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The first day of the 10th Sierra Challenge had sixteen folks at the Mono Village Resort at Twin Lakes, ready for the 5a start. A handful were heading to Matterhorn Peak via another trail, but most were heading for the main event to Finger Peaks. Tucked behind the Sawtooth Ridge in Northern Yosemite National Park, Finger Peaks requires a bit of legwork to reach. I had chosen a route through Little Slide Canyon since it seemed to offer the quickest way to get there via a use trail up the canyon that has been created by climbers heading to The Incredible Hulk and other rock climbing features found in the canyon. Having climbed a number of peaks in the area, I had always been impressed by the looks of Finger Peaks from these other summits. I recall telling Matthew, "We should climb that one someday," while atop nearby Cleaver Peak. Today would be the day. A traverse of the three summits was described in Secor as Grade II, class 4, first done by Claude Fiddler in 1989. I was eager to give it a go.
Our first order of business was finding our way through the campground to the trailhead on its western end. It is not a trivial exercise by headlamp for those that have never used the Barney Lake Trail before. The four or five folks out in front took a wrong turn which I quickly realized, having made the same mistake myself in the past. I simply redirected myself and those behind me in the correct direction, leaving it to the others to fix their mistake. Matthew was with them, so it did not take more than a minute before he rerouted them back to the correct path.
As usual, it did not take long for the large group to begin breaking up along the Barney Lake Trail. Within an hour we were in the vicinity of Little Slide Canyon and looking for the use trail at a large, flat rock described by Secor. I was in a group of six at this time that made up the front runners. Sean was with us only a brief time longer, soon well out in front, a common theme during the Challenge.
We found the use trail as described, crossed Robinson Creek at a log jam, then followed the trail heading up Little Slide Canyon. Sunrise came as we were doing the ascending traverse up from Robinson Creek to get us into the canyon. In most places the use trail was very good and easy to follow, but it seemed to have branches and braids periodically that forced us to pause and consider, usually taking the correct route, sometimes getting off-track. The canyon is quite picturesque, with granite walls reaching high on both sides. The Incredible Hulk was the most impressive feature as expected, its sheer western aspect still chilled in the morning shade. We were down to a group of five when we reached abreast this massive feature, confused here by the branching of the use trails. It looked like the left fork led to the base of the Hulk where some tents could be seen, so we took the right fork which we expected led to Ice Lake Pass. Bad choice.
The right fork led up a slope to some rocky formations next to Maltby Lake. Some lingering snows made for some tricky traversing, Vitaliy and I taking one way, the other three another. A small lake nearly blocked progress above this point, and a few minutes later we found our way to Maltby Lake. On the map this seems a reasonable way to go, but we soon realized why Secor describes a route east of, and well away from this pretty lake. Cliffs on both sides of the lake make getting around the shore impossible without swimming. Confident in our abilities and wholey ignorant of the terrain layout, we simply started up the class 3 rocks left of the lake figuring we'd find a way up and around.
This combination of confidence and ignorance led to a 45 minute goose chase from which we just escaped. We found ourselves topped out with cliffs below us in the direction we wanted to go, trying one hair-raising descent before finding a circuitous class 3-4 route off the southeast side of our rocky perch. Laura had come up the canyon behind us, but was now down below on the sandy use trail watching our little predicament. She had not taken the wrong turn and found our little detour quite amusing, which of course it was if you aren't the one expending so much extra energy. Just as we were getting back down Karl Fieberling appeared above us - he had apparently taken the same wrong turn as well. The end result of the misadventure was a reshuffling of the positions of the various participants, but eventually we were all on our way to Ice Lake Pass again. The trail was much poorer here and was soon lost altogether, but the cross-country travel was now fairly easy.
There were some snow slopes to cross on the north side of the pass, low-angled with sufficient traction for boots. Eight or nine of us collectively reach the pass around 8:20a and ten minutes later got our first view of Finger Peaks to the southwest, still several miles away. By following the drainage down the south side of the pass we soon found the maintained trail coming down from Mule Pass and into Slide Canyon. We followed it for perhaps a mile until we were at the northwest base of Finger Peaks. We paused at a place where it was prudent to head cross-country for the west summit - for those that were going to attempt all three summits. Laura was in the middle of a long-winded explanation about some topic or other while I waited for a break to ask who was heading to the west summit. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 15-20 seconds, I interrupted with something along the lines of, "Are you going to talk all day, or go climb something?" My joking rudeness had the desired effect - she stopped talking after an appropriate retort and I didn't get slugged. Turned out only Adam was interested in joining me to the west summit, all the others wanted just the higher middle summit. I thanked Laura, suggested she could resume her discourse, Adam and I leaving momentarily.
There was some minor brush and a crossing of Piute Creek to contend with, but these did not hinder us very much. This followed up to some steep, but open terrain that led us up to the base of the West Ridge of the west summit. The alpine meadows and granitic rock that abounded made for very enjoyable travel for the 45 minutes it took us to climb out of the canyon. We had a fine view of the huge, ancient slide to the west for which Slide Canyon was named. There were other nice scenes around Northern Yosemite as well, the Sawtooth Ridge not the least among them.
It was 9:45a by the time Adam and I started up the West Ridge. It was composed of steep granite slabs and took a few minutes to find a route up it, around on the southwest side. A fun bit of class 3 scrambling for about ten minutes got us to easier ground atop the ridge. The west summit is really quite easy after that short scramble in the beginning, and by 10:15a were at the summit. It was at least a hundred feet lower than the middle summit which towered up impressively a short distance to the east. Sean could easily be discerned already relaxing atop the middle summit. Boy, that guy is fast.
There was no register to be found on the west summit after a cursory look, so Adam and I were soon trying to find a way down to the notch between the west and middle summits. There was no obvious or easy way down. I thought the best line was on the north side of the crest, but Sean shouted down to us that he'd gone down the south side of it. Not necessarily wanting to pioneer a route down what looked like steep and loose stuff, we opted for the known route that Sean had taken. It was also quite steep, but far more solid, and with a series of ramping edges we were down to the notch in five minutes.
As we scooted across the notch towards the middle summit we could hear voices below to the north. Peering over the edge, we could see the rest of our party at the bottom edge of the snowfield, either pausing to put on crampons or just starting up after doing so. They looked to be about 15-20 minutes behind us. Adam and I started up the south side of the ridgeline as described by Secor for the class 3 route to the middle summit. Ahead of me, Adam hadn't read the description and climbed up past the point where one is supposed to move across to the northwest side. I let him go without calling him back, figuring he'd either figure out the mistake or find a way up anyway.
A few minutes later I saw Sean pop his head over the edge and spot me in the Northeast Gully, "Oh wow - is that the class 3 route?" He had done the same line as Adam, thinking it awfully stiff for class 3. Adam came up a few minutes later complaining that he'd found it class 4. Sometimes it pays to read the manual. It was now 10:30a, having taken 5.5hr to reach the highest point. There was a very old cast iron register tube with Sierra Club embossed on the side. It appears to have been built to last for ages, but not so good at preserving the register inside. The register dated to only the late 90's, but was quite deteriorated due to moisture and rust. The last party to sign in was more than four years prior.
The summit block is an impressively overhanging chunk of granite, easy class 4 (or hard class 3). Adam and I took turns at the top while Sean was getting antsy to get going. He had been waiting for most of an hour already and did not want to wait further for the others. Adam and I didn't really feel like doing so either. We were ready to go down after taking in the views for a few minutes and getting in our register entry.
Getting to the east summit turned out to be the crux. We knew we could descend the way we'd come and then traverse around the south side of the middle summit, but that didn't seem like a traverse and somehow less than sporting. The southeast side certainly looked steep from above, but it seemed we might be able to take advantage of a series of ledges that started down that side from the top. Without being able to see more than 20-40ft ahead, we went down a series of improbable ramps and ledges that got us about half way down the face. At this point our nice class 3 scramble turned into something like low class 5 and we all paused to take notice. The exposure was great and our wide ledge narrowed to something like six inches with mediocre holds for the hands. Another good ledge was 15 feet below, but getting to it was going to be tough.
I'd been in the front to this point but was not wanting to try going down first - that was Sean's job. He took over the lead a bit hesitantly, but once started made a very careful and calculated descent down the narrowing ramp and working out the moves needed to change direction and traverse down to the better ledge. The exposure was so great I had trouble watching, imagining how his body would bounce and drop maybe a hundred feet if he should slip. But all through it Sean talked very calmly and reassuringly, so much so that I thought it worth giving it a try myself. Because the ledge is so narrow and the rock face tends to push the climber out, I opted to lower my pack down to Sean so that I could keep better balance. I spent probably twice as long as Sean's five minutes to make it through the crux, but the extra time allowed me to move more cautiously and with greater confidence in each hold or position.
It was now Adam's turn, and the first thing he did was lower his pack to us. Waiting with craned necks we watched Adam start down, then back off, then start down a second time. He did not like the looks of it at all. We didn't want to coax him into something over his head, so we waited calmly, offering only factual help as to holds and foot placements. After several minutes working through the conflict in his mind, Adam decided the better choice was to climb back up to the summit and go back the way we'd ascended before traversing around the south side. We told him we'd leave his pack at the saddle between the middle and east summits where he could retrieve it, then reluctantly parted ways.
The rest of the route down was no more than stiff class 3 and in two or three minutes were the rest of the way down. Looking back at the summit we could see Laura and another from our party at the top, waving and shouting to us. I waved back. We soon turned and headed up the east summit, five minutes of class 2 scrambling. It was the lowest of the three summits and least impressive, but like the others it has great views of the Sawtooth Ridge and especially Matterhorn Peak. There are swell views of Whorl Mtn and Matterhorn Canyon as well.
Sean and I continued over the summit to complete the traverse, dropping down the East Ridge to a place where we could then drop back down into Slide Canyon to the north. We paused at a snow patch to allow Sean to gather some of it to refresh his empty water ladder. I gave him one of the two extra Gatorade bottles I had with me as well since the snow wasn't going to melt anytime soon. As we were finishing up with the snow we spotted Adam atop the east summit, having made good time in getting there following his retreat. We figured he would catch us in a five or ten minutes, but that was the last we saw of him during the hike. Somehow he either slowed considerably or took a more roundabout way since we weren't going particularly swift ourselves. He ended up finishing the hike about an hour behind us.
After bootskiing down the north slopes as far as we could, we hiked north across the canyon and creek until we managed to intersect the Burro Pass Trail. We stayed together for another 15 minutes or so until we were near the base of Eocene Peak. We had talked about doing this unofficially named summit on the Sawtooth Ridge just east of Ice Lake Pass as a bonus peak, but I was not feeling good enough for another 2,000ft of gain or so that it would take. I encouraged Sean to go without me while he tried coaxing me to join him. Realizing the futility of it after a minute or two, he carried on without me. Continuing down the easy trail, I was alone not ten minutes before coming across a familiar face heading towards Finger Peaks. "Dr. Peters, I presume?"
Bill Peters had gotten a late start after a very late night drive to get to the trailhead. He wasn't feeling all that great about continuing to Finger Peaks and stopped to consider joining me for the return. He described his lack of sleep and recent illness and seemed to be weighing his options out loud, sounding much confused. I didn't really care which way he decided, just that he make up his mind. He followed me down the trail for a minute before pausing to reconsider. I waited, he thought things out, then continued following me for another minute before once again thinking otherwise. I waited a second time, growing impatient, finally telling him, "Bill, I'm going back - join me if you like." On his third consideration he turned back around, deciding to head for Finger Peak after all (he made it to the summit, but was the last one to return from the peak).
I hiked back up to Ice Lake Pass, thinking I might tackle easier Kettle Peak as a bonus, but after seeing it from the pass and deciding it was too much effort as well, changed my mind. I'd be content with just Finger Peaks. I was on my way down the north side of Ice Lake Pass, having the last hour to myself when I spotted someone ahead of me threading their way down some talus slopes. It turned out to be Faith who had started with us in the morning. She told a tale of getting lost several times going up Little Slide Canyon, eventually reaching Ice Lake Pass and Slide Canyon, but not finding the maintained trail. She eventually turned back before reaching the base of Finger Peaks. She was in good spirits though and seemed to be enjoying her day. We hiked together down to the base of The Hulk, occasionally hearing voices up on the vertical walls now splashed in the sunlight. Together we picked out two parties about halfway up the face on two different routes not far from each other. Their tents and other gear were down below along the trail which we passed by around 2p. We watched them for five minutes are so, slowly making progress upwards. They appeared to be having a grand time themselves.
Continuing down the canyon, I soon left Faith behind me. Karl was with her for a short while as he looked to be making an effort to catch up to me. I rather wanted more time to myself though and kept ahead of the pursuers and eventually on my own again for the lower half of the descent down Little Slide Canyon. It was 3p by the time I had crossed Robinson Creek and rejoined the Barney Lake Trail. A few minutes later I heard footsteps behind me and turned to find a grinning Sean pulling up behind me. He had managed to climb Eocene and return down Little Slide Canyon in time to catch me before I reached the TH. So much for the first place lead I was expecting! We chatted a bit to catch up, then jogged down the remaining distance of the trail. We were back shortly after 3:30p, a good finish for the first day.
In all we had thirteen participants reach the summit of Finger Peaks. Two others climbed Matterhorn Peak as an Alternate Challenge peak. JD Morris managed to climb both of these in a looping route in under 14hrs. It was well after dark before Bill Peters returned from Finger Peaks around 9:30p. Yet he wasn't the last to return. William Nelson had started late for Matterhorn, but somehow ended up atop Twin Peaks near sunset. He spent the chilly night near Virginia Pass hoping to meet up with us the following morning on our way to Stanton Peak. He had little food or warm clothes, no map and had never been in the area before.
For his effort, Sean earned the lead for the Yellow and Polka Dot jersies. Vitaliy had a narrow five minute lead for the White jersey and several were tied for the Green jersey. Unlike previous years, it seemed there would be plenty of competition in all categories.
This page last updated: Wed Oct 13 09:47:23 2010
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