Back in the Sierras: Mounts Williamson & Tyndall

The trip's objectives: Mt. Williamson, left, and Mt. Tyndall.

The trip’s objectives: Mt. Williamson, left, and Mt. Tyndall.

Prologue: You’d be advised to skip this self-indulgent section

For two years Michael, my intrepid Sierras climbing partner, and I had been planning our own version of “Intro to Climbing in the Palisades” by taking on Mt. Sill and Polemonium Peak.

Last year (2012) our plans had come to an abrupt end when I reluctantly had to acknowledge that, after a full season of bike racing, I would be at risk of defaulting on the significant loan I had taken out from the marital bank by asking my wife to work full time and take care of our two kids for a week while I flew out to California for four days of climbing in the Sierras.

This year I would be piggy-backing the climbing trip on top of three weeks of family vacation in California. While patting myself on the back for this shrewd bit of logistical maneuvering I am secretly harboring serious doubts about the final pitches up to Polemonium’s summit. It is notoriously exposed Class 4 and I have not yet read one trip report where the authors were confident to free solo the stretch, universally opting to rope up.

This presents a problem as I have limited…I mean, very little…in fact I have exactly ZERO rope experience beyond seeing some rope once on a trip to Bent Gate to buy trail runners, reading the relevant sections of Freedom of the Hills (the knot tying diagrams are particularly difficult to abstract without an actual rope in hand) and watching a few Youtube videos. A week out from our departure and the learning curve would appear to be as steep and exposed as the pitches in question.

Despite the klaxons of intuition blaring “Don’t do it!”, I hold out hope of not disappointing Michael (an experience rock climber) until I happen to, out of sheer boredom, read the safety chapter of Hiking and Climbing California’s Fourteeners by Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns:

“The first step towards the use of a rope in safeguarding an ascent is to know proper rope handling techniques. There are many books on this subject, but unfortunately, books cannot substitute for getting out and practicing these techniques.”

Further down:

“…know your own limits…this goes back to our earlier point of knowing when to back down. There have been numerous incidents concerning climbers on the fourteeners where an experienced climber refused to acknowledge slower or less experienced climbers in the group. In almost every experience someone was hurt or killed.”

My intuition is validated. Though I rate myself a decent scrambler and figure a 90% chance of success soloing to the top of Pol, the remaining 10% has only one possible, somewhat terminal outcome. There has already been enough tragedy in the mountains this summer. I e-mail Michael and beg off the choice of target peaks.

He is sympathetic and after a flurry of activity we choose Mt. Williamson and the adjacent Mt. Tyndall as the trip’s objectives. My pitch to Michael is that climbing these two peaks will put us into the 1% of 14er climbers. The reality is that since 99% of all 14er climbing activity in California is centered on one mountain, anyone who climbs any other 14er in California automatically joins the 1% club!

Williamson & Tyndall have a reputation as two of the more remote 14ers in the Sierra. This is mainly due to the 12-mile, 6K’ gain of approach required just to get to the top of Shepherds Pass, where only then do the appropriate faces of each mountain first come into view. Almost every report mentions the grinding nature of this approach, the ensuing crossing of the Williamson Bowl and the 2K’ climb up the gully on Williamson’s standard West Face route. Rather than further dwell on these challenges, I will instead refer the reader to the best report I read on the climb.

Many tackle these mountains by heavy packing into the alpine bleakness of Williamson Bowl. Since both Michael and I merely tolerate heavy packing with gritted teeth, we plan on packing about 10 miles to the forested Anvil Camp, set up base camp and then day hike the two peaks on subsequent days. This will add a few miles and about 2K’ of gain to the total trip stats, but they will be light and fast miles.

I am excited to have in pocket a brand new Canon S110 which I received a day before the trip. It is the first point & shoot I have ever owned and it will have it’s trial-by-fire straight out of the box. No longer would I be limited to embarrassingly dodgy iPhone pics or have to pack & carry a dozen pounds of SLR gear.

Day 1: The Approach

Just shy of Lone Pine, we make the obligatory stop at the [inhaling big gulp of air] Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, AKA the Taj Mahal of ranger stations. Anyone who has been there has likely seen the unmistakable spires of that other mountain to the west. What I had never noticed before is that if you scan the range just slightly to the north, there’s Williamson and Tyndall.

Williamson: obvious though anonymous from Lone Pine.

The Williamson Massif (center) and Tyndall (to the immediate left): obvious though anonymous from Lone Pine.

I wonder how many people standing in this parking lot have any idea that this mountain is the second highest in California?

From the Taj we head to Lone Pine proper for a Subway sandwich. We easily navigate the dirt road to the trailhead at 6,000’ and, after wolfing our sandwiches down, are pounding dust up the trail along Symmes Creek by 1pm.

On the road to the Shepherds Pass trailhead.

On the road to the Shepherds Pass trailhead.

Pounding dust on the trail.

Pounding dust.

Much has been made of the mid-day summer heat on this trail and I am struck by the purely desert nature of the Eastern Sierras at this elevation. We are lucky to have a nice breeze and as the day goes on a merciful amount of cloud cover to keep things relatively cool.

We had been advised at the Taj that heavy flash flooding earlier in the summer had done significant damage to the creek bed and the some of the trail. While this is immediately evident to us as we make our way along the trail, the Forest Service has done en excellent job rerouting small sections of trail and we cross the creek four times without trouble.

I have decided to tackle this trip with only a 1L Nalgene bottle and a filter, so at the last creek crossing I gulp the whole thing down, fill it again and we begin the climb away from the creek and up the 56 switchbacks to Symmes Saddle. Once on top of the saddle, as promised, the northeastern flank of Williamson dominates the scene.

The view from Symmes Saddle. Williamson dominates the entire area.

The view from Symmes Saddle. Williamson dominates the entire area.

The rest of the approach is long, but pretty and uneventful. We encounter the first water after the last creek crossing in the form of a stream about a mile before the Mahogany Flat area. I gulp and fill. Once at Mahogany Flat we are fooled into thinking that our arrival at Anvil Camp, just above and ahead a ways, is imminent. In fact it is still two miles to go at that point as the trail gradually ascends some long switchbacks to the right.

Shepherds Creek. Anvil Camp is in the forested area at the upper middle of the frame, still quite a long way away.

Shepherds Creek. Anvil Camp is in the forested area at the upper middle of the frame, still quite a long way away.

Just before Anvil we come across the final washout, a 15’ deep trench filled with an assortment of granite boulders. We leave the trail pick our way up the loose dirt and stones until we come to shallow area suitable for crossing. Good warm up for tomorrow!

Clearing the final washout of the day.

Clearing the final washout of the day.

Back down the other side we rejoin the trail and within minutes are entering the relatively lush environs of Anvil Camp, just shy of six hours since our departure.

Entering the forest at Anvil Camp.

Entering the forest just shy of Anvil Camp.

We find a good site before crossing the creek which runs through the middle of Anvil. It is not a gorgeous packing destination by Sierras standards but nonetheless it’s very nice as a base camp with ample shade and the creek nearby as a water source and constant nighttime lullaby. We encounter very few mosquitoes and see none of the mice that had been reported as being a problem here.

It’s also interesting to note that this is the only trip I’ve taken of many in the Sierras where a bear canister is merely advised but not mandatory (we bring them anyway). In fact there isn’t much in the way of obvious wildlife here in general, maybe because it’s high and pretty dry.

Our decent site at Anvil.

Our decent site at Anvil.

Water at Shepherds Creek is only 100 feet away from the campsite.

Water at Shepherds Creek is only 100 feet away from the campsite.

Nearly accurate map and stats of the day's route.

Nearly accurate map and stats of the day’s route.

Day 2: The Soft Underbelly of The Beast (Williamson)

Nice morning. One of the luxuries of starting the day high up in the Sierras is a relatively late departure time of 7:30am, since we do not have to worry nearly as much about thunderstorms.

Daybreak at Anvil.

Daybreak at Anvil.

Now with our daypacks, we jam through the balance of Anvil, pass treeline and cruise up the nice trial through the numerous moraines that make up the remainder of the trek to Shepherds Pass. Along the way we encounter the first descending hiker we have come across on our trip. He tells us that he managed Tyndall but bailed on the attempt on Williamson because he could not discern the “black stain”, a watermark made by a small cascade on the side of Williamson that, critically, marks the entry point of the gully.

Soon enough we can see Shepherds Pass before us and I have my only “uh oh” moment of the trip. From a distance, the pass looks like a ridiculous slog up a very steep and loose slope.

Approaching Shepherds Pass. Trail anyone?

Approaching Shepherds Pass. Trail anyone?

But we come closer and handy switch-backing trail is revealed, of which we make short work.

Halfway up the pass, looking back down the trail.

Halfway up the pass, looking back down the trail.

At the top of the pass we are treated to a killer view of Tyndall to the left. Tomorrow’s intended route—the North Rib—is obvious from this angle at the center of the mountain’s face.

Beyond the pass Mt. Tyndall dominates the background.

Beyond the pass Mt. Tyndall dominates the background.

A closer view of tomorrow's route: Tyndall's North Rib in the center of the frame.

A closer view of tomorrow’s route: Tyndall’s North Rib in the center of the frame.

We briefly enter Sequoia National Park before swinging left, working our way across an open, gradual slope toward the rising mass of Williamson and the rim of the bowl. Tip: If you head up the middle of this slope (middle being somewhat subjective in this case) you will arrive at the edge in the approximate area of the use trail that leads down into the bowl. From here Williamson looks like an unassailable fortress, an armored beast. We must find its soft underbelly.

Williamson rising.

Williamson rising.

Michael pauses at the edge of Williamson Bowl.

Michael pauses at the edge of Williamson Bowl.

Down in the bowl we pass to the left of the first lake and then trend right. After picking our way up and over the various hills of rock and stone we eventually arrive at the western shore of the second lake where we fill bottles and eat. The black stain is easily visible from this point and Michael and I entertain ourselves with speculation as to how the descending climber could have missed it.

Looking down into the bowl.

Looking down into the bowl.

Good view of the ascent route from the western shore of the second lake.

Good view of the ascent route from the western shore of the second lake.

Back on our feet we disagree on the fastest way around the lake so we each take off in different directions to see who’s right. The result is a virtual tie as we meet in the middle and pick our way up a moraine toward the stain, crossing underneath and beginning our climb up the face at what seems to be the optimal point.

The going is rough here, the steep slope a mass of rubble with no obvious path, just keep going up. We scrape our way past several mounds and as the gradient eases a bit, realize that we are a little too far right of the gully. After some cursing on my part for the wasted effort we traverse over and begin the ascent of the gully proper.

Negotiating the rubble of Williamson's lower flanks: say hello to the black stain (upper left) as you pass!

Negotiating the rubble of Williamson’s lower flanks: say hello to the black stain (upper left) as you pass!

It’s a grind. We try to stay right where the rock tends to be a little more blocky and solid, but the loose stuff is unavoidable and unpredictable as seemingly solid stones suddenly shift underfoot. After about an hour of this struggle an internal conversation begins as fatigue begins to set in.

“Why are you doing this again?”

“It doesn’t matter, you chose to do this–waited two years to be here–so just shut up and keep going. Any day in the mountains is a good day.”

Grinding up the gully.

Grinding up the gully.

Looking back down from high up in the gully.

Looking back down from high up in the gully.

Finally, after nearly an hour-and-a-half straight uphill, we arrive at the chimney, the way out of the gully. Much has been made of this feature. I will only say that is was the most technically challenging and so, fun, section of the whole four days of climbing.

Michael searches for holds. Hint: start on the the good rock to climber's right of the chimney.

Michael searches for holds. Hint: start on the the good rock to climber’s right of the chimney.

Michael leads the route and gasps as we exit on the summit ridge. Before us is a rocky plateau leading toward Williamson’s east and west “horns”. From the floor of the Owens Valley the horns appear to be the summit of the mountain. In actual fact the true summit is further west and much more subtle.

Sweeping the chimney.

Sweeping the chimney.

The horns of Williamson.

The horns of Williamson.

We swing right and up the ridge. After about 15 minutes of Class 2 scampering and boulder hopping we arrive at the summit! The views from the top of Williamson do not disappoint, as every California 14er save Shasta is visible.

First 14er of the years and it's a pretty good one.

First 14er of the year and it’s a pretty good one.

A rare view: Langley, left, Russell & that other mountain.

A rare view from this angle: Langley, left, Russell, center-right, and…that other mountain.

As we begin our descent we catch site of two guys emerging from the chimney and Michael shouts greetings and an advisement as they errantly begin heading toward the horns. A shouted conversation ensues and they tell us they’re day hiking the two peaks from the trailhead!

The racer in me feels a pang of envy as our noble effort to attempt the one peak from Anvil is completely eclipsed by this seemingly mad endeavor. Turns out the tactic is not uncommon and I soothe my ego by speaking the truth to myself about the matter: 20 or so hours straight of hiking and climbing 30 miles with 10K’ of gain, while an amazing feat of endurance, is just not my idea of a fun day in the mountains.

My envy sufficiently quelled, we continue the descent. Other than the fact that I find the way down the chimney a little trickier than the way up, the descent is uneventful if a little sloppy on my part. Michael shows off his boulder hopping agility and arrives at the base of the gully several minutes before me. From there we retrace our path out of the bowl, down the pass and back to Anvil.

Down the chimney Michael goes with a bound.

Down the chimney Michael goes with a bound.

This has not been my hardest day in the mountains, but the cumulative toll of the route lives up to its reputation. A climb of Williamson demands respect strictly as an endurance event. Ironically, even though I am pretty blasted by two days of grinding, I struggle to sleep well—worse than normal—for reasons that are unclear.

Red clouds over the ridge, from Anvil.

Red clouds over the ridge, from Anvil.

The GPS may wander but we stay true to the route.

The GPS may wander but we stay true to the route.

Day 3: Oh, and Tyndall…

Another nice day and knowing that Tyndall will be a comparative breeze we depart camp at a leisurely 8am. The hike up Shepherds is pleasant and we harbor no regrets having to climb the 2K’ again as it serves a great warm up.

Groundhog's Day on the pass.

Groundhog’s Day on the pass.

Though the “Class 2” Northeast Ridge is officially considered the standard route up the mountain I have read nothing but bad things about the route and so we never even consider it as an option. In fact I would like to officially nominate the North Rib route as the new standard. Anyone know where to submit the forms?

Michael and I stand at the top of the open slope and scout our proposed route. There is a moraine at the base of the rib. To the right of the moraine is a boulder field leading to shallow gully, carpeted by dusty orange rocks. Any route would seem to suffice but we choose the gully, working up and left over the top of the moraine to the base of the rib.

The moraine, the gully and Tyndall's North Rib.

The moraine, shallow gully and Tyndall’s North Rib.

Approaching the rib on the dusty orange rocks of the gully.

Approaching the rib on the dusty orange rocks of the gully.

From the base of the rib to the summit ridge is less than 1,000 feet and the effort is similar to the Williamson gully at Class 2+, though shorter and so not nearly as demanding. Again the trick is to climb the blocky talus and slabs of the rib itself as opposed to looser stuff on the right. There is a gendarme at the top of the rib and we use it as a target to assist navigation.

Michael leads the assault ont eh rib. Use the gendarme seen above as a target.

Michael leads the assault on the rib, using the gendarme seen above as a target.

And up...

And up…

...and up, approaching the gendarme.

…and up, approaching the gendarme.

Just short of the summit ridge we lose the route a bit and end up climbing the fun Class 3 blocks which make up the base of the gendarme. The correct (but less fun) route would be to cross over the rib, working left, into an obvious chute that passes the gendarme to the left. After our scrambling fun has played out we correct our trajectory, climb the remaining portion of the chute and arrive on the summit ridge.

Oops: a good bit of off-route fun.

Oops: a good bit of off-route fun.

The scampering traverse to Tyndall’s exposed summit is simple and direct, excepting the contouring of a minor false summit along the way.

Approaching the summit block. Watch your left: that first step is a doozy.

Approaching the summit block. Watch your left: that first step is a doozy.

We arrive at the summit, dropping into the small dirt-floored cavity that houses the register. There is a block of rocks that serve as the pinnacle of the mountain, dividing two windows that look down nearly 2,000’. The exposure of these two windows is so profound that as I sit only a couple feet from the precipice my nether regions tingle and not in a good way.

Michael contemplating the air of the summit pinnacle. Or offering thanks to the creator, whichever works for you.

Michael contemplating the air of the summit pinnacle. Or offering thanks to the creator, whichever works for you.

Michael and I take turns mantling to the top of the block and touching the pinnacle. We muse about how if this stone were in our in the backyard we could literally do a handstand on the thing and not even give it a second thought. As is it, since a mere gust of wind could send the perpetrator of such a feat flipping arse-over into the airy void, I cling to the thing for dear life and feel little silly for my cowardice.

Touching the summit pinnacle makes your nether regions tingle.

Touching the summit pinnacle makes your nether regions tingle.

Williamson across the void. We wouldn't believe it climbable if we hadn't done it the day before.

Williamson across the void. We wouldn’t believe it climbable if we hadn’t done it the day before.

We find a slightly less daring perch on the west side of the summit, eat and relax in the Sierra sunshine for a good duration. The descent off the mountain is quick and unremarkable, other than the fact that Michael again torches me down the talus.

Arriving back at the intermediary slope we pause for pictures. We’ve done it!

Success!

Success!

One last look of the glowering West Face of the Williamson.

One last look of the glowering West Face of Williamson.

Rather than hang out back at Anvil, we decide to pack up and cut our final day’s descent in half by packing down (and back up) to camp at Symmes Saddle. A short pack out will await for Day 4, along with a handsome breakfast in Lone Pine and the drive back to greater LA.

Moon and freakish cloud above Williamson's East Ridge at dusk.

Moon and freakish cloud above Williamson’s East Ridge at dusk.

We talk openly of next year’s trip to finally tackle Sill & Polemonium. My deadline to become a proficient technical rock climber and rope handler is 361 days away and counting. I better get started…

There and back again.

There and back again.

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And finally…Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #1

Bear Peak via Fern Canyon from NCAR

UPDATE: As of August 14, 2012, this trail is back open for business.

Distance: 2.8 miles

Gain: 2,295’

Average Grade: 15.5%

Description: For those about to suffer, I salute you!

If you want excellent training, fantastic views and free parking about 5-minutes drive from Rt. 36, then there is no substitute for this hike.

But first, don’t be fooled by the relatively gentle average grade noted above. You will be hiking on the steepest (legal) terrain in the Boulder foothills. The numbers are moderated by the rolling approach from the trailhead—roughly half of the one-way distance to the summit. The average grade from the junction of the Mesa Trail & the northern spur of the Fern Canyon Trail to the summit is 27.4%!

Narrow and strewn with large boulders, Fern Canyon is one of the prettier trails in the OSMP, especially during the summer. However, like it’s sister canyon Shadow to the south, Fern can hold ice and snow well into spring. There are a few short but steep “waterfall” sections that can make for a sketchy descent even with traction (found that out the hard way).

Ascending toward the light in the primordial Fern Canyon.

Ascending toward the light in the primordial Fern Canyon.

Once clear of the canyon you’ll reach the saddle between Bear and The Nebel Horn, a primordial-looking pile of sandstone that is one of a handful of unranked minor peaks in the Boulder foothills. Incidentally it’s also one of the few obvious spots in the area to practice a little Class 3 scrambling. That is when it’s not closed off to protect perpetual Raptor breeding.

The real fun now begins. Swinging southward you begin the aerobic crux of the route: Bear’s half-mile North Ridge. This final stretch veers upward to average nearly 40% and in this aspect, rivals the difficulty of many a 14er. Also, as you are now on the ridge as opposed to protected by it, this is where you will become exposed to whatever weather is predominating the day (often a stiff and frosty breeze coming straight off the Continental Divide).

The rest of the route is a blur of steep, tight switchbacks and small boulder scrambles until finally the trees part and mercifully to reveal the rocky summit, just above. The scamper to the summit is considered “Class 2+” and care should be taken as the boulders have been worn slick from foot and hand traffic. Congratulations! You’ve just conquered the toughest stretch of trail in the Boulder foothills. Perhaps you’ll see me at the top:

If the schedule allows, a descent down Bear’s West Ridge into Bear Canyon highly recommended. Look for the junction at the base of the summit block, as it can be easy to miss.

Trailhead & Parking: NCAR. Plenty of parking, free and open to all!

There is also an alternate, unofficial trailhead (OSMP officially calls this an “Access Point”) that shortens the hike a little and substitutes the rolling approach from NCAR with a gradual uphill (nice for a warm up). There is some limited free and legal curbside parking at this location. Out of respect for residents of the neighborhood*, I hope you’ll forgive me for being vague on the details. Suffice it to say that if you consult your handy official OSMP trail map, the access point may or may not become obvious. Tip:  do not confuse this location with adjacent access points where parking is illegal!

* – Mixed feelings on this point: while it must be kind of annoying having hundreds of people tromping closely past your house on a weekly basis, these homeowners do live on the edge of one of the most spectacular stretches of urban park space in the entire country. I’d make that trade in a second!

Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #2

Green Mountain via Amphitheater/Saddle Rock/Greenman trails

Distance: 2.1 miles

Gain: 2,234’

Average Grade: 20.1%

Description: While this hike scores slightly lower on the epic scale than #3, it more than makes up for it in the all-important convenience factor. This is my go-to training hike in Boulder, primarily because with a start up the Amphitheater trail you’re devouring serious vertical pretty much right out of the parking lot.

And the trail, which subtly joins the Saddle Rock trail after the first 0.4-mile (directional hint: just keep going up), does not relent until the junction with the Greenman trail another 0.7-mile along. After that the trail eases for a bit, prior to swinging east and up to the nearly the crest of a ridge. From there it’s steep again for most of the remaining way to the summit of Green Mountain, with the exception of a short section just before the top—mercy for those about to blow up.

Even on days with the most freakish weather—when you won’t likely see a single soul the entire ascent—there will probably be others knocking around on the summit. And if you’re lucky you will spot the old guy who wears nothing but an unbuttoned flannel shirt (again, regardless of the weather) and carries whatever else he’s got with him in a plastic shopping bag. He’s a cool dude but his random appearances always make me feel like a seriously over-geared softy.

Anyway, a nice return loop option is use the Ranger>Gregory Canyon descent off the summit. It’s longer and of shallower grade and so I prefer it as a descent as it’s easier on the knees than divebombing back down the featured ascent route.

Trailhead & Parking: $5 per car for non-Boulder County residents (or you can purchase an annual pass for $25) at the Gregory Canyon trailhead. Boulder Country residents are free as long as you have obtained the annual pass from OSMP. Also, the parking lot at Gregory is very small, but even on busy days there is typically parallel parking along the access road. Gregory is just up the road (and trail) from Chautauqua, which is free to all if you don’t mind adding a little over a mile to your roundtrip.

Top five training hikes in Boulder – #3

South Boulder Peak via Shadow Canyon

UPDATE: This trail was re-opened on June 7, 2013 nearly after a year’s closure due to the  Flagstaff fire.

Distance: 3.35 miles

Gain: 2,922’

Average Grade: 16.5%

Description: Some may disagree with on the choice of this hike as #3 as opposed to maybe #2. South Boulder Peak is the highest mountain in the Boulder OSMP. The approach up Shadow Canyon feels as relentless as it does remote and the views of Eldorado Canyon to the south, both from Shadow and the summit of South Boulder, are pretty amazing by local standards.

So this hike scores highly both on the epic scale and as good training but also suffers from a number of accessibility inconveniences. Unless you are a resident of Boulder County and have acquired the appropriate permit, there is a $5 fee for parking at the South Mesa trailhead. The hike is also the longest on this list with much of that distance being a scenic but fairly easy approach to the bottom of Shadow, where the vertical fun begins. Basically, it’s difficult to knock this one out after work unless you can run it (and I hate running) or don’t mind coming down in the dark.

That said, while the trailhead itself is very popular, South Boulder itself is not so much, mostly due to the reasons mentioned above. So if dodging the crowds is your thing, this is your hike. Make sure to consult or better yet bring along the official OSMP trail map as there are numerous junctions and spurs of the Mesa trail to navigate on your way to Shadow.

Trailhead & Parking: $5 per car for non-Boulder County residents (or you can purchase an annual pass for $25) at the South Mesa trailhead. Boulder Country residents are free as long as you have obtained the annual pass from OSMP. If you don’t mind an even longer and more boring approach, you can park free at the South Boulder Creek West trailhead, just watch you don’t step in none of them cow patties along the way.

Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #4

Flatiron #1&2 Access Trail

Distance: 1.4 miles

Gain: 1,422’

Average Grade: 19.2%

Description: Enough people hike this trail and yet it is relatively unpublicized on the web and was only recently added on the official Boulder OSMP map. I rate this trail as best training/hiking bang for the buck in Boulder if you’re short for time.

You may notice that the length of the hike is the same as Sanitas, with a little more gain. I would also say that the training stimulus is slightly different as the trail is steadier than Sanitas, not including the fun scampering section a little past the halfway mark. From there the trail begins it’s dizzying ascent up a number of tight switchbacks, sandwiched in between Flatirons #1&2.

Again if you’ve paced yourself well, the start of the switchbacks is the point to drop the hammer for a strong finish. Just be careful, as a couple of turns near the top are somewhat indistinct and easy to miss when at speed. If you are able to knock this out at around 35 minutes (or less), then you are in pretty good shape.

The real bonus of this route is the scenery, which is varied and epic as urban foothill hikes go. The ascent ends behind Flatiron #1, an area that has a primordial feel about it and has a great view of the northern Front Range. From here you can bomb back down the way you came or continue west down the slightly loose and sketchy climbers access trail that drops down to the Saddle Rock trail on the backside, creating a longer loop.

Trailhead & Parking: The caveat of this great hike is its origin at the Chautauqua trailhead, which is very busy on summer afternoons and weekends, being as it’s reasonably accessible from Rt. 36 and kind of famous…but also free!

Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #5

Mount Sanitas, East Ridge

Distance: 1.4-miles

Gain: 1,295’

Average Grade: 17.5%

Description: This is a fun ascent and although not very long, it is excellent “microwave” training if taken at speed. It is also pretty much the most popular hike in Boulder–for people and dogs–and sees an enormous amount of traffic on summer afternoons and weekends.

This hike is often used as a fitness benchmark by the elites. As I began my slow climb back into shape in 2009 I was able to do this hike in just under 27 minutes from the little pavilion down by the creek to the post which marks the summit. Imagine the blow to my ego when I later found out that the standing record is 14:12, set by world-class trail runner Kilian Jornet.

Pace yourself on the first section up to the crest of the ridge, as it’s one of the tougher sustained steeps of the hike. After that it’s a varying mix of steeps and false flats leading to the final nausea-inducing (if you’ve done it right!) rocky stair step to the top.

Trailhead & Parking: Plenty of free parking along the road on Sunshine Canyon Drive, just west of the Mapleton Center of Boulder Community Hospital. Of the five hikes on this list, this one is the furthest from Rt. 36.

Hanging on by all [nine] fingernails on Middle Palisade

My feet shuffle along the thin branch only a foot above the rushing black water.

I am attempting to cross the South Fork Big Pine Creek where, apparently, there used to be a bridge, every remnant of which was wiped out by avalanche this past winter. My friend and Sierra’s climbing partner, Michael (all 120 nimble pounds of him) is already on the other side, trying to talk me over the crossing as I fight my way through the upper branches of this wispy shoreline tree-shrub, performing a feat part highwire act and part game of Twister.

We had considered hopping the nearby chain of boulders, but they are angled off camber from this side of the creek and looked treacherously wet and slippery. We had also considered stripping off our trail runners and socks and wading across the adjacent, longer and more shallow crossing to the left. But we had been told by a guy we had run into while scouting the trailhead the previous afternoon that he and his buddy had “monkeyed” over this crossing using the trees. A good idea with the benefit of daylight, perhaps.

As it is, a little disoriented by the tunnel vision offered by my headlamp and the freight train noise of the creek, I step one inch further along and the branch and suddenly my feet begin an inexorable drop into the deep and frigid water. I yank frantically on the surrounding branches in an attempt to gain the upper decks of my proverbial Titanic, but to no avail. Not even 45 minutes into what would end up being my longest and most difficult day in the mountains and I’m going down. “Jump for it!” Michael shouts. Looks like them Duke boys are in a heap of trouble.

Michael monkeys the crossing

Middle Palisade (14,012’) is near the southern end of a wickedly serrated 10-mile ridge, which includes seven of the 15 California 14ers. It is accessed out of the ragtag high desert town of Big Pine and became the focus of attention for our 2nd annual Sierra’s climb after I completely flaked on the Whitney Zone lottery deadline for what would have been an attempt on the Whitney & Mt. Muir combo. Middle P looks to be exactly the challenge we are looking for: a long and scenic approach by trail and cross country, travel across and up a gentle glacier and a finish up the 1,300’ of Class 3 rock of the mountain’s Northeast Face route.

As always when it comes to climbing any mountain in the Sierra’s other than Whitney, hard numbers on the climb are difficult to come by. After reading a volume of route descriptions and trip reports and consulting the Tom Harrison “The Palisades” map that I picked up in LA the week before, best I can figure is a 16-mile day with 6,600’ of gain, the trailhead being at 7,400’.

Common practice for the mountain is to cover about five miles and 3,500’ on the approach to camp at the scenic Finger Lake the day before tackling the actual mountain the next day. Neither Michael and I are keen on lugging heavy packs with loaded bear cans that far and that high, so we decide to camp in comfort at the Big Pine Creek campground at the top of the road, which has the luxury of relative warmth, bear boxes and, most importantly, easy access to a cooler of Big Sky Moose Drool brown ale.

Ahhhh cold beer…but wait! Back from commercial break, my feet sink into the creek and in desperation I muster as good a hop off the weak branch as I can manage, reaching for Michael’s outstretched arms. I come up short, going in knee deep at the edge of the water. An awkward moment transpires as Michael continues to try and pull me out and yet I stand there, a little tweaked and despondent. Oh well, wet feet never killed anyone in the backcou…errrr…anyhow it’s warm out. I climb out of the creek, give my feet a doggie shake and we continue on.

Dawn breaks as we begin hike up switchbacks into a basin that contains a number of high lakes along the approach. Morning light floods into the northern end of the valley giving it almost a Rivendell-like feel. It is a bluebird day—not a cloud in the sky.

Rivendell dawn

Into the basin we enter a verdant forest, uncharacteristic for the Eastern Sierra, and pass close to Willow Lake. In Hiking and Climbing California’s Fourteeners, Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns give fair warning about this section of the approach:

…Willow Lake is home to the breeding grounds for billions of mosquitoes. If they are in season you might want to sprint through this area to avoid being eaten alive.

Crossing a creek near Willow Lake

Despite the fact that the guide otherwise seems completely devoid of both humor and hyperbole, I have a hard time giving credence to the warning as I a simply cannot wrap my head around the word “billions” unless it relates to national economies or stars in the universe. A few mosquitoes do tentative fly-by’s, but we are mostly unmolested as we reach a small tarn, our point to leave the trail and begin the cross-country traverse up and over a boulder-strewn ridge to Finger Lake.

An idyllic tarn that lulls us into a false sense of skeeter-urity

Our speed drops as we begin to ascend the ridge and the ambush is sprung as a billion mosquitoes pounce from every direction. It’s a trap!! We flee up the ridge but the rugged terrain and elevation soon bring us to a heaving stop. We curse and furiously swat—a single swat kills about a dozen on the back of Michael’s leg–but there’s too many of them. I yank off my pack, reach inside to pull out a 5-year-old bottle of repellent and smear the stuff over the entire length of my body. It works and the ambushed is thwarted.

Soon we arrive at a rocky point just above the outlet of Finger Lake and sit down for breakfast. It’s a beautiful spot and has obviously served as a pretty sweet campsite. After downing a pair of cherry-frosted pop tarts and wringing out my socks, we hop boulders over the outlet and climb up another boulder field to a ridge that moves past the lake en route to Middle Palisade Glacier.

The ridiculously scenic Finger Lake

Traversing the rocky ridge above Finger--the lake that is, not the one in front of the lens in the upper left

Middle Palisade and its namesake glacier

After scrambling up the beginning of the loose moraine that bisects the glacier, I pull out my virgin ice axe, as yet untouched by rock or snow, pull on microspikes and begin ascending the glacier. The snow is heavily suncupped and the going is very slow. The options are to either walk the soft rims, which often result in an awkward slide into the sometimes hip-deep cups, or to walk in the troughs, which requires some seriously arduous high-stepping.

Ascending the glacier

Michael negotiates the sun cups

Sun cup arduosity

View of Middle P's Northeast Face

Up high on the moraine we spot a yellow tent—the first sign of human habitation since we crossed over the creek. As we continue to ascend I look right and see a man attempting a glissade from the top of the glacier. He slides well at first but soon comes to a jarring halt on the suncups. As he begins to traverse the glacier back toward the tent, he pulls the pack off his back and lets loose a dog.

We encounter him at the tent and he tells us he has just summited Middle P with the dog—the dog walking the easier grades and riding in his pack on the more difficult sections. Wow! We ask him about his descent route as it seems far right of the descriptions and he tells us that the bottom section was loose but otherwise climbable. Maybe a good option for us to keep in our pockets if needed later.

We say our goodbyes, thank him for the intel and continue up the glacier toward the base of the mountain. This is where things get a little fuzzy as far as route descriptions go: clarifications, contradictions and refutations abound in subsequent descriptions and I’ll be honest in saying that I merely hoped that when I arrived at the scene the entry point to the actual route would be obvious. It was, I thought, as I saw a path to the right of some reddish/brown rock that stood out against the beige granite of the mountain. But after some discussion, we decide that the path looks loose and sketchy and instead make our way further up and left, soon arriving at the bergschrund.

Reaching the bergschrund, I implant my virgin ice axe

After a few foiled attempts to gain the rock, we choose a little ramp at a spot where the bergschrund is narrow enough to allow passage. The correct ramp is supposed to lead up, over and into a wide chute that can be climbed all the way to the summit block.

Michael begins the climb

We climb the steep and exposed rock and quickly find ourselves up high. This is not Class 3—or maybe it is California Class 3?—as one false move will mean an express one-way trip back to the glacier far below. Michael moves left and out of site for a time as I continue to pick my way nervously upward, testing every hold. There are a few small cairns, evidence only that someone has been this way before and not necessarily that we are on route. Besides, they are too far and few between to be of much help.

Seemingly off-route in a jumble of rock

One-way express to the glacier below

This level of scrambling this high up is new to me and I am reminded how much of an art route-finding is, as a route that seems good from below can quickly get you into, as the words of my favorite description of rock climbing purgatory goes, “spots from which both progress and retreat suddenly appear problematic.” I’m hearing these words in my head as I hear Michael uttering a series of oaths.

“This is BS!” he shouts from out of sight. “This is Class 5! If my wife ever found out…” More cursing.

I yell to him to move right, figuring that a junction with the chute is inevitable in that direction and, where there is a chute, there is life. He appears suddenly, much closer than I anticipate, shaking his head and clearly peeved but relieved to have overcome the vertical. “I kept thinking I was getting myself out of trouble but it kept getting worse!” he says, exasperated.

We tread lightly, onward and upward and rounding a large shark fin arête, we encounter the chute. It delivers with mostly solid rock. As I scramble and traverse ledges, I am reminded of The Trough on Longs Peak, but the chute is steeper and much longer. Despite this, my morale is rising with the prospect that we are finally on route and bee-lining to the summit block. I begin to traverse a narrow ledge, hand over hand, testing holds as I go.

Flowers in the shoot

I tug at a piece of pointed rock with my right hand and without warning, it dislodges. In an instant, with no time to react, the heavy stone comes crashing down onto my left pointing finger.

The blood rushes to my face and I inhale deeply as the sting hits. I lift up my hand: the tip of my finger is ghost white, the skin behind the tip is torn badly and the rear of my fingernail is jacked upward as large drops of blood begin to flow. Now it’s my turn to curse, and I do so, loudly and with conviction. It hurts for sure and in reaction comes the thought that this may be it for the summit attempt.

I worm out of my pack and Michael hurries over as I pull out the first aid kit. Despite the pain, I have a brief and somewhat laughable moment of satisfaction that I’ll finally get to use the thing after two years of carrying around the dead weight. Michael cuts out piece of non-stick padding as I tear some tape with my teeth. I don’t have the stomach to pull at the nail to see if it will come off and figure I’ll just cinch it down and deal with it later. I sit for awhile, teeth clenched, and am amazed as I look around to see the amount of blood that can come out of a finger-tip: on my pants, the backpack, all over the rock.

Within in the pantheon of mountaineering disasters, I have to acknowledge this one as relatively minor. I stand and suffer a brief bout of nausea. Patience. Breathe. It passes. I pull on my pack and we continue up.

Smashed finger and still a ways to go

Soon the chute narrows and splits. I check my GPS: we’re around 100 feet from the summit. We go left as indicated and suddenly Michael stops and holds up his hand.

“Don’t come any closer,” he says cryptically.

“What’s up?” I ask, edging closer.

“Stop!” he shouts. He’s crouching in a window at the edge of a 2,000’ cliff.

We crawl further left and have to execute several tricky moves, including a hug-around a high, exposed column. We then reach the surprise crux of the route: a tall, rounded block with a large crack running down the right side. Someone has wedged a single stone into the crack and this rock is the only foothold up onto the block. A slip up here would result in what a friend of mine once termed a Culture Club, as in, “I’ll tumble 4 ya.”

I give the block a few tries and am able to get a handhold over the top but am fully stretched out and unable to get a push-off with my legs. At this point I’ve had it, in a “I want my money back” kind of way. With burst of senseless hostility I reach up, grab the handholds and using every bit of upper body strength my scrawn can muster, I heave myself up onto the block. Michael nimbly follows and seconds later, we are astride the summit stone—literally a 1×1 square platform rising about four feet from the surrounding rock. Neither of us are tempted to mount the thing, given the air on either side, and I am more than content to touch the highest point with my bandaged finger.

View of the Palisade Crest from the summit, with Norman Clyde Peak in the immediate foreground

After a few summit happy snaps, some food and a small handful of ibuprofen, we begin to descend and I find my energy and my morale are returning. Our plan in is head straight down the chute, very fast, and if something gets in our way, turn…right, hopefully to find the would-have-been entrance route. The middle part of the chute—the part we bypassed by going too far left on the ascent—turns to be the best rock of the climb and we make good time until things start go rotten near the bottom.

The downclimb

Good rock

We take turns moving and zig zag our routes to avoid the shooting gallery of dislodged rock that occurs with many a footfall. Soon we are 50 vertical feet above the glacier, only a vertical wall and a gaping bergschrund between us and relative freedom. Tough choice: should we downclimb this tricky section and try and route find our way across the bergschrund? Or climb a few hundred vertical feet back up the shooting gallery and move left in the hopes of finding a more comfortable exit route? This is where fatigue can lead to admittedly dangerous rationalizations, for example: “if the guy did this with a dog in his pack, then surely…”

A view down to the bergschrund

The last 50 feet are the most dicey bit of climbing I have ever done, where both progress and retreat are problematic the entire length. This includes one move that I have replayed in my head a dozen of times since, where I traverse several feet of a rock face holding onto a tiny ledge with all nine of my finger nails, while smearing the smooth granite with my flexy trail runners. It is the only way I can get over to a section of the bergschund that doesn’t include several foot gap into the seemingly bottomless chasm below.

Seeing my predicament, Michael yells down “If you start to slip try to jump out as far as you can, then at least you’ll land in the snow.”

This is not a comforting suggestion as I’m still about 40 feet up and I tell him that I don’t want that idea in my head. Years of bike riding have taught me that in these moments on the razor’s edge, it’s critical to visualize and focus on cooly executing only what you want to happen.

After a few more “I can’t believe I just did that” moves I finally reach a snow bridge and, after some encouragement from Michael, plant my ice axe into the far side and jump for it. Easy! Back onto the glacier and I am tempted to kiss the snow and clasp my hands in a prayer of thanks.

Descending the glacier to freedom

The return trip is mostly uneventful, other than a slightly comedic moment where, as we downclimb a section of the rocky ridge to gain the trail as early as possible, Michael shouts “I’m sick of downclimbing!!” We are harassed again by mosquitoes as we pass by Willow Lake and finally, at dusk, we are able to easily hop the three boulders to cross back over South Fork Big Pine Creek. Is it dark and more than 16 hours have transpired since the departure from our campsite. The last two Moose Drools go down very smoothly.

"I'm sick of downclimbing!!"

That night I sleep restlessly. I have several dreams that involve exposure at heights, one of which includes the particularly chilling vision of me trying to hold on to the leg of my 2-year-old daughter as she is nearly sucked out of the open door of an airplane.

Silly to think that I am suffering from some kind of Class 5-induced post-traumatic stress, but I have to acknowledge that I have dodged a bullet, one fired out of the gun of inexperience. I have been saved this day by a few surprising moves and ultimately, the mountain’s grace. I have the visions and a smashed finger to remind me that Middle Palisade has given me a new lease on life…and a warning.

Route: Northeast Face via S. Fork Big Pine Creek

Distance: 15.4 miles

Total Gain: 7,000’

Total Time: 16.5 hours

Author’s note: I made an 11th-hour decision to leave behind the 5lb SLR and use the iPhone instead. Although the images suffered I don’t regret the choice, but clearly it’s time to resume my search for a happy medium.