Warmup - Gray Peak / Hoffmann - Tuolumne
As usual, I headed to the Sierra a few days early in order to acclimatize before the start of this year's Challenge. Having failed at Gray Peak with Matthew a few years earlier due to early snow, I headed out of Mono Meadow to bag Gray and Red peaks in the Clark Range, two SPS peaks left unclimbed. I had little trouble getting to Gray Peak aside from it being a very long hike, but I chose my route to Red poorly and ended up having to back off some loose rocks along the crest. Not wanting an epic on my first day out, I decided to leave Red for yet another day. The next morning I met Matthew at the Lukens Lake TH along SR120 for a planned ridge traverse through the Ten Lakes area. We started off by climbing Mt. Hoffmann and then on to Tuolumne Peak. Enroute we found far better rock than we had expected, and a good deal more challenging too. We hadn't gotten very far along the planned ridge, but found it already afternoon at the second summit. We decided to leave it as an enjoyable, but easy day and returned to our cars.
Day 1: Mt. Hilgard
We had 15 folks at the Mosquito Flat TH Friday morning at 5a. Three (Jim, Irving, & Calvin) were heading to Mt. Dade, the rest of us to Hilgard. The peak lies a fair distance west of the Sierra crest, making this one of the longest days expected on the Challenge. As usual, the group splintered shortly after the start as we made our way through Little Lakes Valley, up over Cox Col, and down to Lake Italy. Seven ended up reaching the summit of Hilgard, anywhere from 5hr30m to 6hr30m after leaving the TH. Thanks to a less-than-brilliant piece of map work by yours truly, I showed the route to Hilgard on the map going around the south side of Italy Lake which caused several participants to waste too much time among the cliffs and boulder fields there, missing the summit. The weather was decidedly sour, with light rain starting around 11:20a. It never rained very hard and actually had a nice cooling effect, but it made people wary about going to other summits. Jeff and Matt, behind the first 9 getting over Cox Col, decided to go to Mt. Gabb instead of Hilgard - an equally difficult peak. Matthew and Mark were planning to climb Gabb in conjunction with Hilgard, but gave up before starting the traverse on account of the weather. Returning towards Cox Col in the afternoon, we still considered Bear Creek Spire and Pipsqueak for bonus peaks, but the 2,000ft climb up from Lake Italy sapped most of our strength. Mark was leading the climb up to Cox Col, and I talked him into heading up to Pipsqueak Spire. That was a fun little climb and we ended up descending the Hourglass with crampons/axes on our way out. Glenn and Rick K. went up to BCS before heading back over Cox Col.
Day 2: Merriam Peak
Sixteen started out from the Pine Creek TH at 6a this morning. Matthew and Scott M. took off at an amazing pace ahead of the others, and nobody saw them the rest of the day. Matthew, having already climbed Merriam & Royce headed off to Treasure Peak and Spire Peak (both unofficial names). Scott went over Royce Pass and up the Royce-Merriam saddle to the summit of Merriam, arriving and leaving half an hour before anyone else saw him. Meanwhile, eight of us made it to Pine Creek Pass within 15 minutes of 3hrs, and regrouped at the lake on Merriam's East Face. While we discussed and debated the "proper" route up the East Face, Evan R. pulled out his fishing pole and tried his luck flyfishing in the lake. Five decided to do the East Face and three went up the Merriam-Royce Saddle. All made it to the summit. Everyone that went up the East Face thought the climbing was really great, probably more than class 3, but highly enjoyable. Glenn and I were the first to the summit (behind Scott), and the drizzles started almost as soon as we signed the summit register. More serious rain was seen falling between Merriam and Humphreys to the SE. I stayed less than five minutes because I *really* wanted to get to Royce before the weather worsened. It was about 12:30p when I got atop Royce (wearing rain jacket since the rain was heavier), just in time to hear the first peal of thunder. Thankfully that was the only one, but I got off the summit in a hurry. The others had all decided I was a lightning statistic waiting to happen and wisely descended the saddle, forgoing Royce. After descending from the saddle, the weather stabilized to a light drizzle that was actually quite pleasant. I returned via Royce Pass and had a very enjoyable descent down to Honeymoon Lake, enjoying a very fine wildflower display. Back at Lower Pine Lake I ran across Evan fishing (considerably better luck this time). We hiked together down to the trailhead, returning around 4:20p. Everyone else had already returned.
Day 3: Pilot Knob
We had 11 at the start today for Pilot Knob, 3 additional participants have started before 6a. Once again we were heading for a peak west of the Sierra crest. Though this one was technically the easiest peak of the Challenge with modest elevation gain, it was still a long hike across Humphreys Basin and would require much effort. There were a few clouds far to the north, but otherwise the weather looked considerably better today at the start. Before Loch Levin three of us turned off the Piute Trail to head for Emerson's SE Face. At 5.4, it seemed a good, spicy solo route and a fine warm-up before heading out to Pilot Knob a few hours behind the others. It turned out to be as much fun as we'd hoped, but much longer - we never made it to Pilot Knob after descending from Emerson. Meanwhile, a large group of 11 were on their way back from, or nearing the summit of Pilot Knob. Clouds had formed as they had in previous days, but no rain and many patches of blue sky. Sometime after 2p the nice cool weather changed to cold rain. And very hard rain. Despite rain gear, most of those returning were soaked to the bone, swimming in their shoes, and mildly hypothermic. The downpour unleashed torrents of water off the Piute Crags and across the trail, rolling boulders, debris, and muddy brown water. It was pretty phenomenal. Even the first to return after some 10 hours had gotten soaked. Most returned shortly thereater. Two participants were out for over 16hrs, and another without a headlamp was benighted, not returning until just before 6a the following day.
Day 4: Mt. Mendel
Matthew had started half an hour early today with hopes of bagging both Mendel and nearby Darwin. There were 10 of us that started from the North Lake TH heading for Lamarck Col at 6a. The weather was particularly fine, not unusual for the early morning. We figured it would be a race against time to get up and down from the peaks before the afternoon thunderstorm pattern returned. Mark and I paced the group at a fairly good clip, but only Rick G. was with us when we reached Lamarck Col shortly after 8:30a. From the col we could see another 5 participants approaching the lake just below and east, maybe 10-15min behind. There weren't many clouds yet, but one could see that they were starting to form. With mostly blue sky, I charged over the col after a minute's rest. Rick and Mark waited for the others, and when there was a quorum at the col they debated the weather situation. Rick, Michael, and Ron decided to follow Matthew and I on our way already to Mendel. Two others came over later, but turned around before reaching the summit. The rest decided to give the weather more respect, some going up to nearby Mt. Lamarck, others returning. Meanwhile, I was finding the climbing on Mendel's NE Ridge more challenging than I was expecting. The others on the East Face were having an easier time. We met up shortly before the summit, even finding Matthew just ahead of us, and all summited within a short time of each other. Matthew debated whether the weather would hold in order to allow him to reach Darwin. I was going to be happy to get back over the col before the rain started today. We all descended the East Face. At the base of the East Face, Matthew again debated the Darwin option, in the end leaving it for another time. It was a long haul back to Lamarck Col and back down to the trailhead, but we managed to beat the weather - only a few drops managed to find us today.
Day 5: Clyde Spires
Day five saw the smallest crowd yet at the Lake Sabrina TH - only 5 participants. Matthew and Mark were quick on the trail and the other three of us (Rick G., Michael, and myself) soon lost sight of them. The weather report said we were supposed to have sunshine for a change, and it started off beautifully. It was a long haul up towards Clyde Spires - an hour to Blue Lake, two more hours to Echo Lake. Getting to Echo Col from Echo Lakes was a non-trivial exercise, but we were happy to find an ascending traverse through the snow and cliffs around the east side of the lake. Then it was across a snowfield up to Echo Col, over the other side about 100 feet, followed by a traverse to the South Ridge. Shortly before regaining the Sierra crest, the rockclimbing improved and the enjoyable portion began. We tackled first the non-spiresque East Spire, climbing it by three different routes. After we had all five of us at the summit, three of us headed to the West Spire, the more impressive of the two formations. The spire features a summit block that goes pretty stiff at class 4, only one of us managing to make the delicate move onto the top of it. Following that, Matthew and I continued along the ridge towards Mt. Wallace while the others all headed back via Echo Col. Our shortcut wasn't, and the others handily beat Matthew and I back to the trailhead. We got delayed in a horribly loose scree slope on the descent between Clyde Spires and Mt. Wallace, one of the worst I've encountered in the Sierra.
Day 6: Isosceles Peak
Isosceles Peak - so easy, yet so hard. This was easily the shortest approach for any of the Challenge peaks so far. Yet the summit block was more than we expected, styming everyone. Mike Y. and Eric G. were up at the trailhead around 5a to get an early start for the 5.6 SW Buttress route on the peak. For the regular 6a start we had 10 at the trailhead, a fairly good showing. We zipped up to Bishop Pass in just under 2 hours, then started off across Dusy Basin and up the Northeast Face of Isosceles. The face is fairly loose, and with nine of us climbing at the same time, there were regular shouts of "Rock!" as the inevitable boulders let loose. We scrambled up to the east summit by following a class 3 ridge, then found ourselves stymied in trying to reach the highpoint. This was not the class 4 peak we had expected. After several tries, we gave up. Mike and Eric on the SW Buttress climbed to the west summit, finding similar difficulties in trying to reach the higher middle summit. We gave everyone credit for the summit since it was advertised in Secor as a class 4 summit block. Afterwards, four of us headed to nearby Columbine, two set off for Mt. Agassiz on the Sierra crest, and still others made a sidetrip to Chocolate Peak on the way down from Bishop Pass. Everyone got back early as we expected, and seeing it was our last night's stay in Bishop, we held the first ever Sierra Challenge Pool Party back at the motel. Burgers, sides, margaritas, and 18 participants helped make it one of the week's highlights.
Day 7: Temple Crag
Temple Crag was another easy day on the schedule. Sure, we could take Dark Star or one of the other hardman routes, but... oh wait, no we couldn't because we're not that good. We had nine at the Big Pine TH this morning at 6a. We started a little lated today, but made our usual good time up to First and Second Lake where we took a break, losing only one of the participants enroute. As we made our way over talus and boulders to Contact Pass (the easy way up), Eric O. left us to solo Moon Goddess Arete - an impressive feat on a loose 5.7 route. Mark beat the rest of us up to Contact Pass (he was out in front more than anybody during the whole Challenge), where we reconvened. Five of us took the easy class 5 route up through Contact Crack while two went around to the class 3 route on the south side of Contact Pass. We had seven at the summit after another hour or so, Eric reaching the summit sometime after we had already started to descend. Disappointed that I backed out of our planned traverse to Mt. Gayley, Matthew ended up climbing the peak anyway via the easier route once he'd descended to the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. Our group split up on the descent, some going down to the South Fork, others heading back over the north side of Contact Pass. Most of us were back within 8 1/2 hours, with the exception of Matthew who had a long 12 hour day.
Day 8: Disappointment Peak
Tough day today. Nine started at the South Fork Big Pine TH this morning at 6a. We had the regulars from the previous days plus some new faces. Joining us new were Vlad, Jim, and John who were planning to head to Middle Pal while the rest of us headed to Disappointment. It took a little over an hour to climb the headwall to Willow Lake, another hour to reach Finger Lake. Ron and Matthew missed the cross-country route to Finger Lake and ended up at Brainard Lake instead. It didn't seem to slow them down, because they were a good 10-15 minutes ahead of the rest of us in reaching the Middle Pal Glacier. Regrouped, we headed up one of the snow chutes east of Balcony Peak. We expected bergshrund and icy conditions, but found a relatively easy snow climb instead. From the crest, Balcony was another 500 ft or so of class 2 climbing. Six of us reached the summit after 5 1/4 hours, taking a break while contemplated Disappointment and Middle Pal which didn't look too far away. Ron led three of us in fine fashion across the north face of Balcony Peak. Mark and Rick balked at the exposure and decided Balcony would suffice for the day. It took us about 45 minutes to complete the traverse, a bit tricky and worthy of the class 4 rating. Matthew and I decided to make a go of the traverse to Middle Pal, Ron and Michael electing to return the way we came. We tried to follow Secor's directions for the traverse but found it impossible to find anything resembling a horizontal traverse. No matter, we climbed up and down as needed across chutes and aretes, reaching Middle Pal in something under two hours. Vlad had been at the summit some 15 minutes when we arrived. He was with two other climbers who had camped at Brainard Lake. Jim and John had turned around at the glacier below and Vlad had hooked up with these other two. After so much loose class 4, the class 3 descent of Middle Pal was easy and went quickly. Matthew and I passed the other three during the descent about 2/3 of the way down, and then made like bandits down snow slopes to Finger Lake. When we got back to the trail we started jogging on all the downhills so that we could get back in time for dinner at 7p. We made excellent time, descending from the summit of Middle Pal to the TH in 2hr45m.
Day 9: Kearsarge Pinnacles
This was supposed to be an easy day, a relatively easy approach to a group of pinnacles just east of the Sierra crest via Kearsarge Pass, with some fun class 3-4 scrambling among the various pinnacles. At least that's how I had envisioned it. Reality turned out to be something altogether different. We found the rock loose, crappy, treacherous, challenging, sometimes all at the same time. We had a large turnout of 20 folks, the regulars being joined by the weekend warriors for this outing. Once over Kearsarge Pass, the participants splintered into many smaller groups. As I was starting up the slopes to the Pinnacle #1, I met up with Joel, also on his way up. We ended up staying together most of the day, climbing 7 of the 12 named pinnacles over many exasperating hours. Others had various degrees of success, climbing the pinnacles in different order, getting lost, many giving up in frustration and heading to other nearby peaks such as University, Gould, or East Vidette. Joel and I spent an inordinate amount of time on the pinnacles, almost 7 hours not counting the time for the approach or return. Even the descent turned into a difficult effort, having made a poor choice of chutes in leaving the last pinnacle. Most of the participants were out for 11 to 13 hours - decidedly not an easy day!
Day 10: Junction Peak
The big finale was a monster climb to Junction Peak, nearly 9,000ft and some 25 miles, perhaps the toughest single day of any Challenge, ever. In previous years, the 10th day always fell on a Monday and I sadly found myself alone most of the time. To prevent this, I started the Challenge on a Friday so that the last day would end on a popular weekend day. And indeed, with around 16 participants, it was a big success. I knew the trailhead would be cramped with limited parking, and by the time Michael and I arrived shortly before 5a it was already overflowing. Cars were parked somewhat haphazardly along the side of the road, new spots created by plowing over the thistle and brush. I wonder if there's ever been so many cars at that trailhead before. Once again Mark led the charge up the trail from Symmes Creek, 54 switchbacks and 2,000ft of gain. I took over the lead in jogging down the 500ft descent from Symmes Pass, the first time I had done so the entire Challenge. I made the ascent to Shepherd Pass in just under 4 hours, others coming up anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours later. While I took the route west across to Diamond Mesa and the start of the South Ridge, four others were making their way further north to the South Face. Miguel caught up to me halfway along the South Ridge and we ended up summiting in nearly the same time of 6 1/2 hours. Michael, Eric L., and Steve were not long behind us. Mark nearly made it to the summit as well, balking at the last class 3-4 section between the lower SE summit and the higher NW one. Those six were all that got close to the summit. Others had gone off to Tyndall instead (also a tough dayhike), still others succumbed to various ailments, most notably altitude sickness. It was a long day as expected, anywhere from 11 to 15 hours for the various participants - a fitting end to a tough ten days in the High Sierra.