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The big finale of the 2005 Sierra Challenge was a monster climb to Junction Peak, nearly 9,000ft and some 25 miles, perhaps the toughest single day of any Challenge, ever. In previous years, the 10th day always fell on a Monday and I sadly found myself alone most of the time. To prevent this, I started the Challenge on a Friday this year so that the last day would end on a popular weekend day. And indeed, with around 16 participants, it was a big success. I knew the trailhead would be cramped with limited parking, and by the time Michael and I arrived shortly before 5a it was already overflowing. Cars were parked somewhat haphazardly along the side of the road, new spots created by plowing over the thistle and brush. I wonder if there'd ever been so many cars at that trailhead before. It was dark due to the early 5a start, and hard to see who was who. By headlamp I walked around to gather a list of names, and just a few minutes after 5a we started off.
We had been concerned a bit about the four creek crossings at the start due to a high snow year, but they were easy enough to cross over boulders and logs without having to do any wading. We were able to switch off the headlamps a short time after starting up from the creek. Mark and Eric led a stiff pace for 2,000ft up to Symmes Pass, between Shepherd & Symmes Creeks, making it in less than an hour and a half. I came up a few minutes later, and the three of us headed over the other side. Mt. Williamson was glowing with some early morning rays, but clouds were obscuring at least half of the sky. The weather seemed more threatening than it had the last few days and it seemed we might be in for some of the rain we saw earlier in the Challenge. Some precipitation was seen over Mt. Williamson and other places in the vicinity, but luckily it held off for us the entire day. I couldn't entice the others to start jogging for the 500ft descent, so they let me run off by myself. In ten days so far, this was the only day I was ever out in front. By the time I was done jogging the 500ft descent, no one was in sight. I kept looking back as I went up the switchbacks above the descent, but I never spotted anyone. Where were Mark and Eric? And where was Matthew? (Matthew had started feeling ill at the start and turned back after a short time.) I wanted to see if I could beat my previous time of 4hrs to Shepherd Pass. I did so, but just barely: 3h50m (Matthew pointed out later that my previous time was 4h15m, so I did better than I'd thought at the time). I rested for ten minutes on a rock overlooking the canyon below. I watched a group of four backpackers I'd passed on the last headwall reconvene below before continuing on. About the same time the first four other participants approached the headwall, taking a last break before starting the climb.
I headed west for Diamond Mesa in order to take the "classic" South Ridge route up Junction. I spotted what looked like a class 2-3 rock shoulder leading up to the mesa a little above its midpoint and headed that way. The climbing on the shoulder got better the higher I went - good quality class 3 scrambling. Unfortunately it went nowhere. I topped out on a detached pinnacle about 100ft above, and several hundred feet east of the mesa. Below me the pinnacle dropped off to class 5 on three sides and I found myself across a chasm without my Bat Hook and winch. Rats. Down I went for 700ft until I could get off the shoulder and start up the east side of Diamond Mesa. I lost about 30 minutes in my little diversion. I kept looking back for the others, but saw no one crossing the broad plateau west of Shepherd Pass. Evidently the others had gone further north than I reckoned and were out of view.
It was a nice hike across Diamond Mesa, with swell views. Caltech Peak to the west didn't look to far at all - a possible future Challenge peak? I could see into the cirque south of Forester Pass and just make out the trail snaking its way down through the cliffs on that side. As I reached the north end of Diamond Mesa, I climbed down about 30 feet to start the South Ridge of Junction. It was a nice climb, but hardly what I would call a classic. The knife edge portions were easy to bypass on either side without dropping down much, which made my following along the sharp ridge seem a bit contrived. About a third of the way up I spotted another climber on Junction's sandy South Face. We waved to each other, then he started traversing over to the South Ridge. At first I thought it was Michael in his standard blue polypro shirt, but upon his gaining the South Ridge below me I found it was Miguel. From the day before when he ran down the Kearsarge Trail past me, I knew he moved fast. Up we raced (actually, Miguel was probably just cruising, oblivious that I was wearing myself out to keep ahead of him) to the false SE summit. The route suddenly grew exposed, class 3-4, and quite fun as we followed along the ridge to the higher NW summit. Those last hundred yards were the best climbing of the whole day.
I summited just before 11:30a with Miguel only a few minutes later, and Michael just behind him. About 15 minutes later Steve, Eric, and Mark appeared, also coming via the South Face. Mark was stopped just past the SE summit, not comfortable with the extra exposure along the ridge. He was easily within shouting distance, but lack of traction on his shoes or lack of rope for a safety belay kept him from reaching the summit. We took pictures, lunched, joked, and waited some half hour to see if anyone else was coming. That was it for the day. Others had gone to Tyndall or cut the day short before reaching the summit.
On the way down I followed Mark who was leading down the sandier portion of the South Face. As we went by a deep notch on the SE Ridge I paused to look over the NE side. It had a little bit of snow in it and looked loose as all get out, but not particularly dangerous and a straight shot down for some 1,500ft or so, class 2-3. Secor reports a class 3-4 chute on the NE Face but all we could see from above looked like cliffs (from below it also looked like cliffs). Was this the fabled NE Chute he refers to? Mark was well ahead of me by the time I decided to head down the chute. Only much later did he manage to find out what became of me. The top of the chute was as loose as it looked, and much dirt and debris was unleashed with my descent. Lower, the slope became more gravelly, the rock sizes slowly increasing to the size of golf balls and then baseballs. It was all terribly unstable for the entire distance down, slipping and sliding over ball bearings, badly worn ones at that. I spotted a backpacker on the old Junction Pass Trail below me, and when I was halfway down saw two persons peering down the chute above me. We waved, then the two (Miguel and Eric) started down. I met the backpacker on the trail who told me how it was built in 1916, was part of the JMT until 1932 when the trail over Forrester Pass was completed. The trail was still in usable shape through this horrible scree and moraine section, and I was happy to followed it down to below The Pothole where it merged with the Shepherd Pass Trail. A rock cairn marks the junction, but because the old trail immediately crosses the creek through brush, you'd never know it was there unless someone pointed it out to you. I think we will use this next year to ascend Mt. Keith in the 2006 Challenge.
I hiked and jogged my way out to the trail just after 4p. I saw no other participants on the entire descent from The Pothole to the TH, and since I had taken a bit of a loop, I had no idea if most were ahead or behind me. At the TH I found Joe, Joel, and Andrew waiting in the hot afternoon. Each had another person they'd driven to the TH with and were awaiting their return. Little did we know then that extracting the cars would be a challenge on its own (warning! Two cars required towing at $300 each, not covered by AAA since it's a dirt road). Eric got back some fifteen minutes later, and I got a ride from him back to the motel in Independence.
Michael and Mark came back to the motel sometime later to take a shower and then head back home. Matthew had left a note saying he wasn't feeling well. He'd gone to Bishop to run some errands and might return - we'd made tentative plans to climb Whitney's East Face the next day. It was a bit depressing to be left all alone. Jeff showed up somewhat to my surprise after his Sierra Club outing to Mt. Langley. He was up for climbing the next day and I invited him to share the motel. The next morning came with a sudden change - the ground was wet, the sky completely obscured, and low clouds hung over the valley. None of the peaks were visible through the dismal gray. Like it or not, it was time to go home. Another Challenge was over...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Junction Peak
This page last updated: Fri May 27 21:31:28 2016
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