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Basin Mtn lies west of Bishop, a mostly unassuming peak nestled between the much higher and impressive looking Mt. Humphreys to the south and Mt. Tom to the north. It boasts a popular snow climb in the East Chute, followed by 400 feet of class 4 climbing to the summit. The chute is prominently visible from US395 as one drive north from Bishop, and had been beckoning me like a siren each time I drove by over the last year. August is hardly the best time for this climb as most of the snow is melted out of the chute by then. But my real interest lay in that final 400 feet, and so I was willing to turn a classic snow climb into a non-classic talus slog all for a little class 4 climbing. Would it be worth it?
The drive to the Horton Lakes TH is one of the poorer ones in the Eastern Sierra. Mark and I drove with Michael in his Blazer over the very long and bumpy Buttermilk Rd starting at 5a. It took nearly a full hour to reach the TH, maybe 10 miles west of Bishop where we stayed the night. We had only one navigation error that cost us a few minutes, but for the most part we just had to hold on to our kidneys and "enjoy" the ride as best we could.
Our caravan of three cars caught up with Joe and his BMW as he parked a few hundred yards down from the locked gate at the TH. It was an impressive feat really that not only did his car get as far as it did, but that Joe dared to challenge it so. We gave him a ride further up the road, reaching the TH before 6a. The moon was setting shortly after the sun rose on the upper portion of Basin Mtn. Michelle drove up in her silver truck a few minutes later to round out a group of nine. Jim, Peter, Mike, and Calvin headed up the trail to climb via Horton Lakes and the class 2 Northwest Slopes, while the other five of us were to head up to the East Chute. Joe forgot his sunglasses back in his car and debated whether he could get away without them. I encouraged him to run back and get them, then waited for him while the Mark and Michael started up the slopes. When Joe returned about ten minutes later, the two of us with Michelle started up.
Rather than follow the road/trail from the TH, we hiked directly west from our cars up the scrubby hillside in order to intersect the road higher up and cut a little distance off our route. With the benefit of a rest day, Mark was full of energy and already well ahead of us - he would prove impossible to catch up to. Joe had had a rest day as well, but he seemed to lack the vigor he'd shown on Lyell, perhaps still feeling some fatigue from that outing two days earlier. I slowly but steadily drew ahead of he and Michelle (who had been up Julius Caesar the day before), intent on doing my best to catch up to Michael and Mark up front. The wide switchbacks are part of an abandoned road that goes up to an equally abandoned mine halfway up the mountain. It was 7:30a when I reached this leveled area, shortly before the beginning of the East Chute. Mark and Michael were still well ahead and moving at a good pace - I just couldn't catch them. Joe and Michelle had dropped from sight. The road ends at the base of the moraine coming down from the East Chute, and the easy walking became a boulder hopping effort. There was a small, low-angled snow field low in the chute, all that remained in the middle of summer. I caught up with Michael who was taking a break just before the snow. We crossed over it without crampons or axe, moving cautiously to avoid slipping. Though low angle, the snow was pretty hard and a slip could have had a messy ending. Mark was several hundred yards up the upper half and still moving strong. Above the snow field the route grew steeper and looser, sand and talus taking over for the boulders and the effort to gain elevation increased significantly. While Michael took a route more or less up the middle of the chute, I tried to hug the left edge where I thought the rock might be more solid and easier to climb. This didn't turn out to be the case, and I spent the whole time wandering about looking for something, anything, to make it easier, to no avail. Near the top the chute splits into two, and Mark was perched on a rock at the base looking for directions which way to go. I hadn't heard there was a split, so when he looked at me for guidance I simply shrugged my shoulders. Mark chose the right chute closer to the summit which would have been my guess as well, and he led the three of us up the narrowing chute to the notch at the base of the class 4 section.
It was 8:15a when I arrived at the notch, and the three of us took a break here, regrouping, enjoying the impressive view of Humphreys we were treated to, and changing into our rock shoes. The route up looked steep, and not much like what I had expected. I had heard it called class 4 "face" climbing, but this didn't look at all like the relatively smooth surfaces raked with cracks that that term conjurs up. This 400 feet section was quite steep, but more fluted than smooth in appearance, and no obvious "correct" route stood out. So of course this meant we would be taking 3 different routes as each of us wandered about looking for something we were comfortable with before heading up. Without a rope we expected this to be on the spicy side, and we weren't disappointed. The rock was fairly rough which meant good traction, but it wasn't altogether solid either, and small sand-sized pieces would rub off as it was gripped, adding some measure of doubt to each hold. As a result I went up fairly cautiously, trying to ensure the best holds I could find. Michael and Mark took routes slightly further west, deciding my choice wasn't so optimal. At various times during the ascent I would look around to see if I could locate my companions. Shouting out their names wasn't a very good strategy since we couldn't hear very well. A call might make the others think I was in distress or otherwise distract them from their own efforts. Mark was generally somewhere below, Michael a little less predictable. He'd been below one moment, then across laterally fiddling with his camera the next moment I saw him. The climbing was fun, though perhaps more in retrospect than during the climbing - it truly met the "spicy" expectation and had me nervous at times.
It was just before 9:40a when I reached the summit, having taken less than 3 1/2 hours from the TH, a surprisingly quick ascent I thought. Michael was just behind me and Mark came up about 5 minutes later. He'd had a bit of a fall lower down, sliding some six feet or so off his hold and scraping his right leg pretty good. The blood from the cuts had trickled down into his climbing shoe while he finished the ascent, and we joked about his condition while we went about trying to see if we couldn't clean it up some. Michael had some high-tech cotton swabs from Switzerland that had hollow tubes filled with iodine. Problem was, we didn't have a ready supply of water to wash off his leg so we could see where the cuts actually were. Because we were planning to traverse to Four Gables, we expected we might have 7 or more hours without coming across water, and so we held it near and dear to us. Nobody, including Mark, wanted to waste a good deal just to clean off his leg. I offered to trickle some of mine onto his leg while Mark tried to wipe it up, but the blood had already coagulated a good deal, and the small trickle of water did little. In the end, Mark just dabbed the iodine over where he thought the cuts were, and we called it good. Mark would survive, it would just look a little ugly for a while. We had seen no sign of Michelle or Joe, though we kept looking down the East Chute during our ascent for some sign of them. Nothing. Looking down the Northwest Slopes, we didn't see anyone from the group that went that way either, though that was less of a surprise. Later we would find that Michelle and Joe were taking the long way to get to the summit. Ignoring what seemed like the obvious choice for the East Chute, they headed up a narrower chute that took them to the north side of the summit ridge. Unfortunately this undulating ridge is very long and very tedious and they spent hours negotiating it, not arriving at the summit until 1:30p. The Horton Lake crew faired better, arriving at the summit between 12:30p and 12:45p. On the way down Peter found himself stuck in a cliff band, unable to find his way back up or down. This initiated a call to SAR (Search And Rescue) sometime later. Coming across them while descending, Michelle was able to climb over to Peter and guide him back out. The SAR crew showed up at the trailhead just as Joe had managed to hike out and tell them the rescue would not be needed. All of this excitement was completely lost to the three of us who never saw any of the others on the mountain that day.
We could have headed down and been back to the car around noon, but that wouldn't have been on the challenging end of the scale. Four Gables, a nondescript peak on the Sierra Crest to the west was our bonus peak, and looking off in that direction we couldn't tell which of several bumps on the ridge it might be. But it was a long ways off, and several miles of intervening ridgeline had to be crossed. The first part, to Peak 13,240ft involved an unknown amount of class 4 climbing along its Northeast Ridge. Secor had simply recorded the difficulty as such, but no trip reports were available to assess its accuracy - just the sort of adventure I love. The climbing along the ridge was wonderful, much better than I'd expected. The first half was straightforward class 2 boulder hopping, but it soon grew to bolder class 3 with some fine knife edges and large, challenging blocks to surpass. The most difficult part I found was an awkward chimney whose bottom dropped out without good holds. I led most of the way along the ridge, thrilling on the adrenalin rush. One of the airiest knife edges ended with an easy, but horribly exposed jump across a 4-foot chasm. After jumping across to the far side, I turned to wait for Mark and Michael to follow, ready with my camera to get a good shot. But first Mark, then Michael balked at the exposure, and they found a less fearful way around. The alternate involved more difficult rock climbing to be sure, but it wasn't so dependent on good balance and a clean jump.
It was noon when we reached the summit, and I was really sorry to have the route end - it had been some of the most enjoyable climbing this summer. We found a small, rusty BandAid can holding a small summit register, first placed in the 1960s by a Sierra Club party. That first entry had used the name "South Basin Peak" for the location, but that name seems to have been lost through time and is not mentioned in Secor or elsewhere. There were very few entries, only one every few years or so. An entry from Peter Croft a few years earlier described his route as "up the East Ridge of Humphreys, on the way to Basin", a rather impressive traverse (certainly more impressive than ours to Four Gables). After taking in the views, snapping a few pictures, and a good study of our descent route off Four Gables, we headed down the class 2-3 Southwest Ridge to the broad plateau at the saddle with Mt. Humphreys. From a good distance we spotted a shiny rivulet threading its way down the gentle slope of the plateau, towards the north. It seemed like it might be snow or ice, but completely unexpected as there didn't appear to be enough drainage up here to sustain a stream, and no protection from the sun. Sure enough it was ice, a surprisingly good-sized streamlet running down through the compacted talus slope. Cold nighttime temperatures froze the watercourse, and it looked to unfreeze with each new day. Here was a water source halfway between Basin and Four Gables, perfectly situated and we knew nothing about it. We drank greedily from it and refilled our water bottles - no more worries about water today.
Mark had gotten behind us on the descent and was some 10-15 minutes back while we waited at the streamlet. Michael and I discussed together whether we thought he had the energy to continue, and we both expressed doubts. To the north of us was an easy class 2 escape route down to Upper Horton Lakes, and we both preferred Mark to take that route if he wasn't going to be able to keep up. When Mark caught up we let him rest a bit and refill his water before broaching the subject. Neither Michael nor I wanted to have "the talk," but Michael was the one who finally brought our concern to him. Mark readily understood the drift of the discussion and expressed his firm desire to continue. After we felt we'd at least aired our concerns and why it was important not to dally, and Mark was still committed to keeping up, we let the subject drop and continued on. It was immediately evident that Mark meant what he said, as he never got more than a step or two behind after this.
From the plateau to Four Gables was a class 1 walk, far easier than we'd expected as it turned out, over compacted sand and talus. Though the ridgeline was undulated when viewed from Basin Mtn, the west side was gently sloped and it was possible to take a level line across the slope, bypassing the intermediate highpoints and connecting the saddles and notches in a straight line. At the far end of the traverse we headed up a ravine (with yet another water source we found) that led to the boulder fields southwest of the summit. The summit is not at all obvious when approached from the west, and here we benefitted from Matthew's beta, having climbed it a month earlier. We avoided the false peak to the south and climbed the correct one more or less directly, arriving at the summit at 1:30p. We found the register (which was our only indication we were at the right summit) and added our names to it. I was surprised to find half a dozen entries since Matthew's a month earlier - a more popular peak than I would have guessed.
After a short break we headed down the East Ridge which seemed poorly named. None of the route actually climbs on the East Ridge, nor any ridge for that matter. As Secor describes, the climbing is on the south side of the East Ridge. We had no trouble locating the correct route. Our reconnaissance from South Basin Peak had proved most useful. The upper part is a steep and narrow chute with loose rock, so we went down singly to avoid killing each other. There were a few tight spots that gave rise to the class 3 rating, but none of these proved especially difficult. The chute we were in ended in cliffs and it was necessary to cross east into a second chute in order to find our way down to the talus - this we knew from our beta beforehand. Ahead of the others by some 50 yards or so, I crossed over to the second chute without them seeing me do so, and this caused some small delay on their part in finding a good place to cross over. Consequently I was already down on the talus fan south of the peak when I finally spotted the others high in the second chute. At this point I stopped waiting and headed down the slopes. It was loose talus higher up, followed by some tedious boulder hopping further down. I passed through a narrow gap in the moraine west of Upper Horton Lakes, and found yet more boulder hopping over ever larger blocks of granite. It seemed to take a very long time before I emerged upon the western shore of the lake, and I finally felt I had gotten to easier ground. Not so. The shores I traversed around the lake were blocky and slow, and then once north of the lake I found I still had over 400ft of cliffs to descend to the meadow below. I found a way through the band of cliffs, a bit more difficult than the use trail I was expecting (hoping) to find - as far as I can tell no use trail heads up to Upper Horton Lakes.
As I was negotiating a section of mild bushwhacking down in the meadow, I heard a call from the west. Turning, I saw Michael and Mark waving, about a hundred yards off and coming down an entirely different route (they had contoured more to their left avoiding much of the tedious bouldering I'd found, and made up some lost time). At the same time I finally stumbled across a use trail on the west side of the stream, and this proved to be good for the rest of the return. I was still ahead of the others descending from the meadow, but they caught up to me just after Horton Lake as we passed some additional abandoned mining shafts and equipment. Our trail met up with the wider jeep trail that runs up the south side of Mt. Tom, and from here on back it was a long walk back along a steadily descending grade. Michael and Mark seemed to have more energy than I, and they got out ahead of me on the final return. We got back to the car at 4:30p, a 10.5hr outing, expecting to see all the other cars gone. But instead they were all there - Michelle's, Peter's, and Joe's still down the road a ways. Later we found that Mike had hiked down to Horton Lake shortly after we had passed by there, and it was from there that he had contacted SAR. Joe was the first to arrive back at the TH at 7:15p when the SAR team arrived, and the others came out at various times, some as late as 9:30p - a very long day indeed. Consequently we missed most of them for dinner, but we caught up with Mike back at the motel who gave us the synopsis of their more "adventurous" day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Basin Mountain - South Basin Peak - Four Gables
This page last updated: Wed Apr 28 06:49:13 2010
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