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It was Thursday morning and I wasn't expecting Matthew until sometime early Friday morning. My plan was to climb the peaks around Smith Mtn and then if I had time, a climb of Sirretta Peak in the late afternoon. Arriving at the TH at 10a, the plan was somewhat simple, if ambitious - three hours to climb Smith, Jackass, and Granite Knob, two hours to drive to Big Meadow, three hours to climb Sirretta. It would get me to the top of Sirretta for sunset, then back to the van by 6p. But plans rarely work out so smoothly.
I parked the van where the road runs south of Granite Knob. I could have driven further east, but the road condition looked to grow worse and I figured the van had done enough to get me as far as it did. It was pretty easy to find my way to Smith as I followed the road east to a saddle, then south up a broad ridge towards the summit. I found a few ducks along the way, but they weren't terribly helpful for any practical purpose. I bypassed one false summit on the east side, then approached the summit rocks also from the east. The summit is composed of a line of rocky outcroppings, and the highpoint is far from obvious. Not finding a way up from the east side, I climbed through a notch between two of the outcrops and wandered over to the west side. There I found a class 3 route up to the top of one outcrop - not the highest as it turned out. I could see that the highpoint was the outcropping furthest north, so I made my way over surprisingly fun rock along the ridgeline to the highpoint and the summit register. I signed the summit register (dating back to 1963) and took some pictures of the outstanding views around the Domelands and Golden Trout wildernesses. I was happy to find the weather so cooperative - temperatures now in the 50s, and the air cool, crisp, and very clear. Leaving the summit, I found the exit off the north side (the obvious route up for most visitors) quite easy, wondering how I managed to miss it on the way up.
In retracing my route back down to the saddle, I climbed the false summit I had bypassed on the way up for no better reason than the rocks looked fun. This would be the mode for the afternoon and the primary reason I got so far behind schedule - there's just so much fun scrambling around that I hated to leave any of it unexplored. I next headed for Jackass Peak, which also has several summits, I came to find. In classic style I misjudged their heights and climbed the lower north summit first. I really didn't mind, because the north side of the south summit looks very cool from the north summit, and it inspired me to climb it by that class 4 face. As an additional treat I found an old piton on the crux of the north side, though exactly why it was there was hard to determine. Atop the higher south summit, I found a register in a rusty tin. In addition to lots of fine crags, the area is rife with summit registers, too.
Heading west for Granite Knob, I was attracted by several lesser rocky knobs in between the two named summits and simply had to explore them. On the lower of the two I found a Sierra Club register placed by Gordon MacLeod in 1982. Mine was only the tenth entry in the intervening 24 years. Interestingly, Ron Hudson's name was one of the ten. I then scrambled over to the higher summit some distance away, Peak 9021ft. A register, placed in 1987 by Andy Smatko and party, declared (in classic Smatko style) an "apparent first ascent." This was chastened in the next entry by a local ranger who declared, "Quit it!" The elevation recorded was that for the lower peak. They named the peak "Andrea Peak" for the female member of the party, but I don't think that name stuck. I descended by way of the NW Ridge, then continued west to Granite Knob. As earlier, I climbed the lower summits first before finding my way to the highpoint near the far north of the summit rocks. Again I didn't mind because the class 3 scrambling was both abundant and highly enjoyable. I found the fifth register of the day, one dating back to 1972 and placed by Carl Heller. That one was a gem.
By the time I returned to the car it was 2:30p, an hour and a half behind the original plan. I no longer would be able to make Sirretta for sunset, but maybe I could find the peak before I needed a headlamp? It took nearly two hours to drive the distance to Big Meadow. Along the way, not long after starting out, I hit a rock on the side of the road which violently jarred the car and made some awful noises. Getting out to inspect the damage, I found the rock had struck the running board on the passenger side, busting it up a bit and knocking it out of kilter. Hmm. I remembered I had some duct tape in the car, and after a hasty repair job to secure the wiring from further damage, I went on my way (it took me half a day when I got back to remove the running board and pound it back into shape).
I didn't take long to hit the trail when I got to the TH around 4:30p, as I wanted to get close to the summit before darkness set in (in my rush I forgot my camera). I managed to make most of the route up the steep trail before I pulled out the headlamp, but hadn't made it to the cross-country part yet. Fortunately I was able to spot the tell-tale duck alongside the trail and started following this up the slope, heading west. There's no use trail at this point and the ducks were of marginal help. Eventually I lost them altogether and just kept going up until I topped out at the ridge.
By the time I was at the ridge it was very dark, the headlamp absolutely essential. There would be no moon for many hours. I turned at the ridge and headed for what I thought was the highpoint. I noted the lights of the Owens Valley to my left and thought it quite beautiful in the cold night air. The ridgeline did not lead me to an obvious summit, but rather a gradual incline that seemed to continue ever upward. After about ten minutes it struck me - that wasn't the Owens Valley I was looking at, but rather the Central Valley. The former would be blocked by the Sierra Crest well to the east, keeping any lights from that direction out of my line of sight. The seriousness of the situation struck me quite quickly - this was not a place to get disoriented and lost. If I was unable to find my way back to the trailhead I would be in serious trouble since I had nothing to allow me to spend a night huddled in 20-something degree weather. I had a fleece, warm gloves, and a balaclava, but that was about it. Getting lost was not an option. As I've found before, it's hard to get your brain to reorient once you've gotten out of kilter by 180 degrees. But I forced myself to accept that I was heading in the wrong direction and turned around. I figured I'd give the summit ten or fifteen minutes to make itself known before I abandoned it for a return before I got myself further disoriented. I was more than a bit nervous at this point.
It would have been an odd peak to fail at since it's one of the easiest on the SPS list. But as fate would have it, the summit rocks eventually made themselves known to me through the darkness and I scampered up them to the summit and the register. A wooden crate was fastened to the summit rocks with a register inside. The wind had picked up and it was getting frightfully cold, so I made an entry just as fast as possible with my gloves off. I was shivering by now and my writing looked like a first grader's. Oh well. I beat a hasty retreat, and as I made my way back down the east slope, I could no longer feel the sting of the wind and once again I warmed up. After what seemed a longer time than it should have (and had me a bit worried), I came upon the trail and suddenly I was safe and worry-free. Without further issue, I made it back to the trailhead just after 7p. It had been a good day.
I reparked the van back out on the main road on the west end of Big Meadow where Matthew was sure to spot it. I had sushi from the cooler for dinner, all the while warming myself and the inside of the van with the engine's heater. My van's mileage suffered a good deal as I let the engine idle for a number of hours that weekend to keep myself cozy inside. It was one of the best uses for petroleum that I had ever discovered.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Smith Mountain - Sirretta Peak
This page last updated: Fri Jun 15 18:36:50 2012
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