Mt. Cotter P500 SPS / WSC
Mt. Clarence King P1K SPS / WSC

Sat, Jul 15, 2000

With: Mark Connell

Etymology
Mt. Cotter
Mt. Clarence King
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3
Mt. Cotter later climbed Sun, Sep 14, 2008
Mt. Clarence King later climbed Sat, Sep 25, 2004

Continued...

In another area of the Sierra, Mt. Cotter might look more impressive with its small pointed summit towering over 12,700 feet into the air. However, it finds itself in the hard-to-get-attention position located between two much more impressive peaks, Mt. Clarence King to the north, and Mt. Gardiner to the southwest. But someone felt it deserved to make it on the SPS peak list, and for this reason (admittedly not a great one) it had some attraction to me on our trip through Gardiner Basin.

We had already climbed Mt. Gardiner the day before, and still had Mt. Clarence King to climb later in the day. Our main issue in tackling Mt. Cotter was not a technical one (it's a pretty straightforward class 2 climb), but rather one of endurance. Mark was concerned that if he were to climb Mt. Cotter, he might not have enough left for Mt. Clarence King later. And Clarence King, after all, was the crown jewel of the region and the reason we embarked on the trip to begin with. We were camped at the southern end of the largest of the Gardiner Lakes, at 11,400 feet. In working to convince Mark to join me for a morning climb of Mt. Cotter, I pointed out that it was only a climb of 1,300 feet from our camp, and we would be able to climb almost empty-handed -- just some water and our cameras. In weighing his options, Mark remembered that he had forgone Charlotte Dome to ensure Mt. Gardiner, and was glad later for the decision -- Mt. Gardiner had been quite an exhausting undertaking. I further pointed out that our route to Mt. Clarence King might allow us to lose less elevation during the traverse than we had originally expected, possibly saving over 1,000 feet of elevation loss and gain.

"What the heck," was his answer to the dilemma, with only a lingering doubt remaining.

It was really a short distance from our camp to the summit, less than a mile horizontally. The campsite had been selected the night before with this in mind, so it was hardly an accident that we found ourselves so close at the start. The southeast and southwest faces of Mt. Cotter are very similar -- large piles of boulder upon boulder with a moderate class 2 slope. This contrasts markedly from the northeast face more prominently visible from the Sixty Lakes Basin, where the face is nearly a vertical cliff. Our route was the gentler southwest face, but the boulders were unrelenting from the bottom to the summit. It was 7:30a when we started, comfortably shaded by the ridge above from the sun which would likely make things warm again today. We climbed steadily upward, staying together for the first 20 minutes or so until I moved out steadily ahead. It was 8:30a when I reached the top of the higher south summit (the lower north summit looks more difficult to climb, but too far away to entice us to give it a try). Mark was about 20 minutes behind at that point, and he joined me shortly before 9a.

From Mt. Cotter's summit, Mt. Clarence King's summit looks needle-like, the summit rocks standing in profile, the highest block overhanging to the east. Even more impressive was the view of Mt. Gardiner and it's northeast face which loomed up behind us to the west. The face was a virtual cliff, and the knife-edged arete looked impossibly difficult. Certainly we would have had much graver doubts about reaching its summit had we approached it from this direction. We also had a great view of the Sixty Lakes Basin area. It looked much greener and more inviting than the stark rocky terrain of the upper Gardiner Basin we were travelling through. Fin Dome in particular caught my attention, its summit shape aptly named for the fish's fin it resembles. I made a mental note to return to this area if only to climb this impressive looking (although not very high) peak. We found the register, an ammo box, which along with the register inside had been placed in 1994. Serveral entries in the register referenced the shame of having had the previous register removed or stolen, which purportedly went back to 1921. Neither Mt. Gardiner nor Mt. Clarence King (as we found out later) had registers going very far back (Mt. Gardiner's went back to 1971) and they are climbed less frequently than Mt. Cotter (probably because of the relative ease of reaching Mt. Cotter's summit), so I had doubts that the previous register could really have gone back that far. It's been my experience that the more frequent a peak is climbed, the fewer years back go the register entries. I understand many full registers end up in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, in the Sierra Club Archives. Some are removed by individuals who value the older registers more for their own souvenir than for the collective enjoyment of future climbers. Certainly I can understand the temptation to take these historical registers as a keepsake. But really, they have no value in a private collection, and I suspect the ones that are stolen over the years are eventually forgotten and discarded. Ah, well. I won't lose much sleep over the fate of these things, but it would be nice to see them preserved on the peaks for future generations.

After another half hour or so of taking in the view and our pictures, we headed down at 9:30a. We took a more direct line down, heading west rather than southwest, which took us down the steepest part of the southwest face. I thought the scree and sand I could see from above might make for a quicker descent, but there wasn't enough sand to allow the plunging/sliding steps that can make sand so enjoyable on the way down. Instead I found myself on some friction slabs that took some careful maneuvering to keep from slipping off them. I heard Mark yell from above just before a couple of softball sized rocks came zinging down about 50 feet from me. Apparently he was yelling, "Rock!" He was on some of the friction slabs I had crossed earlier that had thin layers of sand covering them in places. This make the footing very tricky, and easy to have a foot or two slip out from under one's self. After a second series of rocks came whizzing down, I made sure to keep far to the right of Mark until I was much further down the slope (no more rocks came after that).

I reached the edge of the lake just below Mt. Cotter's summit, and then traversed the eastern edge back around to our campsite. Along the lake shore here we discovered one of the Mother Lodes of mosquito hatcheries, and I quickly got some DEET to my face and neck. It was particularly irritating because it seemed the mosquitoes had no right to be here. There was nothing along the lake shore save rock and more rock. Almost no vegetation of any kind. What could possibly induce the mosquitoes to congregate in such masses in so desolate a spot? One could only imagine a cruel trick of nature intended to snare the unwary hiker who wandered by. I returned to camp at 10:15a, 45 minutes after leaving the summit -- a short climb indeed. Mark caught up again, and very soon thereafter we packed up to leave the lake in the sole possession of the mosquitoes to do with it as they pleased. On to Mt. Clarence King!

Mt. Clarence King - the most difficult Sierra ascent of the nineteenth century, when Bolton C. Brown climbed it in 1896. That alone was inspiration to want to climb this peak, but it has other key items going for it. Mt. Clarence King is one of the more technically difficult (5.4) peaks on the SPS list, and it is one of the 15 Emblem Peaks in the Sierra, so designated for their prominence in the local geography and the outstanding views from their summits. Clarence King was also one of the key figures in Sierra history, starting as a member of the Whitney Survey Party and popularizing Sierra mountaineering in his book, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (even if he did tend to the melodramatic). Our trip had been predicated on the goal of reaching the summit of this grand peak, and so far we had climbed all the other subsidiary peaks we had hoped to climb as well -- Charlotte Dome, Mt. Gardiner, and Mt. Cotter. Now it was time to tackle the main objective.

We broke camp at the far southern end of the largest of the Gardiner Lakes and headed for Mt. Clarence King. Our early morning warmup climb of Mt. Cotter had taken only a few hours, so we had plenty of time as we headed out at 10:40a. Initially, we had been discouraged when we thought we'd have to lose over a thousand feet of elevation before we could begin the climb up to Mt. Clarence King. A further study of the map, and our views from the top of Mt. Cotter, showed that it might be possible to keep to the east of the canyon, top a small 300-foot rise, and keep from losing most of the elevation. That might put us in a position to leave our packs and climb the peak with less than 2,000 of elevation to gain. This possibility raised our anticipation of the climb considerably.

We walked around the east end of the lake (and back through that mosquito-infested boulder field) towards the mouth of the lake. Before reaching the mouth, we contoured around to the right and crossed a small basin just west of Mt. Cotter with 4 unnamed lakes. Once on the north side of this basin, we climbed the 300-foot section (this took a bit of doing in the warm sun, with our laden packs), feeling better expecting this would be our last uphill climb of the trip with our packs. We rested at the top of the small saddle to catch our breath before continuing over the north side and contouring in a northeast direction, losing elevation slightly. There were cliffs to our left, below us, as well as to our right, above us. Nicely, there is a comfortable zone of class 2 rocks that makes a wide ledge to allow us to thread through the cliff regions and find ourselves at 11,300 at the base of Mt. Clarence King's southwest face. I would highly recommend this route to anyone climbing Mts. Cotter and Clarence King from the Gardiner Basin side. In all, going from the base of one peak to the other, we climbed less than 400 feet and ended up only 100 feet lower than we had started. This would also be the best route for climbing Mts. Clarence King and Gardiner (although I don't think I'd recommend doing them both in the same day!). We also found the entire 2 mile distance to be no more than class 2, not an easy walk, but not difficult either.

We were fortunate to have a small snowfield above us with sufficient runoff to make it easy to fill our water bottles. We would not have to worry about conserving water on the climb. I had rested about 10 minutes near this water source before Mark caught up to me. He was having doubts as to whether he wanted to climb the peak. Actually he had no doubts about wanting to climb it. It was a matter of convincing his body that he would be able to do it. I encouraged him with the news that we had only 1,600 feet to climb, not 2,000 as we had previously thought. To help further, I offered to carry everything we'd need on the climb except for a water bottle I recommended he keep on his person (so as not to have to depend on me to remember to wait for him). We'd need our rope, the climbing rack, our harnesses and some water, everything else we could leave at the base and retrieve on our way down. All this seemed agreeable to Mark, so we would both head for the summit.

We found a place to leave Mark's pack and the stuff from mine that we wouldn't need (all my camping gear), and headed up the southwest slope at 12:30p. I had been expecting to find the southwest slope a difficult class 3-4 route, but found it to be class 2 nearly to the top (I'm not sure where I got the notion that the whole slope would be difficult). Much of the slope is a sand and scree mix that makes for difficult uphill progress. Luckily, we found that there is a boulder section that splits the sand and scree mixture roughly in the middle. This was the preferred terrain for us, so we followed it all the way up for an hour and a half. The boulders give way to larger blocks which give way to more solid granite that becomes pregressively steeper the higher one goes. I waited at times to make sure Mark found his way onto the same route I was following. It would be problematic if either of us found an impasse without both of us being together (where we could then use our rope). While I was comfortable in the class 4+ stuff we were climbing, Mark was growing increasingly concerned. When we passed one rappel sling left by a previous party, it was apparent that others had chosen to rope up in this area, and this seemed to give Mark reason to pause. At a second rappel sling another 50 feet up, Mark decided he'd taken enough chances. Time for the rope.

Mark took the lead for the first pitch, on the assumption that the difficulty was not too great, and the tougher stuff would be further up (where he'd relinquish the lead to me). I used the rappel slings for an anchor and belayed Mark as he began the climb. The first 40-50 feet were easy enough, until Mark ran into difficulties. As I waited below, Mark made several attempts to climb a two inch crack in an open book that was about 15 feet high (seen here on the way back down, viewed from above). He backed off and tried another route before being stymied again. After about 15 minutes of looking for alternatives, Mark called down,

"Uh, I think I'll let you do this one."

He set up an anchor and belayed me up to his spot. The crack appeared difficult, probably about 5.6 or so. I looked around much as Mark had, paying more attention to the right (east) of our location. It seemed we could walk around a ledge and downclimb a short ways to put us onto the south ridge where the normal route goes (and is easier class 4). But after debating for a minute or so, I decided to climb the crack that blocked our way in front of us. Now that we had the rope and gear out, it seemed it might be more fun to do rock climbing instead of more scrambling. I got first my right hand in half way, then about two feet above that I inverted my left hand and shoved it in as far as I could. Using both hands to pull me up, I jammed the toes of my boots as best I could into the open book and lifted myself up. I moved my hands higher and repeated the toe jamming before I was able to grasp the ledge above and pull myself out. After that difficulty, the climbing was more scrambling and I moved steadily upward until I was just below the summit blocks.

I was a little surprised to find myself staring at the summit blocks. I still thought it would take a bit more effort to reach this point. When I asked Mark, he told me I still had 40-50 feet left of our 37m rope (yes, it's a confusing mix of metric and English measurements), which would be more than enough to reach the top. I debated briefly whether to belay Mark up before the summit block, or to just finish it off. It's supposed to be a 5.4 climb up a crack to the second block before a "delicate move" onto the summit block. Hmmm... Dropping my pack, I decided to go for it, carrying only the climbing gear and my camera. It was easy enough to pull myself up onto the flake in front of the second block which led me into the crack. The crack opens up in a V-shape that I supposed I was to climb into. There was an old piece of rope wedged under a chockstone at the bottom of the V. I remembered the description of Bolton Brown's first ascent of this peak where he tossed up a knotted rope which he used to pull himself up with. This was undoubtedly the same chockstone he had used over 100 years earlier, although the piece of rope there now was only a few years old. It wasn't long enough to help me pull up by, but it had a loop at the end through I placed a caribiner and then attach to the rope as protection before hoisting myself up into the V. I got most of my body jammed in and got momentarily stuck in the process. My hands had barely any room to move, and the pro I carried on a sling got wedged between my hip and the rock, keeping me from squirming any higher. While I had little fear of falling out, the inability to move forward was some cause for frustration. With small movements I was able to wiggle the pro free, and with a tenuous grip with one hand on the chockstone, I pulled myself up. The second block tapers to an edge that, once stood on, provides the only access to the summit block.

The summit block is a huge square shaped block, about 10 feet on a side. While I stood on the second block, the edge of the summit block was about chest high. The top of the summit block is fairly smooth, without cracks or protrusions to provide good hand-holds. Further, the top slopes at about a 15 degree incline to the west where it drops off for over a thousand feet. On the side facing the second block upon which I stood, the edge of summit block is rounded so that I couldn't use a mantling technique to climb it. The "delicate move" requires one to have two hand on the summit block (with one weak hand-hold between them), lift one leg up to the lowest part of the top of the summit block (which happens to be where it drops off to a cliff), and "roll" onto the summit block with a push of the other leg off the second block. As a bouldering problem it is really quite simple and could be executed without problem by anyone of average skill. The exposure is what really makes it difficult, as one constantly second guesses each foot or hand placement and questions the grip of the hands and boots on the rough granite. Finally, I held my breath as I pushed off onto the summit. The momentum of the push carried me onto the summit, the friction holding my hands and boot as expected (and dearly hoped!). The summit, at last!

After a moment of elation, I went about the task of figuring out how to belay Mark to the summit as well. There are no bolts on top as on some of the other difficult summits (like Thunderbolt or Cathedral), and the entire summit block is one solid block of granite, completely void of cracks over the entire surface of the top. I could only weakly place a sling around the southeast corner of the block, but I had little faith it would hold should Mark pull on the rope (and me). The one saving feature of the summit block was a six-inch ledge on the south side which I could sit behind and use my legs against, to provide resistance should I get pulled on the rope. If the pull was hard enough I would pop up and over the summit block, possibly landing on the second block, or possibly getting pulled beyond that, another 15 feet down. I pictured the accident in my mind, the accident report ("Failure to provide adequate anchoring for a belay"), and then reseated the weak sling on the summit block's corner to provide a bit more friction between the nylon and rock.

"Belay On!" I signaled to Mark, who then proceeded to climb up to join me. When he reached the base of the summit blocks, he looked up incredulously, as if to say, "You've got to be kidding!" Mark hadn't been sure he was going to climb the mountain earlier, and now he was thinking he might not reach the summit after all. I explained the procedure he needed to follow, showing him the pro placed to protect a fall at the crack. Mark managed his way up the crack onto the second block easily enough, although he protested at the difficulty (in fact, he climbed it faster than I had managed to). Looking up at the summit block, he gave me that incredulous look again, and didn't really believe my description for the final move. It hardly seems possible that only friction could hold one on such a move. He stood on the second block, hands on the summit block, and surveyed the situation. Now that he could see me, he realized the tenuous position I had to belay from and questioned my ability to hold him on the final move. Mark was coming to believe he'd leave the summit block well enough alone and accept not reaching the very top. He had found the summit register down below the second block, so at least he could sign it and lay claim to having climbed the peak.

When I realized he was talking himself out of the summit block, I did my best to convince him otherwise. I showed him that I did have a decent belay to get him up, and besides, a fall would likely only be down 5-6 feet into the V formed between the second and summit blocks. And lastly, he'd come to regret later leaving the summit block untouched. Weighing all this over in his mind (along with all the other reasons to ignore me), Mark finally decided to do it. I held him very tightly on the rope (and in fact intended to pull him up if he should slip), he gripped the summit block as tightly as he could, and pushed off the second block. All the muscles in his arms tightened, and his face grimmaced as a momentary fear gripped him. But his grip on the summit block held, and he pulled up onto it, without any help from the rope (other than as a security blanket).

We smiled and congratulated each other on a climb well done. We could relax now (at least until we had to figure out how to get down), and enjoyed the views around us. We'd have had a snack as well, except we had left our packs with food and water down below the summit blocks. Mt. Gardiner was the most striking peak to our south, with Mt. Brewer and it's neighbors behind Gardiner in the distance. To the southeast, east, and north were many, many more peaks, only a few of which we could identify. Nearly all of the High Sierra was visible from the summit since Mt. Clarence King doesn't lie on the Sierra Crest (much like the Brewer and Kaweah Ranges). To the west was a swell view of Gardiner Creek, our intended route to return to Kings Canyon. After taking our summit photos [ 1 - 2 - 3] (trying to keep from tangling our rope was a bit tricky with all the manuevering), we went about the business of getting down. Mark went down first, in a reverse manner to which he climbed up, belayed by me in the same way. Getting me off the summit block would be a bit trickier. We decided to have Mark set up a belay while still on the second block, in order to limit the distance I would fall should I come off incorrectly. Mark set up an anchor using a sling around the corner of the second block, and belayed me on a very short leash (he was only about 4-5 feet from me). Rather than try to reverse the climb, I decided to jump down onto the second block. It was an easy jump, but the exposure caused a few seconds of tension until I came to rest on the second block. After that we alternately climbed down off the second block via the crack we had climbed earlier. Once down, we located the register and signed ourselves in. We were the second party on the summit this year. After a quick snack and some water, we headed down.

We down climbed without the rope until we came to the top of the difficult section where we found a handy set of slings left by a previous party. We used these to rappel down to a second sling (the one where we had roped up at on our way to the summit), where we did a second rappel. It took us 30 minutes to do the two rappels, stopping to pack the rope away at 5:45p. Mark started down while I packed the gear away, and then I started down in earnest to catch up. This time we took the path through the sand and scree, sliding and plunge-stepping our way through an enjoyable descent. It took only 15 minutes to descend what had taken an hour and a half on the way up. We returned to our packs, reloaded all our gear, and hefted our packs for the descent down Gardiner Creek.

While the climbing portion of our trip was done, the adventure was not over yet. Returning to the trailhead at Roads End was going to be somewhat challenging. If we returned the way we came it would require climbing up to Mt. Gardiner again, and neither of us were relishing that. The simplest way seemed to be to follow the canyon downstream, along Gardiner Creek, until it joined the Kings River at Mist Falls, where we could then pick up the trail for the short four mile hike back to the trailhead. Most of the route down Gardiner Creek looked passable enough, at least from viewing the topo map. The last part before Mist Falls drops 1000 ft in a very short distance, and we weren't sure how passable this section would be. We could find no information in our books or on the web about this route. We had inquired of the ranger when we got our permit, but he advised against it, telling us they had to rescue two persons from there when they wandered down that way and "cliffed out". That was discouraging. But still, we had our rope, and a number of slings, and it seemed plausible that we could rappel off a few steep parts if need be. I had spent the last two days convincing Mark that this would be the best (defined as easiest) route, and after two days of hard climbing he was inclined to agree. So off we went.

The upper portion of Gardiner Creek was particularly enjoyable, a high alpine meadow environment with rock and water and lots of alpine ground cover, a sprinkling of flowers (the beauty of which is pretty much lost in B&W photos), and some sparse, weatherbeaten pines. Travel here was quite easy over gently sloping granite slabs. Our plan was to hike as far down as daylight would allow (about two hours), camp, and then use as much of the next day as necessary to negotiate the ever steepening canyon that Gardiner Creek had carved. After the first half hour (or about a mile), we got down to around 10,500 ft where the forest came to dominate the vegetation. In addition, the canyon became steeper, and our choices for descent more limited. We found ourselves in a number of class 3 sections that were tricky to negotiate with our heavy packs. The map had showed this part of the canyon to have relatively wide contour spacings. Further down it would get much, much steeper. Doubts began to form as we found ourselves making slower progress the further down we went. Another 20 minutes passed and we found ourselves in the thick of the forest floor. We were doing some bushwhacking, making slow progress and being chased by marauding bands of mosquitoes, when we both began to realize that this was going to be more difficult than we had expected. I was first to cave, and expressed my doubts about our route.

"You know, maybe this isn't a good idea..." I opened with.

"What, coming down the creek?" Mark replied.

I gave my three reasons for doubting our choice:

We discussed our alternatives, and agreed that the safest one was to exit via Gardiner Pass to the south. How to get there was another matter. There appeared to be a small gully we could climb across the creek from us that from the map looked like it would lead up into the upper canyon just north of the pass. Alternatively we could go downstream further to where the canyon's subsidiary stream joined Gardiner Creek and hike uphill from there. That second option would cost us almost 800 feet of elevation loss (which we'd have to regain), so we chose to try the route up the gully. There would likely be little water up there, so it was necessary for us to refill our water down here at the stream. This turned out to be more difficult than we had expected, first requiring us to cross the creek (at this point the creek was becoming more than a trickle, and it was difficult finding a spot to cross as we bushwhacked first in one direction, then the other), then the mosquitoes swarmed to massacre us as we removed our packs revealing even more surface area vulnerable to attack. I quickly got the last of my bug juice on my face and hands, and put my jacket on to keep them off my upper torso. Even with this, there were so many that I was completely distracted, and found that I was talking to Mark in short sentences, annoyed, and fairly paranoid about our predicament. Mark was being bitten left and right (he was wearing just a T-shirt), and it was all we could do just to fill the water bottles and get our packs back on. I wanted to get away from the creek as fast as I could, and so started off even before Mark had finished reshouldering his pack. They might bring Mark down while he struggled with his pack, but I didn't want to let them slaughter me with a fight (or rather a flight).

A couple hundred feet higher, and away from the creek, I found the mosquitoes much diminished, and my stress level similarly reduced. If there is a hell, and I end up there when I die, surely there will be mosquitoes there to taunt me through eternity. We headed up the gully, which was mostly a pile of boulders where it crested. I arrived first, stood looking at the scene before me, and reached to get out the map. Mark, joining me a few minutes later, commented that he knew it wasn't good when I reached for the map. Instead of finding ourselves in the canyon leading up to Gardiner Pass, we were facing large cliffs on our left, forming a cresent-shaped barrier to the canyon we sought. It did not look good. We might have to go back down to the creek again, hike a mile further downstream, and then head back up the mouth of the canyon. It was 7:15p now, and it seemed we would have insufficient daylight to execute the alternative. What had gone wrong? Turns out we had climbed a slightly lower part of the ridge which didn't, in fact, lead over to the other side (1/3 of an inch difference on the map we had). Lake 9530, at the foot of the upper portion of the side canyon we were seeking, was still almost a mile away at the other end of the cliffs, just on the other side of a small rise. We couldn't see the lake, but at least now we knew precisely where we were.

We briefly considered making camp where we were and dealing with the mess in the morning. But we still had almost an hour of daylight, and it seemed a shame to waste it. There was no telling just how long it would take to extricate ourselves from the Wilderness the following day. After staring at the cliffs for a short while, it seemed we might be able to contour around the base of the cliffs over to the lake without too much loss in altitude. We couldn't see the entire route due to the trees and smaller ridges blocking our view, but it seemed worth a try. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, as we were able to make our way around, with only minor ups and downs, all the way to the other end of the cliffs. It was 8p when we reached the ridge which we now knew was a short distance from the lake. There was no desire to reach the lake, as it was likely the mosquitoes would be waiting in force for us anywhere near water. Instead we found some flat, sandy areas on a rocky knoll, which seemed the least enticing place for mosquito habitat. It had the added advantage of overlooking the middle portion of Gardiner Creek, and gave us some swell views looking down as the sun was settling behind the hills to the west.

Even here, the mosquitoes did not leave us be. We set up camp quickly, never stopping in one place for more than a few seconds lest the mosquitoes would have a chance to zero in on us. I found myself changing clothes while walking in large circles, doing the same to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. I made sure I already had my pad and bag safely in my bivy sack, made one last pass around the rocks (to shake the mosquitoes off) before diving quickly into the bivy and sealing the insect netting. Only then could I relax (Mark was already several minutes in his tent) enough to think about having something to eat and drink (which I had already stashed in the bivy). I had a few NutriGrain bars and some dry salami, which did wonders for my being. Life was good again. It was about 8:30p, the sun had set, but it was still fairly light out. It had been a long day, and tomorrow would be another long haul to get out to the trailhead.

We rose at 6a the next morning. We had had a few drops of rain the previous nights, but the weather was fine again by morning - just some thin sheets of very high clouds. Shortly after 6:30a we were packed up and headed out. The mosquitoes were more subdued this morning, for reasons I couldn't determine (perhaps they were tired after the constant strafing they subjected us to the previous evening). We took advantage of their complacency to head out and up towards Gardiner Pass. The hike up the canyon was particularly pleasant. There were a few swampy areas that we needed to navigate around, but most of the route is easy to negotiate through the forest floor, with a smattering of flowering meadows to offer some color. We kept the creek to our right as we headed south, often following the faint remains of a trail that used to exist up this canyon (there are no maintained trails anywhere in the Gardiner Basin nowadays). It was several hours before we had traveled the 3 miles are so leading up to the pass. The trees gave way to a more alpine setting, and there are several nice lakes just before the pass. The canyon itself turns left (east) at this point where it culminates at the base of Mt. Gardiner. Our route lead us across the creek, south, onto some boulders and a patch of snow, where we found a painted board, all that was left of what was probably an old trail sign. The pass was still a good 300-400 feet above us, the route quite steep to get to it. Fortunately, we found the old trail again, which provided a more manageable route with its packed-sand surface and more reasonably-sloped switchbacks.

It was 9a when we reached the pass, at nearly 11,300 ft. We stopped for a short rest and a snack as we enjoyed the views both north and south. Now all we had to do was descend something like 6,300 ft to the trailhead in about 10 miles. We headed down the trail towards Charlotte Dome, but lost the trail in less than a minute. No matter. Travel on this side of the pass is markedly different from the steep boulders on the north side of the pass. The south side is forested to the top of the pass, and the slope is much gentler and regular, without any steep sections at all. We rambled down through the forest, heading for the east side of Charlotte Dome where we had come up several days earlier. We had a great view of the Brewer Range (Francis Farquhar in the center, Brewer to the far left, North guard just right of Brewer) to our south, far across the gorge carved by Bubbs Creek. Soon enough we found ourselves in somewhat familiar territory between Charlotte Dome and Charlotte Creek. I say "somewhat" because we had come through here at night on the way in, and we weren't exactly sure which route we had taken up. Closer to the creek, the trees give way to brush: the dry, scraggly stuff away from the creek, the impossibly dense variety close to the creek. We found the bushwhacking much more annoying that we had on the way up, making us believe we weren't following the path of least resistance. No matter which part of the hillside we tried, we couldn't find the use trail that's supposed to exist, and we couldn't find the easier path through the brush we thought we'd used earlier. In hindsight, the darkness probably helped us ignore the bushwhacking more, and going uphill we going much slower, so a little whacking in addition didn't make as much difference as it does going downhill during the daytime, where we expected to travel much faster. Eventually we did manage to find the use trail, close to the edge of the granite skirt surrounding the base of Charlotte Dome. For others looking to find this trail, I would suggest staying right on the line between the granite and brush as you head down, and you will no doubt locate it. Wandering into the brush will slow you down, and wandering too far up the granite will leave you some short class 3-4 cliffs to negotiate. The trail was dusty and sandy and broke up in several places, but for the most part was manageable and preferable to the alternatives.

We followed the use trail nearly the rest of the way down Charlotte Creek towards Bubbs Creek. A hundred yards or so before the end of the junction, we lost the use trail for good. It appeared that heavy rains had flooded this area several years earlier, upturning trees, changing sand and gravel bars, and removing the evidence of the use trail. That explains why we were unable to find the use trail initially when we were heading up Charlotte Creek. We continued heading SW, and eventually stumbled upon the main trail we'd been looking for. It was like coming out of the Wilderness and finding a four-lane highway. A nice, wide, dusty trail that we could make 3 mph instead of the paltry 1 mph we'd been making in the brush. It was 11:30a when we reached the trail, with just under 7.5 miles to go. Once Mark joined me on the trail, I took off at a steady pace, not slowing the rest of the way. I came across the first people we'd seen in days, a group of backpackers heading up the trail. I stopped a few times to have some water, but didn't rest for more than a minute. More and more people showed up along the trail, particularly once I dropped down the steep section where the bridges cross The Kings River, two miles from Roads End. It was warmer now, down at 5,000 feet, probably 85 degrees. I came across a family of 6 at the one mile mark, huddled under the shade of tree just off the trail. They asked me how far it was to the bridge, and seemed somewhat discouraged that they had covered only half the distance. Only the youngest member of the family, maybe 5 years old, seemed to be enjoying himself as he poked around a fallen log, ignoring the sun bearing down on him - a future backpacker! I returned to the car at Roads End, hot and exhausted, at 2p. For the last two hours I had ignored the mild burning feeling on my feet which was a sure sign that blisters were forming. My feet would heal soon enough I reasoned, and I had no need to hike anywhere for a while. Mark showed up about 20 minutes later; I'd hardly had time to change my clothes, get out of my boots, and have a soda. I was hoping I might have another 20 minutes or so to relax, but that would have to wait. It was time for our 5-6 hour drive home, and the end of a rather long but successful four days of peak bagging.


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WLD comments on 03/22/04:
I enjoyed your trip report. It was great following along with you two as I read on. Thanks
More of Bob's Trip Reports

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