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Day 3 of the Sierra Challenge and another tough 4a start, though this one I was actually looking forwards to. Gemini is located deep in the John Muir Wilderness, far from any trailhead. Most parties approach the peak from the west out of the Florence Lake area, climbing in conjunction with other peaks in the area such as Seven Gables and Mt. Senger. A year ago I had plotted out what looked like the easiest route for a dayhike - coming from the east via Pine Creek Pass. As far as we know there has not been a prior dayhike of the peak, and in fact this is one of the ten or so remaining SPS peaks on Matthew Holliman's dayhike quest to complete the SPS list. That Matthew didn't show up at the TH for our early start was a bit of a surprise, as it was the only day of this year's Challenge that he had planned to join us for. Despite his absence, I was eager to dayhike this one myself, and as it turned out there were half a dozen others of equal mind.
We had a smaller group for the early start on Sunday morning, some of the crew planning on heading to Merriam or Royce or Julius Caesar. Still, we had seven heading to Gemini, more than I had expected. These included Rick, Richard, Brian, Marie, Michael, Tom, and myself. Brian and Marie had started a few minutes early, and quick as they were it would be an hour and a half before we caught up with them. Somewhere around Pine Lake I finally got to meet them for the first time. Rick led us most of the way up the trail, across Pine Creek and up towards Pine Creek Pass. Sunrise had come half an hour earlier, but we were still in the shade when we reached the pass around 6:45a. This was the first break we had taken since leaving the TH almost 3hrs earlier. Rick had set a terrific pace and it was surprising that we still had six together rather closely. Tom was the only one of our starting Gemini group that had been dropped. (Tom was still a bit worn from the day prior and ended up heading to Merriam instead.)
After the break we headed south down the gentle grade into French Canyon. This was a very delightful part of the journey - downhill and swell views. Pilot Knob rose up at the west end of Humphreys Basin, standing tall and looking far more impressive from this angle than it does from Piute Pass to the east. Mt. Humphreys of course stood monarch over the whole area, crowning the Sierra crest at the east end of the basin. To our right, just north of the trail rose the south end of Merriam Peak. Huge granite walls dominated the flank facing us, looking almost as impressive as Charlotte Dome or other large granite walls of the Sierra. We strolled (at a very fast clip) down French Canyon for about an hour until we neared the vicinity of Merriam Lake.
Merriam Lake is perched almost 1,000ft above French Canyon on the northwest side. The 7.5' map shows a trail leading up from French Canyon, but as we came to find out it is not maintained and may never have been. Before reaching the point on the trail where the creek descending from Merriam would cross it, a cairn was spotted that we suspected showed the start of the use trail. The group spread out, searching around for signs of it, but had little success at first. I moved closer to the creek to bound the location of where the trail might be, knowing it was shown on the map to stay on the east side. After wandering about 100yds in several directions, we all eventually picked up the trail or a braid leading to it, and with no discussion at all we found ourselves heading up trail towards Merriam Lake.
In the meadow below Merriam Lake we came across a solo backpacker out on a 27-day adventure. He had several resupply points, but for the most part he was on his own for nearly a month. We sorta envied him the freedom to go just about anywhere in the high mountains on such a schedule. Together we all headed across the meadow and eventually to Merriam Lake where all signs of the trail fade into the ether. It was a delightful lake and we'd have liked to linger longer here. We left the backpacker at this juncture and continued around to the far end of the lake on the northwest side. From here our nice grassy slopes gave way to boulders and slabs and even more boulders, punctuated with a few unnamed tarns above Merriam Lake. We had more than 1,200ft of climbing up to the shoulder of Pt. 12,441ft and the scrambling became a bit spicy in the upper half, an unexpectedly high class 3 effort to surmount. It was good scrambling though, and we all enjoyed it.
Up to the shoulder we went, then down the west side, dropping 500ft we would grudgingly have to scramble back over on our return. We had an easy bit of traversing at this point, past a few tarns, with Gemini finally coming into view. We studied it from a good vantage at the unnamed lake northeast of the summit, pondering our route possibilities. Rick wanted to take a more direct route up a chute on the northeast side, but it was unclear if the gendarmes above it would be able to be surmounted to reach the summit (we found later that the other side of the ridge hidden from us was class 2, and bypassing the gendarmes would have been easy). I encouraged Rick to give it a go, but he decided to play it safe and join the rest of us for the more sure route up the North Ridge.
There was a steep, loose-looking class 2 chute heading up to the North Ridge that Michael made a beeline for. Thinking the chute too ugly for an ascent, Rick and I climbed the class 2-3 ridgeline to the north of it, splitting our party into two groups. Rick and I did our best to climb this ridge as quickly as we could to beat the others to the top of the chute, but were stymied by unseen side chutes and more scrambling around to the North Ridge than we had suspected. Still, I was able to reach the top of the main chute only about 20yds behind Brian who was the first to emerge. I don't think he saw me initially, as I found him talking to himself as he started up the final few hundred feet to the summit. One such comment was, "Oh my, I'm starting to sweat," and I don't think he was joking. I'd never heard of Brian let alone climbed with him before, but it was clear from the day's effort that he was the fastest of our bunch. And it appeared he had been throttling himself back all day for the sake of his girlfriend Marie and the rest of us. So I don't think he was joking about the sweat. Nearly delirious with the effort expended so far, I did my best to keep up with Brian to the summit as he finally spotted me. Neither one of us stopped for a breath as we motored our way up, but try as I might, I was unsuccessful in passing him, reaching the summit a few yards behind Brian just after 10:30a.
Over the next 15 minutes or so the rest of our gang assembled at the summit, a surprisingly successful feat for so many climbers on such a remote peak. We were all fairly proud of the effort, shaking hands and congratulating each other. I had half expected to see Matthew's name in the register before us, but it was silent on the point. Perhaps he had overslept and missed the start? It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Looking around, the most prominent nearby peak was Seven Gables to the northwest. Senger and Hooper were easy to pick out to the west, as were the trio of Feather, Royce, and Merriam to the northeast. As far as we were behind those three, it seemed a long way from the trailhead. And we still had to get ourselves back.
After about 20-30 minutes at the summit we started to make our way down the NW side, heading for the prominent chute as the fastest descent route. Standing at the top of it and looking down, Michael and I briefly discussed strategy to get our whole group down in the safest manner. I spotted movement below, and knowing instantly who it was, we waited patiently for the ten minutes it took Matthew to reach the top of the chute. He was grateful we hadn't started descending while he was in such a vulnerable position. He explained that he thought he'd gotten to the trailhead exactly at 4a, and seeing no one, thought he'd arrived early. Only later did I look closely at the time stamp of our first photo before starting out - 3:57a. So it was possible Matthew had arrived on time, missing us by only a minute or so. In any event, he waited around for about 15 minutes with another late participant, started off up the wrong trail, and ended up some 30-40 minutes behind us. We bid him well as he continued up to the summit, the rest of us heading down.
Rick and Richard had decided to head to Royce Peak for a bonus, spending a bit more time at the summit to gather their strength and willpower before starting down. So there were four of us descending the loose chute, taking turns in the crumbly narrow sections and taking cover to the side at intervals to allow the others to come down. In this manner we managed to get all of us to the bottom in less than 20 minutes, carrying tons of debris with us, but not on top of each other. Once at the bottom, Michael and I started back at a fairly brisk clip while Brian and Marie dropped back for a slower pace. I wanted to see how much energy Michael still had in him, and whether I might be able to make up some lost time for the Yellow jersey on the long march back.
Michael was close behind me when we started up the slope to Pt. 12,441ft, but by the time I crested the shoulder he was some 50 yards or so behind. I initially started off to the right in order to tag the highpoint of this unnamed summit (in the off-chance I might find a register there), but when I came to the saddle along the ridge I decided to change strategy. Sensing weakness in Michael, I decided to head down to Merriam Lake as fast as I could safely manage and put some distance between us before getting back to the trail. This was my best chance to make up time. The initial descent off the saddle was a steep cliffy section that took some route-finding to keep it class 3. I made good time here, getting through this section just as Michael had reached the top of it. I continued scrambling down boulder after boulder for the next 30 minutes until by the time I had reached Merriam Lake I could see no sign of Michael or the others when I looked back to scan the route.
So far so good. I wasted no time finding the use trail heading down to French Canyon, jogging where I could, slowing to step over or around obstacles or to regain the trail after losing it a few times. Once back in French Canyon I kept a steady 3mph pace all the way back to Pine Creek Pass. I felt like I was putting miles between Michael and myself, sure that I would gain a good deal of time. Once on the other side of Pine Creek Pass I resumed jogging where I could, feeling pretty good despite the long day. The return took only a bit more than five hours, the whole outing a time of 12:15. I was sure I was going to regain a huge chunk of the 2h45m I was behind Michael after the first two days.
Back at the trailhead I found a small group of individuals sitting around the parking lot in lawn chairs, enjoying snacks and beers. I instantly guessed this was Chris (clydascope from SummitPost) who had come out from his home in nearby Rovana to provide post-hike refreshments for the group. I went over and introduced myself to the most likely-looking character, and though I had never seen a picture of him before, I had correctly picked out Chris from the others (who were random backpackers that stopped by for a chat). I was the first to return since Chris had arrived within the last hour. Chris was a wonderful host, providing a variety of cold beverages, chips, watermelon and the like. And chairs to relax in, too. A playful black lab puppy, about 4 months old, was there to entertain us as well. The afternoon temps at the trailhead were delightful, and it was a bit of heaven to sit there, relax, kabitz, catch a buzz, and generally revel in the day's outing. I wasn't there long, only 25 minutes, when Michael came strolling off the trail. Damn him. There was a look of exertion on his face, but he would never admit to having jogged down the trail, preferring to keep me guessing. Looks like he wasn't as tired as I had surmised way back there above Merriam Lake. He joined the growing party, and together we hung around for more than 2hrs waiting for others to finish their day. A second group of a half dozen participants had started at 6a in the morning, intending to head for Merriam. Brother Rick was the first of these to return, having gone only as far as Pine Creek Pass before turning around, complaining of a headache. Brian and Marie came back just after 6p. The black lab was actually their dog, not Chris's. Chris was a good friend of the pair and was looking after the dog while the two were out on the hike with us. He was quite happy to see his owners return.
Michael and I did not stay around until the last participants returned. We left the trailhead around 6:30p, but the last one off the trail, David W, came in around 8p. In all we had seven at the summit of Gemini and five at the summit of Merriam. Three of those twelve (Rick K, Richard, and brother Jim) added Royce as a bonus peak. Rick and Richard, having tagged both Gemini and Royce had had the hardest and longest day, taking 15:45 to complete the two peaks.
Jersey Strategy: For all my effort to make up time on Michael, I was only able to regain 25min, leaving Michael with a 2hr20min lead. There was only one hard day similar to today's remaining, and it seemed I was not regaining time fast enough. I had to decide whether to continue pursuing the Yellow jersey based on time, or capitulate it altogether and climb more bonus peaks to at least ensure the King of the Mountain Jersey. Michael and I both had 4 peaks towards that latter goal after the third day, but so had Rick Kent now. If I waited too long to start adding bonus peaks, I might lose out on the KoM jersey as well.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Gemini
This page last updated: Tue Aug 23 13:28:49 2011
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