Sat, Aug 2, 2003
This was planned to be the toughest dayhike either Matthew or I had ever done. 32mi+, 9000ft+ elevation gain, class 5.4 summit block. What more could one ask for? Sanity, perhaps. Or at least that's what I was thinking when the alarm went at 3a. Oh, the pain one suffers in order to go out and suffer further in the wilderness. Originally planning to rise at 4a, we moved it up an hour anticipating we could use the extra time. I had climbed Clarence King before as part of a 4-day tour of Gardiner Basin, but for the last two years had entertained thoughts of dayhiking this fine peak, one of the three toughest of the Sierra Emblem peaks to dayhike (Mts. Goddard and Kaweah top the list). After two tries I was able to dayhike Mt. Williamson (#4 on the list), so this seemed the next logical step, using a loose definition of the term "logical."
From our motel in Independence we drove out in near total darkness, up the Onion Valley Road. We needed to travel light in order to put in so many miles, but like the day before the weather was unsettled and we judged it prudent to bring rain gear. Although we wouldn't bring much iron for the climbing portion (just five pieces of protection) and only a short 37m-8mm rope, the climbing gear with harness and shoes was a non-trivial amount of weight in our packs. It was 3:30a when we parked the car at Onion Valley and headed up the Kearsarge Pass Trail. Of course there was no one out at this time, no lights in the campground, and we hiked along in silence with our headlamps to guide us for the first four miles or so. It was 5:45a when we crested Kearsarge Pass, the first of three passes on our way to Clarence King. It was just before sunrise and quite chilly. This was my first visit to Kearsarge Pass, and the view west was delightful, muted in soft, pre-dawn light, all very quiet. We stopped at the pass so I could take a potty break, and Matthew donned his jacket while I went about my business. Before we started off again I also got out my jacket as the next section was a descending traverse down to Charlotte Lake.
As we continued on our way the sun began to break on the northernmost peaks of the Great Western Divide (Brewer, North Guard, and Francis Farquhar), ushering in the the new day. To the south University Peak and Kearsarge Pinnacles began to light up followed by East and West Vidette. We passed by Bullfrog Lake, several hundred feet below us, and it was easy to see why it had been such a popular campsite in the past with such great views of the surrounding peaks. Through one small window along the trail I could just make out Thunder Mtn. far to the southwest, a fairly remote peak I had visited some years before. We reached a trail junction signalling the beginning of our next climb up to Glen Pass. The trail first traverse around the southwest and west sides of an unnamed peak, offering nice views of Charlotte Lake below and Charlotte Dome out to the west. It then enters a canyon where the climbing begins in earnest. A babbling brook flowed out from the canyon, allowing us a welcome chance to fill water bottles. Though not much vegetation could be found in this rocky abode, there were some fine wildflowers that brought some color to the surroundings.
Around 7:30a we came across the first people we'd seen all day as we took the PCT up towards Glen Pass. It was a party of backpackers, six or seven in all, strung out in smaller groups of one our two as they made their way up to the pass under heavy loads. While I had felt sluggish myself heading up the steep trail, seeing these other folks struggling at a much slower pace made Matthew and I feel like we were flying along - and this did a lot to lift our spirits. We stopped at the top of Glen Pass for a snack break and to take some pictures. As the backpackers came up as well we chatted with them briefly. They had camped at one of the two lakes just south of Glen Pass the previous day, stopping there at 10a when the rain started. Another part of their party had continued on to Rae Lakes, and they were on their way to regroup with the rest of their party there. Naturally they were surprised to see us with our small backpacks, and one of them asked if we were going "ultraLight". "No," we responded, "just out for a dayhike." When they asked us to where we pointed to Clarence King which was partially hiding behind some clouds far to the northwest. I don't think I was even believing at that point that we'd ever reach it - it was still a great distance away. But at least we could see it!
Down the north side of Glen Pass we went, making good time to Rae Lakes, the downhill rejuvenating our energy and determination. We passed by Painted Lady ("Maybe a side trip on the way back," we commented, for too optimistically) and paused numerous times to take photos of so many enjoyable views that presented themselves around every corner. Clouds were beginning to pile up to the southeast around Dragon Peak, but we held out great hope that the forcasted rain would not pan out - most of the sky was still a wonderful blue.
Rae Lakes are one of the more popular camping locations in all the Sierra, so we weren't surprised by the number of parties we found along the stretch of trail that follows along the west side of the lakes. We missed a turnoff to Rae Col, but a party of campers set us right and we were soon heading uphill again. The trail was far less maintained than the PCT we'd been on, but more enjoyable due to the solitude we once again enjoyed. Climbing our third pass of the day was starting to slow us down, and I was growing more concerned that we would run out of energy long before we could get back to our car again later in the day. An interesting feature called Fin Dome rose up to our right, a granitic plug rising from the gentle ridge separating Sixty Lakes Basin from Rae Lakes. It is said to be a fine climb, and we had done some research on the "improbable" class 3 route to its summit should we need to use it for a consolation prize. It was just after 9:30a when we reached the col, and by now the clouds were beginning to noticeably dominate the sky. It seemed the poor weather that had been forcasted was going to be a reality. We had a fine view of Mts. Cotter and Clarence King, the last clear views we would have of either peak the rest of the day.
As we headed down the west side of Rae Col, my concerns about making the summit began to nag at me more regularly. For the most part I kept them to myself, though I would probe now and then to see how Matthew felt. Problem was, he seemed wholely unconcerned, and besides I wasn't sure I could even trust his judgement on when to turn back - Matthew's been known to make a few unplanned bivies on such adventures. [Correction: Matthew hadn't bivied before, but I thought he had, and this affected how I was thinking about things]. By the time we got to the base of Clarence King, it was 10:30a and we'd been hiking now for seven hours. This was the end of the trail for us, and it would be all cross-country for another two miles and 2,000ft. We took a break and had a snack as I struggled to keep up my will to go forward. Looking back on our slow rope progress the day before, I guessed it would take us another three hours to reach the summit, two hours back to here, then maybe six hours to get back. That would make roughly eighteen hours. Would I have enough stamina to keep going without a bivouac? I didn't think so. My shoulders were already sore from carry my pack, and my legs got weaker just thinking about having to go back over those three passes. As we sat on a fallen log contemplating our maps and remaining route, I asked Matthew how he was feeling. His reply indicated he was all for continuing - he didn't seem at all wishy-washy. Arghh. I agonized over what to do for a good ten minutes as we sat there, not saying much. The weather was getting nastier as the clouds now filled the sky. A good downpour would have made the decision quite easy. Finally, I told Matthew I wanted to turn back. It was clear that he was disappointed. I think I was more unhappy about seeing Matthew's disappointment than in my own. But I just felt I couldn't go on with threatening weather, fatigue, and no bivy gear.
While disappointed, we still had our consolation peak that could keep us from having this long trek be for naught, so we set our sights on Fin Dome as we headed back up towards Rae Col. Even as we headed back I thought about what things we might do differently next time to improve our chances of success. Certainly getting in better shape is one pat answer, starting earlier another, but I mostly regretted having brought the climbing gear - it wore me down much more than I had expected. As we approached Fin Dome, we left the trail about a half mile before reaching Rae Col and headed east cross-country to the base of the southwest side. Our route descriptions spoke of a talus fan that needed to be ascended, and we took this to be the far right-side chute leading upwards. We climbed this more than half the way up before realizing it would lead to the South Ridge, not the West Face. With some difficulty I found a way off to the left out of the chute, but it was certainly more than class 3. I tried to then further move left to get back on route, but couldn't manage to find a way over. Back into the chute I went, and Matthew and I both went back down. The class 3 West Face is further described as "tricky route-finding," other parties noting that any deviation from the class 3 route led immediately to class 5. This seemed all the more believeable, but we couldn't even find the start of the route. We were beginning to feel we wouldn't be climbing anything besides a bunch of passes today.
After retreating out of the chute, we moved north towards the center of the West Face and soon enough found another talus fan to climb. This lead to some class 3 ledges rising diagonal up and towards the center of the face, and we finally felt like we were on the correct route. We followed our written descriptions quite closely, reading and re-reading them over a dozen times as we made our way up. They were generally helpful, though there were places we could not make any sense between what we read and the rocks we were standing upon. There were several places along the way that we felt were harder than class 3 - in fact the 5.4 NW Buttress of Tenaya Peak we'd climbed the previous day was easier than some of the sections on Fin Dome - so I imagine the class 3 rating on Fin Dome is somewhat sandbagged. But it was quite enjoyable, to be sure. At one of the difficult sections lower down Matthew balked after watching me do a few friction moves followed by a hand traverse. We got out the rope and used it the rest of the way to the summit. Because of its short length it required numerous pitches, costing much time in building anchors. I made up for this by placing zero protection between anchors - I just climbed until either the rope ran out, or I found a good belay seat. The anchors were hastily contructed, usually just a couple slings around some rocks. Though I don't usually like roped-climbing because of all the sitting around one does, I was enjoying the frequent rests after the long march and was having fun with the route-finding. What would have been 30 minutes soloing without getting off-route took us two and half hours with the rope and starting up the wrong chute, so it was almost 2p by the time we finally reached the summit. We had little time to enjoy our success as the first drops of rain started to fall within minutes of summiting. The cloud layer was lowering, muting our views, and we were thinking it best to get back down before the rock grew too slick from the rain.
We were lucky that the rain did not come down in earnest and we had some time to get down while the rock was mostly dry. Some of the downclimbing proved too harrowing for Matthew so we set up a rappel. This provided me with the most fun of the day since this was to be Matthew's first rappel. Though I gave what I thought were pretty decent instructions, and several times reminded Matthew to stand back off the rock, as most first-timers on rappel, he find it's a bit hard to believe. He clung to the rock, falling against knee, elbow and forearm, generally making a mess out of an easy 20-foot rappel. I was laughing and taking photographs at the same time I'd yell at him to make sure he didn't let go of the rope with his brake hand - it was great fun. After he got down I tore down the setup and downclimbed to the next section. A few short sections required some class 4 downclimbing, which took some more time, but without mishap. We usd only two rappels, but it took us an hour and half to descend - we were chewing up time as much as we would have on Clarence King (but of course with much less fatigue). It was now 3:30p and it was clear that we'd be hiking well past dark, but at least it would all be on trail.
Once off Fin Dome we scrambled across a hundred yards of talus and then climbed back up to Fin Dome's south side, heading over the ridge towards Rae Lakes. From the ridge I spied a large box with other assorted gear below, a short distance north of the trail, having missed it on our way up. We hiked down to the box and found we'd come across the camp of a grad student who was spending the summer in the backcountry doing research on frogs. His work involved catching the non-indigenous trout in one of the small nearby lakes to make additional frog habitat. Seems the trout that have been introduced into so many Sierra Lakes by early visitors have done quite a bit to decimate the native frog species. We had a nice chat with the guy (wish I'd remembered his name...) before we headed back. We found the trail a short distance later and headed back down to Rae Lakes.
Everything was going fine until I got back to Rae Lakes. Then we had to start the uphill back to Glen Pass. Ugh. Suddenly I was painfully aware of how exhausted I was. Painted Lady, which looked like an easy side trip off the trail on the way out was looking like Mt. Everest as I approached it now. I would be happy to make it over the pass. Matthew shared one of his GU packets me, the first time I'd ever had one of these sugar-caffeine shots on a hike. I probably would have tried any kind of stamina-increasing drug I could get my hands on - if I could have gotten my hands on them. Matthew was now ahead of me on the trail, the first time he'd been so all day. In fact, this was the first time on any hike that I'd seen Matthew outlasting me, and it didn't feel good - I wasn't used to pulling up the rear. Halfway up to Glen Pass the skies let loose with a short volley of hail followed by some steady rainfall. This seemed to rejuvenate me some and I openly mocked the heavens to let loose with their worst (I was kinda glad they didn't). Upon reaching the pass I found Matthew with all his rain gear on, huddling on the side of the trail waiting for me. With a smile, no less.
Recharged after having reached the apex, we started downhill again. Someone suggested jogging as a joke, but we were soon running down the switchbacks through the rain, using whatever concentration we had left to keep from losing in on the slick rocks. Down past the two lakes we charged, Mattew slowly stretching out his lead in front of me. On a flat section I finally gave up - the caffeine charge had run out and my sides were starting to ache. As I stumbled on down the trail feeling a little nauseous, the fifteen minutes of running was feeling pretty stupid. At least the rain let up and stopped for the most part. When I got down to the junction with the Charlotte Lake trail, Matthew was again waiting for me. We had another snack, he gave me another GU, but this one had no recharge effect at all. We had one more pass to go, back up over Kearsarge before the last six miles back to the car. This last climb was only a thousand feet spread over two miles, so on paper it looked pretty mild. But coming at the end of the day it proved a grinder. Matthew took off ahead of me and I didn't see him again until I was well on the other side of the pass. I found myself going slower and slower, and soon I was resting every 50 yards or so, still a half mile to go to the pass. I would take a picture when I stopped to give myself an excuse for doing so. I noticed that when I stopped to rest my breathing would pick up for a minute or so before settling back down. I began to think part of the reason I had to keep stopping was due to not getting enough oxygen in my system. So I tried hyperventilating as I resumed the climb, and to my surprise it worked wonders. I didn't feel any sort of instant rejuvenation - I was still dead tired - but I was able to maintain a steady pace thereafter and reach the pass without taking another break. The primary downside was that all that breathing caused a terrible parchness in my throat, and my water supply was soon exhausted. I could live with that - there would be water at numerous places on the way down.
The sun was just setting as I reached Kearsarge Pass, the last rays of the sun fading on University Peak. The foul weather had spent itself, and the skies were on their way to clearing. The wind had picked up at the pass and it was very cold now - I was glad Matthew wasn't waiting for me at the pass. I scanned the trail ahead for signs of Matthew but could see him nowhere, he must be far ahead of me by now, I guessed. It was just before 8p as I started down for the last leg of the hike. I figured I had about two hours to go if I kept a steady 3mph pace. About a mile below the pass I was surprised to hear Matthew's voice - coming from behind. Seems he had lost the trail somehow on the west side of Kearsarge Pass (it's a regular highway, so I figured fatigue must have been affecting him as well), and was some two hundred feet below the trail on some animal track before realizing his mistake. It cost him some time climbing the steep scree slope to get back to the trail. I hadn't seen him (or anybody since Rae Lakes) while I was concentrating so hard on breathing and keeping myself moving.
Continuing down, Matthew again moved out ahead. I was long resigned to admitting that his summer schedule had gotten him in better shape than myself. We were forging ahead without headlamps though it was after 9p - a fun little game we play to see who will stop to use a headlamp first. It had gotten past the dangerous point to where a misstep could mean a painful spill, but still we kept at it. I caught back up with Matthew, and with about two miles remaining we stopped to put on headlamps. Matthew sat still for a short while before I realized he wasn't feeling well. He said he felt nauseous and started making some harsh hacking noises like he's swallowed a few mosquitoes or something. Next thing I knew he was bent over, retching the feeble contents from his stomach. I waited until the vomiting had stopped and he had a moment to compose himself. Then, before he could say anything, in the most compassionate voice possible I offered, "You know this means I win."
After this little episode we were no longer in a rush, but we still had to get back. We could see the lights of the campground at Onion Valley below us, but that only gave us false hope that we were close. We weren't - we still had many more switchbacks. It was nearly 10p before we finally reached the trailhead. I had a hard time imagining how much worse we'd have felt if we'd continued on to Clarence King. Though we hadn't eaten much all day, neither of us had any interest in dinner. Shower and sleep seemed the most appealing things we could imagine. It wouldn't have helped much to be hungry anyway since everything in town was closed by now. On the drive down to Independence we enjoyed some ice-cold beverages from the cooler. Matthew had the vanilla-flavored milk which seemed at the time a good choice. But in the parking lot at the motel he retched once more, this time at least having something to eject. The showers felt as good as we had imagined they would, and I almost felt idyllic as I lay upon the fresh bed and warmed myself under the blankets. Nothing, nothing I could remember anyway, felt as good as this sleep was about to feel...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Fin Dome
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:03 2007
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