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Pilot Knob was technically the easiest peak on the Challenge this year, no more than class 2 by the standard route. It's a long hike, but not overly distant, and the only thing that could recommend it as worthy is the fine views that are said to be had from the summit. And in fact the only reason it appeared on this year's list was because it one of the few SPS peaks in the area I had yet to climb. The route is fairly simple. From North Lake, hike up the Piute Pass Trail to the pass, where Pilot Knob can then be seen. Hike across Humphreys Basin to the peak. There are many undulations along the basin as many of those who went to Pilot Knob would attest. I never found out for myself because I never made it that far. I had also been eyeing nearby Mt. Emerson, and imagined somehow that I could climb Emerson's SE Face and descend the West Ridge on my way to Pilot Knob. A bit of hubris on my part as it turns out.
There were 11 of us at the trailhead for the 6a start. Three others had left even earlier, expecting that they would take longer than the main body of participants. Glenn, Mark, and myself were interested in Mt. Emerson's East Face, a few others expressed interest in a route up the South Face. Nobody suggested us our plan to climb both peaks was foolhardy, probably because they thought we knew what we were talking about (later Matthew said he didn't expect us to be able to do both, but he didn't comment at the time because he didn't want to discourage us). It was just past 6a and we hadn't yet started. Neither Matthew nor Scott M., both of whom had paced us the previous day, were present, and it was as though someone forgot the starting gun. Glenn was in the bathroom as I was commentint "I guess it's time to head out," and up the trail I headed. I wasn't very forceful with my conviction as evidenced by the fact that nobody claimed later to have heard me. Glenn came out of the restroom, others looked around for me and assumed I was now in the restroom. It took another 10 minutes before they realized it was empty and concluded I must have started without them. Which I did.
It was actually a nice quiet hike in the early morning and I didn't mind at all having the trail to myself. As Emerson came into view I studied the face some looking for the route, but based on the description provided by Secor I was unable to identify it. After an hour, just short of reaching Loch Leven, I paused at the trail to wait for my companions as well as to fill up my water bottles from the stream that trickled across the trail here. Glenn and Mark were not long in coming, and the three of us were already heading towards the base of the mountain before the others had come by. We had some discussion about where the route lay, myself thinking it was in the middle of the face, the others believing it further to the right. The picture we had was very poor and it was not easy to match it to the face before us. I let the other two prevail, and as sometimes happens it was the right thing to do.
We reached the base of the route over easy talus slopes shortly before 7:30a. To our surprise there was a trickle of water running down the crack, and most of the rock we would have to climb was wet. This was a bit disconcerting. We looked up at the intimidating start, all our nonchallance about the route dissolving away. Matthew, having climbed it earlier in the year with Sam had told us that they thought it was pretty "doable" as a solo. He never mentioned about the water though. We had no rope, so we either went up solo or took the class 3 option up the Emerson/Piute Chute a short distance to our right. We put on our rock shoes as we discussed the merits of the route based on what we could see. Glenn was the first to have a go at it, and in fine style made it look almost easy, though his words betrayed a lack of easy confidence. Chatting away to hide my nervousness, I went second. Knowing Glenn was a better rock climber than myself didn't help since I couldn't just figure, "Glenn made it, so can I." I was happy to find that the water didn't make the rock slippery at all. It was a nuisance, but not a real danger. The first 40 feet were all the 5.4 difficulty I could want without thinking I was over my head. It was definitely the crux of the route as it rose quite steeply in that first section. Halfway up I paused to catch Glenn enjoying the view from above, and Mark looking nervously up from the bottom.
Mark pondered this a good deal more before deciding his solo career was not ready to tackle this route. He decided to take the alternate route to the right and we watched him head up the talus to the chute in plain sight to the NE. That left just Glenn and I, so up we went. The crack was a pretty enjoyable route, consistently spicy without scaring the pants off us. Our route description said to leave the crack to the right before reentering it later, but we simply pushed up the crack instead. Climbing in gloves, the cold, wet rock didn't bother me as much as it might otherwise. In a few places my holds were the bottoms of little pools of water, and I winced as the water soaked up the pool and dribbled the water down my shirt sleeve towards my elbow. Fortunately the weather was quite nice (again not a cloud to start) and I managed to warm up and dry off soon enough. Glenn and I swapped leads several times, mostly when we wanted to get a picture of the other from a particular angle. The nice, full-body crack climbing ended after only 30 minutes and we found ourselves at the start of 500-feet of class 2 talus slogging. Yuck. Our joy in the route was quickly tempered by this nasty little section that we could have found anywhere else - Pilot Knob, for example. What was it doing here to mess up this fine route?
45 minutes later we had moseyed our way up the crummy talus and started to find good rock again. We ignored our route description that said to traverse left into the next chute (we were tired of talus in broad chutes), and took to the crack that reappeared as our chute curved some to the right. Glenn lead up this beefy crack until blocked by a chockstone. He then moved left on some delicate face climbing around a bulge, then paused to watch me do likewise. That little bit of traversing around the chockstone was the hairiest part of the whole route, in my opinion. Without any good holds, we had to trust our boots to hold on the rough granite block with a sloped and rounded edge on top. Ugh. Past this obstacle, there was some more enjoyable class 3 climbing for the short remaining distance to the ridge above us.
We were expecting the route to lead up to the NE Ridge where Mark's route would join up with our own. Instead, we found ourselves on a minor ridge some quarter mile south of the NE Ridge. Between us was a steep-sided bowl that funneled down to the chute Mark had taken up. We heard Mark's voice shouting to us, but couldn't see him on the NE Ridge. After a few moments we spotted him in the sandy talus on the bowl's flank, making his way towards the NE Ridge. He was about level with us and it seemed we might reach the summit about the same time. We waved, then turned our focus to the ridge before us.
The entire ridge from where we reached it until the summit was excellent scrambling. While we had lost some of our enthusiasm for the route in the middle section, it was now regained as we made our way along this challenging section, complete with knife edges, a short class 4 section to bypass a gendarme, and fine views along the way. It took us a good deal longer than we at first had guessed, and we watched as Mark made far better progress, beating us to the summit by 10 or 15 minutes.
It was 9:45a when Glenn and I joined Mark atop the higher east summit. We took a short break to take in the great views, have a snack, and peruse the summit register. We had taken longer than I had hoped on the route, but it seemed we still had plenty of time to head over to Pilot Knob, assuming the West Ridge off Emerson wasn't too time-consuming. The familiar clouds had started to reappear, a little thicker and a little earlier than they had the day before. So far they had not turned into lightning storms or drenching downpours, keeping our level of concern fairly low. Still, it's always a good idea to keep a watch on the sky.
We headed off to the west along the ridge. Right from the start we found the climbing harder than the advertised class 3, but also very enjoyable. It was much like a longer version of the ridge we had finished off with on the East Face route, but more up and down rather than a steady rise. Mark followed us but quickly fell behind with the tougher-than-expected difficulties. While we waited at one point for Mark to catch up, I pulled out my route description and noted that the class 3 route was along the south side of the West Ridge. Ah, that explained it. Still, the scrambling was quite enjoyable and we decided to continue along the crest as far as we were able. We suggested to Mark that he might want to take one of the easier chutes off the South Face, but Mark seemed more interested in following us along the ridge. The crux turned out to be a 30-foot downclimb section where the difficulty was probably low class 5. Going first, I was able to get a few pics of Glenn coming down. We figured this would surely stop Mark who had fallen behind again, likely forcing his hand to take the South Face down. We had traversed another 30-40 yards along the ridge when we heard Mark calling from the top of the crux. Would we mind pausing to help coach him down this section? Trying to discourage Mark from going further, Glenn commented that the crux section was the hardest section he'd been on all day. I didn't quite agree with that, but I didn't know Glenn's motivation at the time either. To his credit (or foolishness?), Mark decided he'd like to give it a try, so Glenn and I took up spectator seats while Glenn coached him down. Mark made it look easier than either Glenn or I had.
After the crux the climbing became considerably easier, essentially class 3 the rest of the was to the west summit. Mark got even further behind here, but there were no sections that we had further concerns about him getting through. We never saw Mark again until we were back in Bishop later in the day. From the west summit we strolled down the easy upper slope of the West Face, sandy talus for the most part. From the beta I knew the easier route was down the south side of the face, but for whatever reason I just followed Glenn as he followed the NW ridgeline of the slope heading more to the north. I think I was already giving up on reaching Pilot Knob (it was almost 11a), and was looking for some more challenging scrambling before we reached Piute Pass. I'd been having a really great time on Emerson and didn't really want it to end yet. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for - you might get it.
I took over the lead as we boot-skied a hundred yards of sandy slope heading west off the ridge when we encountered a notch, then started angling right (north) as we made our way down into a cliff band. We found the class 3 scrambling I was hoping for, and soon far more. We were doing a really good job making our way down through the cliffs within maybe 200ft of the bottom where the talus picks up again. But we found ourselves stopped by a sloping 150-foot slab that reminded me a great deal of the class 4 slab near the summit of Palisade Crest. We spent a good deal of time studying the slab from above looking for the easiest descent we could manage. Aside from making us nervous, the bottom of the slab looked to drop off, and we couldn't tell from our position whether we could find a way down or around once we reached the bottom of the slab. I climbed down about halfway on the easiest part of the slab, but could still not see our exit at the bottom of it. I climbed back up to Glenn, deciding I didn't want to climb the riskier part of the slab without a sure exit. Though hesitant, Glenn was ready to give it a go himself, but I suggested he not do so. I told him I didn't think I could have honestly told his father that I kept him safe if I let him go down there. I tried another tack south of the slab, but it too dead-ended.
Back up we went. Rather than retrace our route and head back to the south side of the West Face, we continued traversing north across the cliff band. Up we'd go until we crossed an arete into the next chute where we could descend again. We'd find our way blocked and then traverse up and across the next arete. It was time-consuming, but really fun. Not knowing if we'd be able to get through made us a bit nervous, but the excitement of feeling like pioneers more than compensated. And really great class 3-4 rock to boot. After some 45 minutes in the cliff band we emerged triumphantly, just finding a way down the third or fourth chute that we tried. A short glissade on an adjacent snowfield at the bottom of the cliff, and we were soon down in Humphreys Basin on easy ground.
Hiking across the basin we finally talked about Pilot Knob aloud, finding that neither of us had any strong inclination to continue in that direction. And so we gave it up without much deliberation. We continued on to Piute Pass and then back down the trail towards North Lake. It was still fairly early in the afternoon and I was feeling pretty good, the descent easy. We stopped periodically to snap pictures of the beautiful flowers abundantly displayed around the meadows and lakes. The weather, which had still looked okay while we were at the pass just before 1p, was now closing in quickly. The sky was fully clouded over and getting quite dark. By the time we reached the parking lot at 2:30p the first drops began to fall. Not the misty drizzle of the previous few days, but fat drops that told you to get your rain gear on in a hurry. We jumped in our cars and headed back down to Bishop as the rain broke in earnest - we had avoided the rain gear by a matter of minutes.
Glenn and I were the first two back at the trailhead that day (not exactly true - Matthew had started later in the morning and hiked up as far as Piute Pass before returning), and the only ones that avoided the tremendous downpour that unleashed on the Piute Pass area. Mark had continued down the West Ridge route on Emerson, avoided the cliffs on the north side of the West Ridge, but still finding some spicy downclimbing in getting off the face further south. He returned about 3:30p. The first of those that had gone to Pilot Knob returned at 4p. They reported torrentional rains that swept across the trail in flash flood fashion. One picture they took showed the crack on Emerson's East Face route a gushing waterfall. Others that took longer to return from the peak reported thunder & lightning and a stressful time feeling unprotected in the wide-open Humphreys Basin. Scott Hanson was the slowest getting back. He hunkered down during the heaviest rain, but was too slow hiking down from Piute Pass to reach the trailhead before darkness overtook him. Without a headlamp, he spent the night on the trail perhaps a half mile from the trailhead, not returning until the next morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Emerson
This page last updated: Fri Sep 19 14:17:54 2014
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