Warmup - Simmons Peak - Matthes Crest
Using the need to acclimatize as an excuse to get a few more days in the mountain, I headed up to Yosemite on July 29th. I'd been wanting to climb Simmons Peak for some years now, and decided on a long ridge climb along the west side of Lyell Canyon from Potter Point to Amelia Earhart and on to Simmons. The traverse took far longer than I'd expect it to, and required more hours than any of the Challenge days in the coming week. But I was treated to great views, some challenging class 3-4 sections, and three summits I'd never visited before. The descent from Simmons Peak was much quicker as I scrambled down the Southeast Slope and down to the Lyell Fork and the John Muir Trail. I was out over 13 hours and fairly beat by the time I returned to the TH. The following day I met Romain and his friend Rene in Tuolumne Meadows for a climb of Matthes Crest. Using a combination of soloing, simulclimbing, and a few belayed pitches, we traversed nearly the entire ridge from south to north relatively quickly. We particularly enjoyed the stretch from the summit to the north along this amazing fin of rock. It was a long outing at over 12hr, but far less exhausting than the previous day. We even paused to climb Echo Peak #8 on the way back as a freebie.
Day 1: North Peak - Mt. Conness
The first day was the most popular one of the Challenge, drawing 16 participants. Though distance-wise it was the shortest day, it was also the most technically demanding. From the Saddlebag Lake TH, half the group headed for the class 2-3 East Ridge while the others headed for North Peak to tackle the ambitious combination of North Peak's NW Ridge followed by Conness's North Ridge. Both are rated class 5, though the route up North Peak is pretty tame for class 5. After topping out on North Peak, we headed down the southeast side of the mountain and then on to the North Ridge of Conness. We carried two climbing ropes that were used to set up rappels at the second tower while the rest of the route was climbed solo. It was a dramatic and exhilarating climb, and having such a large group gave it a more festival atmosphere. By the time we summitted the other group had come and gone several hours earlier. We arrived back at the trailhead in many smaller groups spread out over a number of hours, depending on which route, how slow, and how route-finding challenged the various sub-groups were. That night most of us got together for dinner at the famous Whoa Nellie to relive the day's experiences and swap stories.
Day 2: Mts. Lyell & Maclure
If the first day was easy, the second made up for it and more. Ten of us showed up at 4a in Tuolumne Meadows for the long hike up Lyell Canyon to tackle the two monarchs of the Yosemite High Country. Matthew set a blistering pace for nearly four hours that the rest of us had varying degrees of success in following. Once at the Lyell Glacier, we split into various smaller parties, either solo or in groups of two, as we ventured across the glacier to tackle the two peaks by a variety of routes, depending on preference and what gear we carried. Having both crampons and axe, I took a direct route up the glacier to Lyell's summit. On the other end of the scale was Michael who had neither, and climbed the peaks from the Lyell-Maclure Col over class 3-4 rock. Nine of our party made it to the summit of Maclure, with six of these also climbing Lyell. This was probably not the first time these peaks have been combined in a dayhike, but most likely the first time it was done by six persons on the same day. Tired and hungry, we straggled back down the canyon on our return, reaching the trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows at various times between 3:40p and 7:30p. At over 26 miles roundtrip, this was the marathon day of the 2004 Challenge.
Day 3: Mt. Julius Caesar
A Sierra peak was named after a Roman emperor seemed a bit odd, but it didn't stop us from taking on this 6,000ft+ dayhike out of Pine Creek. This was my first visit to this trailhead and I wasn't disappointed. After a steep climb out of Pine Creek and the surrounding mining interests, our group of 5 split into two groups as we hiked the more pleasant forested sections around Pine Lake and Upper Pine Lake. Michael and I were alone in the front as we hiked past Honeymoon Lake and into Granite Park, a broad, alpine area featuring of all things - lots of granite. Approaching Italy Pass, the two of us split up as Michael headed for the pass and I opted for a more direct approach up the South Face. The peak is not notable for superb climbing, and with all the talus and boulder hopping we found exactly what we were expecting. I managed to find some class 4 climbing by my route near the top, but it couldn't be recommended as a reason to climb this peak. The views from the summit had to be reward enough, and in this we were not disappointed. We were nearly halfway between Yosemite and Sequoia NPs, and we could see much of the John Muir Wilderness that lies between borders of the two parks. On our descent from Italy Pass we came across Michelle and Tom on their way up. Behind them further still, David had evidently taken a wrong turn and had ended up near Pine Creek Pass to the south - he never made it to Granite Park, let alone Julius Caesar.
Day 4: Basin Mtn.
Basin Mtn lies unassumingly just south of the far more prominent Mt. Tom to the west of Bishop. Basin has a classic climb in its East Chute, a sustained snowclimb in early season followed by 400 feet of class 4 climbing to the summit. Now that it was August the snow would be nearly gone, leaving a talus-strewn slog instead, but the draw for this challenge was the class 4 climbing found at the top of the chute. We had 4 cars and 9 participants that made the grueling drive through the Buttermilks to the Horton Lakes TH. Five of us headed west from the TH for the East Chute while the other four took the trail to approach via the class 2 slopes on the NW side. The East Chute was as loose and disagreeable as we expected. Mark, Michael and I were together for the start of the class 4 section which we managed with only a slight mishap to Mark's leg. Getting confused on just where the East Chute was, Joe and Michelle took an altogether different route up a side chute to the right and ended up on the far north end of Basin Mtn. Meanwhile, Mark, Michael, and I headed to Four Gables on the Sierra crest via a long and challenging class 4 ridgeline that connects Basin to the crest between Mt. Humphreys and Four Gables. This turned out to be some of the most enjoyable climbing of the week. Once on the crest we found an easy class 1-2 walk to Four Gables followed by a more spicy class 3 descent off the southeast side. Sometime during our descent down through Horton Lakes the other party of four ran into difficulty on their descent when one member of the party got stuck in a cliff band from which he couldn't extract himself. This led to a call to the county sheriff which initiated a Search and Rescue effort. Michelle and Joe had come down off the summit sometime later to help the stranded climber off. By the time they had called the sheriff again, the SAR team had already reached the trailhead. They were at least saved the additional effort of heading up the trail. The three of us that had gone on to Four Gables were back in Bishop well ahead of all this, only hearing about it when the others returned to town later in the evening.
Day 5: Mt. Haeckel
Mts. Haeckel and Wallace are two of the Evolution group, lying prominently on the Sierra crest in the middle of Peter Croft's Evolution Traverse. After two days of hiking elsewhere, Matthew was back as part of our group of five that set out from Lake Sabrina at 6a. David had hoped Joe would show up at the trailhead as promised to hike with him, but Joe was nowhere to be found (he took a rest day). David fell behind after the first hour while Matthew, Mark, Michael, and I continued together to Hungry Packer Lake. Not far from the start of the planned route up Haeckel I split off from the others to tackle nice looking ridge climb to an unnamed peak between Mt. Haeckel and Picture Peak. The others climbed the glacier and made it to the southeast side of Haeckel even as I was still struggling up my peak. Near to giving up, I finally found a route up the ridge to the summit that made it all worthwhile. I scrambled to join the others to the summit of Haeckel. Some class 3 climbing was found on the upper reaches of the peak as I made it just after Mark and Michael, and a short time before Matthew. Going slower at this point, Matthew was just reaching the summit as the rest of us started off on the traverse to Mt. Wallace. It was an easy traverse thanks to very little loss in elevation. The climbing was mostly class 2 with a bit of class 3 for good measure. The summit of Wallace was an impressive summit block on which we managed to snuggly fit the three of us while another climber we met on the way up took our picture. Matthew was just leaving Haeckel shortly before we descended Wallace. On the way down the SE Slope, Mark set off a massive five minute landslide that took down several tons of rock on the very loose slopes. Fortunately I was off to the side (for just this reason) below, and the others were safe but lost in the dust cloud until it all settled. Down to Echo Lake we continued, then the long march back to Lake Sabrina.
Day 6: Mt. Winchell
There were six of us at the North Fork Big Pine Creek TH at 5a the next morning for the first of two climbs in the Palisade Region. Joe and Michelle were back to join Matthew, Mark, Michael and myself as we headed off under headlamps. Joe and Michelle had fallen well back by the time the rest of us reached Sam Mack Meadow. Michelle turned back due to a nagging injury, and Joe missed the turn off to Sam Mack and wound up by Sixth Lake before turning around and calling it a day. The rest of us continued up towards Winchell, climbing out of Sam Mack via a narrow creek gully partially filled with snow and iced-over rocks. After that it was a good deal of slogging over morrainal boulders as we wound our way through some small canyons to the start of Winchell's East Ridge. The route was decent, but not as good as we had hoped. Though rated class 3, much of the route is class 2. We had an awesome view of the North Face of Thunderbolt during our ascent, a view I had never seen in the past. Making good time, we were at the summit by 10a. As for all of the peaks in the Palisades, the views from the summit along this fractured stretch of the Sierra crest were both awesome and humbling - there was some serious rock up here. We descended by the same route, returning to the TH before 2p - not bad for another 6,000ft+ day.
Day 7: Palisade Crest
Palisade Crest was expected to be another long, tough day with the most elevation gain of any of the hikes, some intricate route-finding, and some class 4 to boot. We had a good turnout for the 5a start, 9 in total, with four planning to reach Palisade Crest, four heading for nearby Mt. Jepson, and one heading to Mt Gayley and Temple Crag. Six of us hiked together out front on the way to Willow Lake, the other three taking a more leisurely approach. I left the others at Willow Lake as we set off cross-country following the creek to Elinore Lake. What I thought was a ducked route and a use trail turned out to be ducks to nowhere followed by random ducks as I wandered up the hill, through brush, and across some swamp before I managed to meet back up with the others. We never found the main use trail until our return at the end of the day. At Elinore Lake Daryn left us to head for Temple Crag, the rest of us heading up the talus-strewn ridgeline to Scimitar Pass. Over this rough terrain our group of five got spread out. I was the first to reach the pass, and after a short wait I decided to head up to Palisade Crest solo. The climbing was as exciting as advertised, perhaps more so. I tried to follow the ridge directly, but got stymied when about 50 yards from the prominent notch before the summit. I took my time making my way down off the ridge on the north side and traversing the very steep slopes across to the notch. It sure seemed harder than the class 3 rating to me. I changed into my rock shoes to tackle the 160-foot class 4 slab which set my heart racing some though it was not difficult at all. From the summit of Gandalf Peak, the highest pinnacle of Palisade Crest, I could see Matthew, Mark, and Michael just beginning the thrilling class 3 traverse. Mark turned back after a short while, finding it too zesty for his taste. I met up with Michael and Matthew back at the notch and watched them as they climbed up the class 4 slab in turn. Continuing the return, I caught up with Mark before Scimitar Pass and the two of us headed up to Jepson together to salvage some of Mark's disappointment on Palisade Crest. Noting the summit register entries, Joe had been to the summit of Jepson more than an hour earlier and was on his way back. The other three only made it halfway from Elinore Lake to Scimitar Pass before turning around due to time. It was 4p before we got back to the TH - a long, but highly satisfying day. It was Mark's last day with us and it was a little sad having to part company. At 20 years of age he was the youngest participant, and had made a fine showing in the six days he had joined us.
Day 8: Dragon Peak
This was one of the easier days of the Challenge with little more than 11 miles covered in climbing three SPS peaks in the Kearsarge Pass vicinity. We had 11 participants for the day, though Mike didn't show up for the 6a start with the rest of us. At the Onion Valley TH we split into two parties, 7 of us heading up towards Golden Trout Lake for Dragon, while the other three headed up the Kearsarge Pass Trail to climb Mt. Gould. It took the four of us in front only three hours to reach the summit of Dragon, the only technically challenging part being the last 30 feet of the summit tower. After returning to Gould Pass on our way along the Sierra crest to Mt. Gould, we paused briefly to chat from a distance with Joe, Michelle, and Heyning who were climbing the rocky bluff just below the pass. Over at Mt. Gould we met up with Mike at the summit who had hiked/jogged up from Kearsarge Pass in pretty good time, passing the other three somewhere back on the trail. Daryn stayed at Gould's summit with Mike while Michael, Matthew, and I continued west along the ridgeline to Mt. Rixford. We had expected an easy go of this, but found much of it tedious and disagreeable as we did lots of sidehilling across steep slopes to bypass an intermediate highpoint. This was Matthew's last day of the Challenge and he was reluctant to call it a day. While we rested at Rixford's summit, he tried to talk Michael or I into joining him for a foray over to Mt. Bago, but we thought it too far and too tiring. Michael and I left Matthew on the summit as he rested further and tried decide whether to tackle Mt. Bago alone or not (in the end he decided against it). Michael and I took a loose chute down some 1,500ft+ of Rixford's southeast side to the Kearsage Pass Trail below, then on up to Kearsage Pass. It was just after 2p when we returned to the TH after making short work of the last five miles from the pass. It was the shortest day of the Challenge for us, and we were happy to take the extra rest time.
Day 9: Mt. McAdie
Mt. McAdie had been on the Challenge list the last two years, still waiting for someone to even attempt the peak. Injury, concern over route-finding, and disinterest had kept participants away the previous two years, but this time I was determined. We had six participants at the Whitney Portal TH at 6a for the ninth day of the Challenge. Four of our party was heading up to tackle Mt. Muir, a 14er, rather than the spicier class 3 of McAdie. Michelle and Heyning had started before 6a so that they could reach Arc Pass near the time Michael and I planned to get there. Heyning had started only 15 minutes earlier, and so had already fallen well back by the time Michael and I reached Consolation Lake and the beginning of the cross-country portion. We took slightly different routes to Arc Pass, Michelle timing her approach perfectly to join us at the pass at nearly the same time. Armed with Secor's somewhat involved route description, we headed up the East Face of the middle summit. To my great surprise, we found the route exactly as it was described. We climbed through a small keyhole, down a short chimney, then down to a notch between the middle and higher north summit. We deviated from the description at the notch, all three of us preferring to take the direct route up the south side, an enjoyable bit of class 4 rock. After summiting and heading back down, we came across Heyning back at Arc Pass. Michelle had had enough for the day, but the other three of us headed up the east side of Arc Pass to climb Mt. Irvine. Heyning had again fallen behind by the time we reached the saddle between Mts. Irvine and Mallory. Michael and I looked for him repeatedly on our traverse to Irvine's summit, but we never saw him again that day (he had stopped short of the saddle, finding the climbing too spicy - we suspect he'd gotten off-route somehow). We took a different descent route off Irvine, starting down the NE Ridge then turning NW where it split and headed directly down to Consolation Lake. At just over 8 1/2 hours, it turned out to be an easier day than we had expected.
Day 10: Cirque Peak
Most of the participants had headed home by now, leaving just a few of us to tackle Cirque Peak. I had missed out on Mt. Langley the previous year due to injury, and as it was my last CA 14er to dayhike, I was eager to tackle both peaks. Michelle was the only one to join me at the Cottonwood Meadow TH at 6a, and the two of us started off together, having the first and only conversation we had had all week with just the two of us. It was far more enjoyable than racing to chase Matthew down. As she had already been to Langley and wasn't interested in a second slog up there, we parted company after the first hour as we headed off to different peaks. I took the trail to Muir Lake, then cross-country to a ridge between two cirques north of Old Army Pass. I had gotten some secondhand beta on a more interesting class 3 ridge climb to Langley and had decided at the last minute to give it a try. The ridge started off nice but eventually grew to class 5 before I decided to bail off that approach. I ended up climbing the cirque to the north and then up to the summit of Langley. On my way down I ran into a Chinese climber who was a bit punch drunk from the climb and the altitude. I helped point him to the correct summit, took a picture for him, and gave him some advice on an easier descent off the summit. The hike over to Cirque Peak was really quite delightful, even with the ups and downs along the way. The drops weren't that bad and the continuous views off both sides of the Sierra crest were wonderful. I saw Michelle's signature in the Cirque register from several hours earlier. I descended down the Southeast Slopes and out via a cross-country route that followed the creek through some beautiful meadows in the shallow canyon below. It took only two hours to reach the TH from the summit of Cirque, and I was finished by 3:30p.
Warmdown - Lone Pine Peak - Hurd Peak - Muriel Peak - Koip Peak
Though everyone else had gone home, I was still in the Eastern Sierra following the Challenge. My family was off in Florida on vacation still and I had more time off, so I decided to continue my scrambling fete, calling it Extended Play Challenge. The next day I got an early 5a start for an overly ambitious climb of Lone Pine's N. Ridge followed by a scramble to Mts. LeConte and Corcoran. I had to severly ration my water on the traverse up from Lone Pine Peak, and the route I took was far more challenging than I had expected. It was 7p before I returned to the trailhead, and I collapsed back in Lone Pine without even eating a proper dinner. I got up late (6a) the next day and drove to Bishop and up to South Lake for a very easy outing to Hurd Peak. I had been wanting to climb Hurd for some years, but had waited for a day such as this when a 4hr outing was as much as I could take. It was a delightful climb. To make up for the easy day on Hurd, the next day I planned a long outing out of North Lake, following a route similar to one Matthew had done a week earlier. Starting at the alpine hour of 4a, I was up to Piute Pass before sunrise. I headed to Lost Lakes and climbed Muriel Peak from the lowest lake, a route calculated to avoid the horrible talus Matthew had found on the way up to Alpine Col. It worked beautifully. From the summit of Muriel I scrambled down to Alpine Col and then along the mile-long ridge to Mt. Goethe, a very enjoyable scramble, though hardly worthy of the class 4 rating given it. From Goethe I headed down the Southeast Slopes and into Darwin Canyon, then up the canyon to Lamarck Col. While the weather deteriorated I scrambled up to the Lamarck plateau and wandered around the highest points I could find, looking in vain for the summit register. Snow was falling very lightly upon my descent, changing to an on-and-off drizzle as I hiked back out to North Lake. On the fourth and last day of Extended Play I drove up to Tioga Pass for a climb out of the Mono Pass TH. The weather was decidedly bad and it looked like the thunderstorms we had the previous day were going to start even earlier today. I had an enjoyable hike to Parker Pass, then up to Parker Peak, over to Mt. Wood, back to Koip Peak Pass, up to Koip and Kuna peaks, then back north along the Kuna Crest. I had planned to continue on the ridge to Mammoth Peak, but as the rain began to fall I bailed off down to Helen Lake to avoid being caught on the exposed ridge. The rain came down hard while I descending past Helen Lake, with Thunder and Lightning pounding the Sierra crest a few miles to the east. It let up some before I was able to return to the TH, but by then I was pretty soaked and sloshing around in my boots. It was time to go home, and the weather was seeing I did so as it swept me out of the Wilderness and back to civilization.