During the second week of July, 2002, Ryle drove up from LA to the Sierras to chauffer me on a CA 14ers speed record attempt. We were blocked by fire before we even started. The road to Glacier Lodge was closed which made access to the Red Lake trailhead impossible. So, we messed around on the horrible South Face of Lone Pine Peak for a day and went to Owens River Gorge before giving up completely.
We planned to meet at 3:30pm Sunday August 4 in Big Pine. We would take Ryle's '91 Nissan Sentra because my '91 Mazda 626 doesn't do well on hills. Fortunately, I had checked my e-mail before heading to Big Pine and Ryle told me he wouldn't get there until 5:30. I took this opportunity to investigate the "alternative approach" to the Red Lake trailhead. I drove up Tinemaha CreeK Road until my car started to overheat (I need a new radiator), then I parked it and ran up the dirt road to see if it was passable by normal passenger cars. The road was blocked by a locked gate with a "No Tresspassing" sign. I'm a big fan of private property rights -- just not when it interferes with my ability to reach a trailhead! But, I expected the roadblock and skirted the fence along another road. About 1/4 mile leater, I reached the first spot that was truly impassable. It was a short, but steep slope with huge ruts and an unfriendly exit. I looked for a good way to bypass the obstacle, but there wasn't a good route. Even if one could negotiate this slope, the next section was an extremely rocky stretch that was very questionable. I turned around and ran back to my car, grabbed some water for my radiator out of the nearby creek, and drove back to Big Pine.
Our agreed meeting spot was the corner of Crocker and 395. It was only 4:00, but I decided to hang out for 1.5 hours and wait for Ryle's arrival. 5:30 came and went. So did 6:00, 6:30, and finally 7:00. Neither of us has a cellphone, so we usually communicate via e-mail. I couldn't find any public internet access in Big Pine, so I drove back up to Bishop and sure enough, I had a couple messages from Ryle. The first said he'd be there at 8:00pm, and the second said it wouldn't be until 8:30. Apparently, the night before, Ryle had been at a wedding and had gotten really drunk. He misplaced his jacket with his car keys in it and couldn't find them anywhere. He knew they were somewhere in LA, but he wasn't sure where. I just shook my head and realized that I should have expected something like this.
I drove back to Big Pine and waited for 8:30 to arrive, fully expecting that he wouldn't be there, but to my surprise, he was. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to give Ryle a tour of the trailheads and still get to sleep early. So, we decided to delay the start until Tuesday the 6th.
The following evening, we drove up to South Lake. I noticed that Ryle's front tires were showing metal along the outside edges. In an effort to make them last as long as possible, we decided that it might be a good idea to rotate them to minimize further wear on the sensitive spots. So, in the parking lot at South Lake, Ryle rotated his tires. I just watched and ate graham crackers, citing the fact that I had to rest up for the next day's adventures.
At 3:54am my alarm went off. Getting up before sunrise is not something that I do well. I downed some caffeine and tried to eat some imitation Fig Newtons in an attempt to get motivated. I put on shorts, a t-shirt, my Kayland Spiders, and my Petzl Tikka headlamp. In my Bullet Pack, I carried a light jacket, some water, some food and some topos from Topozone for the section between Middle Palisade and Split (I'm far too cheap to buy real maps). I turned on my headlamp and started down the trail at exactly 4:30am.
For three days I had been fighting off a bad headache. I had my usual signs of dizziness, blind spots, and tension in my neck. I assume that I get migraines, but I've never had an official diagnosis. The intense part of the headache normally lasts a few hours, then it goes away. But during the those few intense hours, I'm usually incapacitated. After a few minutes of hiking, it hit. It was bad, but not completely debilitating, so I pressed on (albeit slower than I had hoped). I was in pain and was not having fun. After an hour and 25 minutes, I reached Bishop Pass. I wasn't going at the pace I had planned, but it wasn't terribly slow. I just tried to let my mind go blank as I hiked over to Thunderbolt Pass and up the uninteresting Southwest Chute #1. By the time I reached the base of the summit block of Thunderbolt, the headache had faded to a dull throbbing. I quickly bouldered up the 5.9 east side, then signed the register. I left the summit block at 7:39am. From there, I cruised over Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium, and Sill, arriving on the summit of Sill at about 9:25am. This made for a 1 hour and 46 minute traverse of the five 14ers above the Palisade Glacier. At this point, I was feeling pretty good.
I had a decision to make: Do I take the west side or the east side of the crest on my way to Middle Palisade? I pulled out my topos and studied the terrain. I knew the east side was horrible because I had done it before. The west side looked bad too, but at least it was an unknown. Plus, by taking the west side I'd be able to avoid the loose and very dangerous East Couloir of Sill. So, I headed southwest down talus toward Middle Palisade. After going up and over many obstacles, Middle Palisade and its neighbors came into sight. I intended to climb up and down the Class 4 Farqhuar Route, so I headed up the most likely looking chute. It was a little loose, but not too bad. About 2/3 of the way up, I cut left (north-ish) then finally reached the top of the ridge. The problem was that I didn't see the summit anywhere. The ridge was intimidating as I traversed across, then up, then down looking for a do-able route to Middle Palisade. The climbing was Class 5 over suitcase-like detached blocks. After a few dead ends and a lot of confusion, I decided to retrace my steps. I had wasted more than an hour, so I was a little pissed. To my surprise, I was magically back at the spot where I had started to cut left. I had no idea how I arrived there. I didn't think I should be anywhere nearby.. Either I had stepped through some sort of wormhole or I was losing my mind. I assumed the latter was true. I chocked it up to good luck and made sure I didn't make the same mistake twice. I cut *far* left this time and headed up some very steep and exposed Class 4 to the summit.
Even though I had wasted a lot of time, it wasn't even 2:30pm. I didn't really want to descend the Farqhuar route down to the JMT because it looked like I'd lose too much elevation, so I had the "bright" idea of traversing just underneath Middle Palisade, Disappointment Peak, and Balcony Peak on the east side of the crest. This would bring me to Southfork Pass, then I'd head west to the JMT. The traverse sucked and took over an hour and a half. It was my second bad mistake of the day. I headed down to the JMT over rough terrain. On the JMT, I passed a couple of backpackers who asked what I was doing and where I was going. I told them that I was doing all the Palisade 14ers in a day and that I was on my way to Split. I expected some sort of comment like "wow, that's a long day" or something like that. But, they just shrugged and grunted. The didn't seem appropriately impressed ;-) I passed them and headed up to Mather Pass on a trail that was about three times longer than it needed to be (due to crazy switchbacks). When I reached the top of the pass, my heart sank as I saw how much more distance I had to go before reaching Split. I descended from the pass, then cut off the JMT and headed east. I hiked up loose talus for thousands of vertical feet to the summit. This section was just plain terrible. It was long and uninteresting.
The sun was very low when I started thinking about the upcoming loose, Class 3 descent to Red Lake. I hiked down the north slope to the gully/talus that heads down to the Lake and entered the chute just as the sun set. While sliding down the talus, I regularly knocked large rocks down. These rocks would start small avalanches that would slide for hundreds of feet. As the last light faded, I turned on my Petzl Tikka headlamp. The light from it was not sufficient. There was a new moon, so the only light I had was from the stars and the three LEDs in my headlamp. The light illuminated about 4 feet in front of me, and that's about it. Even during the daylight, Split has some non-trivial routefinding. It's hard to get completely lost, but it's very easy to get slightly off route. Navigating the area in the dark with a crappy headlamp and no moon was next to impossible.
Anyway, I stumbled down in the darkness and somehow was able to pick up the overgrown, sandy trail down from Red Lake. This trail has got to be one of the worst anywhere. I lost it a couple of times and wound up down by the creek fighting my way through nasty thickets and thorns on very steep terrain. At one point, I found myself suspended above the ground in shrubbery. I sat there for a moment and turned off my light so that I could fully soak in the absurdity of the situation. As I descended, the smell of smoke from the McNally fire 70 miles away permeated the air. I finally reached the Red Lake trailhead just before midnight --19:30 after I started.
Unfortunately, the day's adventures were not quite over. I still had almost 5 miles of 4WD road between me and the car. Earlier that day, Ryle had stashed his bike at the trailhead so that I could ride it down. I hopped on and coasted for about 3 miles at a very slow speed. My tiny LED headlamp didn't illuminate the rough road well enough to move any faster than a few mph. The last 2 miles or so before the car involved fairly continuous uphill travel. I dismounted and walked the bike up this part.
Ryle and I had agreed that he would park at the the sign that says "Red Lake Trail". I was eagerly awaiting some Gatorade, crackers, and my sleeping bag. But, when I reached the sign, his car wasn't there. I figured that he must have broken down somewhere or maybe he had gotten drunk in a bar in Big Pine and had forgotten about me. I was exhausted, so I dropped to the dirt and attempted to sleep in my shorts and jacket on the chilly ground. After a couple of hours of no sleep, I decided that this was not going to work. I was too cold, so I started walking along the dirt road. After a few hundred feet, I came across Ryle sleeping soundly in his car. It was just out of sight of the agreed meeting spot. Finally, at about 3:45am, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
I woke up shortly after sunrise and stretched a little. The plan had been to go from Langlely to Williamson on the second day, but after getting back late and having very little sleep the night before, I decided to take an "easy" day and only do White and Langley.
We started driving up to White. On the dirt road, still a long distance from the locked gate, Ryle's car got a flat tire. A piece of sharp rock had sliced right into it. He put on his donut spare while I relaxed. We tried to figure out the best plan of attack. One of the "good" tires on his car was showing metal, so it was bound to go at any time. Plus, we didn't really trust the donut. If we got another flat and became stranded out there, it would be very bad, so we voted to turn around and drive slowly back to Bishop to try to get some new tires.
The first place we tried said they were too busy. The second place said to come back in an hour. Finally, third place was able help us right away. It took them about an hour to replace the tires, then we were on our way. A mile down the road, we noticed that the wheels were making some very strange noises. We got out of the car and realized that the mechanic had put 14" tires on (instead of 13"). The guy apologized for his mistake, but he took his sweet time replacing the tires. By the time we drove back to White and got to the trailhead, it was almost 5pm. We had wasted the enitre day.
I started hiking up the dirt road trying to find a balance between energy conservation and speed. I had a big day planned for the next day, and I needed to get to sleep early so that I could wake up early -- but I didn't want to burn myself out by going too fast. The round trip took 4 hours, then we drove to Langley, getting there at about 12:30am.
I missed my watch alarm and slept late. I didn't get on the trail until 5am. I had been up Langley twice before, and each time I had taken the "pass" to the north of Old Army Pass. This seems like a much more direct way to access the sandy slopes above. However, this time I decided to try out Old Army Pass itself. This was definitely significantly longer and slower. After getting to the top of the pass, I skied up the sandy slopes to the summit. It was already after 8am.
I looked over toward Muir and Whitney. The intervening terrain looked hellish. Initially, I started down easy sand slopes to the west. Then the slope steepened to loose Class 3/4 rock and sand. After a big hassle, I reached the bottom and cleaned several handfuls of sand and pebbles out of my running shoes. I headed up slabs to Sky-Blue Lake then scrambled up to to Lake 3697 just above it, and finally reached Crabtree Pass. From the pass, I had to descend almost all the way to the lake below before climbing back up terrible sand slopes to Discovery Pinnacle. Then I dropped down to the Whitney Trail.
It was now very late, and I had to make a decision. Ryle was planning on meeting me at the Shepherds Pass Trailhead at the base of Williamson, but he was also planning to do some hiking around Whitney Portal during the day. As I had learned on my descent from Split, cross country travel with no moon and a Petzl Tikka headlamp is next to impossible. The prospect of wandering around in the pitch black darkness on unkown terrain between Russell and Williamson was not appealing. I thought about bagging Muir, Whitney, and Russell, then heading down to Whitney Portal. Then I could do Williamson and Tyndall the following day. But, this would bring me down to Whitney portal too late to meet up with Ryle, and I'd be stranded. Plus, I wasn't interested in completing the tour if it was going to take me more than 3.5 days. I wanted to either smash my previous mark or not bother heading up to Shasta at all. I had already wasted almost a full day due to car trouble and other mishaps. The previous night I must not have been thinking clearly when I decided to go for the big Langley to Williamson traverse.
After a half hour of thought, I decided that this was the end of my speed tour, so I headed down to Whitney Portal. I didn't have a Whitney Zone permit, but I didn't really care. If a ranger stopped me, I'd just explain the situation. If that was unacceptable, I'd let him write me a ticket and just give him a fake name and address. Fortunately, I wasn't hassled at all.
When I got down to Whitney Portal, Ryle wasn't there. Later I'd find out that he decided to spend the day hiking up toward Shepherds Pass instead. So, I started walking down the road to Lone Pine. I tried to hitchhike, but I wound up walking a few miles before anyone picked me up.
I had no money and no way to contact Ryle. So, I sat on a bench in Lone Pine until it started getting dark. The backup plan was for Ryle to head to Lone Pine at noon the next day if I didn't show up at the Shepherds Pass trailhead. This meant I had to spend the night in Lone Pine. All I had was a light jacket, a t-shirt, and shorts to sleep in. So, I raided a dumpster for some cardboard boxes and carried them about a mile up Whitney Portal road. There I tried my best to keep warm underneath the cardboard.
The next morning, I passed the time looking for change at fast food restaurant drive through windows. I found 13 cents. Then, I noticed that there was a self-service car wash in town. Jackpot! I sifted through the "large object catcher" in the vacuums and found more than $1 in change, which I used to buy some coffee.
A few hours later, Ryle came rolling through town, and that was the end of my misadventures.