the next.

East Fury (20h45)

Traverse toward Fury

Traverse toward Fury


East Fury anchors the southern end of the core Northern Pickets, which wrap around Luna Cirque to Challenger. The easiest way to reach it requires 17 miles along the Ross Lake and Big Beaver trails, a heinous bushwhack up Access Creek, and a long traverse over snow and rock along the ridge west of Luna Peak. While I had hoped to do something much more ambitious, simply tagging East Fury by itself was a serious undertaking, significantly longer than doing Luna by the same approach last year.

Planning something bigger, I did some sleep manipulation and napping to be at least somewhat rested for a start just after midnight. The advantage of doing the Big Beaver approach at night is that you don’t have to think so much about how long it is. The main disadvantage is the giant toads, which squat in the middle of the trail and galumph in some random direction if you give them time to think. I made the Big Beaver junction in about 1h20, and was at somewhere near the start of Access Creek by 3:45 AM, much better time than I had expected.

Luna from the wrong place

Luna from the wrong place

I was not really prepared to start the cross-country in the dark, but I had a map and GPS, and Access Creek sucks no matter what, so I put on my pant legs and headed off into the woods. After thrashing down to the stream-bank and looking around a bit, it was light enough for me to pick out a decent ford: I saw no sign of last year’s complicated log bridge. I splashed through the slow, thigh-deep water without bothering to take off my shoes or pants, as I figured they would be soaked by brush anyways.

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

I cut back and forth as I climbed the other side of the Big Beaver, periodically checking my coordinates to try to figure out where I was relative to Access Creek. Unfortunately my map wasn’t high-resolution enough to be much use, as the creek is completely undetectable from as little as a hundred yards away, so when I finally got a clear view around 4500′, I saw that I was well above the creek on the south side of its valley. After a descending traverse with much misery and trashing through pines and berries, I crossed to the north side for a bit, then crossed back south to pick up the “trail.” I estimated I had lost an hour or more versus the correct route.

Fury from Luna Col

Fury from Luna Col

At least I knew where to go from here, and I made quick work of the gully up to the saddle with MacMillan Creek, which still held a bit of avoidable snow. After a short break enjoying the view of the Southern Pickets, I made the long traverse to the Luna saddle, where I got my first glimpse of Fury, far to the west along an undulating ridge.

After unnecessarily traversing around the first bump, I stayed mostly on top of the ridge, which is mostly broad and flat. I found a few cairns at one point where the route deviates north, and some typical Cascades rappel-junk where it deviates south. Though none of it is difficult, the traverse is long, made longer by the remaining patches of soft snow.

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Shortly before where the ridge turns to sharp, red choss, the route traverses south across a bowl, going under some rock buttresses to reach the Southeast Fury Glacier. The glacier itself was both badly broken up and covered in soft snow, so it was faster to follow the ledge-y third class rock to its right most of the way up, then traverse a bit of snow to the saddle just east of the summit, which is hidden behind a snow dome from this direction. I crossed the top of the glacier, then cautiously kicked my way up the left side of the snow dome before transitioning to more third class rock to reach the summit, about 11h35 from the car.

Baker and West Fury

Baker and West Fury

It was a perfect day, with most of the Cascade visible, and even Rainier making a ghostly appearance far to the south. The rest of northern Pickets stretched out to the west and north, as well as the long return route from Challenger to Beaver Pass. I thought about traversing over to West Fury, which is not that far away, but the ridge looked like complicated choss, and I was a bit demotivated by the morning’s Access Creek fiasco. Instead, I sat around perusing the register, eating, and taking photos, then began my return.

Luna and Prophet

Luna and Prophet

The steep snow slopes were unpleasantly soft, so I stuck to rock around the snow dome. The northeast side of the glacier was flat enough to plunge-step and boot-ski partway, before crossing the rocks at its edge. Now that I knew the route, the return to Access Creek was efficient, but still took quite a bit of time. Anticipating vicious insects and brush below, I put my pant legs back on before descending to the creek, putting up with sweaty legs.

The correct route above the creek crossing was mostly pleasant, with a decent path beaten through a thin strip of berries and alder. At a wider strip of brush near 4000′, where the woods are close to the north side of the creek, the current route crosses to dive into the relatively open woods. I tried to cross on some logs instead of just fording, and was rewarded with both wet feet and a bashed hand when I slipped. The best route stays in open woods somewhat near the creek higher up, then strays farther away onto an indistinct ridge as the creek steepens and turns north. I had to contend with some vicious blueberries when I lost it in a couple of places, but still made pretty good time down to the Big Beaver. Here you stay left above the swamp, then reach the stream junction mostly in blueberries.

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

I recognized the series of logs I had used the previous year, but one was either submerged or gone. Fortunately there is a reasonable ford immediately upstream. After a bit of devil’s club and other misery, I lucked into the correct path into the woods, and was back to the trail much sooner than expected. Only 17 miles to home!

The bugs were out in full force, and I was completely swarmed by flies in the brief time it took to remove my pant legs for the hobble/jog. I ran a few miles to a place that seemed less buggy, then stopped to quickly wring out my socks before trudging on. The final stretch from Big Beaver to Ross Dam was as miserable as last time, though at least it was still light. My hand ached, my back was sore where my (unused) crampons had been poking it through my pack, and my feet, which had been damp or wet most of the day, were working on blisters. I crept up the spiteful climb from the dam to the trailhead, humbled by the unexpected difficulty of my larger plan (not this year…), but pleased to have dayhiked one of the most remote peaks in the lower 48.