Category Archives: California

Basin Mountain (E bowl)

Basin from car


Sitting at the eastern edge of the range, Basin Mountain and Mount Tom are the two most striking peaks seen from Bishop. Mount Tom has several long ski lines, of which I have done a couple, and I planned to do another, the southeast couloir. However, that line shares a trailhead with Basin’s well-known and much more striking east bowl. Partly because it was tempting and closer, and partly because I hiked over a mile from the car before realizing I had forgotten my poles, I scrapped my plans and headed for Basin.

Skinning toward Basin

I skinned up the road for awhile, then left it to continue through the sagebrush toward an orange thing near a large boulder that turned out to be someone’s tent. Despite its being sunny and pleasant, I saw no one outside the tent or skinning up the slope above. The previous day’s snow up high may have fallen as rain below, because the snow still had a slick, rock-hard crust. I carefully skinned up for a bit, wishing I had ski crampons, booted until I began postholing, then cautiously and strenuously followed the old skin track for awhile.

Upper basin from shoulder

I eventually reached a shoulder between the lower slopes and the basin that gives the peak its name. Some previous skiers had skied a shorter line north of the shoulder, but the snow still needed time to soften, and I was here for the basin, so I side-slipped over to the south, then continued along the now-fainter track. The previous morning had been snowy, and the afternoon violently windy, so there was a mixture of powder and wind-board in the sheltered northeast-facing bowl.

Upper basin with skier for scale

The enormous scale of the terrain hides the fact that the upper bowl is 2000 feet high, so it seemed to take forever to cross the lower flat section and climb the headwall. I managed to skin partway up, but had to return to booting as the slope got steeper and more wind-packed. The bowl tops out at the base of a rock wall below the summit, so rather than follow it, I decided to explore a southeast-facing branch to see if I could reach the summit.

Those are mine!

The snow abruptly turned nasty, with various soft stuff over an old rock-hard crust. I booted and wallowed up a ways, but after backsliding a couple of times, decided that continuing might be not just frustrating but unwise. I stomped out a platform, switched to downhill mode, and had a snack, then did a trial ski cut to see what would happen. Not too surprisingly, I managed to set off a small slide, though it wasn’t very deep. I found some more solid snow on the south-facing part of the chute, and carefully made my way down to the main basin.

I had seen someone following my track below, and met him again as he put his skis on his pack to boot up the final half of the upper basin. I stopped to chat for a minute, then did some thuggish skiing on variable snow back to the saddle. Below the saddle, the east-facing crust had softened nicely, and I managed to hit 30 MPH making super-G turns on the lower slope — not particularly fast, but still fun, and not bad for the conditions. I dodged sagebrush on the flats until I found the road, then coasted back to within 10 feet of my car around 12:30. There were another half-dozen vehicles parked by then, and I passed a few skiers, but only me and that one other guy seem to have made it up high.

Buck Mountain (SE chute)

Skinning toward Buck


It’s spring in the Sierra, and some of the big east-side ski lines are coming into prime condition. Of the roughly 10,000 feet of elevation between the Owens Valley and the highest peaks, 5000 feet or more is skiable in many places, often with minimal desert hiking carrying skis. With clear skies and a higher sun, the snow refreezes overnight, and softens up enough on south- and east-facing slopes to be pleasantly skiable by noon or 1:00 PM.

Buck Mountain, and its neighbor Alice, are unattractive sand-piles east of the much more dramatic Palisades. I had climbed both for the Sierra Challenge, and not particularly enjoyed doing so. Both mountains are much improved by snow, however, with Buck’s southeast face and gully offering just over 4000 feet of moderate skiing. With the Glacier Lodge road currently closed about 1.5 miles short of the summer trailhead, there is a bit of an approach, but nothing obscene, and it was still mostly snow-covered from the small parking area.

Skinning toward Clyde

Dan and Kim had camped at the trailhead, so they probably got more sleep than I did, waking in the dark to drive down from north of Bishop. After the usually gear wrangling, we were skinning up the road on a chilly morning a bit before 7:00. This was my first time using Dan’s old boots and backup skis. The boots in particular are much lighter than my current gear, and while this made skinning easier, I was curious how they would perform going downhill.

Lower gully

We eventually reached the summer trailhead, and had to remove our skis for one short stretch of south-facing trail passing the cabins. Beyond, we followed an old skin track up across the bridge, then into the open South Fork of Big Pine Creek. High clouds and a breeze kept temperatures cool, and we were concerned as we skinned west that the snow would not soften enough to be fun.

Climbing toward lower gully

Just past the summer stream crossing, where the trail begins to climb the headwall toward Willow Lake, we finally saw the start of our route. After waiting awhile for it to warm up, and almost giving up, the clouds looked like they might be blowing over, and we fortunately decided to go ahead. The snow was still solid on the way up, and as the slope steepened, Dan and Kim put on their ski crampons. Not having such esoteric gear, I carefully skinned as best I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up a couple of the steeper sections.

Sill and North Palisade from Buck

Above the initial chute, we found a good skin-track switchbacking up the open slope, which made it possible for me to carefully skin up to the shoulder, then around to the final south-facing slope. While Kim waited for Dan, I continued up the track toward the summit ridge. I stashed my skis in a sheltered spot, then followed a boot-track to the true summit, where I found the register in good shape and completely exposed. It was unfortunately too new to include the Sierra Challenge, but I saw some familiar names, and it was warm and calm enough to hang out on the summit, have a snack, and admire the Palisades in all their snow-bound glory.

Palisade Crest

By the time I returned to my skis and figured out how to switch Dan’s boots to downhill mode, Kim and Dan had reached my sheltered spot. It was getting late — around 1:00 PM — so rather than continuing to the summit for a clear view of North Palisade, they briefly looked over into the North Fork, then prepared to descend. I was worried about some plastic poking me in Dan’s boots, but as is often the case with ski boots, once you start going downhill, either they sort themselves out or you stop noticing the pain.

Yours Truly stylin’ it (Dan’s photo)

After a couple turns of hard crust, the snow became pleasant on the upper face, and I descended in swooping GS turns. The snow below the shoulder was similarly pleasant, except for a shaded part of the lower gully that had already refrozen, and I got up some serious speed on the final runout into the South Fork. I wish I knew my top speed, but unfortunately I was not recording the ski.

Rather than following the summer trail, we stayed on the south side of the creek, following some ski tracks that eventually deposited us among the surprisingly large cluster of cabins. I debated putting skins back on for the slightly-downhill road back to the car, but eventually decided not to: the skins had left nasty glue on the bases on the way up, and it was downhill… So, much strenuous skating and double-poling later, I finally returned to the car, and was home again by late afternoon.

Wheeler Crest

Northern crest with chute


One incongruous bit of good fortune lately has been the snow cover lingering well down into the Owens Valley, kept alive by fresh showers and cold temperatures. This has made it possible for me to put on skis less than a mile from my winter abode. There is not a whole lot of skiable terrain nearby, but there are numerous chutes all along Wheeler Crest, a long ridge between Pine and Rock Creeks west of the Sherman Grade, where Highway 395 climbs from the Owens Valley to the higher plateau south of Mammoth Lakes.

Southern crest with Mayfield Couloir

I had tried the Mayfield Couloir on the southern end, finding too little snow and too many exposed willows. However, the couloirs farther north, west of Swall Meadows, seemed to have better coverage. I first tried on a storm day, skinning up the powerline road southwest of Swall, then blindly following a couloir to around 8500′, where the cold and wind convinced me to turn back. I found some decent powder on the way down, but it was tricky skiing without being able to see surface features and obstacles. The route clearly had potential, though, so I returned the next day to try to finish it.

Skinning away from White

The forecast predicted calm, sunny conditions, so I got a fairly early start around 7:00 AM despite its only being around 20 degrees out. Like the day before, I hiked around a mile from the house with skis and boots on my back, then switched as quickly as possible with rapidly-numbing fingers before skinning up the powerline road. Beyond the road closure, I found it much easier to pick a line to the couloir’s entrance now that I could actually see things more than a couple hundred yards away.

Lower chute

I made better time to my previous highpoint, finding my tracks from the day before mostly filled in but still faintly visible. Above, there are numerous branching chutes. I tried to pick the broadest ones with the fewest trees, aiming a bit south of Wheeler Crest’s summit. As the chutes steepened and narrowed, I was forced to make more switchbacking turns, which were slow and laborious in the heavy Sierra powder. I eventually got tired of the turns, but I sunk in knee-deep without skis, so I tried to make longer traverses across the lightly-treed slopes. This approach was probably a bit faster than staying in one of the narrow chutes, but was still a grind, often sinking

Summit from top-out

I eventually traversed north to the northeast ridge of Point 11,485′, where I found pleasantly wind-packed snow and easier travel. I neared the point around 1:00 PM, and was tempted to skip Wheeler Crest’s summit, which still looked far away. Telling myself that there was still plenty of daylight and I needed the exercise, I skinned on, finding much easier travel near the wind-scoured crest. The final 50′ to the summit was mostly bare rock, though the register (if any) was buried enough that I did not bother to look. I took a few quick photos, checked out the views of upper Rock Creek to the west, Tom, Humphreys and the Palisades to the south, and the White Mountains across the way, then locked in my heels to ski back toward the chutes dropping from 11,485′.

Ready to drop in

I tried to build up some speed going through the saddle, but still had to do some miserable slow-motion struggling to get back to the ridge. It might have been faster to put my skins back on, but I am very slow at transitions. While cornices had formed elsewhere on the ridge, there was just an initial steep slope on the chute I chose. The upper slopes were covered in wind-crust hard enough that I did not sink in. Unfortunately, the crust became less predictable lower down, and I managed to tip slowly and embarrassingly downhill several times when I unexpectedly broke through and lost my balance. Finally, just above the previous day’s highpoint, I found more consistent powder, and enjoyed some nice turns down to the desert brush. I picked up the powerline road, glided just past where I had put on my skis in the morning, then hiked back home.

Various eastside skiing

While I have not been getting out as much as planned this winter, it has still been slightly more interesting than usual. Here are brief descriptions of a few backcountry ski outings.

McGee Mountain (east couloir)

McGee chutes


McGee Mountain, a peak west of the southern end of Crowley Lake, has numerous couloirs on its east and south faces. This one lies above the old rope tow for a ski area that predated Mammoth Mountain. The snow lower down was thin, but I was itching to get out, so I parked at the historic marker for the old lift, and started skinning up some defunct road toward the couloir’s base. While this was not the most direct route, it avoided the sagebrush that the thin snow failed to cover.

Beyond the end of the road, I continued switchbacking up the hill left of the couloir, occasionally crunching through brush. I eventually moved to the gully below where it narrows, removing my skis to kick steps and wallow through the choke-point. A bit above, I was able to put my skis back on and switchback to the top, eventually exiting via the melting-out right-hand side.

The northwest-facing plateau above was badly wind-scoured, and I carefully picked my way through rocks and grass on the long, gentle climb to McGee’s summit. I took some photos, sent some texts (once again, I had no signal at the trailhead, but a clear one at the summit), then transitioned to “fun mode” to carefully dodge obstacles on my way back to the couloir. Unfortunately I overshot the top, and had to shoulder my skis and hike back up the ridge before dropping in.

I had not been on skis in awhile, but I quickly remembered how to turn in the upper bowl, and was having fun by the time I reached the choke-point. I got in some decent turns below, then exited to the slope I had ascended. Things gradually got uglier lower down, as I was forced to dodge sagebrush and turn gently to avoid carving through the thinning snow. I finally returned to the car via a slow, thigh-burning snowplow down the road.

Mount Dade (Hourglass Couloir)

Hourglass


With the Upper Rock Creek Road gated at the winter closure, anything at the back of Little Lakes Valley is a long trek. The snowmobile-groomed road to Rock Creek Resort helps, but the distance still keeps most people away, leaving more snow for me. The high trailhead and packed snow also help in the dry early season, when other approaches would require hiking.

I got a semi-early start, skinning happily up the smooth road, then continuing along a single snowmobile track to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. I was happy to find a ski track beyond, probably left by whomever had driven the snowmobile. The lakes were still not quite trustworthy, so I followed the skin track that skirted them, more or less along the summer trail. Beyond Long Lake, I followed the drainage up toward Treasure Lakes, where there is a decent use trail in the summer.

The Hourglass Couloir was obvious between Mount Dade and Point 13,268′. I had descended it in dry conditions on a backpack several years ago, finding loose and wretched scree. This time I was doing things right: it was full of snow, and I had skis.

I skinned up as far as I could on the slope below, then began booting the steeper part. This was mostly okay, but the steeper part was a bit intimidating with neither crampons nor ice axe, and with ungainly skis on my back. I was able to get just enough purchase with a sharp ski-boot kick, but if I had stumbled or been blown over by the wind, I probably would have slid helplessly and slowly back down to the bottom.

Topping out at the saddle, I saw that the slope to Dade’s summit had been mostly scoured down to the talus, and decided this was far enough for the day. I dropped my pack, hiked around for a bit, then switched to “fun mode” for the descent. There had been no recent snow, so the couloir skied a bit like a groomed run, with just enough soft surface snow over the wind crust to make confident turns. Taking a bit of care to build momentum for the flats, I managed to glide all the way to the flatter wooded section just above Long Lake. From there, I skinned to just below the summer trailhead, then slid down the road to the car. The whole thing was 19 miles and about 6h45 — a good day.

Esha

Esha Peak


Esha Creek is a side-stream of McGee Creek that is ignored during the summer, but becomes a popular ski in the winter. It had been on my radar since a friend mentioned it, and I finally got around to skiing it before a major storm turned everything to avalanches. While the snow was a bit thin — it had been awhile since the last significant storm — there was enough coverage to make it a fun run from near 12,200′ down to McGee Creek at 7800′.

The road up McGee Creek had been packed by snowmobiles and partly wrecked by snowshoers and hikers, so it was easy going up toward the old northern lateral moraine. The road curves around its lower end, but I saw a skin track cutting the corner and decided to follow that. It turned out to be a bad idea, as the track trailed off on McGee’s melted-out south-facing slope above the corrals. I took off my skis, boot-skied down some scree, then carefully slid back down to the road with my heels free and skins on, dodging sagebrush.

Back on track, I regained the skin track I knew would be there. It led to a sketchy iced-over log crossing McGee Creek; fortunately ski boots are waterproof, so I could step in the creek without fear. Beyond, I followed the skin track up Esha Creek. It became too steep to follow in a couple of places — perhaps its creators had ski crampons — and I had to kick steps in the hard crust. There were a couple bands of bare talus in the bottom of the drainage, avoided to the west.

I passed the frozen lake just below 10,600′, then booted up toward the various couloirs on “Esha Peak’s” face. I would not have known which one was correct, but fortunately I could follow the boot-pack from two days earlier. Slowly, painfully, I dragged myself up the couloir, finally sketching my way up a steep headwall to the peak’s northeast ridge. I dropped my skis and pack, and hiked to the summit to take in views of Red Slate, Baldwin, White Fang, and McGee.

Returning to my skis, I carefully side-stepped down the headwall, then made a couple of cautious turns to check out the couloir. It proved less scary than expected, with enough soft snow to make for good skiing. I paused a couple of times to catch my breath, including once above the 25-foot constriction that I thought would be the crux, but which turned out not to be that bad. I had to build some momentum to cross the flat by the lake, so I went straight down the last couple hundred vertical feet. I reached barely-stable speeds across some old avalanche debris, but managed to carry enough momentum to carry me across the other side. The crust was still rock-hard, and my edges often chattered as I carved turns. It reminded me of my ski racing days as a kid, except for my being out of shape and having to pause and gasp from time to time. Still, I reached McGee Creek about 30 minutes from the summit. After crossing the creek, another 30-minute glide got me back to the car.

Elderberry

12,000′ above Elderberry


Elderberry Canyon is a classic Eastern Sierra ski descent. Starting from down in the desert where you have to park your car — probably around 5500′ — the wannabe skier follows an old road and trail to the Lambert Mine at almost 11,000′. From there, numerous couloirs ascend to Mount Tom’s north ridge between 11,800′ and 12,800′. Trying to sneak in a final ski ahead of a round of avalanches, I caught it in non-ideal conditions, with skiable snow starting at 7100′. Still, by climbing to the ridge at 12,000′, I managed to find 4900′ of enjoyable if crusty skiing.

For the first time since last summer, I started out with my skis and boots on my pack, hiking the old mine road, which no longer seems drivable past around 5800′. I reached Elderberry Canyon at 6400′, and briefly explored a road continuing south before returning to find the near-invisible trail up next to the creek. After a bit more confusing near a constriction, I crossed the creek where it turns south around 7000′, bashing through some willows and picking my way through nasty wild roses.

I finally put my skis on at 7100′, skinning carefully up hard crust and around bits of old avalanche debris. The valley narrows somewhat, then widens and flattens as it turns slightly east around 9600′. I continued over rolling terrain, eventually ending up west of where the Lambert Mine is shown on the map. The weather was still decent, with thin high clouds and little wind, so I chose a broad chute and booted west to Tom’s north ridge around 12,000′.

The summit was another 1600′ and 1 mile climb away over mostly-bare talus, so I spent a few minutes admiring Pine Creek and Bear Creek Spire, then locked in my heels and headed down. Above the mine, I found some powder mixed with breakable crust. The best skiing was from the mine down to 9600′, solid snow with a smooth, soft surface friendly to sweeping, carving turns. Things were crustier and a bit trickier below, but still fun and skiable back to 7100′. From there, it was a moderate hike to the car, shortcutting the road through sagebrush and sand. I was surprised to find another skier parked next to me, who got a later start and turned around lower. Satisfied, I drove home and waited for more snow to arrive.

Badwater to Whitney (L2H route, 53h09)

I come from the other side of that


With only 88 miles separating Badwater and Mount Whitney, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States, it is only natural for people to want to travel from one to the other. The most popular way to do this is the Badwater 135 running race, which follows the highway and is held in July to maximize misery. However, there is also a mostly off-highway route between the two points called “Lowest to Highest” (L2H), which stitches together a mixture of dirt roads, trails, and cross-country travel to connect the two points in a similar distance and in a much more interesting way.

I had met a member of a group trying to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for this route on my recent Badwater to Telescope adventure. The group seemed unlikely to succeed, but it turns out that they persevered, completing the route in 3 days, 8 hours. I do not normally enjoy deserts, backpacking, or non-peak-focused activities. However, I am both curious and competitive, and with a little help from a friend (ahem), the seed was planted in my mind. Thus, in the last dry Sierra weather before winter, I found myself driving back out to Badwater on Saturday, with side-trips to leave water at Cerro Gordo and on the Saline Valley and Wildrose Canyon Roads.

First period of consciousness

Starting out (second time…)

Having learned my lesson from last time, I took a side-trip to the Natural Bridge parking lot to sleep, then woke up at 2:30 AM to drive down to Badwater. I started hiking on schedule at 3:00 AM, choosing a constellation to orient myself on the featureless salt flat after the moon had set. Feeling paranoid a mile or more out, I stopped to check my pack, and realized that I had left my phone charging cord in the car. Since I did not know the route, this simply would not do. Cursing my stupidity, I meandered back to the car, retrieved the cord, and started “for real” around 4:30. Bonus miles!

Badwater from Panamint crest

Heading just right of Orion’s belt, I plotted a fairly straight and direct course across the flats at night, reaching the Westside Road before sunrise. My pack was uncomfortably heavy with food, but I managed to jog a bit of this road before hiking the endless Hanaupah Canyon Road toward the spring. The “illegal activities” seemed not to have poisoned the water for the previous group, so I drank some and filled up with a full 3 liters before zig-zagging up the faint trail to the east ridge. I felt good on the familiar climb, reaching the Telescope trail about 7h30 from the car.

Up Tuber Canyon

After following the trail past Bennett Peak, the route heads cross-country into Tuber Canyon. The initial drop is moderately obnoxious, but the canyon floor has an open, sandy streambed that makes for quick travel. I was feeling good enough to jog quite a bit of it, sipping away at my water as I made the endless, winding descent to the Panamint Valley. Though I saw no burros, they had left plenty of manure and faint trails, which I followed as the wash became littered with rocks and brush lower down. Closer to the canyon’s mouth, these game trails turned into a human trail and then a jeep road.

Moonrise over Telescope

I hiked and jogged the jeep road past some burned-out old cars and other junk, finishing my water shortly before meeting the Wildrose Canyon Road. I hiked up to my water cache, drank a liter, then put three more in my pack along with the crushed plastic jug. Absorbed in my preparations, I was surprised to look up and find a woman with an overnight pack hiking down the road. When I greeted her, she replied and immediately asked if I was doing Lowest to Highest. I spoke for a few minutes to this desert native, finding out that she was doing a loop up Tuber Canyon and down Wildrose, then we took off in opposite directions.

The GPS map came in handy here, as the route leaves the paved Wildrose road to follow a nearly-invisible old jeep road northwest across the Panamint Valley. I jogged the descents and hiked the flats as the sun set over the Argus Range across the valley. I took out my headlamp near full dark, but found that the moon was bright enough to make it unnecessary. I glanced occasionally at the map on my phone, following the line as it turned left across the Panamint salt flat. This was probably my favorite part of the journey. Unlike the Badwater flat, with its sharp and uneven surface, the Panamint flat is almost entirely smooth, so I could fast-walk across it while admiring the starry skyline, and watching the sparse headlamps of the cars passing silently on the roads to the west and north.

I had been feeling fine to this point, or perhaps my mind was elsewhere going across the salt flat, but I began to feel the miles while plying the dirt roads toward highway 190. There were the expected knee and shoulder aches, but also some unfamiliar ones in my Achilles tendons and the backs of my knees. I finally reached route 190, then turned left to walk quickly up the pavement toward Panamint Springs, only turning my headlamp on to warn approaching cars.

I reached the “resort,” checked to find that their WiFi was password-protected, then sat down on a rock outside to have a sandwich and think. My original plan had been to put in 70 miles the first day, sleeping at my Saline Valley Road cache at 1:00-2:00 AM. While I was not falling asleep on my feet, my various aches and pains were becoming unpleasant, and there was substantial cross-country travel ahead. Thinking quickly, I decided instead to sleep at China Garden Spring. This would mean covering only about 57 miles the first day, and therefore almost certainly a second sleep in the Owens Valley, but I could not think of a better option.

I hiked more paved road past Panamint, then turned left onto the well-graded dirt road to the Darwin Falls trailhead. I was not loving life at this point, and eyed various flat-looking spots off to the side of the road. However, it was still relatively early, and I told myself that it made more sense to camp near water. The canyon started out broad and sandy, but narrowed as the stream surfaced and I approached the falls. Soon there were no flat spots to camp, and I soaked my feet on one of the stream crossings. I followed a faint cairned route around the falls to the left, making several unnecessary detours to overlook points and finding a bit of easy class 3 scrambling, with cactus to discourage mistakes. I desperately wanted the day to end, so when around 10:00 I found a flat-ish spot sheltered from the wind in some bushes, I threw down my pad and bag, set my alarm for 5:00, and devoured a pepperoni. It took awhile for my fatigue to drown out the pain in my left knee and ankle, but I eventually fell asleep sometime before 11:00.

Second period of consciousness

Let the tedium begin


There were no pleasant bailout options from my first camp, so I feared waking up to find myself feeling the pain and stiffness of serious damage. Fortunately, my body seemed to have recovered overnight. Still, I lay in my bag for awhile after my alarm, dreading the night-time cross-country travel, and only got started at the end of headlamp time around 6:00. Barely 100 yards from camp, I stumbled onto a dirt road coming from who-knows-where, which I followed to China Garden Spring. I expected something obvious like Hanaupah Springs, but saw only a run-down shack and tire tracks. Perhaps the spring was somewhere up-canyon, but it was cool enough that I thought I could manage the 12 miles to my Saline Valley cache on the liter I had left.

The route turned cross-country again, winding up a scenic, easy wash before popping out onto the seemingly endless and slightly uphill plain of loose volcanic garbage that is the Darwin Plateau. I longingly eyed the road to my north as I slogged past the Joshua Trees, trying to take the most efficient line around hills and washes. The folks at nearby China Lake seemed unusually busy, as I frequently heard the sound of military jets overhead. Once, a straight-winged jet looking a bit like an X-1 passed low near a hill behind me, then peeked out again ahead. I don’t know why it was flying, but it did cheer me up.

So much of this…

I eventually reached the highway, crossing 30 feet of pavement to the well-graded Saline Valley Road. This was how I would spend much of the day, efficiently grinding out mind-numbing miles north on a smooth dirt road. Reaching my water cache, I used about three liters, dumped out the rest, and added the crushed jug to my collection. There were Joshua Trees, occasional cars, and another low-flying jet — modern this time — but I mostly just focused maintaining an efficient 4 MPH walk and turned my brain off for this part. I recognized the steep side of Pleasant Point, and it looked unpleasantly far away. I cheered myself up by reminding myself that this was the easiest way to grind out the day’s 50-60 miles.

Evening Owens Valley

Fortunately I had not paid much attention to the map, because it turns out that after climbing to over 6000′, the route loses most of the elevation gained since the highway before turning to climb 3500′ to Cerro Gordo. Making the best of this discouraging development, I jogged what I could of the descent, then put on some Ministry to get myself in the mood for the climb. While the west road to Cerro Gordo is drivable in a passenger car, the east road is nasty, requiring clearance, 4 wheel drive, and some amount of driving skill to get around rocks and up the loose gravel wash.

Inyo mine trail

I reached my Cerro Gordo cache with water to spare, and regretfully poured out half, figuring that it would be cool hiking north along the Inyo crest, and that I would grab more water in Lone Pine. The sun reflected off the various ponds that were once Owens Lake, and the silhouette of Mount Whitney beckoned in the late afternoon light. The traverse north from Cerro Gordo (east and just north of Keeler) to Long John Canyon (just north of Lone Pine) is long, but I was feeling surprisingly good, jogging the flat “Salt Tram Road.” Where the road drops north of Cerro Gordo, an old but mostly runnable trail cuts straight across, passing an old metal shack and mine, saving some major elevation loss and gain.

Sierra sunset

My energy gradually faded as night set in and the road rolled north along the Inyo crest. The high clouds I had seen over the Sierra had spread east, dimming the moon enough to require my headlamp, and making jogging more difficult. It was cool enough for gloves, but not unpleasant, with only a slight wind crossing the range.

Once again I was lucky to have a map, because the “trail” descending to Long John Canyon and the Black Warrior Mine barely exists. I followed where it should be, finding enough cairns and trail-bed higher up to mostly stay on the route, and open cross-country travel when I lost it. Farther down, things deteriorated into ugliness. The trail and wash merge around 7400′, and things are mostly easy. However, a spring around 5900′ makes the wash unusably brushy, and the trail supposedly leaves the bottom around 6900′ feet to get around that and some more upstream nastiness. There may be some sort of trail here, but all could find were occasional cairns hinting that I was probably doing it wrong. It was Inyo bush-whacking at its worst, side-hilling on loose sand and scree through spiny, woody brush and cactus, with the menace of chossy cliffs looming below. I eventually bashed, chossed, and cursed my way to the creek-bed, dumped out my shoes, and hiked to the still-used part of the jeep road.

I was too sore and tired to jog the road quickly at night, but I could shuffle along faster than a walk, and was pissed off enough that I thought I might be able to continue straight on to Whitney and get it over with. I made slightly better speed on the smoother dirt roads of the flat, and was feeling unnaturally lively right until I ran into a sharp inversion on the valley floor. In just a few steps, I went from almost t-shirt weather to cold, aching hands. My will to finish drained away, and I only wanted to get through Lone Pine and sleep.

It took longer that I expected to reach 395, and from there to enter Lone Pine. There were still a few places open when I arrived a bit after 10:00, but I had no money, so the town held neither food nor warmth for me. I thought about trying to climb to the Alabama Hills and out of the inversion, but gave up a short distance up the Whitney Portal Road. I found a flat spot in the brush around 11:00, threw down my bag and pad, set my alarm for 3:00, and ate my remaining pepperoni curled inside my bag with the face-hole nearly closed before nodding off huddled against the cold east wind.

Third period of consciousness

Whitney at last


My will was good when I woke at 3:00, and after taking the time to text my ride and look at the weather, I put on all my clothes, stashed my sleeping gear and empty water jugs, and started hiking up the Portal road around 3:25. The soreness faded somewhat as I climbed the silent road to Lone Pine campground, and I was pleased with my progress. I had been too cold to get more water at the Lone Pine park the night before, so stopped in the still-open campground to refill. Unfortunately the water had been turned off, but at least the vault toilet was open, so I could lighten my load without digging a hole.

Portal crags

I plied the sandy lower National Recreation Trail, then traversed into the canyon on easier ground to a stream crossing. Looking at my map, I realize that this water came from Meysan Lakes, and was therefore probably less fecal than the stuff flowing next to the main Whitney trail. I grabbed a liter, happy not to have to wait until the North Fork, then continued my climb to the Portal. I saw fewer than a dozen cars, and no other hikers as I walked through the picnic area to the old Whitney trail.

Ice blocking slab route

It felt no colder here than in the valley, and the sun rose gloriously on the Portal crags, Whitney, and its needles as I climbed to Lower Boy Scout Lake. I had never been up the Mountaineers’ Route this late in the season, so I wasted some time trying the efficient slab route to Upper Boy Scout Lake and getting shut down by ice before taking the other route up the scree and through the willows.

Me, hut, and Kaweahs

There was a single tent at the lake, and another near Iceberg Lake, where I saw a couple just starting up the chute. I felt like I had no power, stopping frequently to lean on a rock, gasp, and let the lactic acid drain from my legs, but I was pleasantly surprised to still leave the humans in the dust. It was unpleasantly cold in the shady chute, spurring me to stop as little as possible as I passed another hiker on my way to the notch. I hugged the right-hand side on the final north-facing climb, trying to reach the sun as soon as possible. The final, sunny walk across the summit plateau actually felt pleasant. I stopped long enough to take a summit shot, celebrate my time, and send a few texts, but soon grew cold in the breeze, taking a minor detour to sign the summit log before limping slowly down the Mountaineers’ Route to the Portal.

Gear, nutrition, and planning

A warrior must eat


I borrowed a 35-liter climbing pack, to which I attached an old chalk bag and a binocular case as stash pockets for food. I carried a full-length foam pad and my ancient “20 degree” down bag to sleep. I wore my usual summer hiking setup, which was just warm enough to get up and down Mount Whitney.

For food, I followed my usual rule of thumb for such things, packing 100 calories per mile, 13,000 in this case. I relied on 2-3 lbs of body fat to take care of hills and my base metabolic rate. Most of the calories were easily digestible carbs: 12 Clif bars (6 caffeinated, 6 non-), 12 peanut butter sandwiches, 12 packs of pop-tarts, 2 bags of Chex mix. The rest were two pepperoni sausages, which I ate before sleep each night. This worked out perfectly, as I finished my last bar before starting the Mountaineers’ Route chute on Whitney.

Since I do not enjoy worrying about water, I cached a gallon at each of Wildrose Canyon Road, Saline Valley Road, and Cerro Gordo. I originally planned to do the route in two segments: a 70-mile grunt to my water cache on Saline Valley Road, then a death march to Whitney, separated by a short night’s sleep. However, the difficult terrain and unexpected suffering on the first leg forced me to alter this plan. I instead rested for 8 hours after 57 miles, just past Darwin Falls, then again for 4 after 115, just beyond Lone Pine. While I believe the route could be done with just one rest in under 48 hours, doing so is beyond my current abilities.

Recess

Tarn and Recess


With the continuing dry weather in the Sierra, I looked around for another SPS peak I could climb without too much driving, and settled on Recess Peak. While it is most quickly reached from Lake Thomas Edison to the west, it also looked like a reasonable day out of Rock Creek via Halfmoon Pass, Mono Creek, and Second Recess. It turned out to be a comfortable 26 miles, with the crux being the pass, and the cross-country travel in the upper Second Recess quite pleasant. My knee was bothering me a bit (finally!), so I didn’t do much running, but still made it without a headlamp despite the short days.

Sunrise on Halfmoon Pass

I woke up earlier than I had planned, and spent the extra time cooking a real breakfast before driving up to the parking area just below the pack station, where mine was the only car. I sat in my warm car for a few minutes, then finally summoned the courage to step out into the cool morning near 10,000′ just before 7:00. I had only done Halfmoon Pass once before, on my way out from Mono Rock on my first Sierra Challenge, and I knew it was quicker than Mono Pass. I could see it from the road, but still wasted a fair amount of time looking for a use trail before just taking off up-slope through mostly easy forest. There are some willows, but they are easily avoided on the right-hand side. One short class 2-3 scramble later I was at the crest, looking down on Golden Lake.

Mono Creek from Halfmoon

As I later found out, there is an easy route down the other side from a notch. However, I was somewhat right of that notch, and ended up descending a nasty class 3-4 mix of sand, loose stuff, and outward-sloping lichen-covered slabs. It worked, though, and I was soon on the use trail down to join the main pack trail at Mono Creek. I followed the trench full of pulverized dirt down past Fourth Recess and a couple of unfamiliar trails, cutting the horizontal switchbacks when they became too annoying. It was a bit cool in the shade, but perfect t-shirt weather in the sun as I made my way down-canyon. My knee was acting up a bit, so I mostly just hiked, calculating that I would still make it back before dark.

Second Recess

My map showed a trail up Second Recess, so I left the main trail near where it should be, found a suitable log to cross Mono Creek, and soon picked up a somewhat faint trail with a few footprints on the other side. The path climbed gently along the left side of the creek, which flowed under thick white deposits of ice for much of its length. It gradually faded farther up-canyon, but the cross-country travel was mostly easy.

More cool ice

Not having my copy of Secor’s guidebook with me, I did not know what the routes were like from this direction, but the line I had quickly drawn on the map turned out to be quite pleasant. I climbed some slabs north of the northeast ridge, crossed at a broad shoulder, then continued past a small, mostly-frozen tarn toward the peak’s east face. This was the only part that looked steep on the map, but an obvious class 2-3 chute led to the saddle south of the summit.

Gabb and Hilgard

I checked out both of the possible high-points, but did not find a register on either. From the summit crest, you can see Lake Thomas Edison not very far to the west, and the impressive, bare, glacially-carved First Recess to the north. To the east, the high summits of Hilgard and Gabb dominate the view, with Julius Caesar peeking out behind. I took the time to eat a sandwich, but did not hang around long, since the short day would have me coming perilously close to evening headlamp.

Sunset on Halfmoon

The hike back was pleasant and uneventful, with the afternoon sun giving the granite cliffs a pleasant glow. I got a final taste of sun near the top of Halfmoon Pass — the correct one this time — then picked my way down the other side as fast as I could, racing the rapid onset of headlamp time. I repeatedly found and lost a sort of trail, finally emerging behind the closed pack station at dusk. I saw only two other cars on my drive down Rock Creek; once again, I had the Sierra almost all to myself.

Tucki Mountain

Yep


For an easy day after Telescope I had chosen Tucki Mountain, an unremarkable DPS peak south of Stovepipe Wells at the northern end of the Panamint Range. I got a lazy start, checking out a natural bridge and having a leisurely breakfast before heading for the trailhead. Thanks to my cursory research, it took awhile for me to finally realize that the GPS track and route description I had were for different routes. Once that dawned on me, it took only a short time to find the “road closed for restoration” sign along the Skidoo road, and I was on my way at the crack of noon. (Etymology note: The residents of Skidoo wanted to name the town “23 Skidoo,” but the Postal Service wouldn’t allow the number in the name. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, “The term is said to have been used originally in reference to male onlookers chased by police from the Flatiron Building, 23rd Street, New York, where the skirts of female passers-by were raised by winds intensified by the building’s design,” and is related to the more common slang for “get out of here,” “skedaddle.”)

Badwater and Panamint

Anyways… Tucki is not much higher than the road, and only a few miles distant, but the terrain in between is rather frustrating. The spine of the Panamints is an indistinct, undulating ridge, with deep valleys descending to either side. Alternatively, it is a series of east-west ridges with saddles between them, and the best path follows these saddles. Either way you look at it, there is a lot of up-and-down through pathless desert terrain.

Here comes the drop

The initial drop is the most discouraging, descending nearly 1000 feet to a 4×4 road coming up from Emigrant Wash. I dropped into a ravine near the end of the closed road, and soon found the bits of old trail mentioned in Bob’s report. Once out in the broad valley, I found the terrain surprisingly runnable, and even fun, requiring constant attention not to trip on a cactus or bury a foot in the colonial burrows of some unknown desert creature. I continued straight across the road and up a reddish wash, finding a couple cairns along the way.

Unvisited cabin

I scrambled a couple of short class 2-3 steps in the wash, then left it where it turned east to climb over the next ridge. I found yet another demotivating drop, this one somewhat steep and loose. There was an old cabin on the other side, but it was well west of the route I had downloaded, and I wanted to make it back before dark, so I didn’t make the 15-minute detour to check it out. Instead, I climbed another gully and slope, followed the meandering crest of the range, then made another drop. I found a completely unnecessary class 4 step getting out of this one, which was a nice change of pace. Beyond, it was more of the same rolling terrain, ending with several false summits.

DEATH!

Tucki being neither easy nor notable, the register was almost entirely a collection of the usual suspects. I read through it while eating a bar, photographed the ominous “DEATH --->” marker, then began the long hike/jog back. Rather than going over the ridge into the red gully, I followed the road around to the east, which was longer but easier and more runnable, and probably took about the same time. I followed the wrong gully back up toward the road, but it didn’t make much difference, and I was happy to make it back to the car well before dark.

Badwater to Telescope

Route from summit


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

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

Dawn on salt flat

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

Rough surface

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

Nasty mud

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

What kind of activities?

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

Endless alluvial road

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

Mine near spring (SR photo)

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

Cool grow, bro (SR photo)

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

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

Useless trail sign

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

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

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

Me pointing at the wrong place (SR photo)

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

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

Pleasant Point

Pleasant Point


It was still sort of Sierra season, so I could have tagged a few more random SPS peaks out of Horseshoe Meadows. However, Shannon suggested a suffer-fest in Death Valley that had long been on my radar, which seemed more interesting than cold hours in the sand trenches of Horseshoe Meadows. To make the driving more pleasant and productive, I picked out some DPS peaks along the way to fill out the long weekend.

Crags south of summit

We got a semi-late start on the drive, stopped in Lone Pine to top off our gas tanks, then continued to Keeler to stash my car and bounce up the long, steep, but well-maintained dirt road to Cerro Gordo. This strange settlement is part ghost town, part museum, and part spooky redneck encampment. There were “POSTED No Trespassing” signs everywhere, so we were a bit apprehensive parking in a wide spot just below “downtown.” We asked a couple of guys wandering around if it was okay, but they were just fellow visitors, and had no idea.

Owens Dry Lake

The hike starts out with an easy walk along a road to some antennas, past a gate with yet another trespassing sign, and a couple of primitive cabins with an outhouse, a nice view of the Sierra, and no obvious water supply. From near the road’s end, a faint use trail takes off north along the undulating ridge. This being a DPS peak, I was counting on there being some sort of trail, though the woody and sometimes spiny desert brush was sparse enough that it was unnecessary.

Short cliffy section

The ridge is mostly easy smooth going, with just a couple of cliffy sections. While the trail drops below, I for some reason decided to stick to the ridge. The views to the east were somewhat better, but getting back to the trail required some third class downclimbing on sticky, chossy limestone. The summit register contained plenty of familiar names, and showed a fair amount of traffic, unsurprising for such an easy peak. We huddled out of the wind for a bit, then retraced our steps back to the car.

The remainder of the day, and some of the evening, was spent setting up a car shuttle between Badwater and the charcoal kiln road. I had quickly glanced at a map, but had not calculated just how long this would take; the process turned out to be educational and exhausting. First, I learned that although it looks shorter, the drive south along the Panamint Valley Road and north up Wildrose Canyon is slower than going around from the north, because the southern end of the Wildrose road is rough and infested with man-eating potholes. We were fortunately able to get both cars past the kilns and up the “high clearance 4×4” road to the gate without a surprise oil change, saving some miles. Unfortunately, from there it is two bleary-eyed hours’ drive around to Badwater. Arriving well after dark, we quickly made dinner, set the alarm for a painful hour, and crashed at the non-camping non-trailhead, which was surprisingly chilly for being 282 feet below sea level.

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

McGee and Peter from Hermit


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

Darwin and Mendel

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

Hermit from Darwin Bench

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

Lieback/offwidth side

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

Steep face side

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

McGee’s northeast ridge

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

McGee headwall

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

Crux dihedral

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

Davis Lakes and Goddard

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

Interesting lake west of ridge

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

This also sucked

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

Sunset on Humphreys, Emerson, and Piute Crags

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