I’ve been interested in hiking up the Baxter Pass trail for a number of years now so on a whim, I decided to tackle it. The trail is seldom climbed -- probably due to the starting elevation (about 6000 feet), its proximity to the Kearsarge trail which starts 3200 feet higher, the fairly rapid ascent profile, and the fact that it travels through the Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area which is only open from 15 December through 1 July. There are a number of peaks of interest accessed via this trail; the two most popular being Diamond Peak and Black Mountain.
Approaching Diamond Peak via the Baxter Pass trail once you leave the trees (2 Jun 07)
Having made the decision to solo climb both Diamond and Black, I also decided to pull a “Bob Burd”. Waking up at 1:30AM Saturday morning, I was in the car by 2AM and hiking by 6AM. The first four hours had me striding through several different climate zones starting in the high desert and ending in the treeless alpine environment. As I hiked up, the peaks came into view one-by-one. First Mt Mary Austin, then Diamond Peak, and finally Black Mountain barely visible at the end of a deep basin. I had decided on the drive up that Diamond would be the primary objective, then Black, and finally Mary Austin. What I wasn’t sure of was the routes I wanted to take. Diamonds SE slope is probably the easiest but in this low snow year, I knew that the slope would be completely barren and consist of a couple of thousand feet of miserable scree. The classic NE couloir was a possibility with its reputation for falling rock but I finally settled on what is considered the East Coulior.
Although the couloir is actually NE facing, most people refer to it as the East Couloir to differentiate it from the classic NE Couloir (2 Jun 07)
At about 11000 feet, I left the trail (which continues up to Baxter Pass) and began climbing the scree fan that seems to flow out of the couloir. While there was a snow-free portion within the couloir, most of the snow ramp appeared intact. At the top of the scree fan a fifty foot section of snow didn’t deter me as I easily kick stepped my way up to the snow-free portion. This extremely steep and slippery 50’ sandy section got me to the beginning of the real snow. After putting on the crampons, I ascended the 900’ of near perfect snow all too quickly. While I climbed, fluffy cumulus clouds periodically covered the sun, but never delivered the forecast’s promised rain showers. I popped out of the couloir onto a bowl shape summit plateau that mimicked the top of a conical volcano. The high point, part of the ragged north wall of the bowl, was minutes away from my exit. Looking south, I could see the snow lined north slope of Black Mountain almost 2 miles away, separated by the large and deep basin whose entrance I had passed a couple hours earlier. I climbed to the summit, signed the register, and took in the views. The peak overlooks the beautiful Rae Lakes valley with Mts. Clarence King, Cotter, and Gardner dominating the sky line.
Looking west over the Rae Lake basin, the 60 Lakes basin plus Mts. Clarence King, Cotter, and Gardner among others (2 Jun 07)
Black Diamond Ridge
Now I had a decision to make. Did I want to follow Secor’s directions on dropping a thousand feet and traversing the bowl or did I want to try to stay on the 2+ mile ridge all of the way to the summit of Black Mtn? The ridge, dotted with a number of gendarmes, looked doable although parts of it were blocked from my view by a couple of the larger pinnacles. Still, the topo map didn’t show anything evil and I thought it would be fun to do the rollercoaster route. I circled Diamond’s bowl on top of the knife edge side and began descending the ridge line to Black. The first gendarme wasn’t any big deal but I quickly realized that there were many more gendarmes than I originally anticipated. What looks like minor fluctuations in the topography from a distance grows to larger than expected in reality. I also ran into my first problem – some of these gendarmes required serious technical climbing.
Looking north: Nice view of Diamond Peak, Black Diamond Pass, and the west side of the long ridge connecting Diamond with Black. Photo taken from one of the many gendarmes west of Black and south of Diamond on the ridge (2 Jun 07)
The Fun Begins
While my goal was to stick to the ridge line, I wasn’t interested in doing anything above class 4 and preferred to stay in the class 2/3 area. Exploring, I quickly realized I couldn’t bypass the gendarmes on the east side and so would have to do it on the more reasonable west side. Unfortunately, I just remembered that the west side is closed year around to prevent encroaching on the small bighorn population that inhabits this part of the Sierra. Now the strangest part of my trip. I wanted to do the absolute minimum bypassing of the technical pinnacles and could do it within fifty feet of the ridgeline. The problem was that the slope was composed of the loose crap that most of us like to speed and slide down. However, the last thing I wanted to do was set-up a rock slide, however small in noise, that might disturb any sheep around. Ok, I could have climbed all of the way back to Diamond and gone down Secor’s route but I was way too far along to reverse course. So I very carefully and gingerly traversed the slope around the several pinnacles that I rated above my climbing goal.
Looking south: Multiple gendarmes guard the access to this 2+ mile long ridge. Black Mtn is visible in the upper left (2 Jul 07).
After six or so such gendarmes, I finally reached the top of Black Diamond Pass, the low point on the ridge. I began climbing the ridge, again staying near the top or now traversing slightly on the east side, which had significantly eased (no more precipices). The rock was good but the ridge was definitely craggier than expected. I reached the final “bump” and with a frustrated feeling, found that it was at least 100 feet above the low point on Black Mtn’s shoulder. I was a bit tired now but the end was near so I forced myself to climb back up the lost 100 feet plus some additional to reach the top of Black. It had taken me three hours to do it, the same time that I had (disbelieving) read in Diamond’s log from someone else’s adventure. It was now 3:30 and I had only five hours of daylight left, a mountain to descend, a bowl to cross, and a long exit trail to take. I glanced over to Mt Mary Austin but knew it would take me at least another couple of hours to navigate the ridge and climb her prow.
Black Mtn's north face and west ridge taken during the descent. Mts. Gardner, Cotter, and Clarence King are seen behind the ridge. (2 Jun 07)
And so I began the descent. I anticipated a 90 minute descent of the bowl and a 2 hour descent of the trail. It is the one of many things I like about hiking and peak bagging; the adventure and discovery never stops. The descent into the bowl was loose and steep and I had to be careful as I was getting tired. I got to the flat portion and made my way to the snow tongue that would allow me to exit the bowl to the trail. Boy was I wrong. The snow led to the edge of a cliff some several hundred feet in height and almost the width of the bowl. This basin I was in was actually the first of a two tiered basin and by looking at the map, I could see that it wouldn’t be hard to bypass the cliffs -- it just involved time. As I gazed back up at the ridge I had spent three hours on and the two peaks, it struck me as funny that I never noticed this significant obstacle to my exit plans. More loose rocks, more steep but soft snow, and then finally the real snow tongue that led to the trail. Flabbergasted, I realized that the descent had taken me 2-1/2 hours.
The cliff band that divides the basin north of Black into two tiers. Can be bypassed either on the right or the left (2 Jun 07).
I sped down the trail as fast as my tired legs would carry me under the waning light of the sun that had already settled behind the Sierra crest. As fast as I thought I was going, it still took me another 2-1/2 hours to reach the car—only 30 minutes faster than my ascent. Trip totals: 14-1/2 hours, some 8500 feet, and over 18 miles. It was 8:30 and just about dark when I put the car in gear and drove back to the highway. I wasn’t tired enough to stop and sleep so I grabbed some food and drove all of the way home. By the time I had showered and hit the sack it was 2AM and I realized that this kind of abuse, while a lot of fun, was definitely for the “Burds”.