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Caltech Peak was the first peak added to the SPS list in more 15 years when it was approved by the club membership in 2007. I was told this was in large measure a result of influence, and as a tribute to a respected member who happens to be an alumni of the esteemed institution. But whatever the reason, it meant that I needed to add another peak to the list and consequently it made its way to the ninth day of the 2009 Sierra Challenge. Originally I had planned to start from the Shepherd Pass TH, but was alerted by an astute participant a few weeks prior that the Robinson Lake trail out of Onion Valley and going over University and Forester passes may be faster. The mileage was some six miles shorter and the elevation gain slightly lower, but there was considerable cross-country travel involved along with the dreadedness of University Pass. A perfect combination for the Challenge. Besides, I would already have more trips to make up Shepherd Pass as most of my remaining SPS peaks were located up that way.
There were only five at the Robinson Lake TH at 5a on a Saturday morning, one of the weaker turnouts for a weekend during the Challenge. Attrition had been steadily taking its toll, but the peak proved none too popular as well. We had several new faces including Avery, Julian, and Dan, the latter a veteran from several previous Challenges. As we set off up the steeply graded trail, it took only fifteen minutes to lose Avery who had warned us he'd be going at a slower pace when we started.
The sun was getting ready to rise as four of us (Dan, Julian, Adam, and myself) reached the end of the trail at Robinson Lake. We passed around the south side of the lake and started making our way up the steep slope just west of the lake leading towards University Pass. Within half an hour we were in view of University Pass, sunlight nearly upon it. Another hour passed in toiling across the boulder fields leading to the base of the pass, then the steep, frustratingly loose sand and talus slopes rising to the pass. Ugh, Ugh! Adam was the first to reach the pass at 7:20a, myself a few minutes behind. Looking back over the east side we could see Dan and Julian working their way slowly up the slopes.
Without waiting for the others (thinking four descending the even looser west side would be a dangerous affair), Adam and I plunged down the side facing Center Basin. We went side by side to keep from knocking rocks down on each other. This plan would have worked nicely to the bottom except for the sudden appearance of Dan from above when we were about half way down. It was necessary to move to the side to keep from getting nailed by the fusillade of rocks tumbling down and allow him to catch up - I'm not sure that he considered the danger he was creating in rushing to catch us.
Three of us reconvened at the bottom of the pass in Center Basin, pausing to remove our boots and empty out the accumulated sand and gravel. There was no sign of Julian as we continued west across the basin. We passed around the north side of Center Peak, dropping elevation to avoid the boulder and talus fields that fanned out in places on its northwest side. Having done this route previously to reach Stanford, I was confident that we would intersect the JMT leading to Forester Pass soon enough. Adam, less sure of our course, was beginning to question the route we were taking when suddently we popped out on the trail. "Oh - I guess you DO know what you're doing," he said with a grin.
The route south on the JMT/PCT to Forester Pass was picturesque albeit a good workout as we climbed some 2,400ft to the pass, the highest on the Pacific Crest Trail. We passed between Center Peak to the east and Mt. Stanford to the west, the Kings-Kern Divide rising high before us to the south. It was 10a before we had reached the pass, an hour longer than I'd hoped it would take. Oops. Suddenly University Pass wasn't looking like much of a short cut. We paused here to catch our breath and give Dan a chance to catch up to Adam and myself. Both of my ankles had been bothering me during the hike up to the pass, a return of an achilles injury that has plagued me on several previous Challenges. I had felt the first effects of it for the past several days, but now it seemed like it wasn't going away. I just hoped it wasn't going to leave me crippled before I got back to the TH as it had on an outing to Norman Clyde Peak in years' past. We had a fine view of Caltech Peak to the southwest and mentally mapped out our planned route up the East Ridge. We had passed a few backpacking parties on their way up to the pass and met another one resting there when we arrived. There was a fair amount of traffic going both ways that we would encounter during the day, evidence of the trail's high popularity.
After Dan had joined us and had a chance to rest, the three of us continued down the south side of the pass along the impressive trail cut into the cliffs found on that side. We dropped 700ft to the bench between Forester Pass and Caltech, stopped to get some water at a stream there, then followed the trail a short distance before striking out cross-country towards the west. Caltech's East Ridge is not well defined in the lower portions of the mountain, but it was easy enough to discern how to reach it higher up. We scrambled up some boulder fields, tedious at first, but becoming more solid and enjoyable the higher we got. The upper half of the route was quite nice really, and Adam led the way with relish.
It was after 11:30a before we finally reached the summit. The summit register was inside an aluminum box placed by the SRC in 1990. Several curiosities could be found in the box along with the register including a full page with numbers and figures scrawled in tiny lettering. "What the hell is this?" asked Adam in a confused manner. I looked at the page which appeared like a cheat sheet for a class in astrophysics and replied, "Well, consider the name of the peak we're on. I think this would qualify as geek humor." I recognized most of the names on the last few pages of the register including Jeff Dhungana, Shane Smith, Michael Graupe, and Sean O'Rourke who had climbed it the previous day in conjunction with Deerhorn. We added our own names to the little booklet and enjoyed our lunch while we took in the views. My ankles seemed to be holding up, but weren't getting any better. The return over University would be the clincher, I feared.
We stayed aloft about 20 minutes before starting down. We took the sandier route down the SE Slopes to make use of boot-skiing where we could for a relatively fast descent. After reaching the base of the mountain we traversed left back towards the trail and Forester Pass. I spied a group of backpackers and headed their way, thinking they were milling about the trail. In fact they were several hundred yards away from the trail and were looking to climb Caltech themselves. We chatted briefly with them, suggesting the East Ridge as a good ascent route, and they went about looking for a place for the seven of them to cache their backpacks before the afternoon climb.
On our way back up towards the pass we came across a memorial plaque to a young man, Donald Downs, not yet 19yrs of age, who had died during the construction of the trail in 1930. It was a sobering reminder of those who gave so much to the generations of visitors that have enjoyed the National Park these last 80 years since the trail was built.
It was 1:20p before we reached Forester Pass, followed by a short break and then the easy ramble down the JMT heading north. Adam and Dan were hiking together well ahead of me as we approached the turnoff for the cross-country back to University Pass. They had actually continued down the trail further than necessary before heading east, and had gotten separated themselves before long. We completed most of the cross-country to the pass via three slightly different routes. Dan spotted me shortly before we reached the base of the Sierra crest and University Pass and very soon after we saw Adam by the unnamed lake near the pass. Reunited, we steeled ourselves for the unpleasant business of getting ourselves back over the pass, and privately I winced at the pain the uphill slog was going to inflict on my achilles.
It was obvious that Adam was working with better energy reserves than either Dan or myself. He seemed to be enjoying this advantage a good deal. Adam took the lead up the narrow chute, myself making no effort to keep his pace, falling behind, and Dan just behind me. I moved to the right away from the chute to keep out of rockfall danger and to find better ground for climbing, but with only modest success. Adam would rest on a rock to let us catch up somewhat, then forge on again. It was 4:15p before we reached the sand and talus saddle of the pass, having taken an hour in the uphill effort to get there.
The east side of the pass was held together no better than the west side, but at least we were heading downhill now. After making a trip in both directions we were once again convinced of the pass's complete lack of redeeming qualities, except perhaps for the access it provides to Center Basin. At the bottom, in the relatively flat morraine before dropping down to Robinson Lake, we came across another hiker resting on a rock, adjusting his boots. I didn't recognize the person as part of our group, but stopped long enough to ascertain that he was indeed with the Challenge. Only later did I realize it was Bruno, a new face who had started later in the morning since he was heading to University Peak. He'd been successful in reaching the peak and was on his way back.
Dan was still somewhere coming down from University Pass when Adam, Bruno, and I headed down towards Robinson Lake. Bruno was soon left behind in the slow-going morraine, and Adam was not long in leaving me behind as well as he continued down to the lake. I last glimpsed him as he was traversing around the south side of the lakeshore about five minutes ahead of me. I was going much slower now as the pain in the achilles had given me a noticeable limp as I favored certain foot placements over others and used my hands as much as possible to lower me in through the boulder fields. And so four of us returned down the Robinson Lake Trail strung out over several miles. It was just after 6p before I returned to the parking lot, Adam having been back 15 minutes earlier, and the others probably a similar time behind me.
My feet were pretty shot by this time and it would take some doing to get them ready for the last day the next morning. I tried icing them that evening as I lay in bed, but when the alarm went off in the early morning hour I was unable to walk without pain and had to throw in the towel. I would have to wait for another day to take a shot at The Miter. I ended the Challenge with 9 of 10 days completed, and more importantly, reached all six SPS peaks that I had planned on. I had hoped to rest up a day before tackling Milestone and Midway on Tuesday, but after a full day of rest my feet were no better and I had to cancel that post-Challenge plan as well. No matter, it had been a highly successful week nonetheless.
Later we learned that both Julian and Avery had gotten as far as the base of Caltech Peak before turning about. It was odd that the three of us that reached the summit never saw either on our way back, and Julian and Avery failed to cross paths with each other as well.
I no longer think the Onion Valley approach is faster as it would probably have taken about the same amount of time via Shepherd Pass. But I think the approach from Onion Valley is more scenic and interesting, despite my dislike of University Pass.
Jersey Strategy: Sean had climbed Mt. Bradley in an easy day to stay in the hunt for the Yellow Jersey. Matthew and Sean were the only two to climb The Miter on Sunday, in addition to Michael who had climbed it the previous week. They reported it a fine climb. Adam had opted to climb McAdie instead, after the three of them had climbed Mt. Irvine via the Meysan Lake Trail in order to reach Arc Pass. The following day Sean went back to Onion Valley and University Pass to climb both Mt. Keith and East Vidette for his second twofer. He was allowed to continue since he had joined the Challenge a day late (and we had similarly allowed Michael to start six days early). The result was a convincing Yellow and Polka Dot Jersey win for Sean with 12 Challenge peaks and 17 peaks overall. Michael took second with 11 Challenge peaks, Adam third with 10. Bill Peters was fourth with 10 peaks also, though fewer were from this year's list. He took second in the Polka Dot Jersey with 15 total peaks. Adam was first in the White Jersey with Darija taking second. Jeff Moffat was first in the Green Jersey, Karl second. A full listing of results can be found on the stat sheet.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Caltech Peak
This page last updated: Wed Sep 9 12:51:20 2009
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