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The 2011 Sierra Challenge was upon us. Friday morning had us awake in the dark, gathering by headlamp at the day use parking lot of Mono Village at Twin Lakes. There were more than a dozen of us starting out on this first day. It would be something like 24 miles with 5,000ft of gain, the hardest day on this year's schedule. Most heading to Ehrnbeck, with one participant heading to the alernatives of Whorl and Matterhorn, no easy day either. Joining us for some of this year's Challenge was Michael Darter, a free-lance photographer who was hired by Backpacker Magazine to do a story on the event. He and I had exchanged emails and phone calls during the weeks prior to the start to help him understand things better and have a feel for what he was in for. An accomplished climber, hiker and adventurer, Michael had broken his collarbone in a mountain biking accident only a few weeks earlier and had his arm in a sling. In addition to carrying heavy camera gear and having to focus on photo opportunities, it seemed a terrible handicap to contend with. I must say that Michael is a pretty tough guy and performed admirably. Even if nothing ever came of the Backpacker story, we had found another fun competitor to share the Challenge with.
Walking quietly through the still-sleeping campground, we made our way to the trailhead following the yellow diamonds attached to the trees along the route. It is nearly a mile from the parking lot to the trailhead, a measure of the hugeness that is Mono Village. It seems possible there are folks that have been camping there for decades, having been unable to find their way out once inside. We regrouped for a photo at the trailhead kiosk, then started off again, splintering into the usual smaller groups.
By 5:30a we were putting away our headlamps, crossing a few small streams and cruising switchbacks as we made our way up the canyon along the north side of Robinson Creek. Sunrise came to the higher peaks above us as we reached Barney Lake around 6:30a. A mile above the lake we had to cross Robinson Creek without the help of bridge, logs or rocks, some (like me) choosing to remove boots and socks, others simply walking across, wet boots be damned. The opposite side where we paused to put our boots back on turned out to be a lethal trap set by the horde of mosquitoes that came out to harass us. This was somewhat of a surprise for mid-August by which time most of the mosquitoes have usually died off. Not so this year with a long and wet winter/spring, giving us a chance to use the DEET that normally just sits in the bottom of the pack. We reached a trail junction at 7:30a and the beautiful Peeler Lake twenty minutes later.
As we were hiking around the north side of the lake and admiring the view of Crown Point rising above the opposite side, we came across Brian and Marie French taking a break on a large rock overlooking the lake, apparently waiting for us. From time to time they have joined us for one of the longer outings on the Sierra Challenge, Gemini and Mt. Spencer two of them from previous years. They rarely give notice ahead of time, preferring to just show up as the mood fits, and of course they are always welcome. I hadn't seen them for the past year and in the interim they had gotten married (thus Marie P. was now Marie F.). They are both pretty tough outdoor folks and just the nicest couple - I couldn't be happier for them and congratulated them.
Our group of four became a group of six as we entered Yosemite west of Peeler Lake and reached Kerrick Meadow around 8:15a. Here we left the trail system to head cross-country. We needed to climb to a saddle south of Center Peak and drop into Thompson Canyon before we could begin the climb to Ehrnbeck Peak. The 700 foot climb to the saddle at 9,900ft was not difficult and the terrain both easily managed and scenic. Acker Peak rises to the south of the saddle and there was much snow on the north-facing rock faces leading up to its lower north summit. Hawksbeak Peak to the northwest looked to be the most impressive summit seen from the saddle while Ehrnbeck looked decidedly ho-hum from our vantage point. It was similarly straightforward to drop into Thompson Canyon, though the mosquitoes we found in crossing the meadow came out in force, hurrying us across to the drier, less mosquito-ridden slopes leading up towards Ehrnbeck. Those of us that were short on water made a quick stop to grab some from the stream before beating it out of the meadow. I was harried enough to put on my windbreaker just to keep them from biting through my t-shirt.
The climb out of Thompson Canyon was steep but not without some enjoyable, if moderate, scrambling. Our group splintered further, each member seeming to take a different route through the slopes that had several cliff areas to avoid. I followed an ascending traverse to the right, moving under cliff and snowfields to emerge atop the front ridge. Ehrnbeck's summit was again in view, and could be followed along the connecting ridgeline in a broad arc of about 3/4 mile length. I chose to drop down in the bowl a short distance for a more direct approach to the summit, but it didn't make a significant difference one way or the other.
After crossing a broad sun-cupped snow field near the summit, Adam and I scrambled up the final large blocks leading to the top, easy class 3. Adam and I were the first to arrive at 10a but within 15 minutes there were six of us there for a summit photo, including Michael, Tom, Adam, Brian and Marie. There were a total of 13 that would reach the summit, a fairly high number given the distance and difficulty of this first Challenge peak. There are a number of other peaks in the area, notably Wells to the southwest, Hawksbeak to the north and Center to the northeast. All of these would be visited as bonus peaks by some of the others, but not myself. I was content with not overextending myself on the first day, though not without some regret at missing the opportunity while I was so close. The highest peak in the area was Tower Peak further west, but nobody would venture over that way as a bonus effort - the ridgeline is far from trivial and its difficulties were described in some detail by Barry and Scotty who had done this traverse some years earlier, part of a tough 30hr outing that made for quite an epic (correction - 20hrs, per ScottyS 5/1/2012).
While the others went off to other summits, Adam, Michael and I started back. We came across Bill Peters about half a mile from the summit, just before we started dropping back down into Thompson Canyon. He greeted us with a big smile, apparently alone, but reporting Karl and others to be in the vicinity (though we never saw them). We hiked back up to the saddle via a similar route we had taken earlier, surprised to find a group of four backpackers making their way down from the saddle on the cross-country portion to Kerrick Meadow. More unusual was that they were all ladies, looking like they were having a fine time without any male escorts. Gloria Steinem would be have been proud. In crossing Kerrick Meadow we startled a small racer snake that Michael pursued for a photo op before letting it go again. That was all the wildlife harrassment we would do for the day.
It was 12:30p when we returned to Peeler Lake. Michael Darter was there to get some photos of the returning crew at this scenic view spot. He had gone as far as Kerrick Meadow before returning to set up for some afternoon photos. We obligingly posed for the shots, had a short discussion, and left him to wait for some of the others. He would be there a while since the rest were either heading to bonus peaks or taking an hour or more longer to reach Ehrnbeck. It was a long walk back to Twin Lakes. We had more fun crossing Robinson Creek over boulders or through the water directly, enjoyed the sunlight filtering through an aspen forest, took in the lovely sights around Barney Lake and eventually got back to the parking lot around 3:15p.
As I was planning to spend a second night at the campground, I hung about the rest of the day with some of the other participants, enjoying a cold one at the lake's edge and greeting the later returnees. The campground hosted a $10 BBQ on friday nights which turned out to make for a delicious post-Challenge meal for around ten of us. Sunset came around 8p, providing some beautiful lighting off Matterhorn high up in the canyon to the south, and through the clouds drifting overhead to the west. A good first day, indeed!
Michael and I were both pursuing the Yellow jersey which was another reason I didn't pursue any bonus peaks. Our hiking together was partially to keep an eye on each other for the friendly competition. If we stayed together there would be little need to jog the return. Adam had gotten behind on the return, but was only 10 minutes after us. The next closest was more than an hour further back, so there was little other competition for yellow.
Tom and Karl both added Hawksbeak and Center for bonus peaks to take the lead for the Polka Dot jersey. Tom was more than an hour faster, though.
There were no competitors under 25yrs this year, so the White jersey was moot.
This was the first year I was eligible for the over 50yrs Green jersey and didn't expect to have much competition. The next closest participant was more than 2hrs behind. Barring an injury, this one should be in the bag, so to speak.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Ehrnbeck Peak
This page last updated: Tue May 1 10:57:58 2012
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