Sat, May 8, 2004
The alarm went off at 2:30a and we were promptly up. The big day had arrived. Four days were planned around an ambitious effort to dayhike both Mt. Barnard and Trojan Peak via George Creek. At first glance it seemed ludicrous - 9,000 vertical feet, all of it cross-country, much of it up and down George Creek, what Secor calls "one of the classic bushwhacks of the High Sierra". Upon further inspection one finds that the mileage is not all that insane, only 15-16 miles, and there is purported to be a decent use trail in much of George Creek. Both Matthew and I are on a quest to dayhike as many SPS peaks as possible, and with a low snow year and a legal deadline of May 15 to hike up George Creek, this seemed the opportune time. We spent probably half an hour eating breakfast and getting our act together in our motel room before heading out south on US395. We chose to approach George Creek via Manzanar rather than the PCS-preferred route via Onion Valley Rd, but in the end they probably are of equal difficulty. We got lost briefly at Manzanar just trying to find the right turn-off, but were soon zipping along westward on a fine dirt road. Not long after the turnoff a second car, lights ablaze in our mirrors, came up behind us. Figuring it could only be Michael (who was to meet us as the trailhead as the third member of our party), we pulled over to let him come aside. We were right of course - who else would be heading towards George Creek at 3:30a? In caravan we drove the worsening 8 miles towards the trailhead. Michael was the far more aggressive driver, and when we got to the particularly rough last mile, he left us in the dust, literally. Matthew cautiously tried to manuever up the deep ruts, but with wheels spinning we quickly retreated and parked the car to walk the last mile. We hadn't gotten more than a few hundred yards when we came across Michael slowly backing his car down the road - he'd guessed correctly that we didn't make it that last mile. Offering to shuttle us the remaining distance, we got in, and with me in the back amidst all his gear it was a particularly bumpy ride to the end. I wondered if the vehicle turned over whether I'd be crushed amongst all the gear, but fortunately we arrived at the end in one piece.
It was 4:15a when we started out, headlamps giving us about 10 feet of visibility to navigate by. We had driven nearly to the water's edge, so in that first minute we were greeted by George Creek. It did not appear so forceful, deep, or menacing as I'd expected, but we soon found this was only a small braid of the creek we were staring at. Our best instructions said to stay on the north side of the creek, and look for the beginning of a use trail in about 300 feet. Our organized party stayed composed in an orderly file for all of about a minute and a half. It took only that long for the north bank to end in wall that came down to the water's edge. Michael, in the lead followed by Matthew, hopped onto a narrow island in the braided creek. That seemed likely to lead to soaked boots, and in an effort to avoid starting out with wet feet I climbed the banks of the creek to higher ground despite our firm instructions not to do so. I scrambled up the steep, sandy bank, ran into rock walls above, traversed about ten to twenty yards further upstream, and then with my heart rate beginning to race I decided I was being an idiot. Not wanting to get left behind, I made a swift dash down over sand-covered class 3 rocks and ledges under tree branches and over slippery leaves, half expecting to be impaled at any moment. We were five minutes into the hike and I was thinking this could possibly be the most ridiculous adventure imaginable. Back down at creek level, I wandered upstream along the banks, unable to find the lights of my companions. And then, just about when all hope seemed lost - I found the sandy trail.
Life suddenly got a lot better, and I soon came upon Matthew who had struggled similarly. Together we hiked along, losing the trail periodically, but after careful study we'd pick it up again. Matthew had similarly lost Michael after I'd disappeared earlier, and though we suspected he was ahead of us, we weren't altogether sure. If we stopped to wait it might just create further distance between us. We didn't really know if Michael would simply forge on ahead alone or would stop and wait - but I was betting he was still going ahead. The trail dodges under and through trees, around shrubs and huge boulders, sometimes along the creek, sometimes 10 or 20 feet above the water level. After some 15 minutes or so we came across Michael ahead, who was backtracking after running into the first impasse found on the north side of the creek. I had hoped we would see daylight before the creek crossings began, but we wound end up doing all of them under cover of darkness. Here we came across the first one, and we selected a large log upon which to cross. The log was broken in the middle and partially submerged, so that it required a leap of five or six feet and some fine footwork to keep from landing in the (now) formidable creek. I leaped across first, then waited (with camera ready) while Michael helped encourage Matthew. Though daunted and hating it, Matthew eventually managed to breech across the broken gap and emerge on the south side as dry as we'd started (aside from a little extra perspiration). A short time later we came to the second impasse, this time with an easier crossing back to the north side. Our instructions for navigating this lower part of the canyon came from varied sources: Matthew would quote Secor, Michael paraphrased from Eckert's SPS trip report, and I would read from Paul Homchick's SummitPost directions that I had folded in my pocket. None by themselves were completely helpful, nor correct, but the collection allowed us to do a decent job of negotiating the canyon by headlamp. On the third crossing, taking us back to the south side, we lost Matthew who had drifted further behind. Since we hadn't been watching too closely we weren't sure if we'd lost him 5 or 15 minutes earlier, but we figured he'd continue heading upstream regardless. We came to an impasse again on the south side, but this time were undecided in which way to go. Michael said that Eckert had commented about climbing up and over one southside obstacle, but the slope above looked steep and treacherous (it was starting to get somewhat light out by now). So we split up, Michael heading up, myself down amongst the fallen trees and denser shrubs on the south side of the creek. I found a way through it all, and fifteen minutes later was surprised to see Michael again. He'd climbed up a hundred feet, traversed, realized he was climbing in steep ravines/cliffs, and descended back down to the the creek. By 5:15a we'd turned off our lamps, and about 20 minutes later we were beginning to emerge from the toughest part of the canyon, with our first views to the high country far to the west. After having been separated for the last 45 minutes, Matthew reappeared behind us. He'd struggled farther up the north side of the creek past our last crossing, slowing him down, but he'd somehow made up the lost time. He wasn't with us 15 minutes before he stopped for something, and then disappeared from our sight for the next several hours.
With the heaviest brush behind us, the sun made an appearance shortly after 6a, and our view up the canyon looked quite impressive. We found the use trail high on the south side of the canyon which we followed for several miles to the confluence of the south and north forks. Along the way we lost and refound the trail many times - in reality there are numerous parallel tracks, and many connecting routes between them on the sandy slopes found here. Trying to find the "right" one is really just a waste of time - find a path that has seen traffic and go with it. It was 7:30a when we reached the confluence, and amid the compact forest found here, along with the only flat ground we'd seen yet, we found an encampment of three tents. The occupants were already out for the day, likely climbing Williamson or one of our destinations for the day. Following the north fork, we climbed a steep headwall leading to an intermediate hanging valley where we encountered the first significant snow of the day around 9,500ft. It was easily avoided for the next half mile where at 10,000ft we reached a second headwall and more or less continuous snow cover. Before beginning the climb we refilled our water bottles where the creek had made a hole in the snow above it, thinking this might be the last opportunity for water the next six or seven hours. Afterwards we donned our crampons and headed up the snow banks to our left. To our right, the route heading towards Williamson was almost completely free of snow - it looked like one might be able to make it quite a bit further in that direction before encountering snow, possibly above 13,000ft. Our route was northeast-facing, and blanketed with snow, most of which was nicely firm for crampons. Michael had started ahead, but I soon caught up and passed him. He had driven all night to the trailhead from his home at sea level in Pacifica, and it was here that the lack of sleep and acclimatization were noticeably catching up with him. As we climbed higher up this snowfield we got out first glimpse of Williamson to the north. I followed a tack towards Lake 10,580ft, the second highest lake in the George Creek watershed (a higher lake can be found further south near Vacation Pass). Shortly before the lake I found what I was hoping to find - another water source and this one with a snow-free patch to take a break at. When Michael joined me it was time for lunch. While I snacked on a couple granola bars, Michael pulled out a fine hero sandwich he'd packed with him, and I have to admit I was momentarily envious of his far more appetizing choice in trail food. Still no sign of Matthew, I suggested to Michael I might start slowly ahead. Michael admitted that he doubted he'd have the strength for both Trojan and Barnard, while I still had hopes to reach both. So I told Michael I would head for Trojan, expecting we might both then meet up again near the summit of Barnard.
And with that I was off on my own, making my way to the broad couloir leading up to the basin between the two peaks. It was 9:30a, almost 5 hours into the hike and I was starting to move more slowly. We'd gained considerable height, over 4,000ft and more than four miles, but still had nearly 4,500ft of climbing to go. Looking ahead I could see neither of the two peaks beyond the steep, 1,000-foot couloir, and I had a hard time matching my topo to the terrain above me. The map suggested there was a gradually broadening valley above, nearly two miles to the base of Barnard. But from below one could see a snow-free crest above the couloir, but not where one was expected. It was a bit puzzling, but with the onset of hypoxia and lack of oxygen to the brain tissue, it seemed far more puzzling than it deserved. I had only been going again for ten minutes before I noticed Michael had started up behind me. Halfway up the couloir I noticed Matthew had appeared agained, and was now a short distance behind Michael. Before I would reach the top of the couloir Matthew had overtaken Michael who was succumbing to the altitude at an increasing pace. I topped out, or appeared to, at 10:30a when I reached the rocky section above and took off my crampons. The big three, Barnard, Trojan, and Williamson were all visible from this vantage point. What had looked like a crest below was just the demarcation where the angle of the couloir decreases to meet a broad basin sweeping from the east side of Barnard over to the south side of Trojan - almost exactly as depicted on the map. There was far less snow in this basin than one would have supposed, and the East Face of Barnard was completely snow-free.
I was pretty tired by now and I still hadn't even reached the base of either peak. I began to doubt I could climb both. Barnard was the more important goal I felt, primarily because Trojan could be dayhiked from either George Creek or via Shepherd Pass, so I would at least have the option in the future. Barnard could only be dayhiked from George Creek, so if I didn't make it up today, I'd have to come back the same way in the future. In the thin air Barnard didn't look too far away either. It was still over a mile away, but I ignored what my map was telling me and felt it to be but a few hundred yards further west. So off towards Barnard I went, and it seemed to take forever to get there. Slowly the map, reality, and my brain all converged on the appropriate distance to Barnard, and it was some 45 minutes later before we all agreed I was finally at the base of the East Face. Only a thousand more feet to go! The scrambling was not difficult technically - the face is a pile of boulders and talus fairly well set (not loose like the previous day on Morrison). Some rocks and boulders moved, but not many. There was no one way to the peak - the entire East Face is a class 2 scramble, and while I initially headed for the ridge to the north of the summit, as I climbed I modified my angle to curve towards the summit more directly. I could climb only 20 steps or so before I needed to rest, and much of this time was spent trying to hyperventilate to compensate for the lack of oxygen I was getting with my body's natural breathing rate. This gave me plenty of time to turn and watch the slopes below for signs of Michael and Matthew. I spotted Matthew heading up the sandy slog towards Trojan. I guessed he had been told by Michael that I was heading that way, and he probably thought he was just following me. As Matthew would relate later, the Southeast Slope of Trojan is a particularly difficult slog with a great amount of sand to fight against. Even from afar he looked to be having a tough time of it. I spotted Michael intermittently heading towards Barnard. He too, had plenty of rest between spurts of activity. I used some rest moments to enjoy the views that began to open up. Through a gap in the ridge to the south I could see Carillon and Russell. To the northeast Trojan still dominated the terrain, but soon Williamson came into view again, rising behind Trojan and eventually swallowing Trojan's outline in its massive bulk.
I finally reached the summit at noon, just short of 8hrs from the TH. Despite the fatigue I was jubilant, and I was fairly certain I had enough left to tackle Trojan. The views were tremendous, one of the most sweeping views available in the High Sierra. There were several dozen peaks I could almost instantly recognize - Whitney and its surrounding peaks to the south, The Kaweahs to the southwest, The Great Western Divide from Milestone to the west to the Brewer Group farther north, the Kings-Kern Divide to the northest, Tyndall, Versteeg, Junction, Keith, Williamson, and others to the north and northeast. Far to the north one could see the high peaks of the Palisades, but from this distance it was impossible for me to pick out distinct peaks. I shuffled around the large summit area in search of a register. Rumors purported there to be an original register atop the rarely visited summit, but my fairly thorough search turned up nothing save a small cairn. There were two patches of snow that I decimated in case a register was buried under them, but I still came up empty. Matthew was to find out likewise that there was no register atop Trojan when he reached it a short time later. After pictures and my futile search it was time to leave. The wind, though not as strong as it had been the last two days, was sufficient to make it impossible for me to sit comfortably at the summit. I had to keep moving to stay warm. I was feeling some nausea, but this I attributed to lack of oxygen - when I consciously breathed more, the nausea would subside.
In turning my energies towards Trojan, I had a decision to make. Though but a mile distant, the straight line route involved a gap some 1,500ft below Trojan's summit across the middle of the high plateau. Losing all that elevation looked demoralizing. The ridgeline connecting the two peaks dropped maybe a third of this elevation, and the hike from the saddle to Trojan's summit looked straightforward from my vantage. The difficulty in this second approach was the jagged ridgeline between Barnard's summit and the saddle - Secor and others suggest dropping down a 1,000ft to avoid difficulties. So naturally I disregarded the sage advise and chose to attempt to follow the ridge. I was still ahead of the others (Matthew had yet to reach Trojan's summit and Michael was somewhere below me on the face) I reasoned, and could afford some wasted time attempting the ridge - who knows - maybe I'd "discover" a class 3 route. That was all so much wishful thinking, and for a good while I was able to continue the delusion with some success. But the hardest obstacles where closer to the saddle than to Barnard's summit, and so after messing around for 45 minutes or so (actually, there was some enjoyable class 3 along the way), I came upon large, tooth-like monoliths that had class 5 all over them with no apparent way around. The west side of the ridgeline was mostly cliff, while the east side was a steep cover of snow. So on went the crampons, out came the axe, and I proceeded to lose all the elevation I'd fought against. I made a downward traverse to well below the height of the saddle, covering as much distance in 10 minutes as I'd made in the previous 45. I was now staring up 1,000ft to Trojan's summit. I had spotted Michael nearing the Barnard's summit as I removed my crampons, maybe another 15 minutes to go. Matthew as near as I could tell was taking a long break up on Trojan's summit.
Wanting to avoid both the sand and snow slopes that equally dominated Trojan's south side, I aimed for a rocky rib that looked to provide better climbing. Mostly it was a boulder pile as it turned out, but foot by foot I made progress upwards. I wasn't feeling so good again as the nausea returned. I contemplated just how bad I wanted to climb Trojan, and wondered if I would have continued had I actually thrown up. Not knowing the answer ahead of time, I guessed it might depend on how close I was to the summit at the time, and whether throwing up made me feel better or worse (I can't really imagine that it might have made me feel better, but at the time it seemed possible to my hypoxic brain). Luckily, I never threw up. Halfway up to the Southeast Ridge I spotted Matthew on his way down. I had to switch back to crampons when the boulders gave way to snow, and when I was 20 feet below the ridge, manuevering to avoid some cornices above, Matthew appeared above me. We greeted each other on the ridge, exchanging a few photographs, including the only one of myself taken all day. Matthew had a small dilemma on his hands. He badly wanted to climb Barnard, but our quick calculations suggested it would be dark before he would return to the trailhead, something he wanted just as much to avoid. So playing it safe and resolving to a return trip up George Creek, Matthew headed down the south flank of Trojan and gave up on Barnard. I continued up, reaching the summit of Trojan just before 3p. Just shy of 11 hours into our hike, I was finally done with the elevation gain, and this in itself was a great relief. I snapped some pictures of the views found here, particularly of Williamson and the Williamson Bowl below. I also looked in vain for a summit register, coming to the same conclusion Matthew had.
In starting my descent, I chose to head off the east and southeast slopes which were covered in snow nearly continuously for thousands of feet. The slopes rolled off to cliffs, so I angled south towards the Southeast Ridge and finished the descent on the sandy slopes back to the Barnard-Trojan basin. I expected the others were out in front, but as I was descending off Trojan I could spot them nowhere in the basin. They were making good time evidently. I found their glissade marks in the broad couloir below the basin, and these I followed all the way down to the end of the snow section, back at 10,000ft. It had taken only an hour to descend 4,000ft, and where the snow ended I found Matthew talking to a couple out for a reconnaissance. They were planning to climb Williamson the next day (I think), and were a bit surprised to find the three of us running amok down the canyon. While Matthew continued the conversation I packed up my axe and had a quick snack. We then continued down in search of Michael, some 10 or 15 minutes ahead. We would not find him easily. For well over two hours the two of us descended canyon. At the confluence we found the three tents exactly as they were in the morning. Matthew had seen people up on Williamson while he was on Trojan, so we reasoned they were still on their way back from that peak - most likely they'd never know we'd been here. We lost the trail many times, and here's where we found that there are many parallel tracks. It seemed more confusing on the way down than it had on the way up. In the lower section of the canyon we missed crossing points we'd used in the morning, forging downstream through unfamiliar terrain. With a little bushwhacking, some log balancing, and lots of scrambling, we made progress down. I got ahead of Matthew at one point, found the trail after some trouble, then waited where it peaked some 20 feet above the south side of the creek for Matthew. After five minutes I began to think I'd lost him for good. Finally, I spotted some thrashing further back at the creek's edge, perhaps he was looking for a way across to the other side. I shouted repeatedly, but in the din of the rushing creek it was impossible to hear me from 50 yards away. I walked back along the track and finally caught his attention. To my surprise, it was Michael who emerged from the bush, not Matthew. "Where's Matthew?" Michael asked. As I was telling him I hadn't a clue as to his whereabouts, Matthew emerged from upstream for a fortuitous reunion. We were all surprised by the difficulty in route-finding on the way down, having taken it for granted. How we managed in the morning in darkness was a bit of a mystery.
Together again, the three of us then finished the last half-mile back to the trailhead. We noted the stream braids where the creek comes out of the canyon and begins it's more gentle tour between the two lateral moraines from a bygone glacier. There were fine campsites to be found under oak trees amongst the islands formed from the braided stream, all unseen when we'd headed off in the morning. It was just before 7p when we returned to Michael's car, a good hour and a half before dark. Matthew and I concurred that he would have been returning in the dark had he gone to Barnard, and after the difficulties we encounted on the way back, decided it was the right choice. Overall I thought the day had been far more fun than I'd expected, and I asserted to Matthew that I might like to join him on a return trip to George Creek some day - after all, there was still the dayhike of Williamson via George Creek to do. Michael earned special mention with his impressive no-sleep, 24hrs from Pacifica to Barnard's summit and back to the TH. How he managed to continue smiling and functioning during all that time (and afterwards) amazed me.
We drove back to Independence for a shower and dinner, though dinner choices in Independence are severely limited. At 8:30p when we went out roaming the streets for grub, we found the Subway closed and only the Still Life Cafe open. For the prices we paid (~$25/entree), the food was mediocre at best. Worse was the service - it wasn't until after 9:30p that we got our food though there were only two other table occupied and the place had closed 30 minutes earlier, and on top of that the server got Michael's order completely wrong (somehow this was corrected in less than 15 minutes, so we don't understand why it took the intial hour to get our food). Oh well, can't always have a perfect ending to such a fine day as this one!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Barnard - Trojan Peak
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