Category Archives: FKT

Francs

Francs from plateau


[This is part of a multi-part trip report of my Wyoming 13er speed record.]

Francs Peak is the highpoint of the Absaroka Mountains of northern Wyoming, and the range’s only peak above 13,000 feet. It seemed to be the most efficient place to start my speed climb of Wyoming’s 13ers in terms of driving time, so I drove up the rugged road toward Kirwin to camp before beginning my ordeal. This, the first of several long drives on dirt roads, starts off smooth and gets progressively worse, ending with three stream crossings that were Element-able late in a dry year, but could be scary earlier in the season. Since the peak would not take a whole day, I killed some time in the morning turning my remaining bread into PB&Hs, then finally got impatient and started around 10:00. Francs is notorious among peak-baggers for grizzlies congregating on its summit to dig for moths, so I was pleased to see a backpacker in a monster truck park a polite distance away, then start up the trail ahead of me.

And so it begins

The Meadow Creek trail is obscure on the valley bottom, but becomes clear as it switchbacks up away from the Wood River valley, with views of impressive choss-cliffs to the south. At least, there are views when it is clear, as it was the afternoon I drove in. The morning I started it was heinously smoky in the valley, so I inhaled a bit of California with each breath and saw only outlines of the surrounding mountains. I passed a backpacker on his way down as I climbed the steep trail, and finally caught the one I had seen in an open meadow below the cabin ruin on the topo map. He turned out to be a sheep hunter headed up to meet some friends, getting a head-start on the next day’s start of the season.

Meadow near lower cabin

I lost the trail in the meadows, then regained it as it climbed out of Meadow Creek Basin along the south fork. I left it again where it switchbacks up toward Galena Basin, turning uphill toward the undulating 12,000-foot plateau leading toward Francs. I was entering grizz-land, and no longer had a decoy to follow, so I was on my guard. I found plenty of bear prints and signs of digging on the plateau, but it was apparently past moth season, because I did not see a single bear. Much of the terrain was runnable with a bit of care, but I did not try too hard, since I had much ground left to cover and my left knee was still a bit sore from my fun but ill-advised run up Wind River Peak some days prior.

Smile!

The plateau finally narrows to a ridge beyond a significant dip to the head of the Francs Fork, and a decent use trail appears, with the users seemingly more ursine than human. Trudging up the ridge while trying to avoid the worst of the fresh snow-patches and loose talus, I was surprised to see two other people descending the northeast ridge. They were probably returning to a vehicle parked at the end of a high jeep road on that side of the peak. Since neither my car nor my bike is nearly capable enough for such a road, I had dismissed it. I reached the summit around 1:20 PM, finding it windy, cold, and dismal, with barren slopes all around fading into smoky skies. The rock smiley face on the other ridge cheered me a bit, but I did not linger.

Descending to Wood River

I made it back through bear-land without incident, and even saw a bull elk with thirteen cows and calves as I cut down to the trail. I spoke a few minutes with the hunter at his camp, telling him that I had not seen any sheep. He seemed somewhat pessimistic about his chances of spotting any in the smoke, but had a comfortable tent and enough food for a week, so perhaps he was around long enough for the smoke to clear. I jogged some of the trail down out of impatience, then jumped in the car for the long drive to the Bighorns. The first part of the drive was familiar, the middle part boring but the drive up through Tensleep Canyon was interesting, passing by limestone cliffs popular among climbers. The dirt road to the West Tensleep trailhead was somewhat washboarded but in good shape, and I arrived just before dark to set my alarm for 3:00 AM and get some sleep in the overnight lot.

Wyoming 13er speed record (8d23h)

As some readers may already know, I have spent most of the past two weeks climbing all of Wyoming’s 13,000-foot peaks. These 13ers consist of five peaks in four isolated clusters (Francs in the Absarokas, Cloud and Black Tooth in the Bighorns, Wind River Peak in the southern Winds, and the Grand Teton), and the remaining thirty packed together in the northern Winds. The four clusters are all reasonable dayhikes on well-defined routes, although the Bighorn pair are a grind.

The northern Winds, however, require multiple days and, unlike the California 14ers, there is no established, clearly optimal route. In addition to topo maps, I went in with photos of Joe Kelsey’s guidebook, and Eric Gilbertson’s well-written and thorough trip report from his climbs last summer. Both were helpful, but neither was sufficient to plan a complete route ahead of time. Route conditions in the northern Winds depend upon the time of year, the previous winter’s snowpack, and global warming’s inexorable march. An easy couloir in June can be be blocked by a gaping bergschrund in September; north-facing class 4 slabs can be covered in treacherous ice and snow from a late summer storm; and certain routes in Kelsey’s guidebook, last updated in 2013, have changed beyond recognition.

The previous record for doing this, set by Gilbertson in 2020, was 16 days, 18 hours. Beforehand, I expected to complete the peaks in 11-12 days, and was pleasantly surprised to do so in just 8 days, 23 hours, about 4 days and 13 hours of which were spent on foot. My route involved approximately 220 miles and 82,000 feet of climbing. The time I saved all came in the northern Wind River Range, where I was able to link more peaks together than I had expected, and to hike out the same day that I completed the northern ones. With support (e.g. car shuttles and horse packers), it should be straightforward to cut a day off my time. With less sleep and better link-ups, it may be possible to cut off another either with or without support. However, since relatively few mountaineers have the skills, free time, and desire to attempt this record, I suspect my effort will remain the fastest for some time.

What follows is a brief description of each day; I will write my usual detailed/verbose trip reports as I am able.

  1. Summit of Francs

    Francs: This was a dull hike to a dismal peak. Smoke from burning California marred the views, which were mostly barren choss reminiscent of the dry Andes. The road to the trailhead is Element-able, but has a few stream crossings that may short-circuit your Prius.
  2. Black Tooth from near Cloud

    Cloud, Black Tooth: Cloud by itself is a long, rocky pack trail followed by a long, easy boulder-hop. Adding Black Tooth spices it up with some class 3 and adds some distance. The hike back down the valley to Cloud’s northwest is interminable, passing endless lakes while losing little elevation.
  3. Wind River Peak from Tayo Lake

    Wind River Peak: Like Eric, I came in from Block-and-Tackle Hill, using a bike beyond the Forest boundary. ATVers have cleared the road of deadfall to the Wilderness boundary, but a microburst over Labor Day weekend 2020 has covered portions of the trail all the way to Little Sandy Lake with downed trees. The standard route from Worthen Meadows Reservoir may be faster in the future, as this trail seems unlikely to be cleared.
  4. Ugh

    Bow: Backpacking sucks, but is sometimes necessary. I lugged 16 pounds of food, both cold and wet weather gear, and crampons and an ice axe from Green River Lakes along the Highline Trail and over to Shannon Pass, at which I dropped my pack to tag nearby Bow Mountain via easy slabs and talus.
  5. American Legion from Henderson

    Henderson to Whitecap (6 peaks): There were two question marks on this leg: the ridge from American Legion to Knapsack Pass, and the one from Split to Whitecap. Kelsey speculates that the first is class 5, and says nothing about the second. Both were indeed low fifth class, though the descent from American Legion was fairly spicy with fresh snow on its north-facing aspects.
  6. Harrower/Ellingwood

    Ellingwood (Harrower) to Jackson (4 peaks): These make a natural loop from the Indian Pass trail junction. Ellingwood’s standard route is only class 4, but the 5.6 north ridge is amazing and probably no slower if you feel comfortable at that grade. The route from Ellingwood to Knife Point is somewhat convoluted, crossing broken, deglaciated slabs and gullies.
  7. Fremont, Sacagawea, Helen

    Fremont to Febbas (8 peaks): This was pretty wild, and saved me a day. Kelsey’s couloir from Fremont down to the Upper Fremont Glacier was too hard and steep for my gear, and also ended in a massive bergschrund. Fremont’s east-northeast ridge is not mentioned in Kelsey’s guide, but goes at class 4-5 on and south of the crest, and leads to the glacier. The normal route on Helen looked too steep and icy, but the east ridge is straightforward and not much longer. Spearhead Pinnacle has a short class 5 crux on the east side of its north ridge, but is mostly easier scrambling. Warren is a mix of scrambling and choss. Turret is a bit tricky, especially with snow descending the north slopes to Backpackers Pass. I started up the “west ridge” route (not really a ridge), then made a tricky downclimb into the “west gully” used on the first ascent. Sunbeam and Febbas are not hard. The long return down Blaurock Pass and over Bonney Pass was depressing, crossing endless moraines while staring at the much-diminished Dinwoody Glacier.
  8. Woodrow Wilson from Pinnacle Ridge

    Woodrow Wilson to Desolation (5 peaks): This was a last-minute plan that worked fairly well. From camp at the Indian Pass junction, I hiked up to the Sphinx Glacier, thus making my time climbing the Sphinx two days prior mostly a waste. I then traversed around to Wilson’s (dry) west chute, ascending that and descending the north chute to reach the upper Dinwoody Glacier. The upper glacier was crevassed but, as I had hoped, not too steep and retaining some new and old snow. I stayed high on the way to Glacier Pass (a horrible scree field on both sides), with a detour to Pinnacle Ridge. From the pass, I reached Gannett via class 4-5 climbing east of the ridge leading to the standard Gooseneck route. I then descended and crossed a col to the Minor Glacier, which was flat and easy, and the slabs below it, which were not. Koven is, as Eric indicated, low fifth class by its south ridge, which can be reached from the lake below the Minor Glacier. Beyond, I found a good camp at the Desolation-Rampart col, then made a quick evening side-trip to Desolation, setting up a potential exit the next day.
  9. Winds from Downs

    Bastion to Downs (6 peaks): Starting at first light, I climbed to the plateau, walked around Rampart, and tagged Bastion. From there I headed north, roughly following Eric’s route all the way to Downs over a mixture of talus and tundra. The stream south of Downs leads to a high plateau with many lakes and gentle undulations, though this valley may be impassable earlier in the season. I then followed a pleasant path I had plotted on the topo, passing high above Bear Lake before dropping to Faler Lake, which lies at treeline. The steep descent to Clear Lake was slightly ugly, and things only got worse going around Clear Lake, then down Clear Creek to the maintained trail at the Natural Bridge. From there it was a simple slog to the car.
  10. Dawn on the Grand

    The Grand: I was hoping to finish on the Upper Exum, but needed to be down by 10:00 to finish under nine days. I therefore went up and down the Owen-Spalding, which is easier to do in the dark.

Statistics

Since I recorded everything on Strava, I have the moving time, miles and elevation gained, and even a dubious count of calories burned for each day:

Day mi ft time cal
Francs 15.67 5338 5:32:08 2839
Cloud 29.01 7799 11:14:23 4919
Wind R 22.34 4963 8:38:41 3609
Bow 23.46 5564 9:29:14 3765
Henderson 15.74 11332 11:54:21 3810
Ellingwood 24.62 9040 12:50:15 4486
Fremont 23.14 13774 15:25:56 5023
Wilson 20.29 9010 13:04:33 4355
Bastion 27.46 7472 14:11:57 5021
Grand 15.05 7584 6:03:33 3078
TOTAL 216.78 81,876 4d12h25m01s 40,905

A few things seem worth noting: First, the mileage is close to Eric Gilbertson’s estimated mileage for his previous record. Second, I spent just over 4.5 days moving out of just under 9 days total. Given that some of the remaining time was spent driving, this is a sustained effort, but nothing extreme. Other than the last night, before the Grand, I did not seriously short myself on sleep. Finally, if the whole thing required about 41,000 calories (plus base metabolic rate), the $100+ I spent on food seems about right, since I ate cost-inefficient things like pepperoni and Clif bars. I probably spent slightly less than that on gas to drive 600 miles during the record, so the driving cost less than the hiking, as it should.

Thanks and reflections

Thanks of course to Eric G., who planted the idea of doing this in my mind, and whose detailed trip report simplified my planning. I would especially like to thank Renee for her infectious drive and positivity, which were crucial in overcoming my doubts and lack of motivation before trying this. She and my friend Dan were both a source of motivation during the effort as well, thanks to a surprising amount of cell coverage. I spent some time with friends both before and after this attempt, some of whom I probably could have prevailed upon to provide support, but that is not the kind of effort I wanted. This needed to be all me.

As mentioned above, I think this could go much faster with a full “Cave Dog”-style (or “Hamiltonian”…) effort, involving extensive scouting and route optimization, and a full support crew. That is not something I want to do, and I do not have many ideas for major time-saving route improvements, but I hope someone makes it happen. This could also probably go faster for an unsupported individual, but I don’t know anyone right now with the skill, time, and interest. I would also like to see a women’s record, solo and preferably unsupported, but the necessary skill and especially interest seem even rarer.

The Tahomas

[Another out-of-order entry. — ed.]

Rainier (Disappointment Cleaver)

Oh how cute…


The route lived up to its name… so perhaps it didn’t.

Little Tahoma

Little Tahoma from DC


Rainier and Little Tahoma were two of Jason’s last peaks on his crazy Bulger quest, and I had wanted to do Little Tahoma for awhile. We had originally planned to do them both in a day, but the crossing of the badly-crevassed lower Ingraham Glacier, and the subsequent crossing of the dirt-ridge between it and the Whitman, looked dicey and unlikely to work. So instead we returned the next day to do the standard route on the peak, via Fryingpan Creek and the Fryingpan Glacier. This turned out for the best, despite the extra driving and elevation gain, as the standard route up Little Tahoma is more fun than either route I have done on Rainier (DC, Emmons). The glacier travel is non-threatening, the rock is surprisingly good where it gets steep, and the summit view from between the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers is hard to beat.

Dawn on Rainier

Unlike last time, we got a proper alpine start, leaving the Fryingpan Creek trailhead by headlamp at 3:00 AM. This part of the Wonderland trail is wonderfully smooth, and we both looked forward to running it on the way down. The trail follows the creek, then leaves to switchback south toward Summer Land at 6,000 feet. From there, the route leaves the trail to climb steep talus to Meany Crest before finally reaching the glacier beyond a knob at 7,500 feet. It was still full dark when we left the trail, so there was a bit of the usual faffing around that comes with nighttime cross-country travel, but we did not lose much time, as we were soon on open terrain.

Sunrise on Fryingpan

At the knob we met half of the film crew, Lauren and Anna. The other half with the cameras, Luke and Baxter, were already somewhere up on the glacier, setting up to get some sick sunrise footage. Having expected us to come down this way the previous afternoon, they had been forced to sleep huddled together under a rock on Meany Crest when we bailed. If they were angry and frustrated, they did a good job hiding it. I had met them briefly in the dark before Rainier, and dismissed them as cool beautiful people, but they seem to have some fortitude. This project has been part fastest known time (FKT) and part adventure film, with the expected tension between the needs of these sometimes conflicting objectives. It was strange to observe, and probably even stranger to participate.

Sun behind smoke

I hung around while Jason got mic’d up, then we continued to the glacier, where I stopped to put on crampons. The crew had put in a crampon track across the Fryingpan Glacier the previous day, so the route-finding was mostly mindless. There was one brief crevasse maze on bare ice, with treacherous light-white stripes plugging some holes, but it was not too complicated. The guys with the camera had timed it just about perfectly to get a sunrise shot of Jason crossing the glacier, though we had to wait while Baxter changed the camera battery. Shooting complete, the four of us continued to the notch between the Whitman and Fryingpan Glaciers. There was a bit of a use trail through the choss, then we were back down on snow and ice, which gradually steepened between Little Tahoma’s east and southeast ridges. The surface consisted of broad suncups, and the snow was fairly solid, making for easy travel as long as one did not slip. Toward the top, as the angle steepened, I decided that the rock to the left looked easier, so we put away our snow gear and continued there.

Luke near summit

Little Tahoma looks like an absolute choss-pile from most directions, and the east ridge is in fact rubble held together by dirt, but the southeast ridge consists of some harder volcanic rock. As the two ridges joined, we hiked on some talus and dirt, then scrambled a bit of fun class 3 (or 4 if you looked for it) rock. The route description mentioned a tricky notch to the true summit, but it was no harder than class 3, though terribly exposed on the north side, which drops 2000 feet almost vertically to the Emmons Glacier. From the summit, which has a nice old Mazama register box, Luke and I watched the line of ants going up and down Rainier, admiring the broken-up glaciers with their crevasses laid bare.

Lesser peaks to the east

The smoke was much better than the day before, though still noticeable to the east and south, so I admired the views of layers of steep, forested mountains fading into the haze below while they shot summit footage. Afterward Jason and I took off, leaving the film guys to fend for themselves. We shortly regretted this, as one of them kicked off a toaster-sized rock that bounced straight down the route. There was nothing to do except make myself small and hope for the best, but fortunately the rock bounced over me and did not dislodge a shower of smaller missiles. The snow on the Whitman was still a bit hard for fast boot-skiing, but soft enough not to be too treacherous. The Fryingpan was easier travel, though a couple of the snow bridges on the crevasse maze were no longer usable.

I made awkward smalltalk with the other half of the film crew while they retrieved the mic, then we took off for the trail. Though no one else was climbing Little Tahoma, there were plenty of day-hikers and backpackers on the Wonderland Trail, and one guy who looked like he might be running the loop. Jason’s legs were predictably toast after 49 days and 98 peaks, but I was feeling good, so I took off at some semblance of a run toward the trailhead. I think I even managed an 8:30 mile, which pathetically counts as “fast” compared to most of what I have been doing. I chatted with Ashly until Jason got back, then they took off for Mount Adams while I made lunch and figured out what to do after my brief brush with fame.

White Mountains Traverse

Traverse from Boundary


This White Mountains Traverse is a loosely-defined route between Queen Mine Saddle and Barcroft Gate (or vice versa) in California’s White Mountains. It is about 35 miles long, with more than half cross-country, and involves a bit of third class scrambling. Peaks along the way include Boundary (a bump on a ridge, Nevada’s lame highpoint), Montgomery, Dubois, Hogue, Headley, 13,615′, and White Mountain Peak. It is normally done south to north, in the slightly downhill direction, and the FKT is 11h25, set by Jed Porter back in 2014. It requires a 100+-mile car shuttle including miles of annoying dirt road, which discourages many people, but it still seems to see one or two parties per year.

I had originally planned to do it casually, with a partner and a car shuttle, but when that stopped making sense, I came up with another plan. While the drive around via the 2WD Barcroft road is close to 100 miles, it is possible to cut it to only about 60 via Silver Canyon if you have a Jeep…. or a bike. With a forecast for a tailwind up the Owens Valley, I thought I could do the foot portion north to south in 11 hours or less, and the whole thing in under 18. This was a nice theory, but ultimately I found myself spending the better part of two days doing things I did not enjoy, and failing to accomplish something about which I was indifferent, all for the wrong reasons. Call it “training.”

I enjoyed the drive up 168 from Big Pine, then endured the winding asphalt and rocky, washboard dirt north to Barcroft. This is a slow drive at best, and I had to go even slower to protect my worn tires. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and found a couple of cars at the gate, their owners returning from the hike to White Mountain. I took advantage of the chance to sleep at altitude, then stashed my bike, helmet, and some food before returning to Bishop. I had hoped to bathe for the first time in a week at Keough’s along the way, but noticed that, despite my cautious driving, I had developed a slow leak in one tire. I topped it off with my bike pump, then hurried into town and pulled into the one tire place open on Sundays, Perez Tire. I lucked out, as they sold me two AT tires for a fair price, and installed them in about 30 minutes; the other Bishop tire places I’ve visited are ripoffs.

Peak happiness

Greasy and in a bad mood from the unexpected expense, I drove up to the north end of the valley, then turned on the Queen Mine road. It starts out as good graded dirt, then slowly deteriorates as it climbs. I eventually stopped about 2.2 miles from the saddle; while I could probably have driven farther, this seemed about as far as I would be able to ride a bike, so there was no point in continuing. I packed some discount energy bars and eight PB&Hs, set my alarm for 3:00, and got some amount of sleep.

Sunrise before Boundary

I hadn’t done such an early start in awhile, so I did not get going until almost 4:00. I spent about 45 minutes hiking the road to the saddle, then easily found the popular trail up Boundary. I jogged some of the flatter sections leading to Trail Canyon Saddle, then hiked up one of the braided trails through sand and talus toward the summit. It was already somewhat breezy at the top, and bitterly cold, so I did not even pause before starting down the ridge to Montgomery. The route was slow going but mostly only class 2, alternating between the shaded northwest side, and the sunny but windy southeast.

Descending Montgomery’s N ridge

At Montgomery’s summit, I stopped to take a few photos and sign the register. The forecast had anticipated temperatures in the 30s or 40s, but it seemed colder, and my phone battery died when I tried to send a text. Fortunately I had brought my battery pack, so I plugged it in and stashed it closer to my body for warmth. I continued in all my layers, my fingers aching inside my gloves. With steady wind and light cloud-cover most of the day, there was only about a half-hour in which I was warm enough to jog in a t-shirt. Wind and cold, plus tedious terrain, kept the day well short of fun.

Montgomery from south

Only a handful of people continue beyond Montgomery, so while I found a handful of cairns, I was mostly following faint sheep tracks or traveling cross-country. Montgomery’s south ridge is loose class 2-3, with a broken crest that is best avoided. I found a couple of short, sketchy snow traverses along the east side, but did not have much trouble reaching the saddle. From there, a long talus climb leads to “the Jumpoff” at the northern end of Dubois vast summit plateau. I had hoped for a long stretch easy jogging here, but the tundra was rolling and studded with sharp talus, making for slow and cautious progress.

White from Dubois

The summit is one of a number of minor bumps on the plateau, fortunately marked with a large stick visible from a distance. The majority of the parties in the summit register were either sheep surveyors or people traversing, including a group on skis this past April. I signed in with a bit of Rammstein commentary (“Mir ist kalt. Zo kalt!”), then took off jogging on the downward-trending plateau. White Mountain remained soul-crushingly far away, but I reminded myself that I had covered greater distances before.

This part of the Whites is not a single well-defined ridge, but a broad, rolling plain, cut by valleys dropping to both sides. Finding the best route requires regularly consulting a topo map at the macro level. It also requires paying close attention to the terrain at the micro level, as it varies unpredictably from semi-runnable tundra to tediously loose and sharp talus. I had downloaded Jed’s track, but he skipped some of the peaks along the way. I knew I never wanted to return to this place so, being a peak-bagger, I made some minor detours to tag the summits.

Dubois from Hogue

First up was Hogue, a detour east just north of where the ridge drops far down to a saddle with some springs around 11,200′. I checked out a couple of the talus mounds on its summit plateau, but found only a few pieces of broken glass, perhaps a former register jar. I jogged the descent as best I could, squelching across a bog labeled as a “spring,” then hiked over Point 11,784′, which hid horribly loose talus on its south side. A spring and snowfield fed a pleasant stream southeast of the lowpoint, where I grabbed a couple of liters of water before beginning the climb toward Headley.

Continuing my quest to tag the ridge’s peaks, I took a less-direct line toward the point labeled Headley Peak. Most of the way up, I saw that it was 100 feet lower than “East Headley,” with almost no prominence, and slightly out of the way. Annoyed at having wasted time on a pointless detour, I tagged the higher East Headley, then continued toward White. Jed had sidehilled around 13,615′, but despite the looming reality of headlamp time, I made the short detour. It was only a few hundred yards out of the way, and one of only a handful of California’s 13,000-foot peaks I had yet to climb.

Final scramble

I signed in next to the familiar names, then suffered down to the saddle with White. The talus was all sharp and loose, and though it was cold, the snowfields had turned to bottomless slush. I cursed, stumbled, and postholed to my knees for awhile, then found drier ground on the final ridge to the hut. I had eaten my last food before 13,615′, but am still fat enough not to bonk badly while hiking. The final ridge to the summit turns surprisingly tricky, with some loose class 3-4 over and around a few towers. I might have enjoyed this in different circumstances, but at this point it was a demoralizing grind.

I finally reached the summit around 3:00, eleven hours from the start and far later than I had hoped. I texted a friend that I might be screwed: the days are long, but I estimated that I would be back to pavement around dark, still over thirty miles from the car. I cut all the lame road switchbacks down to the saddle, then put in a fair amount of jogging along the road past Barcroft Lab despite my fatigue. The lab was closed, the normally reeking sheep pen blessedly empty. There were no cars at the gate, but fortunately no one had stolen my bike or my food. I hid behind the outhouse for awhile, eating and recovering, then began the thirteen-mile bike to the head of Silver Canyon. My time to the gate was something like 12h20, putting me 10-15 minutes behind the FKT. I could make the excuses that I was heading in the uphill direction, and tagged two summits that Jed had skipped, but it was still a failure.

I was dreading this portion of the trip, as the road is rough, rolling, and headed both in the wrong direction and likely into the day’s prevailing wind. Surprisingly, though, I found it almost enjoyable on a bike. It felt no worse than many of the Argentine provincial roads I had cycled this past winter, and I was not towing a trailer. The two motorists who passed me even offered encouragement. I suffered mightily on the 600-foot climb before the Silver Canyon turnoff, but still made it in just over 1h30, better than I had hoped.

I was nervous about descending the upper Silver Canyon road on my touring bike, as it is relentlessly steep and sometimes loose, but I took it slow, rode my brakes, and made it down without crashing, only putting a foot down on a few of the sharp, steep switchbacks higher up. I filled up on water at the first creek crossing, burned my finger feeling my brake rotor, then dared a bit more speed as the slope eased. I normally dismount for the creek crossings, but my bike was already filthy, so I rode through the first few, spraying my bike and myself with water and grit. The creek had hopped its banks in places, turning the road into a secondary stream, so picking my way through the crossings would have been pointless.

The descent to Highway 6 took another 1h30 or so, giving me about an hour of usable light to ride north. I started off motivated, but soon started questioning the wisdom of continuing. My 750-lumen bike headlamp had been stolen in Argentina, so all I had was a tiny 100-ish-lumen hiking lamp; not anticipating much headlamp time, I had not bothered to dig out my taillight. I felt energetic at the moment, but nearly two hours riding uphill at night on a highway, without a taillight, then another hour on a dirt road, began to seem stupid. Before getting too far from Bishop, I gave up and called my friend, who kindly fetched me and let me use a spare sleeping setup.

Having already made myself enough of a nuisance, and failed to achieve anything, I was determined to at least finish under my own power. The previous day’s tailwind had of course reverted to the seasonal headwind, so I got to relive one of my less favorite Argentine experiences: riding uphill into the wind along a truck route. I finally started bonking on the dirt road, stopping frequently in bits of shade to rest, finally crawling up to the car. I crammed down a bunch of food, then drove back down-valley to begin preparing to hit the road.

Human-powered Alpine 4000m peaks FKT

I am hoping to climb the Alps’ 50 prominent 4000-meter peaks as quickly as possible this summer, and have started a fundraiser to help cover the cost of this expensive project. I will write a book about the attempt, available in electronic and print format to backers. If you have already contributed, thank you! If not, please consider doing so and/or telling your friends.

Continue reading

Iztaccihuatl (Pies y Pecho)

Izta from Pies


Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest volcano, and the second-highest that can be legally climbed, as Popocatépetl has long been closed for being too active. Translated from Nahuatl and Spanish, the title is literally “White woman (feet and bust),” and the mountain does indeed look like a woman lying on her back when viewed from the east or west. Her bust is the highpoint, her head and feet are legitimately separate peaks, and her belly and knees are minor bumps on the standard climb from below her feet to her chest.

Los Pies

I had hoped to climb Tlalocatépetl on my way over from Malinche, but confusion about the trailhead location and problems turning around on the divided highway spoiled that plan, so I kept on driving to Amecameca, then up the magnificent and windy road to Paso de Cortes, between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I paid the $3.50 entry fee at the visitor center, then crept along the dusty road to the La Joya trailhead, arriving late in the morning. I wasn’t feeling especially energetic, so I decided to take a short, slow hike up Los Pies, which would be new to me and, at 15,387′, would give me some acclimatization benefit.

Trail toward Izta

I ate some junk food, then took off slowly up the trail, passing various hikers headed in both directions, and a group of Red Cross members possibly patrolling the popular area. I left the main trail near a saddle where the trail crosses from the south/east to the north/west side of Izta’s crest, finding occasional old boot-prints and cairns on the slope leading to Los Pies’ summit knob. I was feeling slow, but was cheered up by a couple stretches of seemingly mandatory class 3-4 climbing getting through rock bands. This was the most technical climbing I had found on this trip, slightly more difficult than the crux on Pico de Agila, and it even required some route-finding.

Los Pies’ summit knob

I eventually emerged on the ridge west of the summit knob, from which I could see the trail toward El Pecho below and to the north. The summit knob itself looked serious, defended by sheer cliff bands of questionable rock on all sides. However, tackling one problem at a time, it proved no harder than class 3. I started to the left, climbing near the crest, then crossed to the right, traversing a sandy slope below the main cliffs. Here I found a ramp trending back left, where moderate scrambling led back to the crest and to a couple old pitons and a dubious hand-line. After a brief wrong turn, I crossed back to the left near the hand line, traversed a bit, and was soon at the summit.

Los Pies summit plaque

I found no register or cross, but there was a plaque cemented to the summit rock that made no more sense to me even after running it through Google Translate. There also seemed to be an easier way down a loose chute on the other side of the summit knob. I hung out for awhile, looking for people descending Izta to one side, watching Popo puff on the other and listening to its deep rumbling, then retraced my steps off the summit knob.

I thought it looked easier to drop north and join the standard trail on the main peak, but I was wrong. What looked like nice scree-skiing was a shallow and slippery layer with hard-pack underneath, with occasional patches of Izta’s evil mud. After numerous slips, I reached flatter ground and picked up the trail at the saddle northwest of Los Pies. With plenty of daylight left, I took my time on the trail down, passing (the same?) Red Cross group, this time playing around with ropes and gear next to the trail.

Radical Mexican bike design

It was only mid-afternoon, and I was bored, so I made the long drive back to Amecameca for some street tacos, which cost about $1 each and contained generous helpings of chorizo and cecina. Many of the region’s eateries advertised their cecina, and I was eager to try it, having enjoyed it in Leon. However, this “cecina” was a different thing entirely, more like thinly-sliced, salty roast beef. It was good in its own way, but I preferred the Spanish version. After ingesting real food, I drove back up the pass to sleep near the trailhead and turn my meal into red blood cells.

El Pecho

For my last Mexican climb, I wanted to try to set an FKT for Izta’s standard route. The climb gains just over 4000 feet, and I thought I could go faster than Joe Gray’s 2h11 ascent despite the altitude and somewhat indirect route. I had my doubts when I woke up, sore from 5 days sleeping in a tiny rental car, with my cough and headache worse than they had been the whole trip. I sat in the car for awhile, drinking cold instant coffee and eating bland crackers, then finally drove over to the trailhead and got ready. I started my watch and jogged down the trail, and almost gave up when my left glute and hamstring complained. But suffering up hills is what I do; instinct took over, and I got to work.

Crossing the first saddle before Los Pies, I was surprised to run into the Mexican Army. There must have been at least 50 guys in combat gear, most carrying assault rifles, some carrying regimental banners, hiking steadily up the loose climb. The ones in back noticed me and shouted to their companions, who stood aside for me to run through along the short downhill-to-flat section. I reverted to hiking as soon as the trail turned uphill, and slowly plodded past the rest. I was impressed by their progress carrying all that gear; one guy even had a gallon water jug strapped to the top of his pack.

Ayoloco Glacier

I saw no one at the hut, and only a few other people on the rest of the familiar route. I stuck to the rocks on the grind above the hut, and tried to run the flat and downhill sections along the undulating ridge. It was cold up high for a change, with a brutal west wind driving me to put on my hat and windbreaker, and to shelter my left eyeball. I sketched my way down onto the Ayoloco Glacier, passing two guys in crampons, then jogged by some people on the flat section before grinding out the final ridge climb to the summit.

South from north summit

Izta’s highpoint may have been its summit icefield many years ago, but it is much diminished, and is now an icy depression surrounded by three similarly-high points. I reached the south one first, where most people stop, then cut straight across the ice plain to climb the north one via its east ridge. This one had a couple of crosses, but both had geological markers, and the south summit looked higher from the north. ¿Quien sabe? Pleased to have made the south summit in about 2h02, and the north one in 2h08, I decided I was done with speed for the day.

Conquering Mexican Army

My plan had been to continue to La Cabeza, Izta’s northern distinct subpeak. However, I was sick of the cold wind, and it looked tricky from where I stood, so I moseyed on back the way I came. The Mexican Army had occupied the territory surrounding the hut, setting up brightly colored and very un-army-like tents. It seemed like they had plenty of time left to summit, but they were going to wait for la mañana. I made my way through camp, trying to be friendly and not get too close to any guns, then put on a bit of speed on the descent toward Los Pies. I stopped once to talk to a fellow American, then cruised back to the car.

I drove to the visitor center to rinse the volcanic dust off my feet and legs, then found a Starbucks to kill a few hours before driving to the airport. Using the Starbucks WiFi, I learned that I was far from the FKT, a blazingly fast 1h40 or so set (once again) by Santiago Carsolio. Oh, well… Luckily I left myself plenty of time to return the car, because it took me several circles and wrong turns to find the hole-in-the-wall car lot. I handed in the keys, got back my deposit, then began the 2-day transit nightmare home. It hadn’t been the Mexico trip I had planned, but non-tourist Mexico is still an awesome place.

Orizaba (3h18), Malinche

Orizaba from trailhead


At 18,491′, Pico de Orizaba is Mexico’s highest volcano, and the third-highest peak in North America. Gringos seem drawn to its north side, where the standard route leads from a hut at the end of a 4WD road, to the small and shrinking Jamapa Glacier, and on to the summit. However, like many Mexicans, I prefer its south side, where there is no hut, no glacier, and no need for an expensive 4WD taxi. Having done this route in 2016, I was familiar with the best ascent and descent paths, and wanted to see how fast I could do it. I was done playing around; it was suffering time.

Disgusting hut and Sierra Negra

I woke to clear skies and calm winds, and waited around the trailhead until about 8:30 to give the air up high a chance to warm up. By the time I started, it was t-shirt weather at the parking area. I jogged some flatter stretches of the 4WD road toward the bright orange and disgusting hut, but mostly hiked, taking the use trail shortcutting the switchbacks where I could. I had a lot of climbing to do, and was still not acclimatized enough to do much uphill running at this altitude.

I passed a group standing around a couple of burly trucks near the large boulder where people seem to camp, then gave the outhouse a wide berth as I passed the hut. I stopped for a minute once safely out of smelling range to eat a bar, then continued along one of several use trails, aiming for the talus rib to the left of the chute leading from the summit. This route avoids loose volcanic sand for most of the climb, and the stable talus is actually fairly pleasant.

I tried to keep a steady pace, but had to stop occasionally near the top of the rib, eating my second bar during one panting break. I passed two American-looking guys moving slowly, and a group of three locals, including a woman dressed sensibly in sweat pants. Despite the entire route being visibly snow-free from the trailhead, the Americans were carrying ice axes. After bringing one and not needing it in 2016, I had sensibly left mine at home.

The talus rib unfortunately ends short of the summit, and the rest of the climb is a mixture of miserable sand and treacherous hard-pack. A large group above me kicked down occasional rocks, which I easily dodged as I caught and passed them. I trended a bit right onto the hard-pack, climbed just left of the plane wreck, then regained the trail near the crater rim, just below the summit. I topped out in 2h29 and a few seconds, and was pleased with my time.

What a poser…

Since I was going for a round-trip time, I was still on the clock, but I hung out for a few minutes on the pleasantly non-windy summit to try to talk with a group of three, put on my windbreaker (I had been climbing in just an overshirt), and pose for a few photos for my friend’s son. Then I waved goodbye and bombed down the sand to the right of the ascent route. I nailed the descent, bombing down sand right of the rib, crossing, then continuing down more awesome sand and scree to just above the hut, losing over 3000 feet in under 30 minutes.

Sand collection

I stopped above the hut to empty a half-cup of sand from each shoe, then jogged/ran the route back to the trailhead. I passed some groups hiking up to the hut, and a couple of trucks bouncing down the road, then smiled as the guard raised the gate for me to run up the short hill to the sign. 3h18 round-trip was a good time for me, but I have no doubt that some fast Mexican like Santiago Carsolio could do it in under 3 hours, or perhaps already has.

Malinche

Sunset on Malinche


With lots of daylight left and nothing else to do, I drove over to La Malinche, a lower volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl. Carsolio had put up an insane time on it that I knew I could not beat, but I thought I might as well at least watch the sunset from its summit. There were plenty of people picnicking at the trailhead, and crowds of Mexicans and even a few Americans descending, but I was the only person moving uphill so late in the day. I tried to keep up a decent pace, but I was tired from the morning’s effort, and did not feel like pushing myself too hard.

Malinche shadow and Orizaba

It was cold and windy on the north ridge and on the summit, so I did not loiter long, but I did pause to enjoy the volcano shadow stretching out east toward Orizaba. I tried beat the darkness on the way down, hurrying a bit more, but dusk does not last long so close to the equator. I finished at a pathetic pace, descending the rough trail through the woods using my cell phone as a flashlight.

Popo again

The quesadilla place looked like it was closed, but they reopened just for me, so I quickly enjoyed a chicken quesadilla as they washed the plastic lawn chairs, then drove down the road to a pullout to sleep. I was just washing my legs when a police caravan rolled slowly by, then stopped. Oh, shit, here we go… However, it turned out my dread was misplaced. An officer in a bullet-proof vest approached, but instead of giving me a hard time, he simply asked where I was from, then told me that it wasn’t safe to camp here, and that I should sleep back near the restaurant. It didn’t feel any sketchier than the places I had slept the last few nights, but I did as he said, and passed an uninterrupted night back at the trailhead. Mexico is awesome.

Badwater to Whitney (L2H route, 53h09)

I come from the other side of that


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

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

First period of consciousness

Starting out (second time…)

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

Badwater from Panamint crest

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

Up Tuber Canyon

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

Moonrise over Telescope

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

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

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

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

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

Second period of consciousness

Let the tedium begin


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

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

So much of this…

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

Evening Owens Valley

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

Inyo mine trail

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

Sierra sunset

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

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

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

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

Third period of consciousness

Whitney at last


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

Portal crags

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

Ice blocking slab route

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

Me, hut, and Kaweahs

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

Gear, nutrition, and planning

A warrior must eat


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

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

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

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 piñon 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!

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.