Warm up I decided to take two days to acclimatize this year - mostly just an excuse to spend a few more days in the Sierra. I left San Jose Wednesday evening and drove up SR108 to the Arnot Creek TH, an access point on the south side of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. I was on the trail at 6a the next morning, heading for Dardanelles Cone. I had found no beta on the Internet for climbing this peak, so I was more or less winging it. I found some interesting class 3 climbing on the way to the summit and then on the way down again. Later I found myself enjoying a wilderness moment with a herd of cattle. Back at the trailhead at lunchtime, I then drove up the road to the Disaster Creek TH and set off to climb Disaster Peak. This hike was a bit more difficult than I had expected, but straightforward. The summit is no more than class 2 on three sides. The east side is more like class 3, and it was off this side that a member of the USGS party stepped off and broke both his legs in 1877 - the disaster for which the peak and creek were named. I returned well before sunset, and after dinner at the Dardanelles Resort I drove up to near Sonora Pass and slept under the stars.
Hiking by 5a the next morning, I headed up the St. Mary's Pass Trail enroute to Sonora Peak. I reached the summit in about an hour, some 20 minutes before sunrise. I wiled away the time reading the summit register. The sun came up in glorious fashion, in shades of purple, red, and orange before bursting through the haze on the eastern horizon to greet the new day. I then headed north along the Sierra Crest for the summit of Stanislaus Peak, a few miles distance. It was a delightful walk with colorful yellow flowers lining the banks of several springs I traversed. After reaching the summit I was back at the trailhead by 10a. I spent the rest of the day lounging about Lee Vining, then to bed by 9p.
Day 1: Whorl Mtn Five of us headed up the trail out of Twin Lakes shortly after 6a. Joe and Justin set a rather mean pace from the start. Chris cried uncle after 30 minutes and continued the day at a more leisurely pace. After about three hours of steady hiking we reached Horse Creek Pass, though Justin and Tom missed the narrow opening through the pass and wandered higher towards Matterhorn Peak to the west before Joe and I caught their attention and redirected them. At the pass we met up with Vishal who'd camped up here the night before. Five of us then headed for Whorl Mtn a mile to the south. Like previous parties we had a difficult time making out the three chutes on the southeast face, and ended up climbing directly to chute #2, an invigorating class 3 scramble that would set the tone for much of the climbing throughout the Challenge. We found the famous chockstone in chute #3, tunnelled under it, and found our way to the summit - a rousing success getting all five of us (for several their first class 3 experience) to the top. After making it safely back down the Southeast Face, I left the others and headed for Matterhorn Peak by the easy Southeast Slopes. I was surprised to find several parties on the summit after having run across no one all day. I descended via the East Couloir, rejoining the others back in the main canyon. Tom somehow got behind, so I waited for him at the foot of the meadow where the maintained trail ends. After some time I started back up the trail, finding him sitting to the side, exhausted. I coaxed him back down, and we eventually arrived around 6:30p, about an hour after the others.
Day 2: Cathedral Peak Day 2 was intended to be a mini-circuit of the Cathedral Range, including Cathedral Peak, Eichorn Pinnacle, Echo Peaks (minus #9), Echo Ridge, Cockscomb, and finally Unicorn Peak. Four of us headed out from the Cathedral Lakes TH in Tuolumne Meadows around 6:30a. Joe and Justin brought a rope and full climbing gear - they planned to climb Cathedral's SE Buttress and forgo the other peaks. We reached the start of the SE Buttress shortly after 7:30a. While Joe and Justin began sorting gear, Vishal headed around to the Mountaineers Route while I took off solo up the SE Buttress. An hour later I was on the summit, and then helped direct Vishal to the summit as well. Vishal headed back the way he came while I went over to tag Eichorn Pinnacle and then descended the South Face of Cathedral. Vishal was waiting some 45 minutes near Echo Peak #5 before I arrived, having taken a good deal longer than I expected. Together, he and I spent about three hours circuiting eight of the named Echo Peaks, plus two unnamed ones for a bonus. There was a great deal of class 3 climbing, and a good amount of class 4, Vishal's first taste at this level. This was the most technically demanding day of the Challenge, and would make the rest of the climbs seem almost mild by comparison. It was after 3:30p when we finished with the Echo Peaks, but decided to forgo the rest of the day's program, heading back to the cars. Joe and Justin, meanwhile, were still on the SE Buttress, having gotten stuck in the weekend traffic that often forms on that route. They didn't manage to return to the trailhead until nearly 8p.
Day 3: Clyde Minaret Vishal, Joe, and myself headed out from Agnew Meadows just before 6:30a. It's a long and picturesque hike up the Shadow Lake Trail, and I stopped often to take pictures. Each lake in order seems more impressive than the last, from Shadow to Ediza to Iceberg, and finally Cecile Lake. From Cecile Lake we began the climb up Clyde Minaret, towering some 3,000ft above us. The first half is straightforward class 2-3 before the more serious routes begin on the upper half. Though we'd brought crampons and axes for the snowfield, we never needed them. We found the start of the Rock Route easily enough, then began the highly sustained class 3+ climbing. Halfway up Joe decided to turn back, leaving Vishal and I to make our way to the summit without him. We topped out before 12:30p, and marvelled at the views and impressive spires and pinnacles that compose the Minarets. Feeling brave, we chose to take Starr's Route for the descent, another exciting class 3 route on this side of the mountain. Once off the technical portions of Clyde, I headed back while Vishal stopped for a break at Cecile Lake. Returning the same route we'd taken up, I reached the TH at 5:30p. The three of us reconvened in Mammoth Lakes where we spent the night.
Day 4: Bear Creek Spire Tuesday we were up early again, packed up all our stuff and drove to Rock Creek. Bear Creek Spire is the most impressive of the many peaks in Little Lakes Valley, rising tall at the head of the valley, visible from the moment one enters this region. As on the previous day, it was Joe, Vishal, and myself heading out in the early morning hour. We passed a number of beautiful lakes along the trail, left the trail and climbed above Gem Lakes to Dade Lake. Shortly after passing by the lake we split up. I planned to climb the NE Ridge while the other two headed for Cox Col and Ulrich's Route on the northwest side. Climbing alone to the NE Ridge, a route pioneered by Norman Clyde, I found the lower portion more tedious than I had expected, the upper part everything that had been advertised - an exciting mix of class 3-4 climbing with a fine edge and great views. I made my way along the ridge and climbed onto the final summit block, an impressive van-sized blocked tilted at an angle, making for an airy perch. Vishal and Joe met me at the summit, where we enjoyed a little victory celebration. After about 15 minutes Joe and I headed down, Vishal wanting to stay longer and enjoy the summit. Joe led the way back to Cox Col, where we climbed down and retrieved his crampons and axe he'd left above Dade Lake. We then took an alternative return via Treasure Lakes. The early afternoon was gorgeous and we stopped often to take pictures of just about everything on our leisurely paced return. As one of the easier days of the Challenge, we were back to our cars shortly before 2p.
Day 5: Thunderbolt Peak Vishal decided to take a rest day, so it was Joe and I heading out early for a 5a start. I wanted an earlier start than usual because I had plans to attempt Starlight Peak and North Pal after climbing Thunderbolt. We met Greg at the trailhead, making three for our hike out of South Lake. We needed headlamps for the first half hour or so, after which the gradually awakening dawn gave us sufficient light as we hiked along in silence. As the day broke we came more alive as well, talking more and snapping photos. We split up again after Long Lake, regrouping at Bishop Pass. We then head across Dusy Basin, contouring high as we headed for Thunderbolt Pass on the southwest side of the peak. We found our way up SW Chute #1, fifty feet of class 4 once we reached the crest, and then to the base of the summit block at 10a. Greg had brought a rope which we used to climb the summit block, though our first try failed. After setting up plan B and successfully using it to reach the top, Joe and Greg declined to repeat what must have been a shaky-looking bit of ropework. I left the others and headed for Starlight Peak on a very adventurous class 4-5 route with challenging route-finding. Meanwhile Joe and Greg headed back down the way we came, with Joe stopping at Bishop Pass for a detour to the summit of nearby Mt. Agassiz. It took me an hour to reach Starlight and the impressive summit monolith called "The Milk Bottle". I climbed this by the "easy" 5.4 route, a heart-pounding bit of manuevering that demanding a great deal of focus and caution. Continuing on to North Palisade, I found the climbing and route-finding even more difficult. I began to have serious doubts about my plan to reach North Palisade and then retrace my route to Thunderbolt. Somewhere during one of the scarier moments, it occured to me that I could descend the south side of the U-Notch and avoid the return to Thunderbolt altogether. Upon reaching the summit of North Pal at 1:30p, I continued on to the U-Notch and tagged the summit of Polemonium as an extra bonus. I then scrambled down the Southwest Chute, hundreds upon hundreds of feet of loose talus, to the bottom. From here it was a long traverse back to first Thunderbolt Pass, then Bishop Pass, and finally the downhill hike via the trail to South Lake, arriving back at 7p - 14 hard hours later.
Day 6: Middle Palisade Leaving Bishop in the wee hours, Joe, Vishal, and I drove down to Big Pine and up to the Glacier Lodge Rd to the TH for the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. We met Brian there who was joining us for the first time. The sun was just rising on the Sierra Crest as we started, cool in the morning, but we hoped to gain altitude quickly before the day warmed up. Joe had started out setting the pace, then myself, then Vishal who had more energy than the rest of us due to his rest day. It took a few hours to reach the high point on the trail to Brainerd Lake, where we left it to strike off cross-country for Finger Lake. We took a break here to refill our water bottles, and set out again. Vishal could not be held back and hiked up the steep slabs towards the base of Norman Clyde Peak and Middle Pal. He was soon out of sight, Joe and Brian behind, myself somewhere in the middle eventually losing sight of those behind me as well. At the morraine below the Middle Palisade Glacier, I finally caught up with Vishal, and only because he paused to let me catch up. The others were nowhere to be seen though we spent some time scanning the slabs and talus below us. They had in fact turned back before reaching the morraine, and gave up on the summit attempt. Vishal and I continued, climbing the lateral morraine that splits the glacier, then searching out for the entrance to the Northeast Face route. Without crampons or axe this proved difficult, and we eventually found a class 4 chimney that we could climb to the route without having to cross portions of the glacier (which we found both steep and icy). We gained the chute leading up, and for the next hour enjoyed an excellent class 3 climb to the summit. We spent a short time atop, snacking, taking photos, and the usual summit routines before heading back the way we came. Halfway down we took an alternative route around a gendarme that took us down a different chute, the next one west of where we'd come up. We then had to climb down a loose, narrow chute facing east to get back to the lateral morraine we'd climbed up. Back on the morraine I left Vishal, cruising at my own pace. At Finger Lake I took another detour to visit Brainerd Lake, which was as beautiful up close as it had appeared from afar. Some time later, about an hour from the trailhead, I came across Vishal again who was sitting on a rocky perch enjoying his lunch. We then walked back out together, arriving at the trailhead a bit before 5p. We said goodbyes as Vishal was leaving the Challenge - he'd already stayed longer than he'd originally planned, and had climbed the next two days objectives already besides. I drove down to Independence where I took a motel room, showered, and relaxed. A short time later a visitor came to the door. David, who'd climbed with me almost all the peaks the previous year, had come to join us for a few days. We went out to dinner together and caught up on a year's worth of adventures.
Day 7: University Peak David and I drove up to Onion Valley where we met newcomer Michael. We were supposed to meet Joe here as well, who'd planned to camp at Onion Valley after Middle Palisade the day before. I found his truck, but no note, and no sign of Joe. The three of us eventually headed up the Kearsarge Pass Trail without him. We hiked past some pretty lakes found along the trail as the sun was rising in the east, following a use trail we picked up once we reached Flower Lake. This took us south to Matlock Lake, then we struck off cross-country for University's North Face. At the base of the mountain we began to split up some, myself in front, Michael in sight behind me, David in sight of Michael further back. The climbing was better than I had expected, with less talus and more boulders. These eventually gave way to more solid class 3 face climbing in the upper parts of the face. A short distance from the summit ridge I lost sight of Michael, and forged my way to the summit before 10:30a. Michael was about ten minutes behind me, but David had turned back before the class 3 section. He had declined to climb the class 3 peaks the year before, so I had expected that might be as far as David would get. Michael was climbing quite strongly for having no acclimatization, and continued climbing well the next three days. After a rest we headed down a different route, going to University Pass by way of the Southeast Ridge. The Southeast Ridge was very different from the north ridge, a more gentle slope covered in much sand. This made for some fun jogging that filled our shoes before we reached the pass. In fact we never reached the pass, mistaking the next chute north for University Pass, and descending this steeper chute. Much debris and dust was kicked up as we descended, and it seemed we were bringing half the mountain down with us. There was some snow at the bottom that was easily crossed, and we soon hooked up with the bottom of the chute leading to the real University Pass. From there it was a long boulder hop down to Robinson Lake, some bushwhacking and thrashing about as we struggled to find the trail, then an easy last 30 minutes back to the TH when we indeed found the Robinson Lake Trail. Though we covered both sides of the mountain we never came across Joe, but there at the TH (not the Kearsarge Pass TH, but the Robinson Lake TH) was a note with my name on it. In it, Joe declared his intention to start off before 4a up via University Pass, expecting to meet us at the summit. Of course we didn't find him. Later we found that he had mistaken some spires on University Shoulder for the true summit, then twisted his foot and decided to return via Kearsarge Lakes and Kearsarge Pass. So he also covered two sides of the mountain without running into us. Joe and David caught up with us in Lone Pine where we took a few motel rooms for the next few nights.
Day 8: Mt. Russell Joe took a rest day (he went to climb Cirque Peak, if you call that rest day), while Michael, David, and I drove up to Whitney Portal. There we met Thad (who'd missed us at Cathedral Peak on Day 2) and John, making a party of five. Heading up the Whitney Trail, we left the main trail at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, following a fine use trail up the canyon. The famous Ebersbacher Ledges turned out to be far less of a problem than the trip reports seem to indicate, and they were quickly disposed of. I had gotten out in front of the others and waited for them at Lower Boy Scout Lake. All but Thad had rejoined me in fifteen minutes. Thad had fallen back with another party of two - he was clearly suffering from the lack of acclimatization. John would suffer likewise (and had less than four hours sleep), but because he was in better shape was able to push himself regardless. I got ahead of the others again by the time I reached Upper Boy Scout Lake, and never saw them again the rest of the day. I climbed what Secor calls the "Rockwell Variation," a tedious alternative to the even more tedious Southeast Slope route to the Russell-Carillon Saddle. Much slipping and sliding later, I found myself at the saddle. I made a detour to run up and tag Mt. Carillon, one of the easier "freebies" you'll find. I headed back to the saddle, then started up the East Ridge. I found the ridge enjoyable, though not anywhere as frightening as I had expected from the trip reports I had read. I found my way to the East Summit and then to the slightly higher West Summit, arriving just after 11:30a. Feeling pretty good at this point, I decided to tackle Whitney next. Staying only a short while at the summit, I retraced my steps along the ridge connecting Russell's two summits and found an exposed class 3 route down to the South Face. All the interesting climbing is in the top 50 feet, after which it's a 1,000ft scree descent to the high saddle between Mts. Russell and Whitney. I headed up the daunting 1,500ft North Face of Whitney, finding a nice class 3 rib to follow on the upper third that took me to the summit plateau. It was a bit before 2p, and suddenly there were crowds all over. About a hundred people milled about the summit on a fine Saturday afternoon, and many more were coming and going along the trail. After a few photos I took off down the trail at a jog. A short distance before Trail Crest I turned left and headed up to the summit of Mt. Muir. This is another easy detour like Carillon, and 20 minutes later I was at the summit. I signed into the register, took a few more photos and headed down. Back on the trail, I spent the next several hours worried about running into a ranger since I didn't have a permit to be on the trail. I was an outlaw skulking about, following other parties at a distance as they approached likely ranger locations. To my good fortune I found no such ranger, and once I was safely out of the Whitney Zone near Lone Pine Lake. At 5p I returned to the trailhead. 4 peaks, 3 of them 14ers, not bad for a bit less than 11hrs of effort!
Day 9: Mount LeConte It was back to just three of us for today's adventure, Michael, Joe, and I. The three of us drove back up to Whitney Portal, this time stopping near the campground at the Meysan Lakes Trailhead turnout. We wandered through camp and the private cabins above before finding the real start of the trail. We climbed some 3,500ft in five miles that got our blood pumping and our hiking muscles loosened up. We ran into a small party that was just packing up to head down the trail, as we took one of several use trails up to Meysan Lake. We skirted the shores of the lake, then up the talus slopes that lead to the high plateau between Mts. LeConte and Mallory. While there was some fun class 3 to be found in this section, most of it was loose and tedious class 2 slogging. Joe and I reached the north side of Mt. LeConte ahead of Michael who was 15 or 20 minutes behind. The two of us headed down the west side of the crest a short distance to find the Northwest Chute that leads to the summit. Halfway up we encountered the notorious Waterfall Pitch. Though there was no water or ice encountered, we found the short climb to overcome this obstacle harder than the class 3 rating given it. Afterwards we had no trouble with the remaining several hundred feet to the summit. We basked a short while, having a snack and taking some photos. After about 10 minutes we were just starting to head down when Michael came up to join us. He had apparently picked up good time on us, having dispensed with the Waterfall Pitch in much quicker fashion than Joe and I. Joe stayed on the summit with Michael awhile as I headed down to tackle Mt. Corcoran next. They were planning to head to Mt. Mallory (which I planned to tag as well), and so would be some time ahead of me. I climbed back down the Northwest Chute to the top of the Waterfall Pitch, then contoured south along the confusing slopes of LeConte's west side. I carried all the written info I could find on this traverse to Mt. Corcoran, but still had a tough time of it. Though rated class 3, I found myself on terrain as difficult as 5.6 in places, which produced an overload of adrenaline in my veins. Though I enjoyed the exploration and scrambling, I never did find a summit register. I climbed several likely looking pinnacles, but found the true summit elusive. Eventually I gave up, thinking I must have climbed the true summit. In retrospect I think I missed it. It was two hours later, now 1:30p, when I returned to the Waterfall Pitch. I retraced the ascent route back to the north side of Mt. LeConte. I headed north across the plateau and up the south slope of Mt. Mallory. The upper portion had some surprisingly fun and unexpected class 3 scrambling along a blocky ridge heading towards the ill-defined summit. Unlike Corcoran, I managed to find the summit register, without much fuss. After climbing something like 7,000ft I was pretty knackered and happy to be heading down. I headed down the East Ridge, looking for a descent route to the East Chute, an alternative way to get back to Meysan Lake. This proved to be more difficult than expected, and some time was lost futilely trying one descent route, climbing back out, and trying a second way. I finally managed to make my way down to the East Chute only to find this one of the loosest garbage chutes I've had the displeasure to descend. The only saving grace was that I wasn't heading up which would have been much worse. By the time I got down to Meysan Lake I was quite tired and had somehow managed to injure my achilles tendon. Walking back down on the trail gave me some pain to keep me company. I had hoped I might run into the others before I got back down, but never did. Seemed I missed them by 30-45 minutes or so by the time I got back to the trailhead.
Day 10: Mt. McAdie Monday morning I woke up early with Joe and Michael, but my ankle was hardly better. I was in no shape to go hiking today and promptly went back to bed. The others headed up to Whitney Portal, but not to climb Mt. McAdie as planned. Instead, both decided to climb Mt. Whitney instead since neither had been there before. They both made it to the summits of Muir and Whitney before returning later in the day. Meanwhile I was already driving back to San Jose. Nine out of ten seemed pretty good to me, and I would leave McAdie on the list for next year. I just had nine more peaks to choose and the 2003 Challenge would be all set!