Category Archives: Type II fun

The Tenmile-Noname Divide (15h)

First view of ridge


Molas Lake is the main access point for the Grenadiers and their surrounding peaks in the northwest Weminuche. Crossing the Animas River a few miles south of Silverton, the trail drops 1500 feet from near Molas Pass, making for a brutal return and earning it “once a year” status for me. I had used it three times before to tag the central, eastern, and western Grenadiers, and will probably have to use it one more time for Peaks One through Three and White Dome. This time I used it to reach the peaks south of the main Grenadiers, between Tenmile and Noname Creeks. These peaks are normally climbed from Noname Basin to the south, after reaching Needleton via the train. However, the train does not work for dayhikers and, after having dayhiked Ruby Basin a few years ago, I knew that reaching Noname from Purgatory in a day would be too much.

Vestal and Lake

While not part of the main Grenadier ridge, they are part of that range geologically, being made of the same quartzite and other old metamorphic rock. Noname Creek appears to be the dividing line between this formation and the kitty-litter granite making up the Needles 14ers and the high 13ers of Chicago and Ruby Basins. The approach is even more absurd for these peaks: after reaching Vestal Basin, one crosses the 12,800-foot saddle between Vestal and the Trinities, then drops to 12,000 feet above Balsam Lake before finally reaching the base of the peaks. My return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas, taken on a whim, was considerably shorter, but far more rugged and probably only slightly faster.

My alarm was set for 3:45 AM, but I woke up at 3:44 and shut it off. I ate my Cup of Sadness, then had enough time for some more coffee before setting off shortly after 4:30, incurring two hours of headlamp. I have never made this approach by day. Jogging down toward the Animas while listening to some upbeat drum-and-bass by FuX, I easily found the dead-eyed drive necessary for such outings; it was going to be a good day.

Vestal and Arrow

I negotiated the two large slide paths in the dark. The first had been mostly cut through, while I had to follow flags through a jumble of downed tree in the second. Headlamp time ended just before the Vestal Basin turnoff. Shortly before that, I passed one guy with a bright headlamp, two apparent hunters with none (bow season has started), and another group of apparent backpackers. Why they were all heading out so early on a weekday, only a few minutes apart, will remain a mystery. The climbers’ trail I had followed in 2012 is now much closer to an official trail, well-trod and easy to follow. I was disappointed to see that someone had even sawed through the deadfall in a couple of places; perhaps soon it will start appearing on official maps.

Vestal-Trinity saddle

I was pleased to find only a single tent in the basin, for some reason pitched in the coldest, wettest, most miserable spot possible, out in a boggy meadow. Passing a nice tent spot in the woods 100 yards farther up, I continued along the now much fainter trail, then left it before the upper willow bog to cross the creek and aim north of Vestal. I found a few cairns this time, and passed right by Vestal Lake, a picturesque spot right at the base of Vestal’s smooth, curving north face. I paused frequently for photos of sunrise on Vestal and Arrow’s layered uplift, then headed toward the saddle.

Seven-Eight Lake

The inexplicably-named “Kodiak High Route” passes through the lowpoint close to West Trinity, but I once again followed the mountain goats to a slightly higher gap farther west. The snow on this north face was annoying, with a breakable crust over several inches of sugar, but I made use of the goat tracks where I could, and soon reached both sunlight and my first view of the peaks I intended to climb, still a valley distant. Knowing that I had to drop to 12,000 feet, I did a better job following the grassy benches east, reaching the valley bottom at the top of the talus headwall above Balsam Lake. I (prematurely) filled up on water here, then continued to the saddle between Peaks Eight and Seven, where I found another convenient lake.

Climbin’ side of Eight

I debated skipping Eight, since it was a side-trip on my traverse, but was glad I did not, as it had the day’s most thought-provoking scrambling. From the lake, I headed up to the right side of the ridge, following a series of steep gullies and corners connected by ledges. The climbing reminded me of the Minarets, with positive holds, but chossy rock and lots of loose debris. It made for careful climbing, especially on the upper, redder rock, which was even more rotten than the stuff below. I did not find a register on the seldom-visited summit, but the views were worth staying around. Leviathan, Jagged, and the Needles looked particularly spectacular to the south, with the snow from an early season storm hanging around on their north faces. That, plus the weaker sun from the west coast wildfires’ smoke, made it feel more like October, my normal Weminuche season.

Seven from Eight

The descent took at least as long as the ascent. I skipped refilling my water at the lake, and headed straight up Seven’s east face. Seven is made of some sort of quartzite, which is slick when wet, and the rock is angled to be slabby on this side. This made the melting snow problematic, especially closer to the top, but fortunately the face was mostly class 2-3, with plenty of options, and soon I was on the summit. I found a register here, and was pleased to see a remark that the traverse from Six went.

Jagged from Six-Seven ridge

Six is, however, far away, and the rock turns to garbage on the descent to the saddle. One side-effect of quartz’s hardness and slickness is that it makes particularly sharp and unstable talus. There were some class 3-4 notches along the way, but nothing to cause more than a few moments’ perplexity. Once past the low point, a broader ridge of black rock led to the next summit. Six is the ridge’s highpoint, and tall enough to make the list of Colorado’s 200 (or maybe 300?) highest peaks, so it sees a bit more traffic from list-baggers. It is also the first peak along the ridge to have a clear view of Noname Creek, particularly deep and broad for the region, and the impressive north faces of Animas, Monitor, and the northern Needles ridge.

Four from Five

Five is the highest of several minor bumps west of Six, reached via an annoyingly chossy but not difficult traverse around a lake to the south. I tagged the summit, signed in, and moved on. Four is even more annoying than Five, another traverse around a lake, but looser and with some seemingly-mandatory class 4 climbing along the ridge. It might be faster to drop down talus to the lake and reascend, but I was tired enough to prefer scrambly traversing to elevation loss and gain. Four is actually two minor bumps past the lake, and it might be more efficient to traverse the talus-slope north of these subpeaks. However, it was undoubtedly loose beneath the fresh snow, so I stayed on the ridge, finding a bit of fun class 4 terrain on the way up the first bump.

Heisspitz from Four

I was faced with a bout of indecision on Four’s summit, which I reached around 2:15. My planned return route was to drop to a slabby bench north of the ridge, follow that east, then drop again to Balsam Lake before making the thousand-foot climb to the Vestal-Trinity saddle. This would be straightforward from Four, but would require crossing a spur ridge if I continued to The Heisspitz, still almost a mile distant. I had a headlamp, and the weather was good, but I felt my will fading. Looking at the map, I somehow convinced myself that, from The Heisspitz, I could return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas. It would involve some 5-6 miles of unknown valley travel, but I figured that either there would be an old trail down Tenmile, or the lack of humans would result in more game trails. As for the Animas… I hoped for a similar situation, and one river ford and a bit of trespassing would get me to a well-maintained “trail.”

Going down…

So off to The Heisspitz I went. I slightly screwed myself traversing too low to the left, but this section of ridge was much better than the garbage between Six and Four, so I made good time to the final climb. There is supposedly some class 2-3 route to the summit, but I ignored it and mostly stayed closer to the crest. I was hoping for some hint in the register about the route up from Tenmile, but found nothing useful. I debated some more, but the return to the Vestal-Trinity saddle looked extremely depressing, so I committed to my plan and started down the west ridge. The rock was shockingly good and slabby, making for easy going to the shallow saddle before Point 12,552′.

The valley bottom looked perilously brushy, but game seemed to be using this as a pass, so I dropped north down the nearly 4000 feet to the creek. The route started out as loose scree, dirt, and snow, manageable but not ideal for descent. After some loose scree, I found pleasant turf in the middle, and remained pleased with my choice. The steep drainage I was following narrowed toward the bottom, with vertical terrain on either side of a creekbed, but fortunately the creek itself did not cliff out, and it was late enough in the season that I could follow the semi-stable talus in its bed all the way to willow country.

Trail!

The final stretch to Tenmile Creek was a miserable thrash. I eventually found the creek, crossed, and thrashed up the other side, hoping to find open terrain or game trails away from the steeper creek bottom. To my surprise and delight, I found the faint trace of an old built trail, which does not appear on any map that I know of. Though it is hard to follow, and I lost it several times, it made the descent to the Animas fairly efficient, while it would have been an utter nightmare otherwise. This bit of ingenuity, exploration, and luck put me in a good enough mood to listen to happy downhill music (Girl Talk — thanks, Renee!). The trail seemed to be improving as I descended, but I lost it again about a half-mile from the river, and never found where it came out. I stayed high on the right, side-hilling my way around the flat creek junction, then dropped toward the Animas.

I should not be here

I found bits of faint path on the east side, but they were intermittent and annoying, so I looked for a potential ford. This would not be possible earlier in the season, but late in a dry year the Animas was no more than knee-deep. I grabbed a stick and forded with my shoes and socks on, then wrung them out on the other bank before finding the “trail.” Its gentle and consistent ruling grade would have been pleasantly runnable if I were fresh, but I spent plenty of time walking when the gravel surface became less than ideal. I finally closed the loop, and had only the slog out to Molas left. Aided by Metallica, I somehow summoned the energy to jog the flatter switchbacks and run the long meadow traverse at the top, and made it to my car just before headlamp time. I cooked up some vegetable curry with eggs, then passed out around 8:30.

This was my first big outing of which I was slightly proud in a long time. I wasn’t sure I would have the mental stamina, but like riding a bike, that is something you never lose. These may be the hardest Weminuche peaks to reach in a day without the train, and some of the least-visited. At this point, I think I only have one or two more long outings to clean out the Needle and Grenadier region. After that, my most remote remaining Weminuche peaks are those east of the Vallecito, including Nebo and Peters. While it will feel good to complete this project, I will miss having an easy reason to visit Colorado’s best peaks.

Foerster

Foerster on the right


I am getting close to finishing the SPS list (234 out of 247), and Foerster was my northernmost remaining peak. It is normally done from the West side, approached by a long drive from Bass Lake via Beasore road. I had attempted it this way last year before my bike tour, failing at a bike-and-hike that was longer than I had anticipated, and too long for a cold, short October day. Not wanting to make the long and expensive drive for a mediocre peak, I considered my Eastside options. Foerster is in the skinny part of the Sierra near Mammoth, but unfortunately the rugged Ritter Range and the deep valley of the San Joaquin are in the way. The least-bad route seems to be around the north side of the range, taking the trail from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake, then crossing North Glacier Pass and descending the San Joaquin to Bench Creek. This is about 40 miles round-trip, with 11,000 feet of elevation gain — long but manageable, even in my current deficient state.

From my preferred camp near Minaret Vista, I drove down to Agnew Meadows and started by headlamp around 4:30. I soon realized that my headlamp was almost dead: its garbage Amazon Basics rechargeable batteries no longer hold much charge. Holding it in my hand at waist level helped, but it was still almost impossible to run until dawn became bright enough past the Shadow Lake junction. The trail to Thousand Island Lake is the typical Sierra horse-trench, filled with powdered dust and manure and broken up by giant steps. I shortcut it a few times above the manzanita zone, as much because the woods were more pleasant as to save time.

Banner and Thousand Island Lake

I reached Thousand Island Lake as the sun rose on Banner Peak, and was not the only person photographing the classic peak-and-water scene in “magic” light. I was feeling surprisingly good given my fitness, and jogged much of the trail around the lake, passing a tent village of people camped at this popular spot. There is an increasingly-worn use trail from the lake’s west end to North Glacier Pass, probably from a mix of people climbing Ritter and traveling the increasingly popular Roper High Route. I missed the trail on the way out, but had little trouble reaching the pass over grass, slabs, and big stable talus.

View from North Glacier Pass

I dropped to the lake on the other side, then made my way along its outlet stream down mostly pleasant slabs for awhile before angling southwest toward where the San Joaquin trail is shown on maps. Near where the stream topples over some cliffs in a long cascade, I found a campsite and a faint trail heading west. What I thought was a use trail turned out to be an old developed trail that once led to… something… near the campsite (I found an old metal cable, but no mine shaft or structures). This trail switchbacked down west of the cascade, joining the dotted line on the map.

Down in the manzanita

The “official” trail is faint to nonexistent at first, and never in good shape, but I managed to follow a mix of rockwork and cairns down to just above Bench Creek around 8800 feet. I had descended from over 11,000 feet at the pass, and would have to climb to just over 12,000 at Foerster’s summit. Ugh. I easily found a dry crossing this late in a dry year, then shortcut the junction a bit, thrashing through some manzanita, then dropping toward the creek. I picked up a decent use trail on the right side, which I followed until it disappeared below a headwall. This was easily overcome via some obnoxious talus, and I soon found myself on the pleasant flat above.

Flat where Bench Creek splits

The creek splits at the flat, with the left branch leading to Blue Lake and Foerster, the right to Ansel Adams. I had thought of doing both as a lollipop, but realized that it would be too much for me now. Cruising up the broad, gentle left valley, I was surprised to see a scraggly-looking guy descending toward me. I expressed my surprise at seeing someone else in such a remote location, and he said he was doing Roper’s High Route. Despite a friend having just done this route, I had not realized just how far west it went.

Clark Range

Out of water, I made a slight detour to refill at Blue Lake, then headed up the obvious route on Foerster’s southeast side. I was starting to feel the miles in my legs, but still managed a non-pathetic effort on the sand- and talus-climb to the summit. The closest I had been to this part of the Sierra was Electra Peak to the north, many years ago, so I found the views especially interesting. To the east across the San Joaquin was the dark, rugged, and seldom-visited west side of the Ritter Range. To the east, the Clark Range rose across a broad valley. To the north, I could follow the ridge across Electra and Rogers to Lyell. I could even see Half Dome in the distance, indicating that I was too far west to have started on the east side.

Blue Lakes

It had taken me exactly seven hours to reach the summit. I was pleased with my performance, and with the certainty that there would be no evening headlamp time. Hiking and jogging back down Bench Creek, I looked at the map and decided to cut across to Twin Island Lakes, hopefully saving myself some elevation loss and bushwhacking. My aging phone battery had suffered from the morning cold, so I tried not to look at the map too often.

First Twin Island Lake

What looked like a nice level traverse on the map turned out to be a somewhat annoying up-and-down affair weaving through gullies and around cliff bands. There is probably a better line here, since this is where the High Route goes, but I did not find it. Twin Island Lakes are two lakes, each with a single island, probably looking like someone giving side-eye from the air. I passed both on the right, contouring back toward North Glacier Pass halfway past the second. I contoured high, eventually rejoining the trail near the top of the cascade.

Banner-Ritter saddle

Saving phone battery cost me some suffering on the way to the pass, as I strayed too far left into some wretched talus. I corrected my course below Lake Catherine, then wondered if it would be faster to go through the Ritter-Banner saddle to Lake Ediza. The other side required an ice axe and crampons when I did it in 2010, but global warming has doubtless shrunk the Ritter Glacier since then. Not wanting to take the chance, I returned via North Glacier Pass, stopping for water and a healthy dose of ibuprofen to ease my knees, then passing a couple probably returning from Ritter.

I was less able to jog around the lake, but found my running legs on the descent, and kept the rhythm going on the near-flat stretch between the Shadow Lake junction and the climb to Agnew Meadow. I knew I would pay for it the next day, but I jogged the flats and even some gentle uphills on my way back to the car, making it home in just under thirteen hours. I grabbed a couple gallons of Agnew Meadows water, which was every bit as metallic and horrible as I remembered, then drove into town for more trail food and WiFi outside the welcome center before heading out to the woods to camp. It was good to know that I have sufficient will and misanthropy to overcome my mediocre fitness. If I can regain some resilience, I may actually be able to do something with what little is left of this season.

Twice the Taboose

Taboose from Ogre


I needed help with my early starts and long days, and my friend needed some with her scrambling. Somehow these goals and life’s constraints led me to spend two days at Taboose Pass, by far my least favorite of the big Eastern Sierra approaches. Upper Taboose is spectacular, with its lakes and waterfalls, towering orange buttresses on either side, and expansive view west across a plain to Arrow Peak and the South Fork of the Kings. However, almost all of the trail is horrible, ranging from sand at the start to loose softball-sized rocks higher up. Much of the lower reaches burned last summer, making the dry Owens Valley even more barren for now; it will soon fill in with buckthorn, making the trail even worse. I remembered the road to the trailhead being obnoxious but doable in a passenger car the last time I visited. This time I found it barely passable, and was forced to drive many sections at less than 5 MPH to protect my tires and undercarriage.

West from pass to Arrow

The original plan was to do White Peak, a class 3 climb slightly southwest of the pass that had been on the Sierra Challenge some years back. After taking the usual three hours to reach the pass, we decided instead to head for Ruskin and Saddlehorn, on the other side of the Kings. I had traversed from Ruskin to Vennacher Needle in 2012 during the Challenge, admiring the sharp ridge jutting east midway between them. I later learned that it was named “Saddlehorn,” and was supposedly class 4 from the east or west. Another traverse, up Saddlehorn and around to Ruskin, seemed like a good plan.

Ruskin and Saddlehorn

We easily found the old trail into the Kings, cutting the corner to the JMT, then followed the Jolly Manure Trench a short distance before climbing northwest through open woods and slabs. This area consists of three open glacial cirques, bounded by Ruskin’s southeast and east ridges, Saddlehorn, and Vennacher Needle’s east ridge. We aimed for the middle one, grabbing water below its lake before approaching the south side of Saddlehorn’s east ridge.

Ruskin from Saddlehorn

I saw a line of ledges and broken terrain that would gain the crest from there, and tried to find the easiest route. I found nothing easier than exposed class 4, which was more than my friend wanted to do, not having been on much beyond class 2 boulder-hops in a couple of years. I continued solo, making a thin traverse, then climbing a loose boulder-slope to the crest. From there, more class 3-4 climbing along the ridge led to the summit blocks, one of which had a cairn. It looked intimidating from most sides, but was fortunately easy from the southeast. I found an old register in a band-aid tin dating back to 1979, and a newer one from the Sierra Challenge in a salsa bottle. The older one had an amusing entry from a guy nervous about his prospects for descent, while the newer one featured the expected folks (Scott, Iris, and Grundy). I added my name, put both in the bottle for better protection, then retraced my route.

Ruskin’s east ridge

Ruskin’s east ridge was supposed to be a classic class 3 line. I hadn’t read a description, and don’t remember if I climbed that or the southeast ridge in 2012, but figured it would be more moderate than Saddlehorn. We crossed the bowl south, then made our way over the toe of the ridge. I had hoped to go straight up its initial step, but that proved tricky, so we contoured around the south side until we found easier, broken class 2-3 terrain leading to the crest. This is long and fairly flat, with consistent exposure on the right. The climbing is a mixture of boulders and “sidewalk” sections that go quickly if you don’t mind the exposure.

Ruskin summit ridge

The ridge steepens a bit to a false summit, then narrows, becoming exposed on both sides, though the climbing remains mostly easy except for one step. Amusingly, I found a “chicken out register” at this step, a booklet in a red-painted can containing entries from some memorial party who had decided not to chance giving themselves something new to memorialize. My friend was done with exposed scrambling for the day, so I quickly scampered over to the summit, finding to my surprise that Teresa Gergen had been there earlier in the day. How she had arrived, and where she had gone next, were a mystery. Maybe she came up from Lakes Basin on a backpack.

Lake near Ruskin

Rather than retracing the whole ridge, we dropped down a chute southeast of the false summit. Fortunately it did not cliff out, and we were soon back on easy terrain, passing a couple of nice lakes on the way down to the Kings. From there it was a straightforward slog back to the pass, accelerated by swarms of mosquitoes now that the morning’s winds had ceased. I took a couple ibuprofen at the pass, then settled into the miserable descent. Most of the trail is too loose and rocky to truly run, but with great effort and concentration you can move slightly faster than a walk. Only the last mile or two is fun, sprinting down sand toward the valley floor. We reached the trailhead right at sunset, with just enough time to eat and repack our bags before trying to get a full night’s sleep.

Orange Ogre

I knew I would not enjoy doing Taboose twice in two days, but I had made the drive, and perhaps could do White. We got a slightly earlier start, which kept us in the shade almost to the first water crossing and made the climb much more pleasant. This was counteracted by fatigue from the day before, and we reached the pass in about the same time. Neither of us was all that enthusiastic about White, so we settled on the “Orange Ogre,” a prominent buttress south of the pass that is the tip of Goodale’s north ridge. While it looks like it might have some big, hard routes from the north, it is an easy class 2 boulder pile from the west.

There was a cairn on the flat, semi-exposed summit, but no register. The views east down Taboose Creek, and northwest across the broad pass, are impressive. Goodale and Striped, to the south and southwest, look like horrible talus-piles; I had done them many years ago, and did not remember them being that bad. We stalled on the summit for awhile, putting off the inevitable misery of another Taboose descent, then retreated down the west face. Rather than returning to the pass, we turned right, following the start of Taboose Creek to regain the trail lower down. The descent was slower this time, because I was tired and my ankle was more sore, but also because I was in a worse mood, already dreading the slow drive back to pavement, and the start of a very long drive north. At the trailhead, I rinsed off my feet and grabbed some water, then bid farewell to my friend, who would probably stay another day to do the pass yet again. As for myself, I would be fine if this were the last time in my life.

Half-full Palisade Traverse

Palisade Crest silhouette


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

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

Sill and Winchell from Agassiz

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

Agassiz from Winchell

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

Improbable ledge off Winchell

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

Reascent after Winchell

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

Vitaliy leading Thunderbolt

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

Ugh, that pack (V)

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

First bivy before Sill (V)

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

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

Me about to fail (R)

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

Palisade Crest slab

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

Along Palisade Crest

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

Ultimate bivy (V)

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

Me on the Crest (V)

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

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

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

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

White Mountains Traverse

Traverse from Boundary


This White Mountains Traverse is a loosely-defined route between Queen Mine Saddle and Barcroft Gate (or vice versa) in California’s White Mountains. It is about 35 miles long, with more than half cross-country, and involves a bit of third class scrambling. Peaks along the way include Boundary (a bump on a ridge, Nevada’s lame highpoint), Montgomery, Dubois, Hogue, Headley, 13,615′, and White Mountain Peak. It is normally done south to north, in the slightly downhill direction, and the FKT is 11h25, set by Jed Porter back in 2014. It requires a 100+-mile car shuttle including miles of annoying dirt road, which discourages many people, but it still seems to see one or two parties per year.

I had originally planned to do it casually, with a partner and a car shuttle, but when that stopped making sense, I came up with another plan. While the drive around via the 2WD Barcroft road is close to 100 miles, it is possible to cut it to only about 60 via Silver Canyon if you have a Jeep…. or a bike. With a forecast for a tailwind up the Owens Valley, I thought I could do the foot portion north to south in 11 hours or less, and the whole thing in under 18. This was a nice theory, but ultimately I found myself spending the better part of two days doing things I did not enjoy, and failing to accomplish something about which I was indifferent, all for the wrong reasons. Call it “training.”

I enjoyed the drive up 168 from Big Pine, then endured the winding asphalt and rocky, washboard dirt north to Barcroft. This is a slow drive at best, and I had to go even slower to protect my worn tires. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and found a couple of cars at the gate, their owners returning from the hike to White Mountain. I took advantage of the chance to sleep at altitude, then stashed my bike, helmet, and some food before returning to Bishop. I had hoped to bathe for the first time in a week at Keough’s along the way, but noticed that, despite my cautious driving, I had developed a slow leak in one tire. I topped it off with my bike pump, then hurried into town and pulled into the one tire place open on Sundays, Perez Tire. I lucked out, as they sold me two AT tires for a fair price, and installed them in about 30 minutes; the other Bishop tire places I’ve visited are ripoffs.

Peak happiness

Greasy and in a bad mood from the unexpected expense, I drove up to the north end of the valley, then turned on the Queen Mine road. It starts out as good graded dirt, then slowly deteriorates as it climbs. I eventually stopped about 2.2 miles from the saddle; while I could probably have driven farther, this seemed about as far as I would be able to ride a bike, so there was no point in continuing. I packed some discount energy bars and eight PB&Hs, set my alarm for 3:00, and got some amount of sleep.

Sunrise before Boundary

I hadn’t done such an early start in awhile, so I did not get going until almost 4:00. I spent about 45 minutes hiking the road to the saddle, then easily found the popular trail up Boundary. I jogged some of the flatter sections leading to Trail Canyon Saddle, then hiked up one of the braided trails through sand and talus toward the summit. It was already somewhat breezy at the top, and bitterly cold, so I did not even pause before starting down the ridge to Montgomery. The route was slow going but mostly only class 2, alternating between the shaded northwest side, and the sunny but windy southeast.

Descending Montgomery’s N ridge

At Montgomery’s summit, I stopped to take a few photos and sign the register. The forecast had anticipated temperatures in the 30s or 40s, but it seemed colder, and my phone battery died when I tried to send a text. Fortunately I had brought my battery pack, so I plugged it in and stashed it closer to my body for warmth. I continued in all my layers, my fingers aching inside my gloves. With steady wind and light cloud-cover most of the day, there was only about a half-hour in which I was warm enough to jog in a t-shirt. Wind and cold, plus tedious terrain, kept the day well short of fun.

Montgomery from south

Only a handful of people continue beyond Montgomery, so while I found a handful of cairns, I was mostly following faint sheep tracks or traveling cross-country. Montgomery’s south ridge is loose class 2-3, with a broken crest that is best avoided. I found a couple of short, sketchy snow traverses along the east side, but did not have much trouble reaching the saddle. From there, a long talus climb leads to “the Jumpoff” at the northern end of Dubois vast summit plateau. I had hoped for a long stretch easy jogging here, but the tundra was rolling and studded with sharp talus, making for slow and cautious progress.

White from Dubois

The summit is one of a number of minor bumps on the plateau, fortunately marked with a large stick visible from a distance. The majority of the parties in the summit register were either sheep surveyors or people traversing, including a group on skis this past April. I signed in with a bit of Rammstein commentary (“Mir ist kalt. Zo kalt!”), then took off jogging on the downward-trending plateau. White Mountain remained soul-crushingly far away, but I reminded myself that I had covered greater distances before.

This part of the Whites is not a single well-defined ridge, but a broad, rolling plain, cut by valleys dropping to both sides. Finding the best route requires regularly consulting a topo map at the macro level. It also requires paying close attention to the terrain at the micro level, as it varies unpredictably from semi-runnable tundra to tediously loose and sharp talus. I had downloaded Jed’s track, but he skipped some of the peaks along the way. I knew I never wanted to return to this place so, being a peak-bagger, I made some minor detours to tag the summits.

Dubois from Hogue

First up was Hogue, a detour east just north of where the ridge drops far down to a saddle with some springs around 11,200′. I checked out a couple of the talus mounds on its summit plateau, but found only a few pieces of broken glass, perhaps a former register jar. I jogged the descent as best I could, squelching across a bog labeled as a “spring,” then hiked over Point 11,784′, which hid horribly loose talus on its south side. A spring and snowfield fed a pleasant stream southeast of the lowpoint, where I grabbed a couple of liters of water before beginning the climb toward Headley.

Continuing my quest to tag the ridge’s peaks, I took a less-direct line toward the point labeled Headley Peak. Most of the way up, I saw that it was 100 feet lower than “East Headley,” with almost no prominence, and slightly out of the way. Annoyed at having wasted time on a pointless detour, I tagged the higher East Headley, then continued toward White. Jed had sidehilled around 13,615′, but despite the looming reality of headlamp time, I made the short detour. It was only a few hundred yards out of the way, and one of only a handful of California’s 13,000-foot peaks I had yet to climb.

Final scramble

I signed in next to the familiar names, then suffered down to the saddle with White. The talus was all sharp and loose, and though it was cold, the snowfields had turned to bottomless slush. I cursed, stumbled, and postholed to my knees for awhile, then found drier ground on the final ridge to the hut. I had eaten my last food before 13,615′, but am still fat enough not to bonk badly while hiking. The final ridge to the summit turns surprisingly tricky, with some loose class 3-4 over and around a few towers. I might have enjoyed this in different circumstances, but at this point it was a demoralizing grind.

I finally reached the summit around 3:00, eleven hours from the start and far later than I had hoped. I texted a friend that I might be screwed: the days are long, but I estimated that I would be back to pavement around dark, still over thirty miles from the car. I cut all the lame road switchbacks down to the saddle, then put in a fair amount of jogging along the road past Barcroft Lab despite my fatigue. The lab was closed, the normally reeking sheep pen blessedly empty. There were no cars at the gate, but fortunately no one had stolen my bike or my food. I hid behind the outhouse for awhile, eating and recovering, then began the thirteen-mile bike to the head of Silver Canyon. My time to the gate was something like 12h20, putting me 10-15 minutes behind the FKT. I could make the excuses that I was heading in the uphill direction, and tagged two summits that Jed had skipped, but it was still a failure.

I was dreading this portion of the trip, as the road is rough, rolling, and headed both in the wrong direction and likely into the day’s prevailing wind. Surprisingly, though, I found it almost enjoyable on a bike. It felt no worse than many of the Argentine provincial roads I had cycled this past winter, and I was not towing a trailer. The two motorists who passed me even offered encouragement. I suffered mightily on the 600-foot climb before the Silver Canyon turnoff, but still made it in just over 1h30, better than I had hoped.

I was nervous about descending the upper Silver Canyon road on my touring bike, as it is relentlessly steep and sometimes loose, but I took it slow, rode my brakes, and made it down without crashing, only putting a foot down on a few of the sharp, steep switchbacks higher up. I filled up on water at the first creek crossing, burned my finger feeling my brake rotor, then dared a bit more speed as the slope eased. I normally dismount for the creek crossings, but my bike was already filthy, so I rode through the first few, spraying my bike and myself with water and grit. The creek had hopped its banks in places, turning the road into a secondary stream, so picking my way through the crossings would have been pointless.

The descent to Highway 6 took another 1h30 or so, giving me about an hour of usable light to ride north. I started off motivated, but soon started questioning the wisdom of continuing. My 750-lumen bike headlamp had been stolen in Argentina, so all I had was a tiny 100-ish-lumen hiking lamp; not anticipating much headlamp time, I had not bothered to dig out my taillight. I felt energetic at the moment, but nearly two hours riding uphill at night on a highway, without a taillight, then another hour on a dirt road, began to seem stupid. Before getting too far from Bishop, I gave up and called my friend, who kindly fetched me and let me use a spare sleeping setup.

Having already made myself enough of a nuisance, and failed to achieve anything, I was determined to at least finish under my own power. The previous day’s tailwind had of course reverted to the seasonal headwind, so I got to relive one of my less favorite Argentine experiences: riding uphill into the wind along a truck route. I finally started bonking on the dirt road, stopping frequently in bits of shade to rest, finally crawling up to the car. I crammed down a bunch of food, then drove back down-valley to begin preparing to hit the road.

Tres Cruces Sur

Welcome to hell


I had planned to tag Cerro Medusa, another 6000-meter peak, from my camp between Ojos and El Muerto, but did not have the energy for that much high-altitude hiking, so I decided to start late and simply take a “commute” day. I hiked back to the road and down to my bike, then wove and jostled my way down toward the refugio, where I hoped to find a barrel containing usable water. The ride over washboard and sand was not pleasant, but was far better and slightly faster than walking. As I neared the Refugio Murray, I saw a few people outside, staring curiously at me as I gradually approached, weaving between various tire tracks to find the smoothest and least sandy.

I asked about the rumored water barrel, which apparently does not exist, making the Agua Dulce the only usable water source below about 5000 meters. However, the people watching me fortunately turned out to be two Brits and their Chilean guide, just returning from a big expedition to Ojos with lots of food and water to spare. They generously shared both, and I did not have much farther to go, so I spent most of the afternoon talking to them. One of the Brits was a doctor living in Guatemala, who had the enviable job of teaching wilderness medicine courses in the world’s most interesting places. The guide, a small and lively woman from San Pedro de Atacama, had climbed all over the Andes, often carrying a pack weighing most of what she did. After plenty of good food and welcome English conversation, I left with a bit more food, including tuna and a large jar of peanut butter, a rarity outside the United States.

Single-use anemometer

The afternoon storms had unfortunately arrived by the time I headed west down the highway, so I had to fight a headwind and intermittent rain. The numerous “single-use Chilean anemometers” (i.e. road signs) told me that yes, in fact, it was windy. Today, it was strong enough that I usually encountered the rain in sunny patches, so I was never too cold. It was nice to be back on pavement, until I noticed that my back tire was low. I really did not want to fix a flat, since that would involve putting a sealant-free tube into my tubeless tires, so I repeatedly stopped to pump up the tire, then spin it to give the sealant a chance to repair the damage. I eventually realized that the paving crew had paved right over the 1″x2″ stakes used to mark the road, which conveniently fell right on the white line. Some of these were obvious, but others protruded only a jagged and tire-destroying centimeter above the pavement. Fortunately the sealant eventually won the battle, and I limped on to the junction with the dirt road toward Tres Cruces.

Home

I did not look forward to spending a windy evening in my tent, so when I saw an orange building a few hundred yards farther down the road, I went to investigate. This turned out to be some sort of newly-built information kiosk, not a refugio, but clearly I was not the first person to use it as such. It was little bigger than my tent inside, but just large enough to lay out my tarp and dry my stuff, which had been soaked by my leaky water bladder. I spent a pleasant evening there, enjoying the novelty of tuna mixed with my polenta.

Tres Cruces from bike stash

The next morning I got a reasonably early start up the Tres Cruces road. Since it sees much less traffic than the one toward Ojos, it becomes completely unridable where it enters a sandy wash. I stashed my bike behind some rocks, then took off on foot for base camp, slogging up one of several alternate “roads” — in classic Atacama fashion, people had driven wherever they felt like doing so. Nowadays the approach is drivable all the way to about 5300 meters via a road skirting south of a minor hill. From a distance, I saw another group just packing their truck and leaving, but did not feel like talking. It was only early afternoon, and the weather was good enough that I could have continued to the high camp at the 6000-meter saddle between Tres Cruces Sur and Central, but I was feeling lazy. I told myself it would be awfully cold up there, and easy enough to tag both peaks in a day with a light pack, then settled into a flat spot near the stream.

Tarn at 6000m

Hoping for a big day, I got a pre-dawn start, slogging up a faint path to the saddle, where there was nice camping by the promised tarn. I was feeling slower than usual, so I headed for the higher Tres Cruces Sur first. Things quickly turned unpleasant, as I lost the faint path and began side-hilling toward where I thought the route was. I eventually saw the trail again, lower down toward a broad gully leading to peak’s northwest ridge. I slid and scrabbled my way down to it, losing precious elevation, but found that it was only slightly better than the slope I had been fighting.

South glacier and snowy Atacama peaks

The gully eventually reached the ridge around 6450 meters; from there, the summit was only 300 meters and less than a kilometer away. However, those last thousand feet were perhaps the most miserable I have ever climbed. All of it was large, unstable talus covered in several inches of fresh snow. This kind of climbing is bad enough at 10,000 feet, and unimaginably worse at 11,000 feet higher. I finally reached the summit area with only one or two slow-motion falls, only to find a maze of volcanic pinnacles, forming endless false summits. I headed toward where I thought the true summit might be, finally topping out on one of a few similarly-high bumps on the edge of the large south glacier. If you must climb this peak, I recommend somehow ascending the glacier, which would be infinitely less immiserating.

Norte and Central from Sur

The descent was only slightly faster, though I managed to link up a few more of the patchy permanent snowfields. The “trail” sucked on the way down, being too solid to boot-ski, but too soft to walk easily. I looked up at Tres Cruces Central, a mere 1500 feet above the saddle, but I was utterly broken at this point. I lied to myself that I would come back for it the next day, then trudged back to camp. In retrospect, I might have been able to do both in a day if I had camped at the saddle, and if there were no snow, but even in perfect conditions, this route on Tres Cruces Sur would be pure misery.

Back from the Puna de Atacama

Summit view on Ojos del Salado


I had expected the two weeks spent crossing the Puna de Atacama from Fiambala to Copiapo, climbing as many 6000-meter peaks as possible along the way, to be my trip’s physical and psychological crux, and it absolutely delivered. In two weeks, I cycled over 300 miles, and climbed seven 6000-meter peaks: San Francisco, Incahuasi, El Fraile, El Muerto, Ojos del Salado, Tres Cruces Sur, and Tres Cruces Norte. I finally struggled into Copiapo just before dark, after a 120-mile 13-hour ride that would have been much easier without a near-constant headwind for the last 80 miles. While I had anticipated the difficulty, I was surprised by the afternoon snows, which improved the scenery, but made some of the climbing crushingly slow. I suppose I am glad I did it, but I am more glad that it is done. I will write more about the experience over the coming days, or possibly weeks.

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.