Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
I was pretty excited to hear about the trip--a 14er in California for Christmas. I would be climbing with four people I had never met, but I figured, hey, I'd meet some new people. I was climbing with Anne, Hakno, Abe, and Kevin. I typed up this report on my computer and then saw Hakno's trip report, which can be viewed here.
Abe and I left San Jose about 1PM on Friday to take a little early leave from work. We fought a little traffic on the way out of town (lots of other people had the same idea), but once out of San Jose made pretty good time. We stopped in Bakersfield for gas and headed for Independence through the mountains. All-in-all we made pretty good time, getting to the TH about 10PM. We met Hakno and Anne, who had just arrived from SoCal, and setup our tents for the night. The weather was pretty good, not too cold for late December at 6,500ft.
We woke up around 5:30, ate breakfast, and started packing our bags. Leaving the TH always takes some time--no one has their bag completely packed, we're all making last minute adjustments on which gear/clothing to take. Should I take the extra fleece? How many Clif Bars should I grab per day? Do I really need to take a book to read?
We left the TH around 7-7:30, just as Kevin arrived from SoCal. He agreed that we should start off and that he would catch up. We started off with the goal of camping that night at Shepherd's Pass, 11 miles and about 5,000ft away.
At the start of the trail there was no snow at all. We made good progress and started hauling up the notorious 53 switchbacks up to the first small pass on the trail. Kevin quickly caught up with us--he had a good pace considering he didn't get much sleep the night before. We made good time up the pass and encountered snow about halfway up. Someone with MSR snowshoes had been up to the first pass since the last snow, so we used their footprints to make our trek easier. Once we had turned all 53 switchbacks we stopped for a bit and peeled off a layer--it was a pretty warm day and the sun was shining brightly. I am not for certain, but I think we were about three hours from the TH.
For the next few hours we traversed halfway up the mountains on the north side of the valley. It was a little frustrating with the shallow snow, because we had to keep taking our snowshoes off and then putting them back on when we reached the east edge of a ridge and the snow was deeper. Most of the trail was not covered with snow except for these eastern faces.
After a couple of hours the snow was consistent and we lost the trail. This made progress slower as the valley widened and we kept trying to find the trail. The snow on eastern slopes was deep in places, and climbing up 35 degree slopes with 4-5 feet of snow with a 45 pound pack is no picnic, especially after 7-8 miles of hiking. We took turns breaking trail, and after the sun had dropped behind the hills we realized that we wouldn't make it to Shepherd Pass and decided to hunker down for the night. We figured we were around the Anvil Camp area, about 1-2 miles from the pass and at about 10,000 ft. It had taken us 10 hours to get to this point. We cooked dinner and got to bed at a decent time. Since it was Christmas Eve, Anne and I built a small fireplace, just in case Santa Claus decided to stop by. Sure enough, in the morning, Santa (with a little help from Anne) had brought something small for all of us.
The next morning we were blessed with a beautiful sunrise for Christmas. As the Alpinist magazine says "We believe in alpine starts (more for the alpenglow than the early hour)." I normally am a night owl, but on days like this, I am ready to start early.
We got a late start (around 7:15) and started up the valley to Shepherd's Pass. One thing about winter mountaineering--you don't have too much daylight--which would be soon indelibly imprinted in my mind after this trip. We started a little slow up the valley since we were constantly trying to determine the best route to go. In the end, the route chosen was the best (for reasons I'll explain later). It took us a couple of hours to get to the bottom of Shepherd's Pass, which presented our first hurdle of the trip.
At this point the wind was blowing fairly hard, and we could see the wind blowing a lot of snow off the top of the pass. We didn't know which couloir was the correct one for the pass (there were three choices, but one looked lower than the others (turned out to be correct), so we started heading for that couloir. As we headed up and to the right, we started getting bombed by small rocks getting blown off the top of the pass. We strapped on our helmets and continued on. At this point Anne turned back due to the high winds--I don't really blame her.
Somehow as we progressed up, we went up the wrong couloir. Looking back, I'm not really sure how we decided to switch couloirs, but at any rate, it wasn't a big deal and we headed up. As I neard the top of the first part of the couloir, my right crampon popped off and slid all the way down the couloir. At first I was cursing REI for giving me a crappy rental, but later I realized that I had been tying on crampons incorrectly (and never had problems in several trips). At this point, I was pretty tired and it was windy, so I didn't think I'd make a serious summit bid. Since I was almost to the top of Shepherd's Pass, I figured it didn't make sense to head back down the gulley, pick up the crampon, and then head back up 70% of the couloir when I was almost to the top as it was. Kevin was using his snowshoes, so he very generously offered up one of his crampons for me to use for the rest of the climb up the pass. At this point Abe turned back as well due to the high winds. I made it up to the top of the pass, already tired from the climbing the day before. Okay, so I was out of shape, but still climbing.
Once we made it to the top of Shepherd's Pass, we found the wind to much stronger. Since it was so wind-blown across the pass, I had my snowshoes strapped to my backpack. They acted like windsails, and at one point I was actually blown off my feet and onto my knees--right onto a rock. Not a good feeling, but the cold numbed some of the pain. At this point, all I wanted to do was see Williamson Bowl.
We started up towards the bowl...it's not a long hike and not too much of an incline. Since the wind was coming from the S-SW, I thought that once we got behind Tyndall and close to the Bowl the wind would die down. The opposite was true...it was like a wind tunnel. You can see the blowing snow in the picture. I walked with Kevin and Hakno to the edge of the bowl and decided it would be far enough for me. At first, I considered waiting for Kevin and Hakno to return from their summit bid before heading back. The fear of descending the windy, steep couloir (with only one crampon) towered in my mind, and I didn't want to do it alone. But in the end, I thought I'd have to wait a couple of hours for Kevin and Hakno return, and it was pretty cold up there in the wind. So I decided to head back down alone. It was about 1:30 when I made this decision. I was pretty weak at this point..just putting one foot in front of another. I trudged back to the pass, fighting the wind as I went. It was nice to have my goggles and new Gore-Tex jacket to keep me out of the wind (relatively).
When I made it back to the pass, I saw some cairns marking the trail down the couloir, so I decided to follow them. This turned out to be the couloir we wanted to take on the way up, but somehow got turned off of. Since I didn't have a right crampon, I strapped on my right snowshoe since it had pretty agressive teeth. The snow was hard though and I couldn't do a plungestep, and with the snowshoe I couldn't sidestep. So I front-pointed my way down the couloir. I can see why ice climbing is addictive--facing the mountain I forgot about the steepness of the couloir (which in reality was only about 45 degrees, not that steep) and got lost in the cadence of kicking in and planting my ice axe. This turned out to be a great way to downclimb and I didn't slip once all the way down. About halfway down the couloir I traversed back over to the couloir I came up and picked up my crampon. After finding a safe place to reattach my crampon, I headed back down to the bottom of the pass. After resting for a few minutes I saw Kevin and Hakno heading back down the gulley and was relieved to see them okay. I waited for them to get through the steepest part and then headed back to camp. It was getting dark and I wanted to get back before it was too dark.
On the way up the valley in the morning, I noticed that the trail was actually on the south side, not on the north side we used to come up the valley. I thought that I'd be wise and take the trail back to camp, but this turned out to be a pretty dumb move. All the snow had been dumped on the Northernly aspect (S side of valley), and I lost a lot of time fighting deep snow drifts. Another lesson learned. I ended up switching back to the north side of the valley and found the tracks back to camp, making it back about a half hour after dark. Kevin and Hakno made it back about a half an hour afterwards. Abe and Anne were very nice to those who kept climbing--melting water for us and cooking dinner since we were so tired. What a great group of people to climb with.
That night the wind really picked up and shook our tents around a bit. I was sharing a tent with Abe, and in the morning Abe said he hardly got any sleep with all the wind. We got up around 6AM and there was about six inches of additional snow on the ground. I guess we had a white Christmas after all, although one day late. It was quite a pain to pack up in the snow--spindrift kept getting into everything as you're trying to pack.
We ended up leaving around 8:15 and had to search for a bit to find the trail in the snowstorm. With the recent snow, we wore our snowshoes almost all the way back to the TH. It was amazing to see the weather clear up as we descended to lower altitudes. Living in Colorado, I knew this happened all the time, but to see it in person was a cool experience. We got back to the TH around 2:15 and headed into Lone Pine for some pizza and wings.
Overall, none of us summitted, but it was a great time. I would love to climb with this group again, everyone was fun to be around. Maybe I'll try this mountain again when there is a little more daylight.