Bloody Mountain P1K SPS / WSC

Sat, Sep 5, 1998

With: Michael Golden
Monty Blankenship
James Fan
Cindy Romer
Tom Green
Terry Davis
Angela Leung

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

It was Memorial Day Weekend in Mammoth Lakes, and the usual large holiday crowd was in town. We like to come here once a year during the summer with family and friends for what I call "Condo Camping" - all the nicities of home (hot showers, grocery stores, full kitchen, movie theater) coupled with some of the most beautiful mountain peaks and trails in the Sierra. And Mammoth is the ultimate in Sierra condo camping bar none, I believe. In past years the pilgrimage had been made during the Fourth of July holiday when the snow was much more abundant, and in El Nino years, some of Mammoth Lakes would still be frozen over. This year we were busy in July, and so made plans to come in September. By this time, the only snow remaining is the permanent snow lying in the north facing couloirs (and a few small glaciers) high on the surrounding peaks.

My younger brother had joined us this year, and had brought his own contingent of about 10 college friends. For many, this was their first visit to the High Sierra, and they were eager to go climb something. As the defacto hiking guide, I was expected to plan any major expeditions, accounting for group abilities, weather, logistics, and an appropriately fun time for all. I had selected Bloody Mtn as a most worthwhile objective for a number of good reasons:

We had lots of folks interested in the hike, 13 in all, as we made final plans the night before. About half of the group I had hiked with before (4 of those being strong hikers), the others unknown, but eager. A mixed group, male and female, the two old guys (Terry and myself at 38 and 37, respectively) and the rest under 30. We made plans to do the hike in the morning (how long could a five mile hike take?), giving us the whole afternoon for "contingencies". For one, none of us had been on the 4wd road before. The only info we had was from Chris whose friend had told him it was "incredibly difficult". I also planned an alternate return route down the southwest slope for anyone that might not have their fill of climbing once we reached the summit.

Around 10a on Saturday, we had the troops fed and loaded into our 3 4wd vehicles. It was a late start due to excessive partying the night before (an affliction that most heavily besets the under 30 crowd), and it took Terry and I some doing to wake them up and get them moving. One last delay was required to procure java from a local coffee house (remember, this is condo camping - normal rules of wilderness experiencing do not neccessarily apply) for some of the more severe caffeine addicts, and off we went.

Summer weather in Mammoth is usually quite predictable. Sunny and warm. It's that simple. Usually. This time, we had unsettled weather, and had had some light rain the day before. It was currently half overcast, not quite sure if it wanted to rain or clear up. We found the turnoff and stopped to give some last minute instructions to the one driver who had never had his vehicle off road before. "Go slow, drive straight up or down a slope, never across it." The off road part is about 7 miles long. We don't know how far up we'll be able to drive, but the further we drive, the less we slog along on foot to the trail head. As it turned out, our concerns were unfounded. While it was far from a nice graded dirt road and had mostly baseball sized rock for a road bed (with larger ones to keep you on your toes), the driving wasn't particularly difficult - just slow.

We saw no other cars on the drive in, but once at the trailhead there were a dozen other cars about, and finding three safe parking spots took some doing. There's no regular car lot, so you have to find a spot in the road wide enough to park a car without obstructing traffic, and far enough from the edge to allay fears of your vehicle tumbling off the cliff. It was about 11:30a when we'd gathered everyone at the trailhead to march off.

The trail goes steeply up a mile to a pass between Laurel Mtn and Bloody Mtn at 10,800 ft. It's always fun to start a hike at high altitude and watch its effect on those who are new at this sort of thing. It becomes rather easy to tell in the first 100 yards who will do fine and who will be the laggards of the group. There was much muttering over the unexpected difficulty encountered at the very beginning when expectations of fitness and health are at their peak.

"I didn't drink THAT much..."

"Why am I so tired already?!"

It's the altitude of course, and very quickly everyone's expectations of how quickly we'd get to the summit changed. It took over an hour to get everyone to the pass. There were four or five strong hikers that climbed up in half an hour and waited for the others. Staying warm while waiting for the others was the biggest challenge, as the sun was nowhere to be found, and it was decidedly chilly at the pass.

It was 12:45p when we had reassembled and rested everyone at the pass. It was time to leave the trail and begin the class 2 climb up the scree and rock along the northeast ridge to the summit. Four of the group opted to call it a day at this point, as the realization set in that the next part was significantly more difficult than hiking a trail. Also, the weather was getting more uncertain as the clouds thickened and the peaks became obscured. We made sure the group left behind had one of the vehicle keys so they could get back without having to wait for us, and the rest of us headed up the ridge.

The off trail portion is not difficult for anyone having done this previously. One learns through experience how unstable rocks and scree move when stepped on and it becomes a normal expectation for cross country travel. For five of the group this was a very new experience which required the pace to slow considerably to allow them to adapt to this new setting.

With nine still in our group, I still found this an unwieldly size to manage up the mountain. Had the weather and visibility been better, I would have worried less about the group not staying together, as the route is pretty obvious, and the climbing not difficult. As it was, it began to seem the weather might break at any time requiring a full retreat to the cars below. There was very little rain gear collectively among the group. It was summer - how cold could it get? This seemed to concern only a few of us, but I knew from experience that the Sierra can get downright nasty rather quickly in the middle of summer. The one saving grace was that the cars weren't far below and could be reached in less than an hour if neccessary.

The faster climbers (Michael, Monty, and Terry) pulled ahead, two others were falling behind, and I played shepherd going between the middle and trailing group to keep an eye out for anyone looking too fatigued. I believe Tom could have hiked faster with the lead group, but he seemed to be making the smart move by remaining with the two single ladies in the group. "Swooping" was the term Michael used later to describe Tom's activities. About halfway up, we lost sight of Terry climbing steadily up and out of view. We also entered the cloud layer, and visibility dropped to about 40 yards. I spent some effort keeping the trailing five on track (the drop off to the north is rather nasty at this point), as I realized that following a ridgeline is not an obvious thing that all people do equally well. This particular ridge is not steep, but has something like 6 or seven false summits. The first few I expected, but by the fourth one, even I was surprised to find that we had yet further to go.

The visibility dropped to about 20 yards by the time we reached the summit about 2:30p. Terry had been there for at least half an hour, and he was getting cold. (Terry is my backpacking buddy who I rarely see get cold - his usual problem is overheating.) The view was nonexistent, but spirits were high as we'd managed to get 9 of us to the top of this very lonely peak. After entering our names in the register, and a few quick group photos for proof of our conquest, we started back down. Because of the uncertainty in the weather and the length of time it took going up, I had to abandon my plan to hike down the southwest slope. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten back to the car before the last of them descended, but I didn't want to leave them with the weather deteriorating as it was. I'm sure six of the group would get down with no difficulty, but I wasn't sure about the last two.

Terry began down first (he was the coldest, having spent the longest time on the summit), and the rest followed in pretty much the same order as the way up. About halfway down the ridge, it started to rain lightly. I gave my umbrella to one of the ladies, my mittens to someone else, and reserved my 99 cent rain poncho for myself. The wind had picked up a bit by now, and I struggled to pull the flapping plastic down over me. I was only half successful as I tore it in the struggle (what do you expect for 99 cents?). Tom, still swooping, was offering his jacket to his object of affection, who seemed only to glad to have not only the attention but the jacket as well. The rain would stop and start at random intervals, and I finally decided the rain poncho was more trouble than it was worth. Down at the pass, we stopped to collect the group again, except for Terry who has well out of earshot, and soon out of sight below us. It had stopped raining and the umbrella was returned (not the mittens though, it was still pretty cold!) to me.

Once off the scree and on the trail, I stopped worrying about keeping tabs on the group, and headed down the trail. About 500 yards from the car the rain really came down and I was thankful to have possession of the umbrella again. It didn't keep my legs from getting soaked in what was now a driving rain, but it did manage to keep my head and upper torso fairly dry.

Back at the cars it was still coming down heavy, and I was dreading the drive back in the Suzuki. Being summer (good weather, right?), I had left the canvas top back in San Jose. We managed to squeeze six of us in the the Trooper, but two unlucky souls had the unfortunate priviledge of riding with me in the open Suzuki. And the REALLY unfortunate soul had to ride in the back without a seat. My hands were frozen by now (ok, not literally, but they were white and numb), and I tried to warm them on the barely warm air emanating from the heater. I got the bright idea of trying to drive with the umbrella to keep the rain off, but we were now soaked through and the umbrella did little more than get in the way, distracting me as I nearly ran off the road. Ok, dumb idea, get rid of the umbrella. Although we were well below the clouds now, I could hardly see to drive as there was rain on both sides of the windshield, and I had to rely on some instructions from my passengers to keep us on the road.

A few miles of driving and the rain stopped suddenly (it appeared to have been an afternoon thunderstorm we were in), and now that the heater was working well I was beginning to get warm again. By the time we got to US395 again, it was almost pleasant as we began to dry off and warm up considerably. It was nearly 5p now, we had spent the whole day on our excursion (about 3 hours more than originally planned), and good food, beer, and hot tubs seemed to be in order. A good time was had by all. Condo camping at its finest... :)


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