An Idea Grows
If you have ever read Patrick McManus you are familiar with the idea of "The Big Trip." The idea is simple... find an area on the map as far away from roads and trails as possible, take a minimum of gear, throw in a few wild animals, preferably large ones with big teeth, add some weather, as much hardship as possible, mix with some bad luck and you have "The Big Trip."
We didn't start out planning a big trip, but the idea grew from a few enchainments in the Desolation Wilderness--first the Crystal Range, later Tallac, Dick's and Jack's, a day trip to Ralston Peak--and pretty soon we were wondering about linking them all.
A quick review of Summit Post revealed that Steeleman
had linked all seven peaks in a two day push in his Desolation Death March
in 2002. Rumor has it that Dick's Peak, Jack's Peak, Mt Price, Mt Agassiz, and Pyramid Peak had been traversed in a day, but it appeared that all seven major peaks surrounding the Desolation Valley had never been enchained in a one day epic. Game on...
All the gear including the clothes on our backs
Figuring on about 30 miles, we knew we'd have to be fast and light. Trail running shoes, hand held bottles, weather proof shells, head lamps and a hand full of granola bars and gels along with an assortment of emergency equipment would be all we'd carry.
Ralston Peak Trailhead... 3:58 AM
Watching the nearly full moon set at about 3:15 AM from the bed of the pick-up, worries about finding the Rocky Canyon use trail along Highway 50 by headlamp entered my thoughts, but it turned out to be a rather simple affair thanks to good beta and a spray painted rock.
Shortly before finding the painted rock, my faith in humanity was affirmed as a lone motorist pulled to a stop along the highway in the predawn hours to make sure that two crazies adorned in trail running shoes, headlamps and gortex shells were okay as they made their way along the shoulder of the road. A quick nod and a thank you later and the motorist was on his way east while we, the crazies, scrambled up a road cut on the north side of the highway.
The Rocky Canyon use trail is the quickest way to the top of Pyramid Peak, we made short work of it...
Pyramid Peak Summit... 6:46 AM
Looking West from the summit of Pyramid Peak at Sunrise
The scramble to the summit of Pyramid was uneventful except for a little more wind than was anticipated. Gusts up to 25 mph made running shorts less than desirable attire, but we weren't planning on sitting around to soak up the views. Just enough time to snap a few pics and sign the summit register and we were headed down the North Ridge for Mt Agassiz.
Mt Agassiz Summit...8:10 AM
The ridge connecting Pyramid to Agassiz is the most technical section of the entire enchainment. To avoid long scree traverses we elected to stay as close to the skyline as possible. That meant a few class four moves mixed in with a few more third class sections.
Caren moving up through the 4th class section at the thumb.
We'd recon'd the traverse of the Crystal Range previously so we new that there'd be a few vertical class four moves immediately after descending Pyramid's summit rock fields, but route finding was easy and we moved through the difficulties quickly.
The gully accessing Mt Agassiz's summit blocks
The quickest and easiest means to gain the Summit of Agassiz is to climb a third class gully through a notch in the ridge to gain the western slopes. From there it is just a few more class three moves to the summit.
Caren making the final moves to the summit of Mt Agassiz
The wind was still howling on top... quick pics, sign the register, keep moving...
Steve on the summit of Mt Agassiz. Pyramid Peak in the background
Summit of Mt Price... 8:49 AM
From Agassiz, Mt Price is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Took us all of 29 minutes.
Looking East from the summit of Mt Price. The Slabs of insanity are in the near background, Jack's, Dick's, and Tallac in the far background.
We had limited beta on the descent route off of Price, but Steeleman's trip report
led us on our way towards the Slabs of Insanity with a quick traverse below the West Face and up through a notch that accessed the top of the slabs on the East Face.
Slabs of Insanity... 9:14 AM
These things look like they can be descended in about twenty minutes... traversing around vertical ledges, avoiding scree, and various other routefinding difficulties had us at Mosquito Pass over an hour later.
Caren negotiating the Slabs of Insanity
Despite their tendency to drive one insane, the slabs are one of the cooler features of Desolation Wilderness. That said, Steeleman's moniker for them is very apropos.
Jack's Peak... 11:18 AM
Approaching the summit of Jack's Peak
A rising traverse from Mosquito Pass brought us to the summit of Jack's. We'd descended this route on a previous trip and were worried about all of the loose scree. Fortunately for us the stuff was much more stable under ascent than it was when we were going down it.
The wind had been building all morning and by now was gusting to 35 mph or so. Throw in a bit of weather and it seemed like we had a big trip in the making... Graupel snow was falling as we hit the summit so we were on our way down the North Ridge connecting Jack's to Dick's without so much as stopping on top.
Atop the third class section on Jack's Peak's North Ridge
There is a short vertical section on the North Ridge that may go class four, but most beta has it as 3rd class. Maybe it seemed more difficult because we were descending instead of ascending.
Dick's Peak... 12:12 PM
From Jack's Peak to Dick's Peak one can stay on the ridge crest for the entirety. Aside from the 3rd class section on Jack's North Ridge there are very few difficulties other than a brief class three chimney on Dick's South Ridge.
Climbing the third class chimney on Dick's South Ridge
When we recon'd this section of the enchainment, it took us nearly two hours to link Dick's and Jack's. Maybe it was familiarity that put us atop Dick's less than an hour after summitting Jack's.
Caren battling the wind on the summit of Dick's Peak. Jack's Peak and the Crystal Range in the background
By the time we were atop Dick's the wind was gusting at over 40 mph. Caren's 105 pound body was literally blown over right after the above pic was snapped. Time to get down...
Mt Tallac... 2:41 PM
After descending Dick's, things were supposed to get easier. But... our "Big Trip" was about to get a little bigger. Nausea and Headache mean altitude sickness. Caren began experiencing both. It's funny how it hits. She's been to 14,000 feet numerous times sans problems. We'd been over 9,000 every weekend for five or six weeks straight and nary a symptom. But this day, about 16 miles into a 30 mile day without much prospect for bailout, she gets hammered to the point of nearly vomiting.
On the summit of Tallac with the boy scouts.
Lots of water and aspirin didn't help much, but Caren's a trooper. She wasn't gonna let anything stop her from finishing our own little epic. Banking on her Western State's residual fitness and a bottle of aspirin, she kept putting one foot in front of the other...
Our pace slowed dramatically though. Where we should have been running we were walking. Where we should have been walking we were plodding. But she made the summit of Tallac earlier than our fastest pre-trip estimate. We were still over an hour ahead of schedule and she wouldn't be denied...
Ralston Peak... 7:10 PM
Rain, hail, wind, sun, and something like seven miles brought us past Lake Susie, Heather Lake, and Lake Aloha to the climber's trail on Ralston Peak. I'd had plenty of time to ponder the moment over the last four hours. My best guess was that Caren would suggest that I make the dash for the summit while she waited. My carefully planned response was to be, "No way I am leaving you here in this wind in the condition you are in... we go down together."
She never even hesitated. Knowing that each step up was going to cause a deeper headache and increased nausea, she made the right turn and began the final climb to Ralston's Summit.
Didn't know if going up was the best choice, but the truck was now only two hours and roughly 3,500 vertical feet below us so I knew I could get her down fast if her symptoms got worse. Up we went.
Caren making the final steps to the Summit of Ralston Peak
I was on top a minute or two before her and snapped the above pic as she made the final steps to the top. She simply gave me a look that said... well maybe what it said is better left unsaid... and turned around and headed back down. Literally didn't even stop moving. Simply pirouetted on her heals and kept going.
Sunset over Pyramid Peak
As Caren descended I snapped a pic of the sun going down over Pyramid Peak to bookend our "Big Trip" with the one I took fifteen hours earlier of the sun coming up over the same peak...
Ralston Peak Trailhead... 8:51 PM
Wilderness Permit with our time checks scribbled in the margins
Headlamps had us back at the car sixteen hours and fifty-three minutes after we started. Caren's headache and nausea had all but disappeared as the altitude slipped away and had it still been light she would have been running the last mile.
We finished nearly two hours ahead of our fastest estimates but figure we were roughly ninety minutes slower than we would have been had Caren not been sick for half the day.
All told... Thirty miles, about half of them off trail. Seven Peaks over 9,000 feet. Complete circumnavigation of the Desolation Valley.
Our "Big Trip" didn't have any large toothed wild critters, lightning strikes, or chicken soup cooked in a mud puddle and strained through one's teeth, but it was enough to satiate the appetite for adventure... for at least a week or two...