El Muerto

El Muerto, showing route

[There is still a fair amount of catching-up to do, but with shorter excursions and more civilization, that should start happening. — ed.]

El Muerto is a high 6000m peak next to Ojos del Salado, sharing much of its road approach. Its slightly lower elevation makes it much less popular, which counts as an advantage to me. The Alpenvereinskarte shows routes up Muerto, Ojos, and Cerro Medusa from the Muerto-Ojos saddle at 5500m, so that seemed like an efficient base camp. In the end I only tagged Ojos and Muerto, the former via the standard route, and used a base camp in a sheltered dell around 5450m with easier water, but it was still a good route choice.

Laguna Verde reflections
Waking at a reasonable hour at Laguna Verde, I hummed a little Bach a bit more happily and loudly than necessary as I packed, hoping to exact the morning person’s passive-aggressive vengeance upon my late-talking neighbors. I could have backtracked a few miles to top off on Agua Dulce water, but (1) I was suck of its seaweed taste, and (2) I thought I had enough to reach my intended camping area, which seemed likely to have some kind of water. I took some photos of the sunrise scenery near the lake, said “good morning” to the Germans as they headed toward Mulas Muertas for acclimatization, then began the short ride.

Road to the Refugio Murray
I followed the pavement for a bit, admiring the fresh snow in all directions, then took off on a dead-straight dirt road headed for the refugio at the base of all Ojos del Salado climbs. It was good dirt by Atacama standards, but still the usual washboard, so I spent my time hunting left and right for the least-bad path. Most of the way there, I turned off on a corner-cutting road up the wash. It was an almost unridable mixture of washboard and sand in this direction, but I was still moving at a fast walk, and reasoned that it would be slightly faster in the other direction, and therefore was worth riding.

El Muerto, Ojos, and… hah-hah!
I found the main road from the refugio no better when I finally joined it, but the same logic still, so I gradually ground my way toward the peak. Where the “road” crossed the wash and spread into a half-dozen tire tracks made by drivers desperately struggling with the sand, I was amused to pass an SUV stuck axle-deep. I had to push my bike a bit, but that was far easier than pushing a car. I finally switched from cycling to walking where the road left the wash. In retrospect, it might have been more efficient to keep going, since there were numerous ridable sections above, and even one downhill, but the climb looked like it would require a lot of pushing above 15,000′, and there were some convenient rocks in which to hide my bike. The Russians passed me slightly higher up, racing by on a side-road in their Hilux, with the woman driving and not even slightly slowing down to acknowledge my presence.

El Muerto, with skiable Incahuasi behind
Rounding a bend, I was impressed to see the amount of fresh snow on Incahuasi and El Fraile. Both peaks had been nearly dry when I climbed them, but the former was definitely skiable now. A more polite driver offered me a lift here, but their truck seemed full, and I was close to where I would leave the road, so I politely declined. The road has several branches here, cutting progressively lower to avoid an un-drivable washout; I was able to cut directly across on foot.

The lonely path I tread
I finally left the road where it wallows through another sandy wash before it turns right and heads for the Refugio Atacama. My path started out as a cross-country slog through sand and boulders, but I soon found some old footprints, then a set of tire tracks following occasional cairns. These made for slightly easier walking than the surrounding desert, so I followed them past rocks that seemed to have been sandblasted by the prevailing winds. Where they turned toward Ojos, I continued up a faint wash, then contoured around toward a point just below the Ojos-Muerto saddle. I dropped slightly into the drainage to its northwest, where I found a nice flat-bottomed area. It was somewhat sheltered from the wind, contained a couple of clear penitente-melt streams, and had numerous flat spots. I chose one to be my home for the next few days, and set up camp just in time to hide from the afternoon thunder-snow.

El Muerto

(I wish I had had appropriate “Death Mountain” music on my phone.)

Sunrise on Ojos and camp
This was a west-facing route with not a whole lot of elevation gain, but I also expected the usual afternoon weather, so I got started at a respectable hour, leaving my tent before the sun reached it. Though it was cold, I was surprised to still find some liquid water making its way across the sand-flats from various buried penitentes. I turned to watch the shadow descend snowy Ojos del Salado as I climbed, highlighting the well-trod switchbacks of the standard route on its sandy north face.

Sidehill and Ojos
El Muerto does not see enough traffic to have such a path, but I did eventually find an old boot-pack after traversing most of the way around the prominent subsidiary peak to its west. One advantage of the steady precipitation is that it stabilizes the ubiquitous sand, particularly in the morning when it is frozen. This made the ascending sidehill somewhat more bearable, and I hoped it would have softened enough on my descent to allow for fast plunge-stepping. Past the subpeak, the route switchbacks up toward the saddle, then heads through a mixture of sand and rocky outcrops to the summit. The slope to the saddle was unpleasantly loose, so I instead headed left through the rocks, aiming directly for where I thought the summit should be. After a bit of route-finding to keep things class 3, it was mostly a class 2 meander. I found occasional footprints here and there, but since there is little traffic and no obvious “best” route, one is largely left to find one’s own way.

Near-summit view
Slowly, oh so slowly, I ground my way to the summit, which is one of several equally-high piles of rock protecting a small icefield in what may be a shallow crater. The clouds reached the summit at almost the same time that I did, but I had already seen most of the surrounding peaks on the way up, with the exception of a clear view of Incahuasi and El Fraile. I sat around looking at the summit glacier for a few minutes, then headed back for camp before it started raining or snowing. I took a higher and sandier line, heading closer to the saddle before dropping down, then followed the bootpack on the long sidehill toward camp. The ground unfortunately had not softened, so the descent was a slow, ankle-punishing scrabble on ball bearings over hardpack. I reached camp in the early afternoon, grabbed some water, made hot chocolate, then spent the rest of the day watching the weather and contemplating how best to do Ojos.

“Glacier Spike,” Rixford, “Falcor,” Gould

Glen Pass crowd and Glacier Spike
Glen Pass crowd and Glacier Spike

It was the final day of the Challenge, and a number of us were camped out in the Onion Valley parking lot. It was also a Sunday in August, so the Challenge crowd, which overwhelms lesser trailheads, was lost in the sea of cars from dayhikers, backpackers, and fishermen. I had never seen cars parked so far down the road at Onion Valley.

Old vs. new trail
Old vs. new trail
Other than the frustration of a trail reroute adding a bunch of horizontal switchbacks, Kearsarge is a pleasant approach, and it is a shame that I don’t get to use it more. I hiked along pleasantly with the group on the lower section, then cut ahead on the old trail to reach the pass a few minutes ahead of the rest. I stopped to eat and enjoy the view of Brewer and the Kearsarge Pinnacles while they caught up, then took the old trail down the other side. It has been deliberately destroyed, with rocks piled on its graceful curve, but it is still faster than the new one.

Bob on a bit of 3rd class
Bob on a bit of 3rd class
I had not been to Glen Pass since 2011, a heavy snow year, and was surprised to find a dry stream and no snow on the south side. I was also a bit taken aback by the crowds. We had timed our arrival to coincide with the flood of people headed south from camp at Rae Lakes, either bound for Whitney on the JMT, or headed out to Kearsarge or Kings Canyon after a weekend backpack. I chatted with two of the friendlier members of the dozen-strong crowd at the summit, then a few of us surprised them by taking off up the ridge toward “Glacier Spike,” which Bob had chosen as this year’s final peak.

Traversing around stuck people
Traversing around stuck people
While the others traversed across loose-looking stuff north of the ridge, I found a pleasant, solid sidewalk up the crest, which took me nearly to the final step before the summit. I contoured left to meet the others, then climbed some class 3-4 terrain to return to the ridge just before the first of two summit regions separated by a steep gap. While the others followed the crest to the gap, then milled around in confusion, Bob and I snuck along a ledge on the left, then climbed through it to the right-hand side.

Someone stuck before the gap
Someone stuck before the gap
Seeing a fourth class way to what might be the summit, I told the others I would check it out, then disappeared around a corner. As it turned out, I forgot to shout back that it worked, and they didn’t wait for such a shout. While I made my way over a black, slightly lower bump to the flat, white summit, Bob, Mason, and Gil dropped down and around to the south and found an easier way, joining me a few minutes later. From the summit, it became clear that the peak is much easier from the south, and that it is possible to shortcut the trail by traversing to the saddle with Rixford, then dropping south toward Kearsarge Lakes.

Rixford from Glacier Spike
Rixford from Glacier Spike
The four of us descended southeast, waving unhelpfully at a few others trapped just short of Glacier Spike’s summit. I left the others at the saddle, traversing on over Rixford, “Falcor,” and finally Gould to rejoin the trail at Kearsarge Pass. Rixford was just a big talus pile, though mostly solid when I stayed near the ridge or on a helpful goat-path. Looking back from its summit, I saw that the others had still not found their way to the summit in nearly an hour of trying. Most eventually made it, but at least one person was surprisingly defeated.

Falcor summit
Falcor summit
Falcor was a bit trickier, and I made it unnecessarily more so. I headed up a black-and-white gully to the west side of the golden summit block. Then, instead of traversing the south face to the possibly-easier east side, I fourth-classed my way up the west end. I worried at a couple places that I had spiraled into a vortex of bad route-finding decisions, but it all worked out in the end. From the register, I learned that “Falcor” is the name of the good-luck dragon (really a creepy giant man-dog that flies by flapping its ears) in “The Never-Ending Story.” If someone wanted to make a play on neighboring Dragon Peak, at least they could have chosen a real dragon like Smaug or Glaurung…

Ridge to Gould and Kearsarge Pass
Ridge to Gould and Kearsarge Pass
After a bit of third class, things got much easier on the way to the popular Gould. I boosted onto its summit block, then hid behind it to eat my last summit fish and savor the end of another Challenge before sand-skiing back to the trail. I was torn between desires to follow the old direct trail and not to be yelled at by self-righteous backpackers, so I followed a bit of both old and new. Apparently I was lucky, since some other finishers reported being approached by an overzealous ranger who asked for their permits (unnecessary for dayhikers) and sternly told them to stay on the trail (where they already were). I doubt she would have accepted my story about following the old trail for research purposes.

Since I wanted to sleep up high, and had no need to head into town, I hung out with a changing crowd of Challengers into the early evening, then retreated to my car to read sometime just before when Scott finally returned from his final, insane 14.5-hour day. Having missed the last two years, the group had changed enough that I felt like a bit of a stranger, but it was a fun time overall, and a good way to stay focused and kill time while my hand continues to heal. I am less enamored of the Sierra than I was before spending more time up north, but they’re not a bad place to spend this part of 2016.

“Firebird”

Norman Clyde and "Williams" from Firebird
Norman Clyde and “Williams” from Firebird

“Firebird Peak” is a bump on Norman Clyde Peak’s long northeast (“Firebird”) ridge. I had originally planned to find an alternative, but my only unclimbed alternate from the South Fork trailhead was “Big Kid,” a monstrous pile of sand, and I had little energy or time to plan after the previous 12-hour day. JD was planning to continue to Norman Clyde on his SPS list death-march, and I made noises about doing the same, despite having already climbed it twice before.

Pursued by an army of Bobs
Pursued by an army of Bobs
There was a healthy crowd on the South Fork trail for the 6 AM start. This is one of my favorite approaches for several reasons: the trail is livestock-free and built for humans; I used it for some memorable early Sierra climbs back when I was in school; and the sunrise on Middle Palisade’s and Norman Clyde’s east faces is always inspiring. As usual, I traded places with Bob on the way up the switchbacks: I would pull ahead while hiking, then he would pass me while I stopped to pee, put on sunscreen, or whatever. As I learned on my first Challenge, Bob almost never stops (or eats) on hikes. He also knows secret trails, as he demonstrated by emerging from the trees just ahead of us near Finger Lake after dropping behind below Brainerd.

Boulderfield below summit
Boulderfield below summit
After some confusion about which point along the ridge was Firebird, we deviated from the standard Middle Palisade approach to climb a long, mostly-stable boulder-field toward the summit. I was tired, but still had an automatic sense of how fast I should go on this terrain when rested, so I ascended in bursts, periodically stopping to let the lactic acid drain from my legs. Scott, just behind me, mistakenly thought I was just stopping to take in the view.

Williams and Palisade Crest
Williams and Palisade Crest
Reaching the summit, I found the register, which contained a few entries to the effect of “this thing has a register? Okay…,” then sat to wait for company. I eventually got out my summit fish, implicitly admitting that I would not be tagging any more peaks today. JD, who had had a nearly 20-hour ordeal the day before, arrived some time later, admitting defeat on Norman Clyde. He was dealing with a malfunctioning ankle that turned out to be much worse than he expected, and would send him home that evening.

I probably spent about an hour on the summit before dropping down the dirt-slopes south to pick up the Middle Pal route and follow the familiar boulders and slabs back to Finger Lake and the trail. Talking with Robert near Grass Lake, I was surprised to meet Iris coming up the trail. Like JD, she was coming off a brutally long day, and had started around 10:45. In classic Iris style, she appeared to be cheerful, unhurried, and on the verge of disintegration, held together by tape and braces. There was no need to hurry, but Robert and I convinced each other to run from the switchbacks back to the trailhead, leaving me with plenty of time to socialize at the trailhead before descending into the brutal 100-degree heat of the Owens Valley. The next day’s low start meant there would be no convenient, cool trailhead camping.

Wynne, Pinchot, “South Striped”

Pinchot and Wynne from pass
Pinchot and Wynne from pass

Taboose Pass is a once-a-year approach for me, and today was it. I don’t mind the 6,000 feet of gain, the various loose trail surfaces are tolerable on the way up, and the colorful cliffs to either side are beautiful in the usual morning light, as is the view of Arrow and Ruskin from the pass. Only in descending the pass, usually after a long and tiring day, does it reveal its fundamental hatefulness. Slightly tired and moving at a steady pace, it took me just under 3 hours to cover 7.5 miles and 6000 feet up. Going down the same took 1h45, despite taking the final sandy mile or so at a full run. In other words, the trail surface is so bad that it is impossible to average more than a fast walk. Indeed, some parts are slower going down than up, an unusual situation traveling cross-country and an evil miracle of bad trail-building.

Sunrise on Taboose
Sunrise on Taboose
My ambitious plan for the day was to start by going around the day’s Challenge peak, unofficially-named “White Mountain,” to Pinchot Pass on the JMT before traversing back around to it via Wynne, Pinchot, and “Striped South.” This would net me two SPS peaks and a previous Challenge peak, putting me not quite within reach of catching Scott, but perhaps close enough to make him work for the Polka-dot Jersey. Of course, he needed no such motivation, and would put in a ridiculous final day no matter what I did. I did not know anything about the ridges around Striped South, and it turned out that the traverse to White would have been loose and scary, so I had to settle for three out of four.

Lakes north of Pinchot Pass
Lakes north of Pinchot Pass
Robert had expressed interest in joining me on this adventure, but after falling behind below the pass, decided to just do White, so I had most of the day to myself. I passed a group of Boy Scouts on the way down to the JMT, then ran into the usual mid-August traffic along the popular trail on the way south to Pinchot Pass. I had gone this way a few years ago with Bob and Pat on the way to Ickes, so the route was familiar as far as Lake Marjorie. Leaving the trail at the pass, I found surprisingly decent class 2 rock leading to Wynne’s summit.

Pinchot from Wynne
Pinchot from Wynne
Though both Wynne and Pinchot seem like they should be class 2 rubble-piles from all directions, there is a surprising craggy feature on their connecting ridge. Taking a hint from Wynne’s register, I stayed near the ridge and found a bit of third class and generally decent rock. Past this feature, the climb to Pinchot is the expected class 2 talus-pile. I thought I was making good time, but found in Pinchot’s register that local runner Phil Kiddoo had done the same route nearly an hour faster. Sigh.

White and Striped from Pinchot
White and Striped from Pinchot
The choss-ridge to the north did not look appealing, serrated on top and loose on the sides. I stayed near the crest descending from Pinchot, finding a bit of third class getting around some drops, then followed a sheep-path on the west side around some pinnacles. It was not as bad as it looked, but still time-consuming. The rock quality suddenly improved as I reached the intersection with the ridge to White, just short of Striped South’s summit. However, the first half of that ridge was crappy, red, and steep, looking just as bad up close as it had from a distance on the JMT. It might turn out to be loose 4th class, but I was not in the mood for that kind of physically and mentally exhausting climbing. On the good side, the ridge would likely foil Scott’s plan to traverse around to Striped from White.

White and no-go ridge
White and no-go ridge
I decided to deal with White later, and continued to the nearby summit. The register, placed by Sierra Challengers in 2014, had seen all of two people since, one of them a sheep surveyor. I eyed neighboring Striped and White as I ate, contemplating my next move. The ridge to Striped was supposedly class 3, but looked intimidating, and I had already done the peak, so I decided to drop down to the lakes between White and Striped South, then maybe do the 1500-foot climb to White from there if I felt like it.

Striped and Striped South
Striped and Striped South
I followed the ridge a short way north toward Striped, then began descending what I hoped was a “scree-able” chute. Unfortunately, what I found instead was loose talus mixed with outward-sloping slabs covered in ankle-biting scree. Partway down, I tapped a rock with my foot to see if it was stable, and it rolled a few feet, then broke into several pieces. Wonderful.

After the tedious descent, I was in no mood to deal with White. I filled my water at the nearby lake, replacing the ice-ball that had formed when I added too much snow at a patch along the ridge, then cut cross-country to the trail just below Taboose. From there, it was just an hour and 45 minutes of frustration to the trailhead, where Jim was kindly waiting with cold beverages. As usual, Scott was still out doing something else. His original plan thwarted by the ridge, he had chosen to do Cardinal and a neighboring unnamed peak, adding another few thousand feet of talus-slog to his day. I’m getting too old to compete with that.

The Powells and Clyde Spires

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east
Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east

The Challenge Peak for the day was “Potluck Pass Peak,” a fun 4th class scramble reached by a scenic stroll through the Barrett Lakes. Since I had already done it as a bonus in 2012, and since there was more or less nothing I had yet to climb out of South Lake that was not insane (i.e. would involve crossing Le Conte Canyon), I headed to the Sabrina basin to tag some things on my to-do list. I am not always a fan of the area, with its long approaches and heavy packer use, but this was to be a fun outing, with interesting scrambling, some nice summits, and quiet time to myself.

Hazy dawn on Lake Sabrina
Hazy dawn on Lake Sabrina
I found a spot to sleep in the small parking area near the North Lake turnoff, set my alarm for 5:00, and was soon asleep in the pleasantly cool air near 9000 feet. Waking to my alarm, I discovered that I had acquired a neighbor overnight, and he too had set his alarm for 5:00. We both flailed around preparing for awhile, presumably watching each other’s bobbing headlamps. I finished last, taking the time to heat my cup of sadness, drove to the outhouse at Sabrina, then back to the tiny day use parking area at the trailhead, and got started just before 6:00.

Powell-Thompson Col (center)
Powell-Thompson Col (center)
I feel guilty listening to stuff while hiking with other people, so I had plenty of listening material queued up for the familiar miles to Blue Lake, then the unfamiliar ones past Baboon and Sunset Lakes. Above Sunset, I was presented with what used to be a small glacier, and an unappealing dirt-chute leading to the Powell-Thompson col. Fortunately, a slabby rib on the right got me most of the way across the moraine, and snow and bits of hidden ice eased passage to the base of the chute. I carefully kicked steps up the snow to one side, then switched to stepping nervously on rubble frozen into the dirt/ice substance, and finally worked my way along the right-hand wall to the col.

Climb out of P-T col
Climb out of P-T col
The climb from here was probably just class 3-4, but with my current supply of hands, I had to backtrack a few times before finding a route that did not require a big right-hand mantle. An ascending traverse up the south side of the ridge eventually deposited me on the summit sand-plateau, with “Powell” close to my right, “Wesley” farther ahead to my left, and “John” obscured by the plateau/ridge in between. Clearly I had done things in the wrong order.

Ridge to "John"
Ridge to “John”
I tagged Powell (the one on the SPS list), then marched across the sand to easily tag Wesley before getting back to serious work on the ridge to John. I descended a loose chute to the south a bit, then retreated to stay closer to the ridge. An experiment with a line on the north side worked, but with some sketchiness, so I returned to the crest, then worked my way along the top and ledges to the south, with occasional exposed moves between levels. Things got easier at the saddle, and I was soon on the last and highest JWP summit.

Clyde Spires and Echo Lake from "John"
Clyde Spires and Echo Lake from “John”
When climbing this point several years ago after a big winter, Bob had used a snow/glacier route to the north, but I had no crampons or axe, and years of drought had pretty much hosed that option. Besides, I needed to be south of Echo Col for the standard route on Clyde Spires, my next objective. This was probaboy the worst part of the day, a long, right-handed descent of garbage chutes and fins south of the ridge, leading finally to boulders below the pass.

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east
Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east
Coming off this experience, I found the Clyde Spires’ south ridge quite pleasant, a quick-for-tired-me hop up a stable boulder field nearly to the ridge. I checked out the east spire first, having to fetch a cheater block to overcome what would normally be an easy two-handed boost, and was soon on the big flat summit next to the register can. I sat down and had almost started eating my fish when I noticed that the west spire was both higher-looking and more spire-like. Secor confirmed that it was higher, so I packed up the register and made my way to the other summit; Norman deserved as much.

East Clyde Spire from west
East Clyde Spire from west
The traverse was wander-y but not difficult until just below the summit block. Getting to the base seems to require either some chimneying from the south or something equally hard and slightly weirder from the west. I chose the chimneying, clanking and grinding as the register canister on my back gripped the rock. The summit block itself is maybe 10 feet high and very close to being one of the harder blocks in the Sierra. Fortunately, there is a sort of “mounting block” on its west side, and a perfect series of holds spiraling around north to the east side, leading to a flat top with just enough room for one person and his fish.

Focus on what matters
Focus on what matters
I put the register in its rightful place, then had a late lunch while contemplating my return. I could retrace my steps down the south ridge and come back over Echo Col, but that seemed longer than traversing onward over “Crumbling Spire” to Wallace Col. Other than one less-sketchy-than-it-looked class 4-5 downclimb, the traverse worked well, and I was soon looking for the least-bad way down the east side of the col.

I had hoped for easy scree-ing, but instead found mostly steep loose garbage that required a bit of care. Like Haeckel-Wallace Col to its north, this is not a “pass,” but a saddle where either side should be descended but never climbed. Filling my water at a nice lake where the two cols join, I noticed some people in the talus above. They waved when they noticed me, and I climbed out of my way within hailing distance to see what was going on. They turned out to be a group camped at Hungry Packer Lake, out for a “fun” wander through the talus, and unsure of their exact location. They seemed okay once I oriented them on their map, but if I had been thinking, I would have told them to try hiking up to the excellent Lake 12,345′ instead of suffering around below Wallace. Sabrina’s length began to weigh on me as I joined the convergent trails near Moonlight Lake, but I had plenty of listening material, and enough stores of good-will from the day to last me to the trailhead. After a long-ish 12-hour day, I rinsed off in the creek, stopped briefly in Bishop for dinner and a chat with Bob, then drove back up to cooler climbs above Big Pine to prepare for the next day.

“Gable Lakes Peak”

View down to Pine Creek
View down to Pine Creek

“Gable Lakes Peak” is a summit between Four Gables and Mount Tom on the rim of the Horton Lakes basin. This looked like an easy day on paper, with over 5000 feet of gain but not many miles, and much of it on trail. Had I been fully rested, this would have been the case. However, with advancing middle age comes slower recovery, and six days into the Challenge, my pathetically low maximum heart rate told me that I was performing well below my potential. While it was still short at around 6h45, it was enough effort that I had no energy for bonus peaks.

We left at 6:00 from the same parking lot as the day before, but this time took the subtly-signed Gable Lakes trail. I believe I used this trail to do Four Gables in 2013, and it felt pleasantly familiar to pass the mine tram towers on a steep, narrow trail built for humans. The tram towers are squat, solid things over-engineered in the way things were before CAD/CAM. Bob and I once again traded places, while JD, fresh off a rest day, surged ahead, even jogging some of the flats.

Pump at ruins
Pump at ruins
The three of us passed the mine ruins, consisting of a cabin, a couple pumps, a large motor, and various other debris worthy of Colorado. I dropped my camera while wandering around the ruin taking photos, and though it continued to work, the battery door broke. I found the pieces, put them all back in my camera bag, and stopped photographing for the day.

The trail rapidly fades and disappears above the mine, and we skirted the lakes above through low grass and a mass of frogs and tadpoles. Before fishermen seeded them with rainbow trout, all northern Sierra lakes were apparently like this. Above the last lake, we each took separate lines angling up Gable Lakes Peak’s northeast side. Our paths converged at a loose gap just below the summit, where I managed to start a decent rockslide down the chute. Fortunately no one was climbing down there, and we all safely reached the top.

The register showed the occasional ascent by locals, and Eric’s traverse from earlier this year, but few people bother with the traverse from neighboring peaks. We hung around taking photos, then JD continued to Four Gables, while Bob, Michael, and I headed for home, passing Bob P. near the gap. Bob was once again not in a running mood, so I took off by myself down the trail, eager to be done in the midday heat, then had time to eat and rinse off in the creek before heading in to town for a shower.

Morrow and points north

North from Morrow
North from Morrow

Mount Morrow is buried deep in the wilderness north of French Canyon, behind Merriam and Royce. I had passed nearby in 2013 on a backpack from Onion Valley to Rock Creek, and done Merriam, Royce and Feather a few years earlier, but had never dayhiked over Pine Creek Pass. This was expected to be a long day, which meant a 5:00 start from the Pine Creek pack station. With its low start and packer-ravaged trail, this approach is best begun in the dark, completing the initial climb while the sun gradually illuminates Peppermint Peak to the northwest.

Starting down French Canyon
Starting down French Canyon
There was a respectable crowd at the start, which quickly separated on the climb. I traded the lead with Bob as we climbed past a couple lakes and through the woods toward the pass. After a short rest at the lake, I left Bob to run into the broad glacial canyon on a generally pleasant trail. After passing the impressive falls from the outflow of the Royce Lakes, I found the very faint, unsigned start of the abandoned Merriam Lake trail upstream of its outflow, and re-climbed 600 feet of the elevation lost from the pass. (On my return, I found that there are two abandoned trails to Merriam Lake, one on either side of its stream. For some reason the downstream one has been signed since I backpacked through in 2013, though it is unmaintained and somewhat less pleasant than the upstream one.)

Morrow register
Morrow register
Following Bob’s suggested route, I stayed near the crest of Morrow’s broad east ridge, crossing a minor sub-summit and a short exposed section while weaving my way up class 2-3 slabs. The final climb up the south face near the ridge is a mix of talus and sand, but not too loose. I looked around the east end of the summit a bit, then found the register in an old camping pot on the west end. It held some information about Pastor Morrow, and a copy of an official naming application (possibly not approved).

Feather, Royce, Merriam
Feather, Royce, Merriam
I waited around for a half-hour hoping for some company, then headed north to tag a couple of bonus peaks when I started getting cold. The ridge looks tricky, but as I remembered from my last trip through the area, ledges and benches on its west side keep the traverse mostly efficient class 2. Reading through a nice old register on the first peak, I watched Bob and Eric making their way to Morrow’s summit, then continued to the next bump.

Looking back from Merriam Lake
Looking back from Merriam Lake
This one proved more difficult than the first: a couple of rotten gaps in the ridge required some third class downclimbing, and the summit itself appeared to be class 3-4 by the easiest route (from the south). This one also had a register showing occasional traffic, though it was much newer. It was early enough that I was tempted to traverse on around on the ridge past La Salle Lake to Feather. 2009 me would have done so, but 2016 me, being wiser or at least more middle-aged, decided that that sounded like an epic in the making. Instead, I retreated south to the “pass” I had used in 2013, then descended past Merriam Lake and down the other trail to French Canyon.

The rest was just a trail commute, 1100 feet up to the pass, then 3800 down to the trailhead. I passed poor Bob soothing his toes in the lake at the pass, then focused on my music as I jogged the pack trail home.

Laurel (NE gully), Bloody, Peak 11,981, “Mendenhall”

Sunrise on Laurel
Sunrise on Laurel

(I am way behind on writing, so some of these might be a bit terse.)

Convict Lake is surrounded by some of the most colorful, rugged, and rotten peaks in the Sierra, including the north face of Mount Morrison, which looms over highway 395 south of Mammoth Lakes. “Mount Mendenhall” is an unofficially-named summit west of Red Slate Mountain, a giant pile of red scree with a classic couloir climb. Given the surroundings, I was not optimistic about what we would find as we set out past the boat launch at 6:00. Loren immediately took off running at an uncivilized pace for the hour; I tried staying with him for about 30 seconds, then let him go and admired the sunrise on Laurel’s northeast face.

Constriction on gully route
Constriction on gully route
Most of the way around the lake, I decided to make things fun. Where the trail crosses the wash below Laurel’s face, I left it to reach the base of the northeast gully, a classic 4th class (or maybe 5.2 these days) scramble that, because it follows an avalanche- and flood-gully on the face, is the only clean route on the peak. This would be another test of my 1.5-handed climbing, but I felt reasonably confident after the previous day, and needed the fun. From Laurel’s summit, it looked like I could follow a ridge around to Mendenhall, crossing Bloody and an unnamed 11,981-foot summit along the way. Since John Mendenhall had made the gully’s first ascent (the first belayed climb in the Sierra), this also gave the day a pleasing symmetry.

The gully is mostly sticky class 2-3 slabs, with some waterfall steps and constrictions passed by either climbing to one side or stemming up the center. I was a bit slow on these crux sections, but figured out alternate left-hand-dominant sequences without much trouble. Where the gully splits lower down, I took the right branch, then stayed in what felt like the main watercourse where it broadened and flattened.

More gully
More gully
When I last did the route in 2009 or 2010, I somehow got out of the gully onto crumbly, black, scary rock to one side, and therefore found the route only so-so. This time I managed to take a better line, coming out just north of the summit with only a bit of unpleasant scree-slogging. I was pleased with my time of about 2h05 until, leafing through the register, I saw that Jason Lakey had recently done a 1h47. That is a solid time for 4000 feet of gain on technical terrain, especially padded with a mile or so of flat trail around the lake, and I’m not sure if I could best it, even rested and two-handed. It was a good reminder that there are plenty of quiet fast guys out there.

Bloody (r) from Laurel
Bloody (r) from Laurel
From the summit, I descended south toward Bloody Mountain, eventually picking up bits of boot-pack that were much more helpful going down than they would be going up. I crossed the Dorothy-Laurel trail at the saddle, then picked up a better trail along the standard route up Bloody’s northeast ridge. After more than enough false summits, I reached the true one, from which I saw that the route forward looked a lot of up and down. According to the register, my route up to this point had been reasonably popular; the remainder was probably not.

Descent from Bloody
Descent from Bloody
The descent southwest from Bloody was generally unpleasant, with few opportunities for scree-ing on the loose slope. The rock changed from red slate to white granite near the saddle, from which I spied a group of four backpackers making their slow way across the pass between Bloody and Edith Lakes. From the climb up to Peak 11,981, Bloody looks like a nice granite peak with nasty red scree poured over it as a topping. I reached the summit with the usual class 2-3 on mostly decent rock, signed the register, then continued south toward Mendenhall.

North side of Mendenhall (l)
North side of Mendenhall (l)
The connecting ridge drops to a saddle around 11,400′, then becomes more difficult as it rises again. For speed, and because I was low on water, I dropped to the valley near Franklin Lake, making good time past several lakes as I approached Mendenhall’s north face. Though it looks like a horrid mixture of dirt-chutes and rotten ribs above a long moraine, I found a decent slabby rib and some stable talus most of the way up, with only a bit of loose struggling near the top.

I emerged just west of the summit, then hiked up to find Iris and Chris hanging out, unhurried as usual. Both Iris and her clothes seemed held together by tape, a bad sign so early in the Challenge, but she seemed cheerful enough. Since I was out of food, I gladly accepted their offer of trail mix and wasabi peas, shunning some plantains, and talked for a bit before joining them in descending toward Dorothy Lake. They seemed in no hurry, even planning to swim in one of the lake; sensing an irreconcilable difference in style, I left them on the sand descent.

Dorothy Lake
Dorothy Lake
I overtook and talked to the other Sean in the forest above Dorothy Lake, then started jogging on the trail around the surprising mile-long natural lake. I caught some others on the descent past Mildred, finally chasing down Bob just above the stream crossing. Despite wearing cheap hiking boots, he usually runs such descents, so I was surprised to find him moving at a moderate walk. It turned out he was having some toe problems, which I tried unsuccessfully to convince him might have something to do with the boots.

Bob being Bob, he convinced me to try to catch Rob, who was jogging the trail a few minutes ahead. After crossing the stream with less desperate shenanigans than I remembered, I took off down the rocky trail faster than I had planned. I finally saw my prey ahead on the long hike around the lake, jogging the downhills and flats, and walking the uphills. Right as I caught him, he looked back and took off at a genuine run. I accelerated to hang on, and we both finished the last quarter-mile panting. Rob has an unnatural amount of speed and enthusiasm for a 59-year-old man.

Clyde Minaret

Minarets from near Ediza
Minarets from near Ediza

I was feeling down on the Sierra after two days climbing lackluster peaks, and I needed something to cheer me up. The Challenge peak of the day was Mount Bartholomew, an apparent talus-heap west of the Minarets, reached by much dusty trail through the woods from Devil’s Postpile. I hear it turned out to be reasonably fun, and to have good views, but a group including Renée and JD was going to the nearby Minarets, and I had unfinished business in that small group of jagged summits.

Sunset on the Minarets, Ritter, and Banner
Sunset on the Minarets, Ritter, and Banner
I normally camp near Minaret Vista for cool air and fewer bugs, but it actually seemed to get colder as I drove down the one lane road to Agnew Meadows. Once I figured out the confusing mess of parking lots, I quickly found JD and Robert but, as our 6:00 start time approached, I saw no sign of Renée. While the others started out up the trench of dust and horse manure, I located Renée and Chris in one of the other lots, then stood around getting cold while they got ready. (They were coming off a 12-hour day and a long drive.)

Near base of route
Near base of route
We finally got started a bit after 6:30. I normally start the day walking, but they’re both runners (Chris is a pro), so we jogged the trench, catching JD and the rest between Shadow and Ediza Lakes. With horses not allowed past Ediza, the trail dramatically improves, and I enjoyed the alpine views as we hiked the sort-of trail past Iceberg to Cecile Lake, where we met James and his friend, whom I did not know.

Chris on Starr Route
Chris on Starr Route
Together, the group of seven swarmed up the slabs and turf to the base of the Rock Route on the right side of Clyde’s east face. Sensing the potential for rockfall, and not having helmets, Chris and I peeled off to the neighboring Starr Route, which is slightly stiffer class 4, but with less loose rock and more fun. I was worried about climbing with only 1.5 hands (broken 4th metacarpal), but after a bit of adjustment I found that I could use my partial right hand for balance and figure out a sequence of left-handed moves.

Michael and Eichorn
Michael and Eichorn
We topped out slightly ahead of the others, finding Loren waiting just below the ridge headwall. He had started off on-time and running fast, and is a strong climber, so I’m not sure why he waited. Anyways, I found a workable variant left of the (standard?) chockstone chimney, and popped over the ridge to a spectacular view of Michael Minaret, my original goal for the day. The rest of the group made its way down the crux step piecemeal, and eventually the eight of us assembled on Clyde’s summit.

Junction of Rock and Starr Routes
Junction of Rock and Starr Routes
It was just after noon by the time the photos and hijinks were done. I remembered the traverse to Eichorn taking awhile with both hands some years ago, and Michael is farther still, so even if I could manage it in my current state (right hand uphill on the way out), it would be a long day. Lazy and pathetic, I retreated down the Rock Route, which was loose and a bit unnerving with so many people.

Things became more pleasant as we reached the slabs and trail, then started jogging near Iceberg Lake. Chris set a moderate pace that was probably frustrating for him, and we were making good time eating up the awful miles back to Agnew Meadows. Unfortunately, right as we reached the climb out of the valley toward the meadow, we came upon a large pack train. “You’ll have to stay behind us until the top of the hill,” we were sternly told. So we did, walking slowly up a trench full of sand and pulverized manure, dodging fresh piles of the same and a bonus lake of piss. Irritation fueled me enough to jog the rest of the way, thinking about negative externalities and the futility of trying to ban livestock from our National Parks.

Gibbs, Kuna Crest, Mammoth

Kuna Crest and Gibbs' shadow
Kuna Crest and Gibbs’ shadow

After dinner at the Mobile Mart (I brought my own), I drove up Tioga Pass for the next day’s peaks in Yosemite. Hoping to camp at my usual pullout on Saddlebag Lake Road, I was dismayed to find it already full of blatant campers; even the nearby trailhead I sometimes use was full. I finally settled for a lousy spot along a wide section of the road, and went to sleep with the occasional passing car’s lights flashing through my windows. I was up at 5:00, and at the Mono Pass trailhead by 5:40, but it was already full, and I ended up parking in an overflow pulloff a couple hundred yards up. Welcome to summer in the wilds of California, I guess.

Dana from Gibbs
Dana from Gibbs
The day’s Challenge “peak” was a pair of bumps on Kuna Crest, a broad ridge leading from Mammoth to Kuna Peak. To leaven an unusually short day, I added Mount Gibbs, which is not connected to the others, but is nearby and on the SPS list. I stuck with the group, talking to Loren about various ambitious Sierra things past and future until he split off for Mammoth, then left the others when they took the trail toward Spillway Lake. I left the trail at an arbitrary point in the woods, and found myself near Gibbs’ broad southwest ridge. It turned out to be exactly the talus-pile it appeared to be, but was thankfully mostly stable, so after some climbing and a traverse along the south ridge, I reached the summit without too much pain.

Valley smoke
Valley smoke
The fires to the southeast had left a layer of smoke, creating an interesting view of the hills in that direction. After signing the register, I retraced my steps, then took a more direct line toward Kuna Crest South. Getting down Gibbs sucked, but the rolling meadows over toward Spillway were pleasant. After a bit of a brush-maze getting around the lake, I headed straight up the talus ridge toward the summit. I passed Jim just below the summit, where I found a crowd of ten or so who had come straight to the peak.

Dana and Gibbs from Kuna Crest
Dana and Gibbs from Kuna Crest
I paused only briefly before heading north along the ridge toward Mammoth. I had hoped (as had Bob) that it would be pleasant slabs, grass, or even compacted sand, but it was mostly a time-consuming boulder-hop. I stood on a few things that might be Kuna Crest North, then continued to Mammoth, still hoping to catch Bob. I missed him by about 15 minutes but, after dropping straight east down from the summit, finally enjoyed some pleasant, easy travel through meadows and open woods to the trail about a mile from the trailhead. I cooked my post-hike meal while being buffeted by constant passing cars, then carried my chair and pot back to the trailhead, which was at least slightly isolated from traffic. Ah, the majesty of Yosemite.