I was up in Pine Creek for another day, and a late night and late start talking to some local friends limited my options. Not wanting to deal with the crowds, manure, and horse-steps on the main trail, I headed up the Gable Lakes drainage again to explore its west fork. I was low on trail food, and didn’t have any goal in mind other than getting up above the smoke and heat, and getting some exercise. I made the familiar ride up to the trailhead, locked my bike to an old gatepost, and started plodding up the trail.
Where it passes the old mining cabin, I continued straight on a use trail heading toward the first trail on the west fork. A branch descended to the first lake, then disappeared near the unsightly discarded barrels; hopefully whatever they contained has long ago drained out, as I often fill my water from the creek below. After some large talus, I reached another, larger lake with a decent-sized island. I had seen Peak 12,542′ the day before from Gable Lakes Peak, and decided that I had enough energy to climb it. I thought I could take some slabs trending left, then cut back through a cliff band and up a possibly miserable slope of sand and scrub to what looked like the summit.
The slabs went quickly and, after a short class 3 scramble, I was above the cliff band. The upper slope was less pleasant, but there was enough rock on the sides of a sandy chute that I did not do much back-sliding on my way up. Topping out, I saw that I was a short way from the actual summit, southwest across a small plateau. I found a summit register from 2003, naming the peak “Ramu Point” after the mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana muscosa) that supposedly inhabit the Gable Lakes drainage. I added my name after the entries from the large Sierra Challenge group, then sat to admire Steelhead Lake and Merriam-Royce-Feather to one side, and Mount Tom and the Owens Valley’s pall of smoke to the other.
Some of the people in the register had come from Steelhead and Pine Creek Pass, and it seemed like it might be easier to descend the valley north of where I had climbed, but the former would involve the miserable horse trail, and the latter had some cliff bands, so I simply retraced my steps, using the sand where I could. I passed a couple of women sitting at the lower lake, who I had passed earlier on the way up. They were one of only four parties I saw the whole day, versus the dozens I would have passed on the Pine Creek trail. I passed some woman in a swimsuit doing something next to her car on the bike down, then cooled off in the creek next to my car to recover from the afternoon heat. Summer has returned to the Owens Valley, with triple-digit temperatures from Bishop south. It’s going to be a long fire season.
I am getting close to finishing the SPS list (234 out of 247), and Foerster was my northernmost remaining peak. It is normally done from the West side, approached by a long drive from Bass Lake via Beasore road. I had attempted it this way last year before my bike tour, failing at a bike-and-hike that was longer than I had anticipated, and too long for a cold, short October day. Not wanting to make the long and expensive drive for a mediocre peak, I considered my Eastside options. Foerster is in the skinny part of the Sierra near Mammoth, but unfortunately the rugged Ritter Range and the deep valley of the San Joaquin are in the way. The least-bad route seems to be around the north side of the range, taking the trail from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake, then crossing North Glacier Pass and descending the San Joaquin to Bench Creek. This is about 40 miles round-trip, with 11,000 feet of elevation gain — long but manageable, even in my current deficient state.
From my preferred camp near Minaret Vista, I drove down to Agnew Meadows and started by headlamp around 4:30. I soon realized that my headlamp was almost dead: its garbage Amazon Basics rechargeable batteries no longer hold much charge. Holding it in my hand at waist level helped, but it was still almost impossible to run until dawn became bright enough past the Shadow Lake junction. The trail to Thousand Island Lake is the typical Sierra horse-trench, filled with powdered dust and manure and broken up by giant steps. I shortcut it a few times above the manzanita zone, as much because the woods were more pleasant as to save time.
I reached Thousand Island Lake as the sun rose on Banner Peak, and was not the only person photographing the classic peak-and-water scene in “magic” light. I was feeling surprisingly good given my fitness, and jogged much of the trail around the lake, passing a tent village of people camped at this popular spot. There is an increasingly-worn use trail from the lake’s west end to North Glacier Pass, probably from a mix of people climbing Ritter and traveling the increasingly popular Roper High Route. I missed the trail on the way out, but had little trouble reaching the pass over grass, slabs, and big stable talus.
I dropped to the lake on the other side, then made my way along its outlet stream down mostly pleasant slabs for awhile before angling southwest toward where the San Joaquin trail is shown on maps. Near where the stream topples over some cliffs in a long cascade, I found a campsite and a faint trail heading west. What I thought was a use trail turned out to be an old developed trail that once led to… something… near the campsite (I found an old metal cable, but no mine shaft or structures). This trail switchbacked down west of the cascade, joining the dotted line on the map.
The “official” trail is faint to nonexistent at first, and never in good shape, but I managed to follow a mix of rockwork and cairns down to just above Bench Creek around 8800 feet. I had descended from over 11,000 feet at the pass, and would have to climb to just over 12,000 at Foerster’s summit. Ugh. I easily found a dry crossing this late in a dry year, then shortcut the junction a bit, thrashing through some manzanita, then dropping toward the creek. I picked up a decent use trail on the right side, which I followed until it disappeared below a headwall. This was easily overcome via some obnoxious talus, and I soon found myself on the pleasant flat above.
The creek splits at the flat, with the left branch leading to Blue Lake and Foerster, the right to Ansel Adams. I had thought of doing both as a lollipop, but realized that it would be too much for me now. Cruising up the broad, gentle left valley, I was surprised to see a scraggly-looking guy descending toward me. I expressed my surprise at seeing someone else in such a remote location, and he said he was doing Roper’s High Route. Despite a friend having just done this route, I had not realized just how far west it went.
Out of water, I made a slight detour to refill at Blue Lake, then headed up the obvious route on Foerster’s southeast side. I was starting to feel the miles in my legs, but still managed a non-pathetic effort on the sand- and talus-climb to the summit. The closest I had been to this part of the Sierra was Electra Peak to the north, many years ago, so I found the views especially interesting. To the east across the San Joaquin was the dark, rugged, and seldom-visited west side of the Ritter Range. To the east, the Clark Range rose across a broad valley. To the north, I could follow the ridge across Electra and Rogers to Lyell. I could even see Half Dome in the distance, indicating that I was too far west to have started on the east side.
It had taken me exactly seven hours to reach the summit. I was pleased with my performance, and with the certainty that there would be no evening headlamp time. Hiking and jogging back down Bench Creek, I looked at the map and decided to cut across to Twin Island Lakes, hopefully saving myself some elevation loss and bushwhacking. My aging phone battery had suffered from the morning cold, so I tried not to look at the map too often.
What looked like a nice level traverse on the map turned out to be a somewhat annoying up-and-down affair weaving through gullies and around cliff bands. There is probably a better line here, since this is where the High Route goes, but I did not find it. Twin Island Lakes are two lakes, each with a single island, probably looking like someone giving side-eye from the air. I passed both on the right, contouring back toward North Glacier Pass halfway past the second. I contoured high, eventually rejoining the trail near the top of the cascade.
Saving phone battery cost me some suffering on the way to the pass, as I strayed too far left into some wretched talus. I corrected my course below Lake Catherine, then wondered if it would be faster to go through the Ritter-Banner saddle to Lake Ediza. The other side required an ice axe and crampons when I did it in 2010, but global warming has doubtless shrunk the Ritter Glacier since then. Not wanting to take the chance, I returned via North Glacier Pass, stopping for water and a healthy dose of ibuprofen to ease my knees, then passing a couple probably returning from Ritter.
I was less able to jog around the lake, but found my running legs on the descent, and kept the rhythm going on the near-flat stretch between the Shadow Lake junction and the climb to Agnew Meadow. I knew I would pay for it the next day, but I jogged the flats and even some gentle uphills on my way back to the car, making it home in just under thirteen hours. I grabbed a couple gallons of Agnew Meadows water, which was every bit as metallic and horrible as I remembered, then drove into town for more trail food and WiFi outside the welcome center before heading out to the woods to camp. It was good to know that I have sufficient will and misanthropy to overcome my mediocre fitness. If I can regain some resilience, I may actually be able to do something with what little is left of this season.
I always look forward to going near Tahoe, because it’s an excuse to visit my friend Renee, a solid all-around athlete who often gets me to do things outside my normal routine. In this case, she had planned a long point-to-point trail run with a local friend around the time I would be passing through. The route started north of Mount Lola, then made its way south to Squaw Valley via a mixture of the PCT, other trails, and a bit of cross-country, tagging peaks from Lola to Granite Chief. After a few days of hike-and-bike, I hoped my ankle had recovered enough to put up with a 45-mile day.
I aired out my car and hid my dirty socks, and Renee politely hid her disgust for the short drive over to her friend’s house, where we all masked up to share a car to the north Mount Lola trailhead. I am slowly getting used to the Coronavirus era, but some precautions are still strange to me; wearing masks to share a car is one, as is rolling down the window to eat, as if you are smoking. The dirt road to the trailhead was fine for a passenger car, but rough enough that I was glad not to be driving mine, further scrambling its contents. It was just cool enough for a windbreaker at the start, as we jogged and hiked through the woods on a steady, wooded climb south. Mount Lola’s summit was much as I remembered it from 2014, with the old brick pillars (from a survey post?), though it thankfully lacked a disgusting ladybug swarm. The first part of the descent trail was loose, rocky, and unpleasant, but it soon turned runnable, as many Tahoe-area trails are. With a final bit of slippery hard-packed dirt, we reached the jeep road around White Rock Lake, its campsites mostly abandoned after the holiday weekend.
Once around the lake, we continued downhill a bit to pick up the PCT. The mosquitoes were out in multitudes below treeline, and sometimes aggressive enough to bite even while walking. Oddly, the PCTers were not out in the numbers I had seen near Ebbetts Pass a few days before. I was hoping to see the woman carrying a cat on her pack again, but probably missed her by a couple of days. We stopped for water and bug bites at the signed Unconformity Spring (I did not see an unconformity nearby), then took off cross-country to catch the semi-official trail over Basin. This was one of the better sections of the route, with no bugs above treeline, runnable trail, and good views of Castle and the granite basin to its north.
Renee’s friend skipped Castle, having already done it recently, but we slogged up the steep, loose trail to the three confusing summit knobs. The first, closest to the standard trail from Donner Pass, seems to be the most popular; the second looks highest; and the third, which is most technical, holds the benchmark and register. I tagged all three by mistake, while Renee was smart enough to just do the highest. The third summit is a fun, steep scramble with big, positive conglomerate holds.
We regrouped at the saddle, then jogged down to the Donner Summit rest stop. The vending machines were closed, but thankfully the water was still on. This was my least favorite part of the route, as you can hear the constant traffic noise from the interstate, the trail wanders too much between it and the old Donner Pass road, and it was hot and dry. Once across the old Donner road, we climbed the popular switchbacks toward Donner Peak. This section is much less annoying going up than down, with big steps and lots of loose rocks. It was also dry, with no good water between the interstate and the south side of Tinker Knob. Fortunately there was still a snowbank along the way to supplement the remaining water in my bladder.
We took a side-trip to Donner Peak, with its incongruous “pancake stack” granite summit rocks, then followed the trail up the back side of ski area over Judah (the railroad surveyor) to Lincoln (the President who ordered it built). Lincoln’s summit is disappointing, with a building and three large propane tanks near the highpoint, and a ski lift not too far off. We found more snow near the steep, loose trail off the back side, then better running along the ridge. The crosswind across the bare ridge was getting strong, threatening to steal my hat and occasionally driving dust into my eyes.
Not having paid much attention to the route, I was surprised to come upon the Sierra Club ski hut below Anderson. It was large and nice by American standard, though it did not compare to the ones near Rogers Pass, much less anything in the Alps. We sat on the porch a bit, then followed a steep, rocky trail past the outhouse to Anderson’s summit, harvesting more snow along the way. The summit plateau sucked, being covered in loose volcanic rocks and woody brush. Granite Chief and Needle (which should be called Nipple), our last two planned peaks, looked awfully far away. My optimistic choice not to bring a headlamp started to seem like a mistake.
The crosswind became intense on the long traverse to Tinker Knob, draining my motivation as it always does. We made the easy scramble up the summit blob, and agreed that we lacked the time and energy to continue to Granite Chief and the Nipple. Renee’s friend tweaked her ankle on the loose rocks descending the knob, further encouragement to cut things short. Had I paid more attention to the map, I would have known that skipping them would not save much time (it’s probably only about three miles shorter), but alas, I will have to come back another day to complete the OGUL list.
The trail south of Tinker Knob is another pleasant run, dropping well below Billy’s Peak into the bowl to the west, through woods and fields of Indian Toilet Paper plants before reclimbing to a saddle near Granite Chief. There were a couple of good streams in the bowl, though it was cool enough that I did not need more water. We all took off at our own paces on the descent to Squaw, which started out fun and fast, then turned rocky and annoying in the middle. I ran into a few people out for evening walks near the bottom, and inexplicably freaked out some woman’s dog, which ran away from me down the trail for a quarter mile before deciding to circle back around. Eager to be done, I cut down a trail ending in a hotel parking lot, then wandered around looking for Renee’s car, which was fortunately parked in an obvious place. This was a fun route (of course — it’s Renee’s backyard), though probably best done before mid-July, while there is still snow for water south of Donner Summit.
I needed help with my early starts and long days, and my friend needed some with her scrambling. Somehow these goals and life’s constraints led me to spend two days at Taboose Pass, by far my least favorite of the big Eastern Sierra approaches. Upper Taboose is spectacular, with its lakes and waterfalls, towering orange buttresses on either side, and expansive view west across a plain to Arrow Peak and the South Fork of the Kings. However, almost all of the trail is horrible, ranging from sand at the start to loose softball-sized rocks higher up. Much of the lower reaches burned last summer, making the dry Owens Valley even more barren for now; it will soon fill in with buckthorn, making the trail even worse. I remembered the road to the trailhead being obnoxious but doable in a passenger car the last time I visited. This time I found it barely passable, and was forced to drive many sections at less than 5 MPH to protect my tires and undercarriage.
The original plan was to do White Peak, a class 3 climb slightly southwest of the pass that had been on the Sierra Challenge some years back. After taking the usual three hours to reach the pass, we decided instead to head for Ruskin and Saddlehorn, on the other side of the Kings. I had traversed from Ruskin to Vennacher Needle in 2012 during the Challenge, admiring the sharp ridge jutting east midway between them. I later learned that it was named “Saddlehorn,” and was supposedly class 4 from the east or west. Another traverse, up Saddlehorn and around to Ruskin, seemed like a good plan.
We easily found the old trail into the Kings, cutting the corner to the JMT, then followed the Jolly Manure Trench a short distance before climbing northwest through open woods and slabs. This area consists of three open glacial cirques, bounded by Ruskin’s southeast and east ridges, Saddlehorn, and Vennacher Needle’s east ridge. We aimed for the middle one, grabbing water below its lake before approaching the south side of Saddlehorn’s east ridge.
I saw a line of ledges and broken terrain that would gain the crest from there, and tried to find the easiest route. I found nothing easier than exposed class 4, which was more than my friend wanted to do, not having been on much beyond class 2 boulder-hops in a couple of years. I continued solo, making a thin traverse, then climbing a loose boulder-slope to the crest. From there, more class 3-4 climbing along the ridge led to the summit blocks, one of which had a cairn. It looked intimidating from most sides, but was fortunately easy from the southeast. I found an old register in a band-aid tin dating back to 1979, and a newer one from the Sierra Challenge in a salsa bottle. The older one had an amusing entry from a guy nervous about his prospects for descent, while the newer one featured the expected folks (Scott, Iris, and Grundy). I added my name, put both in the bottle for better protection, then retraced my route.
Ruskin’s east ridge was supposed to be a classic class 3 line. I hadn’t read a description, and don’t remember if I climbed that or the southeast ridge in 2012, but figured it would be more moderate than Saddlehorn. We crossed the bowl south, then made our way over the toe of the ridge. I had hoped to go straight up its initial step, but that proved tricky, so we contoured around the south side until we found easier, broken class 2-3 terrain leading to the crest. This is long and fairly flat, with consistent exposure on the right. The climbing is a mixture of boulders and “sidewalk” sections that go quickly if you don’t mind the exposure.
The ridge steepens a bit to a false summit, then narrows, becoming exposed on both sides, though the climbing remains mostly easy except for one step. Amusingly, I found a “chicken out register” at this step, a booklet in a red-painted can containing entries from some memorial party who had decided not to chance giving themselves something new to memorialize. My friend was done with exposed scrambling for the day, so I quickly scampered over to the summit, finding to my surprise that Teresa Gergen had been there earlier in the day. How she had arrived, and where she had gone next, were a mystery. Maybe she came up from Lakes Basin on a backpack.
Rather than retracing the whole ridge, we dropped down a chute southeast of the false summit. Fortunately it did not cliff out, and we were soon back on easy terrain, passing a couple of nice lakes on the way down to the Kings. From there it was a straightforward slog back to the pass, accelerated by swarms of mosquitoes now that the morning’s winds had ceased. I took a couple ibuprofen at the pass, then settled into the miserable descent. Most of the trail is too loose and rocky to truly run, but with great effort and concentration you can move slightly faster than a walk. Only the last mile or two is fun, sprinting down sand toward the valley floor. We reached the trailhead right at sunset, with just enough time to eat and repack our bags before trying to get a full night’s sleep.
I knew I would not enjoy doing Taboose twice in two days, but I had made the drive, and perhaps could do White. We got a slightly earlier start, which kept us in the shade almost to the first water crossing and made the climb much more pleasant. This was counteracted by fatigue from the day before, and we reached the pass in about the same time. Neither of us was all that enthusiastic about White, so we settled on the “Orange Ogre,” a prominent buttress south of the pass that is the tip of Goodale’s north ridge. While it looks like it might have some big, hard routes from the north, it is an easy class 2 boulder pile from the west.
There was a cairn on the flat, semi-exposed summit, but no register. The views east down Taboose Creek, and northwest across the broad pass, are impressive. Goodale and Striped, to the south and southwest, look like horrible talus-piles; I had done them many years ago, and did not remember them being that bad. We stalled on the summit for awhile, putting off the inevitable misery of another Taboose descent, then retreated down the west face. Rather than returning to the pass, we turned right, following the start of Taboose Creek to regain the trail lower down. The descent was slower this time, because I was tired and my ankle was more sore, but also because I was in a worse mood, already dreading the slow drive back to pavement, and the start of a very long drive north. At the trailhead, I rinsed off my feet and grabbed some water, then bid farewell to my friend, who would probably stay another day to do the pass yet again. As for myself, I would be fine if this were the last time in my life.
The term “Palisade Traverse” usually refers to a crossing of California’s most rugged fourteeners, between Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Sill; this is a fairly popular route, seeing dozens of parties every summer. However, this is just part of a much longer ridge. The longer section between Southfork and Bishop Passes has come to be called the “Full Palisade Traverse,” and has been completed by only a dozen or so parties ever. Even longer traverses, extending north through the Inconsolable Range, northwest across the Evolution Ridge, or south over Split Mountain (formerly “South Palisade”) to Taboose Pass, have been done once or twice, if at all.
I was leaving the Sierra when I received a last-minute invitation to join Vitality and Ryan, two erstwhile mountain partners, for some version of a longer Palisade traverse. Carrying food for four nights, a rope, and a small rack, this was not my style of climbing. However, I have long been interested in exploring the unfamiliar parts of this ridge, and it is good for me to occasionally venture beyond my familiar path. I broke up the drive back south by riding Ebetts, Monitor, and Sonora Passes, summiting some peaks near each, then met the others, threw together an overnight pack, and rode up to South Lake to begin the traverse.
It began with the familiar slog up Bishop Pass, which fortunately passed largely by headlamp. Unused to the cold of a high trailhead, I had neglected to sleep with my water bladder and headlamp, so the water hose had frozen, and the lamp’s batteries were weak. We filled up at a stream below the final headwall, then left the trail just short of the pass to climb Agassiz’s standard route. This is normally a class 2 boulder-hop up a gully, but the rock-hard early-summer snow forced us onto the class 3 ribs instead. Finally reaching warmth and sun just below the summit, we dropped our packs to sign the register, then contemplated the start of the real traverse.
Another climber had mentioned that many people skip a tower called the “Sharkfin,” and the ridge crest between Agassiz and Winchell looked jagged and time-consuming, so we descended a choss-gully to an azure snow-lake, then returned to join Winchell’s standard east ridge partway to the summit. We had fortunately decided to bring minimal snow gear — two pairs of crampons and an axe for the three of us — because although the snow had been baking in the sun for several hours, it was still hard enough for Vitality to take a stylish but unplanned glissade. I had climbed the east ridge for the Sierra Challenge many years ago, and the rest of the route was the fun third class I remembered.
From the summit, we contemplated the jagged ridge behind to the north and ahead to the south. As I had noted from previous outings across the valley, Winchell stands alone, with wide and deep gaps separating it from Agassiz and Thunderbolt. Realizing that we might have “cheated” by skipping some of the best and/or hardest climbing, we decided to stay on the ridge for the next stretch, the long traverse to Thunderbolt. The descent from Winchell was wild and suspenseful; we often reached a point where it seemed we must cliff out, only to find an improbable downclimb. One of these was a bit desperate, and while I nervously followed Vitality’s lead (he is a much stronger climber than I), Ryan opted for a short rappel.
After traversing over a sharp intermediate tower (perhaps the “Sharksfin?”), we started up the long climb to Thunderbolt. This was time-consuming but substantially fun, with many sections of the good kind of Palisades rock. At their best, the Palisades consist of solid black rock flecked with white, which forms sharp edges and knobs. The climbing is steep and exposed, but secure, making one feel like a better climber. This alternated with the bad kind of Palisades rock — shifting choss on sloping ledges — but such is the nature of this traverse. We eventually reached Southwest Chute #1, and were back on the familiar Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. As expected, this seldom-climbed section had taken a long time, but we still had plenty of daylight left.
We scrambled up to Thunderbolt’s summit block, and rather than simply lasso it, Vitality decided to lead it with a pretend belay: he would hit the ground and probably break something if he fell, but at least he would be attached to a rope as he lay wedged between boulders. A few slow, cautious moves later, he reached the summit and was lowered, then Ryan and I both toproped it. I had soloed the block in running shoes in 2012, but lassoed it on both of my subsequent trips. As before, I found that while the free climb looked difficult, it was reasonably secure. While I was glad to have a rope, it is something I could now confidently do without one.
Having done it four times now, I expected the traverse to Sill to be straightforward, but the ridge is complicated and relentless, and I had never done it in early-season snow, nor carrying an overnight pack. I felt like my old self when I dropped my pack to scramble Starlight’s “milk bottle” (or more aptly “giraffe”) summit block, but was tentative and awkward otherwise, even rappeling once on a section I had easily downclimbed between Starlight and North Palisade. I scrambled through the sharp notch and down the Clyde Variation into the U-notch, but it all felt harder than it should have, eroding my normal confidence on moderate and familiar terrain.
It was late by the time we reached the talus beyond Polemonium, now covered in slush suncups. We could have continued, but there did not appear to be any flat, dry ground on the way to Sill, and we had to melt snow for three people’s water on two stoves. We eventually found a bivy spot large enough for three people to sleep uncomfortably, and spent the remaining daylight turning snow into dirty water for dinner and the next day’s consumption. It was the highest I had ever slept in the Sierra, and cold enough to make me unhappy, with my hands always on the verge of aching. I ate as quickly as possible, shoved my water bladder, headlamp, and gloves into my bivy, and put on a podcast while trying to sleep on my slowly leaking pad on the non-flat ground.
Our bivy spot fortunately received early morning sun, so we were able to get moving at a respectable hour. The snow was pleasantly solid, with a crunchy, grippy surface, making the traverse to Sill much easier than it would have been the previous evening. The final shady climb was frigid, but the summit plateau was fairly warm, promising a good day on the ridge. We scrambled over the two towers south of Sill, where I managed to tweak my ankle while playing around, then dropped down to avoid some annoying-looking terrain on the way to the saddle with Jepson. I briefly lost the other two on a detour for running water, finding them again as they pondered how to return to the ridge.
Jepson is a surprisingly difficult obstacle: while it is a simple talus-hop from Scimitar Pass to the south, the connecting ridge to Sill is sharp on both sides, with steep steps along the crest, and a long south ridge with a sheer west side extending some 1000 feet down toward Glacier Creek. After crossing a bit more snow, we connected ledges and broken terrain back to the ridge. I vaguely remembered descending this ridge unroped on a scouting mission, but that was with a daypack and later in the season. I had probably followed a line generally west of the ridge, but that was now shady and held a fair amount of snow. This time we stayed closer to the crest, roping up for one pitch for psychological reasons, and another for legitimate reasons just below the summit. Vitality nervously led up a pair of cracks below a roof. I followed and almost made the necessary moves, but failed at the top, partly because of my pack, but also because I am a mediocre climber. I fell once, then gave up and pulled on a cam to put this embarrassment behind me. While I have my pride in some things, climbing is not one of them.
The long boulder-hop from Jepson to the start of Palisade Crest was a welcome respite. We glanced at snowy Scimitar Pass, surprisingly high on the south side of the Jepson-Palisade Crest col, then soon found ourselves back in serious terrain. The “crux” of the first Palisade Crest summit, a.k.a. “Gandalf,” is a striking, exposed slab to its left. However, as I wrote in the register after my first climb many years ago, the ridge leading up to it is far more tricky and thought-provoking. After a wrong turn where we nearly resorted to a rappel, I found a line of cairns bypassing the final bump along the left side. It was standard fare — chossy and exposed fourth class — about which the others did not seem enthusiastic. I was not overjoyed, but at least I was back in my element, traversing to the slab, then cruising up the well-featured face to the summit pinnacle. A short, steep, but positive scramble led from there to the small summit.
Now it was time for more unfamiliar, and very intimidating-looking, terrain. In my past experience, Sierra ridges are usually easier than their official ratings if you take the time for some careful route-finding. Both the Kaweah and Evolution traverses are rated 5.9, but I found them no harder than 5.5 and 5.7, respectively. Since Palisade Crest is offically 5.5, I did not think it would cause much trouble. Boy was I wrong: while there may be a 5.5 path with perfect route-finding, the climbing is relentless, and the ridge allows few options. The west side is often near-vertical and smooth, while the east is steep and frequently loose. The north sides of the twelve towers are also steeper than the south, making it particularly intimidating in our direction. This would normally have been my type of terrain, but mental exhaustion and a heavy pack with an ice axe and two sets of crampons to catch on things spoiled the fun. Climbing some loose exposed rock to rejoin the others, with the rope coiled around my neck, I lost it for a bit, screaming “why am I doing this?!” before putting my head back on straight. This had stopped being fun for me.
We had hoped to get at least as far as the notch beyond the Crest, but by 6:00 we had only climbed a bit over half of the towers, reaching the first flat spot that we had seen in awhile large enough to sleep three people. The others were reluctant to waste daylight, but I thought it unlikely we would find another good bivy by dark. I think everyone was a bit mentally fried at this point, because it did not take much to convince them to stay here for the night. While Ryan and I cleared off rocks on the platform, Vitaliy rappeled down the east face to gather snow for water. Afterward, we went through the usual time-consuming process of melting snow and cooking dinner, then watched the light fade from one of the most amazing bivy spots imaginable. The narrow and serrated Palisades ridge extended north and south of our platform, while the sun set on Palisade Basin, the Devil’s Crags, and countless other Sierra peaks to the west. Sleeping right on the Sierra Crest, we received both last and first light, and the weather was pleasant and almost windless, even above 13,000 feet.
With only a few towers to go, we were hoping for faster going the next day. After a rappel east with a scary (to me) overhanging start, we traversed around a headwall, then scaled some fun fourth class back to the ridge beyond a small, vertical tower. Vitaliy then led an intimidating but positive pitch along the crest to the next tower. Things were going better, staying generally on or east of the crest and finding fun, positive rock, but it was still slow and exposed through the final towers. A good night’s sleep had restored my mental energy and head for scrambling, but Ryan still seemed to be suffering.
We eventually reached the end of the Crest, and were dismayed to find hundreds of feet of sheer-looking rock dropping to the south saddle. I thought I saw a feasible line of 2-3 rappels down chossy terrain to the notch, but Vitality wanted to find something shorter and/or cleaner, and traversed east along a ledge. While we had seen sporadic webbing anchors all along the traverse, we found none here, suggesting we may have been off-route. Vitality eventually found a clean line down from a large horn somewhat east of the spine, and Ryan rappeled into the void, eventually finding a platform near the end of the rope.
Vitaliy led the next rappel, trying desperately to angle back toward the notch before giving up on the sheer wall of the couloir to its east. We discussed our options a bit, but I was privately done with the whole business, and had no enthusiasm left to bring to the group. I could not think of a good way to get across the gap short of going down to the snow and around, my ankle was bothering me a bit, and I lacked the energy to regain 1000 or more feet on chossy fourth class rock. We downclimbed east, then made a rappel to the snow, which sucked until it became lower-angle.
There was some fun boot-skiing getting to the lake northeast of Norman Clyde, then an endless hike through mosquito-infested woods to the South Fork trail, where I put in my headphones for the slog of shame. I bashed my ankle again for good measure, limped to the parking lot, and threw my pack down at the gate. Fishing for my keys, I found that my olive oil had leaked all over my sleeping gear. Joy. I needed some time alone, so I did not mind walking the mile down the road to the overnight lot to fetch my car. It was a bit awkward cramming two people into my filthy and disorganized “home,” but they did not complain on the drive around to South Lake. Ryan kindly volunteered to fetch the other car, and I pulled into one of the flatter spots in the overnight lot to sleep in the high, cool air. I had seen most of the unfamiliar terrain about which I was curious, but it still felt like failure.
The Minarets are the most impressive feature of the skyline near Mammoth Lakes, a series of dark and improbably sharp peaks west of town. There are a lot of them, and while they can all be traversed in a day, their difficulty and sometimes-poor rock make it unlikely that I will ever do so. However, I have been slowly picking them off over the years, and have summited well over half, including the highest ones. With temperatures over 100 degrees in the Owens Valley, it seemed a good time to head uphill for awhile.
An easier outing the day before turned into a trail-side nap — my insatiable trail hunger suggests that I am close to having the fitness to actually do interesting things. Climbing a few lesser Minarets would hardly count as such, but it would be both an excuse to visit some scenic terrain, and a good opportunity to practice my steep scrambling on dubious rock, which has grown rusty. I briefly thought of biking from my camp along the Scenic Loop, but decided instead to start from Minaret Vista. I was glad I did so, both because the ride from north of town would have taken too much time, and because I learned that the road beyond Minaret Summit is closed. This is a great thing for many reasons: it is an excuse to bike, it keeps the crowds away, and it may even put the horse packers out of business (one can dream…).
There were too many cars parked near the entrance gate, but I found a nice flat spot near my usual camp spot, and rewatched a couple episodes of “Breaking Bad” to put myself to sleep. I was biking downhill into a notorious pool of cold air, so I took my time in the morning. A sign on the gate said “no bicycles,” but a local-looking guy nearby said he had been riding his into the valley without trouble, so I ignored it and dropped into the expected inversion. I had not been beyond Agnew Meadows in years, and was dismayed at how quickly and far the road drops after reaching the valley floor. I started catching an official-looking vehicle on my way to Devil’s Postpile and, not wanting to get yelled at, paused to let it pull ahead. Once at the Postpile, I saw a half-dozen vehicles at the employee housing, a sign saying “no bikes beyond this point” at the trailhead, and a couple of bikes locked to a nearby rack. So much for “no bicycles…”
The trail up Minaret Creek is normally frustrating, with large steps and loose, sharp rocks making it difficult to run, but I was stuck walking for a few days while my ankle recovered, so it did not bother me. I found the log bridge crossing the creek destroyed, and followed a trail along the bank, hoping to find another log farther up. I saw a potential crossing, but it looked a bit dubious, and the trail appeared to continue, so I ignored it. This turned out to be a mistake, as the trail faded to nothing, leaving me to make my slow way through the woods on the other side of Johnson “Meadow” (a swamp this time of year). I eventually crossed above the swamp, and regained the trail, which I followed on the long, slow climb to Minaret Lakes. I passed a couple backpackers coming down, but otherwise had the area to myself.
I left the main trail at the lower end of the lakes, making my way toward a snow chute between Riegelhuth and Pridham Minarets that Bob’s trip report had suggested as the best route. I had brought ice axe and crampons for this steep, north-facing gully, but found that I was able to avoid the snow first on the talus fan, then on the couloir’s blocky sides. I reached the saddle with no more than a bit of third class scrambling, and found Pridham to be an unimpressive talus mount, hardly worthy of being called a Minaret.
Riegelhuth was a different matter, offering a couple of possible lines, but nothing obvious. As I approached, I spotted a series of steep gullies and ledges to the right that might work. They did not look easy, but I needed the practice, so up I went. They turned out to offer steep and thought-provoking climbing, probably low fifth class, but the rock was mostly good and positive. I reached the summit without too much trouble, finding some climber trash (old slings), but no register. After admiring the view of Lake Cecile and the higher Minarets, I took a different route on the way down, finding a fourth class gully down the west-northwest side. Though short, Riegelhuth was a worthy summit, with no easy way up. Pridham, on the other hand, was class 2 talus from the east, and the same to the west. I boulder-hopped up, looked around a bit, then continued on my way.
The next summit in line, Kehrlein, looked far more interesting, but I had already done it many years ago, so I instead dropped left into the cirque above Dead Horse Lake, hoping that something on the ridge north of Starr Minaret would go. Though the headwall looked steep from the approach, I found a broken third class ramp trending left to the ridge. The south- and east-facing snow had been baking long enough at this point that I was able to kick steps to the rock, not needing the crampons and axe I had lugged so far.
Starr Minaret was a bit steeper than Pridham, but still only class 3 from the west; I made things a bit more interesting by staying near the ridge. I found a new-ish register in a salsa bottle on the summit, plus slightly older paper in a film canister and aspirin bottle. Of the handful of parties signing in, most seemed to be on a Minarets Traverse. This confused me, since Starr is an outlier of the main Minarets ridge. One party mentioned that it was their eighth summit that day, which made no sense in either direction.
I had thought of tagging Adam Minaret, another outlier southwest of Michael, but I had once again failed to pack enough food. Instead, I retreated down my broken ramp, dropped to Dead Horse, and regained the trail in the woods below Minaret Lakes. While the trail remained uncrowded on the hike home, there were a few more people. I first met two guys and a woman, all fit, attractive, and scantily clad, and passed with a quick, dead-eyed “howdy.” I talked a bit more with a family at the stream ford, learning that they were doing part of the JMT as I put my shoes back on.
I returned to the trailhead around mid-afternoon, finding a ranger talking on the phone outside his cabin, who apparently had no problem with my being down there. I changed into bike shorts, then ground out the 1500-foot climb back to Minaret Vista and my car. I had a nice campsite, and had thought of a plan for the next day, so I tore through a larger post-hike meal, reloaded my pack with more food, then whiled away the rest of the evening.
Verdi (pronounced like “hair dye,” not the requiem composer’s name) is a prominent summit northeast of Lake Tahoe, and a worthy reason to drive all the way north to… ah, who am I kidding? It’s a forested bump with a road to an old fire lookout on top, with enough prominence to give me peak-bagger points. In short, it was a perfect peak to tag with Renee and her not-quite-three-year-old. A few sections of the road were rocky and steep enough to be unpleasant on my touring bike, so we hiked it. The kid did an admirable job and, with steady encouragement and other devious motherly psychological tricks, walked more than his age in miles. The lookout was well-situated, with a clear view of the train tracks and highway along the Truckee River to the south and east, snowy Castle, Basin, and Lola to the west, and the peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe to the south.
Points accomplished, it was time to enjoy some alternatives to my recent Eastern Sierra desert slogs, including road cycling (I am slow), mountain biking (I am bad), and trail running (I can do this one, though my aging body complains). While I could never afford to live there, I am reminded every time I visit that Tahoe has a wonderful backyard. It lacks the major peaks found in the Owens Valley or the Alps, but has acres of forested public land with miles of trails and fire roads, making it a bit like where I grew up. While not a destination, it has everything necessary for day-to-day outdoor activity.
For example, there are several passes over the Nevada side, connected along the top by trails, and the bottom by the lake road. These allow excellent point-to-point runs with a bike shuttle. Renee had mapped out a run from the Brockway road to the Mount Rose road, tagging one fire lookout and a number of minor summits along the way. It would have been a better run the other way, but I convinced her to run it in the net uphill direction, then bike shuttle back. Unlike the lookout on Verdi, which was trashed, the one on Martis was well-kept, with unbroken windows and a silhouette map identifying the peaks on the skyline. Much of the rest of the run was uphill at just the right grade to be frustrating (I should have listened…), but the trail was mostly snow-free and the views were excellent. The return ride along the lake was not pleasant, with narrow shoulders and constant traffic, but both Brockway and Mount Rose roads have good shoulders and pavement, so those parts were fine.
Most Tahoe trails are rocky and “technical,” thus miserable for me with my limited mountain biking skills, but the Incline and Marlette Flume trails are much better. After mistakenly starting off on the Tyrolean trail, a “flow” trail that was more of a survival ride on my touring bike, I enjoyed a long ride on smooth trails and gentle grades. Supposedly the trails follow some old flumes, but I saw no evidence of such. It was a weekday, but the trail was somewhat crowded with both cyclists and pedestrians, making some of its exposed blind corners a bit unnerving, but I was still enjoying myself.
I was hoping to continue all the way to Spooner Lake and Highway 50, but at Marlette Lake’s southern end, I finally figured out why my rear derailleur had been acting up: my derailleur cable snapped. Riding back in my outermost gear would have involved a lot of hike-a-bike, so, thinking a minute, I wedged a small stick into the derailleur to hold it somewhere near the center of its range. I gingerly pedaled back toward home a bit, then bummed duct tape from some Game and Fish employees to secure my stick. With two middle-of-the-range gears, I only had to hike one part of the trail, and could pedal up to a non-pathetic speed on the flats and descents.
After a stop in Carson for a replacement cable and brake pads — bikes are an endless money-pit — I continued around to check out some peaks south of the lake. Most northern Sierra peaks are short climbs, so I tacked on some cycling to give myself a bit of a challenge. I camped at the junction with the Luther Pass road, where it rained overnight, then took my time in the morning, eyeing the fresh snow on the peaks and fixing my bike. When it was finally warm enough for my hands, I made the short ride to Luther Pass, then locked my bike to a tree to hike up Waterhouse. I found no use trail, but there was little underbrush, and neither the fresh nor old snow posed much of a problem. I took in the view south from the summit rocks, then returned to my bike and continued west.
It was a weekend, so I wanted to avoid the highways as much as possible, especially 50, with its traffic from Sacramento and the Bay. For my first dodge, I went through the closed Luther campground, cutting off a bit of 89. I crossed the highway, then took off again down Upper Truckee Road, which starts as steep single-lane pavement, then becomes a quiet residential street. I had hoped to take the Hawley Grade National Historic Trail — “grade” seemed to imply “railroad” and therefore “gentle” — but it was nasty and rocky. Instead, I found the Old Meyers Grade and Johnson Pass roads, thus avoiding the highway climb to Echo Summit. From there, unfortunately, it was pure highway to the Mount Ralston trailhead, with constant traffic boding ill for the uphill return.
I semi-hid my bike near the Ralston trailhead, then took off at a determined walk. This turned out to be a deservedly popular but not overly long hike, with excellent views of Lake Aloha and the Desolation Wilderness from the summit. I took around an hour from trailhead to summit, a respectable time, though far off the course record. The Desolation peaks were still snowy, but Lake Aloha had melted out; on my last visit earlier in the season, I had walked across it to save time while tagging the other peaks. I spent a couple of minutes on the cold summit, then ran back to my bike and retraced my route. The ride up 50 was as miserable as expected, but I’m turning into a roadie again, and getting used to close and constant traffic. The rest of the ride was much more pleasant, and I returned to the car mid-afternoon, satisfied with a full day.
After a lengthy and clarifying stay in the Owens Valley, it was time to move on. On the way to visit a friend near Lake Tahoe, I took a side trip over Sonora Pass to tag Disaster, the northernmost of my fifteen remaining SPS peaks. I had been stymied on previous trips by pass closures and weather, but this time had no trouble reaching Iceberg Meadow. Since Disaster by itself would be very short, I roughly followed Rob Houghton’s route to tag a couple of minor neighbors. It was still little more than a half-day, but that was enough given the remaining drive.
Used to waking up low on the desert east side of the Sierra, I set an unrealistic 5:00 AM alarm. When it went off a couple of thousand feet higher on the shady side of the range, I was curled up in my sleeping bag for warmth. I reached an arm out several times to hit “snooze,” eventually making a hot breakfast and getting started toward 7:00 AM. I hiked up the shaded Disaster Creek trail in all my layers, my hands aching inside my gloves. Even down at 8000 feet there was a bit of fresh graupel on the ground from the night before.
The route to Disaster follows the trail past the cliffy part of the Iceberg, then leaves it to ascend a steep hillside to the peak’s long south ridge. This would have been a miserable bushwhack some years ago, but a convenient fire had trimmed the manzanita, and deer had created some faint paths. The underlying dirt is the expected decomposed granite, but much more pleasant than the loose sand I had dealt with on the way to Sawmill Point a few days before. I made steady progress to the ridge, where I finally reached both direct sun and a cold west wind.
Most of the rest of the route up Disaster was a gentle hike through open forest and meadows, with decent shelter from the wind. The summit itself was less pleasant, a loose pile of basalt talus, dusted with fresh snow, offering scant shelter. I briefly looked around for a register, then found a semi-sheltered spot to cram down a couple sandwiches with aching hands. I thought of returning to the car, but that would have been lame. Instead, I retraced my steps a short distance down the ridge, then dropped east through the woods to the PCT.
Conditions became more pleasant off of Disaster’s exposed ridge. While there was still patchy snow in the woods, the cold worked to my advantage, keeping it pleasantly firm for the rest of my outing. A few people had hiked this section in recent, warmer weather, so I did not have to consult my map to follow the trail. The next bump, Peak 9501′, was a larger and looser pile of basalt than Disaster. I carefully picked my way up the near side, then descended a vague ridge of columnar basalt down the far one to regain the trail.
As is often the case, the PCT wanders pointlessly in this section, so I shortcut one inexplicable loop on my way toward Boulder, then left it to follow a drainage between two ridges, ending near the summit. I briefly took in the view of the higher, snowier peaks to the south, then took off straight down to the PCT in the direction of a creek leading to Boulder Lake.
This drainage started out as easy, runnable cross-country, then turned obnoxiously brushy as it dropped and steepened. I sidehilled along to the left, and eventually picked up the steep and unmaintained Boulder Lake trail. The Clark Fork trail was gentler and much better maintained, allowing me to do something like running in the final few miles to the trailhead. I rinsed off in the frigid creek, then drove back over the pass to cook lunch before finishing up the drive, with one stop at a Walmart featuring a surprising number of people not wearing masks. Sigh…
This White Mountains Traverse is a loosely-defined route between Queen Mine Saddle and Barcroft Gate (or vice versa) in California’s White Mountains. It is about 35 miles long, with more than half cross-country, and involves a bit of third class scrambling. Peaks along the way include Boundary (a bump on a ridge, Nevada’s lame highpoint), Montgomery, Dubois, Hogue, Headley, 13,615′, and White Mountain Peak. It is normally done south to north, in the slightly downhill direction, and the FKT is 11h25, set by Jed Porter back in 2014. It requires a 100+-mile car shuttle including miles of annoying dirt road, which discourages many people, but it still seems to see one or two parties per year.
I had originally planned to do it casually, with a partner and a car shuttle, but when that stopped making sense, I came up with another plan. While the drive around via the 2WD Barcroft road is close to 100 miles, it is possible to cut it to only about 60 via Silver Canyon if you have a Jeep…. or a bike. With a forecast for a tailwind up the Owens Valley, I thought I could do the foot portion north to south in 11 hours or less, and the whole thing in under 18. This was a nice theory, but ultimately I found myself spending the better part of two days doing things I did not enjoy, and failing to accomplish something about which I was indifferent, all for the wrong reasons. Call it “training.”
I enjoyed the drive up 168 from Big Pine, then endured the winding asphalt and rocky, washboard dirt north to Barcroft. This is a slow drive at best, and I had to go even slower to protect my worn tires. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and found a couple of cars at the gate, their owners returning from the hike to White Mountain. I took advantage of the chance to sleep at altitude, then stashed my bike, helmet, and some food before returning to Bishop. I had hoped to bathe for the first time in a week at Keough’s along the way, but noticed that, despite my cautious driving, I had developed a slow leak in one tire. I topped it off with my bike pump, then hurried into town and pulled into the one tire place open on Sundays, Perez Tire. I lucked out, as they sold me two AT tires for a fair price, and installed them in about 30 minutes; the other Bishop tire places I’ve visited are ripoffs.
Greasy and in a bad mood from the unexpected expense, I drove up to the north end of the valley, then turned on the Queen Mine road. It starts out as good graded dirt, then slowly deteriorates as it climbs. I eventually stopped about 2.2 miles from the saddle; while I could probably have driven farther, this seemed about as far as I would be able to ride a bike, so there was no point in continuing. I packed some discount energy bars and eight PB&Hs, set my alarm for 3:00, and got some amount of sleep.
I hadn’t done such an early start in awhile, so I did not get going until almost 4:00. I spent about 45 minutes hiking the road to the saddle, then easily found the popular trail up Boundary. I jogged some of the flatter sections leading to Trail Canyon Saddle, then hiked up one of the braided trails through sand and talus toward the summit. It was already somewhat breezy at the top, and bitterly cold, so I did not even pause before starting down the ridge to Montgomery. The route was slow going but mostly only class 2, alternating between the shaded northwest side, and the sunny but windy southeast.
At Montgomery’s summit, I stopped to take a few photos and sign the register. The forecast had anticipated temperatures in the 30s or 40s, but it seemed colder, and my phone battery died when I tried to send a text. Fortunately I had brought my battery pack, so I plugged it in and stashed it closer to my body for warmth. I continued in all my layers, my fingers aching inside my gloves. With steady wind and light cloud-cover most of the day, there was only about a half-hour in which I was warm enough to jog in a t-shirt. Wind and cold, plus tedious terrain, kept the day well short of fun.
Only a handful of people continue beyond Montgomery, so while I found a handful of cairns, I was mostly following faint sheep tracks or traveling cross-country. Montgomery’s south ridge is loose class 2-3, with a broken crest that is best avoided. I found a couple of short, sketchy snow traverses along the east side, but did not have much trouble reaching the saddle. From there, a long talus climb leads to “the Jumpoff” at the northern end of Dubois vast summit plateau. I had hoped for a long stretch easy jogging here, but the tundra was rolling and studded with sharp talus, making for slow and cautious progress.
The summit is one of a number of minor bumps on the plateau, fortunately marked with a large stick visible from a distance. The majority of the parties in the summit register were either sheep surveyors or people traversing, including a group on skis this past April. I signed in with a bit of Rammstein commentary (“Mir ist kalt. Zo kalt!”), then took off jogging on the downward-trending plateau. White Mountain remained soul-crushingly far away, but I reminded myself that I had covered greater distances before.
This part of the Whites is not a single well-defined ridge, but a broad, rolling plain, cut by valleys dropping to both sides. Finding the best route requires regularly consulting a topo map at the macro level. It also requires paying close attention to the terrain at the micro level, as it varies unpredictably from semi-runnable tundra to tediously loose and sharp talus. I had downloaded Jed’s track, but he skipped some of the peaks along the way. I knew I never wanted to return to this place so, being a peak-bagger, I made some minor detours to tag the summits.
First up was Hogue, a detour east just north of where the ridge drops far down to a saddle with some springs around 11,200′. I checked out a couple of the talus mounds on its summit plateau, but found only a few pieces of broken glass, perhaps a former register jar. I jogged the descent as best I could, squelching across a bog labeled as a “spring,” then hiked over Point 11,784′, which hid horribly loose talus on its south side. A spring and snowfield fed a pleasant stream southeast of the lowpoint, where I grabbed a couple of liters of water before beginning the climb toward Headley.
Continuing my quest to tag the ridge’s peaks, I took a less-direct line toward the point labeled Headley Peak. Most of the way up, I saw that it was 100 feet lower than “East Headley,” with almost no prominence, and slightly out of the way. Annoyed at having wasted time on a pointless detour, I tagged the higher East Headley, then continued toward White. Jed had sidehilled around 13,615′, but despite the looming reality of headlamp time, I made the short detour. It was only a few hundred yards out of the way, and one of only a handful of California’s 13,000-foot peaks I had yet to climb.
I signed in next to the familiar names, then suffered down to the saddle with White. The talus was all sharp and loose, and though it was cold, the snowfields had turned to bottomless slush. I cursed, stumbled, and postholed to my knees for awhile, then found drier ground on the final ridge to the hut. I had eaten my last food before 13,615′, but am still fat enough not to bonk badly while hiking. The final ridge to the summit turns surprisingly tricky, with some loose class 3-4 over and around a few towers. I might have enjoyed this in different circumstances, but at this point it was a demoralizing grind.
I finally reached the summit around 3:00, eleven hours from the start and far later than I had hoped. I texted a friend that I might be screwed: the days are long, but I estimated that I would be back to pavement around dark, still over thirty miles from the car. I cut all the lame road switchbacks down to the saddle, then put in a fair amount of jogging along the road past Barcroft Lab despite my fatigue. The lab was closed, the normally reeking sheep pen blessedly empty. There were no cars at the gate, but fortunately no one had stolen my bike or my food. I hid behind the outhouse for awhile, eating and recovering, then began the thirteen-mile bike to the head of Silver Canyon. My time to the gate was something like 12h20, putting me 10-15 minutes behind the FKT. I could make the excuses that I was heading in the uphill direction, and tagged two summits that Jed had skipped, but it was still a failure.
I was dreading this portion of the trip, as the road is rough, rolling, and headed both in the wrong direction and likely into the day’s prevailing wind. Surprisingly, though, I found it almost enjoyable on a bike. It felt no worse than many of the Argentine provincial roads I had cycled this past winter, and I was not towing a trailer. The two motorists who passed me even offered encouragement. I suffered mightily on the 600-foot climb before the Silver Canyon turnoff, but still made it in just over 1h30, better than I had hoped.
I was nervous about descending the upper Silver Canyon road on my touring bike, as it is relentlessly steep and sometimes loose, but I took it slow, rode my brakes, and made it down without crashing, only putting a foot down on a few of the sharp, steep switchbacks higher up. I filled up on water at the first creek crossing, burned my finger feeling my brake rotor, then dared a bit more speed as the slope eased. I normally dismount for the creek crossings, but my bike was already filthy, so I rode through the first few, spraying my bike and myself with water and grit. The creek had hopped its banks in places, turning the road into a secondary stream, so picking my way through the crossings would have been pointless.
The descent to Highway 6 took another 1h30 or so, giving me about an hour of usable light to ride north. I started off motivated, but soon started questioning the wisdom of continuing. My 750-lumen bike headlamp had been stolen in Argentina, so all I had was a tiny 100-ish-lumen hiking lamp; not anticipating much headlamp time, I had not bothered to dig out my taillight. I felt energetic at the moment, but nearly two hours riding uphill at night on a highway, without a taillight, then another hour on a dirt road, began to seem stupid. Before getting too far from Bishop, I gave up and called my friend, who kindly fetched me and let me use a spare sleeping setup.
Having already made myself enough of a nuisance, and failed to achieve anything, I was determined to at least finish under my own power. The previous day’s tailwind had of course reverted to the seasonal headwind, so I got to relive one of my less favorite Argentine experiences: riding uphill into the wind along a truck route. I finally started bonking on the dirt road, stopping frequently in bits of shade to rest, finally crawling up to the car. I crammed down a bunch of food, then drove back down-valley to begin preparing to hit the road.
Mount Tom is arguably the most striking peak on the Bishop skyline, towering almost 10,000 feet above town, with its long north ridge rising around 8,000 feet from Pine Creek. While it is not technically difficult or interesting, it is striking enough to be a fairly popular climb, often done in the early season when snow covers some of the talus, or at least provides water. I was in the area and needed a workout, so it seemed like a good time to finally check it off my to-do list.
Looking at the map, I found a side-road on the way to Elderberry Canyon that looked like a good place to start, so I headed up there the night before to camp. The road was rough in places, but careful driving got my Element to a flat spur near the end with no parts lost and only moderate scrambling of its contents. I set my alarm for 4:35, planning to start at first light, then tried to get some sleep.
I got started a bit later than first light, but fortunately the temperature was cooler than the previous week, and some clouds over the Whites delayed the direct sun. Like the northeast ridges of Lone Pine Peak and Mount Williamson, Tom’s north ridge starts with a couple thousand feet of miserable, brushy sand. I followed some sheep tracks and pulled at granite outcrops as I made my slow way to the crest. It was slow going, but probably better than gaining the ridge from Pine Creek to the north or west.
Once on the crest, I found easier sand and mild brush, leading to sparse woods and eventually talus. I also found a faint path and recent footprints, confirming my impression that this was a relatively popular objective this time of year. After dodging some snow patches, I had to cross one, and found fresh boot-prints; clearly someone had been up here in the last day or two. The snow was only intermittently supportive, so I was glad to have someone else ahead of me digging the postholes.
I stopped to shove snow in my water bladder at the first clean patch of snow in the woods, then continued out onto the open talus, where I encountered some mild scrambling. Looking at the ridge ahead, I was surprised to see two men ahead of me — it was a weekend, but I hardly expected company. I easily caught them, and chatted for a few minutes before continuing. They were both up from LA (filthy tourists…), an experienced guy taking his novice friend on his first Sierra peak. It seemed like a rather ambitious choice of objectives, but I did not think there were any technical obstacles, and they had plenty of daylight to use.
From where I met the pair, it was 2.1 miles to the summit as the crow flies. I anticipated an endless slog through loose talus and slush, but the rock was not quite as loose as I had feared, and the snow along the ridge had been mostly beaten solid by the wind. I took one unfortunate tumble when my wet and worn-out shoes slipped on a transition from snow to rock, bruising my ribs a bit, but had no serious difficulties on my way to the summit. The many false summits could have been demoralizing, but I had mentally prepared myself for them, and was feeling moderately peppy.
I reached the summit in 5:25, and found the register box exposed and filled with various booklets and scraps of paper. I couldn’t find my entry from when I climbed Tom from Horton Lakes in 2009 or 2010, but added my name to the latest book. Looking south and west, the peaks still looked surprisingly skiable, though having recently suffered 90-degree temperatures in the Owens and Saline Valleys, I was not in that frame of mind. I took a few photos, sent some texts, then headed back down the ridge.
I passed the experienced guy a few false summits down, and was unsurprised to learn that his friend had given up. I probably should have retraced my route, but I had been told that descending Elderberry Canyon was quicker, so I turned down to the east as soon as I reached a chute that did not cliff out. I hoped to boot-ski or plunge-step the upper snow, but was forced to do a pathetic sitting glissade to stay afloat in the bottomless slush. The rock to either side was not amenable to scree-skiing, and the avalanche snow lower down had also deteriorated to slush, so it was slow and unpleasant work descending to the level of the Lambert Mine.
Things got a bit easier from there, as I picked up the old trail to the mine, and the snow in some of the gullies was compact enough to boot-ski. The trail turns stupid and horizontal lower down, so I ignored it in favor of the easy cross-country. I eventually reached the badly overgrown stream crossing, where I found my first liquid water all day, a welcome replacement for the piney melting slush in my bladder. From there I was on familiar ground, thankful to have only a daypack instead of skis as I switchbacked through the buckthorn, then jogged the road back to my car, cutting the corner to save a tiny bit of elevation loss. I was back at the car by mid-afternoon, making for a moderate day. I doubt I will do this route again, but if I did, I would probably just descend the ridge; Elderberry wasn’t awful, but it is much better on skis.