Thu, May 22, 2008
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I arrived at Roads End shortly after 1a, stowing my food in the bear locker and other stuff in the trunk of my car. No reason to give a bear any reason to rip the top off the convertible. The weather forecast called for unseasonably cold weather, caused by an unusually strong low-pressure system sitting over the Sierra. It was around 30F when I arrived, but there were more stars than clouds above and the moon had risen high in the sky. I was hoping to get in and out before the weather took the nastier turn expected as the weekend approached. By headlamp I started off towards Mist Falls.
Three hours into the hike, plodding along by headlamp and wearing almost all the clothes I had brought with me, I found myself making my way through Paradise Valley on my way to Woods Creek. The major river crossings had bridges to make things easy, but there were four or five small side creeks in Paradise Valley that caused some delay. Normally these would be trickles, an easy hop to get across them, but it was springtime and water was flowing freely. I wandered off the trail near the streams looking for narrow places to jump across or logs to cross over on. For the most part they weren't too hard to find and only took a few moments diversion. At one I looked across to a partially submerged log, judging I could jump across to it and then onto dry land. As my foot touched down on it, it immediately plunged into the icy creek, soaking my foot up my knee. I bounded across to the other side without getting the other foot soaked, but half the damage was done. The log had only been floating on the water's surface, not resting in a shallow part of the stream as I had supposed. Judging such things by headlamp has its risks.
My first reaction, naturally, was to curse. It didn't get any of the water out of my boot, but it made me feel better, slightly. The cold temperature and increasing cloudiness and general uneasiness about the weather forecast had me looking for an excuse to turn back and this seemed to be it. I stood in the trail, pondering my next move. Wet boots and socks are not good for long hikes. They lead to sores and blisters almost inevitably. What to do? I pondered longer. I thought of Rick Kent and our trip to McDuffie. In 20F temperatures the previous June, he had stepped through an iced-over tarn at Bishop Pass and done the same thing to one foot. Rather than quit, he brushed it off as though it were an everyday occurrence. Matthew and I had had a good laugh about it. I decided this didn't qualify as a reason to quit. Sitting on a rock, I took my boot off, wrung as much water out my sock as I could, then put it back on. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
It took four hours to reach the bridge over the South Fork of the Kings River, where the trail turns east to follow Woods Creek. I had thought beforehand that it was about nine miles on trail, but it was more like twelve. It was starting to grow lighter now, and I could turn my headlamp off. One of the first things I noticed was that I could no longer see the stars. Or the sky for that matter - it had clouded over completely. Then it began to snow. Not heavily, but it was so cold that the snow began to stick almost immediately, and within half an hour there was a thin covering of snow on everything. This didn't bode well. At the same time I had grown gradually sleepier until I found myself stumbling in places and wandering off the trail at times. A warm bed seemed like the best possible thing in the whole world about now. For a second time I had to stop and consider what I was doing out here.
If the snow were to continue, it would fill the branches, and the upcoming cross-country portion was sure to get me wetter and colder as I plowed past branches ladden with the white stuff. Snow on rocks would make the slabby portions that much more dangerous. I don't mind being sore, but I really don't like being cold. What to do? Looking up, the clouds loomed low in the sky, obscuring the tops of the canyon walls. Climbing a peak enshrouded in clouds didn't seem like much fun. And not altogether safe. I didn't bring a GPS and would have to rely on memory, map and compass to get me back. And in a whiteout the map would be all but useless. What to do? After further consideration, I decided to just lie down for a while. I sat down in the trail with my back up against a rock, put my head down and closed my eyes.
I expected to get no sleep. How could I? Once my heart and pulse rate subsided, my circulation would slow and I would grow cold at the extremities. One foot was already soaked and it should take little time for it to grow cold and painful. I figured once it grew unbearable, I would simply get back up and start back down the trail. Turning back due to inclement weather was not a cop out (like the soaked foot excuse), but a bonafide reason to retreat and come back another day. To my surprise, I fell asleep within a few minutes. I startled myself awake and looked at my watch. Not even five minutes had passed. I wasn't cold (yet). Looking around, I found that the snow had stopped falling. I looked up and could see patches of blue sky starting to break up the cloud cover. It seemed a good omen. And to boot, I no longer felt tired. I got up, dusted the snow off my front and the dirt off my butt, and continued up the trail.
Twenty minutes later I was at the creek dropping down from the drainage southwest of Pyramid Peak, flowing across the trail. This marked the start of the cross-country portion. I had already taken five hours to reach this point, about an hour longer than I had planned. It was looking like it would be a long day. The hike up and out of Woods Creek is not a trivial exercise. Aside from being quite steep - 2,000ft in less than a mile, it was a moderate battle of brush and wet slabs, often having to trade one off for the other. Even though it was my second time up here, it didn't get any easier. The wet rock from the newfallen snow was the big difference. There were vestiges of use trails, animal trails really, and I used these where I could, but they always seemed to run out in front of a new rock face or some ugly tangle of manzanita. Ugh.
It took almost two hours to climb the canyon wall to where the angle eased and the class 1-2 resumed. Up until this point I had seen almost no old snow. Now above 9,500ft, the snow coverage was far more consistent, almost 100% in places, particularly where covered by forest. I followed the drainage heading almost due north, aiming for a shallow saddle on the ridge between this drainage and the Arrow Creek drainage on the other side. As I climbed above treeline the snow coverage grew spottier, about 25-50% as I made my way up. The saddle was located on the very long SW Ridge of Pyramid Peak. From the map it looked crossable, but I really didn't know what I'd find until I got there. I expected steep snow on the north side, and had brought axe and crampons for just this portion of it. I reached the saddle after 9a, finally getting my first view of Arrow Peak still further north. The good news was that it looked relatively close and I thought I might get there in less than two hours. The bad news was that this was deceptive and it would take much longer, which of course I didn't find out until later as the morning wore on.
I put my crampons on at the saddle, finding the conditions on the north side much as I had surmised. The snow was plenty steep and hard, but not frozen - it had fairly good traction with the crampons. I faced into the mountain as I made my way down the first several hundred feet through a short rock band. I then turned to face out from the mountain and walked in much quicker fashion the last 500ft down to the unnamed and still mostly-frozen lakes along Arrow Creek. I briefly started crossing the lake for a shortcut, but when the axe handle easily went through the two inches of slushy ice at a weak point, I backed off and went around the long way. One wet foot was enough for the day.
It took 1.5hrs to cross the basin from the saddle at the south end to another saddle just east of Arrow Peak. Nine and a half hours into the hike and I was just now at the base of the mountain. It didn't look too far up the boulder-strewn SE Face, maybe a thousand feet. It turned out to be not much more than that, but I didn't realize how tired I was until I started up that last slope. The boulders were fairly solid for the most part, only some of them moved and mostly in a predicable manner. But boy, was I tired. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Twenty steps up. Rest. Repeat. And the higher I climbed, the more I realized that the top was way up there. Several times I came within easy reach of what I thought was the top, only to find yet higher rocks behind it. Eventually I came upon the summit ridge, and with about 15 minutes of scrambling along the class 3 ridgeline, I finally made it to the top at 12:15p. Almost 11 full hours and the longest I had ever taken to reach a summit. Dang. So much for what I thought was going to be a moderate outing (my original plan had been to go to Lion Rock via Crescent Meadow, but I though Arrow Peak would be easier. Not so!).
Ok, so I was at the summit. It wasn't too late in the day, just after noon. It was somewhat surprising that there were no clouds in the near vicinity. There was a great many clouds built up along the Sierra crest spanning 120 degrees of my view. Some were quite nasty looking and I was glad I wasn't climbing something further east. While I took in the views I snapped a handful of pictures, though I didn't expect them to do much justice to the views around me. Clouds can often enhance a mountain picture, but there were just too many to be of much use. Plus they might decide to gang up, roll over my peak and start snowing on me again. There was a bitter cold wind blowing up from the north and I had to hide among the rocks to stay out of the worst of it. I perused the summit register which dated to 1991, and besides Matthew's earlier dayhike via Taboose in 2006, there was a second one by Charles Morton by the same route in 2007. So mine was only the third recorded dayhike - hah! These long hikes were becoming more popular over the years. I ate and drank most of the food and flavored milk I had with me. I hadn't eaten much to this point, but I knew I would hit a hard wall of exhaustion if I didn't get more food in me. It didn't taste particularly appetizing, but I made myself eat anyway. The bit of upset it did to my stomach would be better than a bonk four hours down the road.
I decided the endless boulder field I had used for the ascent should be avoided if possible in favor of a snow descent. This was accomplished my moving further north, closer to the East Ridge, and descending the snow fields found there. The snow was not the best one could hope for, being heavily suncupped and in no shape for glissading or a quick boot ski descent. But it was better than boulders, by a large margin. I connected snow fields as best I could while heading down, clambering over a few rocks where necessary to connect to the next snow field. It wasn't the best thing I could do for the relatively soft aluminum crampons, but I didn't feel like taking them on and off a half dozen times before I reached Arrow Creek far below.
The hike back up to the saddle on Pyramid's SW Ridge was not as demanding as I had feared, and though it was steep and I had to kick steps and use strong axe plants, it didn't take me too long at all. I hoped to make up some time upon my return, figuring about 2hrs from the summit to the saddle, 2hrs back to the trail, then 4hrs back to Roads End. And this time I was very close to my estimate. Using the snow as much as possible, I was able to cut off two hours from the cross-country portion. I had only minor trouble negotiating the descent to Woods Creek, but I suppose it wouldn't be the complete experience without a bit of bushwhacking in this section. In losing elevation, the air began to warm some during the descent, and by the time I had gotten back to the trail I was clad in just a t-shirt and hiking pants.
It was now just a matter of finishing things up over the next 12mi and 4hrs to get back through Paradise Valley and down to Kings Canyon and Roads End. My feet had held up well to this point, but the foot that had gotten soaked was now beginning to warm and become sore. I would end up with sores in four places on that foot where the skin had been rubbed raw. No such problems with the dry right foot. I used my MP3 player to help pass the time, but the batteries had only a few hours of charge left, and they gave out somewhere along Paradise Valley. I was somewhat surprised to see as much activity coming up the trail as I did. A dozen persons in five parties were making there way with backpacks to Paradise Valley to camp for the night. Given that it was only Thursday, this seemed like heavy traffic. Maybe the long Memorial Day weekend was drawing them in, because the weather forecast was certainly not keeping them away.
Below Paradise Valley I traveled through a section of the trail that looks to have been partially wiped out by a rock slide during the winter. Helpful ducks made it clear which way to go, but without them I might have struggled a bit more. In the morning I recalled traveling through this section without giving it much thought, thinking I may have accidently wandered off the trail in the dark. In addition to the backpackers, I came across a handful of deer grazing along the trail in the hours just before sunset. One of them was far less timid than the others, allowing me to reach within about 10 feet before scurrying off into the forest. I saw no one else in the last five miles back to Roads End, no rangers nor anyone else at the parking lot once there. It was just after 8p, making for an 18.5hr day - one of my longest yet.
The drive back home was not pretty. Caffeine helped keep me awake for the first three hours, but after that I started to wind down steadily. It was 1a before I got home, and the only thing I wanted more than sleep at that point was a shower. Once that was dispensed with, it didn't take long to hit the sack and fall asleep in short order. I must be somewhat nuts to keep thinking this is fun...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Arrow Peak
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