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!



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.

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.

Langley: Rock and Sand – Mount Langley

Way back in the ides of last March, I began planning what was to be the sequel to a 3-day group backpacking trip in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra’s the previous year. I had been able to couple that trip with some business in Los Angeles for a win-win in as far as expense reimbursements go. This year’s trip would not have that benefit, so I began to think up ways to increase the return on investment of my own travel dollars. Naturally, a worthy summit of some type seemed the obvious choice and I was lucky enough to have Michael, a member of last year’s Ansel expedition, encourage the idea for the two of us to have a go ahead of the backpacking trip.

We sort of defaulted to Mount Langley. At 14,026 feet, it is the southernmost 14er in the US. A friend had climbed it several years back and recommended it based on scenery alone. The Summitpost route description calls it a walk-up and “one of the easiest California fourteeners”. And given that the other Sierra 14ers are crowded (Whitney), off limits at this time of the year (Williamson/Tyndall), require skills and experience beyond what I possess or possessed at the time of planning (Russell/Palisades group) or are just plain boring (White), Langley seemed an obvious choice.

I didn’t know then that by the time I would hit the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows, I would have eleven CO 14ers under my belt. And t was only when I sat down a few weeks beforehand to find info on the climb that I would I realize that I had grown accustomed, nay, addicted to the route-info-manna-from-heaven-at-a-click-of-your-mouse at Getting even fundamental info on Langley such as precise approach length and gain, trail conditions, etc. seems to evade my lax googling efforts. After trying for another five or so minutes, I am able to figure out that the standard route is 20-22 miles long with about 4K’ of gain, which I calculate to be a gentle average gradient of 7%. Reward for the most obvious bit of info has to go to the Summitpost description: “Time Required: A long day”. For 22 miles of hiking? You   don’t   say.

The standard route is Army Pass, aka “Old” Army Pass. Since apparently Old Army was prone to retaining snow late into the season and subject to occasional large-scale rockslide, enterprising hikers had blazed a newer trail to the southwest and dubbed it, surprisingly, New Army Pass. The knock against New Army is that it is a mile longer, has more total elevation gain and bypasses the Cottonwood Lakes area, a scenic highlight of the Southern Sierra. Endeavoring to cut down trail miles and maximize scenery, we decide that Old Army would be the way to go, but concerned about dire reports of its condition, we seek out advice at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center— sparkling and yet as dubious a use of taxpayer dollars (complete with a sweet bookstore!) as it’s name is a mouthful. The ranger there speculates that Old Army will still have a good amount of snow and advises us to bring along our ice axes. Great idea. except neither of us have one. We briefly consider picking up a pair in Lone Pine, but as I have long ago over-stretched the annual gear budget along with my wife’s good will, we decide instead to head up New Army and scout Old Army on the way back down, opting to use it as our return leg should conditions favor it.

We depart Horseshoe Meadows at 6am into the pre-dawn gloom of a Southern Sierra forest. The trail is sandy and rolls gently. The ground is strewn with large, sun-bleached boulders. We cross two streams over narrow log bridges and through the Foxtail pine canopy we can see the morning sun hitting the high sandstone formations to the west. The sky appears to be completely cloudless.

As the rising sun begins to pierce the forest, we peel off layers and soon arrive at the New Army/Old Army junction:

Which way, asks Michael? Both, we hope.

We begin to head west on New Army. The trail climbs gradually and we soon reach 11,000’ as the trees start to thin out. We’ve gained 1,000’ in an easy five miles.

Rounding a corner only 200 yards later, we are stopped in our tracks as Langley and it’s southern “massif” suddenly come into view above Cottonwood Lake #1:

Almost every time I have climbed a high mountain this summer I have had an “oh, sh*t” moment of hypnotic awe where the summit looks very high and/or very far away. This is definitely that moment on Langley.

The trunk of a departed Foxtail, as if turned to stone by Medusa herself, stands as a monument to my awe:

Eventually we are able to shake the trance and proceed onward. After 2+ hours on the trail we pass the first people we have seen since the previous afternoon, a group of four backpackers heading back to the trailhead.

With Cirque Peak (a ranked 13er) as our beacon, we pick through a huge boulder field:

And move past the vague treeline as Cirque begins to dominate the background:

Rounding to the north, the trail up to New Army Pass can be seen switch-backing lazily up the side of the ridge which creates the east-facing cirque that give Cirque Peak its name. Before tackling the switchbacks, we stop at High Lake to marvel at the crystal-clear water and sheer cliffs beyond:

In sharp contrast to the tundra of the Rockies, this scene is pure desert to me and conjures up imagined scenes of the middle-east or north Africa. In fact, I can almost picture the columns and entrance of the Treasury of Petra, AKA the Canyon of the Crescent Moon featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At any moment I expect Indy himself to walk by mumbling “the penitent man shall pass, the penitent man shall pass”…

Certainly we are penitent as we climb the meandering trail up to New Army. It’s an easy grade but the sun is getting higher in the sky and the air is breezeless and hot. A woman with full pack on the trail ahead cuts the switchback and slowly climbs into loose, steep terrain. We continue past her and after rounding the switchback, come upon her again several minutes later–this time below–seemingly dazed and losing her footing on loose stones. Michael stands the post, encouraging her up and lending her a hand to regain the trail, where she promptly turns the wrong way and begins heading down.

“Are you going up to the pass?” he asks calmly.

“Yes,” she says, the response sounding more like a question than a statement.

“This way,” he says pointing in the other direction.

Up ahead, I encounter her partner taking a break in the shade. I wonder if I should suggest he drop back to keep an eye on her, but refrain.

Soon we reach the pass, which is really only where the trails happens to cross the crest of the ridge. Langley comes once again into a view and we take a break, surveying the moonscape approach to the summit block:

There is a small sign that says “New Army Pass” and goes on to tell you all the stuff that you can’t do. What it doesn’t tell you is that from here on out, there really isn’t a proper trail to the summit. Instead, we follow the continuing trail descending westward, away from a direct overland route to the summit, assuming it will double back at some point.

Just as we’re wondering when we’ll hit this phantom turn, we come upon a backpacker heading up the trail—toting the largest external frame backpack I have ever seen—who informs us that the trail goes to the Rock Creek area of the nearby Sequoia National Park. Having climbed Langley several times, he indicates that the best way for us to get to the summit is to simply go cross-country over the moonscape. Since he seems to know what he’s talking about, we mention our desire to return via Old Army Pass, which we have unwittingly passed coming off New Army. His brow furrows and he tells is that the last time he went by way of Old Army was 20 years ago and that the trail was in very bad condition.

Michael and I about face and head up and over a few low ridges and across the moonscape:

I check the GPS and realize that at mile nine of the 11-mile ascent, we still have 2,000+ feet to gain. We end up following a use trail that runs through deep sand and is barely discernible. To the left we can see through to Sequoia:

After a long, hot traverse of the moonscape, we fight our way up a lengthy slope covered with deep sand. Looking back down across the moonscape, the slope is steeper than it looks due to the featureless terrain:

As the terrain flattens for the final time, we approach the summit block and pause in confusion as a number of faded use trails spoke off in a variety of directions. The expected walk-up option to the summit seems to have been wishful thinking. One thing I’ve learned this year is that when in doubt, directly uphill is often as good an option as any other, even if you face a trial of the soul through the steep rock and sand of Langely’s south face.

Each step is a fight for traction in the sand and the boulders seem to get larger as we gain elevation. I find myself scrambling up some short Class 3 sections and soon I completely lose track of Michael as he moves below and to the right. I wonder if it’s a good idea to let us get separated, but as I can do nothing to avoid dislodging rock and sand down the slope with nearly every step, I rationalize that getting separated is probably for the best.

The gradient eases as I gain the summit plateau and I walk alone to the top. Just before to the unassuming summit, I pass a notch in the rock that reveals the view to the north and I freeze, awed by both the view and the exposure as the north face drops thousands of feet into the abyss below:

The summit reveals a southeasterly view down into the Owens River Valley:

Michael soon appears and we get our summit shots. Michael standing tall over Mt. Whitney:

Yours truly:

We drink, eat and I pop a small handful of Ibuprofen–truly the mountaineering miracle drug of our time. As we head off the summit we have the benefit of seeing our intermediary destination of Old Army Pass from above. In a moment of genius, Michael suggests we drop directly off the south face and head straight overland to Old Army. He figures we’ll spare at least a half-mile doing this as our ascent route seemed to have us slightly off course to the west.

We find ourselves at the top of a well-defined rocky chute and begin to climb down:

It’s fun scrambling, never any worse than easy Class 3. I would totally recommend it as an ascent route, although as this next photo will show (looking back up at the route) it might be tricky to find from below:

We head back over the moonscape and arrive at the edge of the bowl that is home to Old Army:

To finally cut to the chase, reports of Old Army’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Other than a few very short sections where we have to hop a few old rock falls, the trail is without snow and in spectacular condition. We make quick work of it and soon we are down at the edge of Cottonwood Lake #4, looking back up at the pass:

As we rest at the edge of the lake, it suddenly occurs to us that we never saw a single person on the approach or return between Langley and either pass. A beautiful summer week day in California on the closest 14er to the second largest city in the country and we had the entire mountain to ourselves. Nice!

The seven miles that remain back to Horseshoe are scenic and blissfully uneventful, so much so that I pretty much didn’t bother to pull my camera out of the pack. So I‘ll leave off with this final shot of me soaking my feet in the crisp alpine waters:

Never a more pleasant sting of cold have I felt…

…that is until Michael’s wife, Mary, and daughter Maddy meet us back at the trailhead with frosty adult beverages. Cheers to them!

Our route:

Route: South Slopes from Horsehoe Meadows, ascent via New Army Pass, descent by Army Pass.

Distance: 20.5 Miles

Total Gain: 4,100’

Total Time: 11.75 Hours