Started and organized by SP member Bob Burd, the Sierra Challenge, held yearly, is a 10-day affair featuring a different peak to climb each day (some days, there is more than just one to climb). Thus, veterans of the real Sierra Challenge will just laugh at what I am calling, for lack of a better term, "My Own Sierra Challenge." This was merely a 4-day affair featuring just 7 peaks, and some of it developed more or less spontaneously, but it wasn't a bad showing for an Easterner whose legs and lungs were not yet in prime summer mountaineering condition. In the summer of 2012, mountaineering season began for me on July 13 and ended 35 summits later on August 23. By the end of the summer, fit and strong and down to my high school weight, I may indeed have been able to complete the real Sierra Challenge.
Despite the incredible beauty and spectacular climbing opportunities of the Sierra Nevada, my growing obsession with Greater Yellowstone and the Glacier-Bob Marshall country of Montana has meant that I have done very little mountaineering in the Range of Light. Until July 2005, my only Sierra Nevada summit had been, I regret to admit, Whitney in 1999 by the mobbed hiking route out of Whitney Portal (unless you count Moro Rock-- even more regretful-- which I "climbed in 1996). In 2005, I took a painful break from Wyoming and Montana and made a point to get back to the Sierra, where I climbed Cathedral Peak, Mount Conness, and Mount Dana (by Dana Couloir, not the trail) over successive days. But then the summers called me back to grizzly country and my beloved dark Absarokas.
After my parents moved to Las Vegas in the spring of 2010, I knew that there would be opportunities for summer trips to the Sierra Nevada. Yes, I evaluate the need to visit people based on proximity to mountains I want to climb. No, I am not ashamed. Although Las Vegas is a noisy eyesore to someone like me, there is no denying that of all the major cities in the West, it is perhaps the best in terms of proximity to great outdoor recreation. Among my favorite places all within a day's drive of Vegas are Red Rock Canyon (of course), Great Basin National Park, the Wasatch, Zion and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Death Valley, and the Sierra Nevada.
Summer 2010 was already out; I'd had long-standing plans for a road trip out to Montana and Wyoming. So was summer 2011; July was to see a family trip, complete with in-laws, to Montana (bless my wife for allowing me to escape to climb about every other day), and I gave in to my cravings for the Absaroka Range and planned an August trip out to Wyoming via a flight into Jackson Hole (note to those who like window seats-- the flight from Denver to Jackson Hole is the most beautiful I have ever been on, for it goes up the valley of the Wind River very near to the crest of the Wind River Range, and the glaciers, high lakes, and peaks of the roof of the Winds are all on display, and it is amazing to behold even if it does feel like cheating).
So on July 10, 2012, I flew out to Vegas with the kids (on August 1, I would drive up to Great Falls, MT, having left the kids with my parents, to meet my wife and spend a few weeks with her in Montana, Idaho, and Nevada).
Originally, my Sierra plan was to go there at the end of the summer, after my legs were strong and I was adjusted to altitude, but my wife's schedule made that too difficult, and I had to make the Sierra days part of the first leg of the summer. Knowing that would make things a little tougher on me since a major goal was doing at least one 14er that involved a minimum of Class 3 terrain (although I am no list-chaser, I wanted at least one "respectable" CA 14er since Whitney and White Mountain were the only ones I'd done), I tried to do what I could to get myself some exposure and preparation, but I knew things would mostly hinge on how my lungs decided to adjust to the altitude.
At home during the spring, I'd done plenty of biking, running, hiking, and cragging to get myself ready for the summer, but there is no substitute for altitude and real mountains.
July 13-- White Rock Pinnacle in Red Rock Canyon. Not high, but several spots of Class 3-4 and one 5.4, so a good outing, especially in a rain making things treacherous.
July 14-- North Peak in Red Rock Canyon. Drove the 4wd road to Red Rock Pass and hiked the peak around sunset when temperatures were cooler. Spent the night in the car.
July 15-- Bridge Mountain in Red Rock Canyon. Did that at dawn and then drove out to Death Valley. My brother's old 4Runner had gotten so weak that I had to go into 4-low to reach Mahogany Flat! Along the way, I stopped and hiked up Wildrose Peak, partially for some altitude but also because I'd never been up it before. Spent the night at Mahogany Flat by myself, about the only cool road-accessible place in the park after a day that had reached nearly 120 at Badwater.
July 16-- Telescope Peak, for both the altitude and the fact that I hadn't hiked it since 1997 (though I tried in April 2003 but turned around due to waist-deep snow at Arcane Meadows). Also, I wanted to photograph the bristlecone pines near the summit. My March 1997 hike yielded a very nice picture, but when I was going through a purity phase a few years later and throwing away all prints and negatives except for those I considered my very best, that picture went to the great album in the sky. One of the dumbest things I ever did.
After hiking Telescope Peak, I drove out to Panamint Springs, got a shower, and then steered for Onion Valley in the Sierra Nevada.
And that is where "My Own Sierra Challenge" began.
July 17-- Kearsarge Pinnacles and University Peak
July 18-- Dragon and Gould
Wisdom attained this day: anyone who actually wants to hike up Mount Gould from Kearsarge Pass must be out of his f-----g mind! Fortunately, I descended from the summit to the pass after having traversed from Dragon Peak, but as I flew down each section of steep sand, I shook my head as I thought about what a miserable way to go up the mountain that would be.
And I actually have one of SP's proud, self-styled trolls to thank for this day's plan. When I told her several weeks earlier about my intent to climb Gould from the pass, she suggested Dragon Peak as something I might find more challenging and enjoyable. After doing some research and learning about the traverse between Dragon and Gould, I decided to do just that. For several reasons, I chose Dragon as the first objective, and I'm glad I did.
So thanks, Toxo, for the great suggestion!
No special stories here. The sustained scrambling and exposure high on Dragon made for a memorable and rewarding climb. The views from the traverse were outstanding even though the traverse itself wasn't too exciting. The Class 3 summit block on Gould was fun but way too short and way too easy; I left thinking that Gould is a fine destination as part of a multi-peak day but not that great as a sole destination unless you actually want to hike up from the pass over all that steep sand and talus for a 10-second scramble at the very end.
At Kearsage Pass, the earbuds and antisocial guy reappeared. This day, however, I did not bask in the late-afternoon sun. Instead, I had a craving for a bacon-and-turkey sub from the Subway in Independence, so I got in the 4Runner, started driving down into the valley, picked up some John Muir Trail through-hikers looking for a hot meal and a mattress and a restocking of supplies, murdered them and dumped their bodies in a ditch, and then continued to town for my sub.
(That was to see if you are really reading!)
July 19-- Independence Peak
- I'd hiked the entire trail approach to the peak the day before and didn't feel like doing it two days in a row. Boring.
- Although the views must be great, I just couldn't get too excited about the route. I need some exposed scrambling, dammit!
- Independence Peak had been looking a helluva lot more awesome ever since I'd driven in the afternoon of the 16th. Plus, it was closer. So, once again with no beta, I set out...
July 20-- Norman Clyde Peak
- It is indeed a fun route. Norman Clyde's standard route is Class 4, with a lot of Class 3 and 4 and plenty of exposure, and the route-finding is not simple. Cliffing out or getting onto Class 5 rock is very easy to do. Cairns are not abundant, nor are they necessarily useful; we found some to be pretty pointless (perhaps markers for a prior party rather than markers for the best route). A week after we climbed the peak, someone else fell to his death from the same route. It seemed that he had reached the summit ridge and perhaps the summit itself and then couldn't find his way back down, and so he tried a descent down the other side of the summit ridge and fell somewhere along the way (if that is correct, I am mystified by that decision since a successful descent that way would have put him literally days from his starting point.
- What scenery! Many assert that the Palisades area of the Sierra Nevada is the most visually spectacular part of the range. Not having truly extensive experience with the range, I can't firmly agree or disagree with that statement, but I can certainly see the case for it. The views, the glaciers, the lakes, the peaks-- just stunning.