California 14er's Speed Record, August 2002
I had been planning to make a run at the record for about 2 years and didn't even know what it was until this spring when I did an internet search and found Josh's article. I thought it was about 7 days or so but really had no idea.
I had never climbed any of the Palisades except for Middle and that was back in 1996. I had also never been up White Mt., Langley, Williamson or Tyndall. I climbed Russell for the first time over Memorial day weekend in June. So as July rolled around I was in the neophyte position of having only been up 6 of the peaks. Needless to say, I didn't tell too many people what I was hoping to do.
In early July my wife Melody and I and an old El Capitan partner, Rick Skidmore, hiked into Dusy basin and camped. The next morning at sunrise, I made my way over Thunderbolt pass and up SW chute #1 to the summit of Thunderbolt. I spent probably 30 minutes practicing the bouldering moves on the summit before moving on. Starlight was easy but North Palisade got me totally lost. I stemmed across that really exposed notch and just climbed straight up and left. After reaching the summit I descended the rubble chute for a few hundred feet and reascended the chute leading to the U-notch. Thankfully Polemonium was a piece of cake. Then over to Sill and a long descent to the SW into some basin with a lake. I traversed over a ridge into Palisade basin and finally reached Thunderbolt pass again. It was a pretty long day but it proved to me that my plan of going from Sill to Middle Palisade (West Side) was workable. (I estimated it would take about 4 hours of moderate travel to do this.) The next day we hiked out.
About a week later I returned with Rick and went for it. Loop One went from South Lake over the Palisade group, over to Middle Pal (west side), over Mather pass and Split Mt. and down to the desert. Rick was parked at the Meadow so I had to hike for an hour and a half to reach him. Then we went to White Mt. and ran it finishing just before sunset. Next day I ran Langley, and that evening took off on the Whitney-Russell loop. I came out next morning just ahead of the forest fire smoke and quit. Two days before I had gotten really lost on Middle Pal and abandoned it without reaching the summit. So having climbed 11 peaks in 3 days, 8 hours, it ended.
After running in the Cal-Eco finals Adventure race in Northern California August 1-4 (our team finished 6th in 57 hours...) I went home, rested for a few days and was ready to try again.
This time my driver was Paul McGuffin, age 60, a railroad engineer, classical guitarist, and mountain enthusiast. He first hiked in to the Middle Palisade glacier in 1961... I was in preschool at the time.
Once again I left the car at South Lake. 2:10 am on August 10th. I had a fairly loaded pack for quick travel.... rain jacket, thermal bottoms, gloves, fleece cap, maps and compass (remember I had never been over Mather Pass, nor even to the west side of Middle Pal) Edit, April 2007; I wrote that last sentence around midnight and was thinking about my attempt a few weeks earlier. But that gear list proved to be perfect and I stuck with it.
, lots of food and 2 liters of water. I also carried 50 feet of 6mm cord and a single carabiner. But the real secret weapon was a Western Mountaineering 17 oz. down sleeping bag. I intended to sleep just the other side of Mather pass before going for the summit of Split.
It was 7:25 before I reached the summit of Thunderbolt. (I know... I'm slow.) The slings were missing and I started to just boulder it but suddenly got an idea. I took the 6mm cord and tied a loop in the end. Tossing it up it snagged the bolt stud. Hmmmm... it MIGHT hold me if I fall... so climbing up to the "slap move" I carefully clipped into my little top rope and pulled over. Once up I ran it through the carabiner and had a good top rope for down climbing. It was the only time I used the cord and in retrospect it was pretty dumb to carry it.
I think I made Starlight at around 8:00... The summit gendarme there is much easier.
But now the climbing gets confusing.
I came straight down the high ridge just slightly off to the North side. It involves some easy but very exposed downclimbing to a notch. Then crossing over to the left.. I tried to find my way up to the scary sheer notch but ended up climbing stuff that was probably 5.7ish. Finally I made it there and did my stemming and handjamming up to the top of the ridge. Gosh I wish I knew where I was supposed to go. I arrived on top of North Palisade about 9:30am. Called Paul on the cell phone and then continued.
I had read where Josh went along the ridge and downclimbed some 5.2 chimney into the U-notch. That seemed like a better way to go than down the rubble so that's what I did this time. Yep. Definitely a better way to go. I crossed quickly over Polemonium and it took about an hour to cruise over to Sill (11:40 am).
On Sill I met a couple of guys who were amazed that I was eating pizza and teddy grahams. They had only GU. I remember one guys name was Gordon and they were hoping to tag Polemonium that same day. A little discussion on which way to go and then I said "Later" and scampered down the scree to the SW.
Down below the snow field and in the talus, in the most remote place imaginable, I was startled by a scantily clad young woman resting in the shade of a boulder. Not hiking, not climbing, not camping,... just sitting like she dropped out of the sky. No gear, nothing. I think I must have scared her a little. She informed me her father was climbing. "Oh." Weird.
The talus seems endless on the way to Middle Pal. After dropping down into a drainage, and climbing up over a ridge, you must traverse a talus covered hill side for maybe a mile to another ridge and then down and maybe another mile to the base of the climb. By the time you reach the base, you're getting pretty sick of rocks. I arrived around 3:30pm and left my pack sitting on a large boulder. The climb up the West Face in NOT RECOMMENDED.
The rock here is rotten to the core. Starting up the couloir you pass a couple of blockages and come to fork. Take the left fork. Then after a bit, as the gully begins to curve upwards, there is an opportunity to climb out to the left onto a large open ridge. It looks way off route, but that's the way to go. Leave the gully. From here follow the path of least resistance, weaving left and right and slowly curving upwards towards the crest. There are several sections of "4th Class" that anywhere else would be called 5.2 Test every hold as many will break loose. Rocks will be falling constantly beneath your feet and your partners will be killed if they don't have hardhats and stay right next to you. I summited at about 5:00pm and was back down alive by about 6:00.
The John Muir trail is below (LeConte canyon... I think its called.). I made it almost over Mather pass before it got dark on me. Once over, the trail takes one long switchback to the East and that's where I left it. I continued on for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and then stopped to sleep. It was 9:45pm. Curled up in my 17 oz bag I passed out quickly.
Up at 2:30 am I continue on to Split Mt. and summit at 5:10 am, still in the dark. The west slope of Split is a nice easy walk by the way. I highly recommend this side to ascend versus the Eastern trail past Red Lake.
Descending quickly down scree and keeping to the correct trail, I arrive back at the car at 9:05 am on August 11th. It's been 31 hours. More like a backpack trip than a record attempt. Of course I do feel really good, having slept and eaten well and am ready to go. Paul has 3 gallons of water in jugs on top of the car for a "desert shower" and I wash my hair and clean up before we leave for Big Pine.
Arriving at the gas station (10:25), I grab a hotdog and Coke and we book it up the road toward White Mountain. Paul's '92 Toyota truck has 216,000 miles on it's 4 banger engine and we don't make real good time but I'm just glad to be off my feet for a bit.
At 12:20 pm I'm off and running past the locked gate and toward the top. An hour or so along the way I pass some men sitting and resting off to the side. I'm running and we exchange a few words but I'm soon out of hearing. After summiting and running back down I reach the car to find the 3 men there waiting. One of them says "Well, just run off and don't even visit!" I look closely and my jaw drops. Its Greg Hovivian, one of my closest friends whom I've not seen in probably 8 years since he moved away. His son Derek is now 15 years old. They are on a long term plan of climbing all the 14ers in California. Life is so crazy.
My round trip time is 4 hours, 11 minutes. Not the fastest but still good and I'm being conservative with my efforts. There are still lots of mountains to climb.
At 6:30pm we are back in Big Pine and go in for a spaghetti dinner. Its an hour sitting but nice. Then its off to the Shepherd pass trail head to camp and sleep. We arrive there at 8:30pm and I spend probably 45 minutes sorting gear and food getting ready for the morning. Then wonderful sleep.
The alarm goes off at 3:00 am, and we wake up and drive a little further to the hikers trailhead where I jump out and start. Its 3:23am.
I've never been up this trail and I'm a little concerned. Will it be overgrown? Will I lose it.? Will it take me all day just to get to the pass?
As it turns out, its a great trail! One of the best around. Of course, Shepherd pass seems like its in the stratosphere by the time you finally get there.
Leaving the trail just over the pass I head for the North Rib route on Tyndall. It is solid, clean, easy and fun. Highly recommended. I summit at 9:45 am. and really enjoy the view. The descent is by the same route. Then things get annoying. Endless talus blocks for the next hour or so. Finally the west face of Williamson is reached. Climbing it was not what I would call a pleasurable experience. I pretty much hated it. Loose scree for over 1000 feet. But I guess there is a little payback when you pull over the rim onto the summit plateau. What a great surprise. You could probably land an airplane up there. The last entry in the register was by Ruth, 7/12/02, who wrote in pencil only one word, "Wow!"
Coming down is fast. At the last lake before the trail, a couple of climbers had set up camp and were surprised to see me. They were the first people I had seen since leaving the car. Stopping to visit for a few minutes I told them what I was trying to do. They were really interested and encouraged me greatly. Sometimes, in the mountains, when you've been alone for a while and you get really, really tired, your feelings start to get magnified. Loneliness seems worse, fear seems darker, and joy seems purer. Freedom seems endless.
I hustle down the trail, running much of it and am surprised by Paul about a mile before the car. He's brought grapes and a Coke. We walk quickly and he impresses me by his ability to throw rocks almost 200 feet and hit whatever target he chooses. I wonder how many windows he must have busted out as a kid (or birds killed, or snowball fights he won). We reach the car at 7:23, exactly 16 hours after I left.
Paul's gotten us a motel room for the night even though I'll only be there about 6 hours. The shower is great and stretching out my legs in a real bed is super. But the alarm goes off at 3:30am and I'm out the door 8 minutes later. I hit the Mt. Whitney trail at 3:53am. having downed a donut and another Coke on the drive up.
I like the crowds on the Whitney trail. Its like a party. Everyone seems happy and excited to be there and although most are moving really slow, its OK. I pass a guy on the switchbacks and we start talking. Turns out he's a mailman from my home town of Hemet, California. Of all things....
I summit Muir at 8:10, Whitney at 9:00, and then run down the mountaineers route, cross Whitney-Russell pass, and climb the south face of Russell to summit it at 10:45am. Descending the East Ridge route on Russell I encounter a group of 5 climbers, who have come up from the lakes on the North side. They are all older than me, and I'm 45. We stop and chat for a couple of minutes and then I'm on my way again. I run the scree, run the trail bits, walk the ledge systems and run more trails to the car arriving at 12:57pm. Its taken me 9 hours, 4 minutes to do this loop.
Paul has a pepper steak wrapped in foil on the manifold of the car, and some fried chicken. I drink 4 cans of cold Coke on the drive to Langley.
I hit the Langley trail at 2:12 pm., in running shoes and carrying a hydration pack. I think this is one of the most beautiful trails on the 14ers circuit. The lakes and meadows are great. But I don't see any people. The entire trip up and back I saw only a lone fisherman who ignored me. Very strange for this trail. I hustle as I realize that I'm racing the sun and it'll be dark before I'm back. I make the round trip in 6 hours, 23 minutes, arriving back at the car at 8:35pm in the dark of course. Now I'm tired. We load in the truck and head for hamburgers in Lone Pine.
Our "Owen's Valley peaks" time is 3 days, 18 hours, 25 minutes. That's excluding Mt. Shasta. Paul thinks the drive to Shasta, which takes us over 10 hours (9 hours from Bishop), is a potential problem for record disputes. He thinks airplanes should be disallowed and the rule should be "ground transportation" only. Besides, he says, Shasta is a volcano and is going to blow up so the Owens Valley split should be the real record. He has me laughing hysterically. The comedy routine is carried out totally staightfaced. Eventually I crawl into the back and go to sleep. Paul drives all night.
We arrive in Shasta somewhere around 7:00 am. I'm sleepy and not paying too close attention. Falling out into the parking lot, I sort quickly through my gear, get my boots on and grab some food. I head out at 7:32 am. and make good time up the trail. The snow is almost all gone. I finally reach a thin tongue of snow at about 11,000 feet and put my crampons on. Now finally I can move. I climb straight up to the red banks and traverse out to their left, and then walk back right to misery hill. There is not a single person on the mountain except me. This is really, really weird. Where is everyone? Is there an eruption forecast? I climb onto the summit at 11:55 am and whoa!. here are about 7 or 8 people with ropes, and all sorts of gear. They've come up from the other side. I call Paul from the summit and tell him I'll be down soon. Then I sign the register and take off running. 200 feet later I realize I didn't take a summit photo. Too excited I guess. So I take one there. Then I run. Left past the red banks and straight down. Endless scree and talus but I still run. I finally hit the trail and I kick it up a notch. I'm flying now. Down, down, down. The car comes into sight and I tag it at 1:29pm. I've made the round trip on Shasta in 5 hours, 57 minutes. Paul is video taping and creating another comedy routine as he goes.
A young couple from North Carolina, Danny and Sheila congratulate me on my success and we talk for almost an hour. In a bizarre coincidence, we run into them again that night 100 miles south in Red Bluff in a tiny, obscure pizza place.
My final time; 4 days, 11 hours, 19 minutes.