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Matthew and I awoke to another crisp morning in Big Meadow in the Southern Sierra. The temperature outside at 7,800ft was around 25F, but the skies were clear and it looked to be another fine day once the sun came up. A storm was on its way, but we hoped it would hold off long enough for us to get some hiking and climbing in. The main objective of the day was a climb of Church Dome, 5.5 by its easiest route with a 5.7 summit block. It made no sense to go after that peak while it was still cold (who wants to belay with mittens on?) and because it had a short approach, we planned to tag a few easy peaks beforehand. Cannell Point was of interest as an HPS listed peak, whereas Cannell Peak was simply a named peak in the area. Leaving my van at Big Meadow, I tossed my gear in Matthew's Suburu as we headed south for the first of our peaks.
Jenkins describes a hike to Cannell Peak in the book, Exploring the Southern Sierra, East Side. Following the description, we parked at the saddle southeast of the peak and started out at 7a. There's no trail, but the cross-country is fairly easy. Orange ribbons and a few ducks mark parts of the route, but they aren't really necessary unless climbing in a fog (and then you'd have to ask yourself exactly why you were climbing this peak in such conditions). We scrambled west up the steep slopes to the first local highpoint. I went up the class 3 rocks to the summit for a look around and mostly just to play on the rocks. Matthew watched from below, feeling no similar urge to ascend it. From there we continued west, contouring around the north side of another highpoint, eventually intersecting a forest road heading northwest. The road, not marked on the 7.5' map, turned west at a saddle, heading who knows where. We left the road and continued cross-country over easy terrain to the summit further to the northwest. The whole route was about 1,000ft of gain, something over a mile, and took just under an hour.
A large cairn marked the summit, a register dating back to 1963 tucked away inside. Not surprising, Barbara Lilley's name was among the list of a dozen names in the SPS party that had placed the register. The views were limited by trees about the summit, but there was a fine look at Big Meadow and some of the Southern Sierra peaks in the background. We took a slightly different route on our return, taking more advantage of the road we'd come across before turning east and following a broad gully back down to the car.
After another 20 or 30 minutes of driving, we made our way to the trailhead for Cannell Point northwest of the peak at Pine Flat. For several years we had planned to make a winter ascent of Cannell Point from Kernville 12 miles to the west in order to make this a more strenuous outing. But now that we were in the area, it seemed a shame to let it go - so we went for the easy hike. Much like Cannell Peak, it was about 1,000ft of gain over a mile and half. Starting off shortly after 9a, we followed the dirt road east to a saddle before heading south cross-country. The rest of the route to the summit is quite steep. We tried to follow the rocky ridge leading up from the saddle, but this grew increasingly difficult, eventually forcing us onto easier ground to the right (west). Several false summits had to be bypassed before the highpoint was reached around 10a. Matthew had fallen about 15 minutes behind, allowing me a more leisurely rest atop the summit with the best views of the day, and some of the best I've seen in the Southern Sierra. A third of the views were obscured by low clouds, but these disippated completely in the half hour I spent on top. To the south was a grand view of Lake Isabella with mountains sweeping out to the Tehachapis and the Transverse Range. The Sierra Crest took up nearly 120 degrees of the view from Olancha in the northeast to the Scodie Mtns to the southeast. It was easy to see how this unnamed point was chosen by the HPS for their list.
Matthew had more trouble than I in locating the highpoint, scrambling to the top of one false peak only to realize his mistake. Eventually he wandered over and around the highpoint where I sat, finally coming up the east side. Our descent was made quicker by a more direct route back to the car, avoiding the rocky ridge in favor of steep, forested hillsides with only modest undergrowth. After we returned to the car it was more driving to the Church Dome TH west of Taylor Meadow and south of the peak. It was just about as far as it was possible to drive from civilization in all of the Sierra. Our isolation was not lost on us as the approaching storm was likely to close the roads in the area for the season. We wondered just how much all of these backroads were swept by the rangers before closing the gate back at the Sherman Pass Rd.
It was noon before we started out, and it wasn't until this time that I realized how little time we actually had. It would be dark by 5p, giving us just under five hours to make the 3-4 mile roundtrip. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but whenever we had to get out a rope as we would on this climb, time seemed to slip away. We expected to follow the trail for more than a mile to the saddle east of the peak, but found it barely discernable after the first hundred yards. It took all of ten minutes to lose it altogether. We found ourselves spending more time wandering around looking for it than it was worth, so we gave that up and simply headed cross-country uphill heading north. Though not trivial, we found our way to the Church Dome area and correctly guessed at the location of the highpoint which has been dubbed Taj Mahal. It was almost 1:30p before we had scrambled to the notch on the ridge at the base of the Taj Mahal's NW Ridge.
It was a stunning sight, a good deal more serious than we had expected. Without any detailed beta, I had thought it would be a single pitch to the summit block. The lower half was near vertical, and though blessed with large chickenheads and other excellent holds, it was still quite imposing. A quick calculation said we had to get up and down in less than three hours if we were going to get back to the car before dark. There would be no time to waste, something our past experiences had showed we were amply capable of.
Things started off quite well - it took only ten minutes to get our gear out, flake out the rope, and start up. I got the lead because, well, because Matthew said I could lead before I could say the same to him. Plus he used the always popular, "it'll go faster if you lead" ploy. So up I went. Frankly I'd much rather just follow - it's so much less stressful, and I'm always a bit stressed when I'm on the sharp end of the rope. As usual, I often feel better once I actually start climbing, and this route was no exception. Daunting as it looked from below, the holds were quite good and I could get cam placements with little trouble. In fact it was almost too easy to put pro in and I did a poor job of minimizing rope drag. I was only 25 meters up when I hit the crux, a short crack section with a small shrub growing from the middle of it. Too thin to grab for a hold, but large enough to be in the way, I very quickly became exasperated. I didn't want to decimate the poor thing - that would invite bad karma - but I couldn't get around it with the significant rope drag pulling at me from below. A good belay ledge was just below the crux, so I chose that option rather than downclimbing and reworking the placements to improve the rope drag. I felt kinda dumb making two pitches where one should do.
I belayed Matthew to the halfway point, though not without a few pauses for photo ops. I generally hate belaying because I grow cold and impatient quickly, but this little roost was quite nice - the sun helped fight the cold and the view was pretty swell. The pinnacle across the notch from us rose to nearly the same height as the Taj Mahal and looked even harder. I could see a small cairn on the top indicating it too had been climbed. When Matthew reached my station I half-heartedly offered to let him take the next lead (I didn't tell him the crux made me nervous), but he pulled out the usual - "I could, but it'll go much faster if you lead" card. He was right of course, we didn't have time to spare, so we swapped gear and positions and I went up.
Without the rope drag the crux was much easier, and I was able to leave the little bush (it had looked much bigger earlier) unmolested as I passed over it. Above that the angle dropped off dramatically to maybe 45 degrees and it was an easy class 3 scramble. I didn't bother to place any gear after the crux and just walked it up to the large flat area below the summit block. Matthew followed in short order. It was now 2:45p, having burned up more than an hour on two short pitches, but still within budget. But we still had a summit block. The face we were first exposed to was pretty well vertical, minus the holds and cracks we had on the lower section. It looked hard. I wandered around to the backside of the large, 15-foot high block to see if there was an easier way up. It was overhanging on the other sides. Rats. Returning to Matthew on the north side, we began sizing up this last problem. The exposure wasn't too bad - I would simply fall back to the base of the block - but it would be a bad fall from ten feet up. There was nowhere on the face to place protection, so a belay seemed pretty useless. We decided to have Matthew stand at the base of the block to spot me in a fall, hopefully breaking it in a manner to keep us both from serious injury. It seemed crude and not very techno-climber saavy, but it was the best we could think of. Using tiny finger holds and thin edges for my feet, I climbed the 5.7 wall after a few short, aborted efforts. Success! Atop the block was a single stainless steel bolt in good condition. That would solve our other concern we had briefly discussed before ignoring - what if we had to downclimb that face?
It was 3p when we congratulated each other atop Church Dome. The weather was still fine with only a few clouds on the distant horizon. The views were great and we enjoyed the sweep of the Southern Sierra more than we ever had. Each visit to a peak makes us more familiar with the terrain and helps us to appreciate it more and more each time. The register had a number of familiar names. Most notable was Greg Vernon who was in the last party to visit the summit the previous year (I guess that made ours the first and only visit in 2006). It was Greg's ninth time atop it, an impressive record - it would seem Greg had made this his personal peak. Another entry admonished Greg for bolting, so we made the leap to guess it was Greg's bolt we would be rapping off. I'm sure we could have safely gotten off by another means, but we were happy to have it there to make it a no-brainer.
The descent off the summit block was easy enough, but the descent off the main route did not go so well. To save leaving gear, we attempted to rap off a large horn. It seemed simple enough, myself rapping down to the first belay ledge, Matthew following. There was nothing good enough to rap from at the belay station, but above the crux were a few horns we decided would do the trick for the second rap. However, when Matthew went to pull the rope it wouldn't budge. At first we thought the two ropes were simply crossed, but no amount of twisting or pulling would free one end or the other. I was frustrated because I couldn't do anything to help from below (and I was sure Matthew had to be doing something wrong), and Matthew was equally frustrated because it meant he had to climb back up and sort out the mess. I was further disturbed when Matthew needed to pull up the ends of the rope I was still holding on to. Up they went and out of sight, leaving me helpless on my small perch as it grew colder. If anything happened to Matthew, I would be in big trouble. The second rope we'd brought with us was in his pack, not mine.
It seemed like hours while I sat there waiting for Matthew to make things right. I heard nothing from him for quite a while. Turns out he had to climb the rope all the way back to the top because the horn itself had too much friction to allow the rope to slide. Stupidly, we never tested it for movement before we started down. Matthew threw a sling around the horn and reran the rope through it before rapping down again. He stopped again above the crux to set up the second rap, with one more expected below that. I went down first again, happy to find the rope would reach the base of the route with only inches to spare - that probably saved us another 20 minutes at least.
It was nearly 4:30p by the time Matthew had rapped off and we had packed up the gear. We had no more time to spare. The storm that had held off had suddenly made its oncoming presence felt. Clouds were moving in from the north and already covered half the sky. As it grew even colder we beat a hasty retreat, trying to return via the same cross-country route we'd taken up. I erred a bit in this effort, leading us further west than we'd taken before. Worrying about ending up in Taylor Meadow and far west of our car in darkness, I started a diagonal descent across the south slopes to the left. When we reached a forest road shortly before 5p, we quickly discussed whether we should head left or right to reach our car. Our best guess said right. More than a little nervous, we were elated to find the car within the next ten minutes. No getting lost this time.
Though our physical exertions were done for the day, our day was far from over - we still had seven hours of driving to get back to San Jose. We bid each other good-bye when we returned to my van at Big Meadow, and from there we each took the wheel for the long drive. Rain came down in earnest by the time we reached Bakersfield, with intermittent showers continuing all the way back to the Bay Area. Snow fell all across the Sierra that evening, shutting all the seasonal roads in the range for the rest of the winter season. It was great to have had one more fall weekend in the Sierra to cherish until the coming spring.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Church Dome
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:08 2007
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