This is for all you trailwalkers out there who have ever read the route descriptions of a mountain without a trail to the top and wondered what it would be like to try it. On 21 Jul 03, over the course of about 10 hours, my buddy, GaryM (kk6yb) and I found out. This was our first climb (rather than a walk-up) of a significant mountain. We learned a lot and had some happy-ending surprises along the way.
This was actually our second trip up the Shepherd Pass route—we headed for Mt. Williamson in May 2000, but stopped dead in our tracks at the bowl, short of time and energy, and awed by the realization that we didn't have the requisite skills to even start such a mountain. (I believe Gary's exact words were "My wife will be glad I decided not to climb that thing."). Neither did we attempt Tyndall. Anyway, that trip taught us how we preferred to ascend the pass.
This time, we started off from the Symmes Creek trailhead (after spending the night there) at about 6:15 a.m. on 19 Jul (Sat.) and headed up under welcomely cool cloud cover to Mahogany Flat. We wanted only a 3000 ft. elevation gain that day, and it turned out M. Flat was a much less buggy place than Anvil Camp (we found out the next day). The next morning (20 Jul., Sun.), we were planning on stopping at the Pothole, which we made under continuing cloud cover by lunch, but we felt good and strong enough to head over the pass to set up camp at the first lake (labeled WL3661 on the topo). While eating lunch at the Pothole, we met lots of people coming down, and we started piecing together what had happened to the group of 8 that had left the trailhead about 45 minutes ahead of us Saturday morning. Turned out they had an epic. Upon making the base of Tyndall at 2:30 p.m. Sat., they dropped their packs and headed up. This was (in my opinion) a dicey prospect, as the clouds had been enveloping even Mt. Keith's summit all day, and 2:30 is a pretty late start in the best of weather. They told me they got hailed on about 200 ft. short of the summit, but they pushed on and made it, then darkness precluded their descent, so they huddled together among the rocks overnight (without their packs, remember). Some of them descended the wrong way the next morning to the lake to the south (WL3645), thus were forced to circumnavigate the entire massif to the southeast before re-achieving the trail. This is the sort of thing Gary and I were trying to avoid.
Having arrived at our base camp in the midafternoon, we decided to reconnoiter our route options. We were debating between the Northwest Ridge and the North Rib, or some variation thereof. We climbed the westernmost of the 3 ribs on the north face, crossed over the Northwest Ridge, and descended the northwest face to the marshes and the trail. This trip convinced us that the class 2 Northwest Ridge route was for us, mostly because the slick-looking appearance of the slabs up the class 3 North Rib looked a bit spooky. The talus of the NW Ridge, though slow and awkward to get through, provided us with a sense of comfort. By the way, we discovered traversing talus is just as hard, if not worse than, ascending talus. We spent that evening wondering what the morning would bring, and the lake entertained us by calving mini-icebergs through the night. It got down to about 40 degrees—comfortable.
The next morning (21 Jul., Mon.) dawned bright and clear. The cloud system resulting from the hurricane making landfall in Texas several days prior and the moisture coming ashore from the southwest in San Diego had broken. We left the tent at 7 a.m., made the permanent snow field at the bottom of the northwest face at 7:30, and started our ascent in earnest by flanking the snow field on its left side. We weren't exactly sure how to get to the summit ridge, as none of the descriptions we'd read (Porcella & Burn's "Climbing Calif.'s 14ers" and Secor's "High Sierra") had discussed it in detail nor had pictures of this face, presumably because it was only class 2. So, we wended our way through rocks ranging from the size of basketballs to my manager's desk for a couple of hours before we noted another climber below us. We had worked our way over to the left side of the slope under the cliffy NW Ridge proper by this time, where we'd found footprints. The climber gained our altitude and passed us within an hour. Frowns became our temporary fashion statement as we learned this was a girl climbing alone, but our morale was helped a little when she turned us on to the fact that if you follow the patches of little yellow flowers, you stay out of the worst of the rocks. Flowers = dirt, you see, so we traversed back to the right side of the slope and followed the flowers up the left side of the rib in the center of the NW face.
Now came the part we'd wondered about—how to get around the gendarme at the top. Turned out we weren't there yet. The east-west notch in the NW Ridge near the top is only a window to where you want to go. Following the ridge's top rocks to the right (still on the NW face), we came to the true intersection of the NW Ridge with the westerly ridge, and saw the gendarme guarding the advance up the summit ridge. We'd read nothing and talked to no one who knew exactly how to get around this thing in class 2 fashion. So we chose the left and traversed the high regions of the class 3 slab over to an obvious use trail, down this trail to the North Rib, then up the rib to a chute leading back up and a bit southwest to the summit ridge. I knew how to do this because that young woman climber was ahead of me, and I asked directions!
I let out a whoop upon gaining the ridge, seeing the view south for the first time, and realizing the summit was a relatively short boulder hop away. When I finally got there, I was greeted warmly by Laura the Ranger—no wonder she'd kicked our butts (okay, we're also a bit older than the normal climbing crowd). Actually, after she introduced herself, the first thing I said was "Hi, I'm Charley. Gary has the permit." I related our story and that of the group of 8, which she was interested in because they'd gotten a missing persons report, which was then rescinded, and was wondering what had happened. So, now the rangers knew the whole story, if second-hand.
I felt great, much better than I did on Whitney a month prior, and spent a happy 20 minutes or so chatting with Ranger Laura and waiting for Gary. He had a new pad of paper to put in the log box, as we'd read via others' internet reports that the box's books were full. At one point, I looked over the east escarpment only to discover it was so sheer that I couldn't even see the east wall. Gary held his camera over the edge and took a shot. I'll know what the wall looks like when I see that photo. The vertiginous drop also precluded either of us from perching upon the summit rock—we're both engineers and we didn't know how far along in its duty cycle that rock was. We satisfied ourselves with pictures in front of it, and then we set off for home.
Ranger Laura had convinced us to retrace our route back down, as there's no telling what you'll find on a different route—safety first, we figured. But I thought I'd at least try to find the fabled class 2 route around the gendarme, so when I got there, I tried traversing around it to the left (south). The slope got steeper and steeper as I traversed the talus, only to come to a really steep chute that convinced me this wasn't going to work, either. I ascended the chute hoping it would emerge over the class 2 NW face, but instead it was a class 4 notch back down to the class 3 slab of the north face. sigh. I'd agreed to go back to the notch we'd originally ascended to tell Gary if the new way was better, and since I'd already climbed over to the north side of the ridge and didn't want to reclimb the class 4 stuff (even though it had lots of really good holds), I traversed back down to the North Rib, back up to the notch, and hollered to the empty spaces beyond. He wasn't there. Cripes, I thought, I'm too tired for this. I'm going back to camp.
After having ascended the summit ridge several times now, I turned around and decided the class 3 slabs were my way down—heck, I could see the tent. About a minute later, I hear "Oh, there you are." Gary had followed the same class 4 route I had, and was just above and to the left of me. Well, okay, good, at least we knew where each of us was again. Tired of talus, Gary had also decided to brave the slab rock, and down we went. While much easier to negotiate than the talus, the threat of a slip was ever on our minds. We discovered why there was such a large rock pile at the base of the slope after I dislodged a 20-pounder that slid, then skipped, then bounded its way to the bottom. We realized getting hit by such a missile would be the end, as its speed would brain even a helmeted climber and provide a warp-speed trip to the bottom. We hollered "Rock!" a lot, even though we didn't think there was anyone below.
I also confirmed that 45-degree slickrock slab and water don't provide a lot of traction (neither does a nylon-covered butt, by the way). Although the rock was dry, I made the mistake of traversing a snow field, which wetted my boot soles. Luckily, my trekking poles came to the rescue and gave me the added holds I needed until I could get to some dirt to dry off. By the way, trekking poles came in very handy during the descent of both the slab and talus—I could reach balance points with my poles I'd never have reached bare handed, and my pistol grips allowed lots of controlled weight transfer. The simple straps kept them on my wrists when I had to use my hands (but I did pack them during the class 4 stuff, where they were in the way).
Finally, I made the slope's bottom, and a relaxing, leisurely walk across the rock field and soft sandy slopes to the lake in the late afternoon brought me back to the tent at 5:30 p.m. I'd used 1.5 liters of glucose- and electrolyte-laced water on the way up, and just as much on the way down. Our mashed potatoes and barbecued beef couldn't have tasted better that evening.
The next morning (22 Jul., Tues.), we realized we were a day ahead of schedule (we'd allowed for 6 days, and hoped for 5, but were on track to spend only 4), and broke out one of our lunches for breakfast—bean burritoes, with real cheese! We hoovered them, broke camp, and headed down. The Shepherd Pass had been covered in snow the time we'd come up in 2000, so the ascent and descent this time were quite different. The trail near the top devolves into multiple use-trail quality switchbacks, but is still easier than stabbing and spiking the snow. We fairly flew down the trail, now feeling like nothing was hard after our summit, but it did get hot fast as we descended. The Sierra Wave was back, but the clouds didn't do us much good. The climb over the divide back into the Symmes Creek drainage was a trudge, but at least the bugs were gone, and soaking our hats and shirts in the last stream crossing helped keep us cool. By the time we made the trailhead, it was between 80 and 90 degrees, but Independence was about 110! We tried to get showers at a barber shop/bath house in Lone Pine, but they'd closed for the day, so we (okay, I) defiled a local restaurant's bathroom (bandana bath!), made up for it with big tips for the excellent food, then hit the road for home.