In the evening of December 23rd, Abe, Annie, Ben and myself got together at Shepherd Pass Trailhead near Independence, CA for an early winter attempt at Mt. Williamson (14,375’). Kevin joined us next morning. The weather was great; the daytime high temperature in Independence was in mid-60's, nearly 10F higher than normal, and the sky was clear with no wind. The last mile of the road to the trailhead was a little rough, but my Honda Accord got through without much trouble.
We left the trailhead about 745am next morning and started the hike up along Symmes Creek. After the fourth and the final crossing of the creek, some snow appeared on the ground. It got deeper as we headed higher, reaching a foot deep in some places. Fortunately, someone on snowshoes had made tracks no more than a day or two before, making our hike up a lot easier (thanks, Santa!).
However, Santa had apparently decided to turn around and head back down after reaching Symmes Creek Saddle. So we put on our snowshoes there and began the real work. The descent to Shepherd Creek wasn’t too bad. Snow was thin and altogether disappeared in patches. Once we reached the low point near the creek, we discovered what we were really in for. The trail climbed up from there, but quickly disappeared under increasingly deep, soft snow. As we headed up to the right on long switchbacks, away from the creek, we lost the trail several times. Forced to go crosscountry, we sank calf-deep on our snowshoes much of the time.
Original plan was to get to Anvil Camp for the night, if not further, but we had to stop and set up tents at ~9,500’, where the trees begin. The trail had been lost for a while now, and it was after 7pm when we got into our tents (full darkness by 630pm). Exhausted, but this was Christmas Eve after all, so we built a small chimney with rocks and snow in hopes of Santa bringing us presents. No one had a red sock to hang on the chimney though.
It was a warm night (mid-20’s, my guess), and we woke up on Christmas Day with a beautiful, windless day as our gift from Santa. Tired from the day before, we didn’t leave the camp until 730am for the summit. We caught only a couple of glimpses of the trail during the 3+ miles trek to the bottom of Shepherd Pass, leaving us to snowshoe in deep snow again and then boulder hop through the moraines. In hindsight, we made the mistake of staying too much on the right side of the valley; the trail is mostly to the left, down slope.
The steep climb up Shepherd Pass (~500’) was completely covered with snow, reaching 40+ degrees near the top. The snow was firm, but not icy. After the first 1/3 way up, crampons and ice axe were definitely required. Annie decided to stop at this point and headed back to the camp. We stayed on the right side of the gully, as it seemed the easier climb. However, there was an ominous snowpack hanging over that side at the top; in fact, some snow would periodically slide down on us as we climbed up. Small pebbles, wind-blown presumably, also came down. Kevin and Ben put their helmets on; me and Abe didn’t bother. We thought an avalanche was more of a danger and thus hugged the right wall of the gully, then made a short transverse to the rocks in middle of the gully once near the top to minimize the exposure. At this point, Abe also decided to head back down and return to camp. Kevin and Ben climbed to the rocks straight up the right side, with Ben loosing one of his crampons (!) along the way, which sled down to the bottom. It was nearly noon when the three of us stepped onto the top of the pass.
From there, it was a ~1.5 mile hike up a gentle upslope. There was some wind, 20 ~30 mph. Snow was crusty and patchy, but snowshoes would’ve been useful here. Temperatures must have been pretty high recently for the snow to be that soft under the crust. The wind picked up a lot more by the time we reached the lip of Williamson Bowl and got the full view of Mt. Williamson. Here Ben decided to end his climb and headed back to the pass. Kevin and I were worried that he was going down by himself, especially with only one crampon. But we couldn’t ask him to wait for us there with the wind and the cold. (He got back safely, frontpointing all the way down the pass with crampon on one foot, snowshoe on the other.)
Kevin and I went down into the bowl (~200') and headed to the other side. Route was in a surprisingly good shape; no ice on the rocks, mostly bare of snow, and the use trail was obvious in many places. Despite this, however, we didn’t even get half way across by 230pm. In no way we could’ve made it to the other side, summit, and then return back across the bowl before dark. The idea of trekking through the bowl and descending the pass in the darkness didn’t seem so merry to us, so we decided to turn around.
By the time we climbed out of the bowl and headed to the pass, the wind had gone from the uncomfortable stage and into the scary one; 50 ~ 60 mph with hard gusts. Moreover, dark clouds started to come in from the southwest. It was about 4pm when we reached the top of the pass. We came down the left side of the gully (looking up), opposite the side we had come up. Ben later told us he came down the same way after seeing a rock cairn at the ledge. We didn’t see the cairn; we just wanted to get off the top and away from the wind as quickly as possible, so picked the closest route down. There was hardly any wind at all on the slope, and the snow was perfect for descending on crampons.
We didn’t make it back to the camp until about 7pm. Earlier, Annie and Abe had put together a snowman and a snow-woman to welcome us home. (We have a picture of Abe fondling the pinecone breast of the snow-woman. But, that’s for another website....) It snowed during the night and the wind was gusty, although the air temperature stayed relatively warm (low-20’s).
It was still snowing 745am next morning when we packed up and started back to the trailhead. We sank knee-deep on snowshoes. The climb up from Shepherd Creek to Symmes Creek Saddle was particularly painful. But the descent from the saddle to the trailhead was quick, windless, and enjoyable. We reached our cars at 245pm and headed to Lone Pine for pizza and chicken wings.
We’ll be back for Williamson... in the winter again of course.