I noticed that there aren’t any trip reports about climbing Williamson in winter. Of course, this probably had something to do with why Kurt and I wanted to try climbing Williamson in winter. With school and all the best time to climb was the beginning of January. We decided to head out from L.A. early on January 3rd. The weather had been troublesome but for the week that we were planning on being out the weather service had put the chances of precipitation at about 50%. We decided that those odds were good enough for us.
We arrived in Lone Pine before dawn and picked up our permits from the night drop box at the ranger station there. We then proceeded north up the 395 and turned up the road near Manzanar (one of many). We followed directions to the George Creek Trailhead as listed on Summit Post. Far from the trailhead we ran into snow on the ground, so we parked as we were driving my 1991 Infiniti Q45, not exactly made for the conditions. We started hiking up the road and within about a mile the snow got deep enough that we had to put on snowshoes. We both had MSR Denali Ascent snow shoes with 6 inch floatation tails. Late morning it began to snow pretty hard. We proceeded toward the trailhead but the snow depth caused us to lose the road for a while. We never went in the wrong direction yet it took us all day to reach the trailhead, which is where we made camp. Cold, snowy night but not too bad at all.
Day 2. We woke up at dawn. We had heard that there is a trail that goes up the George Creek drainage; we probably lost it though within two hundred feet of what we believed to be the trailhead. The drainage is very steep in sections with no clear or easy path up it. The terrain, in combination with the snow pack (very loose and pretty deep), made for some tough route finding. We quickly found that it was easiest to leave our packs at camp and find our route and a campsite for the next night and then go get our packs. Method worked best or us because finding a route required scouting out many false leads and struggling through knee deep snow, both much easier without a winter backpack on. When we got our packs we could follow a relatively well packed trail directly to our next camp. For all of Day 2 it snowed on and off. Progress was extremely slow. We probably made it 1.5 to 2.5 miles up George Creek.
Day 3. We awoke to clear skies. Another day of route finding using the same method. Very strenuous. Off trail travel in the small creek valleys of the eastern Sierras can be frustrating as all hell. The dense brush and steep, sandy valley walls and random rock outcroppings make travel difficult, add to that the snow and you’re in for a treat. Anyhow, continued up. Camped with the hope of a clear tomorrow.
Day 4. Clear skies again. We assumed that we had gotten lucky and that the storm had broken early. Another day of route finding without packs. We finally got up above the serious brush and the drainage started to open up a little bit. On this day we passed a few slopes that looked like prime avalanche spots. A little disconcerting considering that we were totally unprepared for an avalanche (not that you can be all that prepared for an avalanche when you are in the field with a party of two). A bit stupid, yes. Up here there were few places for a two-person tent. We ended up camping on snow pack on top of the creek itself. Camped again under clear skies.
Day 5. Awoke before dawn. We were getting tired of this slow travel so we made a decision. We left camp set up and took some extra clothes, stove and fuel, a bit of chocolate and ramen, headlamps and the like and set off to summit. This was highly ambitious considering the conditions and our progress over the past days. Nonetheless we figured we had better go for it. We hiked until about 2:00 PM, with Kurt leading about 65% of the time. It was pretty grueling terrain and we passed a number of questionable slopes yet again. One part of the valley had been hit by a massive avalanche, the remains of which we walked over for about 600 meters. By 2 PM we had reached the small bowl at the base of Mt. Williamson (to the south and west I think). Here there was a large stand of trees and, as could be expected, a lot of wind. At this point the weather was still holding and there were no signs that it would break.
We had made good progress but still had to climb another 2000 to 3000 vertical feet in order to reach the summit. Our options were limited. We didn’t have the time to go back and break camp and make it back up that day. We also didn’t want to have to do that hike again, especially with full packs. We decided to make a snow cave so that we could rest in it and start our ascent later. It was also our fallback point, in case anything went wrong we would have a shelter at the base of the mountain. It took about an hour and a half to build the snow cave. This was primo construction – ample room for two, pretty good head space, and the kicker - a layer of pine boughs for the floor. But, wearing all my clothes and inside my bivy sack it was still too cold to rest comfortably. We tried anyway. Around 7:00 we headed out after melting some snow. It was pretty awesome hiking/climbing under the stars, the moonlight reflecting off the snow – I highly recommend some night climbing if it can be done safely. The slope was pretty steep and turned into a strange, loose rock/ice/snow mixture. After a couple hours my partner got a little wobbly. I could tell from his behavior and gait that something wasn’t right. Luckily he realized it too. We turned around, I was a bit disappointed but at the same time relieved. I lead back down to the snow cave. He didn’t seem to be doing any better after a short rest and some hydration and chocolate. I decided that we had better make a break for camp. We arrived back at our camp after midnight.
Day 6. We awoke to snow. Lots and lots of snow. During the early morning a storm had moved in and dropped about 4-6 inches of snow. It was still snowing at this rate when we woke up and continued to do so for the rest of the day and the next day. We broke camp and headed back down. Kurt still wasn’t feeling well, he couldn’t hold down food and was a bit weak. I lead the whole way back down. Our tracks from the way up were almost completely filled in again. I was determined to make it to the car. What had taken us four days to come up took us one day to get down. But fuck was it tough. I basically had to make new tracks and the floatation tails seemed to be of little help. Once we reached the trailhead the snow got much worse. Along George Creek the wind hadn’t been so bad. In Owens Valley the wind was horrible. It created these windblown snow drifts with a crunchy shell and softer snow underneath. Every step you would break through the shell and sink and then when the time came to pull your foot out to take another step, the snowshoe would have to pull up through the shell while covered with dense wind compacted snow. I would imagine it is a lot like walking through knee deep quicksand. The valley was by far the hardest part of the hike down. I resorted to counting my steps and reached 7000. The whole time I wasn’t sure if we were on the right track because visibility was horrible. This was the hardest day in terms of mental and physical stamina of my life.
Finally reached the car to find that the snow had blown in huge drifts all around it. Couldn’t get it out so we slept in it. The next day we managed to dig it out a bit and smash through a bunch of drifts and just when we looked home free we got stuck. SO we hiked to the 395 through the snow and scrub and then the mud and shit. Kurt was so thirsty that I saw him drink from a puddle surrounded by antelope crap. For sure I thought he’d get dysentery, but he didn’t. We hitched a ride into Lone Pine, ate a huge breakfast at the Sierra Café. The locals said it was the worst storm they had seen. Got my car towed out for 280 dollars by Miller’s Towing, they really had me by the balls on that one. Drove back to L.A. beat to shit with the whole air system in my car not working.
I later found out that my mom had called search and rescue and they had said that even if they thought we needed rescuing they wouldn’t send in a team because it would be too dangerous for them. I also found out that we weren’t supposed to be in that area (even though they had given us a permit) and could have been fined $600. Ha ha.
For some pictures (really not very exciting) go here: