Category Archives: Type II fun

Wyoming 13er speed record (8d23h)

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

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

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

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

  1. Summit of Francs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics

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

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

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

Thanks and reflections

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

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

Wind River Peak (S-E loop)

First view of the peak


Wind River Peak is the Winds’ southernmost 13er, standing alone some 35 miles south of the rest, with only a handful of significant peaks between it and the high plain south of the range. I needed to retrieve my car near Lander, and Renee wanted to do something semi-big with her last day in Wyoming, so we settled on running Wind River. By historical accident, the traditional fastest known time (FKT) for the peak follows a counterclockwise loop from the high Worthen Reservoir, as the peak is a similar long trail and class 2 boulder-hop from both the south and east. The men’s record is far beyond my reach, but the women’s record (as usual) looked soft, so Renee went for that while I ran the loop clockwise. I wanted to see a lot of new territory, to hedge my bets lest another early storm ruin my future plans, and to see if I still had some speed in me despite advancing age and a lack of focused running this season.

Choo-choo!

Temperatures felt ideal as the near-full moon set and the sun rose around 6:30 over the reservoir. I felt energized starting off in shorts and an overshirt, carrying my little running pack with about 3000 calories and a liter of water. As the trail gradually climbed through the woods, I stashed my overshirt on my pack, where it would remain for most of the rest of the day. What a contrast with conditions only two days earlier! There were two significant water crossings along the way, of Roaring Fork and Stough Creeks. Most locals seem to bring horses or wading shoes for such things, but I found acceptable dry crossings downstream of both, as it was too early in the day to splash through and soak my shoes.

Wind River and maybe Lizard Head

I got my first glorious view of Wind River Peak at the unnamed col around 10,600′, where the trail descends to Stough Creek and the Middle Popo Agie River. After an hour or so spent in the woods, the sudden sight of acres of bare granite was inspiring, though Wind River Peak looked distressingly far away. Feeling a strong runner’s high — those are some good drugs, self! — I took off at a respectable run down the other side of the pass, maintaining a decent jog through the flats past Stough Creek and down to the Popo Agie. This section of trail was moderately annoying, consisting of gradually-climbing rollers. The trail crosses the river in a meadow/swamp before Tayo Park, and here I did not find a dry crossing, though it looked like someone had tried to build one using some stepping-stones and a too-thin log. I made it to the log, then took off my shoes to cross the last bit, losing a sandwich from my pack as I bent over to put my shoes back on.

Peak from Tayo Lake

From here, I continued on a clear trail past mysteriously-named Poison Lake, then took the faint but signed fork up toward Tayo Lake. Here the climbing began in earnest, and while the trail was never hard to follow, it became little more than a use trail, with a faint tread in the woods and cairns leading through open meadows. I stopped for water at Tayo Lake, taking an extra couple of minutes to plot my route up Wind River’s south side and admire the sheer face and unnamed pinnacle to the west. From the lake, I found no more than an occasional and faint boot-pack weaving through the krummholtz and up the tundra, and a couple of cairns, which I destroyed.

Temple from summit

I made good time up the flatter lower slope to the peak’s eastern snowfield, then began to struggle as the steeper slope, bigger talus, and elevation took their toll. As I neared the summit, my eyes were drawn to Temple Peak, a more impressive-looking summit that falls just 28 feet short of being another 13er. Crossing the summit plateau, I was a bit surprised to see two guys sitting by the high point with overnight packs. They turned out to be hiking the Wind River High Route from south to north, just about to get into the Serious Business descending the peak’s steeper northwest side. I noted that I had made the summit in just under four hours, but felt sociable despite my steady effort to that point. We talked for “approximately” 18 minutes, and I learned that one of the guys had done the Great Divide Trail, a rugged route from the Glacier/Waterton border in the Rockies to Mount Robson Provincial Park. I was duly impressed, more so after learning that he had suffered near-daily rain. I must be lucky to have had so many clear days on my summer trips to the Canadian Rockies.

Descent to Deep Creek Lakes

I thought I might see Renee after spending so long on the summit, but she had not appeared by the time I got antsy and started down the peak’s east side. The route circles around Chimney Rock, then follows a broad plateau down to the trail network at Deep Creek Lakes. The upper section is large talus that is slow on the descent, while the lower section is runnable tundra. Unfortunately this is a Wind Rivers plateau, so glaciers have taken a couple of deep bites out of its east side. Not looking at the route on my phone often enough, I strayed too far left and had to regain some elevation to get back on the correct path. In addition to losing some time, I must have missed Renee on this part, as she is generally better at paying attention to maps.

Looking back from Deep Creek Lake

I refilled on water at the highest Deep Creek Lake, then spent another 5-10 minutes talking to a guy from Missouri out on a backpacking trip. He was trying to puzzle out his position using a printed map and compass, which was understandably difficult given that the lakes all look the same, and some of the trails on the USGS map have ceased to exist. Less-used trails in the Winds seem to be in constant flux, with new ones being created by fishermen and climbers while old ones quickly fade. Thus I found it helpful to load my phone with both USGS maps for older trails, and OpenStreetMap-based maps for newer ones. Of course, I also found trails both old and new that appeared on neither map, such as the one leading down from Middle Mountain.

The trail down Deep Creek and the Popo Agie to Sheep Bridge was largely pleasant running, with occasional climbs long enough to walk, cram down food, and look at the map. I was starting to feel my lack of running this summer, but kept a respectable pace. The 500′ climb from Sheep Bridge back toward Worthen Reservoir was a slog, but less than half the climb out of the Popo Agie going the other direction. It passed quickly at a determined walk, though I had to wait for a couple of minutes while trail workers from the Montana Conservation Corps blasted rocks to re-route the trail. This part is outside the wilderness boundary, and is therefore being made more comfortable for mountain bikers. I passed more hikers in the final mile, including a group of four women with identically-huge packs, a sure sign that they were with NOLS.

Reaching the parking lot, I was pleased to see Renee’s van was still there, and that she had not been forced to abandon the effort and drive for home. The whole thing was a bit over 32 miles the way I went — about a mile longer than the most efficient route — and took 7h43m. Subtracting my ~30 minutes of socializing, that is on the order of Gabe Joyes’ original FKTs in 2014 and 2015, though nowhere near his 6h19m 2016 effort, or the newer, faster times going up and down via Deep Creek. I was encouraged to see that while I am likely a bit slower than I was in my thirties, I am also uncompetitive on these kinds of courses because standards have risen. Running the route in the opposite direction would probably be faster because the east slope route is easier to follow on the way up, and because one can just splash through streams toward the end. However I prefer my way, for the sudden first view of the peak, and the more pleasant running down Deep Creek. In any case, the loop was worth doing, even if I did not stand a chance at a record.

Buck Loop (NE face to Buck Pass)

Buck and Cleator from jog home


Summitpost describes Buck as “one of the man-mountains of the Washington Cascades.” Though only three miles from the Trinity trailhead to its southeast, and only class 2-3 from the southwest side, a high and rugged ridge extends north and south from Buck, and there is no road or even trail up the lower Napeequa River to the west. The “normal route” is therefore shockingly roundabout, approaching the peak’s west side either over Little Giant Pass to the south, or on a high route from Buck Pass to the north. There is also a direct class 3 route from the east near Alpine Creek, involving a river ford and a savage bushwhack through steep and brushy forest, that is recommended for descent but can of course be done both ways. The Summitpost page also mentions that the northeast ridge is “class 4 or 5,” which sounds like my kind of route.

Easy bushwhack

With these options in mind, I made the long drive up the Chiwawa River Road to Trinity, and started off around dawn planning to do at least one of these routes. Passing the place for the Alpine Creek route, I decided that I did not want to do that to myself. I continued after the split toward Buck Pass, finding that the bridge was not “out” as advertised, but was probably no longer suitable for my horse. Nearing the turnoff for King Lake and the northeast face, I entered the burn area for the 2016 Buck Creek fire. The forest was in a near-perfect state for cross-country travel, with the trees and underbrush incinerate, but the nasty things that follow a fire not yet established. The main type of plant was fireweed, a bush that is easy to whack. I contemplated the route while I ate a sandwich, then took off across the wasteland.

Near the cleft

The first obstacle was crossing Buck Creek, but I found a perfect log bridge almost exactly where I needed it. There was even a sort of tunnel through the otherwise-impenetrable alders. Beyond, I followed various deer tracks up the burn, staying on the left side of the drainage and well away from the unburnt alders to the right. I eventually entered steep woods above the burn, and the deer trail faded. Not sure what to aim for, I decided to traverse right to reach open terrain I had seen from below. This turned out to be a savage hell-schwack, variously fighting my way through alders, steep scrub pines, and cliff bands littered with fallen burned trees. After avoiding some of these cliffs, I realized that the rock was fairly solid with a grain that worked well for climbing this way, and simply headed up some class 3 crags, grateful to finally be making upward progress again.

Miraculous open gully

Reentering the woods higher up, I found myself on the left side of a deep cleft with a healthy cascade running through it. This was rocky enough to discourage the plants somewhat, so I stayed near the edge as I made my way upward, hoping I could cross the cascade easily higher up. I saw what I thought was a cairn in an open, slabby section, then a few cut branches and a bit of boot-pack higher up. Success! I lost and re-found the ancient fisherman’s trail a couple of times, taking my time and eventually ending up in an open, grassy ravine leading easily almost to the east side of King Lake. I have no idea what this “trail” did lower down, and that part has been obliterated by the fire, but I was grateful for what I found.

King Lake and upper mountain

King Lake proved as spectacular as I imagined it would. Buck’s small northeast glacier sits perched in a bowl above the lake, sending cascades of milky melt-water down the cliffs that ring the lake to its southwest. I found a couple of fire rings with fresher-than-expected ashes in them, but I can’t imagine this cirque sees much traffic. Making my way around the lake’s north side, I climbed rubble and easy slabs to the toe of the glacier, putting on crampons to cross one hard snowfield. I avoided the snout and broken-up lower glacier to the right on decent rock that became grittier as I progressed, then returned to the glacier where it was a bit more continuous. The travel was mostly easy, but it was surprisingly possible to fall in a crevasse if one were oblivious, as opposed to having to find one and jump in it.

Enter the choss

The top of the glacier is separated from the mountain’s east ridge and south face by another wall of cliffs, the only potential exit being at the upper right side. I made my way for the highest tongue of snow, passing someone’s father’s ice axe on the way. This tongue probably used to extend into the gully above, but it was now separated by an expanse of steep dirt and scree. I sketched my way up this, aiming for the obvious gully to the left. The gully was made a bit more obvious by an ancient piece of tat, originally yellow and now bleached completely white. I was once again annoyed at Cascades mountaineers for leaving garbage on routes (who would rap this?!), and at myself for not bringing a knife to remove it.

Choss gully

There was a bit of easy fifth class to pass the webbing, but above it looked like the angle eased. If only… Earlier in the season this would probably be a steep snow climb to the summit ridge, but now it was wet gravel, choss, and gritty slabs that often angled in the wrong direction. I worked my way up the right side of the gully, using the wall for handholds or to stem against the dirt. After a failed attempt to exit early to the right, I exited out the top, making a few wide stems against some reddish rock. Above that, I finally managed to traverse right on improving rock, and soon popped out between the north and south (true) summits.

Buck’s summit from ridge

The south summit looks incredibly imposing from this saddle, showing only its narrow east-west profile. I scrambled up the layered slabs to the summit, where I quickly pulled the register out of a cairn guarded by flying ants, then sat a safe distance below to look around in the remarkably clear air. To the west were recently-climbed Clark and Luahna, along with the rest of the Dakobed Range, showing the glaciers that clearly make them a better ski than scramble. North was Berge, across a weirdly broad and flat saddle. I also had great views of the Entiat peaks, Bonanza, and even Baker and Rainier at the far ends of the range.

Berge with Glacier behind

Descending from the summit, I crossed the small, flat glacier nestled between Buck’s summits, then descended toward the saddle with Berge, entering a surreal landscape of pumice and larches. As this region demonstrates, the Cascades’ geology is incredibly complex. Between Buck’s ancient dark rock (schist?) and Berge’s Sierra-esque white granite lies a small region of pumice reminiscent of a recent volcano. This is presumably from the same event that created Glacier Peak, but does not seem to connect in an obvious way.

High Pass and Baker from Berge

Through this section I began picking up bits of use trail, leading more or less where I wanted, toward Berge’s northeast summit. Most maps incorrectly label Berge’s southwest (easier) summit as higher, but as seems clear to the naked eye, and as Eric Gilbertson demonstrated with a surveyor’s level, it is not the highpoint. I tagged both for good measure, finding the northeast no harder than class 3 and reminiscent of the Sierra except for the green things between the granite boulders and the deposits of black lichen on some aspects. Berge’s north and west sides are cliffy, so it is necessary to circle southwest to a saddle and descend west before circling back around north. Fortunately I had downloaded some other climbers’ tracks, as otherwise I would have dropped all the way to the valley bottom instead of making the improbable high traverse.

Dakobed panorama

I finally reached a trail in this Sierra-like basin, with its clear, shallow lake and white granite, and from there it was a short hike to High Pass. The trail from these lakes to Buck Pass is one of the most scenic and runnable I have found in my years in the Cascades, reminiscent of nearby White Pass but lacking the PCT hordes. I had miles to go before home, but they were all downhill and easy trail, with clear views of the glacier-y sides of the Dakobeds and Glacier Peak.

Easy running

With time and energy to spare, I decided to tag a couple of easy peaks along the way. The first was Mount Cleator, named for Trinity local Cletus McCoy’s tabletop D&D character. Cleator met his untimely end when Cletus’ cousin Brigitte “Berge” Hatfield made him promise to give up his boozy Friday gaming sessions as a condition of their engagement. Despite its unfortunate genetic consequences, the union was a key step in reconciling their feuding branches of the family. Mount Cleator has two summits, a grassy walk-up separated from a fierce crag by a steep notch. The grassy one looks a bit higher and has a register, and I did not have enough curiosity or energy to try to reach the other.

I returned to the trail after Cleator, then took a side-trip to Rally Cap on the way down to Buck Pass. I pulled out my map to find my way through the mess of trails here, but eventually got on the popular Buck Creek trail. I am not a trail runner, but I had been enjoying my jog from High Pass, and the Buck Creek trail was pleasant in its own way, smooth and gently-graded, with good shade and frequent water sources. I started to feel pretty run-down once the trail reached the valley bottom, but managed to mostly hold it together and maintain a jog back to the car. According to my phone, the whole excursion was about 26 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain, all in a bit under 12 hours. It was a satisfying use of what may be my last (smoke-free) day in the Cascades this year.

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.