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.

Perkins, Colosseum

Perkins from south


Perkins and Colosseum are two SPS peaks at the southern end of a wall of chossy peaks along the Sierra Crest between Taboose and Sawmill Passes. They were the last of these peaks I had not climbed, having reached the northern ones via Taboose in previous years. All of these peaks are more easily climbed from their gentler western sides, but that requires a roundabout approach. A more direct approach is possible up seldom-used Armstrong Canyon, which we had used to reach Mount Cedric Wright during the Sierra Challenge several years ago. Starting at the oasis of Scotty’s Spring around 5800′, a rough jeep road climbs past some old mines to around 8500′. Beyond, easy cross-country leads to the head of the valley around 10,400′, from which various loose chutes lead to the crest around 12,000′.

Perkins’ east face

Not expecting a long day, I took my time and started around 7:00, hiking the jeep road as it switchbacked past a quartz mine to a junction. I almost made the same mistake some of us made last time, but looked at my map and took the middle branch, which makes a flat traverse into the mouth of Armstrong Canyon. Beyond the end of the road, I boulder-hopped up the left side of the canyon, then took a use- or game-trail right of the boulders. Where it flattens out, I moved over to the right, planning to exit that side to Perkins’ north ridge.

Bighorns

Entering the open bowl below Perkins’ colorful east face, I saw three bighorn sheep at a distance. Unlike the ones in the Pecos, which refuse to give ground, these seemed to be the shy desert variety, and ran behind a ridge soon after they saw me. The climb to the crest was more or less the loose slog I expected. I finally emerged on the east ridge of 12,482′, just north of Perkins, where I found a cairn.

Armstrong Canyon from Perkins

The ridge south was broad and easy down to the saddle, but looked narrow and rotten beyond. There was a bit of tricky climbing through some notches, but it was mostly not so bad, and I was soon on top. To the northwest were colorful Crater and Pinchot, on either side of Pinchot Pass. To the southwest, the JMT descends the broad, U-shaped valley of Woods Creek. East, I looked down Perkins’ sheer face and the rock glacier below to the Owens Valley desert where I had started.

Gash on Colosseum

The ridge to Colosseum looked long and slow, and I thought about dropping down to the valley west. However, the ridge was much easier than it looked, with fairly easy travel over the two bumps south of Perkins, then a quick talus descent to the broad saddle north of Colosseum. The climb to Colosseum started as an easy talus climb, then got a bit trickier toward the top. First, I found myself confronted by the steep gash mentioned in Bob’s trip report, extending far down the west face. I found a third class downclimb to the east, crossed the notch, then traversed a narrow ledge back out the other side to the west.

Traverse from south

Beyond the gash, Colosseum has three summits, the register being on the farthest, which does not look like the highest. I climbed over the first, traversed east around the second, then hiked across the sand and talus to the final one, finding the register canister hidden among some rocks. A recent entry claimed to have measured one of the other summits to be 40′ higher. It was comfortable overshirt weather out of the wind, so I hung out and checked my email, then headed back.

Dropping into Armstrong

I was severely tempted to drop straight down Division Creek, which has an easy entry and leads right back to the trailhead. However, when even Bob describes something as a severe desert bushwhack, I know it must be a nightmare. I also remembered the descent back into Armstrong being unpleasant, but I’ll gladly take sketchy scree over desert brush. I backtracked to the southern head of Armstrong Canyon, then took the first chute that seemed to go. It was every bit as miserable as I remembered, with a bit of skiable scree mixed with treacherous hard-packed dirt. I made my laborious way down, then crossed a small permanent snowfield, and was at last on easy talus.

Looks military

Just below the snowfield, I found the military plane wreck I remembered from last time. I wondered if the pilot had flown into the mouth of the canyon, then become boxed in by the steep, narrow sides and headwall. I took some more photos, then boulder-hopped across the canyon to rejoin my path from the way up. I was hoping to take the game trail I had found next to the boulders, but missed the crossover to the right side of the canyon. Still, it was easy going back to the road, then a fast, pleasant jog to the car. I washed up, then drove a demoralizing 1300′ back down into the desert to my next trailhead, Sawmill Pass.

White done Right (West ridge, 3:59:30 up, 7:01 RT)

View from top of suck


During my recent beating at the hands of White Mountain’s west ridge, I had a couple of thoughts. First, the math says that ~7.5 miles and ~9500 feet of gain (including ridge bumps), even over nasty desert cross-country terrain, should be doable in the 4:xx range by a reasonably fit runner. For example, averaging 2000 ft/hr, it would take 4:45. Second, I thought that the other west ridge looked better than what we dealt with. Looking at a map later, it seemed like the best way to do this was to start at the base of a steep dirt road to some antennas at 5260′, slightly lower than the Subaru-accessible trailhead for the Jeffrey Mine route, and almost exactly 9000 feet below the summit. It turns out that I was right: using the other ridge, I took 3:59:30 car-to-summit, and 7:01 car-to-car. Climbing 2375 ft/hr over mixed desert terrain seems reasonable given my current fitness, but there are definitely some guys out there who can beat it.

I drove the “aqueduct” road to where the antenna road turns off, then pulled into the single parking space for the night. The part I drove was definitely Subaru-friendly, and probably passable for a decent driver in a normal sedan. Figuring I would take something like 4-5 hours for the climb, I started at 7:30, so I would reach the top around mid-day. I took just enough stuff to survive: wool overshirt, windbreaker, hat and gloves, 1.5 liters of water, and 1700 calories of food (2 packs pop-tarts, 2 Clif bars, 1 pack granola bars).

Just as I started, two guys drove by to check up on the antenna. They seemed neither surprised nor concerned by the weirdo parked below their equipment. I was soon glad I had not tried to drive farther up the road, as it quickly becomes incredibly steep. I was surprised their truck made it up. When I reached the antennas, the two were apparently holding up their phones. I said “hello,” then left them to their work, following a much fainter road farther up the ridge.

That road eventually started going the wrong direction, so I took off across easy cross-country, passing the remains of a survey tripod on one of a couple of bumps. On the other side, I was surprised to see a faint old trail below. While it was hardly necessary in this open terrain, it did make it more runnable, so I jogged some of the gentler sections heading up toward the forested part of the ridge. There was prospecting all over the Whites, so perhaps this was a pack trail to some old, unprofitable claim.

Abandoned tools

The trail continued into the piƱon forest, but soon faded too much to be useful. I continued up through the open forest as it steepened toward the treeless headwall that I guessed would be the crux. As usual in the Owens Valley, I had no cell service at the trailhead, so I turned on my phone’s antenna to do a bit of texting, then turned it back off to continue my woodland march. Along the way, I passed a pick, shovel, and tarp-covered supplies, of newer vintage than the trail, but apparently abandoned.

Misery crux

The headwall was every bit as bad as I had imagined, 1000 steep feet of loose talus, some of it covered in sagebrush. I started up the bottom of a shallow ravine, where talus is often more stable, then tried a rib, then some brush, then went back to the bare talus. It was all horrible and discouraging, and I briefly lost focus, costing me some time.

Technical crux (cl 3-4)

Fortunately, this is the only truly awful section of the route. Above, the ridge is open talus and dirt, stable enough to jog along the crest. As on the upper ridge, it is almost never worth dodging around small bumps, since the sides are usually steep and/or loose. I found a small cairn on 11,156′, and a larger one on 11,395′, just before the descent to the saddle above Jeffrey Mine Canyon, where I joined the familiar route. Knowing what to do now, I followed the faint sheep-trails above 12,000′, then stayed on the ridge crest over the bumps leading toward the summit. Nearing the final false summit, I saw that I had a chance at going under 4 hours, and dug deep for a bit of extra speed. Light-headed from the effort, I had to be careful on the few exposed spots. I jogged across the summit platform to the hut, and saw that I had made my goal by 30 seconds. Yee-haw!

The summit register had accumulated a surprising 4-5 pages of new entries since I had last visited two weeks before. I signed in again, put on all my clothes, then started down. Though the temperature was probably about the same, it was fortunately much less windy than before, and I even took off my shell and gloves below the false summit. I was as slow as expected re-climbing the bumps on the way down, and did not feel like pushing it on the unstable talus.

Not bad for an old guy…

Descending the headwall was unpleasant, but to my surprise, I think I went down a bit faster than I climbed it. It is easy to wander off one side of the treed ridge below, and I had to regularly correct myself by looking at my track from the way up. Once out of the trees, I picked up the old trail, and even felt enough energy to run most of the way back to the trailhead. I could definitely have descended a bit faster, but the 4-up/3-down ratio conveys the fact that much of the route is semi-loose talus that is easier to handle going up than down. Now is the perfect time of year to do this route, with overnight valley temperatures in the 40s, summit highs around freezing, and almost no snow on the route. Go get it, fast people!

Black Mountain

Black-Marble junction from near summit


Black Mountain is a prominent peak at the southern end of the White Mountains, named for the black volcanic rock comprising its summit. It is normally and most easily climbed from the high White Mountain Road. However, this would have involved a bunch of driving and not much hiking, so I decided to approach from Black Canyon, where the topo said there was a trail leading most of the way up. Although this trail was ominously marked “location approx” on the map, the route turned out mostly painless, an easy day with a bit less than 4000 feet of gain.

Death overdetermined

I drove partway up the slowly-deteriorating Black Canyon road, parked at a wide spot, then hiked the remaining mile or so to the split between Black and Marble Canyons. There was a sign near one of the mine shafts suggesting that entering would cause certain death by a combination of falling, drowning, and poisonous gases. Poking my head in, I found that it was blocked off, anyways. I had also noticed a mysterious “guzzler” on the topo, which turned out to be some kind of large concrete-covered cistern, still holding plenty of water. The road continues up Black Canyon to the north, apparently deteriorating to a trail just before connecting to the White Mountain Road near Schulman Grove.

“Guzzler”

Marble Canyon is apparently too narrow to have a road or trail, but the map shows a trail leading up an unnamed draw to the south, eventually ending on Black Mountain’s west ridge. The start was not encouraging, a generic desert wash full of scoured boulders and woody plants, the latter making me regret my choice of shorts. However, about a quarter mile up, I found a faint trail-bed on the right side. I followed this up the streambed for awhile, then noticed a faint switchback out of the creek-bed to the ridge on its right, somewhat below the dashed line on the map.

I repeatedly lost and refound the trail as I made my way up the broad ridge, but the terrain was open enough that it did not really matter. I again picked up the trail near where the map suggests that it crosses the next wash over, then lost it again for good after a couple of faint switchbacks. The trail supposedly contours across a loose talus slope between 7800 and 8000 feet to end on the easy east ridge. I saw a mine shaft over there, and found stake on my side, but couldn’t find any trace of a trail on the unstable slope, and didn’t see any reason to sidehill across.

Palisades and weird lake

Instead I went more or less straight up the north rib/slope toward the summit. This started out easy, until I ran into some cliffs. Passing these on the left via some pleasantly stable basalt talus, I rejoined my rib above the cliffs, just below where it joined the east ridge. From there, it was a short hike through scrub, pines, and cactus to the summit.

I found the usual desert summit ammo box, containing a not-very-old register with a surprising number of entries, including a number of familiar names. I added my own, then retraced my steps. The talus was probably slower going down than up, but not seriously frustrating. I was done by early afternoon, giving me plenty of time to clean up and catch up.

White Mountain (west ridge)

Down-ridge from near summit


[Skipping over some uninteresting stuff to catch up. — ed.]

White Mountain Peak is the highpoint of the Inyo-White Range, which forms the eastern side of the Owens Valley. I have climbed it the usual way twice before, making a long drive east from Big Pine to Cedar Flat, then north on a decent dirt road through the Bristlecone forest to where it is gated, finally hiking the remainder of the road from near 12,000′. However, White rises 10,000′ from the valleys to either side, and its west ridge, starting from 5,000 feet, is a much more sporting way to summit the peak, and a classic of Owens Valley type II fun.

It had been on my to-do list for a few years, but somehow conditions and motivation had never aligned until now. Astute readers may have noticed the coaching tab above, about which more later. I had suggested this route to Shannon, an athlete interested in long-distance adventures, as a way to put in time and intensity with less damage than a long weekend trail run. When a change in plans put me in the area around that time, I offered to join her. The company would help my motivation on a desert bushwhack, and I thought I might be able to help with route finding (sort of the opposite, as it turned out…).

We met at the junction of Highway 6 and White Mountain Ranch Road the evening before, then followed the SummitPost directions up a rough road (4S135 on the Forest Service topo) toward Jeffrey Mine Canyon, eventually stopping at a washout near 5200′. Later, we found that it is possible to drive a Subaru to the canyon mouth at around 6000′, probably by following the Hill Ranch road, then turning on 3S162. Another approach, avoiding the Jeffrey Mine entirely, would be to take road 4S75 to the forest boundary around 5300′, then take the steep road to a “Comm Facility” before heading cross-country. The Whites and Inyos are a wild place, more like Nevada than California, and probably only locals truly know their way around.

I woke at 4:30 in the unpleasantly cold dark, downed my cup of sadness, and fretted about the temperature. The forecast suggested 40s in the valley, a high around freezing on top, and not much wind. It seemed around 40 now, but it had been windy at night, so at the last minute I (fortunately) shoved my down parka into my pack. The plan was to hike the “trail” to the Jeffrey Mine cabins by headlamp, summit by early afternoon, and return to the cars before headlamp time. Despite my best efforts, we managed to stay fairly close to this schedule.

Ladder and arrow

While there is technically a trail to the cabins, it is easy to miss where it leaves the ravine at night, so of course I did. Instead, we continued up the bottom of the canyon, which started as nice hard-packed sand, then gradually became more annoying as it steepened. We hopped the boulders and bashed through the willows, efficiently gaining elevation but increasingly concerned that we would be boxed in as the chossy canyon walls steepened. It eventually happened, of course, and we found our headlamps illuminating a couple of wedged chockstones undercut by erosion. Left looked wrong, so I tried right, eventually finding some fourth class choss-stemming that got around the problem. Above, a dirt-traverse deposited us back in the canyon bottom.

Black Eagle Camp

Surprisingly, the rest of the ravine more or less worked; even more so, we found an arrow and ladder, suggesting that we were “on route” for some version of “route.” Where the canyon opened up, we found a faded but obvious trail coming from who knows where and, despite the shenanigans, we reached Black Eagle Camp around the end of headlamp time. Despite being only reachable on foot (or perhaps because of that), the cabins looked surprisingly nice, though there was no time to peek inside.

Upper mine building

There was a sign indicating a trail to “upper mine, 2 miles,” and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to take that, since it would put off the desert cross-country travel. This turned out to be only half a mistake. On the good side, we got to see the upper mine, which had honeycombed and partly consumed a colorful rock pillar across from the once heated and electrified dormitory. It is hard to imagine how the miners transported the building materials — much less the telephone poles — from the valley by mule.

So much sidehilling…

On the bad side, this route turns out to be the “not recommended, brushy northern ridge” alternative mentioned on SummitPost. Things were looking good on the climb past the mine and up the broad lower ridge, with bits of trail and the occasional cairn. However, it got ugly where the ridge flattened out, with chossy bumps on the crest, and brushy scree and sand on the south-facing side. Rather than going over the bumps, I for some reason chose to side-hill below them, which was a slog and, in retrospect, a bad idea. Oh, well.

Where the two west ridges meet, we finally found a sort of eroded gully with more stable talus, which eventually led to the ridge crest and views north and south along the range (also cell service, absent in the town of Chalfant). There were bits of trail on this part of the crest, though it was hard to tell if humans had helped make them, or just bighorn sheep.

Upper ridge from near junction

Though the summit looks close, there is a lot of ridge between 12,000′ and 14,000′, with a couple of bumps to cross and a fair amount of slow travel on semi-stable talus and bad rock. The SummitPost description mentioned traversing around one of the bumps on the north side, and continuing the day’s theme of poor route-finding on my part, I chose the wrong bump. What followed was some sketchy, cold traversing on snow-covered third class choss. I’m fairly used to it, and my relatively new and aggressively-lugged shoes handled it well; Shannon had a sketchier time of things in approach shoes with worn-down dot-rubber. The “correct” bump to traverse around is probably the last one, just 100′ or so below the summit, but it is not necessary — there’s a fairly obvious class 3-4 downclimb on the east side. The best approach to the whole ridge seems to be to stay near the crest, where it is most solid, and simply accept the up-and-down.

Palisades across the way

The air temperature was probably 35-40, so it was comfortable while moving in the sun and out of the wind, it was eyeball-freezingly cold in the steady wind near the summit. We took shelter in the lee of the summit hut, digging through the chest full of paper, booklets, and writing implements to find something that looked most like a register. I was glad I had thrown in the parka at the last minute, as I would otherwise not have been able to hang around before retreating as quickly as possible.

The less said about the way down, the better. I managed to choose a different bad route to the upper mine. We were both stoked to finally see trail again above the mine, and still had enough energy to jog a bit of the descent. The trail to the cabins was much easier to find during the day, though still obscure in places. It turns out that it crosses the stream-bed just above the arrow and ladder on top, and leaves it at the bottom to follow the old power line road. Though it is cairned, this bottom junction is very easy to miss at night. Surprisingly, despite my best efforts to make life difficult, we made it back to the cars with no headlamp time, albeit barely. It was another surprisingly cold night in the valley, so it took me awhile to make my hands work well enough to make some tea and find food. Neither of us felt like driving anywhere, so we soon retreated out of the wind to our respective cars.

Breaking up a drive north

I had both driving to do and time to kill, so as I prefer to do, I broke up my travel by tagging some semi-random peaks along the way. None was interesting enough for a long writeup, so here they are in a single pile.

Patterson

Please don’t drive on Mars


Mount Patterson is the highpoint of a distinct mound of mountains north of Bridgeport near the California-Nevada border. It is not particularly impressive, with a jeep road nearly to the top, but its isolation does give it over 4000 feet of prominence, and it was not too far out of my way. For those with normal-clearance cars, it is most easily reached from the long dirt road to Lobdell Lake, which was more of a large mud puddle when I saw it.

Road toward Patterson

I drove halfway in the night before, then finished the drive in the morning, partly because I didn’t want to drive the rougher part of the road at night, and partly to blast the heater on a cold morning. I parked on the south side of the “lake,” then hiked across the earthen dam to join the jeep road leading toward Patterson. I met some hunters on their way down in a quad, but otherwise had the path to myself as I hiked up a hillside, through a canyon filled with turning willows, and finally switchbacked up a slope to the plain below the summit.

Road through Mars

There was a sign describing the precious tundra, and instructing motor vehicle enthusiasts not to drive on it. There were pleasantly few off-road tracks, though I suspect this was more because few people drive here than because the ones who do are better-behaved than average. I found bits of crusty snow on the road, and a bit of rime on the summit, reminding me that my season is unfortunately ending. While I was comfortable hiking up, a cold wind on the summit soon chilled me and made my hands clumsy.

I had been thinking of tagging some neighboring peaks, but after a quick look over at Nevada, I decided that I had had enough cold for the day. I hiked and jogged back toward the car, stepping aside on the lower climb to allow several souped-up jeeps to pass, a couple towing burly off-road trailers. There were a couple more waiting at the sign at the bottom, and one of the occupants asked if I was okay. I suppose he thought I might have broken down, and when I explained that I was just out for a hike, I could see him asking himself “why?” Walking a jeep road is indeed silly, but sometimes it happens.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk Lake and Peak


Black Hawk was one of my two remaining SPS peaks in the Sonora Pass area. It is a moderately long hike from Kennedy Meadows, around 20 miles round-trip, starting along a horse-ravaged trail and ending with a long cross-country climb past Lewis Lakes and Black Hawk Lake. It sits amidst an interesting mix of rolling Sierra granite and black volcanic choss, with its summit made of the latter, but much of the approach of the former.

Kennedy Meadows trail

I camped near Sonora Pass, again giving myself a chance to blast the heater on the drive to the trailhead. I had not been to Kennedy Meadows before, and was disappointed to find it both lower and farther west than I had expected. I parked where the signs said I should, then walked most of a mile along a road through a redneck encampment of RVs and summer cabins, and also a restaurant/store and what looked like day use parking. Oh, well…

Relief Reservoir

The trail up to Relief Reservoir, which may once have been a wagon road, has been beaten to death by pack traffic, but the recent rains had fortunately subdued the dust. The trail slowly improved as it went around the reservoir, then climbed southeast along Summit Creek. Based on some tracks downloaded from Peakbagger, I left the trail at a semi-random stream junction, then flailed around in the granite slabs and woods, going too far west before making my way around one of the scenic Lewis Lakes to get back on track. I found traces of an old trail, and a “no fires above here” sign, but the terrain was otherwise trackless and confusing. The flatter areas not filled with lakes were mostly willow-choked bogs, though I fortunately managed to mostly avoid crossing them.

Lewis Lakes

Black Hawk Mountain has a distinctive permanent snowfield north of its summit, and the track I was following climbed the granite slabs to its left. However, with a dusting of snow lingering up high, it looked easier to me to climb the broken volcanic stuff to its right. Though most of the sky was clear, there was a persistent cloud shadowing the summit, so I did not stay long. Finding no register, I took a few photos, then returned toward Summit Creek, this time taking something more like the correct line. The clouds began looking more serious as I hiked and jogged toward the trailhead, but it fortunately never rained or snowed. I reached the trailhead mid-afternoon, then returned to 395 to head north.

Pluto (Northstar ski area)

Knowing I would have to do more running the next day than I had in over a year, I was looking for an easy day, and settled on some minor peaks off the Mount Rose Highway. I pulled in fairly late to sleep in the summit parking lot, but between the cold (low 20s) and strong, gusty wind, I mostly just lay awake. I made myself a couple cups of coffee in the morning, then hiked all of a half-mile toward one of the peaks before getting too cold and returning to the car. I bummed around town until it was warmer, then hiked up the slopes to the summit of Mount Pluto, a 2000-foot prominence peak that is the top of the Northstar ski resort. The terrain did not look like very interesting skiing, but the place definitely earned the “Resort” in its name, with a gaudy, lift-accessed Ritz-Carlton partway up. I guess it was a good warmup for the next day’s suffering…

Ericsson Crags 2 and 3, Minster

Ericsson from Crag 3


With all parties assembled, it was time for the main event. I was elsewhere the year before, when a group of some of the same people climbed the harder Ericsson Crag #1 (not without incident). This time Bob, ten-fingered Tom and the others had returned for Crags #2 and #3, both class 3-4 scrambles from the saddle between them. We had breakfast at various times, then started up the trail toward Lake Reflection in a pack. Fortunately the others had been this way before, because I would never have found the old Harrison Pass trail on my own. Though it is blazed, and was once one of only two trails over the Kings-Kern Divide (Junction Pass being the other), it has all but disappeared since the creation of Forester Pass in the 1930s.

Deerhorn from Ericsson Crags

We left the old trail a bit above a lake to cross some talus west of the Crags, angling toward a chute between our two targets. The chute had apparently been filled with snow the previous year, but was now steep, loose and treacherous. With the seven of us spaced out by the approach, climbing the thing without killing those below was a slow, cautious affair. Fortunately everyone was well-behaved, and there were no injuries this time. The chute was mostly class 2-3, with a bit of fourth-class shenanigans to the right, or a lower detour to the left, required to get around a chockstone.

Buried glacier below Ericsson

The chute branches and becomes indistinct as it nears the ridge. Partly because I thought it made sense, and partly because I wanted to be in the sun, I headed up one of the branches to the left, while Bob and Robert waited behind to see if I was wasting my time. I emerged on the other side, happy to be in the sun and somewhat out of the wind, to see Deerhorn’s complicated southwest face across the way, and the buried remnant of a glacier in Ericsson’s shadow below. Traversing down and around left, I found my way back up to a notch, from which informed the others that this was the way.

Above where I had hailed them, there is a steep step in the ridge. I went up some fourth class to the right, while they found another path to the left, and Scott and Iris, coming later, went up the middle; I think all routes are similar. Beyond the step, the ridge flattens out, with various class 3-4 options going over or around blocks and pinnacles leading to the summit.

Crag 3 register

I was surprised and pleased to find an old SRC register canister on this obscure and rarely-visited summit. This contained a book placed in 1991 by Fiddler and Keating, traversing the crags in 1991. Nestled between its pages was something even better: a fragile 1939 register held together by stickers, mentioning a 1921 sardine tin. I looked around a bit for the tin, then added my name to the book and sat down out of the wind to watch the others make their way along the ridge. They each in turn admired the relic, then we all departed for Crag #2.

Bob on Crag 2

We passed Iris and Scott at the step, then traversed past the notch on the east side of the ridge. From there, we found a variety of class 3 routes traversing up that side of the ridge, leading to a short scree-field below the summit area. The true summit was a 12-foot-high class 3 pyramid, which we took turns mounting. We found a few more scraps of paper in an inverted jam jar, far more fragile than those on Crag #3 and probably not long for this world. Bob left a book in one of his new custom register cans, then we sat around watching Scott and Iris do… something on the other summit. At first I thought they were posing for silly photos, but then they started descending and reascending different sides of the summit. Later, we found out that they had not found the old paper scraps, and were looking for a sardine tin. Sorry, guys!

When we returned to the notch, Tom and Robert returned down the death-chute we had ascended, while I convinced Bob to join me in descending the other direction, toward Harrison Pass. The chute on that side looked better, and I hoped to pick up the old trail. Also, there was the Minster… We descended the chute in tandem on opposite sides, finding it shorter and slightly less loose than the one we had ascended. The Harrison Pass trail has more or less ceased to exist, but at least the cross-country travel was fairly easy.

Minster from stream

I stopped to wait a minute for Bob below the Minster, which looked close and easy, then glanced at it and asked “shall we?” Probably neither of us would have done it on his own, but we somehow managed to convince each other. We took off through the nasty sand and sparse brush of the lower slopes, aiming for the middle of the Minster’s various spires. We knew from Eric’s report that the highpoint was on the far left (west) side, and hoped to skip some tricky traversing.

Things get complicated

We eventually passed through a notch midway through the formation, and began scrambling along and up the north side somewhere near the middle. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the north side is steep and composed of a disgusting mix of decomposing granite and spiny brush. I went up too early, finding myself on the third spire from the end, then made a tricky traverse back down to join Bob, whom I had advised to stay low. More class 3-4 scrambling eventually got us to just below what I think might have been the summit. I tried the final pitch, but backed off, not liking the climbing, and not wanting to push it for some obscure, minor summit.

View from the wrong summit

Retreating in near-defeat, we convinced each other to give it one more shot from the other side. With Bob leading, we climbed to a gap, took off our packs to squeeze under a chockstone, then found a short, tricky descent to easier ground on the south side. We eyed the south side for a bit, and I was just starting up to check it out when we heard Kristine shouting to us from the summit. She explained that she had climbed the west side, the one aspect we had yet to explore. sigh

Climbing the Minster

We continued our circumnavigation, then made our third class way upwards, running into a line of cairns that Kristine had left to help find her way back down. I was grateful for their help at this point, and thanked Kristine as we passed her on her way down. Finding no register on the summit, Bob left another of his cool custom canisters, then we headed back toward camp, satisfied at finally solving the Minster’s frustrating little problem. We found decent boot-skiing down to a lake, followed something like the old Harrison Pass trail, and were soon back at camp. As is their wont, Iris and Scott dallied along the way, finally arriving just before dusk. We again hung around until some pathetically early hour of the night, then retreated to our shelters to pretend to sleep.

“Marmot Ridge,” “Sheldon,” “Sky Pilot,” 13,110, 13,228

Brewer and North Guard


Since I was already awake well before first light, I followed Kristine’s military schedule, eating breakfast in the dark and starting hiking just before the end of headlamp time. Robert and Kristine were headed for “Marmot Ridge,” then North Guard and onward; having already done the Guards in 2012, I decided to join them for the first, then figure out something else to do afterwards. We made our way up the Ouzel Creek drainage, which contained pines, willow brush, and no water-ouzels.

North Guard, Farquhar, Cross

Marmot Ridge the high-point of North Guard’s long northeast ridge, and its true summit is not clear from below. At some point we left the creek, trying to pick the best way up and left across the face toward what seemed like the summit. Robert was dragging a bit, but Kristine kept up a solid pace, fused ankle and all. She turned out to be not only a solid scrambler, but a jack-of-all-trades: she made her own pants and pack, mixed her own powdered drink mix, tended a small farm at home, and probably all sorts of things I didn’t think to ask about. The slope was a mix of scrub pines, sand, and talus, but there always seemed to be a class 2 route that was not too unpleasant up to the base of the summit rocks.

Approaching North Guard

We ended up somewhere east of the true summit, and had to navigate a bit of a class 3 maze around and over various blocks and pinnacles to what looked like the highest. This seemed like the kind of obscure peak that might hold an old register, but we failed to find one in about 10 minutes’ search (it was too well-hidden), and settled in to eat and wait for Robert to catch up. After regrouping, we dropped to a plateau on the ridge east of North Guard, then diagonaled down to a nice lake below its east face. Here we parted ways, I toward the first notch south of North Guard, they toward the northeast ridge route I had apparently descended in 2012.

Notch south of North Guard

The notch looked like it could be either ice or a hideous dirt-chute, but was short and fairly pleasant, with reasonably stable rocks on its north side. In a heavier snow year, however, it is probably icy and impassable without crampons late in the year. From the notch, I had to make a long traverse around Mount Brewer’s west side, which required dropping down to upper Brewer Creek, then reascending easy slabs to the two nice little lakes I remembered from my last time through.

Sheldon

The next peak on my ad hoc agenda was “Sky Pilot,” a minor summit south of Longley Pass, but a 12er southwest of the col had looked interesting from the traverse, so I decided to tag it on the way. The climb proved less interesting than I had hoped, a long, flat talus-hop along the ridge followed by more talus leading to the summit. However, the summit proved more interesting than I had anticipated. It contained a large brass plaque, explaining that this was “Mount Sheldon,” named for Mrs. Mattie C. Sheldon, born in 1871 and still alive as of the plaque’s installation in 1959. Her grandsons seem to have christened the peak on their own, as the Board on Geographic Names is unaware of the name. I also found an old film canister, which may have once contained an older register, but now only contained a single sheet of paper signed by the ubiquitous Brian and Marie.

South Guard Lake and Longley Pass

It was almost a straight shot from the summit, around the south side of South Guard Lake, and across Longley Pass to Sky Pilot. Unfortunately Longley Pass sucks, with lots of sand and awkwardly-broken slabs, so the journey to Sky Pilot was more exhausting than it looked. Also, there is a surprising gap between the visible and true summits. It looked like I might be able to downclimb a steep class 4-5 chimney, but I took the safe and easy route around the southeast side.

Yes!

I had two options to return from here: either drop straight down Longley Pass, or continue south along the ridge to just before Thunder Mountain, then follow the lakes northeast to join the Longley route just above Lake Reflection. I didn’t want to hang around camp all afternoon, and there were rumors of treasure on Peak 13,110′, so I decided to take the long way home. The ridge from Sky Pilot to Point 3852.1m is jagged, so I bypassed much of it on annoying terrain to the right. The rest of the traverse toward Thunder is easy, with the highpoint of the final plateau near its southern corner. The promised treasure was still intact, and I happily signed in as the sixth summit party.

Lakes along return

I really should have stopped there, but I had yet to climb the ranked 13er east of Thunder, and for some reason my upcoming meeting with Bob made me care about such things. I dropped off the southeast side of the plateau, descending below the snowfield/glacier on Thunder’s north face. After contouring around, I crossed a small glacier, then climbed some horribly loose fresh moraine to the ridge northeast of Thunder Pass (?). I climbed easy talus along the ridge east, then dodged some unusual chossy towers to find the register on the farthest one.

There was no treasure here, just a modern register with a few familiar names, including Robert’s from an early ill-considered adventure. I added my own, then continued north along the spine of the Kings-Kern Divide to the next saddle, where I found a reasonable descent to the unnamed lakes. From there, I had a dismally long and flat boulder-hop to rejoin the route from Longley Pass to Lake Reflection.

Lake Reflection logjam

I was hoping for some sort of use trail, but was disappointed. Reflection’s south side is a brushy, talus-y mess, while the west has cliffs lower down. I stayed high on the west, picking up the occasional cairn or bit of game trail, but nothing resembling a regularly-used route. At the north end of the lake, I crossed the stream on an impressive log-jam, then joined the trail down to East Lake. I was thoroughly tired by the time I returned to camp, having put in a bit under 12 hours. Bob and Tom were preparing to camp in style, with a tent and clothesline. Robert and Kristine returned a few minutes later, then Scott and Iris just before dark. With a larger crew, we were able to stay out of our sleeping bags a bit longer, but still retired pathetically early to endure a slightly longer and colder night.

West Vidette

Previous “Backpacking with Bob”


“Backpacking with Bob” is a regular late-summer Sierra occurrence, and an irregular feature on this blog. Perhaps growing tired of repeating a handful of grim headlamp approaches for remote Sierra peaks (e.g. Shepherd Pass, Bubbs Creek), Bob has resigned himself to the dubious pleasures of camping out. In typical Bob fashion, he has also managed to convince others to join him in this strange activity. Previous instances have involved such fun as being snowed on while on the wrong side of the range (sorry for the broken images).

This time it was a trip to East Lake, a drainage in the middle of the range between Independence and Kings Canyon. About half of us came in from either side of the range, setting up camp for 2-3 nights near the bear box at the upper end of the lake to tag various obscure surrounding peaks. Bob seemed to be on a mission to tag every potential 13er with potentially 300 feet of prominence in the Sierra; the rest of us were mostly just along for the ride. I had planned to hike in from Onion Valley with Robert and Kristine, but when informed that they were starting at 5:00 AM, I decided that they should scout ahead. With stable weather and later sunrises this time of year, I saw no reason to put in headlamp time on an overnight. Instead, I slept in, listened to a bit of Supreme Court fiasco on the radio, then got a mid-morning start over Kearsarge Pass.

Bullfrog Lake

It had been awhile since I had come this way, and I stupidly took the Charlotte Lake trail instead of the shortcut via Bullfrog Lakes, reaching the Lower Vidette Meadow junction. Here I had lunch, stuffed a bar in my pocket, and stashed my pack to tag West Vidette, an unremarkable SPS peak. A few minutes up the trail, I spotted a bear box, and returned to grab my pack and food, figuring I might as well store them legally. It turns out that I should have inspected the bear box more closely: it was padlocked, with a passive-aggressive note from the ranger to the effect that “if you keep leaving trash in bear boxes, we’ll keep locking them.” This was, of course, a bone-headed response, since simply not emptying the box and allowing it to fill with trash would either prompt people to empty it themselves, or effectively close it. So I re-stashed my pack and food as before, just slightly farther up the trail.

Upper Vidette Lakes

I had been up Vidette Creek once before, to climb Deerhorn on my first Sierra Challenge in 2009, which made it vaguely familiar. However, I had more trouble finding and following the use trail this time, crossing Bubbs Creek too soon, then losing it a couple of times in some willows before the first lake. I followed the creek to just below the first of the upper lakes, then angled southwest toward the saddle between West Vidette and West Spur. The route description said to go up a steep chute to the saddle, but I chose a slabby ramp to its right, leading more pleasantly to the ridge. From there, it was an easy hike to the summit. I should have tagged the higher West Spur as well, but it is not on the SPS list, and I had miles to go, so I ignored it. I retraced my steps, stopping a couple of times to drink from Vidette Creek, taking off my hat and crouching to suck water from the surface. I don’t have a cat’s mastery of fluid dynamics, but I do have lips.

Bubbs Creek Wall

I returned to my unmolested pack, then began the depressing descent from 9600′ to Junction Meadow at 8200′ (I had started my day at 9100′). I passed the usual backpackers, then a large tent city between the East Lake turnoff and the Bubbs Creek crossing. I quickly found the horse ford, but didn’t see an obvious nearby log or rock-hop, and didn’t feel like wading, even though the water was low this late in the year. Conscious of the kids wandering around the tent city, I quickly made my way upstream toward the complex log crossing I remembered from some years back. The route probably changes from year to year, but the idea is to cross Bubbs Creek where it is braided above the junction with East Creek, then cross the latter to regain the trail. After some backtracking and thrashing, I was back on the trail to climb 1300′ to the lake.

Expecting to find Robert and Kristine, I was surprised to have the camping area at the lake’s outlet to myself. I was tired, though, and grateful for a chance to drop my pack and wash off my feet. Only after I had relaxed did I look at the bear box, where I found a note explaining that it was broken, and that the working one was at the other side of the lake. Ugh. I packed up again, circled the lake, and found the others just before dark. I ate “dinner” (instant potatoes, parmesan, flax seed meal), then chatted in the dark for awhile before crawling into my sleeping bag for a long, chilly, and mostly sleepless night. Ah, camping…

Laurel (NE gully, 1h31 up)

Laurel from trailhead


As much as I claim to be getting too old for the FKT game, sometimes I can’t help myself. Laurel’s northeast gully is a classic “workout route” out of Convict Lake, just south of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra. The area’s rock is absolute garbage, but avalanches and waterfalls keep this line clean, and the crumbly rock’s layers are angled to create positive holds in what is left. After an initial hike or jog around Convict Lake, and a short boulder-hop, the climb is remarkably sustained class 3-5.easy for about 4000 feet. The first time I climbed this route, I went too far left and finished in sketchy, crumbly terrain. The second, in 2016, I was climbing with a broken hand, and could not come close to Jason Lakey’s 1h47. This time, I had two hands and decent climbing shape, and managed a 1h31, better than I expected.

I waited until I thought the temperature was about right, then started my watch and took off from the trailhead sign next to the boat dock. I reached the boulders where one leaves the trail after about 15 minutes, then spent another 5 minutes boulder-hopping to the base of the face. From there, I was redlined almost the whole way up, with only a few pauses to deal with the crux sections that pass through smoother, steeper waterfall sections. I stayed in the gully most of the way, once accidentally getting out to the left, and once to the right in the broad bowl most of the way up. However, this time I knew where to go, and generally followed the left branches of the gully system until they fade out near the summit.

Right as the gully merges into the final choss-slope, I saw someone ahead of me making pretty good time. I was surprised to have company on a weekday morning, and grateful that he had not bombarded me with loose rocks when I was down in the gully proper. I reached the summit maybe 20 seconds after he did, checking my watch before coughing and gasping for awhile.

I had planned to establish a round-trip FKT, but (1) the Strava app on my phone had crashed, and (2) I decided I would rather chat. He turned out to be a guide from the Zion area who makes semi-regular pilgrimages to the eastern Sierra. He had taken something like 1h45 for the meat of the route, an impressive time since he was carrying a pack with food and water; I had carried nothing but an overshirt tied around my waist, counting on the food and water I had chugged at the trailhead to get me through the climb.

I signed the register, then took off north down the standard descent route. The use trail started off clear, then faded more than I remembered from 2009. I knew more or less where I was going, though, circling around the mountain’s north flank, then following the northeast ridge until I could drop down a sandy gully. This was steep and somewhat obnoxious, but fast until near the bottom, where it became brushier and I had to proceed with some care wearing shorts. I returned to the boulders near where I had left the trail, then ran as quickly as I could back around the lake with all the sand packed in my shoes. It had been awhile since I had showered, and I needed to interact with civilized humans later that day, so I found a secluded spot and, against my nature, fully immersed myself in Convict Lake for all of 5 seconds. Hoping that qualified as “hygiene,” I toweled myself off, changed into fresh clothes, and headed into town.