Like the previous year, I took two days to acclimatize before the Challenge began. I had had my eye on Tower Peak for some time, mostly because of its status as a Mountaineers Peak. As I was to find out, it's a very long hike, more miles than any of the Challenge hikes would be. I left San Jose at 2a, driving up SR108 to the trailhead on the east side of Carson Pass. I got lost on the hike up the West Fork of the Walker River, correcting my mistake before having to abort the attempt. I found an interesting route up to the crest, bypassing Tower Lake, and found the class 3 summit to be easier than expected. The roundtrip time was over 14hrs and had me beat to a pulp. I skipped dinner and crashed in a Bridgeport motel around 10p - a very long day! The next day I needed a rest, so I had a leisurely climb of Dunderberg Peak near Virginia Lake. The peak is a big pile of talus rubble, but the views from its summit are great. I went up the southeast Ridge, descending via the Southwest Ridge to Moat Lake before returning to the TH. Low miles and modest elevation gain made for an easy half day that I finished before noon. I spent the rest of the day taking in the less than exciting sites back in Bridgeport.
Day 1: Virginia Peak
I was the last of four hikers to meet at the Green Lakes TH shortly after 6a, the dirt access road taking me much longer than expected. John dropped back within the first hour, three of us going over Virginia Pass into Virginia Canyon. We approached the peak from the east side, heading up a loose talus chute until we reached the class 3 rock face. Abe dropped out at this point while Michael and I continued up this mostly loose-rock class 3 face to the summit. After a rest we headed down the Northwest Ridge and continued up to Twin Peaks via its spicy class 3-4 South Ridge. On our return to Virginia Pass we split up briefly, each preferring a different return route, but we met up again at the pass where we found Abe and a lone backpacker. We also heard that a fifth participant had started at the Virginia Lakes TH by mistake, hiked out to the canyon and then returned. The three of us had a leisurely return to the TH, stopping to photograph a variety of wildflowers and historical detritus that was once a mining operation. We finished before 4p and had a delicious meal at the Whoa Nellie on our drive to Mammoth Lakes where we spent the next three nights.
Day 2: Banner Peak
I was particularly looking forward to the second day. Having already dayhiked both Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, I was eager to combine these two peaks in a single day with the added bonus of climbing Mt. Ritter's elegant North Face, a route made famous by John Muir during the peak's first ascent. Dan from Southern California joined Michael, Matthew, and myself at the Agnew Meadows TH at 5a. Via headlamp for the first half hour, we made our way up the Shadow Creek Trail to Ediza Lake, enjoying a glorious sunrise at Shadow Lake. We followed a use trail out of Ediza Lake, then cross-country to the snowfield on the east side of the Ritter-Banner Saddle. This was Matthew's first real use of crampons (unbeknownst to the rest of us) and it made for a worrisome first effort. As Matthew fell behind up the steep snowfield, the rest of us headed up to Banner Peak. We met Matthew again halfway back to the saddle, exchanged a few words, and parted, the last we saw of Matthew that day. Back at the saddle we collected the gear we'd left there and headed up the North Face. The icy snowfield at the base proved the most difficult part of the route, after which we enjoyed an exciting class 3 scramble on good rock all the way to the summit. We took a break here to eat some food, take in the views, and revel in our success at reaching both summits. We returned via the Southeast Glacier route, but the glacier had melted back so much that we never needed our crampons, and in fact never had to touch the snow (though we did so we could enjoy some fun glissades). We returned to the trailhead at 5p for a 12hr outing. Dan was amazing - he showed up without acclimatizing, climbed superbly, then drove back to Southern California that evening - a true weekend warrior. Michael and I returned to Mammoth Lakes for showers and a well-deserved dinner. Matthew never showed up at our motel, and we went to bed a little concerned.
Day 3: Red and White Mtn
In the morning Michael and I got up extra early to drive back to the Agnew Meadows TH to see if Matthew's car was still there. Fortunately it wasn't and we were relieved we wouldn't have to go out and search for him. But where did he go? Perhaps he was tired of us and went home. We drove back to Mammoth and continued east to the McGee Creek TH. Who should we find in the parking lot but Matthew, sorting gear. He'd gotten out late the night before and slept at a campground. At 6a we headed up the trail for Red and White Mtn. This peak has few redeeming features. It is a rubble pile of a climb from almost every direction, and those that aren't rubble are frighteningly loose rock. Still, the hike up McGee Canyon is very picturesque, and nearly worth the effort in its own right. We left the trail near Little McGee Lake and headed for the NE Ridge route first pioneered by Norman Clyde. It wasn't one of his better routes we were to find, but probably better than most routes on the peak. The three of us were spread out along the half mile approach along the Sierra Crest. Michael and I reached the summit around 10:30a, and met Matthew again on our way down, several hundred feet below the summit in the loose chutes on the route. Matthew continued up while Michael and descended the East Face on a whim because it looked like a shorter return and an interesting alternative. It turned out to be a good choice (for a descent, anyway), and we even found a use trail near an unnamed lake at the bottom that took us neatly back to Big McGee Lake and the trail. We finished the hike at 3p, Matthew some hours later.
Day 4: Mt. Gabb
I always enjoy hiking in the picturesque Little Lakes Area, though I seem to be running out of peaks to climb in the area. Mt. Gabb is actually west of the Sierra Crest, not visible from the valley even though it is one of the highest peaks in the area, surpassing even Mt. Abbot and Bear Creek Spire. It is rarely climbed as a dayhike due to its more remote locale. Michael, Matthew, and I were again the only ones setting out for this peak at 6a from the Mosquito Flat TH. We made good time to Dade Lake where we took a break and filled water bottles. Matthew's knee was bothering him and he decided to forgo the push to Mt. Gabb. He would take a slower pace and possibly climb Bear Creek Spire. Michael and I continued to Cox Col, just north of Bear Creek Spire, and first viewed the towering hulk of Mt. Gabb three long miles to the west. It seemed very far away. Nonetheless we pressed on, full of energy and high expectations for the class 3 East Ridge. We found more than we bargained for on the ridge as the climbing grew progressively harder until it was class 5. We had to back off to some chutes on the Southeast Face where we found it a struggle to finally reach the summit. It was the hardest class 3 we'd ever seen, suspecting the rating to be more than a little inaccurate. The summit register was an original dating back to 1934, placed by the California Alpine Club. Returning the same way we came, our energy was starting to wane on the long climb back up to Cox Col. We were elated to find Matthew there, along with a solo hiker named Dan. Four of us then headed up Ulrichs Route to Bear Creek Spire. We enjoyed the short class 4 climb to the summit ridge, an airy traverse, and the obligatory surmounting of the impressive final summit block. Dan was a speedster who left us shortly after he got to the top and signed into the register. Three of us then descended the class 4 section, and Michael and I once again left Matthew to go at his own pace. We arrived back at the TH at 5:30p, then drove to Bishop where we roomed for the night. Matthew joined us a few hours later, then we all went to dinner at Jacks.
Day 5: Mt. Thompson
Once again it was three of us heading out from Lake Sabrina enroute to Mt. Thompson. We had arrived earlier than expected and set out at 5:30a. The climb above Lake Sabrina to Blue Lake is long and arduous, but once at Blue Lake the scenery was greener, more alpine, the hiking more enjoyable. We found abundant wildflowers at Baboon Lakes, particularly large fields of lupine. We then climbed up west of Sunset Lake into the more barren, rocky landscapes of the very highest parts of the Sierra. An awful looking climb up a steep morraine was avoided by the fortuitous placement of a rocky buttress cutting the morraine in two. We found delightful class 3 climbing on the buttress, though it was the last good climbing we found for the day. Above the morraine wall we had a nasty boulder crossing to the Powell Glacier, a short walk up the icy, deteriorating glacier, and a steep climb up some of the loosest rock we'd found yet to reach the Powell-Thompson Col. The south side of the col was no better, and in fact the entire route to, and including the SW Chute of Thompson was a forgettable experience. We had much time to consider the seemingly obvious folly in choosing to climb this mountain. We got off route and found ourselves climbing a more difficult chute to the west before realizing our mistake and making the necessary corrections. At least the off-route chute had offered some spicy climbing. It took 6hr20m to reach the summit, longer than any of the peaks on the Challenge - such a long way for such poor climbing! And we had thought with the relatively modest elevation gain that this would be an easy day. On the way back we decided to forgo a climb to Point Powell, nobody really wanting to have any more to do with the crappy rock in this area. We finally returned to Lake Sabrina at 5p, happy to call it a day. Mt. Thompson, we all decided, should be removed from the SPS List.
Day 6: Mt. Sill
Matthew decided to take a rest day, so it was only Michael and I heading out of the North Fork of Big Pine Creek TH at 6a. It was another beautiful day, as all of the days had been so far. We motored up the trail, catching glimpses of Temple Crag and the Palisades before reaching the truly scenic portions of the trail starting at First Lake. We continued up to Sam Mack Meadow, then along the use trail and duck-lined route to the base of Mt. Gayley. We found several parties still asleep in their tents, only a solo climber awake and already heading toward the glacier. We caught up with him as we cramponed up the glacier, and after discussing plans for the day, he decided to join us for the climb up Mt. Sill's North Couloir. We found the snowfield in the couloir in deteriorating shape, but not too icy. I took a side trip to nearby Apex Peak while Michael and Dan (no relation to the Dan on Bear Creek Spire or the one on Banner) continued to the fourth class section. We had an easy time of it, and once on the Southwest Ridge Michael jokingly asked where the class 4 section was. We reached the summit shortly before 11:30a, taking just over six hours from the trailhead, pretty good for 6500ft of elevation gain we thought, and far better than our climb of Mt. Thompson. On the descent Dan decided to leave us to traverse over to Polemonium Peak, while Michael and I went on to Mt. Gayley. From Glacier Notch it is a short climb, taking less than half and hour, but a highly enjoyable class 3 scramble. After our climb of Mt. Gayley we descend below Glacier Notch where we came across two other parties on their way up. We got out of there as soon as we could to avoid the inevitable cavalcade of rocks that get sent down in this very loose chute. We returned to the TH shortly before 6p. Michael had to drive back to the Bay Area, and I was sad to have him go. I drove back to Big Pine where I met Matthew for dinner. On his "rest day" he decided to drive up to White Mtn Peak, covering the 15 miles RT in five hours. Some rest!
Day 7: Norman Clyde Peak
Norman Clyde was the most difficult peak on the list this year, class 4 by the NNE Face. Matthew wisely decided it was too rich for his blood, and he set off to Taboose Pass to climb Cardinal Mtn instead. I was heading off solo out of Glacier Lodge, up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek shortly after 5a. I had been up this route to the base of the peak several times in the last few years, so I was very familiar with the route. I made good time to beautiful Finger Lake, then slowed down as I made my way across the interminable boulder fields to the foot of the Middle Palisade Glacier. I choose to take Secor's ramp/chimney variation to the North Ridge, and from there moved onto the NNE Face. The climbing was as exciting as advertised. Lower down there were many route choices, but these narrowed the higher I climbed, and I found myself off-route and retracing my steps a number of times. I spotted a pair of climbers on the ridge above and waved. They were on a traverse across to Palisade Crest and soon disappeared from view. After more route-finding excitement, I found the exit chimney that took me to the crest. Looking down the route from the top of the chimney I was astonished at the steepness of the route. The Norman Clyde Glacier some thousand feet below me looked like I could toss a rock down onto it. I made my way to the summit by 11a where I found many familiar names in the register. As I began the descent, my achilles tendon in my left began to act up. By the time I reached the base of the route I could hardly stand on it without causing pain. I tried all manners of walking techniques to relieve the pain, but it grew progressively worse as I made my way back. I was happy to reach the TH unassisted, but my foot was pretty useless by then. I was afraid my luck had run out. I drove down to Independence where I met Matthew and David for dinner, hoping my foot would feel better in the morning.
Day 8: Mt. Tyndall
I woke up at 4a with Matthew and David and tested my foot. I still couldn't walk without pain, so it was back to bed for me. Matthew and David were met by Dan, Jim, Paul, Gustavo and his girlfriend at the trailhead. They waited for two others to show, but left by 5:15a when they were declared no-shows. Matthew sped off ahead, finding and passing Misha on the way (he had started at 3a), and reaching Shepherd Pass in only four hours. The less-aclimatized folks had a tougher time as might be expected, and made their way up in a more reasonable fashion. Dan passed Misha while he rested at Anvil Camp, one of those strong individuals who can blast up a trail with no acclimatization at all (he'd done the same on Mt. Banner the previous weekend). Paul and Jim caught up with Misha above Anvil Camp, and the three of them continued together for a short while. Paul moved ahead to reach Shepherd Pass, Misha made his way up slowly, and Jim never made it to the pass. It was 11:15a when the four remaining climbers, Matthew, Dan, Paul, and Misha headed out from the pass to Mt. Tyndall, a short distance away. They followed the North Rib or the fine granite slabs just to the right. The climbing was excellent, though Paul found his first class 3 climb a bit more than he'd hoped for. Dan and Matthew reached the summit first. Dan took off soon thereafter as he driving back to SoCal the same day. Matthew waited for the others as the weather deteriorated and it started to rain and hail. Mathew had originally planned to climb to Versteeg as well, but the weather made him decide otherwise. After Paul and Misha reached the summit, they set off down the NW Ridge. Finding this more difficult than expected, all three eventually bailed off to the North Rib Route and returned the way they'd come. Matthew sped off ahead of the others, returning in three and half hours. Paul and Misha went together, returning to the TH by 8:40p - the longest day of the Challenge. They met back up with Matthew, Gustavo and his girlfriend over Pizza in Lone Pine. No one saw Jim after he'd failed to reach Shepherd Pass.
Day 9: Mt. McAdie
Matthew retrieved the permits from the ranger station, and drove up to Whitney Portal in the early morning hours. David and Heyning were the only two to join him, and the three of them started out shortly after 6a. Matthew was interested in climbing McAdie, but the other two were less inclined to tackle the class 3 route at the top. Heyning was on a mission to conquer the 14ers and wanted very much to climb Mt. Muir. David was a bit intimidated by the class 3 as well and voted to climb Mt. Whitney. Not comfortable enough to tackle the route-finding and class 3 on his own, Matthew had to forgo the climb to McAdie, and decided maybe Mt. Muir would be okay after all. They found the regular weekend zoo along the trail, the odd sights at Trail Camp, and made their way to Trail Crest. David fell behind the others as they found the cairn marking the turnoff for Mt. Muir (David was bypassing Mt. Muir). The did the short scramble to the summit, meeting a fellow named Mark who had climbed with me on Mt. Rainier several years ago. Small world. Matthew left Heyning at the summit of Muir in order to go tag Mt. Whitney since he had never climbed it, even though he had little interest in doing so. At the summit of Whitney, he was surprised to find only one other hiker there, a pretty girl from Portland who had come up the Mountaineer's Route. Matthew was in love. David joined them some time later. Matthew left the other two at the summit, jogging down the trail, hoping he might be able to climb McAdie. In the end he decided the cross-country to reach it would outlast his remaining energy, and he gave up on that effort to return to Whitney Portal. Matthew was the only participant to last 8 days for 2003, and it was time for him to head home.
Day 10: Mt. Langley
Heyning was joined by Dan (yet a different Dan) and his friend Joel at the Horseshoe Meadows TH, the three of them heading out on the trail shortly before 6:30a. They rested at Cottonwood Lakes where Joel decided to call it quits and spend some time relaxing at the lake. Heyning and Dan headed up to Old Army Pass, Heyning eventually pulling out ahead. Dan stopped at the pass while Heyning continued up to the summit, finding some interesting class 3 to alleviate the tedium of some of the talus slog. He returned to the pass, decided to forgo the additional effort to Cirque Peak, and returned to the TH at 4:50p.