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Because I knew my friends were on the slow end of the hiking scale, I figured it would be important to get an early start, something like 9a, to ensure enough time to get the summit of Highland and back before dark. Unfortunately Ray is not an early bird, and he didn't even wake up until 9a. It took another hour for his shower, morning latte, breakfast and such, and another hour to drive up to Ebbetts Pass. So it wasn't until 11a that we actually started on the hike. That gave us about 8 hours of daylight in mid-September, and I knew there was risk of missing the summit. Still, hurrying the boys along was not going to get us there any faster. I would simply hike with them until they were nervous about getting back in time and then continue on if they decided to turn back. I didn't have a flashlight with me, so I would just have to move quickly.
We started right at Ebbetts Pass, though we found out later the PCT trailhead is about 1/2 mile east of the pass. Still, there was a decent use trail leaving the pass that shortly met up with the main trail. None of us had ever hiked in this region before, and to the surprise of all of us, it was much more picturesque than we'd expected. Noble Creek cuts a deep canyon on the eastern side of the Sierra Crest, and we found the hiking high along the western side of the canyon very scenic. We had great views of both Highland and Silver Peaks, the forest canyon below, and the rock formations of the Sierra Crest on the west side of us. In the 3.5 miles to Noble Lake, we found ourselves walking through forest, grassy meadows, and a naked, volcanic moonscape. We met a few backpackers along the way, but surprisingly, not that much traffic for a Saturday.
It was 1p when we reached Noble Lake, where we took a break. At this point it was time to leave the trail and head cross-country. We headed east following a use trail, but soon lost it a hundred feet above Noble Lake. There apparently is a use trail going to Highland Peak, but we didn't find it in the lower reaches. We aimed for the saddle between Peak 10824 and Peak 9741, and on the steep slopes of the saddle's north side, we came across the regular use trail - quite handy for climbing this steep slope. I got to the saddle about 10 minutes ahead of the others, giving me plenty of time to find a secluded spot for a potty break. The others came up looking winded, and it was clear they were starting to transition to the less-fun state of mind.
From the saddle it is a moderately steep talus/sand hike up to the false summit at Peak 10824. It is also very sustained, and exposed to the sun with almost no shade. This took a serious toll on the others and it took well over an hour to climb a thousand feet up this slope. When we reached the rocky outcroppings at 10,600 feet, just below the false summit, the others got a glimpse of the true summit and fell into despair. It was 3p, and they began to talk about turning around, to ensure getting back by 7p. They suggested I continue on, and I then let them know I planned to climb Silver Peak as well, and meet them back at the car. They were in no frame of mind to complain, and since they felt comfortable finding their way back down, probably didn't care too much what I did as long as I wasn't going to drag them any further to the summit. Off I went.
Where I left them, the route became quite a bit more interesting. The sandy slog gave way to some solid rock climbing, class 2-3, and rather fun. I took a last picture of the two when I was several hundred yards away, and then made my way to the summit, about 15 minutes after leaving the others. I enjoyed the views (northwest, west, & south), though it wasn't as fine as it might have been due to fires in the region around The Dardanelles and another northwest towards Round Top. I found a summit register, one of the earliest entries from Pete Yamagata made in 1982. I added my own entry and started climbing down the north ridge of Highland Peak, heading for Silver Peak.
The ridge between Highland and Silver Peaks looked even better in real-life than it did on the map, and I had a great time traversing along, admiring the views and enjoying the climbing. Much of it is along packed sand/talus slopes, easy to navigate, with some wind-blown trees dotting the saddle between the two peaks. The most interesting part technically was the rock climbing up and off the upper reaches of Highland Peak, though all straightforward to navigate. There was some snow on the north face of Highland Peak that I could see below me, somewhat surprising considering the late season. The combination of 10,000ft elevation and little sun seem to allow these patches to survive through the summer. As I passed the saddle and began the slow climb up to Silver Peak, I realized that I was getting tired. The sandier slopes gave way to larger granite blocks and boulders in the upper reaches. Silver Peak has two summits, and as I neared the closer one to the west I realized that the one further east was higher. Drats! That surprised me because the map shows Silver Peak on the western summit. I wouldn't have minded so much except for the several hundred feet of elevation I'd have to lose and regain as I crossed the saddle between the two. After I was about 50 yards past the west summit, it occurred to me that I ought to climb up to the western summit and check for a register, because it might just not be on that eastern peak. The map did place the elevation marker on the lower of the two summits even though I could now see the map clearly showed the east summit to be the high point.
Climbing back, and reaching the summit, there was a rusty register can sitting under some rocks. I was feeling rather relieved that I didn't trudge all the way to the other peak, though later it seemed that would have been the proper thing to do anyway. After all, it was higher. But at the time I was happy to be able to claim my second peak for the day. I didn't stay long at the summit as I eyed the terrain below me to the west, seeking out a return route. I could see Highway 4 several miles to the northwest, and the route seemed straightforward.
Down I went on the west side of Silver Peak. This turned out to be trickier than I had thought, as I had to do some careful routefinding to keep myself off the loose cliffs that crowded this side of the peak. Picking and choosing descent chutes, I managed to keep it all class 2 until I was down in the forest. From here it was a fun cross-country hike, through forest, open meadows, a little bushwhacking. I stayed high on the east side of Noble Creek until I was about half a mile from the highway. As I was contouring around the west side of Point 7844, I found myself on some unusually barren terrain. The slopes here are steep and chalky, with very little actually growing on the slopes. I gingerly walked along these slopes, being very careful not to slip. The danger wasn't serious, but a fall or slip might have caused me to slide 20 or 30 feet down some sandpaper-like ground, and likely tearing up some of my flesh in the process. A better tactic would have been to head for the creek more directly as I came across these slopes, but instead I went through the worst of it. Eventually I found myself down in the thickets by the creek, and once on the other side I soon found the trail that follows the creek in this canyon. I took this out to Highway 4, ending the more exciting part of the hike.
I began hiking up Highway 4, and from the looks of the map I had 3-4 miles to go to climb back up to Ebbetts Pass. I began thumbing a ride as I walked along, and after a dozen cars and five minutes, a kindly fisherman gave me a lift in his pickup. Back up at Ebbetts, I wasn't too surprised to not find the other two. I looked at the cooler inside the car, the ice-cold beers calling to me through the locked doors. As it wasn't my car, I didn't have the keys, and my dry lips would not be quenched so readily. I began hiking back out on the PCT to see if I could ambush the others on their return. Nothing like a good practical joke to end a fun day of hiking. After about a mile I spotted them, but I was exposed in the open without a place to duck behind. As I started to move towards the nearest tree, Steve spotted me and my plans were foiled. Oh well, maybe next time. We headed back together, taking the PCT to the trailhead east of the pass, then hiked back up Highway 4 towards our car. It was just about 7p when the three of us returned to Ebbetts Pass, the sun low on the horizon. The beer tasted just about as good as I had imagined for the last half hour, a perfect end to a grand day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Highland Peak
This page last updated: Thu Aug 11 14:02:35 2011
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