Approximate Length: 23+ miles round-trip (more like 25 in my case since I lost the trail)
Approximate Vertical Gain: over 10K feet round-trip
I drove from San Francisco on Friday evening and arrived to the Symmes Creek trailhead at around 11pm. I was driving a low-clearance vehicle and the final stretch of the road between the stock and the regular trailheads looked way harder than what my car could handle. Parking lot at the stock trailhead is really tiny... it only fits three cars, and to my luck there was one spot remaining. I set my alarm for 2:45am and fell asleep. Unfortunately that night was very hot and my car is far from comfortable for sleeping in it. As a result I only got a couple of hours of real downtime. In a way I was happy to hear my alarm buzzing. After packing and sorting through stuff I took off at 3am, hoping to get to the Shepherd's Pass before the rest of the Sierra Challenge gang and wait for them there (wishful thinking). It took me about 15-20 minutes to get to the first creek crossing after which the 'Stock' trail is merging with the 'Hiker' one. There was no easy path across the creek so I went barefoot. What a nice (and cold) jolt to the system before the grueling climb!
Way up the switchbacks to the Symmes Creek saddle was surprisingly easy and I got there by 5am. Once I reached the first saddle, things started to get interesting. Don't ask me how, but I've managed to loose the trail at that point (it was still pretty dark). After bushwhacking for one hour and loosing/gaining some elevation (~1K' according to my altimeter) I found the correct path, thanks to the group of backpackers who were heading towards the Shepherd's Pass! They were genuinely surprised to see me in the dark, wearing shorts, tshirt and with practically no pack. After parting with backpackers, taking a short break at the 2nd saddle and snapping some pictures of the morning alpenglow on Williamson horns, I continued the hike. As I started to make my way up to Anvil Camp, I looked back and noticed a hiker several switchbacks below me. For a second I thought about Bob Burd (his hat looked familiar) but then I recognized Matthew and called his name. We chatted for a few minutes and he updated me on the latest events. Apparently, Bob got injured during the previous day and could not participate in this climb. Also, there were several other people behind Matthew but he did not think that all of them would make it to the top. Matthew was on fire and quickly disappeared as we resumed our hike up the trail. I continued with a slower but steady pace until Anvil Camp where I stopped to refill my water bottle (using my Bob's Iron Gut filter) and eat a package of GU (one of many that day). When I was relaxing near the small creek, I was passed by a day-hiker, obviously a Sierra Challenge participant (Dan, like I found out later). He seemed determined to go on and not very interested in stopping for a chat, so I did not insist. He just mentioned something about the 'slog' and him being 'tired' as he was cruising by. So far I really enjoyed the day (with the exception of my little bushwhacking incident) and still had a lot of energy to go on. Few minutes after I resumed from Anvil Camp, another day-hiker caught up with me. This time we stopped for an introduction. I vaguely remembered Paul's face from the picture on Bob's site. I told him a little bit about my adventures earlier in the day, and he very kindly offered to drive me back to my car from the 'Hiker' parking lot if we come back at the same time. After gaining another 500-600 feet and reaching the timberline somewhere near the 'Pothole', we decided to stop for a lunch break.
Lunch for me was no different from any other meal break that day and consisted of another package of GU and a PowerBar. Not very yummy (or should I say border-line disgusting?) but nutritious enough to keep me going. As we were finishing the meal, we saw another day-hiker coming up. His name was Jim and he started from the trailhead at about the same time as Matthew and Paul. With the hope in his voice he asked if the pile of talus immediately in front of us was Shepherd's Pass. To his visible disappointment, I told him that it is not the pass yet and we still have ways to go. Three of us resumed the hike, now over talus and boulders. Paul was maintaining his steady pace and soon got ahead of me by 200-300'. As we reached the bottom of the talus field below Shepherd's Pass, I started to feel pain in my right hip. It was definitely overworked but at that point I've made a 'conscious' (if you can call me conscious after sleep deprivation, huge elevation gain and many hours of hiking) decision to go on unless I feel really really sick. I did not feel sick yet, just tired. My rest stops got more and more frequent as I was making my way up the steep talus slope below the pass. When I turned around to check up on Jim, I realized that he did not follow me and instead stayed at the bottom of the pass. That was the last time I saw Jim that day. Few moments later, I gained the pass and to my joy found Matthew, Dan and Paul sitting on the rocks near the trail. How nice of them to wait for me! They looked energized and ready to go on, which in turn gave me more strength that I so badly needed. Views (1)(2) of Tyndall from the pass were magnificent! We could see the North Rib route in its entirety. It looked too close to be true :).
After inspecting the approach for a couple of minutes, we went on across several talus and boulder fields to reach the bottom of the rib. My hip was bothering me more and more but I hoped that I will not notice it as much once we start the actual climb. I arrived to the base of the North Rib route few minutes later than others. Dan, Matthew and Paul continued while I stayed behind to take a couple of pictures. I also wanted to rest a bit and watch their progress on what seemed to be a very loose rock. None of us took helmets and now I was questioning my judgment on that one.
Route was loose but not too bad if you stay on the slabs to the right of the actual rib. This is exactly what I've done. These slabs were awesome! Almost pure friction Class 3 for over 1,000 vertical feet until you reach the summit ridge! This is what Dave Kiene would call 'slab-a-licious'. It was obvious that Matthew came to the same route finding conclusion as me while Paul and Dan stayed on the rib. Dan was making great progress and soon disappeared near the summit. Matthew was aiming for the chimney between two prominent gendarmes that are sitting on the summit ridge. His route looked very logical to me and I intended to follow it as well. Paul seemed to be more and more uncomfortable with the going and I caught up with him pretty soon. He attempted to follow Matthew's 'steps' into the chimney but stopped few feet short and mentioned that it was too exposed for his comfort level. From below I could see some tricky Class 3 slabs with the considerable exposure. Actually, I was really looking forward to that section which got to be the 'crux' of the route. Without much consideration, I jammed myself into the chimney and pulled myself up onto the summit ridge after several excellent Class 3 moves. Paul decided to go around the gendarme on the right side following the obvious and easy crack system. It got him on the summit ridge 30-40' to the West of me. At that moment, I looked around and realized that weather around us was very crappy. I was so occupied with the Class 3 climbing that I did not even notice approaching cloud formations until we got to the ridge. Black clouds above us did not look good at all. Minutes later it started snowing and hailing. Getting electrocuted by the lightning is not my idea of good fun so I 'rushed' up the summit ridge. Few feet below the summit block I ran into Matthew who was on his way down. He mentioned the Northwest Ridge route for the descent which sounded like a good idea considering its easier rating than the North Rib (Class 2-3). He also kindly offered to wait for me and Paul. Only a minute later I was standing on the summit! Views of Williamson and Great Western Divide were grand, although obscured by clouds and haze. I was captivated by the pinnacle of Milestone Mountain to the West and took at least 3 or 4 photos of it. Have to definitely bag that one sometime soon! Paul joined me on the summit few minutes later. We exchanged photos in front of Whitney and Russell (that soon disappeared in the massive thunderstorm above them) and went down the ridge to reunite with Matthew who was patiently waiting for us.
Falling snow and hail made surrounding slabs and boulders very wet. Friction that I enjoyed so much on the way up quickly disappeared and my feet started to slip and slide with every other step. I was relying more and more on my hand holds. Finding an easier path down the Northwest ridge was quite challenging and ultimately unsuccessful. I could see sustained Class 3 and even Class 4 anywhere I looked. Going down that way on wet granite in sneakers was not something I looked forward to. After trying several paths, Paul and I decided to follow the ledge that traverses North Face and terminates near the rib. It looked easy and relatively protected if one falls on it. It turned out to be even easier than I thought. Once we got to the rib we followed it down to the base of the route. At some point I looked back and noticed Matthew who was traversing the face to get to the rib several hundred feet above me. Paul and I waited for Matthew to come down and then continued to Shepherd's Pass. As we were passing the lake at the pass, I looked at my watch for the first time since Anvil Camp. It was already 5pm! Matthew was still full of energy and ran down like a mountain goat. Paul and I could not maintain Matthew's pace and decided to stay together on the way down. Once we got on the easier ground, I started to feel the exhaustion in my body and the old familiar pain in my right hip. My head also started to hurt and 'tick' after spending several hours at 14K'. After taking some Advil at Shepherd's Pass and enjoying a couple of minutes of rest at the lake, we agreed to continue down without stops and as fast as possible. It was easier to accomplish than I thought, and we made a great progress until we reached the 600-700' incline below the 3rd saddle. This relatively short uphill section took all the remaining bits of energy that I had... Paul was managing it better than me and soon disappeared in the switchbacks above. I had to make quick rest stops every 10-15 steps until I finally reached the Symmes Creek saddle. What a relief to know that it is all downhill from here!
Sun already went down and it was getting darker by the minute. I did not like the idea of downclimbing in the dark so I tried to jog down the switchbacks. To my surprise, it was very easy and fun. I was averaging 3.5-4 mph but it seemed like a sprint at that time. However, the idea of getting to the trailhead before dark did not materialize and soon I had to pull out my headlamp. Few minutes later I noticed another light on the trail below. It was Paul who waited for me to join him for the last stretch. He was worrying if I am OK after the last uphill section and reiterated that he will drive me to my car from the 'Hiker' parking lot. What a great guy! Soon enough we got to Paul's car at the trailhead after the 23+ miles and 10K' gain day. It was 8:40pm, and it was time for pizza!
Thanks for reading!
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