Mount Williamson is one of the great peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It is truly awe-inspiring: rising 9,000 ft from the Owens Valley, it commands ones attention from great distances, overshadowing & overpowering everything surrounding it. Its incredible bulk is matched only by its complexity- steep facesare framed by seemingly never-ending, sinuous aretes; countless gullies & couloirs separate enormous buttresses; spires tower above the onlooker...
In addition to the true summit, the East (14,125') & West Horns (14,160'), the massif's subpeaks, intimidate the would-be climber; while diminutive when viewed from the summit, the opposite is the case when one is separated from the summit plateau by them! Precipitous drops beckon one (or not!) to the voids surrounding them, the sense of exposure enough to make the most seasoned of mountaineers balk. The scene is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings. Traversing from the summit of the East Horn across the West Horn to the summit plateau requires 5th class climbing (or rappelling; it should be noted that even if rappelling, however, comfort with 5th class terrain should be mandatory here).
The most common way to climb Williamson is via the standard Class 3 West Face route. The climb itself is not overly difficult, but getting to the base of the climb is a different matter altogether. The most common approach involves an 11 mile hike to 12,040’ Shepherd Pass, followed by an arduous traverse of the glacially carved Williamson Bowl. The Williamson Bowl area may look fairly flat on your topo, but it has lots of small ups and downs. You have to weave around lakes and climb up and over many large boulder-strewn hills just to get to the base of the route.
It is important to note that hiking the trail to Shepherd Pass (12,040 ft) is not a casual outing! The trailhead is only at 6,299 ft! In addition, the people who built the trail must have been on crack because parts of it have switchbacks that gain about 3 ft in 100 yds, and at one point it descends almost 1000 ft when it should be going up!
SHEPHERD'S PASS TRAILHEAD (standard approach):From Independence, head west on Market Street for 4.2 miles. Turn left on Foothill Road, which is a gravel road. After driving on Foothill drive for 2.7 miles, you will pass a sign with a hiker symbol on the right and a “Symmes Creek” sign in the center. Keep left and continue for another 0.5 mile. Then, turn right at the intersection where the sign says “Shepherd Pass Trailhead.” Drive another 1.4 miles along a rough gravel road (but still passable with a low-clearance 2wd vehicle) until reaching the trailhead.
According to Charles Altman (using GPS), the distance, from the trailhead, to:
* Anvil Camp = 8 1/4 miles
* Shepherd Pass = 10.3 miles
Update: As of early 2011, Inyo National Forest, with the blessing of bighorn sheep recovery team of scientists and forest service biologists, has rescinded the long-standing bighorn sheep closure on Mt. Williamson.
As it stands, the only restrictions are the grueling approach, and the standard Sierra Eastside trailhead quotas.
Update: The long-standing bighorn sheep closure on Mt. Williamson has been rescinded.
Early season attempts mean lower snow-lines (which, pending adequate snow travel skills, make things considerably easier past the Pothole, where the trail degenerates into a talus and scree affair, not to mention Shepherd Pass itself (know how to use your crampons & axe)!).
The mountain has been done in the winter, but one only need read Harding's first winter ascent account of the northeast ridge (with John Ohrenshall over New Year's!) to get an idea of the corresponding suffering involved (not to mention associated avalanche risks and all that wintery stuff). You have been warned :)
There are several good camping spots along the trail to Shepherd's Pass. Mahogony Flat is the first camping area you'll get to. It is the first big flat area up the canyon. The most popular area is Anvil Camp, at the 10,000 ft level, 2 miles before Shepherd's pass.
The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis sierrae), in contrast to populations elsewhere, are in the midst of a battle for survival. Unregulated market hunting (bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada have been protected from hunting since 1878), disease transmission from domestic sheep, & predation from mountain lions have been the largest threats to their recent existence.
In addition, the simple constant stress of survival in the harsh alpine environment, coupled with that induced by human presence, makes their continued existence questionable. It is because of these factors that closures on the mountain are in effect.
Due to their small numbers, there is a corresponding lack of biodiversity- only a herd in New Mexico has less. There are only 5 herds of bighorn sheep scattered throughout the Sierra- one of these is the Williamson herd.
Please respect these & tread lightly to help this majestic creature survive.
* External link on the Sierra bighorn sheep
* John Muir (himself a shepherd for awhile) waxes poetic about the bighorn sheep
Mt. Williamson's high summit altitude combined with its huge elevation gain mean that under the right conditions (& for those with a penchant for the cold, snow, & suffering) some enjoyable ski & snowboards descents may be had. Check out fellow SPer Sierra Descent's Skiing Mt. Williamson's Bairs Creek Cirque' TR here.