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The first day of the 2012 Sierra Challenge had more than two dozen participants ready to go just before sunrise at 6a in the Twin Lakes Resort parking lot. All but Sean were heading to Eocene Peak, located at the far west end of the Sawtooth Ridge. Unofficially named, it's neither technically difficult nor a very long hike - but it lies in a spectacularly scenic area and makes for a good warm up day. The first day is usually quite popular and the participants are fresh and eager to get started, today being no exception. It was hard to keep such a large group quiet while hiking through the sleeping campground on our way to Blacksmith Canyon, but overall we didn't too bad as a group. Finding the canyon is not as easy as one might guess from looking at a map. There are only a few crossings over Robinson Creek and they are not well-signed. I saw the lead group heading more left away from the bridge I knew about, so I simply veered right coming up from behind. Most of those behind me followed suit, a few in front turned around and made a quick backtrack, but it didn't really matter - everyone got across the creek and started into the forested slopes immediately beyond the campground.
Three of my four brothers were joining in the Challenge this year, a first. The youngest Rick (34yrs) chose not to hike today after he and brother Jim made a marathon drive out from Boulder, CO, arriving only 7-8hrs earlier. Ron (52yrs) and Jim (53yrs) were both on today's hike, but Jim got behind before we were even out of the campground, Ron doing a bit better. He was hiking with me and some others for about 20 minutes before the pace was too much for him and he fell back. Other participants would pop out of the woods at various times, join and split up again, in typical Challenge fashion. We had a trail of sorts for part of the way, some ducks showing one (of many) possible routes to traverse into Blacksmith Canyon. The canyon itself climbs some 3,000ft in about two miles, making for a very steep bit of scrambling. The first 1,000ft or so is in forest cover that has some amount of bushwhacking, depending on one's route-finding skills and the patience employed. Some reported awful brush while others thought there was very little at all. The worst part I recall was a poorly chosen route through a marshy section of the canyon that had some head-level brush to wade through, but I'm pretty sure I could have avoided this if I'd been more careful.
After the first hour we were through the forest and onto more open terrain, now characterized by boulder fields. The crowd was thinning considerably, down to about eight or nine in the front group. After much boulder hopping, we reached a pleasant little alpine meadow, stopping for an impromptu break. Those who had brought little water filled up here, thinking it might be the last water we;d see until the summit. This wasn't true, but it was a very pleasant spot before pushing up towards Glacier Lake. Along with some of the usual speedsters (Tom G, Ron H, Jonathan, Bob J, to name a few) were two new faces to the Challenge, Tommey and Pat. At first I thought they might be a bit nervous and hiking at a faster pace than they might normally, but over the course of the week they would prove our strongest two new participants.
After the quick break we continued up sand, talus and boulder slopes, bypassing above Glacier Lake to the west, past a small tarn, along a hard tongue of old snow and a more or less on a direct line to the summit of Eocene. I had intended to climb the peak more to the west and from the north, but missed a turn somewhere. It mattered little since the direct route, though steeper, was mostly class 2 with some easy class 3 near the summit. The last part just below the summit was very steep and sandy, making for a most tedious bit of exertion. Sensing the summit, I kept up a strong pace and was pleasantly surprised to see Pat keeping up nearly the same pace just below me - she was one determined woman. Behind her, Tommey and Bob J did all they could to keep up, but fell slowly behind. When I topped out at the summit rocks at 9:15a Jonathan and Ron H were already there, having arrived a few minutes earlier. Ron was feeling (and looking) pretty good for his 67 years.
It was a fine morning atop the summit, blue skies and only a slight breeze, making for a very pleasant time. Someone found a plastic film cannister that held a handful of register scraps dating back to 1978 and included some early names like Yamagata, smatko, Schuler and Yates, all from 1980. The previous two entries before our arrival were Matthew Holliman in 2010 and Brian French just a month earlier in 2012. We sat or stood about the summit, taking in the views, discussing various peaks and waiting for many of our fellow participants to join us. By 9:40a we had thirteen at the summit and paused to take a collective photo before continuing on. There would be another eleven to reach the summit, making for a record 24 - more than any other single Challenge day - not too shabby at all.
Eight or nine of the initial group decided to head off to the west into Little Slide Canyon either to tag nearby Kettle Peak or simply as a scenic alternate descent. Enmasse we all wandered across the flattish top of Eocene over to the west side, starting down before we really had a grip on where we should be heading. Michael seemed to be the only one that knew we had missed the easier class 2 descent off the SW Ridge. Looking down the west side we were confronted with steep, somewhat brushy chutes and cliffs that didn't look to be all that bad, at least what we could see of it. I sort of shrugged off the SW Ridge and continued down, the rest of the crowd doing likewise. In a smaller group of two or three there might have been more discussion and probably Michael would have convinced us the SW Ridge was the wiser choice. In a larger group it seems that folks get a little more complacent and decide that if everyone else is doing it, it must be ok. Sort of the mob-mentality to mountaineering. It turned out ok, but it wasn't easy. The sandy descent off the top devolved into a cliffy face peppered with small, wind-stunted pines. There was plenty of class three scrambling to make our way down through the cliffs, with various folks taking different route, others happy just to follow someone else. Jonathan was the first to make it through the cliff band, finding easy sand slopes below. He waited for others to catch up, but when I bombed down through the sand and kept going, he turned and followed. It was easy going for the most part, but a wrong turn into a field of bushes near the creek slowed us down for a moment or two. Bob J and some others managed to catch up to us while we wallowed around. Finally, half an hour after starting down, we reached Ice Lake in Little Slide Canyon.
At Ice Lake we came across a pair of backpackers who had just come into Little Slide Canyon over Ice Lake Pass. We chatted with them while waiting about 15 minutes for our crew to reassemble. Most of our group was planning to head to the bonus Kettle Peak high on the west side of the canyon. Pat, Kevin and Bob J decided they'd had enough fun for one morning, choosing to head down the canyon instead. The ascent of Kettle was made easier by a broad, sandy ramp heading up towards the peak from the south. The steepness made it far from pleasant, but it was a no-brainer for route-finding. Jonathan and I were in front, battling the sand and each other to get up the hill. This went on for much of half and hour before finally reaching the base of the summit pinnacles. There are at least three pinnacles lined up along the ridge, north-south, but it was impossible to tell which was the highest. Making a guess to bypass the southernmost one, we got lucky in finding the highpoint on the first try. Some stiff class 3 scrambling up the south side over a huge flake got us to the summit. The others were only a few minutes behind. Michael chose to climb a chimney on the east side rather than the flake from the south, while still others found the easier class 3 ascent from the west and north.
We spent another half hour at the summit, taking in some swell views around us, particularly towards the north. The Incredible Hulk stands out impressively to the east as well. A group of seven or eight at the summit was a bit crowded so a few of us moved off to the side for a comfortable place to eat lunch. Jonathan had brought a small electronic instrument that measures blood oxygen levels - it works by "peering" through your finger tip and measuring the blood color to indicate the oxygen content. Not the most accurate machine, but it was a fun toy that we passed around to give each a try. A register had just been placed on the summit a month earlier by Blair Hunewill. It was actually placed just below the summit, because the second party of Brian French (and dog) picked it up a few weeks later and brought it to the summit where we found it as the third party of the summer.
It would have been nice (and shorter) to find an exit off the northeast side of Kettle, but all we knew about that side was that it was very steep and cliffy. So rather than take a chance on getting cliffed out, we took the safer route back down the sand slope to Ice Lake before descending down the canyon. Jonathan and I started down once again ahead of the others. We made a slight variation on the descent by finding a route off to the east side once we were halfway down, taking us on a slightly shorter track passing between Ice and Maltby Lakes. We picked up the use trail on the east side of the canyon, making our way past the Incredible Hulk and lower into the brushier portion of the canyon. The use trail is a godsend to avoid bushwhacking and I made every effort to retrace my steps each time I lost it to pick up the correct route again. The first time I came down this canyon I didn't bother and found myself bushwhacking far more than necessary. The trail eventually wound its circuitous way into Robinson Canyon where we crossed the creek on a sketchy log crossing and made our way back to the Robinson Creek Trail.
A mother with two children were lunching on the rock at the unsigned junction where Jonathan paused to remove his pant legs. It was just after 1p and we had less than an hour of hiking remaining. It was a nice, warm afternoon and the hike went quickly enough. It was 2p before the two of us returned to our cars at Twin Lakes. We were the first to return of those that had climbed Kettle, but there were a number of others that had already gotten back. Pat, Kevin and Bob J had all returned an hour and twenty minutes earlier. Ron H and Tommey had come back half an hour ago and Sean, who had climbed Whorl and Matterhorn had beaten us by five minutes. I found my brother Rick who had spent the day at the TH doing nothing in particular, and together we went for a short dip in the cold lake - myself to rinse off, Rick because he had nothing better to do. He was concerned because the other two brothers weren't back yet, but I assured him they would be trickling back in eventually. Afterwards I chatted with some of the other participants as we waited for others to return. Eventually the party moved south to the Whoa Nelli Deli, an hour's drive away. There we reconvened as a larger group as more folks returned and we spent the time eating, drinking mango margaritas and telling stories. My brothers Ron and Jim had returned as well, hours later. Ron had already earned a reputation as the disgruntled participant, telling anyone who would listen how he would much rather have been sipping cocktails poolside in Cabo San Lucas, where he usually vacations at this time of year. The mango margaritas, although delicious, were not sufficient compensation to placate him. He was only joining us for three days, but they would be a very long three days with this sort of attitude...
Jersey Strategy: By forgoing the bonus peak, Pat(ricia), Bob Jones, and Kevin were the first back to the trailhead with a time of 6h30m. The next closest was nearly an hour later - a lot of time to make up. Pat and Bob were also leading for the green jersey, Kevin for the white jersey, and a host of folks tied for the polka dot jersey with two peaks on the day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Kettle Peak
This page last updated: Fri Oct 12 10:36:02 2012
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