Category Archives: California

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.

Florence, Maclure

Florence with Half Dome behind


[This is out of order, but still worth recounting. — ed.]

Florence is a remote peak in southern Yosemite, located west of Lyell and Maclure, and not particularly close to any trail. Leor Pantilat had done a loop including Florence a few years ago, and it had been kicking around in the back of my head ever since. Circumstances were finally right this year, so I found myself camping at the Mobil station in Lee Vining, then driving up the road into the park at sunrise, not wanting to start too early at the always-cold Tuolomne Meadows. Leor, doing it early in the season, probably chose to go up the Lyell in the morning to avoid mid-day heat. Doing it late in the year, it made more sense to go the other way, jogging down the Lyell in the evening.

Not-camouflage

The trail maze was as confusing as always, but we wasted little time finding the correct route in daylight, and were soon headed up the trail toward Vogelsang Pass. It was uncomfortably cold for the first hour, but became pleasant once we climbed into the sun, with little wind down in the valley. We eventually passed the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, its tents taken down for the winter, then turned to cross Fletcher Creek and climb to Vogelsang Lake. Above the lake, we nearly stepped on a flock of ptarmigans next to the trail. In the abnormally dry late October, their white winter plumage was the opposite of camouflage, but the birds acted as if they were invisible, remaining still even when we were close enough to touch them. (Their color change is triggered by the length of days, not snow on the ground.)

Upper Florence Lake

Birds sufficiently photographed, we continued over the pass, dropping down into Lewis Creek. The goal is to leave the descending trail at some point to traverse into Florence Creek just below Florence Lake. I chose a semi-arbitrary point, and found mostly easy cross-country travel and a short boulder-hop leading into the valley. Florence’s west ridge is mostly sheer on its north side, but there is a talus-field leading to a saddle behind Lake 10,451′. The shady climb was chilly, but thankfully the mix of slabs and stable talus was mostly snow-free.

Upper Hutchings Creek

Emerging on the ridge, I was surprised to see a wildlife camera attached to one boulder; perhaps this col is popular with bighorn sheep, too. From there, a steady climb up sand and boulders leads to Florence’s summit. To the west, the Cathedral Range rises from Simmons to Maclure and Lyell at its southern end. Southwest of its spine is the barren, slabby flat of upper Hutchings Creek. We signed the register, then continued down Florence’s blocky south ridge. The easiest route would have followed the ridge to a saddle, but for some reason I chose to drop down a loose chute. There was a bit of good sand-skiing at the bottom, but not enough to make up for the hijinks higher up.

Maclure and Lyell

Maclure’s west ridge looks complicated, so the best route contours around Point 12,358′, past upper Hutchings Lake, then does… something. The ridge between Maclure Lyell is sheer between the two peaks, but can be gained either just west of Maclure or at a saddle on Lyell’s southwest ridge. I was tempted by the latter, but the days are short and it was getting late, so it seemed best to head straight for Maclure and home. The climb to the ridge looked miserable from afar, but was actually fairly efficient, following a slot through a lower cliff-band, then climbing slabs and fairly stable talus.

Lyell from Maclure

Once on the ridge, things became less pleasant. The crest is made of some chossy black rock, and north-facing aspects were holding snow that would not melt until spring. I climbed some class 3 rock to the crest, did a bit of sketchy and partially snow-covered climbing on the north, then emerged on the narrow ridge 50 yards short of the summit. I dug out the register, then retreated to a sheltered spot to add my name and look for my previous entry. It was cold and windy, and the descent was unpleasantly north-facing and snowy, so we wasted little time on the summit before taking the ridge toward Lyell, then dropping down the boulder-field west of the dead Lyell Glacier. Below the glacier, we finally found easy travel down the head of Lyell Canyon on slabs and grass, with a faint use trail from time to time, and eventually reached the JMT below Donohue Pass.

Polished slabs in upper Lyell Canyon

The trail starts with an annoyingly stair-stepped descent from 10,500′ to the flat part of the canyon at 9000′. From there, it descends a mere 300′ over 8 miles to the crossing of the Lyell fork. This was supposed to be the fast, cruising end of the day, but it was slow going on tired legs, and our late start meant generous headlamp time. However, the stars were clear with no moon, and the temperatures were comfortable, so I didn’t mind the nighttime commute. We drove back to the Mobil while warming up leftover burrito in front of the heater, then I slept again at my scenic spot overlooking Mono Lake.

Guyot

Guyot from approach


Mount Guyot is an unremarkable mound of sand and talus lying southeast of the Kaweahs across the deep Kern River valley. It is usually reached out of the high Horseshoe Meadows trailhead via Cottonwood Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail, a 30-mile round-trip hike with not too much elevation gain. I was already in the Lone Pine area and looking for a medium-difficulty outing, and the Horseshoe Meadows road was still open, so I decided to take advantage of it. I sketched out three options: Kern Peak, Muah and Cartago, and Guyot, then headed up the road to sleep on my decision.

Big Whitney Meadow?

I woke to my 4:30 alarm, and was groggily confused for a minute when my phone said it was 3:30. I belatedly remembered the time change, then pretended to sleep a bit more before finally starting around 5:00 PST. I had done Cottonwood Pass twice before, and its sand and horizontal switchbacks sucked this time as much as the last two, but at least I got to do most of it in the dark. Beyond the pass, the trail makes a near-level traverse around Cirque Peak in a sandy trench before entering Rock Creek.

Fancy meeting you here…

I had been to the upper Rock Creek crossing to do Joe Devel and its neighbors many years ago, but the lower crossing was new to me, and I had a sinking feeling as I hiked and jogged from 11,200′ down to the creek at 9600′. Despite the perfect conditions, there aren’t many people out in the high country now, so I was surprised to see someone coming up the trail toward me, and even more so to realize that it was Robert! Oddly, he seemed to half-expect me to be out in the area. We talked for awhile, then I continued, glad to have randomly chosen this hike among my three options.

Kaweahs across Kern

From Rock Creek, the trail switchbacks up the north side, then continues along Guyot Creek to the saddle between Guyot and Chamberlain. I left it somewhere on the flat before the pass, angling for Guyot’s northeast ridge. The slope looked miserably sandy from below, but there were enough boulders to offer solid footing for most of the climb. I had been sweating in a t-shirt on the south-facing slope, so I welcomed the breeze when I finally reached the ridge. I stayed on or right of the crest on the climb to the summit crags, finding the occasional recent footprint.

Kern headwaters

Guyot has several possible summit rocks, so of course the highest is the farthest away. I grabbed the register can, then sat out of the wind on the sunny south side to peruse the recent entries and have a sandwich. As expected, I noticed Robert from earlier in the day, and Iris (who Robert had told me was backpacking the area’s peaks) from the day before. I finished my sandwich, then descended the ridge a ways before dropping down the face. I avoided the rocks this time, enjoying the sand between them on my way back to the trail.

Smoke in the southern Kern

I stopped to dump the sand out of my shoes, then hiked and jogged back down to Rock Creek, dreading the climb back to Cottonwood Pass. Nearing the creek crossing, I saw a familiar figure sitting on the bear box, and startled her with a loud “Hi, Iris!” I had another early start planned for the next day, but chose company over speed for the slog back to Horseshoe Meadows. We traded packs, then took off through the woods on the gradual switchbacks and meandering trail. Lively conversation made the long sand-slog pass much less painfully.

A short distance down the other side of the pass, I looked at my watch and the sun, and realized that I needed to hurry in order to get ready and get enough sleep for the next day. I gave Iris back her overnight pack, then took off jogging down the horizontal switchbacks. I soon got frustrated, and cut directly down the open, sandy slope to the base. With a bit of jogging, I reached the trailhead about 12 hours after starting, then drove north into the night to make some more sandwiches before crashing at the next trailhead.

Picket Guard (13h20)

Picket Guard and Kern Point


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

Dawn Whitney with high ISO

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

Great Western Divide

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

The Kaweahs

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

Picket Guard (r) from Wallace Creek

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

Slabs up to plateau

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

Picket Guard’s east ridge

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

Whitney, etc. from Picket Guard

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

Sunset on Tulainyo Lake

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

Pyramid (12h40)

Pyramid from above Window Lake


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

Dawn on Sawmill Point

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

New sign for me

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

Dry Window Creek

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

Palisades from Pyramid

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

Ridge to Window

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

Sawmill Lake

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