Category Archives: Type II fun

Inspiration Traverse

Hanging on Primus


[This is way out of order, but better late than never. — ed.]

The Inspiration Traverse is a route through the heart of the North Cascades, crossing the Inspiration, Klawatti, and Austera glaciers. While probably more popular as a spring ski, it can also be done as a summer mountaineering trip providing access to five of Washington’s highest hundred peaks: Eldorado, Dorado Needle, Klawatti, Austera, and Primus. It can be done either as a point-to-point route from Eldorado Creek to Thunder Creek, or as an out-and-back. I had previously done all of these peaks, collecting them piecemeal over three outings, but it is possible to do them all in a day with sufficient motivation. Jason’s crazy quest to summit all the Bulger peaks in around fifty days finally gave me the motivation required to bash through devil’s club by headlamp and spend hours slogging across glaciers.

We had agreed to meet at the newly-reopened Eldorado trailhead the night before, but I did not see Jason when I pulled in after dinner. He finally arrived just before dark, having been delayed by his film crew (?!?) on a less-than-exciting outing to Mount Formidable. Knowing we had a long day, we agreed on a slight headlamp start, then I quickly went to bed and tried to get some sleep. Headlamp starts are rarely necessary with the days still so long this far north, and can even be counterproductive when, as in this case, the first part of the route involves bushwhacking, but I saw the need. I was surprised and a bit concerned when Jason told me his friend Anders was coming along, since he is mostly a Colorado guy without much Cascades experience, but he ended up handling the distance, scrambling, and glacier crossings without trouble.

We started out by headlamp, heading back down the road past the new washout and the sadly destroyed old log, crossed the new logjam across the main channel, and plowed into the brush toward the remaining ones. The new way is much less pleasant than the old, but it is already becoming beaten in. There were two minor thickets of devil’s club to manage, but we found dry log crossings, and were soon on the other side and above the swamp. Heading back upstream, we found the “unmaintained climbers’ trailhead” sign and were back on the well-defined Eldorado trail.

Klawatti’s south ridge

The trail, then boulders, then more trail went as usual, though Jason was dragging a bit after going almost non-stop for a month and tagging 78 peaks. The snow on the upper section before the crossover had melted out quite a bit since my last visit, but it was also cloudy and much earlier in the morning, and I was unpleasantly cold wearing all my layers. The normally inspiring view of Johannesburg was missing, and I was worried my hands would be painful and useless once we crossed onto the glacier. The clouds would remain for most of the day, and I would actually appreciate them, as there were no easy water sources on the glaciers, and the day would have been hot and desperately thirsty in the sun.

Why here, deer?

The snowfields and glacier leading up to the ice cap were soft enough that we did not bother with crampons. Near the base, we saw two animals bounding up much higher. They looked like deer rather than the expected mountain goats, and when they returned from their lap to the glacier, they bounded close enough to make that clear. I have no idea what they were doing, as there was nothing for them to eat up there, and I am not used to seeing deer running around on snow in the summer. It was Eldorado, so there was the usual cluster of tents at the rock ridge, one containing another Jason known to Jason.

Eldorado snow arete

None of us had put on crampons yet, so we carefully sketched our way up the bootpack, then bypassed a steeper section on the bare rock to its left. We crossed the summit snow arete, then hung out for awhile on the rock beyond, where I found the bench I had built still intact after 5-6 years. Summit documentation complete, we put on our crampons for an easier descent, then cut across as soon as we were below the major crevasses, following an old bootpack that fortunately led to the Inspiration-McAllister glacier saddle.

Moat shenanigans on Dorado Needle

We were still in the clouds, and I remembered the McAllister Glacier having some sketchy crevasses, but fortunately the bootpack led us right to the base of Dorado Needle’s summit scramble, taking a long detour past it before returning near the ridge. This is not the route I took when I first climbed it, but the ubiquitous rappel garbage showed that many parties had been using it. The first trick was getting from the snow to the rock. After examining a big, gritty rock step at the base of the ridge, I looked along the snow until I found a short jump to a flat ledge, which was safe but felt dicey in crampons. We each jumped, then stashed our snow gear for the scramble.

Scrambling on Dorado Needle

Jason had heard that a block had broken off in the last few years, creating a short crux somewhere between 5.7 and 5.9, which concerned me. The first part, getting up the left side to the ridge, was no harder than scrappy low fifth. From there, a short steep climb led to a wonderful hand traverse, then one more steep step and a slightly convoluted a cheval or hand traverse to a flat spot. Here we found the apparent crux, an angled fist crack leading up a ten-foot vertical step. I tried it first, and after a bit of experiment, hugged the block right of the crack, jammed a foot, step up onto a feature on the right, grabbed the positive edge on top, and was done. It was definitely not 5.7, much less 5.9. Jason and Anders followed, with Jason having a brief moment of panic before he managed the sequence in his non-sticky steel-nubbed shoes. We took in the lack-of-view, then scrambled back down to our snow gear and returned to the glacier.

We retraced our route back to the Inspiration Glacier, then followed another bootpack on a high traverse toward the col between the Tepeh Pillars and Klawatti. I did not remember which was the easiest to its summit, but fortunately Jason had some tracks on his phone, from which we learned that we should climb the ridge from our col, starting to the right. After some initial sketchiness, it was class 2-3 boulders to the summit, from which we had the usual view: glaciers and a lake below, and nothing more than a few hundred yards away at our own level thanks to the persistent clouds.

I want your pee

From Klawatti, we went around to the north and down the familiar and spitefully tricky step on the east side of Klawatti Col, then continued on glacier to Austera’s rocks. There we were met by a mountain goat, calmly checking us out and waiting for someone to pee. He backed off when we headed for the summit, watching from the east slope as we scrambled around into the notch and made the couple of fifth class moves required to reach the summit. Returning to our snow gear, we left some pee for the goat, then returned to snow for the long detour around Austera’s east ridge.

Primus

This part of the day was new to me, and I dreaded it. Primus is only a straight mile north of Austera, but the Primus-facing sides of Austera’s northwest and east ridges are steep and mostly loose. The only reasonable way to get around to the North Klawatti Glacier and Primus is to lose about 1000 feet to get around the east ridge’s toe. This went quickly on soft snow, but all the while I was dreading the return. Turning the corner, we found the glacier to be straightforward and well-behaved. We crossed the flat part, then gained Primus’ south face where the glacier became steeper and broken. The face looks like a choss nightmare from across the way, but was actually not bad, with plenty of slab sections, and mostly stable talus. In far less time than I had feared, we were on the summit.

Goode looks nice

We could have dropped to Thunder Creek and exited to Ross Lake, but we couldn’t get in touch with Jason’s support vehicle, and it would be more scenic and only slightly slower to return across the glaciers. We stitched together snow-patches on the way down Primus, then trudged around the foot of the ridge, switchbacked up the other side, and made a long traverse to Klawatti Col, where we were back on our outbound route. The clouds thinned enough to offer some views, and fresh boot-packs made travel easy across the Inspiration Glacier. From there it was a slide down to the base of Eldorado’s glacier, then a downhill death march to the Cascade River. When it became apparent that we would return right on the edge of headlamp time, Jason found some energy somewhere and bushwhacked ahead like a mad man. We ended up following the route I had found returning from Austera, our feet staying mostly dry on the way to the new logjam, then trudging up the road to the parking lot. Anders had all sorts of delicious food in his van’s fridge, and generously shared chili, potatoes, and cheese with Jason and I before they drove off and I settled in to sleep another night at the trailhead.

Blum, Hagan, Bacon

Traverse from Blum


The peaks between Baker and the Pickets were an island of unexplored terrain to me. Bacon Peak in particular had drawn my interest, with its remarkable volume of glaciers for a peak barely over 7000 feet. Cut off from the rest of the range by the Baker River to the north and west, deep Goodell and Bacon Creeks to the east, and the Skagit River to the south, these peaks are difficult to reach, with one high trailhead at Watson Lakes, and other approaches generally being cross-country from below 1000 feet.

Blum Lakes trail

I had initially thought of doing just Bacon, but someone I met mentioned that there were longer options. Looking around the web, I found the Watson-Blum High Route, which runs between the Watson Lakes and Baker River trailheads, connecting four of the area’s high peaks. Most people go south to north to take advantage of the high start, but they also have two cars. With only one of me and one car, I decided to do it as a bike shuttle instead, in which case it made more sense to hike low to high. The whole process took about 17 hours: 15 for the hike and 2 for the bike. I was going fairly hard, made only one significant route-finding error, and skipped Watson Peak, so even going south to north, the traverse would be a significant day.

More trail

After an easy day out of the Watson Lakes trailhead, I locked my bike to itself, set it in some bushes, and drove around to the inlet of Baker Lake. I set my alarm for a punishing 3:15 AM, then tried to get some sleep. I knew I would have to start the off-trail approach by headlamp, but I can do such things at need, and sometimes the faint tread of a climbers’ trail is almost easier to pick out by headlamp. I started out around 4:00, hiking the broad Baker River trail, crossing the bridge, then backtracking south to just north of Blum Creek, where I plunged into the jungle on something path-like.

Baker and Shuksan

I found and lost this path for awhile, making my way around devil’s club, through lesser brush, and over and under deadfall as I approached the valley wall, keeping the creek within hearing. At one point I found a bit of flagging tied uselessly to a tree with no hint of a path nearby; at least it cheered me up by indicating that other humans had passed this way. Cutting back and forth, I eventually found a faint tread as the valley steeped. It rivalled the Crescent Creek approach in obscurity, despite having been in regular use for a long time: I saw both new flagging and old notches in logs. The trail skilfully weaves through cliff-bands lower down, then fades as the angle eases around 4000 feet. The days are getting noticeably shorter, so I made it to more open woods in time to see the morning light on Baker and Shuksan, dimmed by a dark stripe where smoke was drifting over from the rest of the West.

Blum, ledge leading right up high

I found bits of trail as I continued up the broad ridge, skirting the Blum Lakes, then crossing before Lake 5820′ to reach Blum’s northeast ridge. I grabbed some frigid water here, then hurried uphill in the shade, briefly cold between the sweaty low-elevation climb and the long, sunny traverse. I followed the ridge until it got narrow, serrated, and mossy, then dropped down to the east face to crampon up snowfields. There seem to be several routes to Blum’s summit, but an obvious grassy ledge leading right from the upper snowfield to the southwest ridge seemed the easiest. The snow became precarious as it steepened, being neither solid enough for crampon points to stick, nor soft enough to kick deep steps, so I was happy to finally reach rock. My ledge worked wonderfully, depositing me on a broad ridge a short boulder-hop and snow-walk from the summit.

Pickets from Blum

I found the an register can, battered into uselessness and perforated by multiple lightning holes. I suppose it protects the contents from marmots and mountain goats, and the triple-bagged register inside went all the way back to 2012. The summit sees a few parties per year, many doing the traverse. However, Blum is an obscure and hard-to-reach summit, so those who climb it are often doing something interesting. I noted a party continuing to Pioneer Ridge, perhaps via Berdeen Lake and Mystery, and an email correspondent climbing Blum’s north ridge, a 1500-foot buttress separating two lobes of a glacier. I also saw that someone else had signed in earlier in the day, hard to imagine since I had not heard anyone, and did not see fresh tracks in any snowfield.

Hagan spires and glaciers

Looking south, I saw the rest of the day’s objectives from their scenic, glaciated sides, with Watson looking distressingly distant. The views northeast to Baker and Shuksan continued to impress, but the view of the nearby Pickets was spoiled by smoke thick enough to smell. Being in the northwest corner of the country, I have largely been spared smoke so far this summer, but I have experienced brutal smoke in the Cascades from an easterly wind or fires in British Columbia, so my luck will eventually end.

Blum south side

I headed off down Blum’s southeast ridge, finding generally delightful travel on or near the broad ridge. Near a notch, I found and destroyed some cairns leading to the class 3-4 bypass. Popular high routes like the Ptarmigan Traverse are basically trails at this point, and this area felt like it should stay wild awhile longer. A big part of their appeal to me is the constant attention and thought necessary to choose a good path, and I want to preserve that for others. I stayed on the ridge for awhile, contoured right across snow above a large glacial lake, then continued on the ridge past where a spur heads east to Lonesome Peak.

Left bypass ledge

Peak 6800+, anchoring the north end of Hagan’s large glacier, is a more formidable obstacle. Based on others’ online trip reports, most people seem to drop around it to the west. However, I saw a potential ledge to the east and, putting my faith in Goat, followed the hoof-prints, turds, and tufts of hair across generally-safe outward-sloping dirt to a notch. This could easily have stranded me above the Hagan Glacier, but instead I found a series of steep, chossy ramps leading down and left to where I could easily cross the moat. The broad glacier was flat enough that I did not even need crampons to cross it, traversing under Hagan’s northern subpeaks to the col north of its twin summits. From this notch, I got my first view of huge and colorful Berdeen Lake, buried deep in this part of the range and unseen by all but a few adventurous souls.

Hagan true summit

According to both my map and Peakbagger, the true summit is the eastern one, reached via an easy class 2-3 scramble from the notch. However, standing on that point, the other looked to both be higher and have a cairn. It also looked much more challenging, which appealed to me at this point in the day. I sketched my way down the connecting ridge a bit, then dropped onto the right side to traverse into the notch, where I found rap garbage (and me with no knife…). From there some exposed class 3-4 climbing led up the ridge to the summit. Looking back, I can’t say for sure if this one is higher, but it is certainly more worthy.

Hagan glacier

Looking at my map, it seemed like the best route south would descend the snowy valley emanating from between the two summits, then make a descending traverse southwest to the saddle near Lake 4560′. To enter this valley, I returned to the other summit, descended its south ridge a short ways, then cut back northwest down a choss gully to the snow. Once the angle mellowed, I had a pleasant hike and boot-ski to some tarns around 5900′, where I began my descending traverse.

Bacon and Green Lake

This saddle at 4560′ is the lowpoint of the route, in both elevation and fun. As I descended, the brush got higher and thicker, and trees began to appear. The last part was a full-on forest bushwhack with cliffs, with me descending trees and blueberries hand-over hand while fighting for purchase with my worn-out trail runners. I found no sign of a trail, and few useful bits of game trails. Finally emerging at the saddle, I found a clear path leading to a well-used fire ring, which I badly wanted to destroy. Returning to the alpine on the other side was a similar battle, though less steep and vicious. There are two bumps in the ridge leading west of Green Lake to Bacon, each adding about 500 feet of elevation loss, and I resented them in my increasingly hot and tired state. The scenery was hard to beat, with beautiful Green Lake (blue, actually) below and Bacon’s retreating north glaciers ahead, but the heat was brutal, and this is the longest stretch between peaks.

Bacon summit glacier

I stayed mostly on rock climbing Bacon, then cut left on snow to pass between the northern two of its many false summits. Crossing the col, I was confronted by its startling summit glacier, a small, thick cap of ice nestled in a bowl to its northwest. I put on crampons again to make my way up the partly-bare left side, then followed the crest to the small, rocky summit. In addition to its large northeast and small northwest glaciers, Bacon holds a large southeast glacier falling to a lake above Diobsud Creek. Across that valley, another remote ridge leads from Electric Butte south.

The slog home

I returned across the northwest glacier, then began heading out the standard Bacon approach, for which I had fortunately downloaded a track. The first part was logical if painful, losing a bunch of elevation into the head of Noisy Creek. From there it reclimbs the south side, passing under some pinnacles to regain the ridge around 5100′. I would have dismissed this route as a horrid bushwhack if I had not had a track to encourage me, but it is actually not bad, largely climbing open woods and boulder-fields. The trees in some of these woods are impressively goosenecked, testifying to the brutal snowpack they must survive on these steep north-facing slopes.

Gooseneck trees

I was tired and dreading the bike back to the car, but probably would have rallied to tag Watson if I had not screwed up the route here. Finding what I thought was a boot tread on the ridge, I stopped looking at my track for awhile, only to cliff out on a subpeak. Belatedly looking at the track, I saw that the route passed along the south side of the ridge here, side-hilling under the difficulties before returning to the north near Elementary Peak. Demoralized, I retraced my steps, then descended to get back on-route, sliding and cursing as my treadless shoes failed to find any grip on the compacted pine needles. Fortunately the steep, vegetated traverse was dry, and I made it back to the saddle without any mishaps.

Warranty time?

I thought I was nearly “home,” but I was also wearing down. My shoes were beyond done for after a month of hard use (we’ll see if Salomon honors their two year warranty), and my feet had been wet for hours. The final traverse to the trail at Watson Lake was a complicated post-glacial wilderness of valleys, snowfields, and slabs that was a grind in my depleted state. Even the trails were a nuisance, with enough branches leading to campsites that at one point I had to ask some campers how to get out of here. The mosquitoes were also hellish if I stopped for more than five seconds, making me wonder why anyone would camp out here.

I was elated to find my bike where I had left it. I quickly unlocked it, then immediately started riding before the mosquitoes and biting flies got too intense. I stopped several times on the first part of the road to complete my transition to bike mode, making an adjustment, then riding a short distance to escape the bug swarm. The 3000-foot descent to the Baker Dam was much more fun on a bike than in a car, as I could dodge and weave around the potholes and runnels. From there, the ride was just work, pushing half-heartedly to minimize headlamp time, then pedaling listlessly along the dirt road by headlamp. Finally reaching the car, I propped up my bike, threw my stinking shoes on the hood, and almost instantly fell asleep.

The Chopping Block

Chopping Block


It had been awhile since I had visited the Pickets, and I had only briefly visited the Crescent Creek basin briefly in 2014 to tag Terror via its standard route. That time, I had ascended and descended the relatively popular Terror Basin route, crossing back and forth across the Barrier after tagging several peaks in that basin. This time I decided to investigate the less-used Crescent Creek approach, which crosses the bottom of the Barrier near the Chopping Block. Crescent Creek is bordered by some of the harder, more obscure, and less-climbed Pickets summits such as the Rake, Ottohorn, and Twin Needles. All but East Twin Needle supposedly have class 3-5.easy routes on their south sides, though they seem to be done more often either via harder routes or as part of a traverse. However, I ended up shut down and demoralized after attempting West Twin Needle, and further beaten down by annoying travel over the Barrier and across the Terror Glacier to the standard route. Fortunately I had summited the Chopping Block and chance-met an online acquaintance along the way, so the day was not a total waste.

Giant tree fungus

I suppose I could and should have started by headlamp, but the days are still long, so I got a relatively leisurely start along the old Goodell Creek logging road. The parking lot was full, and the trail well-beaten-in, so I expected to find a small tent city at the usual camping spot for West MacMillan Spire. Where the Terror Basin approach turns sharply uphill, I continued straight onto unfamiliar ground, finding a decent climbers’ trail that soon left Goodell Creek and any former road behind to climb through the woods south of Terror Creek. The trail started out fairly easy to follow, but soon split and disintegrated. I lost it for awhile, weaving through small cliff-bands, balancing on logs, dodging devil’s club, and retracing my steps for awhile before finding some bits of flagging and trail near where it crosses the creek.

There were some logs as described online, and an obvious cairn on the other side, but none of the logs formed a bridge. I stupidly wasted some time trying to build a bridge over a constriction, only to have my inadequate logs washed away; then I walked fifty yards upstream to a flat, gentle part and waded across, finding it no more than calf-deep and smooth enough to be comfortable barefoot. Putting my shoes back on on the other side, I walked back downstream and picked up the “trail again.”

Goodell Creek and the Skagit

This part of the route is the most insanely-steep approach trail I have followed in the Cascades, climbing more or less straight up the side of the steep ridge between Terror and Crescent Creeks. Others have told nightmare stories of rappeling through woods to pass cliff bands while descending this route, but I found the trail relatively easy to follow in all but one or two places. It was certainly an efficient way to gain elevation, and almost pleasant with a daypack. Once on top of the ridge, the trail becomes fainter and more annoying. The crest is infested with blueberry bushes, and the trail fades in and out of existence. I was soon tired of thrashing through brush, bashing my shins and seeming to make little progress. I was also thirsty, as there was limited shade on the crest, and no water.

Triumph and Despair

After a marked increase in annoyance, I finally emerged on the slanted, triangular plateau forming the Barrier’s base. Travel was suddenly easier, and water plentiful. I sat on a slab to drink a liter, then filled up my bladder and continued toward the Chopping Block. My main goals were farther north, but I had a chance to return to them later this summer, and I did not want to repeat this approach. Nor did I want to return the way I had come, preferring instead to cross the Barrier and join the well-used MacMillan Spire approach.

West Peak through Terror from Chopping Block

I did not know anything about how to climb the Chopping Block, but it looked fairly easy on the south side, with access gullies on this side and a heather ledge leading back to the north and, presumably, the Barrier crossing. Approaching the base, I was surprised to hear shouts from above and see a climber rappeling the north ridge. I continued toward my chosen gully, which was loose but not particularly hard, and soon reached the near side of the sloping south face. Following the obvious line, I soon found some typical Cascades rap tat, reassuring me that I was on some version of a route. There were a couple of short, exposed sections that might have been low fifth class, but a line staying near the east side of the peak led to the summit plateau without too much difficulty.

The Barrier

I found a wet register in a cylinder on top, which the other party had not signed, carefully added my name, then set it out to dry a bit while having a snack. One reason to climb the Chopping Block is for the view, with a perfect panorama of the Southern Pickets from West Peak to Terror. They looked intimidating, and the bowl below them looked like a grim talus slog. I cleaned up the anchor garbage on top, then retraced my route to the heather traverse, which worked as well as I imagined.

While on top, I had seen a climber returning to a camp on the ridge. Unsure whether I wanted to subject myself to the talus-filled Crescent Creek cirque, I headed where the climber had gone, figuring that it would only be a minor detour if I decided to bail back to Terror Cirque, and that they might also have camped near the correct entry point to Crescent. I emerged on the ridge to find two climbers packing up camp, almost ready to hike down the way I had come. After speaking for a minute, one asked me my name, and when I told him, he revealed that he (Jon) had been emailing me recently about Picket beta. The world of people interested in rugged, remote Cascades peaks is small indeed. Talking to Jon and Alex for a half-hour restored my motivation, and I set off down the scree toward the Twin Needles with new determination.

The bowl was not as bad as it looked: the talus was fairly stable, and there were slabs and snowfields mixed in. Other than a couple of steep old moraines, I found no major obstacles in reaching the base of the ridge near the Needles. Beckey says that all of these peaks were first climbed long ago and, with the exception of East Twin Needle, are no harder than low fifth class from the cirque. He does not, however, describe any of the routes in any useful detail, and I quickly found that while there may be moderate routes — it certainly looks like there should be — most of the terrain is chossy, outward-sloping, or otherwise difficult or unpleasant.

Baker, Shuksan, and Southwest Pickets from Barrier

I tried several approaches to the West Twin Needle. First I tried a gully, which ended in a mess of chockstones and gained me nothing but some skin torn off my fingers by a slip getting into the moat. I got around the first chockstone to the right with some careful face climbing, but was confronted by more chockstones, and a not-quite-accessible ramp to the left. I tried another line left of the gully only to give up as the meandering ramps seemed to lead to steeper terrain. Slightly bloody and thoroughly unhappy, I tried going right around the corner, only to find steep turf and choss leading away from the Twin Needles and toward the Rake. Far from home and sick of this pointless activity, I retraced my route to the snow and climbed over to the upper Barrier crossing.

This crossing has a reputation for being tricky, but I do not remember it giving me much trouble back in 2014. However either it had gotten harder, or I was in a less buoyant mood from having been defeated at my main goals. I found sketchy downclimbing, packed dirt, and a slightly dubious moat crossing. My frustration continued on the glacier, where I found that my line staying close to the ridge toward West MacMillan Spire was probably too crevassed to safely cross. I instead made a long detour down and right to reach the glacier’s toe. The traverse toward camp and the trail home held its own irritations, with steep slabs left behind by the retreating glacier, often lubricated by melt streams from what remained.

Parting view of Pickets (2021)


Southern Pickets, July 2014

Finally reaching the normal camp, I was surprised not to find any tents. Even the boot-prints in the snow looked old, as if everyone had left that morning. This made no sense to me, it being a weekend. Fortunately the path, once I found it, was easy to follow, and after a long alpine traverse, I enjoyed bombing nearly straight down to the road. I even played the same album I had in 2014 by the Klezmatics — Jewish wedding dance music goes well with the quick reactions and careful footwork required on such a descent. Once back at the road, I jogged and quick-hiked to beat boredom and darkness, but stopped to harvest thimbleberries when they were close to the trail. Most of the cars were gone by the time I reached the lot, so I set my shoes out on the hood and settled in for another night.

The Zebra, Moran, East Horn (15h45)

Scrambly bits of Zebra


The Zebra has been somewhat of a white whale to me ever since Bill and Peggy brought it to my attention five or so years ago. It is a minor and obscure peak northwest of Mount Moran, first climbed by Leigh Ortenburger in 1970 and seldom climbed since, supposedly 5.4 by its only known route. I had twice tried to reach it from Leigh Canyon via the Thor-Moran ridge. Peggy and I turned back the first time after she dislocated her shoulder, and I gave up the second time after my will was drained by the arduous approach around Leigh Lake, along Leigh Canyon, and up to the ridge. This time I tried a different approach, around Moran and up the West Triple Glacier, and a different partner, my Sierra friend Robert. Though it was definitely better than the Leigh Canyon approach, it was still a brutal day, with a challenging return over Mount Moran and down the Skillet Glacier. Climbing the East Horn as a bonus peak added about an hour, making for an almost sixteen-hour day, the longest I have done in months.

Zebra from Moran’s NE shoulder

We left the Ranch a bit before 4:00 AM, and were on the String Lake trail by 4:15, putting in a few minutes of headlamp time before the near-solstice dawn. Both mosquitoes and campers were still asleep as we made our way along Leigh Lake and down the stream to Bearpaw Bay, though we woke the humans catching up on events since we had last hiked together. From the bay, we continued along the Skillet Glacier use trail for awhile, then took off north where it heads west along the glacier’s outflow. I had done the Triple Glacier route before, and remembered finding an excellent game trail that saved me much suffering, but I was not so lucky this time. The woods between Moran and Jackson Lake are choked with deadfall, brush, and bogs, making for savage bushwhacking by Teton standards, and Robert and I got a healthy dose. We found the game trail for awhile, then lost it again, finally ending up on the subtle ridge leading to the 10,000-foot shoulder on Mount Moran’s northeast ridge. After traveling much of our horizontal distance, we gained the majority of our elevation on the steep but more open ridge. Somewhere around 9000 feet the mosquitoes relented and the snow began. I had visited this area in 2015 to climb Moran via the Triple Glacier, which should have made the approach familiar and quick, but I am slower now, and did not remember it well enough to help us much.

West Triple Glacier and Zebra

Moran’s Triple Glacier route climbs the eastern glacier, then continues on snowfields above. As we were headed for the western one, we were soon on new ground. I initially hoped to traverse low on the eastern glacier, then continue across the other two to climb the western one, but after crossing the first glacier’s toe, we found ourselves cliffed out far above the second. We descended the ridge separating the eastern and central glaciers toward Moran Canyon, then dropped through steep woods and class 3-4 terrain to the latter’s terminal moraine. From there, we climbed the moraine’s crest to where it joins that of the western glacier, then made a sketchy third class dirt descent to the western Triple Glacier.

Lower glacier

I had been out of water for half an hour, so while Robert put on his crampons (a much more involved process than me putting on mine), I crossed to a cascade on the other side to grab a couple liters of the last water we would likely find for awhile. Once Robert joined me, we began a steady ascent up moderate snow toward the upper-right corner of the glacier, just below the saddle on the spur ridge between the Zebra and the main Thor-Moran ridge. The angle was moderate most of the way, and the snow was firm enough for our steps rarely to collapse.

Glacier headwall

The upper glacier is split by a rock band on the right, and an ice bulge on the left. I considered going to the far left of the bulge, but decided that a snow ramp through the rock would be more direct and not too steep. I had been able to French-step the rest of the route, but had to “front-point” on my front-point-less crampons through the gap, and on much of the snow above, which remained steep. It was too steep for self-arrest to be realistic, but not steep enough for climbing to feel insecure. Robert did well on this part, following my boot-pack without hesitation and even stopping to take some photos. Coming from the increasingly dry Sierra, he was unnerved by the Tetons’ steep snow two years ago, but has since become much more confident.

Start of the Zebra

Reaching the top of the snow, I climbed a short gully of mud and rotten rock to reach the saddle, where I hid away from the breeze to put away my crampons. Robert shortly joined me, and we decided to stash our axes and spikes at the notch before scrambling to the summit. We started left of the crest, climbing a class 2-3 talus chute with good holds on the left, then crossed to the right to continue on broad ledges. The Zebra’s rock slopes down to the east (right), and is mostly sheer on the west (left), so climbing right of the crest can be either fast or tenuous, while the route along the crest is slower but more secure.

I traversed low, bad idea

Traversing right, we soon regretted leaving our axes behind, as we were forced to cross a short slush-field with a bad runout. Grabbing a sharp rock, I kicked deep steps and hacked in a handhold, which I left behind for Robert’s use. Beyond, we climbed a moderate but wet and mossy corner to return to the ridge. I checked out the crest, which looked like a cheval country, then opted instead for an exposed and outward-sloping moss traverse below a snowfield. Robert, sensibly enough, did not like the look of this and, being a Real Climber, took the ridge, meeting up on the other side of my green folly.

Beyond, we traversed right again, then climbed easy ledge-y terrain to the crux, a right-facing dihedral leading to the final false summit. While vertical, this short pitch had enough positive holds to keep it low fifth class. From the top, a bit more scrambling and a final short face section led to the small two-humped summit. We found no register or cairn, only a weathered piece of purple cord where someone had needlessly rappeled on their return. I found a seat out of the wind amidst the loose jumbled rocks next to the summit, while Robert took out his fancy camera to capture some enviable shots and a panorama.

Rotten Thumb from Zebra

Having made the effort to reach this remote place, we had thought of climbing nearby Rotten Thumb, but the traverse looked impassable, with a vertical notch followed by a tower sheer on three sides and slightly overhanging to the east. The obvious route to Rotten Thumb leaves the west Triple Glacier below the rock band and climbs moderate snow to its northeast ridge. Since this would require 1000 vertical feet or so of backtracking, and the peak is aptly named (a rounded rotten blob), we decided to save it for sometime in the distant future. We reversed our route, finding the slush-traverse warmer and sketchier than before, then recovered our gear and headed toward the Thor-Moran ridge.

Moran from the Zebra

While the Zebra’s rock is generally decent, the rock between it and the main east-west ridge is often rotten, and this section involved some cautious and time-consuming climbing back and forth across the crest. This section had drained my last motivation on a previous Zebra attempt from Leigh Canyon, but I found it easier to bear when it was mandatory. Robert had not climbed Thor, and it was only a short distance away, but we figured it would take one or two more hours to make the side-trip, and we still had quite a bit of climbing between us and home.

The section between the Zebra saddle and the main Thor-Moran ridge is frequently loose and/or outward-sloping, making it unpleasant and slow. I remembered turning around on this section on my previous attempt to reach the Zebra via Leigh Canyon, too discouraged after bushwhacking around Leigh Lake and slogging up the south side of the ridge near Thor. We found some low fifth class terrain in this section, but it could probably be avoided with better route-finding.

Thor with Hidden Couloir

The main ridge is still loose in places, but much better climbing than the spur. I have traversed all or part of it several times, and am always impressed by the exposure and a bit surprised at the occasional difficulty. There are sections of very steep climbing on blocky, debris-strewn rock, and a traverse to the north after a chossy white gap with big air down to the East Triple Glacier. Robert was dragging a bit at this point, but had enough climbing skill and scrambling experience to overcome his fatigue. I have done various things to surmount Moran’s final granite cap, many of them unpleasant, but this time I had good luck heading directly up and right from the final notch. We stopped to refill water at one of several snowmelt rivulets, then continued to the summit plateau. Moran is a souped-up version of Longs Peak in Colorado, with no easy way to a large and nearly flat summit.

Robert spent some time taking photos from the top, then we proceeded down the Skillet. The top had gone into the shade, so we put on crampons and downclimbed the first few hundred feet facing in. Below that, we were able to take off our spikes and plunge-step or boot-ski. The snow was frustratingly sun-cupped, but lacked the deep center runnel I had found in previous years. I am normally intent to get to the bottom as quickly as possible (generally 30-35 minutes for a 5000-foot snow descent), but this time we pulled off to the right below Moran’s saddle with the East Horn.

Starting down Skilliet

There is supposedly a 5.1 Chouinard route up the Horn from this side, but what we found felt harder, perhaps because it was wet and we were tired. Robert had had enough, so I continued alone, wandering up outward-sloping ledges to reach the ridge slightly beyond the saddle. There are two headwalls between the saddle and summit, neither of which looks easy to take head-on. I went around the first to the left (north), then tried the same on the second, only to be turned back by ice and wet slabs. Instead, I made my way down and around to the right, climbing past some shrubs and up one side of a slight gully to return to the ridge perhaps a hundred yards from the summit. The route felt at least as hard as the Zebra’s supposed 5.4 — I’ll never be a good judge of climbing grades.

East Horn ridge

Mindful of the lengthening shadows and Robert’s increasing boredom, I semi-hurried back to where he was waiting, then we returned to the glacier for what I hoped would be a quick descent. Normally the lower Skillet is fun and fast, with decent boot-skiing to the “pan,” perhaps a bit of postholing, then excellent snow extending down the outlet stream to the gravel- and aspen-flats below. However this year is the driest I have ever seen the Tetons in June, and the stream was only intermittently bridged by snow. We carefully slid the solid-looking parts, picking our way down the loose garbage in between, taking far longer than I had hoped.

I have done the trail from the Skillet to Bearpaw Bay enough times that I should be able to get it right, but I usually manage to screw up at least a bit, as the use trail fades or gets lost in the area’s many game trails. Fortunately Robert had recorded a track and had a bit of battery left, so we were able to re-find the trail lower down and avoid some tedious bushwhacking. The mosquitoes around Bearpaw and Leigh Lakes were the worst I have ever experienced in the Tetons, and they were fast enough to keep up at a walk. Along with the tedium of Leigh Lake’s endless east shore, the bugs finally drove me to jog, and Robert perked up enough to join me, so we hobbled into the String Lake lot well before dark, taking a respectable but not mind-blowing 15h45 to slay my white whale of a striped horse of a mixed metaphor of the northern Tetons.

Lonesome Miner Trail (20h20)

Bighorn cabin


The Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) is a route through the Inyo Mountains near Lone Pine, traveling between the range’s crest and eastern base. The Inyos are a desert range made mostly of garbage rock, and the route does not go over or even particularly near any peaks, so it is a strange place to find Yours Truly. However, the Inyos have their own grandeur, rising almost 10,000 feet from the Saline Valley on one side and over 6,000 from the Owens on the other. Their eastern side is also both hospitable and mind-bendingly remote: while most canyons have year-round springs, these are mostly at elevations between five and six thousand feet, separated from the inhospitable and uninhabited desert valley below by a vertical mile of brushy slot canyons and loose ridges. The springs are no easier to reach from the barely-inhabited Owens Valley to the west, from which one must climb a vertical mile to the crest before descending several thousand feet. Nevertheless, a brief mining boom occurred around these water sources around 1900, and the LMT links some of the water sources and mines via their old roads and pack trails.

A lonesome miner must eat

Ever since first hearing of it in 2018, and backpacking it around that winter’s solstice, I had a vague idea that the LMT might be doable in a single day. With trails that span elevations ranging from 4000 to 9500 feet and are difficult to follow at night, timing is difficult for a fast trip. The best time might be in October or November, between when daytime temperatures are bearable and when the first significant snow coats north slopes. However it can also be doable in March or April with some tolerance for snow and/or heat. The official route crosses the range from Hunter Canyon on the Saline to Pat Keyes Pass on the Owens side. However this involves a hundred-mile car shuttle on annoying dirt roads, so I prefer to come in from Long John Canyon on the Owens side, requiring slightly more climbing but only a ten-mile shuttle.

Dawn from above Long John

I had not planned to attempt the LMT on this trip, but when my circumstances thrust it upon me I shoved about 5500 calories into a daypack, drove as far as I dared up Long John Canyon road, and set my alarm for 2:30 AM. I was not sure I had the fitness or desire to do the whole thing, but an early exit via Forgotten Pass would leave me only a few miles from the starting trailhead. I took longer than usual preparing in the morning, then started out around 3:20, hiking and occasionally jogging the road as it decayed into the wash. I been this way twice in the past, so although the trail is often faint to nonexistent, I had little trouble following the general route to the crest, where I saw dawn on the barely-drivable road north from Cerro Gordo. I sent a few final text messages, then began jogging down the other side, committing myself to at least a very long day.

Postholing begins

Conditions soon reminded me of my previous December trip, with snow filling in the switchbacks on some of the east-facing switchbacks. The road was easy to follow, but the snow was punchy and deep enough to force me onto its edges, making running difficult. Snow-line seemed to be somewhere between six and seven thousand feet on the wooded north slopes, foreboding a frustrating day. The south-facing climb back to the Hunter saddle was dry, however, and I climbed comfortably in a t-shirt as the sun finally hit me.

Lower Hunter Canyon

The descent into Hunter was again snowy, but the trail was easy to follow, as was the dry trail along the wash’s bottom. I paused at the camp spot before Bighorn Spring, where we had slept on my 2018 backpack, and noted that only one party had signed the register since then. Continuing past the spring and nearby rusting machinery, I climbed up the bank to the left, admiring the view down-canyon from above a fork, then plugged in my poor cold phone to charge before contouring into the north tributary in search of the trail up to Bighorn Mine.

Bighorn cabin and Saline

I wasted some time finding the route, as the original trail followed the wash and has therefore been consumed by rubble and brush. After a bit of exploration, I proceeded left and spotted some cairns along the right bank. The line of cairns followed the edge of a collapsing rubble cliff, which made me doubt that this was the original route, before following old rockwork as it switchbacked up the right side of the valley. I stopped to take some photos of old tools and a broken bowl at the mine, then continued to the Bighorn Cabin. Perched on a narrow spur ridge near 7000 feet, the cabin is close to the ore vein, and has an incredible view of the Saline Valley below. However living there must have been arduous, requiring frequent trips to the spring 1500 feet below for water. The cabin is in good shape and well-equipped with tools, cots, and a stove, but I doubt any of the handful of people who now visit each year stay the night. I took some photos of the cabin and commemorative plaque, then kept moving.

Frenchy’s from above

The route is again somewhat unclear here, traversing along a rusty pipe and continuing up-canyon for awhile before switchbacking past some more prospects to the ridge above 8000 feet. From this crossing, a difficult trail descends 2500 feet to Frenchy’s Cabin in Beveridge Canyon. This section is faint, and has been obliterated partway down in a talus field, but cairns and careful attention make it possible to follow by daylight, even in snow. Unfortunately said snow was piled calf- to knee-deep on parts of the trail, with a crust only beginning to soften as the morning warmed, turning potential running terrain into laborious hiking. My friend Kim had proposed doing the route in the other direction for precisely this reason — you might as well be going uphill if you have to walk — but plowing uphill would have been much more tiring.

Thanks, Kim!

I reached Frenchy’s before noon, around eight hours into the day, and paused to refill my water and pillage the two sandwiches Kim had left in the cooler for passers-by. This was the only point on the route at which I could bail, climbing about 3000 feet to Forgotten Pass and returning to the Owens Valley near my car. Pleased with my progress, and believing myself almost halfway through the LMT, I decided to continue to the end, expecting to reach the top of Pat Keyes Pass around dark. This would allow me to do the last climbing, and most of the tricky route-finding, before headlamp time.

Beveridge Ridge cabin

Passing the “town” of Beveridge, I climbed past the trail east to the Saline Valley, ascending mostly easy-to-follow switchbacks along the spur ridge to Beveridge Canyon. The thermometer at Frenchy’s had read 65 degrees, and it was hot on the south-facing slope, but I was still moving well enough. Stopping at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin, I signed the register and took a few photos. I also took a packet of beef ramen, licking the noodles, sprinkling the flavor packet on top, and shoving them into my mouth as I turned the corner to posthole through more snow on the way to the bulldozer and other remains of the Keynot Mine. With no obvious road leading to this spot around 8000 feet, I am not sure how the equipment reached this remote spot. Perhaps it was helicoptered in to the dirt helipad at the cabin, then driven around the corner.

Keynot machinery

On my previous trip, we had made the mistake of continuing along the mine to its other end, following more evidence of mining until the level road disappeared into the hillside, then sidehilling miserably for several hours across loose terrain to reach the next ridge. This time, I followed a line of cairns and a faint trail back and uphill from just before the dozer, eventually finding bits and pieces of old trail leading to a collapsed cabin. I suspect that the LMT route follows a path that predates the mechanized Keynot Mine, connecting Beveridge to a more primitive prospect and the hermitage of McElvoy Canyon. This trail frustratingly gains and loses elevation, but is preferable to and far faster than cross-country travel across the steep hillside.

Bleeding bighorn

After the high traverse, the trail into McElvoy Canyon is one of the faintest and most confusing parts of the route. After descending along a hardpack dirt ridge, where the faint trailbed has almost completely disappeared, it weaves around complex crags on the canyon’s steep south side. In several places, it crosses unstable talus-fields that have obliterated whatever trail once existed. Looking for sporadic cairns and rockwork on either side of these slopes, I was able to follow its general path, though not its every detail, on the long descent, finally losing it in game trails and brush just above the stream, near where it flows in a cascade over smooth slabs.

McElvoy stonework

Here the correct route follows the southern bank downstream, eventually crossing near some well-built stone cabins. However I had neglected to bring the route description, and in my haste forgot the route. I wasted perhaps half an hour here, first looking upstream, then following a wash with a giant cairn just upstream of the McElvoy Mine buildings. Finally, I remembered that the correct route starts in the ravine immediately behind the cabins. Though it starts out well-built and clear, it soon fades and splits, with branches leading to multiple small digs. I initially went too far left, then contoured right to find the correct route, which climbs a hillside near the eastern edge of the prospecting, then switchbacks up a dirt ridge out of the canyon’s north side.

Here I remembered the trail well, and followed it easily as it returns west along a ridge toward the Inyo Crest, then contours north through woods to reach Pat Keyes Canyon. I had lost too much time crossing McElvoy, and was both frustrated and cold plowing through the slushy snow on this high traverse. Fortunately the trail crosses the canyon relatively high, as it must climb to 9500 feet on the other side to cross back to the Owens Valley via Pat Keyes Pass. Unfortunately the sun had set, I was out of water, and the stream was small and muddy where the trail crosses it. I eventually filled my water bladder with cold hands, then lost the trail on its way downstream toward a supposed ruin.

The trail probably climbs behind this old cabin, but I had run out of light, and decided to simply claw my way directly up to the ridge and find the trail when I reached it. I had counted on reaching this part, which is cold and difficult to follow, with at least some daylight left, and was annoyed and discouraged to once again be doing it in the dark. After a bit of cross-country wandering I picked up the faint Pat Keyes Pass trail, which for once follows the line on the USGS topo. There are enough cairns that the trail would probably be easy to follow at a jog by daylight with fresh legs, but I was dark and fatigue forced me to proceed at a walk.

After traversing around a couple of bumps on the south side of the ridge, the trail crosses to the north for the final half-mile to the pass. Here the misery began, with shin-deep powder and uneven rocks covered by a crust now hard enough to hurt my shins through my pants. I wallowed and cursed in the dark for what felt like an hour to finally reach the saddle, crossing at a point with no trail or markings. I had lost quite a bit of time here wandering last time, so failing to at least start on the trail boded ill. It was almost 9:00 PM — well after dark, but fortunately early enough for Leonie to still be awake. I told her that I would be coming out Pat Keyes, then texted Kim to see if she had a GPX track for the descent.

Unfortunately the cold drained my phone’s aging batter in the few minutes I had it out, knocking out both my communication and navigation. I knew the trail trended left, and did not follow the line on the map, so I headed in that general direction, looking around carefully for cairns above and erosion below the snow. I luckily found the line, following it slowly until my phone revived and I was able to not only see a map, but swap in fresh headlamp batteries. The cairned route, which fades in a couple of places, seems to stay right of the line on the topo, descending closer to a faint drainage before rejoining it where the overall slope steepens. I lost trail a couple of times, and there may be another route closer to the line, but my path was not too onerous.

The trail became easier to follow as I approached the level of the Owens Valley’s lights: Independence, Lone Pine, and some smaller settlements whose names I forget, connected by the cars crawling between on Highway 395. I was pleased to be able to jog the final switchbacks, which are smooth and easy to follow, but maddeningly horizontal compared to most of the trails I had visited. Reaching the trail register, I took a couple of experimental selfies, signed out, and started the two-mile walk to the car. It had taken me about 20h20 from where I had parked on the road up Long John Canyon. With better conditions and no major route-finding errors, I could have done the Lonesome Miner Trail in under 20 hours, and probably under 19; a faster runner somewhat familiar with the route could easily go under 18. I had doubted that I could complete it in a single push, but math works even in the Inyos: 50-55 miles with 15-20 thousand feet of climbing are still doable in a single push.

Inyo double crossing

Saline Valley


The Inyo Range parallels the Sierra Nevada across the Owens Valley between highways 168 and 190. Along with the Panamint and Sierra Nevada, it is one of three neighboring ranges rising about 10,000 feet from the valley to its east. Unlike the other ranges, the Inyos do not have a paved road or civilization on their east side. The Saline Valley contains only a dirt road and some hot springs, now closed due to the Coronavirus; the miners that once lived on that side of the range built their cabins several thousand feet above the valley floor, near the springs in nearly every canyon. Since many of the canyons narrow to slots near the valley floor, these cabins were difficult to access, sometimes even requiring sketchy hand-built ladders.

Crossing from the Owens Valley to the Inyo and back again was not my idea: it involves too few peaks and too much desert suffering. However Kim is drawn to such things, and as I age, I find fewer ridiculous projects in the western States that motivate me. There are several ways to cross the Inyos on “trails,” one of them being via Forgotten Pass and Beveridge Canyon. We had attempted this from the Saline side this spring, but were too late in the year, and gave up after reaching Forgotten Pass, tagging Voon Meng Leow Peak as a consolation prize before returning to the roasting desert. This time we came from the Owens side. The sun would be against us, as we would reach the Saline Valley around mid-day, but the Owens side of Forgotten Pass is easier to negotiate by headlamp, a necessity so late in the year.

Sunrise in Beveridge

I met Kim at the 2WD trailhead along the graded Owenyo Road, where we slept until 2:00 AM before taking Kim’s 4Runner up the “road” — some faint tire tracks dodging boulders and creosote up an alluvial fan — to the “trailhead” — the place where the 10-foot-deep main gully has made vehicular travel utterly impossible. From there we followed the “trail” — occasional footprints and cairns leading up and along the wash — to a trail register and some built-up switchbacks. Welcome to the Inyos! Fortunately Kim had both familiarity and a GPX track from previous forays, and it was close to the full moon, so we had no trouble following the path to the pass, or descending the other side to Frenchy’s Cabin, our water source for the crossing. Temperatures stayed more or less in the upper 20s or 30s, though the air was somewhat colder in the vicious Owens Valley inversion at the 2WD trailhead, and at the pass itself.

I had anticipated a 20-hour day, and was therefore surprised to reach Frenchy’s at the end of headlamp time. Someone had clipped back the bush and repaired the waterspout since we had visited in the spring, but there was a noticeable pool of cold air at the cabin, so we did not linger. Whoever had worked on the cabin had also done sporadic work on the trail down to Beveridge, so the previous brush-fest went quickly and painfully by Inyo standards.

Joyous sidehilling

The mental crux of the route is a long, rolling traverse out of Beveridge Canyon. The bottom is brush-choked and possibly steep and narrow below the “town” of Beveridge, so the trail traverses up and out to the ridge to its north before descending to the Saline Valley. This section, through scrub, decaying granite, and sand, has mostly collapsed over the years, and is frequently nearly useless or invisible. While it is easier than going cross-country over the surrounding terrain, it would hardly be called a trail anywhere other than the Inyos, and is a prime example of how I have badly underestimated travel times on previous trips to the range.

Beveridge Ridge to the valley

The trail improves once it reaches the ridge north of Beveridge, then gets even worse as the ridge narrows and it leaves the crest. It perhaps used to switchback down this slope, but there is no longer anything resembling a trail for much of the route between the crest and some washed-out mine roads far below. Though it must have once been passable by the mules that dragged the heavy materials up to Beveridge, the route now includes short sections easy class 3 rock and dirt. Struggling to get at my Pop-Tarts on the way down the easy part, I managed to superman onto the trail’s sharp limestone, though I got away with only a couple of cuts and blood blisters on my palms. I was therefore more cautious than usual on the steeper part. We jogged the badly-eroded mine road down to its junction with the Keynot Ridge “trail,” then deemed that we had reached the valley floor.

Now we have to go back?!

Though it is only 14 straight-line miles from Lone Pine, the mouth of Beveridge Canyon is a much longer drive around via the Saline Valley Road. The horizons in both directions are completely different from those in the Owens Valley, with the Inyos’ larger and more dramatic east side to one side, and the similarly hostile desert ranges of Death Valley to the other. I therefore felt more remote than I would have on the Sierra Crest, a similar distance in the opposite direction from town, or on summits deeper into the Sierra Nevada. It is not even such a long way by trail — 32 miles and 16,000 feet of climbing round-trip — but it felt like a day trip between two disconnected lands.

The midday climb back out of the Saline Valley could be crushing, with brutal heat, no shade, and a parody of a trail climbing thousands of feet. However it was much cooler than when we had visited in May, with mostly comfortable t-shirt conditions on our hike back up the road. The trail was no easier to find going up than down, following sporadic cairns and footprints. Because this section of “trail” would be nearly impossible to follow at night, late fall seems like the only reasonable time to do the Inyo crossing, despite the short days and cold temperatures up high. Like similar desert routes with ten thousand feet or so of elevation change, like White Mountain’s west ridge and the L2H route from Badwater to Whitney, this route has a narrow window of opportunity.

Moonrise over Last Chance Range

The long grind from the valley back to Frenchy’s is more tolerable when broken up into four stages: the headwall out of the valley, the climb up Beveridge Ridge, the sidehill traverse, and the bushwhack from Beveridge to the cabin. The whole thing is overwhelmingly grim, but each part by itself is small enough to be tolerable. We reached Frenchy’s by late afternoon, feeling more positive than I had expected, and on track to finish much earlier than the 10:00 PM or so that I had feared. However it was already unpleasantly cold: cold air pools in the canyon and the sun apparently does not reach the cabin this time of year, so there was still ice on the ground next to the spring. We filled our water, Kim stepped in the stream, I froze my hands, and we started off again as quickly as possible to warm up.

Sierra silhouette

We reached the pass right at dusk, watching the moon rise over the Last Chance Range as the sun silhouetted the Sierra. We checked our phones (pathetic online creatures that we all now are), put on our headlamps, and took off jogging toward the car. I still felt surprisingly good, but the fact that I had more trouble following the trail than I had on the way out suggested that fatigue was catching up. As always when returning from the Inyo crest, the descent dragged on longer than it seemed it should. I was feeling impatient toward the bottom, where the route crosses the wash and climbs around a constriction, and apparently so was Kim, who began jogging the downhills and even flats. I probably would have walked, as conditions were pleasant and I had plenty of food and water, but I gamely picked up my pace, and was glad to have someone younger and more motivated to push me a bit.

We returned to the car in about 15.5 hours, much better than the 20 I had feared, and I felt that we could have done more. After losing the road in the wash, we eventually followed the correct set of tire tracks, returning to my car in time for dinner and a full night’s sleep. I am not driven to additional super-long days in the Inyos, but there are many more potential routes, including other crossings and loops from either side. I look forward to seeing what others do.

Arrow, Vestal, Trinity… Storm King

Tenmile Creek and Grenadiers


I had already climbed all of the Grenadiers, in three trips down from Molas Lake: Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities in 2012, Storm King through the Guardian in 2016, and the western ones out to Garfield in 2017. Since then, I had occasionally thought of trying a larger Grenadier traverse. The western peaks are mostly miserable talus-heaps, with only a bit of good scrambling around Point Pun. The eastern ones are somewhat better, though still nowhere near as good as the central ones on the south side of Vestal Basin. When I became aware, on a backpacking trip with Ted, of another moderate route on Arrow, the supposedly 5.6 northeast ridge, the time seemed right to try the traverse.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

I have called Molas Lake a “once-a-year approach,” but it is actually not so bad: about 2.5 hours for me to lower Vestal Basin, most of which is easy by headlamp and scenic by day. I set my alarm for 3:30, and was off by 4:30, planning to reach the basin shortly after headlamp time. I meant business, so I started off listening to White Zombie on the run down to the Animas, then switched to slightly less aggressive music for the long hike-jog up the other side. Surprisingly, I saw no tents or other people on this increasingly-popular stretch of trail.

Approaching NE ridge

I left the trail just before the first meadow in Vestal Basin, crossing the stream on a couple of logs to find a faint use trait — this is Colorado, so of course there’s a trail. The obvious line seemed to follow a semi-treed slope or ramp up and right to reach Arrow’s north ridge. The “Northeast ridge (5.6)” is a complete misnomer: Arrow has a north ridge, not a northeast one, that ridge is mostly the right side of a broad face, and it is not 5.6. In any case, I made my way up class 2-3 ground to the right edge of the face, then followed it as it became a ridge for the last few hundred feet.

Upper NE ridge

The basin’s uplift layers have broken off along this route, creating several short, vertical-to-overhanging steps. Passing these required a few moves of low fifth class, but certainly nothing that felt 5.6 in my trail runners. I was a bit disappointed, but did not really mind, since it was pleasant in the windless sun, and the view of Electric’s nicely-layered east face led me to wonder about better ways to climb what is just a choss-pile from the south. The final stretch of the ridge is a nicely-exposed fin, more impressive than difficult, which merges with the standard route just below the summit. I descended the standard ramp, staying near the east side higher up, thinking as I shuffled down the slabs that this really is the only logical way to climb this peak; other routes are less fun and feel contrived.

Wham face

Once off Arrow, I boulder-hopped around to Vestal Lake to grab 2.5 liters of water. Other than snow-patches, this would be my last water until I was off the ridge many hours later. With a heavy pack, I started up the Wham face, hiking the low-angle slabs as they slowly steepen to the obvious grassy ledge. The standard Wham Ridge route hugs the right edge from here, climbing slowly-steepening blocky terrain to the face’s point. I had heard of a slightly harder route called “Center Shift” that climbed the middle of the face, and decided to try that instead. It might have been a bit harder than the standard Wham, but it was also less fun, a haphazard linking of slabs, seams, and corners, instead of a fun, blocky romp along an exposed edge. Once again, the standard route proved best.

Middle Trinity

From Vestal’s summit I followed the usual descent, down a gully on the back, then around left to the broad Vestal-Trinity saddle. I traversed along the ridge on bits of human- and goat-trail, then climbed the class 2-3 ridge over several false summits to West Trinity, knocking over a few pointless cairns along the way (it’s a ridge; you follow it to the top…). Middle Trinity looks especially impressive from here, with the rock layers tilting up to form a smooth, steep north face above a permanent snowfield.

Final difficulties on Middle Trinity

The traverse to Middle Trinity is a bit more complex, since there are a large pinnacle and a vertical step to avoid. The route skirts both to the south, passing some remarkably high pine shrubs, then regains the ridge at some unclear point. I remembered a bit of wet, vertical climbing on my previous traverse, but this time I followed an easier route regaining the ridge farther west of the summit. There were cairns on this path (as there probably were on several others), which I mostly left in place, since it is a complicated path that is unlikely to be worn in.

East Trinity

East Trinity is a quick climb and an underappreciated gem. From the summit of Middle, it looks possible to climb a chossy gully in the center of the ridge. However, it is only slightly harder and far more fun to follow the left side, climbing blocky class 3-4 quartzite the whole way from saddle to summit. There are a few loose blocks to watch for, and some serious air to the left, but the climbing is pure fun.

Ridge to Storm King

Now it was almost time to leave familiar terrain. In 2012 I had continued northeast a ways, then dropped down to the pass at the head of Vestal Basin, where I picked up a good use trail. This time I continued east, following the unknown mile-long ridge connecting the Trinities to Storm King. I knew nothing about it, other than that it was steep on both sides, with few possibilities for escape. It is probably seldom done, though I did find a cairn on the first bump east of Trinity, suggesting that at least one person had been this way. Though there are tempting ledge bypasses to the south, the best route tends to stay on or near the crest. Most of it is class 2, made tedious by the Grenadiers’ slick and unstable talus. However, there are a few short and apparently unavoidable fifth class difficulties as one approaches Storm King.

Final tricky section

Starting off, I crossed a talus-field and started around the first bump on some ledges to the right. When they proved slow going, with plenty of obstacles and undulations, I returned to the ridge crest, where I spied a cairn on Point 13,360’+. I stayed on the crest to this point, but did not find any register near the cairn. I found a couple of class 4 downclimbs past there, which might have been avoidable with some traversing or better route-finding, but they were not much slower than the loose talus elsewhere. I also found a small snowpatch on the north side, which I used to supplement my water. Not going near water between Vestal Lake and the drainage north of the Guardian makes it almost necessary to do this traverse with some snow around.

Crux notch and downclimb

Having found the first cairn, I expected to find one on Point 13,405′ as well, but it appeared untouched. It was also a bit trickier, with some class 4 climbing on the long climb up from the lowpoint, and on the left to get out of a notch before the summit. I built a cairn, then continued toward Storm King, thinking I was almost there. However, this last section proved to be the crux. The ridge narrowed and steepened, blocking any easy bypasses to the side, and there were several sharp towers and notches. The hardest was probably a notch with a fifth class downclimb on the north, then a step across a narrow edge to the next tower.

Pleasant jog home

I finally reached Storm King’s summit around 2:00 PM, far later than I had hoped. I did not remember how long it had taken me to traverse from here to the Guardian back in 2016, but I guessed it had been at least an hour per peak. That would put me on its summit around 5:00 PM, and at the head of Vestal Basin at dark. While that was doable, I was more enthusiastic about being done before dark than about repeating an okay but not stellar section of ridge and completing the traverse.

I dropped down to the saddle with Peak Nine, ate some Chex mix, and headed down Tenmile Creek. I reversed the course of my recent outing to the Heisspitz, making an angled traverse from 12,000′ to the saddle west of the Trinities. I found dozen or so cairns on the ridiculously-named “Kodiak High Route,” and destroyed them all, hoping to delay its turning into a beaten-in trail. I refilled on water again at Vestal Lake, shortly after running out, then made the mindless Vestal return. I had seen no one so far that day, and met only a group looking to camp at the beaver ponds, and a solo backpacker just before the train tracks. Back at the parking lot well before dark, I found only three other cars. Finally the late-season San Juans are becoming as quiet as I expect.

Knife Point, Leviathan, Vallecito

Leviathan and Vallecito


After a rest day, I continued my tour of the once-a-year Weminuche approaches, driving around to Vallecito Reservoir to tag a trio of peaks near Jagged Mountain. Vallecito is by far the worst of the long approaches: horse traffic, mostly from hunters, has turned the trail into a mess of polished stone, loose rock, and manure; and there is a knee-deep ford about six miles in, followed by frigid meadows, that must be done during the coldest part of the day. However, it is the only dayhike access to Johnson and Sunlight Creeks, so I have been forced to use it several times, first for Jagged in 2012, then for Grizzly and the other eastern Needles peaks.

Dawn on Johnson Creek

Unlike last time, I was visiting early enough for the campground to still be open (and crowded), but the routine was the same: start an hour and a half before dawn, do the ford shortly after headlamp time, then suffer for awhile. I grabbed a stick, rolled up my tights, and waded across with shoes and socks on. I knew this would be hard on my feet later in the day, but fording in shoes is much safer and faster. I quickly wrung out my socks once on the far bank, mindful that the clock was ticking for my hands, then jogged the meadows to try to stay warm. My hands were cold and painful most of the way to Johnson Creek, but I thought I fared about as well as I could have.

Jagged from approach

Sunlight Creek is another three miles beyond Johnson, so I had plenty of time to watch the sun slowly creep down the other side of the valley, illuminating a mix of aspens starting to turn and evergreens half killed by bark beetles. This part of the San Juans has fared better than areas farther east, but the pests have left their mark. I left the trail before the stream junction, near a hunter with two large canvas tents, then hiked upstream through the woods, looking for a dry crossing. Thankfully this is not the North Cascades, so it is possible to walk next to the Vallecito with only minor thrashing, and to clearly see the stream junction. Thanks to the low water, I was able to hop across the Vallecito on rocks, then cross Sunlight Creek on logs, picking up the now-well-defined trail.

Sunlight drainage

I was once again on the bizarrely-named “Kodiak High Route,” which apparently traverses the central Weminuche from north to south, crossing between Vestal and the Trinities, then Peaks Seven and Eight, then Six and Leviathan before descending Sunlight Creek. Doing it by itself, without climbing neighboring peaks, seems absurd to me, like spending days wandering through a department store without buying anything. I knocked down all the cairns on the way up the creek, an empty gesture as the trail is thoroughly beaten in and nearly impossible to lose. Still, after seeing the large deadfall cut on the Vestal Basin approach, it felt good to make some symbolic gesture toward defending formerly wild places.

(Butter) Knife Point

Where the trail branches to either side of Jagged, I headed left, following a path that leads to Sunlight Lake. I left the trail below the lake, following a small stream past two other minor lakes toward Knife Point. While it may be impressive from the other side, from this side it is a rounded butter knife of decomposing granite. However, the area’s several lakes and open mix of granite slabs and grass are unique in the range, reminiscent of the better parts of the High Sierra.

Noname Basin

Rather than gaining the ridge to either side of the peak, I headed straight toward the summit, climbing a steep slope of kitty litter mostly held in place by bunchy vegetation. I passed a mountain goat and two kids along the way, who were unconcerned by my presence, but kept a respectful distance rather than approaching to beg for food or pee. The plants eventually gave out, and I transitioned to granite knobs and boulders for a short climb to the summit. There was no register, but the views were worth savoring for awhile. To the south, a clean, sharp ridge connects Knife Point to Sunlight, which looks like it might be fourth or low fifth class from this side. To the north, a more complicated ridge extends over Peak Ten to Jagged’s west side. To the west, the peak is at the head of Noname Basin, with the high Needles peaks of Animas and Monitor to one side, and the Grenadiers peaks from Six to The Heisspitz to the other.

Peak Ten and Grenadiers

I took a different line on the way down, connecting sections of deep sand to quickly plunge-step to the base. From there I stayed high around Jagged’s east side, joining the well-defined trail leading to the base of its standard route. The trail seemed to disappear before the basin and small lake below Jagged’s north face, but it was easy walking toward the saddle west of Leviathan. Rather than starting at the saddle, I headed up more bunchy turf toward a subpeak on its west ridge. Slopes that would be bare and loose in the Sierra, or overgrown with slick grass in the Cascades, are pleasant climbs with Colorado’s intermediate level of moisture and vegetation.

Upper Leviathan

As I neared the subpeak, I was surprised to see another person descending, only the second I had seen all day. He turned out to be a friendly 14ers.com member named Grover, out for a multi-day trip to tag Silex, the Guardian, and Leviathan from a camp in Leviathan Basin to the north. He was as surprised as I was to have company late in the year on a minor 13er far from any city or trailhead. I thought his helmet and light mountaineering boots were unnecessary weight, but for once held my tongue. We talked for awhile, then he returned to camp while I continued to the summit.

Leviathan from Vallecito

Leviathan looked unremarkable from Peak Eight to its north, but is a striking uplift slab of quartzite from the south. The broken rock on the left side of the ridge is wide enough to avoid the slab entirely, but I chose to play on it for a bit of fun. I did not find a register on any of the three white and shiny summit knobs, and paused only briefly to admire the views before examining the route to Vallecito. This turned out to be more challenging and interesting than I had expected. The east ridge lacks the west ridge’s easy broken fringe, forcing one to deal with the slabs. Near the summit, they are broken in overhanging steps to the right, requiring a bit of route-finding. A short, exposed fourth class downclimb along the crest got me off the summit. From there, I found a zigzag class 2-3 path descending south of the ridge to the saddle with Vallecito. After a short third class step, the remainder of the ridge to the summit was straightforward and solid. I saw some old bootprints in the snow on the north side, but the crest was not hard enough to be worth avoiding.

This totally goes…

As I admired Leviathan and its lake to the west, I contemplated my options for the return. The south face is all some type of class 2, but from there I had two options: climb a small saddle southwest to regain the Jagged trail, or head down the subsidiary valley to join Sunlight Creek lower down. The side-valley looked shorter, and I saw a clear trail near the meadow below, so I opted for the latter. The first part of the descent was horribly loose and slick talus, but I found some decent scree and loose dirt to make most of the descent bearable.

Unfortunately, what looked like a use trail from above was only a goat path, which extended to the lower end of the meadow, then headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately this is Colorado, so the terrain is mostly forgiving and I did not cliff out. However, despite occasional game paths, my diagonal descent toward Sunlight Creek and the trail was slow and moderately unpleasant, with steep woods, short cliffs, and a couple minor bogs to avoid. Though this way was shorter, it probably would have been faster to take the trail.

Though well-defined, the Sunlight Creek trail is mostly too overgrown to be runnable without risking a branch to the eye, so I fast-walked the descent. Crossing the creeks at the junction again, I took a less pleasant route back to the Vallecito trail, pointlessly thrashing through some dense vegetation. Once at the trail, I knew I had about thirteen miles left. The trail has some rocky sections and short climbs, but is mostly gently downhill and fairly smooth, so I found a comfortable jogging pace, and even managed a legitimate run on some sections. I didn’t know this old body was still capable of such things after almost 30 miles. I passed a few backpackers and some dayhikers, but the trail was surprisingly uncrowded given the number of cars and campers at the trailhead. I reached the trailhead well before dark, but I was tired and my wet feet were sore, so instead of driving to my next trailhead, I stayed another night, falling asleep at a pathetic 8:30.

Nutrition note

I have been carrying full rations of just under 4000 calories for these recent long outings, a number chosen not precisely based on mileage or time, but by feel and experience. The core is a box of Pop Tarts (1600 cal), four Clif bars (1000 cal), and ten “fun-size” Payday bars (900 cal), all of which costs about $7.50. I top that off with whatever is handy and sounds good, such as sausage sticks, Chex Mix, or leftover Lara bars. Altogether, it costs just under $10 (~400 cal/$), and leaves me with a caloric deficit that my body can cover with breakfast, glycogen, and fat stores.

The Tenmile-Noname Divide (15h)

First view of ridge


Molas Lake is the main access point for the Grenadiers and their surrounding peaks in the northwest Weminuche. Crossing the Animas River a few miles south of Silverton, the trail drops 1500 feet from near Molas Pass, making for a brutal return and earning it “once a year” status for me. I had used it three times before to tag the central, eastern, and western Grenadiers, and will probably have to use it one more time for Peaks One through Three and White Dome. This time I used it to reach the peaks south of the main Grenadiers, between Tenmile and Noname Creeks. These peaks are normally climbed from Noname Basin to the south, after reaching Needleton via the train. However, the train does not work for dayhikers and, after having dayhiked Ruby Basin a few years ago, I knew that reaching Noname from Purgatory in a day would be too much.

Vestal and Lake

While not part of the main Grenadier ridge, they are part of that range geologically, being made of the same quartzite and other old metamorphic rock. Noname Creek appears to be the dividing line between this formation and the kitty-litter granite making up the Needles 14ers and the high 13ers of Chicago and Ruby Basins. The approach is even more absurd for these peaks: after reaching Vestal Basin, one crosses the 12,800-foot saddle between Vestal and the Trinities, then drops to 12,000 feet above Balsam Lake before finally reaching the base of the peaks. My return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas, taken on a whim, was considerably shorter, but far more rugged and probably only slightly faster.

My alarm was set for 3:45 AM, but I woke up at 3:44 and shut it off. I ate my Cup of Sadness, then had enough time for some more coffee before setting off shortly after 4:30, incurring two hours of headlamp. I have never made this approach by day. Jogging down toward the Animas while listening to some upbeat drum-and-bass by FuX, I easily found the dead-eyed drive necessary for such outings; it was going to be a good day.

Vestal and Arrow

I negotiated the two large slide paths in the dark. The first had been mostly cut through, while I had to follow flags through a jumble of downed tree in the second. Headlamp time ended just before the Vestal Basin turnoff. Shortly before that, I passed one guy with a bright headlamp, two apparent hunters with none (bow season has started), and another group of apparent backpackers. Why they were all heading out so early on a weekday, only a few minutes apart, will remain a mystery. The climbers’ trail I had followed in 2012 is now much closer to an official trail, well-trod and easy to follow. I was disappointed to see that someone had even sawed through the deadfall in a couple of places; perhaps soon it will start appearing on official maps.

Vestal-Trinity saddle

I was pleased to find only a single tent in the basin, for some reason pitched in the coldest, wettest, most miserable spot possible, out in a boggy meadow. Passing a nice tent spot in the woods 100 yards farther up, I continued along the now much fainter trail, then left it before the upper willow bog to cross the creek and aim north of Vestal. I found a few cairns this time, and passed right by Vestal Lake, a picturesque spot right at the base of Vestal’s smooth, curving north face. I paused frequently for photos of sunrise on Vestal and Arrow’s layered uplift, then headed toward the saddle.

Seven-Eight Lake

The inexplicably-named “Kodiak High Route” passes through the lowpoint close to West Trinity, but I once again followed the mountain goats to a slightly higher gap farther west. The snow on this north face was annoying, with a breakable crust over several inches of sugar, but I made use of the goat tracks where I could, and soon reached both sunlight and my first view of the peaks I intended to climb, still a valley distant. Knowing that I had to drop to 12,000 feet, I did a better job following the grassy benches east, reaching the valley bottom at the top of the talus headwall above Balsam Lake. I (prematurely) filled up on water here, then continued to the saddle between Peaks Eight and Seven, where I found another convenient lake.

Climbin’ side of Eight

I debated skipping Eight, since it was a side-trip on my traverse, but was glad I did not, as it had the day’s most thought-provoking scrambling. From the lake, I headed up to the right side of the ridge, following a series of steep gullies and corners connected by ledges. The climbing reminded me of the Minarets, with positive holds, but chossy rock and lots of loose debris. It made for careful climbing, especially on the upper, redder rock, which was even more rotten than the stuff below. I did not find a register on the seldom-visited summit, but the views were worth staying around. Leviathan, Jagged, and the Needles looked particularly spectacular to the south, with the snow from an early season storm hanging around on their north faces. That, plus the weaker sun from the west coast wildfires’ smoke, made it feel more like October, my normal Weminuche season.

Seven from Eight

The descent took at least as long as the ascent. I skipped refilling my water at the lake, and headed straight up Seven’s east face. Seven is made of some sort of quartzite, which is slick when wet, and the rock is angled to be slabby on this side. This made the melting snow problematic, especially closer to the top, but fortunately the face was mostly class 2-3, with plenty of options, and soon I was on the summit. I found a register here, and was pleased to see a remark that the traverse from Six went.

Jagged from Six-Seven ridge

Six is, however, far away, and the rock turns to garbage on the descent to the saddle. One side-effect of quartz’s hardness and slickness is that it makes particularly sharp and unstable talus. There were some class 3-4 notches along the way, but nothing to cause more than a few moments’ perplexity. Once past the low point, a broader ridge of black rock led to the next summit. Six is the ridge’s highpoint, and tall enough to make the list of Colorado’s 200 (or maybe 300?) highest peaks, so it sees a bit more traffic from list-baggers. It is also the first peak along the ridge to have a clear view of Noname Creek, particularly deep and broad for the region, and the impressive north faces of Animas, Monitor, and the northern Needles ridge.

Four from Five

Five is the highest of several minor bumps west of Six, reached via an annoyingly chossy but not difficult traverse around a lake to the south. I tagged the summit, signed in, and moved on. Four is even more annoying than Five, another traverse around a lake, but looser and with some seemingly-mandatory class 4 climbing along the ridge. It might be faster to drop down talus to the lake and reascend, but I was tired enough to prefer scrambly traversing to elevation loss and gain. Four is actually two minor bumps past the lake, and it might be more efficient to traverse the talus-slope north of these subpeaks. However, it was undoubtedly loose beneath the fresh snow, so I stayed on the ridge, finding a bit of fun class 4 terrain on the way up the first bump.

Heisspitz from Four

I was faced with a bout of indecision on Four’s summit, which I reached around 2:15. My planned return route was to drop to a slabby bench north of the ridge, follow that east, then drop again to Balsam Lake before making the thousand-foot climb to the Vestal-Trinity saddle. This would be straightforward from Four, but would require crossing a spur ridge if I continued to The Heisspitz, still almost a mile distant. I had a headlamp, and the weather was good, but I felt my will fading. Looking at the map, I somehow convinced myself that, from The Heisspitz, I could return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas. It would involve some 5-6 miles of unknown valley travel, but I figured that either there would be an old trail down Tenmile, or the lack of humans would result in more game trails. As for the Animas… I hoped for a similar situation, and one river ford and a bit of trespassing would get me to a well-maintained “trail.”

Going down…

So off to The Heisspitz I went. I slightly screwed myself traversing too low to the left, but this section of ridge was much better than the garbage between Six and Four, so I made good time to the final climb. There is supposedly some class 2-3 route to the summit, but I ignored it and mostly stayed closer to the crest. I was hoping for some hint in the register about the route up from Tenmile, but found nothing useful. I debated some more, but the return to the Vestal-Trinity saddle looked extremely depressing, so I committed to my plan and started down the west ridge. The rock was shockingly good and slabby, making for easy going to the shallow saddle before Point 12,552′.

The valley bottom looked perilously brushy, but game seemed to be using this as a pass, so I dropped north down the nearly 4000 feet to the creek. The route started out as loose scree, dirt, and snow, manageable but not ideal for descent. After some loose scree, I found pleasant turf in the middle, and remained pleased with my choice. The steep drainage I was following narrowed toward the bottom, with vertical terrain on either side of a creekbed, but fortunately the creek itself did not cliff out, and it was late enough in the season that I could follow the semi-stable talus in its bed all the way to willow country.

Trail!

The final stretch to Tenmile Creek was a miserable thrash. I eventually found the creek, crossed, and thrashed up the other side, hoping to find open terrain or game trails away from the steeper creek bottom. To my surprise and delight, I found the faint trace of an old built trail, which does not appear on any map that I know of. Though it is hard to follow, and I lost it several times, it made the descent to the Animas fairly efficient, while it would have been an utter nightmare otherwise. This bit of ingenuity, exploration, and luck put me in a good enough mood to listen to happy downhill music (Girl Talk — thanks, Renee!). The trail seemed to be improving as I descended, but I lost it again about a half-mile from the river, and never found where it came out. I stayed high on the right, side-hilling my way around the flat creek junction, then dropped toward the Animas.

I should not be here

I found bits of faint path on the east side, but they were intermittent and annoying, so I looked for a potential ford. This would not be possible earlier in the season, but late in a dry year the Animas was no more than knee-deep. I grabbed a stick and forded with my shoes and socks on, then wrung them out on the other bank before finding the “trail.” Its gentle and consistent ruling grade would have been pleasantly runnable if I were fresh, but I spent plenty of time walking when the gravel surface became less than ideal. I finally closed the loop, and had only the slog out to Molas left. Aided by Metallica, I somehow summoned the energy to jog the flatter switchbacks and run the long meadow traverse at the top, and made it to my car just before headlamp time. I cooked up some vegetable curry with eggs, then passed out around 8:30.

This was my first big outing of which I was slightly proud in a long time. I wasn’t sure I would have the mental stamina, but like riding a bike, that is something you never lose. These may be the hardest Weminuche peaks to reach in a day without the train, and some of the least-visited. At this point, I think I only have one or two more long outings to clean out the Needle and Grenadier region. After that, my most remote remaining Weminuche peaks are those east of the Vallecito, including Nebo and Peters. While it will feel good to complete this project, I will miss having an easy reason to visit Colorado’s best peaks.

Foerster

Foerster on the right


I am getting close to finishing the SPS list (234 out of 247), and Foerster was my northernmost remaining peak. It is normally done from the West side, approached by a long drive from Bass Lake via Beasore road. I had attempted it this way last year before my bike tour, failing at a bike-and-hike that was longer than I had anticipated, and too long for a cold, short October day. Not wanting to make the long and expensive drive for a mediocre peak, I considered my Eastside options. Foerster is in the skinny part of the Sierra near Mammoth, but unfortunately the rugged Ritter Range and the deep valley of the San Joaquin are in the way. The least-bad route seems to be around the north side of the range, taking the trail from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake, then crossing North Glacier Pass and descending the San Joaquin to Bench Creek. This is about 40 miles round-trip, with 11,000 feet of elevation gain — long but manageable, even in my current deficient state.

From my preferred camp near Minaret Vista, I drove down to Agnew Meadows and started by headlamp around 4:30. I soon realized that my headlamp was almost dead: its garbage Amazon Basics rechargeable batteries no longer hold much charge. Holding it in my hand at waist level helped, but it was still almost impossible to run until dawn became bright enough past the Shadow Lake junction. The trail to Thousand Island Lake is the typical Sierra horse-trench, filled with powdered dust and manure and broken up by giant steps. I shortcut it a few times above the manzanita zone, as much because the woods were more pleasant as to save time.

Banner and Thousand Island Lake

I reached Thousand Island Lake as the sun rose on Banner Peak, and was not the only person photographing the classic peak-and-water scene in “magic” light. I was feeling surprisingly good given my fitness, and jogged much of the trail around the lake, passing a tent village of people camped at this popular spot. There is an increasingly-worn use trail from the lake’s west end to North Glacier Pass, probably from a mix of people climbing Ritter and traveling the increasingly popular Roper High Route. I missed the trail on the way out, but had little trouble reaching the pass over grass, slabs, and big stable talus.

View from North Glacier Pass

I dropped to the lake on the other side, then made my way along its outlet stream down mostly pleasant slabs for awhile before angling southwest toward where the San Joaquin trail is shown on maps. Near where the stream topples over some cliffs in a long cascade, I found a campsite and a faint trail heading west. What I thought was a use trail turned out to be an old developed trail that once led to… something… near the campsite (I found an old metal cable, but no mine shaft or structures). This trail switchbacked down west of the cascade, joining the dotted line on the map.

Down in the manzanita

The “official” trail is faint to nonexistent at first, and never in good shape, but I managed to follow a mix of rockwork and cairns down to just above Bench Creek around 8800 feet. I had descended from over 11,000 feet at the pass, and would have to climb to just over 12,000 at Foerster’s summit. Ugh. I easily found a dry crossing this late in a dry year, then shortcut the junction a bit, thrashing through some manzanita, then dropping toward the creek. I picked up a decent use trail on the right side, which I followed until it disappeared below a headwall. This was easily overcome via some obnoxious talus, and I soon found myself on the pleasant flat above.

Flat where Bench Creek splits

The creek splits at the flat, with the left branch leading to Blue Lake and Foerster, the right to Ansel Adams. I had thought of doing both as a lollipop, but realized that it would be too much for me now. Cruising up the broad, gentle left valley, I was surprised to see a scraggly-looking guy descending toward me. I expressed my surprise at seeing someone else in such a remote location, and he said he was doing Roper’s High Route. Despite a friend having just done this route, I had not realized just how far west it went.

Clark Range

Out of water, I made a slight detour to refill at Blue Lake, then headed up the obvious route on Foerster’s southeast side. I was starting to feel the miles in my legs, but still managed a non-pathetic effort on the sand- and talus-climb to the summit. The closest I had been to this part of the Sierra was Electra Peak to the north, many years ago, so I found the views especially interesting. To the east across the San Joaquin was the dark, rugged, and seldom-visited west side of the Ritter Range. To the east, the Clark Range rose across a broad valley. To the north, I could follow the ridge across Electra and Rogers to Lyell. I could even see Half Dome in the distance, indicating that I was too far west to have started on the east side.

Blue Lakes

It had taken me exactly seven hours to reach the summit. I was pleased with my performance, and with the certainty that there would be no evening headlamp time. Hiking and jogging back down Bench Creek, I looked at the map and decided to cut across to Twin Island Lakes, hopefully saving myself some elevation loss and bushwhacking. My aging phone battery had suffered from the morning cold, so I tried not to look at the map too often.

First Twin Island Lake

What looked like a nice level traverse on the map turned out to be a somewhat annoying up-and-down affair weaving through gullies and around cliff bands. There is probably a better line here, since this is where the High Route goes, but I did not find it. Twin Island Lakes are two lakes, each with a single island, probably looking like someone giving side-eye from the air. I passed both on the right, contouring back toward North Glacier Pass halfway past the second. I contoured high, eventually rejoining the trail near the top of the cascade.

Banner-Ritter saddle

Saving phone battery cost me some suffering on the way to the pass, as I strayed too far left into some wretched talus. I corrected my course below Lake Catherine, then wondered if it would be faster to go through the Ritter-Banner saddle to Lake Ediza. The other side required an ice axe and crampons when I did it in 2010, but global warming has doubtless shrunk the Ritter Glacier since then. Not wanting to take the chance, I returned via North Glacier Pass, stopping for water and a healthy dose of ibuprofen to ease my knees, then passing a couple probably returning from Ritter.

I was less able to jog around the lake, but found my running legs on the descent, and kept the rhythm going on the near-flat stretch between the Shadow Lake junction and the climb to Agnew Meadow. I knew I would pay for it the next day, but I jogged the flats and even some gentle uphills on my way back to the car, making it home in just under thirteen hours. I grabbed a couple gallons of Agnew Meadows water, which was every bit as metallic and horrible as I remembered, then drove into town for more trail food and WiFi outside the welcome center before heading out to the woods to camp. It was good to know that I have sufficient will and misanthropy to overcome my mediocre fitness. If I can regain some resilience, I may actually be able to do something with what little is left of this season.