Mt. Bolton Brown
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Mt. Bolton Brown previously climbed Wed, Aug 9, 2006|
Mt. Prater previously climbed Wed, Aug 9, 2006
Birch and Tinemaha are two peaks east of the Sierra crest with relatively short approaches. I had been saving them for "easy" days, but now began to wonder if they both couldn't be done in the same day. Though they are separated by only a few miles, there is a huge drop of some 2,000ft between them according to the maps I looked over - a sure recipe for despondency upon reaching the summit of one and contemplating the continuation to the other. In order to give myself as few excuses as possible, I decided to start very early in morning and give myself as much daylight as possible. The logical starting point looked to be McMurray Meadows at the base of Birch Mtn, to which I could easily drive on a well-graded dirt road out of Independence. Matthew had left the day before after our climb of Waucoba followed by dinner, so I was on my own for what looked to be a long day with at least 9,000ft of climbing. At least the mileage, at something like 12-15 miles, wouldn't be that much.
At 3:30a I left my van parked in McMurray Meadows and headed off the road to the west, vaguely searching out a ridge route up the east side of Birch. The moon was out for a short time before setting behind Birch ahead of me - it might have been a nicier climb a few days earlier when I could have had more moonlight. As it was, I had to rely on my headlamp which could see at most about 20 yards ahead of me. The brush wasn't too bad at all, and by bobbing and weaving around the thicker bushes, I could make pretty good headway up the slopes. The initial slope wasn't too steep, and I found myself climbing some local highpoints along the way before I found the main slopes up the mountain. Around 5a the sky began to grow lighter, and half an hour later I could start to take photographs of the surrounding terrain. My new camera features a low-light setting that takes unnaturally bright pictures (though fuzzy) well before sunrise when actual conditions are much darker.
Precisely at 6a the sun rose up from behind the Inyos to the east, bathing the surround peaks (most notably Tinemaha) in morning light. I headed for a snowfield up ahead on the East Face that looked like it could take me several thousand feet up to the summit ridge. I was thinking that early morning cramponing up the firm snow would be the easiest and quickest way, and for more than an hour I followed that plan. But the snow was very firm and my crampons didn't bite in as much as I'd have liked. As the slope grew steeper it became quite clear that if I slipped there would be no arresting and the results would be ugly indeed. This made me more cautious and more deliberate and of course, slower. I had to admit that it would be faster to climb the rock and talus to either side, so I bailed off the snow about 2/3 of the way up. The rock was actually quite good by this time, some fun class 3, a bit wet in places from the melting snow, but very little talus of the tedious variety. After reaching the ridge above, I still had a good 30 minutes to go to the summit. The slope was easier but more tiresome as I found a good deal of talus and loose boulders to cross enroute.
It was 8:40a when I reached the higher NE summit, more than five hours after starting out. That was a lot of climbing for a peak that has no approach. I took pictures of the wonderful views around me, a good deal of snow from last week's storm still evident on many of the slopes. I signed into the register and had a snack while I took a short rest and considered my options. As I expected, the direct route down and across to Tinemaha looked very uninviting. Birch's SW Ridge connecting to the Sierra crest seemed much more appealing without all that elevation loss. The unofficially named Ed Lane Peak was on the crest directly west of Birch and not far from where Birch's SW Ridge attached to the crest. I got the inspiration to climb Ed Lane and then maybe Tinemaha after that.
So off I went down the class 2 SW Ridge. The upper half was tame and not very interesting, but I found the lower half more enjoyable. Here there was some fun class 3 if one stayed directly on the ridge, and by the time I had finished and reached the saddle my opinion of the route had swayed from boring to fun. From the saddle I wandered up the easy slope to the crest, and from there I headed north towards what I expected to be a straightforward climb to Ed Lane Peak. Not so. I got about halfway up and was suddenly confronted with a 30-foot notch with a sharp dropoff. I walked up to the edge, looked right and then left at the two steep couloirs dropping down from the notch and realized I was up against something a bit serious here. It looked like I could climb down to the notch if I was particularly careful (it was steep with loose rock), but after that it looked like it only got harder after that. The left or west side was hugely blocky and definitely class 5. The right side of the crest was less scary from a vertical viewpoint, but still steep and half covered in snow. I pondered it all for a few minutes before deciding not to press my luck - maybe the north side would be easier and I could climb it some other day from that direction.
I turned my attention to the next business of getting myself to Tinemaha. The 2,000-foot drop to the easier terrain between Birch and Tinemaha was hardly appealing. I wondered if I couldn't traverse higher, closer to the ridge in a big arc to avoid losing elevation. It had been evident from the summit of Birch (and from the topo which I only saw later) that there are two ridges dropping down from the crest that would have to be surmounted in succession. The closer I got to these ridges, the more serrated and uncrossable they appeared. The closest ridge connected to the crest at an intermediate highpoint between Mt. Bolton Brown and Ed Lane Peak, so I thought to continue along the crest until I was past this intermediate point and see if I could then drop down into the canyon between the two ridge spurs.
Off I went, up and over this point, only to find the descents off the other side to be a very serious affair once I was standing above them. This photo shows a snow chute in the upper right corner that I was above, staring down. It wasn't possible to tell that the snow was continuous the whole way down, but it seemed probable at the time. What made me hesitate was the steepness of the couloir, and in the end I decided not to descend it. As you can see looking to the left, there were no other descent couloirs along the crest that I could find. By this time I began formulating a new plan - climb to Bolton Brown, traverse the crest to Prater, then follow the West Ridge of Tinemaha to its summit. It would take a while, but my experience with the traverse the previous summer gave me enough confidence to go with the new plan.
I followed the crest towards Bolton Brown as far as I could until the scrambling became too difficult, much as it had from the other direction previously. I then did a descending traverse on the west side of the crest until I could climb the class 2 snowfield on the North Slope of Bolton Brown. It was 11:45a before I reached the edge of the rocks at the snowfield where I could put on my crampons. The snow was in good shape thanks primarily to its northern aspect, and I started up in slow fashion. The slope grew steeper as I got higher to no great surprise, but what I didn't expect (or hope for) were the icy spots I found blocking my way. Each time I ran into one of these, I backed off, moved right, then continued up where I found better conditions. I was eventually spooked enough to move all the way over to the NW Ridge for the final ascent rather than try to force a direct way up the ice and snow.
It was almost 1p when I reached Bolton Brown's summit, some 8.5hrs into the outing. I was starting to feel tired by this point, but I was happy to have reached the summit and finished with what I thought was the brunt of the climbing. The register showed that the last visitor to the summit was ... me! Not all that surprising, considering how rarely the peak is visited. This next section heading to Prater was expected to be the most difficult climbing of the day, judging from my memory of the route. I had stayed as close to the crest as I could manage the first time, finding some pretty dicy class 4 stuff along the way. There would be more snow this time and likely more trouble, so I hoped I could drop down part way on the west side of the crest to avoid the difficulties.
And that is pretty much exactly what I did. I followed the crest over the next pinnacle to the south, then stayed west of the crest for the next hour and a half. The snow that I found in places on the west side was incredibly soft in the afternoon sun and I didn't need to put on crampons, but I did have to plow through enough of the stuff to work up a sweat. I rejoined the crest again at the sloping plateau north of Prater, and took another half hour to reach the summit. I had forgotten exactly where Mt. Prater's highpoint was, so I had to climb all four of the other pinnacles along the way. For anyone looking for some beta, the highpoint is none of the pinnacles along the way, but the large, rounded point at the far south end of the ridge. If you're approaching Prater from the south, it's trivial to find.
Leaving Prater and heading down the South Slopes, the folly of my plan began to dawn on me. Without a map, I had guessed that Tinemaha's West Ridge connected to the crest closer to Mt. Prater than to Split Mtn. It soon became evident that it did not. In fact, I had to first hike down to the saddle between Prater and Split, then halfway up to Split before I reached the start of the ridge. By now it was 4p and it seemed foolish to continue to Tinemaha since I didn't want to downclimb the class 3 East Ridge in the dark. Tinemaha was soooo far away. I briefly considered tagging Split, but I was too tired by this time and really didn't want to continue the extra hour it would take to get up and back. I resigned myself to descend down to Red Lake taking the standard route used for Split. At this point I gave up on Tinemaha - it seemed too late to continue, and I was pretty darned tired by this time. I made quick work of nearly 1,000ft of snow slopes down to the moraine above Red Lake. Another climber had come up the same slope in the last day or two, but for some reason had stopped halfway up and turned around. Maybe the snow had been too soft or the climber was too tired by this point.
Somehow, when I got down to the bottom of the moraine, Tinemaha, rising above me now, didn't seem quite so high or as far away as I had remembered just a short while ago. I redid the time calculations and it seemed I might have a chance to get to the summit by 5p. Oh, the agony of trying to decide what to do! I decided to reverse my earlier decision and started up the slopes to Tinemaha. It was a great deal of sidehilling and loose boulders and talus, and frankly not all that fun. It was also quite tiring. I was over 12 hours into the outing, and the thought of going uphill was more than a bit discouraging. I persevered and continued upwards. I briefly considered ascending directly to the West Ridge, but it looked like a tortured ridgeline with too many ups and downs along the way, so I continued the ascending traverse across numerous aretes coming off the south side of the ridge. Just after 5p I reached the summit. Or so I thought.
Turns out I was on an intermediate highpoint along the ridge, and Tinemaha was still more than half a mile away. It was terribly disheartening. While high on the Sierra crest I had seen the true summit, but when I had descending to the moraine I had been looking up at the intermediate point. This explained why it had suddenly looked more doable while I was on the moraine. Had I known this at the time I would have continued down to Red Lake, leaving Tinemaha for another day. But this mistake had the fortunate result of making me continue on, since now I was too close to give up and it would probably be faster to go back over Tinemaha and down the East Ridge.
It took another 45 minutes and a good deal of determination to make the final distance to the summit. The West Ridge as a thoroughly uninteresting route was one of my first thoughts when I stood at the summit. I snapped a few photos and signed into the register, but I was eager to get down using as much of the available daylight that remained. It took a bit of poking around to find the East Ridge as it is not obvious where to find it from the summit. It is not well-defined, but rather a zig-zag route around pinnacles and talus slopes found on the east side of the mountain. Not terribly impressed with my slow progress on the somewhat loose rock, I decided to take a snow slope down the left side of the ridge. The snow was so soft that I was wading up to my waist for most of the more than 1,000ft of the descent, and the going was much slower than it would normally be. It was pretty tiring too, and my boots, socks, and pants became saturated. It wasn't until 7:30p that I was off the snow, but I still had to get out of the narrow canyon strewn with talus, sand, and acres of loose rock. Just before reaching the opening of the canyon onto the gentler slopes below I found myself cliffed out by a drop of more than 60 feet. There was no way to climb down directly or on either side. Fortunately, I had only to climb up a short distance of maybe 100ft to allow me to traverse north out of the canyon and onto slopes unbroken by cliffs.
At this point, with perhaps an hour of daylight remaining, I thought I was home free. Not so. The slopes became a tangle of brush that was difficult to move quickly through, and even though I had been able to see McMurray Meadows for the last several hours, it was still a long way to go. I had spied a dirt road from above that looked like I could follow back for the last three miles or so, if I could just reach it before nightfall. I was still 30 minutes from the road when I had to admit I couldn't see well enough to continue safely, and out came the headlamp. It was quite dark as I came upon Tinemaha Creek, needing to get to the other side where the road was to be found. The creek crossing was a bit of a nightmare with a thick stand of aspens and some sort of wild rose in the understory with annoying thorns that grabbed onto my clothes with every step. Just finding the creek through that mess was frustrating and I swore quite loudly at one point in utter frustration. After finding the creek and managing a way over via some weak branches that lay across it, I had my headlamp knocked off my head by an overhead branch that caught me by surprise. I watched with trepidation as it rolled down towards the creek, but thankfully it stopped where I could retrieve it unharmed. Pushing though the aspens on the far side, I came across a thin use trail, most likely from anglers fishing the creek, that led me neatly to the start of the road. Salvation was at hand.
Relieved of my anxiousness of the last several hours, it was a simple matter to follow the road back to the van. It wasn't until 9:30p that I was finally done, some 18 hours after setting out - a far more adventureous outing than I had planned when I started the day. I got a shower back in Independence, then a bit of dinner in Lone Pine before starting the drive back to the Bay Area. I only got as far as Olancha before deciding to pull over and sleep for the night. I slept comfortably in the back of the van and finished the drive home in the morning after the sun came up. It had been a good five days and a fine last day that I'll remember for some time to come.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Birch Mountain - Mt. Bolton Brown - Mt. Prater - Mt. Tinemaha
This page last updated: Sun Feb 5 10:49:38 2017
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