Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

Uglies 4: Finger and the Tunemah suck-vortex

Tunemah (r) from west

Tunemah (r) from west


Though it was not Bob’s longest outing, most peak-baggers would agree that Tunemah is the ugliest of the SPS list’s uglies. Not only is it far from the nearest trailhead, but it sits at the center of a vortex of every type of Sierra terrain that sucks. Giant boulders? Sure! Loose, shale-y, “surprise surfboard” talus? Plenty! Sand slopes? Of course! It even has a krummholtz maze, incongruously perched above 11,000 feet. Even before some sadist put it on the SPS list, frustrated Chinese shepherds aptly named it a curse involving one’s mother.

Blue Canyon from Finger

Blue Canyon from Finger

Despite the late sunrise west of the Sierra crest, I forced myself to get an early-ish start on what was likely to be a long-ish day linking Finger and Tunemah Peaks. I checked out Finger’s north face and northwest ridge as I made my way south past Pearl and Midway Lakes, but did not see an obvious direct route to the summit. Instead, I traversed around the base of the ridge, then climbed class 2 talus and a bit of sand to the sloping plateau at the head of Blue Canyon. I saw an old downward boot-track, so this route sees at least a bit of traffic.

White Divide north of Finger

White Divide north of Finger

After some boulder-hopping and scrambling past a couple of false summits, I found a cairned route up the true summit’s southwest side. At one point someone had constructed a cheater-step below a big step, for which hand-and-a-half me was grateful. Though most of it seems to be class 2 boulder-hopping interspersed with time-consuming class 3 obstacles — or worse farther south — the White Divide forms an elegant, sinuous line north from Finger to Reinstein, and southeast to Tunemah. To its west, the terrain gradually falls away in granite slabs, meadows, and high forest. To its east, the white granite gives way to darker rock where Goddard Creek drops sharply to the Middle Fork of the Kings River.

Finger from Blue Canyon

Finger from Blue Canyon

From Finger, I stayed near the ridge heading east, eventually reaching Blue Canyon Peak. The old and sparse register featured some of the usual obscure-peak folk, the occasional SPSer traversing like Yours Truly, and a few Sierra Club trips from back when they hiked the old Tunemah Trail, but no Bob (hah!). After a short break, I continued to Peak 11,920+, where the ridge splits, leading to tempting peaks to both east and west. To the east, Peak 12,096 looked like interesting class 3 on good granite, while Peak 11,987 (“Black Crown”?) to the west, with its rotten-looking black top, features an impressive 4000 feet of relief above nearby Goddard Creek. But I wasn’t here to have fun; I was here to bag distant Tunemah, then get back to camp without headlamp time. I was also a bit sluggish after three 10- to 12-hour days with a big pack.

Tunemah Lake and Peak

Tunemah Lake and Peak

I found a pleasant slab-and-sand descent to Tunemah Lake, where I refilled my water, then strode boldly into the Suck. The ridge leading south to Tunemah features two false summits, each with its own unpleasant character. The first starts out okay near the lake, then gradually becomes a pile of sliding dinner-plate talus. The brush begins past its summit, though it is not yet oppressive. The second peak is loose gray talus and sand, slightly less bad than the first; a steep cut in the ridge to its south prevents bypassing this summit.

Tunemah at last!

Tunemah at last!

From the second false summit, Tunemah reveals its true awfulness, a long maze of giant boulders mixed with sand and tough, scraggly pines. Worse, thunderclouds were building over camp and threatening to come my way. Worst, all this misery was self-imposed. I tagged the summit, then ate some tortillas to make myself feel better while trying to appreciate the views far down to Goddard Creek and the Middle Fork.

Looking toward the return

Looking toward the return

Instead of retracing my steps along the ridge, I decided to head straight west over a pass to Blue Canyon, rejoining my route on the way out at Kettle Ridge. The descent was pure Tunemah, dodging among trees and boulders down a sand-slope, almost cliffing out in rotten black cliffs near the bottom, then doing an awkward three-legged crab-walk across sliding debris to reach the forest near Alpine Creek. Here the terrain suddenly improved; I had apparently escaped the vortex.

The storm finally hit near the unnamed lakes at the head of Blue Canyon. Rather than a Rockies-style sudden downpour, it alternated between wind and light drizzle. My trash bag performed well as always, though I had to remove it when the wind picked up and its flapping became too loud. Finally reaching camp after a bit over 10 hours, I realized I had been incredibly lucky with the rain. Though I had never felt more than a drizzle, my (impressively waterproof) bivy had accumulated two large standing puddles, which may have helped keep it from blowing away. I shook it off, rinsed my feet, then peeled off my damp clothes and crawled into my sleeping bag for a long night. My spare socks and shirt, which I had set out to dry, were of course soaked. Tomorrow could be a long day…

Uglies 3: Lake 11,592 to Division Lake; Solomons, Scylla, Hansen, Reinstein

Sirens and Scylla from north

Sirens and Scylla from north


Waking up in starkly scenic Ionian Basin, I ate my morning glop, then left my camp in disarray to tag Solomons before packing up and heading west. Thinking I had the basin to myself, I was surprised to see someone perched on a rock a few hundred yards around the lake. I think we both wanted to pretend we were alone, so neither of us acknowledged the other, and the man and his partner had left by the time I returned from the summit. I went up Solomons’ south ridge, hoping for stable talus, and down the southwest slope, hoping for good sand-skiing. Neither worked as well as I had hoped, but I found no real difficulties. The peak is unremarkable from all sides, but commands excellent views of Ionian Basin and more impressive neighboring peaks like Scylla, Charybdis, and Goddard.

Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla

Charybdis, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla

Packing up, I moved on to the lake just north of Scylla, then dumped my bedroll and food bag before heading out on an extended excursion. In addition to Scylla, I wanted to tag neighboring Hansen and the Sirens, three forbidding black peaks between Scylla and Enchanted Gorge. The Sirens were supposedly all class 3 or 4 along their west ridges, but reaching the base of those ridges looked hard. The north side, which was a friendly snowfield as recently as 2010 (a big snow year), has wasted away to an ugly mixture of packed dirt and bare glacial ice in the recent drought years. While it would be most efficient to start with the Sirens and work my way west and south, I did not want to try the miserable and treacherous slope. Instead, I headed up Scylla’s class 2 northwest slope, which was loose but bearable.

Enchanted Gorge from Scylla

Enchanted Gorge from Scylla

From the summit, I had excellent views of Enchanted Gorge, Ragged Spur and, beckoning below to the east, the Sirens. I dithered a bit, then began downclimbing Scylla’s east face, drawn by the prospect of reaching those rarely-climbed summits. Though covered with loose junk, the underlying rock on the face seemed mostly solid. The downclimb started as class 2, then gradually steepened and worsened. It reminded me a bit of the descent from Easy Mox in the Cascades, a blind downclimb that subtly draws you into ever-scarier terrain, all the while threatening to cliff out. I stayed north, hoping to hit the saddle at its high point.

Nope...

Nope…

Perhaps 100 feet above my goal, I reached the limit of what I was willing to downclimb. I saw that gullies to the south clearly cliffed out, as did my line, barring some kind of miracle ledge. The north approach to the notch looked just as bad from above. The south talus-slope looked easy, though reaching it would require a long detour back into Enchanted Gorge. Retracing my steps to Scylla, I managed to break a solid-looking foothold I had been using when I put just a bit more weight on it to switch feet. Fortunately I was climbing paranoid, so I stayed put even with a gimpy hand. I left a warning to others in Scylla’s register, then headed for Hansen as a consolation prize.

Lots of Hansens

Lots of Hansens

The traverse was obnoxious but not hard, following ledges over rotten class 2 terrain right of the crest. Though Hansen is higher than Scylla, it is not on the SPS list, and therefore sees far less traffic. Judging from the register, most visitors are members of the Hansen clan, who have appropriated the peak as a sort of shrine/mausoleum. I made my interloping mark, then returned to my gear stash before heading west.

Unnamed and Reinstein

Unnamed and Reinstein

There was a bit of cliff-related frustration getting through the black rock around Lake 11,818, then travel turned more pleasant as I dropped across the grass and granite benches near the head of Goddard Creek. With more time and energy I would have scrambled up the impressive pinnacle of Peak 12,432, but it was late, and my plans for the next day required camping somewhere in Blackcap Basin. I found a few cairns on the way to the pass between Goddard Creek and Goddard Canyon (which, confusingly head in opposite directions), though I doubt the pass sees more than a handful of backpackers per year.

Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake

Unnamed peak near Regiment Lake

I lucked into climbing Reinstein the right way, scrambling up some steep, stable class 2-3 talus on the northeast ridge, then bombing down the standard sand route to the south. Blackcap Basin is a wonderful place to camp, with a ridiculous number of lakes tucked up against the White Divide near tree-line. It is also far from the nearest, annoying-to-reach west-side traiheads near Wishon Reservoir, so it sees few visitors. Reaching Regiment Lake, I decided that I was close enough to reach Tunemah, and set up my camp for the next two nights.

Uglies 2: Ladder Lake to Lake 11,592; Citadel, Wheel

Looking down Enchanted Gorge

Looking down Enchanted Gorge


This was a true adventure day: I wanted to get from Ladder Lake to… somewhere, preferably near Chasm Lake, but had no idea what actually connected. While most of the Sierra is friendly to cross-country travel, and most internal valleys are not deep, Enchanted Gorge and Goddard Creek are neither, plunging steeply through lousy rock to 7000 feet in the heart of the range and creating Cascades-level local relief of 3000-5000 feet. Though people go up and down both canyons, I had read that the lower reaches of both are choked with nasty brush, bad enough that some people prefer walking in the river. Also, I had little desire to tackle a nearly 5000-foot climb with my still-heavy pack.

Citadel, weird cloud, and Palisades

Citadel, weird cloud, and Palisades

The first order of business was the Citadel, a quick class 2 jaunt from Ladder Lake. Following the terrain more than the map, I packed up easier terrain to a shoulder above the talus-choked col blind map-obedience would suggest, then headed off for the summit along a narrowing ridge requiring some third class choss escapades. Surprisingly, the register indicated much more traffic than on Langille. The Citadel is lower, slightly harder to reach, less striking, and has poorer rock quality than Langille, so the difference is hard to explain. A number of parties reported climbing a 5th class route (“The Edge of Time”), though it seems like Langille would be better for that kind of thing.

Looking toward Rambaud Pass

Looking toward Rambaud Pass

I returned to my pack, then got to the ugly business of forcing my way to Lake 10,892 below Rambaud Pass. There was of course suffering, but this sort of route optimization — choosing an objective, looking at the map and terrain, then trading off among elevation, distance, and ease of travel — is what makes cross-country backpacking interesting to me. While I need constant listening material to grind out trail, I find this mentally engaging enough not to require other stimuli. The direct ridge to Wheel looked bad, and a descent to Rambaud Creek around the 10,000 foot level would be bad, so I took the easiest path to a random ridge, then found a partially scree-able chute down to the lake.

Ugliness below pass

Ugliness below pass

Rambaud Pass looks like an absolute nightmare, with an ugly black boulder-field leading to a steep dirt-chute below the saddle. However, the boulders are less bad than they appear, and there is a left-trending ramp leading to a point right of the saddle that avoids the chute. From the pass, I could see almost 5,000 feet down in a straight line southwest to Goddard Creek, and across to Tunemah, 5,000 feet up the other side.

Yes, they stack it this high.

Yes, they stack it this high.

Turning aside from that for now, I headed up the long, mostly easy ridge toward Wheel Mountain. The fun ended at the shoulder southwest of the summit, where the broad ridge disintegrated into a series of ugly choss-towers, each a few feet higher than the last. I third-classed my way awkwardly through with my heavy pack, eventually finding the highest, and couldn’t resist misquoting “Full Metal Jacket” in the register: “I didn’t know they stacked shit that high!”

North from near Wheel

North from near Wheel

Now it was time to decide how to head off into the unknown. Perusing the register while having lunch slash stress-eating the rest of my sausage, I saw that people had traversed north to McDuffie, and that Jonathan had crossed from Tunemah Lake. I rejected the first because I did not need to break another hand on the Black divide, the second because “brush-fest,” and chose a third way instead.

Cliffing out in Enchanted Gorge

Cliffing out in Enchanted Gorge

Leaving the summit, I dropped down bad talus and decent sand to the plain to the northwest, then into the drainage north. I managed to avoid most of the loose stuff by staying on a faint ridge in the boulders, then refilled my water while crossing the mostly-buried outlet stream of a small lake. With only one loose gully crossing, I made it to pleasant travel across low-angle turf and rock near Benchmark 11,512′.

Approaching Scylla and Charybdis

Approaching Scylla and Charybdis

Every bit of progress up this side of Enchanted Gorge meant less elevation lost, as the stream rises rapidly through this section. This side-stream would deposit me around 8,500 feet — prime brush country — the next at 9,500; if I made it through that one, I could probably traverse right into Ionian Basin above 10,000 feet. Unfortunately, the traverse became steeper and looser, and a solid-looking wall of rotten cliffs appeared to block exits from the next gully below 11,500 or 12,000 feet. Looking at the map, it seemed that I might be forced right over 13,300 foot Mount McDuffie, something I had been trying to avoid.

Lake with inlet

Lake with inlet

I thought for awhile, then decided that the least-worst option was to drop almost 2,000 feet into the Enchanted Gorge, then come right up between Scylla and Charybdis to reach Chasm Lake. This decision was supported by necessity, literature, and a desire to see the rarely-visited Gorge. After some decent scree-ing up high, the descent was straightforward and only moderately loose, depositing me in the talus-choked ravine next to Disappearing Creek just below an unnamed lake.

Quick appearance by Disappearing Creek

Quick appearance by Disappearing Creek

Flowing between two colliding choss-slopes, Disappearing Creek does in fact disappear and reappear as the valley bottom flattens and drops. This is not remarkable: much Sierra water can be heard flowing under boulders, tantalizing and inaccessible. However, Disappearing Creek is remarkable for its thorough and sudden transitions. The first lake I encountered was fed by a raging cascade, but had no visible or even audible outlet. And at one point higher up, the creek completely surfaced and burrowed deep underground in no more than 50 feet.

Colorful lake

Colorful lake

This first lake’s depth apparently varies by 10 feet or more, and it was surrounded by a ring of white deposits on the dark boulders. The combination of this light ring, the dark talus, the pink headwall, and an eruption of purple and yellow flowers made a striking scene that was difficult to capture on camera, even more so in the flat light of an increasingly cloudy day. Enchanted Gorge is a grim slog, an endless talus-march up high and (apparently) a brush-bash down low, but it is a remarkable place. Those wishing to visit should probably go up rather than down, as the talus is easier going up than down, and the scenery’s “dramatic arc” works better (or something).

Traversing around Chasm Lake

Traversing around Chasm Lake

I eventually reached the narrow outlet of Chasm Lake, and had to choose a side. I chose west, since that was where I was ultimately headed, and was promptly and severely punished. After third-classing around a cliff near the mouth, I was driven away from the shore again and again, gradually traversing higher through slabs and talus infested with late-season mosquitoes. It was growing late, and while this meant great sunset views of Charybdis behind, I was increasingly tired and desperate to find a flat place to camp.

Charybdis and Chasm Lake

Charybdis and Chasm Lake

Most of the way around the lake, I was 100 feet or more above its surface, and abandoned hope of camping near the inlet. Instead, I gritted my teeth and climbed on up to Lake 11,592′, where I finally found a good spot at the base of Mount Solomons, my next objective. I set up my bivy, shoveled down some hot nutrient glop (rice-based, I think), and settled in to my typical bivy-sleep. Since I go to bed around dusk (7-8:00), I tend to wake up several times in the night, even more around a full moon, when the white Sierra granite makes it almost as bright as day. I’ve grown not to mind it: staring at the silent stars is relaxing, and I seem to get enough sleep in bits and pieces.

Uglies 1: South Lake to Ladder Lake; Langille

Langille across Le Conte Canyon

Langille across Le Conte Canyon


I picked up a permit listing a vague 6-night version of my plans in Bishop, then drove up to the South Lake trailhead to sleep in the overnight lot. I was shocked to find people parked in the overflow a mile down the road on a Thursday evening, but fortunately there was a single, relatively flat space in the lot for me to sleep. I had packed my pack the night before, but had to completely yard-sale it to add the sleeping bag I used as my blanket in the car, so I had some time to chat with my fellow parking-lot-sleepers before heading off into the wild.

Passing balanced rock headed down Dusy Basin

Passing balanced rock headed down Dusy Basin

My first job was getting to “the wild.” South Lake is a mercifully high trailhead, but I unfortunately had to grind out a dozen miles of nasty pack trail to reach my jumping-off point. From South Lake, the trail climbs to Bishop Pass near 12,000 feet, then drops to around 9,000 feet to join the John Muir Highway at the Le Conte Canyon ranger cabin. The JMH is normally crowded, and is even more so this year, perhaps thanks to the popular “Wild” book and movie. Indeed, the wandering, free-spirited Muir seems better commemorated by a true wilderness like the Bob Marshall, while the trail could perhaps be renamed for Horace Albright (explanatory PDF), whose well-intentioned efforts to save the wilderness by making it more public-friendly (e.g. by feeding bears) led to a non-wild situation that is taking decades to fix.

Convenient log bridge

Convenient log bridge

I stopped for lunch near the cabin, half-hoping to talk to the ranger. He and his girlfriend/co-ranger were in, but not especially outgoing, probably because they were about to take off for some quality time away from the constant company on the JMH. I finally asked him about the next leg of my intended route, and he discouraged me from taking it without providing much more information. I finished eating, then ignored his advice and continued as before.

Langille from south

Langille from south

I crossed the creek on a convenient log bridge just upstream of the cabin, then followed some branching and fading use trails uphill through the forest before breaking out onto slabs around the creek leading down from Hester Lake or one of its neighbors. I refilled water at some random tarn, drank as much as I could, then dropped my pack to head up the turf and boulders on Langille’s south side. Despite its impressive appearance from the east, Langille is only class 2 from the “back,” and sees few ascents. One of the backcountry rangers was the last to sign in, after a recent visit to the Le Conte couple.

Palisades from Ladder

Palisades from Ladder

After returning to my pack, it was time to see how hard the traverse to Ladder Lake actually was. As it turned out, while it required a lot of talus-hopping, including a section of unpleasant loose dinner-plates, and some up-and-down, the line I had spotted on my map went at no harder than class 2. From near my tarn, I headed southwest to Lake 11,654, then passed through the easternmost of two gaps to its south. The gap held some snow-patches, a welcome break from the talus, and I soon found myself looking down toward Ladder Lake. A surprising amount of the descent featured obnoxiously loose talus, but nothing unusually difficult or treacherous, and I soon found an old campsite on a peninsula south of the lake, from which I watched the sunset on the nearby Citadel and the Palisades across Le Conte Canyon to the east.

Backpacking the Big Uglies

It's that time again.

It’s that time again.


Though I prefer not to backpack, I had many reasons to do so recently:

  1. I wanted more red blood cells, and backpacking in the Sierra is a good way to stay above 10,000 feet for most of a week.
  2. I also wanted to trim a bit of body fat, and backpacking is a great way to starve.
  3. With only 1.5 hands, I am limited to 4th class and easier terrain, putting some of my summer objectives out of reach.
  4. There are certain “ugly” peaks on the SPS list that are hard to reach as dayhikes, but not intrinsically interesting.
  5. I only really enjoy backpacking off-trail, and the Sierra are the best place to do that.

So I loaded up with some food:

Type Cal Weight
Trail mix 9600 4 lbs
Summer Sausage 2000 20 oz
Tortillas 2000 1+ lbs
7 protein bars 2000 1+ lbs
Rice 1500 14 oz
Oats 1600? ~1 lb
Instant potatoes 1500 1 lb
Protein powder 900? (3.5 cups)
Flax seed 2000? 14 oz
Olive oil 3000 (1 pint)

and did this. Stats:

Day Miles Gain Loss
1 16.9 7500 6800
2 10.4 7000 5900
3 9.4 5900 6500
4 14.4 7000 7000
5 32.7 4700 6700
Total 83.8 32,100 32,900

“Glacier Spike,” Rixford, “Falcor,” Gould

Glen Pass crowd and Glacier Spike

Glen Pass crowd and Glacier Spike


It was the final day of the Challenge, and a number of us were camped out in the Onion Valley parking lot. It was also a Sunday in August, so the Challenge crowd, which overwhelms lesser trailheads, was lost in the sea of cars from dayhikers, backpackers, and fishermen. I had never seen cars parked so far down the road at Onion Valley.

Old vs. new trail

Old vs. new trail

Other than the frustration of a trail reroute adding a bunch of horizontal switchbacks, Kearsarge is a pleasant approach, and it is a shame that I don’t get to use it more. I hiked along pleasantly with the group on the lower section, then cut ahead on the old trail to reach the pass a few minutes ahead of the rest. I stopped to eat and enjoy the view of Brewer and the Kearsarge Pinnacles while they caught up, then took the old trail down the other side. It has been deliberately destroyed, with rocks piled on its graceful curve, but it is still faster than the new one.

Bob on a bit of 3rd class

Bob on a bit of 3rd class

I had not been to Glen Pass since 2011, a heavy snow year, and was surprised to find a dry stream and no snow on the south side. I was also a bit taken aback by the crowds. We had timed our arrival to coincide with the flood of people headed south from camp at Rae Lakes, either bound for Whitney on the JMT, or headed out to Kearsarge or Kings Canyon after a weekend backpack. I chatted with two of the friendlier members of the dozen-strong crowd at the summit, then a few of us surprised them by taking off up the ridge toward “Glacier Spike,” which Bob had chosen as this year’s final peak.

Traversing around stuck people

Traversing around stuck people

While the others traversed across loose-looking stuff north of the ridge, I found a pleasant, solid sidewalk up the crest, which took me nearly to the final step before the summit. I contoured left to meet the others, then climbed some class 3-4 terrain to return to the ridge just before the first of two summit regions separated by a steep gap. While the others followed the crest to the gap, then milled around in confusion, Bob and I snuck along a ledge on the left, then climbed through it to the right-hand side.

Someone stuck before the gap

Someone stuck before the gap

Seeing a fourth class way to what might be the summit, I told the others I would check it out, then disappeared around a corner. As it turned out, I forgot to shout back that it worked, and they didn’t wait for such a shout. While I made my way over a black, slightly lower bump to the flat, white summit, Bob, Mason, and Gil dropped down and around to the south and found an easier way, joining me a few minutes later. From the summit, it became clear that the peak is much easier from the south, and that it is possible to shortcut the trail by traversing to the saddle with Rixford, then dropping south toward Kearsarge Lakes.

Rixford from Glacier Spike

Rixford from Glacier Spike

The four of us descended southeast, waving unhelpfully at a few others trapped just short of Glacier Spike’s summit. I left the others at the saddle, traversing on over Rixford, “Falcor,” and finally Gould to rejoin the trail at Kearsarge Pass. Rixford was just a big talus pile, though mostly solid when I stayed near the ridge or on a helpful goat-path. Looking back from its summit, I saw that the others had still not found their way to the summit in nearly an hour of trying. Most eventually made it, but at least one person was surprisingly defeated.

Falcor summit

Falcor summit

Falcor was a bit trickier, and I made it unnecessarily more so. I headed up a black-and-white gully to the west side of the golden summit block. Then, instead of traversing the south face to the possibly-easier east side, I fourth-classed my way up the west end. I worried at a couple places that I had spiraled into a vortex of bad route-finding decisions, but it all worked out in the end. From the register, I learned that “Falcor” is the name of the good-luck dragon (really a creepy giant man-dog that flies by flapping its ears) in “The Never-Ending Story.” If someone wanted to make a play on neighboring Dragon Peak, at least they could have chosen a real dragon like Smaug or Glaurung…

Ridge to Gould and Kearsarge Pass

Ridge to Gould and Kearsarge Pass

After a bit of third class, things got much easier on the way to the popular Gould. I boosted onto its summit block, then hid behind it to eat my last summit fish and savor the end of another Challenge before sand-skiing back to the trail. I was torn between desires to follow the old direct trail and not to be yelled at by self-righteous backpackers, so I followed a bit of both old and new. Apparently I was lucky, since some other finishers reported being approached by an overzealous ranger who asked for their permits (unnecessary for dayhikers) and sternly told them to stay on the trail (where they already were). I doubt she would have accepted my story about following the old trail for research purposes.

Since I wanted to sleep up high, and had no need to head into town, I hung out with a changing crowd of Challengers into the early evening, then retreated to my car to read sometime just before when Scott finally returned from his final, insane 14.5-hour day. Having missed the last two years, the group had changed enough that I felt like a bit of a stranger, but it was a fun time overall, and a good way to stay focused and kill time while my hand continues to heal. I am less enamored of the Sierra than I was before spending more time up north, but they’re not a bad place to spend this part of 2016.

“Firebird”

Norman Clyde and "Williams" from Firebird

Norman Clyde and “Williams” from Firebird


“Firebird Peak” is a bump on Norman Clyde Peak’s long northeast (“Firebird”) ridge. I had originally planned to find an alternative, but my only unclimbed alternate from the South Fork trailhead was “Big Kid,” a monstrous pile of sand, and I had little energy or time to plan after the previous 12-hour day. JD was planning to continue to Norman Clyde on his SPS list death-march, and I made noises about doing the same, despite having already climbed it twice before.

Pursued by an army of Bobs

Pursued by an army of Bobs

There was a healthy crowd on the South Fork trail for the 6 AM start. This is one of my favorite approaches for several reasons: the trail is livestock-free and built for humans; I used it for some memorable early Sierra climbs back when I was in school; and the sunrise on Middle Palisade’s and Norman Clyde’s east faces is always inspiring. As usual, I traded places with Bob on the way up the switchbacks: I would pull ahead while hiking, then he would pass me while I stopped to pee, put on sunscreen, or whatever. As I learned on my first Challenge, Bob almost never stops (or eats) on hikes. He also knows secret trails, as he demonstrated by emerging from the trees just ahead of us near Finger Lake after dropping behind below Brainerd.

Boulderfield below summit

Boulderfield below summit

After some confusion about which point along the ridge was Firebird, we deviated from the standard Middle Palisade approach to climb a long, mostly-stable boulder-field toward the summit. I was tired, but still had an automatic sense of how fast I should go on this terrain when rested, so I ascended in bursts, periodically stopping to let the lactic acid drain from my legs. Scott, just behind me, mistakenly thought I was just stopping to take in the view.

Williams and Palisade Crest

Williams and Palisade Crest

Reaching the summit, I found the register, which contained a few entries to the effect of “this thing has a register? Okay…,” then sat to wait for company. I eventually got out my summit fish, implicitly admitting that I would not be tagging any more peaks today. JD, who had had a nearly 20-hour ordeal the day before, arrived some time later, admitting defeat on Norman Clyde. He was dealing with a malfunctioning ankle that turned out to be much worse than he expected, and would send him home that evening.

I probably spent about an hour on the summit before dropping down the dirt-slopes south to pick up the Middle Pal route and follow the familiar boulders and slabs back to Finger Lake and the trail. Talking with Robert near Grass Lake, I was surprised to meet Iris coming up the trail. Like JD, she was coming off a brutally long day, and had started around 10:45. In classic Iris style, she appeared to be cheerful, unhurried, and on the verge of disintegration, held together by tape and braces. There was no need to hurry, but Robert and I convinced each other to run from the switchbacks back to the trailhead, leaving me with plenty of time to socialize at the trailhead before descending into the brutal 100-degree heat of the Owens Valley. The next day’s low start meant there would be no convenient, cool trailhead camping.

Wynne, Pinchot, “South Striped”

Pinchot and Wynne from pass

Pinchot and Wynne from pass


Taboose Pass is a once-a-year approach for me, and today was it. I don’t mind the 6,000 feet of gain, the various loose trail surfaces are tolerable on the way up, and the colorful cliffs to either side are beautiful in the usual morning light, as is the view of Arrow and Ruskin from the pass. Only in descending the pass, usually after a long and tiring day, does it reveal its fundamental hatefulness. Slightly tired and moving at a steady pace, it took me just under 3 hours to cover 7.5 miles and 6000 feet up. Going down the same took 1h45, despite taking the final sandy mile or so at a full run. In other words, the trail surface is so bad that it is impossible to average more than a fast walk. Indeed, some parts are slower going down than up, an unusual situation traveling cross-country and an evil miracle of bad trail-building.

Sunrise on Taboose

Sunrise on Taboose

My ambitious plan for the day was to start by going around the day’s Challenge peak, unofficially-named “White Mountain,” to Pinchot Pass on the JMT before traversing back around to it via Wynne, Pinchot, and “Striped South.” This would net me two SPS peaks and a previous Challenge peak, putting me not quite within reach of catching Scott, but perhaps close enough to make him work for the Polka-dot Jersey. Of course, he needed no such motivation, and would put in a ridiculous final day no matter what I did. I did not know anything about the ridges around Striped South, and it turned out that the traverse to White would have been loose and scary, so I had to settle for three out of four.

Lakes north of Pinchot Pass

Lakes north of Pinchot Pass

Robert had expressed interest in joining me on this adventure, but after falling behind below the pass, decided to just do White, so I had most of the day to myself. I passed a group of Boy Scouts on the way down to the JMT, then ran into the usual mid-August traffic along the popular trail on the way south to Pinchot Pass. I had gone this way a few years ago with Bob and Pat on the way to Ickes, so the route was familiar as far as Lake Marjorie. Leaving the trail at the pass, I found surprisingly decent class 2 rock leading to Wynne’s summit.

Pinchot from Wynne

Pinchot from Wynne

Though both Wynne and Pinchot seem like they should be class 2 rubble-piles from all directions, there is a surprising craggy feature on their connecting ridge. Taking a hint from Wynne’s register, I stayed near the ridge and found a bit of third class and generally decent rock. Past this feature, the climb to Pinchot is the expected class 2 talus-pile. I thought I was making good time, but found in Pinchot’s register that local runner Phil Kiddoo had done the same route nearly an hour faster. Sigh.

White and Striped from Pinchot

White and Striped from Pinchot

The choss-ridge to the north did not look appealing, serrated on top and loose on the sides. I stayed near the crest descending from Pinchot, finding a bit of third class getting around some drops, then followed a sheep-path on the west side around some pinnacles. It was not as bad as it looked, but still time-consuming. The rock quality suddenly improved as I reached the intersection with the ridge to White, just short of Striped South’s summit. However, the first half of that ridge was crappy, red, and steep, looking just as bad up close as it had from a distance on the JMT. It might turn out to be loose 4th class, but I was not in the mood for that kind of physically and mentally exhausting climbing. On the good side, the ridge would likely foil Scott’s plan to traverse around to Striped from White.

White and no-go ridge

White and no-go ridge

I decided to deal with White later, and continued to the nearby summit. The register, placed by Sierra Challengers in 2014, had seen all of two people since, one of them a sheep surveyor. I eyed neighboring Striped and White as I ate, contemplating my next move. The ridge to Striped was supposedly class 3, but looked intimidating, and I had already done the peak, so I decided to drop down to the lakes between White and Striped South, then maybe do the 1500-foot climb to White from there if I felt like it.

Striped and Striped South

Striped and Striped South

I followed the ridge a short way north toward Striped, then began descending what I hoped was a “scree-able” chute. Unfortunately, what I found instead was loose talus mixed with outward-sloping slabs covered in ankle-biting scree. Partway down, I tapped a rock with my foot to see if it was stable, and it rolled a few feet, then broke into several pieces. Wonderful.

After the tedious descent, I was in no mood to deal with White. I filled my water at the nearby lake, replacing the ice-ball that had formed when I added too much snow at a patch along the ridge, then cut cross-country to the trail just below Taboose. From there, it was just an hour and 45 minutes of frustration to the trailhead, where Jim was kindly waiting with cold beverages. As usual, Scott was still out doing something else. His original plan thwarted by the ridge, he had chosen to do Cardinal and a neighboring unnamed peak, adding another few thousand feet of talus-slog to his day. I’m getting too old to compete with that.

The Powells and Clyde Spires

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east


The Challenge Peak for the day was “Potluck Pass Peak,” a fun 4th class scramble reached by a scenic stroll through the Barrett Lakes. Since I had already done it as a bonus in 2012, and since there was more or less nothing I had yet to climb out of South Lake that was not insane (i.e. would involve crossing Le Conte Canyon), I headed to the Sabrina basin to tag some things on my to-do list. I am not always a fan of the area, with its long approaches and heavy packer use, but this was to be a fun outing, with interesting scrambling, some nice summits, and quiet time to myself.

Hazy dawn on Lake Sabrina

Hazy dawn on Lake Sabrina

I found a spot to sleep in the small parking area near the North Lake turnoff, set my alarm for 5:00, and was soon asleep in the pleasantly cool air near 9000 feet. Waking to my alarm, I discovered that I had acquired a neighbor overnight, and he too had set his alarm for 5:00. We both flailed around preparing for awhile, presumably watching each other’s bobbing headlamps. I finished last, taking the time to heat my cup of sadness, drove to the outhouse at Sabrina, then back to the tiny day use parking area at the trailhead, and got started just before 6:00.

Powell-Thompson Col (center)

Powell-Thompson Col (center)

I feel guilty listening to stuff while hiking with other people, so I had plenty of listening material queued up for the familiar miles to Blue Lake, then the unfamiliar ones past Baboon and Sunset Lakes. Above Sunset, I was presented with what used to be a small glacier, and an unappealing dirt-chute leading to the Powell-Thompson col. Fortunately, a slabby rib on the right got me most of the way across the moraine, and snow and bits of hidden ice eased passage to the base of the chute. I carefully kicked steps up the snow to one side, then switched to stepping nervously on rubble frozen into the dirt/ice substance, and finally worked my way along the right-hand wall to the col.

Climb out of P-T col

Climb out of P-T col

The climb from here was probably just class 3-4, but with my current supply of hands, I had to backtrack a few times before finding a route that did not require a big right-hand mantle. An ascending traverse up the south side of the ridge eventually deposited me on the summit sand-plateau, with “Powell” close to my right, “Wesley” farther ahead to my left, and “John” obscured by the plateau/ridge in between. Clearly I had done things in the wrong order.

Ridge to "John"

Ridge to “John”

I tagged Powell (the one on the SPS list), then marched across the sand to easily tag Wesley before getting back to serious work on the ridge to John. I descended a loose chute to the south a bit, then retreated to stay closer to the ridge. An experiment with a line on the north side worked, but with some sketchiness, so I returned to the crest, then worked my way along the top and ledges to the south, with occasional exposed moves between levels. Things got easier at the saddle, and I was soon on the last and highest JWP summit.

Clyde Spires and Echo Lake from "John"

Clyde Spires and Echo Lake from “John”

When climbing this point several years ago after a big winter, Bob had used a snow/glacier route to the north, but I had no crampons or axe, and years of drought had pretty much hosed that option. Besides, I needed to be south of Echo Col for the standard route on Clyde Spires, my next objective. This was probaboy the worst part of the day, a long, right-handed descent of garbage chutes and fins south of the ridge, leading finally to boulders below the pass.

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east

Crumbling and west Clyde Spires from east

Coming off this experience, I found the Clyde Spires’ south ridge quite pleasant, a quick-for-tired-me hop up a stable boulder field nearly to the ridge. I checked out the east spire first, having to fetch a cheater block to overcome what would normally be an easy two-handed boost, and was soon on the big flat summit next to the register can. I sat down and had almost started eating my fish when I noticed that the west spire was both higher-looking and more spire-like. Secor confirmed that it was higher, so I packed up the register and made my way to the other summit; Norman deserved as much.

East Clyde Spire from west

East Clyde Spire from west

The traverse was wander-y but not difficult until just below the summit block. Getting to the base seems to require either some chimneying from the south or something equally hard and slightly weirder from the west. I chose the chimneying, clanking and grinding as the register canister on my back gripped the rock. The summit block itself is maybe 10 feet high and very close to being one of the harder blocks in the Sierra. Fortunately, there is a sort of “mounting block” on its west side, and a perfect series of holds spiraling around north to the east side, leading to a flat top with just enough room for one person and his fish.

Focus on what matters

Focus on what matters

I put the register in its rightful place, then had a late lunch while contemplating my return. I could retrace my steps down the south ridge and come back over Echo Col, but that seemed longer than traversing onward over “Crumbling Spire” to Wallace Col. Other than one less-sketchy-than-it-looked class 4-5 downclimb, the traverse worked well, and I was soon looking for the least-bad way down the east side of the col.

I had hoped for easy scree-ing, but instead found mostly steep loose garbage that required a bit of care. Like Haeckel-Wallace Col to its north, this is not a “pass,” but a saddle where either side should be descended but never climbed. Filling my water at a nice lake where the two cols join, I noticed some people in the talus above. They waved when they noticed me, and I climbed out of my way within hailing distance to see what was going on. They turned out to be a group camped at Hungry Packer Lake, out for a “fun” wander through the talus, and unsure of their exact location. They seemed okay once I oriented them on their map, but if I had been thinking, I would have told them to try hiking up to the excellent Lake 12,345′ instead of suffering around below Wallace. Sabrina’s length began to weigh on me as I joined the convergent trails near Moonlight Lake, but I had plenty of listening material, and enough stores of good-will from the day to last me to the trailhead. After a long-ish 12-hour day, I rinsed off in the creek, stopped briefly in Bishop for dinner and a chat with Bob, then drove back up to cooler climbs above Big Pine to prepare for the next day.