Category Archives: Type II fun

Cerro los Olivares (13h)

Cerro los Olivares from Majadita


At 15,650′, the Paso Agua Negra is one of the highest in the Andes, slightly higher than the Paso San Francisco near Ojos del Salado, and only (I think) surpassed by a few passes in Peru. It provides convenient road access to at least two 20,000′ peaks, Cerro los Olivares and Majadita. I successfully climbed both in a four-day trip out of Las Flores, though not on the schedule I had planned, since Olivares in particular was significantly harder than I expected.

Starting toward Paso Agua Negra

Leaving at a reasonable hour from Las Flores, I made the short ride to the aduana just outside of town, gave one of the guards my passport, explained my plan, then waited while he made a phone call. He sent me to a customs officer, who typed some stuff into his computer, then gave me a four-day pass to the border region. Clock ticking, I was on my way. The Argentine government has put in an impressive amount of engineering for the dozen or two cars it sees per day, and the road is paved and gently-graded up to about 12,800′. From Las Flores at 5900′, the first few thousand feet climb the almost-invisible but very-perceptible slope of the desert floor to the mouth of the Agua Negra valley on mediocre to terrible pavement.

Oasis below guard station

Having seen an old map that showed the road as dirt, I was worried that I would have a long day, but the pavement dramatically improves as one enters the Agua Negra, and a steady tailwind made progress even faster. I stopped a bit before noon under the only trees I had seen all day, then continued a short distance to a gate and guard post. One of the guards motioned me inside, where he inspected my passport and asked about my plans. After he radioed those plans to someone, and had me sign two copies of what might have been a liability waiver, I was once again on my way, with more permission to spend four days in the border zone.

Nice road…

I grabbed another liter and a half of water at the only Water Saint I had seen so far, then continued up-canyon. Thanks to the tailwind, new road, and fresh listening material downloaded in Las Flores, the long climb was a pleasant cruise. There is even a clear spring partway up, so one does not have to strain the thick, muddy water of the Rio Agua Negra. The pavement ends where the valley flattens out, so I actually sped up a bit on the dirt. I saw signs warning of road construction, and a grader ahead, so perhaps the rest of the pass is on its way to being paved.

Upper dirt road

Just before I caught the grader, someone in an SUV going the other way motioned me to stop. A young Argentinian woman jumped out of the back seat, and while the driver waited with some obvious impatience, she explained in Spanish and then English that she had been traveling by bike. Unfortunately her bike had had some irreparable mechanical failure somewhere on the other side of the pass, so she was hitching a ride into town. It seemed like a bold and impressive thing for a woman to be doing alone, but I did not say anything; maybe solo touring is more common than I thought here. As a fellow bike-tourist, she understood my simple needs, giving me some extra food and a hug before jumping back into the car and driving off.

Colorful peaks behind camp

The good cheer was well-timed, because I was soon back in the headwind zone, which turned the gentle and slightly washboard climb into a grim slog in my lowest gear. My turnoff up the Arroyo San Lorenzo coincided with a sign for a tunnel, of which there was no other evidence. Perhaps it is slated to be built once the paving project is complete. Thanks to recent mining activity, the road up San Lorenzo is in fairly good shape, but the headwind and 7500′ of climbing in my legs told me that it was time to camp. I briefly inspected the premade windbreak of a ruin right by the road, but the combination of trash and proximity to the highway convinced me to move on. I found a nice spot in a flood plain a few hundred yards up the canyon, pitched my tent, and set my alarm for 5:30 before reading myself to sleep.

Cerro los Olivares

With a slightly higher bike trailhead and a slightly lower summit, I expected Olivares to be the easiest of the two summits; I was badly mistaken. Though there does not appear to be any active mining in the valley, there is an extensive system of dirt roads leading all the way from the highway to the toe of the small glacier at its head. Biggar briefly describes the standard route as climbing to the left of this glacier, then traversing south to the summit. While he also suggests that the east glacier should be a moderate climb, I liked the idea of leaving my ice axe and crampons in camp.

Thank God for the road

The San Lorenzo valley is several miles long, and between the altitude, fatigue from the previous day’s ride, soft ground, and the road’s meandering, it took longer than I had expected to reach the toe of the glacier. Despite its wandering, I was extremely grateful for the road, as the whole valley looks like a pile of loose mine tailings, and would have been agony to climb cross-country or on guanaco paths. I did not see any mine trucks or pits, though there was some monitoring equipment and signage possibly suggesting some exploratory drilling.

Small glacier to avoid

I was only at around 4800m at this point, and slightly worried about how long the day might be as I headed into the untracked scree. I was hoping for a bootpack on the standard route, but Olivares apparently sees very little climbing activity: I saw no tracks for the rest of the day, nor tent platforms at the supposed high camp around 5000m. Trying to avoid dirt-covered ice near the glacier, I aimed farther left, climbing horrible scree toward some rock that I hoped would be somewhat more efficient. It was all slow going, made more frustrating when I reached the first (of many) false summits, a point around 5850m, and realized two things: first, I would have to lose 50-60m to get back on-route; second, had I continued farther west before heading north, I would have been on lower-angle and much more stable scree instead of the angle-of-repose nightmare I had just climbed.

False and true summits from 5850m mistake

Back on-route, things went about as well as could be expected. The scree and talus were still loose, and I was moving as slowly as expected at the altitude, but I no longer had to use my hands to make upward progress, or to step in the same spot multiple times before things stopped moving. Unfortunately, it is almost two miles from the first false summit to the true summit, all of it above 19,000′, and there are several glaciers or snowfields I had to avoid. (“Snowfield” in the high Andes usually means “penitente hell.”)

North from summit

Seeing the distant summit from the first false one, and almost out of food, I almost gave up and returned to camp. However I slogged on, going around or over obstacles, and finally reached the summit plateau with its weird little rock pinnacles. To the south was a lower sub-summit, its east slopes covered in steep glaciers. To the north, I could see the endless false summits I had traversed, some unknown peaks in the distance, and the prominent Cerro Las Tortolas, another 20,000′ peak that I had decided not to climb for logistical reasons.

Glaciers south of summit

I had seen a road crossing the saddle to the east, with a possible clear scree descent from the ridge, and decided to try to return that way instead of retracing my steps. I retreated past the first false summit, then descended to around 5700m, looking for a path between the glaciers on Olivares’ east face. Unfortunately this premature descent led only to glacier, and I was forced all the way back up to 6000m to rejoin the scree path I had spotted on the way up. This worked well for a few thousand feet, with nice, deep, skiable scree. The rocks were large enough that they would have punished my ankles in running shoes, making me grateful for my clunky mountaineering boots. Though they are usually overkill in other ranges, I am finding that the ground in part of the Andes is often nasty enough to make them worthwhile.

A new kind of evil

The fun ended at the stream at the base of the slope, which presented a fresh Andean hell: angle-of-repose scree leading directly to penitentes, in turn surrounding a meandering glacial torrent partly bridged by uneven ice and dirt. Thankful that I was at least heading downhill, I side-hilled my way down to the junction with the main stream, where I grabbed some surprisingly-clear water, then took a path up to the old road. The road appeared to be abandoned, but was in good shape until the long traverse east above the San Lorenzo valley. Where it finally became near-useless, I bombed straight down the scree-slope to the valley bottom, following a faint guanaco track. From there, it was a straightforward if exhausted walk back to the road, and to my tent. I had originally planned to move camp down the road to the next trailhead at Pirca Negra, but it was almost 7:30 and I was feeling wrecked. There was no way I would summit another 20,000′ peak the next day.

Nevado Juncal

Juncal North glacier


… or, “In his first skirmish with the Argentine/Chilean Andes, Dr. Dirtbag earns a narrow victory.”

Nevado Juncal is a high peak south of the Paso de los Libertadores, the pass crossing the Andes near Aconcagua. When planning long trips, I normally start with a list of primary objectives, then look for “targets of opportunity” to break up the long commutes between these main goals; Juncal was one such. It is thoroughly my style: not quite 6000m, not technical, not on any list, and generally ignored by non-locals, despite being right on the way to Aconcagua. It is also one of the most brutal slogs I have ever done, climbing around 6000 feet of truly horrid scree, leftovers of shrinking glaciers, and penitentes to reach the high glacier saddle east of the summit. Still, the peak is home to the region’s largest glaciers, reminiscent of the Bernese Oberland, and the summit views of these and nearby Aconcagua are stunning, so it was not a wasted effort.

Private park road

I took my time waking up by the river, fought with the stove a bit, then ground out more climbing toward the Paso de los Libertadores, stopping to take photos of an old guardhouse before turning off just below the switchbacks on the dirt road leading to Juncal. My guidebook mentioned possible private property issues with this route, and indeed I saw signs indicating a “private reserve” ahead; hopefully that meant they would allow bicycle-riding dirtbags to proceed. It turns out that the reserve is basically a park owned by the descendants of one of the American mining companies who grabbed vast tracts of the Andes in the early 1900s, with a visitor center and small boarding house staffed by fairly knowledgeable young locals. The park charges nominal fees for entry and for each night camping, which I happily paid, as I prefer this use of the land to the exploratory mining being done (by another American company) just down-valley.

View down Juncal valley

I pulled in early in the afternoon, and was met by Martin, who allowed me to stash my bike in the tool-shed, and was interested to see what conditions I found, as he planned to climb it later in the season. He gave me a radio, took some money, and sent me on my way. I switched from bike- to hike-mode, which takes awhile, then took off up the popular trail to the base of the glacier. The trail passes a couple of “wetlands,” which in this part of the world means “anything green,” then reaches an unavoidable glacial stream crossing. With the significant day/night temperature fluctuations, these crossings can be trivial in the morning and quite severe by evening. This one was a bit less than knee-deep in the mid-afternoon, and safe to ford barefoot.

I continued past the crossing, not sure where I wanted to camp, and eventually gave up on camping at or above the glacier. After a shoe-soaking crossing to reach a non-silty water source, I retreated to a camp just past the water crossing that I later learned is used by the Chilean army. Another group was there, and offered me a tarp when I did not immediately put the rain fly on my tent. There was much miscommunication, which gave me the impression that they were leaving at 5:00 AM to go straight for the summit, some 2850 vertical meters away. That would be long but doable on normal terrain, so I was tempted to try the same.

To base camp

Roping up at glacier

I woke up at 6:00, ate breakfast, and saw that at least part of the military group was still in camp. I (wisely in retrospect) decided not to try to summit in a day, but instead packed up camp and made my way toward the glacier. I passed the army folks roping up at toe of the glacier, and mentally filed them as “clueless” for doing so on a dry, rock-covered valley glacier. After some shenanigans on the rock-covered left-hand side, I finally made my way to the white center, where the going was much easier, and steadily progressed toward the icefall at the head of the valley.

Welcome to my hell

I headed for the obvious break in the left-hand moraine, and found a few cairns and faint traces of trail. Unfortunately, I missed the place where the trail leaves the stream shortly above the break, instead following the creek to where it petered out in a talus-field. Hoping this was the “broad couloir” mentioned in the terse route description, I made my way up, wandering back and forth to find the least-painful path. Unfortunately “least” is a relative term, so I was from time to time reduced to crawling on all fours, or stepping 3-4 times in the same spot until the scree settled.

Rejoining route at penitentes

As the terrain above continued to look less hopeful, I puzzled over my topo and realized that I needed to be on the other side of a ridge. I made a horribly chossy traverse, a sketchy downclimb, and found myself clearly on the correct route, right below the penitentes that Martin had mentioned. These were no more than knee- to thigh-deep, so wading through them was not a major ordeal. Unfortunately the glacier-related misery continued above, with loose talus and mud covering old ice in the couloir, and the sides mostly too steep and rotten to be of use.

High camp

I finally crawled to the ridge to find a few truly spectacular bivy sites. There were no windbreaks on the exposed ridge, but the mountain’s shape seemed to keep things reasonably non-windy. I set up my tent, then went side-hilling in search of liquid water below some nearby penitentes. Most of it was undrinkably gritty, but with a bit of careful class 4 downclimbing I managed to find a relatively clear stream flowing down some rock. I painfully returned to the tent, cooked dinner, checked in with the office (Martin was gone, so I spoke to his partner Belén) and listened to podcasts until I finally went to sleep.

Al cumbre

Sunrise on Aconcagua

I ate breakfast at first light, then sidehilled around a bit trying to find the “other glacier” that would take me to the glacier saddle leading to the summit. Unfortunately it has badly decayed since my route description was written: the remnant is far too broken to be useful, forcing me onto the nightmare mixture of dirt, scree, and penitentes to its left. These penitentes are the real deal, being waist- to chest-high, and rock-hard in the morning. Climbing penitentes in this condition is an acrobatic process of stepping from saddle to saddle, generally staying above the intervening troughs.

Upper glacier

Finally, just below the broad ridge, I was able to get onto the real glacier and put on my crampons. There were two large crevasses, both passed to the left, and numerous smaller ones, mostly obvious and easily-avoided. I stayed on the glacier farther than necessary, hoping that it would be quicker than the volcanic sand and scree it covered. This involved some slightly steep snow and ice, but saved me plenty of mental energy. On the climb from camp to the saddle, I had been climbing so slowly that I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Once on the snow, I realized that the fault lay in the terrain, a mixture of all of the worst things a dying glacier can produce.

Rocks on summit ridge

I left the snow and ice near the highest reasonable point, slogging up some sand to intersect a faint trail, which I followed without incident to the summit. Well, “summit”… Biggar’s guidebook states that “the highest summit is the NE peak,” but the western one certainly looks higher both in person and on the map, and is marked on Peakbagger as the summit. Still, the NE peak has a register, and I lacked time and energy to traverse a mile of mixed snow and choss above 19,000′ to tag the other.

Glaciers to the SE

In any case, my summit had a superb view of the large Juncal North glacier, as well as a system of connected valley glaciers to the southeast reminiscent of the Bernese Oberland. It also featured a remarkably fancy register, a black composition book that perfectly fit in a large, metal “Banco de Chile” box. I read the list of names, a handful of parties per year dating back to the early 2000s, added my own solitary entry, then retraced my steps.

This was not fun

The upper scree descent was as fast as I had hoped, so I followed it as far down as I could before switching to the glacier, which went without incident. Unfortunately, the descent from there to camp was all sorts of awful. Everything had warmed up and melted, so I frequently slid on the mud-covered glacial ice, scratching my palms and having zero fun. Crossing the softened penitentes was more like a fighting game, as I tactically kicked, punched, and elbowed a path using a mixture of the valleys between them and platforms created by my destruction.

Back at camp, I packed up my tent, then made an effort to descent the “correct” route. I followed my ascent route through the lower penitentes, taking advantage of some decent boot-skiing along the way, then found my way through some slabby cliffs below the toe of the retreating glacier. From here the valley split in two, with both forks looking ominously cliffy. I glanced at both, then took the right, hoping that I could traverse out on that side to perhaps reach the old lateral moraine.

I eventually reached a precarious ledge with bulging rock above, from which I retreated after a cautious attempt. I glanced at other options, and was feeling somewhat dismayed when I saw a cairn on the ledge above the one I had tried. This was the key to the “official” route, which exits here to cross the right-hand wall of the old glacial valley. Lower down, I found a more distinct trail, and even some well-built camp spots near the glacier, apparently the 3700m camp mentioned by Biggar.

Walking down glacier

From there, I rejoined my old path near the cut in the moraine, then headed for the glacier’s smooth white center as soon as possible. My afternoon walk down the glacier was much more enjoyable than the previous day’s ascent; as usual, the glacier looked more impressive from above than below. Belén had mentioned that I had a spot at the moraine camp if I needed it, but I knew I could make it to the office before dark, and saw no need to make another camp. The stream crossing was at its fiercest, so I rolled up my pants and forded shoes-on; unfortunately the stream was slightly more than knee-deep this time, so my pants were soaked anyways.

I reached the office a bit before 7:30, where I got into an extended conversation with Belén, whom I had only met by radio. Among other things, I learned that the summit register box, like so much in Chile, is political: the chief of the Banco de Chile, a very wealthy and powerful man, had similar boxes placed on the summits of all the country’s 6000m peaks as an advertisement for his company. Since Juncal was long thought to be above 6000 meters, it was so blessed. We eventually got too cold to keep chatting, so I rolled down the road a bit to camp in a pullout, saving myself a few dollars.

Henry, Emerald

Emerald from Hell For Sure Pass


Henry and Emerald are both remote SPS peaks, west of the Evolution Valley near the center of the Sierra. Bob had done them separately, reaching Henry from Courtwright Reservoir and Emerald from Florence, the latter taking about 15.5 hours. Since they are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, I had long planned to do them in a single trip; and since I had just done the tedious Florence Lake approach for Hooper and Senger, I chose to do them from Courtwright, a route that would consist almost entirely of new-to-me terrain. However, those separating miles include Goddard Canyon (confusingly not home to nearby Goddard Creek), a 4000-foot trench adding an extra vertical mile to the day.

Since I was planning to spend two nights at Maxson, I opted to split my headlamp time in half, putting in an hour in the morning and anticipating another in the evening. I woke to chilly but surprisingly comfortable temperatures, drank breakfast, and shouldered a pack heavy with almost all of my remaining high-energy food. Small hands and a bit of manual dexterity allowed me to secure my remaining food in the bear box, though the local ursines seemed well-fed enough not to have eaten the potato or onions that had long been lying in the open box. With that, I was off down the trail, which briefly coincided with a thirty-plus-mile OHV route to Kaiser Pass that maps.me had nonsensically suggested as the best bike route over from Florence.

Fleming Lake

Once off the jeep road, the trail crossed Maxson Meadow/Bog on an old wood walkway, then slowly climbed through the woods. Starting from a dry trailhead, I knew I was low on water, but my water hose was frozen, so I had no idea how much I had left. I stopped to lie down and suck a bit of water out of one creek, but did not want to deal with the cold and misery necessary to get more inaccessible water. Maps.me fortunately did better at routing me to Lower Indian Lake, because I was outside the area of my downloaded maps, and there are a mess of confusing trails in the area.

Henry’s west ridge

It finally started getting light on the climb away from Post Corral Creek, where the views simultaneously started opening up. In keeping with Courtwright’s dome-rich surroundings, there were pleasant granite slabs breaking up the west-side woods, including Corral Mountain behind and the unnamed peaks flanking Fleming Creek. Water and warm sunlight finally coincided at Fleming Lake, where I found a faint path leading to a place where I could reach open water without wading through a grassy bog. From there, I continued along the trail to the mouth of Lower Indian Lake, then took off cross-country toward Mount Henry, previously hidden by an unnamed and un-surveyed 12,000-foot peak to its south.

Evolution junction from Henry

The west ridge looked like it would probably work if I joined it late enough, and the cross-country was surprisingly easy and pleasant, with some nice slabs and relatively little brush or sand. I contoured south of the ridge to avoid some jaggedness, and was reassured to find some cairns on the route I had chosen to reach the final summit slope. Henry lies near the northern end of the Le Conte Divide, with the ridge dropping 4000 feet to the San Joaquin River to the north at the JMT/Piute Pass junction, and continuing jaggedly south past Hell for Sure Pass toward Tunemah. I hoped that, unlike Tunemah, Hell for Sure was not named for its nature.

Final Evolution descent

From the summit, Emerald Peak looked distant, Goddard Canyon deep, giving me some pause. However this is what I was here for, what I am meant for; returning to Maxson by mid-afternoon and trying to amuse myself at the deserted trailhead simply would not do. I shouldered my pack, then set off down the steep, loose slope toward the unnamed and unknown lake and creek leading to the San Joaquin across from its junction with Evolution Valley and the JMT. After the initial nasty descent, I found easy travel beneath the mystery 12er’s northeast ridge, then an ominously steepening descent into the Manzanita Zone.

Typical Goddard cleft

Consulting both my map and the terrain, I cut the corner to the south, skipping the JMT entirely and nearly escaping the brush. However, a final tactical error forced me to bash through some aspens just above the trail; at least I was headed downhill and “with the grain.” I had previously traveled this trail on my escape from Tunemah, and found it much as before: little-traveled but still in decent shape. However I did not travel mindlessly, as I needed to figure out how to reach Emerald from this side; between the vertical cleft often surrounding the San Joaquin, the creek itself, still an unpleasant ford this late in the season, and the steep walls rising 3000 feet or more to the summit, the route was not obvious.

Emerald from 11,000-foot bench

I left the trail near a “campsite” marked on the map before the “pig chute” (whatever that is), and almost immediately found a nice rock crossing. I grabbed some water, then started meandering up the 3000-foot climb, foolishly optimistic as always that I could make something work. Preferring class 3-4 rock to brush, I found a decent line to the weird plateau around 11,000 feet, then continued straight up a seasonal stream toward the peak’s north ridge, thereby avoiding the worst of the upper talus and cliffs. This worked well, and I reached the summit sooner and fresher than expected.

Evolution Ridge and Darwin Bench

Looking straight across Evolution Valley up the familiar Darwin Bench was a distressing reminder of my proximity to the east side. Still, I took my time enjoying the views of frustrating nearby Peter, McGee, and The Hermit, and perusing the register. It seems that the (mostly familiar) crew had come at the peak from just about every angles, some encountering an easy scramble, others unexpected difficulties. I was reassured to read that one group had found an easy route from upper Goddard Canyon, boding well for my plan to shortcut straight across to Hell for Sure Pass.

Freezing San Joaquin

Unfortunately this route was worse than my line of ascent, with more loose talus up high, and more brush and obnoxious cliff bands lower down. I think the party in the register started from higher in the canyon, but I did not want to do the extra distance. The Hell for Sure trail leaves the Goddard Canyon far up-canyon, following a bench around 10,000′ for at least a mile. However, it seemed feasible and faster to cross the river down around 9400′, then climb 600′ straight back up through class 2-3 terrain. I lucked out, easily finding another rock crossing below a freezing waterfall, then climbing a virtual staircase to the trail, which is faint but still usable.

Hell for Sure Lake

There was no question of tagging nearby Red Mountain: I was running low on daylight, and wanted to cover as much distance as possible before headlamp time, when I would become much slower on faint and/or rocky trails. I enjoyed the view of large Hell for Sure Lake against Mount Hutton’s steep north face, finding a surprisingly decent trail on this side of the pass. The trail faded somewhat past Disappointment Lake, but there was still a sign at the Devil’s Punchbowl junction, and I reached the junction with my outward route well before dark.

Other than an ill-conceived attempt at a slab shortcut, the return was mostly uneventful. Near Post Corral Creek, I was startled out of my music-aided coma drive by two men gathering wood to add to an enormous campfire, then put on my headlamp somewhere past the supposed Corral on the final, gradual 600-foot climb toward home. I was energetic enough to jog some of the flatter uphill sections here, but began suffering in the pool of cold air in Long Meadow, and stopped enjoying myself on the final climb. Mindful of the dry trailhead, I filled up on water near what I guessed (correctly) was the last creek crossing, then sloshed and slogged home. Emerging into the lot, I was surprised to find another party messing around next to their pickup truck. They were probably at least as surprised to have me suddenly pop up out of the woods, hacking out a lung and poking at my phone to stop Strava. I eventually found the correct pair of bear boxes, shoveled down some pasta with canned oysters, and fell asleep as the others finished what they were doing and departed to wisely leave the strange woods creature alone.

Silver

Silver from near Divide


There are many Silver Peaks; this one is an unremarkable and relatively inaccessible summit in the middle of the Sierra southwest of Mammoth Lakes. The standard approach seems to be from the west, starting at Lake Thomas Edison, but it is only slightly farther to approach from the east. Since I was already in Mammoth for other reasons, I approached from there, via Duck Pass and an unfamiliar section of the JMT. Thanks to a crossing of the low Cascade Valley, and a wrong-trail issue, this involved about 35 miles and just over 9000 feet of elevation gain. I knew this going in, but was still surprised at how tough the day felt.

Tiger lilies!

I got a comfortable night’s sleep in the woods outside Mammoth, and a lazy start near Lake Mary a bit after 6:00. Setting the day’s theme of losing to the trail maze, I soon realized I was on the wrong trail, paralleling Duck Pass a quarter mile to the right. Course corrected, I hiked the maddeningly flat switchbacks to the pass, then took off jogging around large and scenic Duck Lake. The PCT/JMT traverses above the Cascade Valley here, so there were a few tents near the lake’s outlet, and I began seeing a steady stream of through-hikers as I jogged the traverse to Purple Lake, which is not at all purple.

Back toward Red Slate and home

While the PCT continues above the valley, I needed to be on the other side, so I left it to drop about 1500 feet to Fish Creek, then slowly gain it back on the other side, on a trail following Minnow Creek. Fish Creek was more of a river, and the flat valley bottom was swarming with mosquitoes and black flies after the wet winter. I found a usable but precarious log-jam about 100 yards downstream, and slowly struggled across while alternately grabbing branches for balance and swatting the hordes of mosquitoes.

Olive Lake

Other than drawing a GPX track to download the relevant maps the day before, I had not paid much attention to the route, so I passed a signed turnoff to “Iva Bell” (hot springs, it turns out, not a dome) without much attention, lost in my angry music and dark thoughts. The mosquitoes remained relentless as I passed though Jackson Meadow, swarming me when I stopped to wring out my sock after slipping at a stream crossing. At a signed turnoff to Olive Lake, I pulled out my map, and realized that I had traveled quite a ways up the wrong valley. As usual, my first response was to curse at having made a long day even longer through stupidity and inattention; fortunately I had the valley to myself. Looking briefly at the map, the best plan seemed to be to take the trail to Olive Lake, then traverse west somehow to Silver.

Anne and Peter Pande Lakes

Other than the mosquitoes, which attacked again as I got more water at Olive Lake, the valley was pleasant and easy. I eyed the terrain as I climbed toward the Silver Divide, and thought it looked easiest to gain the right-hand ridge just below the Divide. Once on the ridge, I saw that it would be faster to descend a bit and traverse the high bench at the head of Long Canyon, rather than following the ridge. There was still a lot of snow hanging around on the northeast slope, but it was soft enough at midday to cross without much trouble. I dropped down to about 10,800′, then regained the ridge at the final saddle before Silver to climb its southeast ridge.

North to Ritter, Banner, and Mammoth Mountain

Reaching the summit after some unremarkable class 2 scrambling, I was pleased to find an old Doug Mantle register from his first trip through the SPS list, and surprised to be the first visitor this year. It was about 12:30, and I had told Renee I would meet her back in Mammoth by “mid-afternoon.” That clearly was not happening, but if I followed the correct trails and jogged, I could at least be slightly less late. I ate my last food, took a few photos, and started for home.

Beetlebug Lake

Getting down to Beetlebug Lake was tricky, as it is surrounded by steep walls and nasty brush. I dropped to the small unnamed tarns, then traversed above the brush to the left until, via some slab shenanigans, I dropped to the lake near its outlet. The Long Canyon trail was surprisingly faint, and I found and lost it several times on my way back to the “Iva Bell” junction. I mercilessly shortcut the trail down to Fish Creek, then decided to ford it instead of using the logjam. This was probably faster, but I made the mistake of keeping my pants on, soaking them in the thigh-deep “crux” of the crossing. It was a hot day, though, and the water was not too cold, so I did not mind as much as I normally would.

The climb back to Purple Lake was a grind, but the traverse back to Duck Pass went quickly. The JMT hordes were out in full force, replacing the mosquitoes at this higher elevation. I texted Renee from Duck Pass, then descended at a credible jog. I thought I would be fit after my time in Peru, but in all those weeks carrying heavy packs and moving slowly in boots, I had neglected my running fitness. Clearly a tuneup is in order.

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.

Badwater to Telescope

Route from summit


Telescope Peak is the highpoint of the Panamint Range, rising over 11,000 feet from Death Valley to the east, and slightly less from the Panamint Valley to the west. Most people hike it from the northwest, via a well-maintained trail starting above the charcoal kilns. However, there is a harder way to climb it, starting from Badwater to the east, that is popular among Californian peak-bagging masochists. Since I am all of that except Californian, I have had it on my to-do list for awhile, but have never quite summoned the motivation at the right time. Now was my opportunity.

There are several ways to do it, the most popular being to start and end at Shorty’s Well on the west side of the valley, as Brett Maune did for his mind-blowing 8-hour run. However this is not technically the lowest spot in the United States, and Shannon, displaying admirable purism, insisted upon starting at Badwater, 30 feet lower and six miles east of Shorty’s Wells across a salt flat. I had originally wanted to return to the start, but was fortunately persuaded to set up a car shuttle to the normal trailhead. With the shuttle, it was about 30 miles and 12,000 feet of gain, much of it over rough terrain, and a long day; without, it would have been a nightmare.

Dawn on salt flat

I had planned a 4:00 wake-up and 4:30 departure. However, there was a surprising amount of nighttime traffic at the “day use only” parking lot, so I got little sleep. Topping it off, a noisily enthusiastic group pulled in at 3:00 AM, and spent the next 15 minutes loudly sorting gear, enthusing about burritos, and probably fist-bumping. What were the odds that we would share the route with another group, and that they would be so annoying? There was no chance of getting back to sleep, but we still managed to take forever getting our act together, starting at the originally-planned 4:30.

Rough surface

The night-time crossing of the salt flat was probably the day’s crux. We were fortunate that it was mostly dry, as it can become nightmare mud, which the salt crust prevents from drying. The dry parts of the flat were some sort of salty and surprisingly hard mud/rock with pockets and sharp points, which sounded like flatware when it broke. It suddenly changed in color and texture for no obvious reason, and always required careful foot placement.

Nasty mud

With no moon, there was no horizon by which to orient myself. I had read about people wandering in circles in the desert, and it turns out that I am especially bad in this respect. After hiking a bit in what I thought was a straight line, occasionally bumping into Shannon, I looked at my phone and realized that I naturally turn left at a radius of about 0.1 miles. I had no idea I was so defective. Fortunately we had started relatively late, giving us a horizon to orient ourselves for the second half of the crossing. As we approached the west side of the flat, we encountered a mild version of the dreaded mud, sticky and perhaps an inch deep under a breakable crust.

What kind of activities?

Once past the salt flat, it was a short and mildly brushy hike to the well-graded West Side Road, which leads to the much rougher Hanaupah Canyon road. This road climbs the endless alluvial fan to the canyon’s mouth, then drops into the wash to make its way up the south fork toward a year-round spring. Badwater to Telescope hikers normally count on this spring to refill at the base of the main climb. However, a sign at the start of the road stated that unspecified “illegal activities” had made the water “NOT SAFE FOR DRINKING.” Fortunately I am paranoid about desert water sources, so we had both brought enough to skip the spring.

Endless alluvial road

Hanaupah Canyon was surprisingly busy. In addition to the large group somewhere ahead, we were passed an older couple in a rented jeep, moving at a slow jog, and saw a half-dozen people at the mouth of the canyon’s north fork, possibly canyoneering. The canyon climbs very slowly, gaining only 3500′ in 8 rough miles to the spring, so we had plenty of time to speculate about illegal activities and why people would drive up this obscure canyon in the rapidly-warming morning. The road disappears below where the map suggests, and we found the jeep there, and the senior couple a short distance upstream. We found occasional cairns or bits of use trail, but the route seemed far less traveled than I had hoped.

Mine near spring (SR photo)

Nearing the spring, a small running stream with nasty brush to either side forced us along one side or the other of the canyon. I knew the route climbed the right side, but for some reason followed a faint trail on the left. This eventually led to a decent-sized mine, which provided a welcome diversion after the long desert slog. Perhaps the jeep couple were mining enthusiasts?

Cool grow, bro (SR photo)

I spotted an old gate across the way, and I think the normal route climbs the ridge just beyond this point, but the brush looked particularly nasty, so we continued upstream on the left, hoping to round the brush above the spring. This little detour did not cost much time or effort, and solved the mystery of the “illegal activity.” Some hardy (in the Dave Barry sense of “stupid”) entrepreneurs had set up a large marijuana field less than a mile from the end of the road, with a hundred or so plants drip-irrigated from the spring. The National Parks Service had snipped the hose from the spring, but left the whole system in place for the next person to come by with a roll of electrical tape and some seeds. In addition to the irrigation system, there was a small camp with a bag of fertilizer and some empty cup-o-noodles packages.

Now it was time to climb: 6200′ in 4.5 miles to the trail, then another 1200′ in 1.5 along the trail to the summit. We started up along an old mine road above the grow, then took off cross-country where it ended at a partially-collapsed tunnel. Shannon was a bit skeptical of my route, and I had to admit that it was not a GPS track someone had recorded, but just a line I had made up based on a rough written description. Fortunately almost nothing can grow in Death Valley, so after a bit of steep side-hilling, we found easy travel up a faint rib to the ridge north of the canyon, even passing a couple of useless cairns.

Useless trail sign

There is a trail in places along the ridge, but it seems to serve sheep more than humans, and fades in and out as the possible path narrows and widens. The best route stays near the crest, weaving around trees, crossing minor bumps, and climbing steadily and steeply. We had been expecting to catch the 3:00 party group all day, and finally met one descending as we approached the steep, forested headwall below the north ridge. He was planning to descend to the springs and camp, then hike back across the salt flats to a car at Badwater the next morning. I thought “okay, have fun with that,” but Shannon generously offered him a ride from the standard trailhead, convincing him to head back uphill.

The young man made good time for awhile in his overnight pack, staying with us and talking long enough to make things clearer. He was one of a group of six, trying to set a record of three days on a 150-mile cross-country route from Badwater to Whitney called “lowest to highest” (explaining the crude metal “L2H” sign we had found earlier). Not liking his chances of completing the 35-mile dry stretch from Hanaupah Springs to the next water source, he had abandoned the attempt. While desert fast-packing is absolutely not my thing, I appreciated the spirit, understood why they were so fast and loud, and was somewhat ashamed of my earlier irritation.

He eventually dropped back, planning to skip the summit and meet us at the trailhead. The last 3000′ are a brutal grind up the east face to the ridge, weaving through trees and brush on mostly loose ground. We got lucky and chose a good path, passing another member of the L2H team who spotted us from a worse line and, mistaking us for two of his group, shouted to go on without him. This was starting to look like a desert version of the Scott Antarctic expedition, with members dropping along the way as ambition met harsh reality.

Me pointing at the wrong place (SR photo)

After hours of calf-burning climbing and backsliding, the well-manicured trail was a pleasant relief, though I soon tired of the horizontal switchbacks. As expected, there were several groups of hikers out on this perfect holiday weekend, amusingly (to me) including some fans (not mine). It had been t-shirt weather almost the whole way up, but was suddenly chilly and windy on the summit. There was a group with a friendly dog on the summit, who were a mixture of impressed and baffled when we explained how we had arrived there. Snacks and silly photos later, it was time to head down: while there would be no evening headlamp, there was still an exhausted 2-hour drive back around to Badwater.

We met our young companion just as he was reaching the trail, worried that we might have already passed and left him. He turned out to be a Berkeley student just about to turn 21, making me feel even older than I normally do. I appreciated his enthusiasm, though, and enjoyed our conversation on the way to the car. Two hours’ drive later, we were once again cooking dinner at Badwater in the dark. Not wanting a repeat of the previous night’s disturbances and sleeplessness, we blearily drove to the closest more secluded trailhead to camp.

The Hermit (failed), McGee, Peter (12h15)

McGee and Peter from Hermit


Mine was the only car in the lot at North Lake, and the pack station and campground were both long closed. I woke to my alarm at 4:00 AM, and started the lonely walk up the road through the campground at 4:30. The route to Lamarck Col is much easier to follow now than when I first used it, with signs of recent trailwork, and I am much more familiar with the route, so I had no trouble making my way up to the upper sand-slope by headlamp. I can’t say that I enjoy this approach, but it is far from my least favorite on the east side.

Darwin and Mendel

I reached the col about 2 hours from the car, a good time for me considering that I had walked the road to the trailhead, and admired the sunrise on Gould, Mendel, and Darwin for a minute before dropping down the mess of trails through the sand and boulders to Darwin Bench. It was cold and windy on the bench, and the windblown surf on one of the lakes had frozen on the sandy shore overnight. I wanted to get out of there, so I made pretty good time, reaching the JMT in 3 hours.

Hermit from Darwin Bench

It was warmer down in Evolution Valley, where I took off my overshirt and switched to daytime mode. I hiked up the empty JMT to Evolution Lake, then hopped across its outlet on some rocks and began a traverse around the head of Evolution Valley toward the Hermit’s east face. The traverse started out with some slightly tricky slabs, then became an easy mix of slab and forest, with a couple of cairns possibly marking some sort of route. The terrain remained easy to the flat spot below the Hermit’s two summits around 11,400′. Above, I followed a diagonal gully to join the main garbage chute which drops from the saddle between the two summits. The climbing was mildly unpleasant, but there were enough solid rocks that I could mostly avoid thrashing up the loose stuff.

Lieback/offwidth side

From the saddle, I had a good view of McGee Creek and Peter Peak, which I planned to visit later in the day. I made my way up some class 2-3 terrain on the sunny side of the ridge, and soon reached the Hermit’s famous summit block, one of the hardest on the SPS list. There are two ways to do it: a 20-30-foot offwidth/lieback on the east side, and a harder 10-foot face on the south. I had wanted to bring the short piece of rope I used on Thunderbolt to aid this block, but I couldn’t find it in my car the night before. Instead, I brought my rock shoes and hoped for a miracle of skill and confidence.

Steep face side

As Chernomyrdin said, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out as it always does.” I started with the short south side, where previous climbers had built a pile of rocks to ease the start. I found a small left foot and a good left hand, and got a solid right foot, and was basically one move from topping out. However, I couldn’t find anything I liked above that: I needed something for my right hand, and the options seemed to be either grabbing one of the crumbly nubs, or palming the rounded right edge. After one half-hearted lunge where I popped off and stuck the landing, I decided that I had had enough. I liebacked up the east crack for a few moves, and it felt great, but I wasn’t confident that my strength would last to the top, and it would not be easy to shove myself into the offwidth and rest partway up. I clearly need to climb more.

McGee’s northeast ridge

After wasting too much time getting shut down, I put my rock shoes back in my pack and returned to the saddle. I descended the loose chute on its west side for a bit, then traversed south to the lake at its base. Along the way, I somehow managed to dislodge a small rock which cut my finger on its way downhill. I got water and rinsed my finger at the lake, then climbed over the minor ridge to McGee Lakes, where the Park Service was killing non-native fish with a gill net.

McGee headwall

I started up the easy slabs of McGee’s northeast ridge, familiar from one of my one-handed backpacking trips. I was feeling a bit slow, but managed a respectable pace considering the mileage I have put on my body in the past two weeks. Where the northeast and southeast ridges meet, the rock changes to the loose volcanic crap found on neighboring Goddard. A bit light-headed from the effort, I slipped and somehow cut my wrist on a boulder, continuing the day’s blood-letting. With a bit of third class climbing, I reached McGee’s east summit, and was once again faced with the headwall that had turned back one-handed me a few years ago.

Crux dihedral

The descent to the notch was miserable, careful climbing on rotten rock or loose talus on the south side. From there, more third class led up some white rock to the base of the black face. The route was obvious, a right-facing dihedral with a crack in the back. I approached with some trepidation, as Bob had rated it 5.6, which is close to the limit of what I can solo. However, his trip report had also said that it felt secure, and I agreed. There were ample holds and opportunities to stem and jam, so while the climb was steep, it was not strenuous, so I had a good time making my way back to the sun at the top of the pillar. I would rate it maybe 5.4.

Davis Lakes and Goddard

Above, more class 3-4 climbing led to the long-sought-after summit. There were surprisingly few visitors in the register, most of them familiar. To the east and south, I had spectacular views of the Evolution ridge, Palisades, Davis Lakes, and Goddard. To the west, I saw a surprising amount of smoke, either from the Alder, Mountaineer, and Moses Fires, or just because the Central Valley is a terrible place.

Interesting lake west of ridge

The easiest way off McGee is to drop to the saddle between its main and west summits, then take a loose chute south to Davis Lakes. However, this would leave me a long way from North Lake. Instead, I followed Bob’s route, traversing to Peter Peak and dropping to McGee Creek. I made another loose descent, then climbed some third class to the west summit, from which I could examine the rest of the traverse. It looked like an easy boulder-hop, but turned out to be loose and miserable, with plenty of large “surprise surfboard” blocks. The climb to Peter was easier than the descent.

This also sucked

I had entertained the thought of continuing to Emerald Peak, an SPS peak at the northwest end of the ridge, but it looked like there was a tricky section just past Peter, then much more of the same wretchedness going over the two subpeaks along the way. Following Bob’s route, I dropped down the east side of the summit, then followed a loose gully to the moraine at the base of the ridge. Along the way, I managed to slip on a surfboard and bash my knee in exactly the same place I had on the way back from Picket Guard. Joy. When Bob had visited, there had been a snow tongue leading through the moraine to the easier ground below McGee Lakes. Unfortunately, no snow was left for me this late in the year, so I cautiously picked my way through loose boulders instead.

Sunset on Humphreys, Emerson, and Piute Crags

I felt pretty good jogging down McGee Creek, easily picking up the faint trail on the west side of the creek. I felt slow on the climb up the JMT and the use trail to Darwin Bench, but somehow found the energy to jog the flats on the Bench and past the Darwin Canyon lakes. I ground out the 1000-foot climb to Lamarck Col, pausing in a sheltered spot on the sunny side to put on my overshirt, hat, gloves, and angry music, then charged over the col. After a careful descent of the snowfield, I ran most of the descent, tired but wanting to reach the car before headlamp time. I jogged right through the trailhead, finally slowing to a walk at the pack station turnoff. It was still warm and light enough to comfortably rinse off my feet before driving down to the valley to interact with the humans and sleep.

Picket Guard (13h20)

Picket Guard and Kern Point


Picket Guard is an obscure peak northeast of the Kaweahs, and one of the most remote SPS peaks. Like its neighbor Kern Point, it is blocked from the east by the deep Kern valley, and from the west by the high Kaweahs and Great Western Divide (and lots of miles). It has previously been dayhiked in a number of ways: Bob did it from Mineral King to the west, Matthew from Whitney Portal via Trail Crest, and Matt via Shepherd Pass. I chose a slightly shorter approach with more cross-country, going from Whitney Portal over Russell-Carillon Col and down Wallace Creek. This involves about 35 miles and 15,000′ of gain, which, with a fair amount of running, took me 13h20.

Dawn Whitney with high ISO

The days are punishingly short now, but the weather continues to be pleasant in the high country. I woke to my 4:00 alarm at Whitney Portal, then joined the 4:30 headlamp parade. Even on a weekday at this time of year, there are regular waves of people getting pre-dawn starts to hike the Whitney trail… I mostly avoided them by taking the old trail, then continuing up the North Fork trail. I passed one pair a short ways up, probably headed for the Mountaineers Route since they were not carrying ropes, moving fast enough that they had no reason to start by headlamp.

Great Western Divide

I had forgotten how much of a slog it is to Russell-Carillon Col, and it is somewhat worse in the dark, when you cannot pick the best trail. I grimly slid and plodded up various use trails, finally stowing my headlamp at the broad plain below the two peaks. Dropping over the Col, I was surprised to find almost no snow on the north side, and no ice on Tulainyo Lake. I have visited Wallace Creek several times, and always enjoy the easy cross-country travel and excellent views of nearby peaks like Carl Heller, and the more distant Great Western Divide.

The Kaweahs

I picked up the old trail near Wallace Lake, which is faint in places and boggy early in the season. It was completely dry now, and I followed cairns and intermittent trail on the long hike/jog down to the JMT. Using this route, I reached it in only about 10 miles, versus something closer to 20 if I had taken the Whitney trail over Trail Crest.

Picket Guard (r) from Wallace Creek

Back on trail, I jogged the descent along Wallace Creek, then put on some Ministry and bombed down the perfectly runnable trail into the Kern, sprinting past two surprised backpackers on my way to Junction Meadow. It was already warm down here around 8000′, and I dreaded the hot climb back out on my return. I easily crossed the “mighty” Kern, grabbing some water along the way, then continued up the new-to-me Colby Pass trail. The lower part passes through some nasty manzanita and buckthorn, which had only partly been cleared, making me glad I had long pants. Since Colby Pass connects two places almost no one visits, the lower Kern and Cloud Canyon, it does not see much traffic. However, it is still maintained, as shown by the brush-clearing and some cut aspens higher up.

Slabs up to plateau

I had stupidly forgotten to download the relevant maps to my phone, so I was guided by an orange line on a gray background, representing the route I had sketched in CalTopo the day before. I left the trail about where that line turned left, easily crossed the trickle of the Kings-Kern, and after a few class 3 moves, made my way up pleasant class 3 slabs toward the toe of Picket Guard’s east ridge. Someone on SummitPost had mentioned traces of an old trail in this area, but I saw nothing, and felt no need of it.

Picket Guard’s east ridge

I eventually emerged on the seldom-visited plain east of the Kaweahs near the easternmost Picket Lake. From there, I regained the broad east ridge, then made a long, steady climb through open forest, then a mix of slabs, boulders, and a bit of sand. After a bit of class 3 poking around, I found the apparent highpoint and register canister, just over 7 hours after I had started. The register was a fine Smatko relic from the 1960s, with most of the recent entries being from the usual suspects. I spent some time admiring Triple Divide Peak and the Kaweahs, but also the plain to the south. As far as I know, this is the most remote part of the whole Sierra, far from roads and trails, and not on the way to any destination. If I wanted to live in an illegal cabin in the range, this is where I would build it.

Whitney, etc. from Picket Guard

Looking across the deep Kern at Wallace Creek and the distant backside of Whitney reminded me of how much work I had left. I hopped back down the ridge, jogged the runnable parts of the Colby Pass trail, then grabbed more water at the Kern and began the long, gradual climb to Russell-Carillon Col. I felt surprisingly energetic on the lower climb, jogging some of the gentler sections and fast-walking the rest. My sprightliness continued past the JMT, and I jogged many flatter sections of the old trail up Wallace Creek.

Sunset on Tulainyo Lake

I finally started slowing down on the headwall above Wallace Lake, climbing the boulders above the partly-frozen stream, then hiking to the saddle near Tulainyo Lake. I was really dragging on the final steep climb to the col, but made it in time to get a nice view of the large and unusual lake in the late afternoon light. It was all easy cruising from there, across the sandy plateau, then down the use trails to Upper Boy Scout Lake (much easier in daylight), and along the North Fork trail. I somehow managed to screw it up, first falling when a rock rolled on me in the treacherous section just below Lower Boy Scout Lake, then doing some thrashing when I tried to take one of the “shortcuts” I (mis-)remembered lower down. Still, I was back at the car before dark, where I quickly rinsed off in the creek, then headed into town to forage.

Pyramid (12h40)

Pyramid from above Window Lake


I am getting close enough to finishing the SPS list (213/248) that I am tempted to tag the remaining remote and/or lame peaks. Pyramid is one of the former, located in an inaccessible part of the range west of Perkins and Colosseum. Bob had done it from the west, starting at Kanawyers and coming up Woods Creek from the bottom. However, I hate driving around to the west side, and perversely wanted to use Sawmill Pass, the last big east-side pass I had not summited. Sawmill has the lowest trailhead, at 4500′, and climbs 6800′ in 9 miles to the crest. The bottom 2000′ are sand, and miserably hot in the summer. However, it is pleasantly cool this time of year, and those 2000′ of sand are a joy to descend.

Dawn on Sawmill Point

I got started around 5:00, opting for almost 2 hours of morning headlamp on a short fall day. It was chilly enough to be wearing an overshirt, hat and gloves even going fairly hard up the sandy climb. The trail climbs a ridge north of the lower slot canyon, then makes a rolling traverse around some rock outcroppings to reach the stream. I finally turned off my headlamp somewhere in the wooded switchbacks, and admired the sunrise on Sawmill Point as I climbed the Hogsback, which may be an old medial moraine between two branches of Sawmill Canyon. I passed Sawmill Lake, where we had left the trail to climb Indian Point during the Sierra Challenge, then was surprised at the distance to the pass. I finally reached it after four hours of work, half-way to my destination and still unable to see it.

New sign for me

The “unmaintained” Sawmill Pass trail had seen recent maintenance on the east side, where some large trees had been sawed through recently. However, it is in much worse shape on the west side, occasionally reduced to a mere line of cairns as it crosses the grassy bogs past Woods Lake. 1000′ down from the pass, I reached the JMT behind Mount Cedric Wright, and began jogging down the broad valley of upper Woods Creek around Crater’s south side.

Dry Window Creek

Just past the White Fork, I headed uphill toward the barely-flowing Window Creek. I had long wanted to visit this remote drainage, where experienced ranger Randy Morgenson had drowned, possibly when a snow bridge collapsed. When I finally found Window Creek, I could understand why: the creek flows through a narrow gorge in most places. While I could easily walk up the gorge next to the small late-season trickle of water, the gorge would hold snow well into the season, and walking up that snow would be the quickest way through the valley.

Palisades from Pyramid

One normally finds some signs of human traffic in trail-less sections of the Sierra, whether an old fire ring, a faint use trail, or a flat spot for a tent. However, I saw none of these as I made my way up-valley; like Dumbbell Basin, the place was wonderfully free of human signs. Nearing Window Lake, I finally got a glimpse of Pyramid, and of the ridge connecting it to Window. I hoped to do both, but it looked potentially involved, with cliffs along its base blocking easy escape. I continued up the streambed, then left it east of the saddle south of Pyramid to hike up some easy slabs. A bit of a scramble got me to the upper talus-face, where I made an ascending traverse to the summit.

Ridge to Window

There was no register canister, just a lid, but amazingly the booklet wrapped in plastic bags had survived a couple of years. I added my name, re-wrapped it in bags, and tried to protect it with the lid as best I could. The ridge to Window looked tricky, and some people I know had written in the register that it was 5.6. I suppose I could have tried, but it had taken me 7h40 to reach Pyramid, and I decided I would rather try to make it home by dark than play around on serious, remote terrain.

Sawmill Lake

I retraced my route, eating my second-to-last sandwich before the grind back up the JMT, and my last partway to Sawmill Pass. 6800 feet and nine miles of descent is no joke, but Sawmill was mostly as pleasant as I remembered. The top part is a bit rocky, but much better than neighboring Taboose. The switchbacks between Sawmill Lake and Meadow dragged on a bit, but from the meadow on was almost all a blast. The part along the creek is soft leaves and pine duff, with a good grade and not too many switchbacks. After some suckage traversing out of the creekbed, the final sand descent is pure awesome, soft sand and a perfect grade to really open up. (Wear long pants, though — without them, the buckthorn will make you pay!) A final hike through a couple of ravines in the desert got me back to the car with enough time to wash up without my headlamp. This mission had been more fun and taken less time than I anticipated; it was a good day.

White Mountain (west ridge)

Down-ridge from near summit


[Skipping over some uninteresting stuff to catch up. — ed.]

White Mountain Peak is the highpoint of the Inyo-White Range, which forms the eastern side of the Owens Valley. I have climbed it the usual way twice before, making a long drive east from Big Pine to Cedar Flat, then north on a decent dirt road through the Bristlecone forest to where it is gated, finally hiking the remainder of the road from near 12,000′. However, White rises 10,000′ from the valleys to either side, and its west ridge, starting from 5,000 feet, is a much more sporting way to summit the peak, and a classic of Owens Valley type II fun.

It had been on my to-do list for a few years, but somehow conditions and motivation had never aligned until now. Astute readers may have noticed the coaching tab above, about which more later. I had suggested this route to Shannon, an athlete interested in long-distance adventures, as a way to put in time and intensity with less damage than a long weekend trail run. When a change in plans put me in the area around that time, I offered to join her. The company would help my motivation on a desert bushwhack, and I thought I might be able to help with route finding (sort of the opposite, as it turned out…).

We met at the junction of Highway 6 and White Mountain Ranch Road the evening before, then followed the SummitPost directions up a rough road (4S135 on the Forest Service topo) toward Jeffrey Mine Canyon, eventually stopping at a washout near 5200′. Later, we found that it is possible to drive a Subaru to the canyon mouth at around 6000′, probably by following the Hill Ranch road, then turning on 3S162. Another approach, avoiding the Jeffrey Mine entirely, would be to take road 4S75 to the forest boundary around 5300′, then take the steep road to a “Comm Facility” before heading cross-country. The Whites and Inyos are a wild place, more like Nevada than California, and probably only locals truly know their way around.

I woke at 4:30 in the unpleasantly cold dark, downed my cup of sadness, and fretted about the temperature. The forecast suggested 40s in the valley, a high around freezing on top, and not much wind. It seemed around 40 now, but it had been windy at night, so at the last minute I (fortunately) shoved my down parka into my pack. The plan was to hike the “trail” to the Jeffrey Mine cabins by headlamp, summit by early afternoon, and return to the cars before headlamp time. Despite my best efforts, we managed to stay fairly close to this schedule.

Ladder and arrow

While there is technically a trail to the cabins, it is easy to miss where it leaves the ravine at night, so of course I did. Instead, we continued up the bottom of the canyon, which started as nice hard-packed sand, then gradually became more annoying as it steepened. We hopped the boulders and bashed through the willows, efficiently gaining elevation but increasingly concerned that we would be boxed in as the chossy canyon walls steepened. It eventually happened, of course, and we found our headlamps illuminating a couple of wedged chockstones undercut by erosion. Left looked wrong, so I tried right, eventually finding some fourth class choss-stemming that got around the problem. Above, a dirt-traverse deposited us back in the canyon bottom.

Black Eagle Camp

Surprisingly, the rest of the ravine more or less worked; even more so, we found an arrow and ladder, suggesting that we were “on route” for some version of “route.” Where the canyon opened up, we found a faded but obvious trail coming from who knows where and, despite the shenanigans, we reached Black Eagle Camp around the end of headlamp time. Despite being only reachable on foot (or perhaps because of that), the cabins looked surprisingly nice, though there was no time to peek inside.

Upper mine building

There was a sign indicating a trail to “upper mine, 2 miles,” and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to take that, since it would put off the desert cross-country travel. This turned out to be only half a mistake. On the good side, we got to see the upper mine, which had honeycombed and partly consumed a colorful rock pillar across from the once heated and electrified dormitory. It is hard to imagine how the miners transported the building materials — much less the telephone poles — from the valley by mule.

So much sidehilling…

On the bad side, this route turns out to be the “not recommended, brushy northern ridge” alternative mentioned on SummitPost. Things were looking good on the climb past the mine and up the broad lower ridge, with bits of trail and the occasional cairn. However, it got ugly where the ridge flattened out, with chossy bumps on the crest, and brushy scree and sand on the south-facing side. Rather than going over the bumps, I for some reason chose to side-hill below them, which was a slog and, in retrospect, a bad idea. Oh, well.

Where the two west ridges meet, we finally found a sort of eroded gully with more stable talus, which eventually led to the ridge crest and views north and south along the range (also cell service, absent in the town of Chalfant). There were bits of trail on this part of the crest, though it was hard to tell if humans had helped make them, or just bighorn sheep.

Upper ridge from near junction

Though the summit looks close, there is a lot of ridge between 12,000′ and 14,000′, with a couple of bumps to cross and a fair amount of slow travel on semi-stable talus and bad rock. The SummitPost description mentioned traversing around one of the bumps on the north side, and continuing the day’s theme of poor route-finding on my part, I chose the wrong bump. What followed was some sketchy, cold traversing on snow-covered third class choss. I’m fairly used to it, and my relatively new and aggressively-lugged shoes handled it well; Shannon had a sketchier time of things in approach shoes with worn-down dot-rubber. The “correct” bump to traverse around is probably the last one, just 100′ or so below the summit, but it is not necessary — there’s a fairly obvious class 3-4 downclimb on the east side. The best approach to the whole ridge seems to be to stay near the crest, where it is most solid, and simply accept the up-and-down.

Palisades across the way

The air temperature was probably 35-40, so it was comfortable while moving in the sun and out of the wind, it was eyeball-freezingly cold in the steady wind near the summit. We took shelter in the lee of the summit hut, digging through the chest full of paper, booklets, and writing implements to find something that looked most like a register. I was glad I had thrown in the parka at the last minute, as I would otherwise not have been able to hang around before retreating as quickly as possible.

The less said about the way down, the better. I managed to choose a different bad route to the upper mine. We were both stoked to finally see trail again above the mine, and still had enough energy to jog a bit of the descent. The trail to the cabins was much easier to find during the day, though still obscure in places. It turns out that it crosses the stream-bed just above the arrow and ladder on top, and leaves it at the bottom to follow the old power line road. Though it is cairned, this bottom junction is very easy to miss at night. Surprisingly, despite my best efforts to make life difficult, we made it back to the cars with no headlamp time, albeit barely. It was another surprisingly cold night in the valley, so it took me awhile to make my hands work well enough to make some tea and find food. Neither of us felt like driving anywhere, so we soon retreated out of the wind to our respective cars.