Split Mountain - September 14, 2002
After the Rae Lakes "Epic", I turned my attention back to the
California 14ers. At the time I had climbed 5 of the Fourteeners
over the past three years, including Whitney (a long walk),
White Mountain (a stroll), Shasta (a memorably windy experience), Russell (a very enjoyable 3rd class climb but not a good place to be nauseous), and Middle Palisade (good air near the summit, but watch out for the bergschrund). Most of the easy targets were taken (except for the barren and nondescript Mt Langley).
To make further progress on the 14ers, I would either have to
venture a little further from the pavement, invest in some
technical climbing gear, or free solo certain routes requiring
a combination of good balance, bona-fide rock climbing experience, and a leap of faith. I decided that distance was the lesser of those obstacles. The next two peaks on the list would be Split Mountain and Mt Tyndall.
The day hike approach seemed to be working rather well, so why try to fix something that was not broken? We would plan on day hiking both peaks. With a modicum of weightlessness, the considerable elevation gain (7500' for Split Mountain, 8700' for Mt Tyndall) would not be a big problem, at least for those who were fortunate enough to climb in good weather conditions (more on the Tyndall trip later) and who were sufficiently motivated to reach the summit.
In my past experience, day ascents really were not so much harder than overnight ascents, and in fact were often easier. Compared to epic day hikes like the Rae Lakes Loop, one-day peak ascents are typically more intense but not as long. In other words, your feet will not be as sore when you finish, but you will come closer to the limits of exhaustion and spend more time gasping for air than on the long hikes. Altitude resistance is king. There is no time to acclimatize; all you could do is to drink plenty of fluids and maybe take an aspirin, and either your body would adjust or it wouldn't. If your altitude resistance was poor, it wouldn't matter much if you ran marathons; with good altitude resistance, some parts of the ascent might actually feel easy.
Split Mountain was the southernmost 14er in the Palisades, the
famously rugged and loose mountain range that included six 14ers within a 10-mile stretch of the Sierra Crest. While it is
technically the easiest Palisade 14er, the trailhead is both low
(6600') and hard to get to (several miles of rough 4WD road
requiring at least 8-9 inches of ground clearance). Traversing
the last 4 miles in a passenger car was out of the question;
even many of the smaller SUVs today would have difficulty
negotiating this road, though it would be fairly easy terrain
for Jeeps and other high-clearance vehicles. It is possible to
drive as far as McMurray Meadows in a passenger car and hike
about 1.5 miles cross-country to the trailhead, though this
would add roughly 1.5 hours to an already long day. The decision was made; we would attempt Split Mountain first, and deal with Tyndall later.
Four of us decided to attempt Split Mountain, and fortunately
Joel had a 4x4 truck that could negotiate the road to the
trailhead. Given that most of the group had not hiked together
before, a one-day ascent of a 14er might be a bit dicey,
especially with altitude sickness. I figured we would be in
pretty good shape for this trip, with one guy from Colorado
(Joel), one from Utah (Mark), and one who had spent the last
few months climbing in the High Sierras (Vishal).
Joel, Mark, and I left Berkeley at 2 pm Friday afternoon in Joel's 1976 pickup truck. While this vehicle would never win a drag race (we averaged about 31 mph driving up US 395 between Bishop and Mammoth), it had sufficient clearance to reach the trailhead, which was the only thing that mattered for this trip.
After some gruesome traffic on I-580 we headed east over the Sierras. Shortly before 9 pm a police car stopped us on US 395 about 10 miles north of Mammoth. The officer interrogated Joel about our plans but did not cite any traffic violation. At the time I was in the middle seat with Mark on the right. The officer then proceeded to the passenger side and popped the question at Mark: "That guy in the middle, is he legal?". I was the next to face interrogation by this redneck cop, during which I was alternately accused of being an illegal alien and a drug smuggler. The cop took my driver's license and disappeared to his car for nearly 10 minutes. As far as I know there was no law in the United States which required passengers to carry ID (unless Congress had somehow managed to slip such a provision into an appropriations bill after 9/11).
We met Vishal at the Denny's in Bishop, where we studied the maps and loaded up on carbohydrates. He had spent most of the past few months in the eastern Sierras, climbing several peaks every week and recently dayhiking several peaks including Middle Palisade. We piled into Joel's truck and Vishal squeezed into the camper for the final haul to the trailhead.
The dirt road up to McMurray Meadows was easily passable by a
passenger car. At that point the road degenerated into a narrow 4WD path with the usual assortment of uneven ruts and protruding rocks. The road zigzagged through undulating desert terrain; the routefinding is not difficult with a good map, however there are some non-obvious turns and one would be well advised to keep track of the mileage between turns if driving this road at night. At one point we crossed a dry streambed with an 8" pipe protruding out of the road surface, which Joel's truck cleared with barely any contact. Shortly after the streambed crossing came a stretch of several hundred feet of road
littered with 8-inch-high rocks every few feet. This was the worst
section of the drive. We reached the trailhead at 12:30 AM, after
about 40 minutes of 4-wheeling.
We left the trailhead at 6:45 AM Saturday and proceeded up the
steep and sandy trail to Red Lake. This unmaintained trail, dreaded by many summer backpackers, was mostly unshaded, sandy, and poorly marked. The trail climbed towards the Sierra crest from east to west, staying several hundred feet above the creek below. It ascended switchbacks up a steep hill for the first mile, then flattened out as it traversed the side of the canyon for the next 1.5 miles. The rest of the trail to Red Lake were steep with many short and poorly graded switchbacks, climbing over 2500 feet in 2.5 miles. We reached the vicinity of Red Lake (10,500') at 9:15 AM where we had a long breakfast stop. So far, so good.
From Red Lake the summit loomed impressively about 3500' above. The mountain consisted of a mix of dark and light gray rock, and featured several prominent gullies, one of which was the "split" that divided the north and south summits. Some of these gullies were long class 4-5 climbing routes, 10 pitches or more. We traversed northwest over mostly low-angle loose scree and talus into a shallow gully with a finger of suncupped snow at the bottom around 12,200'.
From here the standard route follows a steeper gully up to the
Split-Prater saddle (12,700'). At this point we went slightly off route, as we later found out. The correct route follows the a faint use trail up the main gully slightly to the right over somewhat loose class 2-3 scree. Instead, we ascended a steeper and narrower class 3 notch to the left which led to a rocky 30-45 degree gully that met Split-Prater ridge several hundred vertical feet above the saddle. The rock on this route was exceedingly loose. We struggled to find secure handholds, in the
process pulling out many rocks that looked solid from below. As we climbed about 100 feet above the notch, one of the hikers knocked loose a larger rock which triggered a small avalanche of rocks which gained momentum as they descended the chute. A large rock 1-2 feet in diameter went airborne and exploded into several pieces on impact with the side
of the chute below. We were on dangerous ground. We were climbing up a steep bowling alley, and fortunately most of us had traversed to the higher left side of the gully by then, though a deadly projectile missed Mark by at most several feet.
After about 600 feet of hairy scrambling we reached the ridge at
~12900'. The saddle was ~300 feet below to the north, and the summit was hidden behind the slope to the south. From here the climb to the summit was an easy class 2 scree slog. About halfway up we met up with a use trail. I reached the summit at 1:40 pm, 7 hours after leaving the trailhead, and met up
with Joel who had summitted a few minutes earlier. The weather conditions were perfect - clear skies, 50-60 F, light winds. After lunch on the summit, Joel, started down to scout the descent route. Mark finally joined us on top around
3 pm - apparently he had been feeling the effect of the altitude above 13,000' and had stopped to rest near the summit, inadventently sleeping for 45 minutes in the process. Still we were quite fortunate with the altitude on this trip, considering that nobody was severely ill and most of the group adjusted
to the rapid ascent with very few symptoms.
We descended to the point where we had gained the Split-Prater ridge and looked down the bowling alley we had ascended. We were not looking forward to the treacherous descent. The rockfall danger would be extreme if we descended without staying very close together. We decided to wait until everyone had met up. We heard Joel's voice in the distance saying to go left. We followed the ridge down to the saddle where there was a use trail. From here the descent was straightforward and the steep section was roughly
half as long as on our way up.
We were 3 miles from the trailhead when the sun set around 7:15 pm. We split up into two groups with Joel and Vishal moving ahead and Mark and I taking a more pedestrian pace on the descent. The trail somewhat of a challenge to follow as our eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness. As we followed the trail down a rockfall the trail became faint and petered out. Thinking that the trail would continue to descend the rockfall, we continued down for a couple hundred feet, after which the rockfall faded into an increasingly dense forest. The sound of a stream could be heard. We were lost.
Our topo maps gave few clues to our whereabouts, except that we were about 3 miles from the trailhead and several hundred feet above a streambed. The moon was out, about 60% full, but we were in the shadow of the opposite wall of the canyon. Mark suggested forgetting the trail altogether and descending the streambed all the way to the trailhead. That meant two miles of
bushwhacking on rough and unfamiliar terrain, with no visibility beyond the range of our headlamps. It would take us all night, if we did not slip off a cliff along the way. No, that wouldn't work. We had to get out of the thick vegetation. Mark began to bushwhack up the hill. The brush was thick, and we were breaking branches every two feet. Mark was expending a lot of energy for every inch of progress we made. Finally we gave up on that idea. It dawned on us that it might be a long night. Obviously the descent down the rockfall was not the trail.
We had to retrace our steps and climb back up. I started up the rockfall. Mark was tired, and it took all his concentration to start moving up. Finding an unmaintained trail in the jumble of rocks would not be easy. I moved to the right of the rockfall into
some thin brush. After climbing about 200 feet from where we started I saw a flat elongated stretch of dirt. We were back on the trail, after an hour and a half of confusion. The trail was not easy to follow, with a series of steep sandy switchbacks followed by an up and down traverse along the side of the
canyon. We moved our headlamps up and down, alternately scanning near and far. Finally we reached a series of broad switchbacks that eventually flattened out. We reached the trailhead at 10:30 pm, 16 hours after we started.
At the end of the day we had a successful trip, though we hit a few bumps and dodged a few rocks along the way. Everyone reached the summit, despite the extreme elevation gain and the lack of acclimatization. Overall, Split Mountain is a good peak for a day hike, given the relatively short approach and the lack of technical difficulties. In hindsight, the only things I might do differently are starting out an hour earlier in the morning,
looking a little harder for use trails, and keeping the group together on the descent (both due to rockfall and routefinding).
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