¡Vamos a Santiago!

High Andes on descent

The air travel can be the hardest part of these international trips, with one or two sleepless nights spent in airports or on airplanes, ending in an hour-or-more plod through customs in a language you don’t understand — like Irish. Then you either stumble to a hotel at some unholy hour, or try to sleep on benches deliberately designed to hinder sleeping. Fortunately this time was much easier. Leaving Denver in the early afternoon, I had a reasonable layover at Dallas, then an overnight flight to Santiago that got me there at a normal hour.

No longer fast or light

I was worried about packing for this trip: not only did I need to bring the usual mountaineering gear, but I also needed to pack enough stuff to support three months of bike touring in a place with very limited spare parts. I also needed to cram almost all of my gear around my bike and trailer in their boxes, convince the airline that these two mince-gear pies were “sports equipment,” and keep them both under 50 pounds. I did it, though barely: my bike shared a box with my mountain boots (stuffed with socks) and a few other things, every nook of the trailer was filled, and both boxes weighed somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds. So much for fast and light… Ted snapped a picture of the unusual scene, only to anger some TSA rent-a-cop who was captured in the photo while playing around with his phone while on break. I found this ironic, given that I’m almost positive that both Ted and I appeared on TSA surveillance footage, and would not be surprised if we were run through a facial recognition database fed with state drivers’ license files. But anyways…

I found some reasonably good and healthy lounge food in both Denver and Dallas, and tried to get in as many vegetables and fresh things as I could. Low weight and volume, and high tolerance for hot and cold, will define much of what I eat for the next few months. That means a diet of primarily powdered stuff poured into boiling water, fruits and nuts, and canned fish. They don’t even seem to have pop-tarts down here, though the Latin American junk food scene is strong, and I am trying to become a locavore.

The leg from Dallas to Santiago was my first time on a Boeing 787 — the plane with the wings that flex alarmingly upward when it flies. I found it mostly pleasant, with larger windows than other planes, tolerable cabin noise, and plenty of leg room. It would have been better had the original seating arrangement remained in place. I had a window on the east side of the plane, with an empty seat and a friendly older woman completing my part of the row. Unfortunately that woman somehow upgraded to business, to be replaced by a younger one who immediately stuck in her headphones to preempt any social interaction, and put her legs up to make it awkward for me to get up and fetch anything out of my pack. Later, another similar woman took the middle seat after finding that her original one did not recline.

At least I had a clear view of Aconcagua and the other high peaks in the region as we descended into Santiago. The backlight through the partly-tinted glass made it hard to get a photo, but I tried. It was already 70 degrees when we landed around 9:00, and into the 80s after spending an hour or more going through customs. I was finally reunited with my bike and trailer. Both boxes had been rifled through by TSA, but they appeared unharmed, as did their contents.

My bike shop

I briefly explored various options to store and recover the boxes, but quickly realized that it just wasn’t worth it. It was painfully hot outside, so I assembled my bike in the terminal, which apparently did not disturb either travelers or security. This was when I realized the third thing I had forgotten, pliers (the others being a pin for SIM removal, and a pen to fill out the customs form). The BOB trailer is almost entirely assembled and disassembled with a hex key and Phillips screwdriver, but its hinge requires two pairs of pliers for optimal assembly. I spent a half-hour or so wandering around the airport trying to desribe pliers with broken Spanish and hand gestures (“kind of like scissors, but not”). Finally, a woman at a phone store lent me hers once I allowed her to hold my phone hostage.

Weird graffiti

It was early afternoon by now, so I ditched my original plan to just ride away from Santiago into the sunset. A quick online search turned up a hostel toward the center of the city that was too much ($24) but not ridiculous. Wheeling my monstrosity out of the airport, I had to smile when one of the employees asked if I was going to Patagonia or Atacama, then made as if to climb on my trailer. The hostel actually turned out well, as there was a supermarket right acruss the street, and I got to spend the afternoon seeing a bit of downtown Santiago, some of the only “culture” I plan to experience this trip. It has the usual somewhat run-down Latin American feel, but is cleaner and less dog-infested than Huaraz, and far more sane than Mexico City, Lima, or Quito. I felt mostly comfortable riding through the streets, though a crazy mess of one-way roads and some map-reading errors made the short ride take longer than expected. Tomorrow the real trip begins.

2019 in review

This was a year of extremes, of highs and lows and novelties, in which I accomplished a fair amount, though not as much as I had hoped. In the winter and spring, I managed to do some quality backcountry skiing. In the summer, I had a mostly successful trip to the Peruvian Andes, though I was shut down by unseasonable weather toward the end. I summited Tocllaraju, Chopicalqui, and numerous lower peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, explored the seldom-visited Cordillera Raura, and gawked at the too-hard-for-me peaks of the Huayhuash. These were my first climbs above 6000 meters and 20,000 feet, and included both serious glacier travel and some moderate technical climbing. In the fall, I experimented with combining peak-bagging and bike-touring, finding that I enjoy the variety.

In the end, though, I was sharply reminded of two fundamental rules: “know your place” and “focus on your strengths.” My place is in the mountains, wandering alone through new lands while going up and down piles of rock and snow. As another winter arrives, I find myself more homeless and rootless than usual, so rather than doing who-knows-what who-cares-where in the western United States, I am headed to Chile and Argentina. There I will travel by foot and bike through the high Andes, climbing as many peaks as I have time and energy to reach. Hopefully that will include Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in South America climbable without an exorbitant permit fee.

As usual, I will be traveling with no corporate or institutional support, mostly making do with what I have. Thanks to Ted’s generous donation of frequent flier points, the trip itself should end up cheaper than spending the winter in the States. That does not include a handful of mandatory gear upgrades, such as a bike trailer, tent, and miscellaneous bike parts. After multiple rejections for American Alpine Club grants, it seemed pointless to continue applying; and while I at least heard back from them, Big Agnes, Hilleberg, and Nemo all declined to support my project with a free or discounted tent. If you have enjoyed following my travels over the past decade, please consider supporting them by telling your friends about my books: 40 Classic Scrambles and California’s Fourteeners.

The Palisade

The Palisade and La Sals

With the weather making the Colorado mountains unpleasant, I realized that I should have stayed in Moab for another couple of days. Fortunately, southwest Colorado also has low-elevation sandstone towers, and I was able to find another “Cowboy Route” on The Palisade, an obnoxious but not unreasonable drive away. The weather in Grand Junction was not bad, but it rapidly deteriorated as I drove down 141 through Unaweap Canyon in the evening. This byway does not see a lot of traffic or plow attention, so I took my time driving the snowpacked road through a blizzard to the tiny town of Gateway, and continued with some trepidation on the partly-frozen mud road along the Dolores River. I pulled off at the 4WD road leading toward the Palisade’s west side, and hoped it would not snow too much overnight.

Dolores River from approach

The next morning, I was pleased to see only a dusting of snow. However, none of that would melt off the west-facing route before I was done, making me somewhat nervous about the “class 4-5 slabs,” made doubly treacherous by being snow-covered and/or composed of wet sandstone. Still, I set of hiking up the road in my puffy, continuing up the right-hand side of the wash after it ended. I saw a couple of cairns, but there was no use trail on this obscure peak.

Catwalk section

I made a sometimes-sketchy dirt traverse along the base of the cliffs, then easily found the obvious start of the route, a bit of blocky class 3 followed by a traverse to the left. The first crux, a dihedral, went easily thanks to positive holds and stemming opportunities, and I was soon traversing the catwalks above, which were fairly well-cairned. I had been slightly nervous about crossing this section in the snow, but there was enough bare rock on the inner edge of the ledges that I could proceed without too much caution.

Red bump and La Sals

This brought me to the slab crux, which would have been trivial when dry, but was now somewhat more thought-provoking. Traversing left past the shortest section, I found a seam and some blocks that offered more traction and counter-pressure, and carefully made my way to the top, rejoining the standard route at a rappel anchor. I was relieved, believing that I had climbed the hardest part in current conditions. Above, I followed cairns as the route zig-zagged toward a saddle in the mesa between the main summit and a red sandstone dome. I got a bit off-route, taking a harder line than necessary up one rock band, but eventually reached the short 5.4 mantel. I did not like what I saw: even with the cheater step, the first step-up on the small foothold was big, and far from secure with a dusting of snow over wet, crumbly rock. I tried traversing farther left, then nearly gave up before heading right, hoping the ledge around the red bump would offer an easier option.

Summit from red bump

To my surprise, I found that the ledge indeed led around to the top of the mesa beyond the bump. Better still, getting over the bump was only class 2-3, with low-angle slabs that could be carefully managed even when wet. It took awhile, but I was back on-route. From there, I found one more semi-sketchy bit of slabbing and an awkward crack/offwidth on the right, but mostly it was easy hiking to the summit. I passed the shack and box spring along the way — God knows how all that hardware got up there, or why — then found the advertised hammer and egg-beater on the summit cairn.

NW from summit

The views were magnificent, with red rock country and the La Sals to the south and west, and the fading storm over the higher peaks to the east. The sun had finally come out, making it warm enough to hike without my puffy. I took some photos, then reversed my route. The sun was starting to dry the rock, making things a bit more secure, and I was back at the car for a late lunch.

Thimble Rock

I had planned to tag Thimble Rock Point, a minor peak on the southeast side of Unaweap Canyon, but it was awfully cold and windy when I got out to check out the access road/trail and read the interpretive sign. Unaweap is an interesting feature, a canyon with two outlets separated by a minor saddle in the middle, with a wide variety of uplift rock to either side. I was glad to have seen it during the day, but not interested enough to spend the next few hours tromping through the snow. Another time, perhaps…

Crescent Benchmark, Parriott Mesa

Parriott Mesa

With a serious winter storm and cold front slowly overtaking me from behind, I was looking for somewhere dry-ish, warm-ish, and somewhat interesting to get in a bit of exercise. The scenic and relatively low Moab area seemed like a good option, with easy camping and plenty of minor summits only 5000-6000 feet high. Castleton Tower and the Fisher Towers were also only slightly out of the way; while I could climb neither, I could at least look at them as I passed.

North from Crescent BM

Crescent Benchmark looked like an easy hike-and-bike from Highway 191, so I started with that. I was the only one using the nearby BLM camping/trail area on a chilly morning, listening to the highway traffic and dodging the occasional frozen puddle as I biked to where the road got rough. It looked like jeeps and quads still occasionally use this road, but it is mostly abandoned, as it doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Crescent register

From the end of the road, I hiked up what looked from below like a nice sandstone slab, but was actually cut by numerous steep-sided gaps, inconveniently oriented perpendicular to my path. I hopped them at narrow points, winding back and forth a bit, then scrambled up the left side of the caprock to the ridge. There were several bumps on the summit plateau, with the highest having a cairn, some old survey equipment, and the benchmark. The register had been placed only a few years ago, by none other than Gerry and Jennifer Roach.

Castleton and La Sals

I returned to the car, then drove almost to Moab before turning east on Highway 128. This route follows the Colorado River through an impressive red rock canyon, and is apparently a popular recreation area when in season. I saw a couple of boulderers and some people taking pictures, but it was too cold for rafting or climbing. I turned off on the Castle Valley road and, after a few miles, spotted the trail to Parriott Mesa almost by accident. It probably owes its prominence to the crowds out for a short hike to view nearby Castleton Tower; certainly none of the half-dozen people I met seemed capable or even aware of the route up Parriott.

Follow the cairns

The trail faded a bit but remained clear as it wound toward the mesa and climbed its lower dirt slopes. The recent snow had turned the dirt into classic Moab mud, but the trail was packed enough to be manageable. I was surprised to see that someone had already been here since the snow, and grateful higher up, where the route winds around to north-facing slopes. The snow was deep enough to hide any trace of the route other than a few of the larger cairns, and the correct path is hard enough to find that I might have given up without a path to follow.

Exposed traverse with cable

Even with the previous party’s prints, I missed the route to the short via ferrata, and almost turned around before spotting it from above. The traverse it protects would be airy but manageable when dry; however, with snow and ice partly covering the wet sandstone, I was glad to be able to haul on the metal cable. The pitch above, an exposed dihedral/chimney with a handline, was surprisingly tricky. I would ordinarily have tried to climb it without pulling on the rope, but with the bits of fresh snow and wet, brittle rock, I did not hesitate to “cheat.”

Second chimney

Above the first chimney, the route climbs and winds around to the next bowl. I was grateful for another hand-line protecting an easy step-across, which would have been fairly treacherous thanks to the snow and ice hanging around on the north-facing slope. Other than its first move, the second chimney is considerably easier than the first. Rather than being a clean fracture, it is a weathered gully, with pockets and even some handles on both sides making for positive hand- and foot-holds. The final two mantels leading to the summit, however, were surprisingly challenging. Even with a cheater step that someone had installed, the upper one was vertical, smooth and almost shoulder-high. I am not sure I could have climbed it without the rope, as the crack on the left was too narrow for a foot-jam in trail runners.

La Sals from summit

Once I made my awkward way up the two mantels, the final walk to the high-point was straightforward. I stood for awhile next to the large cairn, taking in the view of the snowy La Sals to one side, the rapidly-drying red desert to the other, and the handful of farms in Castle Valley below. Castleton Tower looks much less impressive than from below, as it blends into the desert background rather than being highlighted against the sky. The flat light filtering through the high clouds also did not help.

The descent started slow, as it had warmed up enough for the mud and slush to become slicker. I passed a few other parties on the lower trail, none of whom seemed likely to go farther than the Castleton viewpoint. I had planned to tag another minor peak in the area, but decided that it looked like too much work, and instead continued the drive east.

Genoa, Virginia, 9238

As is often the case this time of year, I find myself bagging peaks that are conveniently close to a long drive, rather than intrinsically interesting. Genoa and Virginia are similar peaks: drive-ups in the summer, close to my route, with a fair amount of prominence, and more interesting in early-winter conditions.


Lake Tahoe

There are a number of routes from the Eastern Sierra to northern Tahoe, one of which is to take Highway 50 over Spooner Summit. I had not been this way in awhile, perhaps not since moving out to take a job in the Bay Area toward the end of the dot-com boom in a previous life. This time I was looking for a half-day run/hike, and Genoa, about six miles south of the pass with almost 2000′ of prominence, fit the bill.

Ghostly woods

I slept in the summit lot, ate breakfast, then killed some time making cranberry sauce while waiting for the clouds to lift, or at least for it to warm up a bit. Unfortunately neither seemed to be happening, so I eventually gave up, starting south along the Tahoe Rim Trail through the heavily-rimed forest. The TRT is gentle and smooth, and I was not carrying anything, so I enjoyed the experience of running unencumbered for a change. Also, I needed to move quickly to stay warm, even in my mid-weight overshirt and windbreaker, meaning it was probably in the mid-twenties.

Sun briefly emerges

The trail had seen a bit of traffic, but that had dwindled to a single runner by the time I crossed a dirt road three miles out. Surprisingly, however, someone had driven this road since the last snow, so I was able to travel faster on the road. As the road climbed, I got occasional glimpses of the sun to one side, Lake Tahoe to the other. Checking my map, I turned off on the side-road leading to the radio installation on Genoa’s summit. No one had driven this, so progress became painfully slow. The wind picked up on the treeless summit knob, scouring and drifting the snow, and also encouraging me to summit quickly.

I got occasional views of the Desolation Wilderness peaks to the southwest, but the clouds were just a bit too high to give me an unobstructed panorama. I took a few photos in the lee of a building, awkwardly stumbled down the summit boulders to the road, then began the run home. It was slightly warmer by now, and generally downhill, so I enjoyed the return, and was actually able to generate some speed. Well, “speed” relative to my normal plodding. I’m certainly nowhere near matching my mile PR now.


Virginia from “trailhead”

Virginia Peak, northeast of Reno, is another drive-up to antennae. Like many Nevada range highpoints, it is an unremarkable mound covered in sage and scrub, with a fair bit of prominence. Rather than following the antenna road, I chose to come at it from the east, via a dubiously-legal route crossing an Indian reservation near Pyramid Lake. The lake is nearly as large as Lake Tahoe, though lacking in ski areas and kitsch stores.

End of riding

I parked my car across the road from the reservation, then waited for the sun to warm things a bit and for there to be no witnesses before riding the good dirt roads toward Big Mouth Canyon. The road deteriorated a bit as it climbed, but remained rideable until the final split, where the branch I wanted climbs steeply up the ridge to the canyon’s north. I locked my bike to itself, then set off hiking the steep but occasionally-driven road.

Summit to the left

While I was comfortable on the initial climb, a strong wind from the north or northwest made things uncomfortable on the ridge crest. I spent some time scuttling from juniper to juniper, sheltering behind each to warm my hands, then gave in and put on the down parka I had fortunately thrown in my pack. I wished I had also included my goggles and balaclava, but I was reluctant to admit that winter had arrived. With the parka, I was comfortable until I reached solid snow, which began around 6000′ on all but the southern aspects.

Buck at center

This is where I began to regret my choice of footwear: it was a bit chilly out for thin wool socks and trail runners with scree-holes. Thankfully, it was cold enough out that the snow remained powdery, so it mostly just refroze on or sloughed off of my shoes rather than soaking my feet. With some toe-wiggling and a couple of warming stops, conditions remained tolerable as I made my way up the long ridge. Side-hilling toward a southern slope to get away from the snow, I looked up to see a lone buck looking down at me, seeming remarkably unconcerned for a deer living somewhere he could likely be hunted. I had been seeing tracks for awhile, so I should have expected to see him. We eyed each other for awhile, then he headed over the ridge and out of sight.

Pyramid Lake on descent

I stayed on the south side of the upper ridge, climbing over and around basalt boulders, avoiding the snow and wind as long as possible, but I finally had to emerge on the summit plateau. I was hoping to pick up the antenna road, but it comes in from the other direction, so I had to alternately hop between rocks and posthole through snow and brush to reach the summit. Next to the building with the FCC notice I found a man-high cairn, possibly left by early surveyors, and an ammo box with a register. Clouds seemed to be coming in from the northwest, so I quickly signed my name and retreated, freezing my left eyeball as I cursed and postholed my way back to the ridge’s shelter. The descent was uneventful other than a brief encounter with a solitary wild horse, and I was back at the car by early afternoon. Time to see how much Nevada I could get out of the way before snow and/or fatigue got the best of me…

Peak 9238

Such inspiring mountains!

Currant and Duckwater on the left

This one was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, but thanks to poor planning and snow, it was the only convenient thing to tag. It was another drive-up in good conditions; indeed, I probably could have driven the road even now, as the snow was no more than a couple of inches deep. But I wanted to hurt myself rather than my car, so I parked next to the highway and biked to the snowline. From there, it was an easy road-walk to the highpoint, which oddly held only one antenna; for some reason the main cluster was located on a slightly lower bump to the north. I could see familiar peaks in all directions, particularly North Schell to the east, and Currant and Duckwater to the west.

North Schell

The ride back down to the car was miserably cold. Ely seems, like Alamosa, to be in some sort of cold sink, so it was still only 30 degrees at noon, and promised to dip into the single digits overnight. But it at least has internet in the form of a McDonald’s, so I could catch up on the outside world, and figure out what I could get away with during the upcoming storm.

Lost Cannon, Wells, White

Final climb up White

I had hoped to tag Disaster Peak from the Sonora Pass road on my way north, checking off my northernmost remaining SPS peak. Unfortunately the Caltrans site lied: while it claimed that the road was only gated at Kennedy Meadows on the west side, the almost-dry road was actually closed for the season a few miles past the Mountain Warfare Training Center. What would already have been a long 30-mile day along the PCT in the snow now looked completely unreasonable. I camped in a pullout near the closure and considered my options. Looking around on Peakbagger, I saw that I could still reach a couple of thousand-foot prominence peaks from the Silver Creek trailhead.

I wonder how they taste

Finding the trailhead proved to be a bit of a challenge: it is at the end of a Forest Service road that passes through the MWTC, with which the guard was unfamiliar. After looking for a way around the base, I returned to the guard station to find that he had apparently talked to someone else who knew about the road. Fortunately the Forest Service is much less aggressive than Caltrans with road closures, so I was able to drive the dirt road all the way to the trailhead, despite the treacherous inch of fresh snow.

Rime forest

I had downloaded a track from Peakbagger showing a loop up to Lost Cannon, then over Wells to Silver. It appeared on the map to start off cross-country, but fortunately there was a surprisingly good trail up through the sagebrush. The snow gradually got deeper as I climbed, the trail fainter, so I lost it somewhere below the ridge. Between the snow, which varied from a dusting to drifts a half-foot deep, and the underlying sand and krummholtz, it was slow going from there. Thick rime covered the trees and rocks on the ridge, much improving the nearby scenery. “Nearby” was the only kind of scenery I would have for most of the day, as clouds generally hovered below summit level.

Tricky climbing conditions

Fortunately I had a map and GPS, because Lost Cannon’s summit is the highest of a number of granite knobs, and not at all obvious with limited visibility. In normal summer conditions, it would be a simple class 3-4 scramble about which I would think almost nothing. However, the combination of fresh powder and rime covering the granite made it much more of a challenge. I tried several approaches unsuccessfully, and almost gave up, before finding a devious route that started on the left side of the peak, then nearly circumnavigated it counterclockwise to reach the summit. I took a picture of the iced-over summit stake, then carefully retreated, my hands freezing from grabbing snowy rocks with fleece gloves. I had not expected to do so much scrambling, and would have been happier in my winter gloves.

Escaping snowshoe hare

That was more or less the end of the day’s challenges. I had an easy walk down to the base of Wells, then found my way through bushes and carefully hiked up the final loose, snow-covered talus to the summit. The metal summit sign had accumulated a solid plate of ice overnight, which had fallen off with the day’s marginally warmer temperatures. From the summit, I had a long, obnoxious traverse across more loose and snowy talus before dropping across Silver Creek to reach White. Along the way, I managed to startle three snowshoe hares, all of which ran off before I could take a decent close-up photo. I had only seen one of these before, many years ago on my way down Bishop Pass, so they were a pleasant distraction.

Brief view of the sky

The climb up White would have been straightforward if I had not chosen to try to cross a permanent snowfield just below the ridge. The new snow was neither deep nor well-bonded enough to walk up easily, and I frequently slipped on the old ice beneath, pawing at it to look for edges and rough patches where I could carefully step. Above, a bit more easy sand and talus led to the summit, where I got a brief glimpse of blue sky.

The track I had downloaded continued south along the ridge, but given the conditions, I decided to retrace my steps and return via the Silver Creek trail. I bypassed the permanent snowfield on the way down, but found the loose and snow-slick talus to its side almost as obnoxious. I took a different line through the trees, angling toward home, and found pleasant open woods down to the creek. There was a good line of blazes in places, but the trail was faint to nonexistent, and I lost it going either through or around one of several boggy meadows. I instinctively tried to avoid the worst of the bogs, but my shoes were soaked enough that it did not really matter. I alternately hiked and jogged back to the trailhead, then drove back through the base and down the Walker River into Nevada, land of cheap gas and laundromats with beer and video poker.

Muah, Ash Meadow, Cartago

Cartago summit

Muah and Cartago are two more SPS peaks south of Horseshoe Meadow, lying on the eastern edge of the southern Sierra plateau; Ash Meadow Peak just happened to be in the way. Unlike the previous day’s all-trail outing to Kern, this outing was a somewhat more interesting lollipop, with more views and cross-country travel. Though my route started from the same parking area as for Kern, I thankfully did not have to repeat any terrain thanks to the redundancy of Trail and Mulkey Passes.

Owens Lake from Muah

I got another somewhat lazy start, heading straight across Horseshoe Meadow to intercept the Mulkey Pass trail where it starts to climb. It seemed much less-used than Trail Pass, with large sections faint or washed out, and no recent footprints. At the pass, I turned left on the PCT, heading southeast toward the unimpressive and mostly forested lump that is Muah Mountain. Where the trail levels out near Diaz Creek, I headed cross-country straight for the summit, crossing another trail that is not on any maps, leading who-knows-where. The forested climb up Muah was steep but easy, with generally solid ground and little deadfall or brush.

Langley from Muah

After a couple of frustrating false summits, I found myself on the small rock crest of the true summit. Mount Langley dominates the view to the north, Olancha peak that to the south; Cartago is hard to pick out, as it is merely a highpoint on the undulating eastern edge of the range. Below to the east, the dry Owens Lake dominates the view, with different parts being put to different uses (shrimp farming?). To the west I could see yesterday’s objective, Kern Peak.

OMG that sucked

I set off south from the summit, aiming to regain the PCT just on the other side of Ash Meadow Peak. Things started out well, with a quick sand descent to Ash Creek, then turned utterly hellish as I had to thrash through 100 yards of willows and bog. Fortunately the willows were dense enough that I could walk on them, keeping my feet out of the muddy water below. After ten or fifteen minutes of cursing, thrashing, and backtracking, I reached the other side, re-entered the woods, and started heading uphill, using my phone to stay on track for the next summit.

Cartago summit area

Ash Meadow Peak is similar to Muah, forested except for the very top, with the summit being one of a few small rock outcrops. I climbed a couple before finding the Sierra Challenge register left a few years earlier. Despite being only a few hundred yards from the PCT, this minor summit apparently sees very little traffic. I quickly took in views similar to those on Muah, then again headed south, soon rejoining the trail. This part of the trail is actually interesting, staying close enough to the Owens Valley to have a view sometimes, and winding through more of the region’s granite outcrops.

Cartago Creek

I left the trail where it leaves the edge north of Death Canyon, heading downhill through terrain that was just sandy and brushy enough to make for slow going. Fortunately I had a map and GPX track on my phone, because Cartago’s summit is one of dozens of rock outcrops poking out of the sparse woods, and it is not obvious which one is highest. As is often the case, the summit turned out to be basically the farthest pinnacle, rising perhaps 100 feet above a sandy plain. I found a bit of fun third class scrambling for a change, and a couple of familiar names in the register. There were also some ancient scraps of paper dating back to the early 1970s, miraculously preserved in the metal canister.

To the south, Cartago Creek drops nearly 6000 feet through a mess of granite outcrops and spires, with Olancha Peak behind it rising over 8000 feet from the valley floor. While I had plenty of daylight, I was mindful that I had around 13 miles left to get back home. I jogged some of the easier cross-country, slogged up the sand-hill to the PCT, then managed a decent pace on the gentle and frequently runnable terrain back to Mulkey Pass. Though I returned to the car by mid-afternoon, it was already getting chilly at nearly 10,000 feet, so I rinsed the dust off my legs quickly before heading down to Lone Pine. With dramatically colder weather and up to a foot of snow forecast for the Sierra later in the week, these could be my last Sierra peaks for awhile.


Kern from Trail Pass

With fall holding on in the Sierra, I decided to take advantage of the still-open Horseshoe Meadows road to bag some minor southern SPS peaks. While I had gone north from this high trailhead several times, I had not yet ventured south, so it would be new terrain for me. Kern Peak can apparently be reached with more driving and less hiking from the south, but with gentle terrain and runnable trails, the 33 or so miles from the north would be manageable despite the short days.

I woke up to find myself unsurprisingly alone in the large Cottonwood Pass trailhead, and waited until after headlamp time to start. The temperature was not bad at the trailhead itself, but cold air had pooled in the meadow, making for a cold crossing toward Trail Pass. I finally reached the sun at the pass, where the PCT crosses east-west along the ridge between Mulkey and Cottonwood Passes, and got my first look at Kern Peak, whose size makes it look deceptively close. I shed a layer, then took off jogging down the other side into Mulkey Meadow.

Cow-paths in Mulkey Meadow

The trail was the usual southern Sierra sand, though not as bad as Cottonwood Pass, as it probably sees much less traffic, though most of that seemed to be horses. There was also a fair amount of cow manure, though none seemed fresh. The cows had, however, managed to create a half-dozen parallel tracks across the meadow, reminiscent of the multi-lane highways around Tuolomne Meadows. I continued west, passing through a gate on my way over a minor rise, then joined the South Fork Kern River, which is more of a creek here, on its way down to Tunnel Meadow.

Tunnel Station

I passed a large, disused corral in the woods, then some dilapidated fencing at the foot of the meadow, before returning to the woods and reaching the Tunnel Station. There I found an abandoned lookout tower, and a recently-painted cabin with an open workspace and padlocks on its multiple doors. The trail branches twice beyond here, with options leading to some other meadows; I took the well-signed but faint branch headed to Kern Peak, which used to house a lookout.

One thing of interest

As the lookout is long abandoned and the peak is only of interest to people chasing the SPS list, the trail through the gentle forest has nearly faded out of existence. It climbs a bit in crossing a gentle arm of the peak, then descends to follow the Kern Peak Stringer — another creek — up the peak’s north side, eventually reaching its northeast ridge. Where it finally breaks out of the woods below Kern’s rocky summit, the trail once again becomes clear. I followed the switchbacks through the sand and boulders to a shoulder west of the summit, then hopped through the boulders to the top.

Lookout remnant

The lookout’s floor and fire-finder were still standing, but its walls and roof had collapsed off to the north. It is well-situated, with long views to Langley, the Kaweahs, and the Mineral King peaks to the north, Olancha Peak to the east, and endless rolling terrain to the south and west. I took my time eating some pop tarts and chex mix, then began the long run home. Complaints from my knee slowed me a bit, but I still managed to jog the majority, and I had plenty of daylight and listening material.

Someone had dropped his driver’s license on the trail (how does that happen?), but I saw no one else until I returned to the trailhead. There I found two groups milling around, but no one matched the photo on the license, so I stuck it in the trailhead sign before rinsing off and driving a few miles to get cell service. Fortunately there are lots of trails leaving Horseshoe Meadows, because while my outing had been a pleasant run, I would not want to do it twice in two days.


Clark through Merced

Gray Peak was my last remaining SPS peak in the Clark Range. After failing to tag it on the way out, I decided to do so from Mono Meadows on the way back, making it possible for me to never again drive through Yosemite. It is around 24 miles round-trip via this approach, but quite a bit of that is runnable, so it seemed like a short enough day to tack a few hours’ driving onto the end. I got up before dawn, shoved my bike and trailer back into the car by headlamp, and drove into the park and up Glacier Point road along with a few sunrise photographers, turning off at the Mono Meadows trailhead some miles before the good views. I had slept here before without harassment, but the angry-looking sign warning that cars parked overnight would be towed during the winter season deterred me this time.

Mono Meadow?

I got started sometime around sunrise making good speed down to what may have been the Meadow: a disgusting, partly-frozen bog with a precarious log bridge across it. With the help of a stick conveniently parked at a tree on one side, I made it across with dry feet, then continued running the descent to the Illouette Creek trail maze. With the help of my map, I made it through the various multi-way junctions, all signed but with some indicating the same destination with different mileages in multiple directions. I eventually made it through the confusion and was headed southeast toward Merced Pass.

Hey, bear!

Listening to a podcast while jogging the almost-flat trail through the woods, I was jolted back to reality by a sudden, loud gruuh?! and some movement in the bushes 10-20 yards away. It seems I had startled a mother bear with two cubs, just as much as they had startled me. We were both a bit defensive, keeping a sharp eye on each other, but knew what to do: she sent the momentarily-confused cubs up a tree, while I backed off and talked to her. Fortunately this was relatively open country, so we had room to maneuver. I moved off the trail to the side away from her and she, sensing that the threat was past, brought the cubs back down and disappeared into the woods in the other direction. I almost returned to the trail, then saw why I had managed to startle them so badly: they were in the middle of destroying a bees’ nest in a nearby rotting log. Figuring the bees would probably punish me for the bears’ trespass, I gave them a wide berth through the brush, then continued well up-trail of the scene.

A Yosemite classic

Based on others’ tracks, the route leaves the trail somewhere near Red Creek, following it to one side or the other until reaching Gray’s west ridge. The cross-country was moderately unpleasant, passing through burned areas choked with downed trees and brush, with the ground made unpredictably soft by what I think were rodent holes. I started on the north side, switched to the south, then returned to the north as the ridge rose away from the creek. I found easier travel here, using a strange sort of flat groove paralleling the ridge crest to one side.

Half Dome from summit

Above a steep headwall, the vague forested thing I had been following became more of a defined ridge, with the summit still looking unfortunately distant. I crossed some flatter, open ground, then gained a thousand feet through a classic Yosemite mix of boulders and evil krummholtz. Only in the final 300 feet did I find actual fun, scrambling along the narrowing crest of the ridge, with cliffs to the north and steep gullies to the south. The summit had good views of the entire Clark Range, from Clark at the north to Merced to the south. Most of the traverse looked like the brush-and-boulder terrain I had just climbed, so doing all the peaks in a go would be both inefficient and infelicitous. Back to the northwest, I could see Mount Starr King and the back side of Half Dome; to the east, Florence, Lyell, and the Ritter Range.

The return was like the trip out, except without bears and bees. I made good speed once back in the trail system, not having to stop and check my map at the intersections, and was soon at the base of the final climb back to the trailhead. I pushed myself to jog some parts of this, and made it back home well before sunset. I talked to a couple of tourists for a few minutes, then drove around and over Tioga, back to the rural comforts of the eastern Sierra.

Three Sisters and home

Courwright from the shore road

I had planned something easier after the previous day’s 40-mile trek, expecting to be somewhere between slow and near-useless. I took my time waking and packing at Maxson, then had a leisurely ride around Courtwright Reservoir to the trailhead near its northwest end that people apparently use to reach Three Sisters Peak, my last SPS peak in the area. At around twelve miles and under 3000′ of elevation gain, it sounded like a comfortable half-day that I could combine with a downhill return toward Shaver Lake, a head-start on the long ride home.

Cliff Lake

I locked my bike to a nearby locked gate, shoved what trail-food I had left in my pack (mayo bottle, cheese, tortillas), then took off at an ad lib pace. After jogging the initial descent I felt surprisingly energetic, and continued jogging the flats and some of the gentler climbs on the way to Cliff Lake. I slightly overshot the route up the broad ridge west toward Three Sisters, then stopped to get some water at the lake before getting back on track. I found occasional boot-prints and a cairn or two, but there was no established route for this easy and unremarkable peak, and none necessary.

Courtwrite area from Three Sisters

The peak’s west face looked obnoxiously steep, so I headed right, finding signs of passage through the sand and boulders of its northeast face. I sat on the summit for awhile, making myself a sort-of lunch and enjoying the views. While Three Sisters may not be of much interest itself, it is a fine perch from which to appreciate the many domes surrounding Courtwright Reservoir. I did not know it at the time, but it turns out that the area is a sort of “Tuolomne of the Western Sierra,” with well over a hundred single- and multi-pitch climbing routes of all difficulties. Since it apparently lacks Tuolomne’s crowds, it also seems much preferable to me. I did not visit the area during my brief trad climbing career many years ago, but having enjoyed fine climbing, free camping, and few other visitors in the Needles to the south, I suspect that Western Sierra climbing may be highly underrated.

Big Trees are big

I had a good time running back to the trailhead, passing a couple other hikers probably headed for one of the lakes, then made reasonable time on the ride around the Reservoir and back toward home. While it is downhill to Shaver, there is still a fair bit of climbing, but I made it back to Joe’s Market well before it closed. I bought more chocolate chip cookies (mmm, calories…), but also some heavier, “healthy” things like apples and tuna, as I was headed downhill. The owner/cashier remembered me from earlier, and we talked a bit about my adventure before I saddled up, failed to get WiFi at the library (it was a weekend), and headed down 168.

My goal was to put in more miles toward home, at least getting past the vacation homes and their angry “POSTED no trespassing” signs to find a place to camp. Highway 168 drops dramatically from over 5000′ to around 1000′, and I was unsure what elevation would be most comfortable. I had spotted a likely fire road on my map, but stopped just before it on a whim, camping instead at a helipad around 4000′. While less scenic than Maxson, it was my easiest camping of the trip, with a great big, perfectly flat concrete slab and comfortable temperatures. I dumped the tuna and the rest of my Parmesan into some pasta and watched the sun set over the smoggy Central Valley, then turned in anticipating an easy half-day.

Helipad to home

I think I could have returned via Italian Bar Road, but I chose a different route for variety, dropping to the valley via Highway 168, then taking another little-used side-road that meanders through various small towns, then crosses the San Joaquin at the upper end of Kirchoff Reservoir. Climbing back out of the river valley, I learned that I was back in the land of face flies. And goatheads — my tire sealant worked overtime plugging the holes, but the little bits of pressure lost as it did so meant my tires were noticeable softer by the time I rejoined my departing route near the tiny town of North Fork. I had only been gone about a week, but it felt like longer as I passed through familiar terrain on my way back up to Bass Lake.

As I had unfortunately not found long-term parking at the lake, I stashed my trailer at a pullout near the base of Beasore Road, making the final three steep miles back to my car somewhat easier. They were still pretty miserable, as I was tired and low on water, and the face flies were out in full midday force. I finally reached my side-road, pulled out my key fob, and… nothing. Well, crap. As I feared, my battery was completely dead, as was the jump box I carry for such situations. A bit of detective work showed that I had somehow left the tailgate overhead light on. WTF?! I never even use that!

Fortunately I was parked facing outward, and only about 50 yards from Beasore Road, which is reasonably popular. I patiently waved at about a dozen cars before finding one who had cables and was willing to help. It was an ancient Toyota truck, driven by an old man from Fresno wearing coveralls; exactly the sort of car and person I expect to be willing and able to help a fellow motorist. He took out his old cables, hooked them up, and my car started right up (yay, new starter!). We (mostly he) then ended up talking for most of an hour, both of our cars running. He proved to be the kind of fascinating, handy, self-reliant person who makes me doubt my manhood. In addition to his passion for woodworking, he had all sorts of fix-it skills, with tales including splicing an old tow rope to replace a missing fan belt, and cracking an egg into a radiator to plug a hole long enough to drive home. I have seldom felt less useful or capable.

I eventually drove down to the pullout, shoved the trailer and dry-sack in back around my bike, then reveled in my new ability to move at 60 MPH and carry hundreds of pounds without effort, driving down to the nearest town for groceries and gas, then up toward Yosemite to camp just outside the park before doing one final bit of peak-bagging on my way back to the east side. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable and mostly successful experiment.