Kearsarge Pinnacle No. 3
Kearsarge Pinnacle No. 9
Kearsarge Pinnacle No. 10
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It was the ninth day of the 2005 Challenge and the start of the weekend. This meant we'd have more weekend warriors joining us for the next two days, and they came out in numbers today for Kearsarge Pinnacles. Lying just west of the Sierra Crest, this jagged set of 12 numbered (and other unnumbered) pinnacles has little going for it at first glance. They aren't counted among the more prominent SPS list peaks, and the climbing is said to be a mix ranging from great to bad. But having hiked over Kearsarge Pass several times, they looked to have interesting scrambling with a fairly short approach - perfect, I thought, for an easy day before tackling the monster, Junction Peak, the following day. I had it in my head that it would be a jolly ramble through varied pinnacles of class 3-4 difficulty, akin to a day spent scrambling Echo Peaks. I paid little heed to Secor's comment that Dick Beach and Dave King traversed every single bump on this ridge in a long day. Dick who?
Arriving a bit early at the Onion Valley trailhead, I was happy to finally meet Corinne, aka Snow Nymph. She had participated in the Pilot Knob outing, had a rough go of it (that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger variety), had gotten back late, and I never crossed paths with her. Here she was this morning with a big smile, snapping pictures and seeing us off, though not joining in the fray herself. She was the first person I saw at the TH when I returned at the end of the day as well - again snapping pictures. She would make a great Walmart greeter, but we'd rather see her at the trail. Back at the motel the previous evening, Matthew and Michael had poured over the available beta and determined that Pinnacles #4 and #10 were the two highest, with elevations marked on the 7.5' map. As our large group of 17 climbers were assembling before the start, I gave only the simple instruction that #4 and #10 had to be climbed in order to get "credit" in the stat sheet. It was up to the individuals to identify which ones those were and like me, most were hoping the summit registers would help them figure out which was which.
Sunrise came just after we had started, our long line of climbers slowly stretching out as we climbed higher out of Onion Valley towards Kearsarge Pass. I started at the back of the pack for several reasons: first, it would give me an opportunity to talk with the new participants as we headed up to Kearsarge Pass, and second - I was tired of chasing Matthew and Mark. An easy day ought to start off easy too, I figured. I slowly worked my way through the line over the next hour and forty minutes that it took me to reach the pass. Michael, Glenn, Curtis, and others were at the pass before me, a few others had already headed down the west side of the pass. Matthew had reached the pass a good 20 minutes earlier. Before descending I took some time to compare the view of Kearsarge Pinnacles (left side, right side) to the southwest with the photographs I had copied from Secor's book. My plan was to start with #1 on the SE end and work my way northwest to #10.
I jogged down the trail towards Kearsarge Lakes in the company of Andrew and Henrich, not sure where the others ahead of us had gone to, or which pinnacle they were heading to first - it was a bit of a free-for-all. We followed the lakes and stream towards the SE end. I spotted a few others from our group on the one side of a lake or other, looking for ways around the lakes. To one I waved and pointed in the direction I'd come, finding some rocks to hop across where two of the lakes joined. Along the way I lost my two companions when I had to take a potty break, and as I headed up the chute north of #1 I found myself alone. But only for a short while. I heard boulders moving and then saw Joel a short distance behind me, also heading to #1. I had climbed with Joel a few days during the previous Challenge, and knew him to be a strong scrambler. We ended up hooking up for the rest of the day.
It didn't take long to find that the quality of the rock on Kearsarge Pinnacles is lacking. Secor comments that it varies from excellent to rotten, but by far the rotten category outweighs anything found near the excellent end. I moved onto the more technical rocks where I could while Joel continued up the main chute. It was just after 9a when we topped out on what we guessed was #1 - it isn't obvious by any stretch, as there were other pinnacles to the SE that could also qualify. But looking to the NW we could see others on the highest pinnacle in view (which we supposed to be #4) and could count two distinct pinnacles between us. So far so good. 3hrs to the first pinnacle, and it seemed the rest could be knocked off in a few hours more. Hah!
Our dose of reality came quickly when we traversed NW along the ridge a short ways and soon found ourselves looking down on one of the many airy drops we would find during the day. Darn! We dropped off to the SW side for a hundred feet, climbed back up to the notch we'd been looking down on, and attempted to climb #2 from the south side. We were stymied when the climbing level got well over our heads. Back down we went for several hundred feet before finding a ledge leading around an arete and into the adjoining chute on the west side, allowing us to climb it from the NW side. Getting from #2 to #3 wasn't so simple either as we again had to manuever around the west side of #3 to approach the summit from the opposite side. It was 10a when we got to the summit of #3 and we began to consider that at the 30 minutes per pinnacle rate we were doing on the traverse, it would be a longer day than we anticipated. Still, we remained optimistic, wishfully imagining that we were knocking off the harder ones in the beginning. From atop #3 we spied Miguel and Steve descending the impressive South Face of #4. They asked for some beta on the route below and we pointed out it looked like they were good if they could get past a narrow traverse. We watched them long enough to know the route would go and we were happy to find we wouldn't have to take the long way around again. We passed Miguel and Steve at the notch between #3 & #4. They went on to climb #2, #1, a few unnamed ones SE of there, then went on to University Peak. As we made our way across the South Face of #4, brothers Glen and Curtis were coming down in turn. It was starting to feel like a party again, folks scrambling all over. Little did we know they'd be the last ones we'd come cross for the next few hours. Why were we the only ones heading in the other direction? Evidently, mostly of them were giving up on Kearsarge and heading to University or Gould afterwards. Matthew was so disgusted by the rock quality that he headed off the west side, planning to cross Center Basin and climb East Vidette, after having climbed just #4. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to traverse between #1 and #4, then things got ugly.
Pinnacles #5 & #6 are lower than the others and have subsidiary pinnacles on either side. We got lost in a maze of class 4 rock (where were are all the class 3 routes that are supposed to be here?), climbed unnamed pinnacles thinking we were on #6 or #7, but not really sure. We saw no one for some time and it seemed we were alone on our quest. At a gap before #6 (the pinnacle's ID a mystery at the time) we met four climbers who had just come up to the notch from the east. Thinking they were part of our group, we found that they were camped down by Kearsarge Lakes and had just come up for a look around. Unable to scale the pinnacle from the notch, we traversed around the west side and found ourselves looking at a cliff. The other four took up seats to watch Joel and I was we traversed along a ledge and tried all sorts of different routes before finding a convoluted solution to getting past it. Unable to reach the summit from any direction, we presumed it was the hardest of them all, #8. The route around #6 eventually led to a last near-impasse. Ahead at the end of the ledge we were traversing, Joel looked down and suggested we might be able to jump. I came over to have a look at it. It was a good 12 feet or so over the edge onto a ledge below. "You're out of your mind," I responded. It's possible that his 20-something bones would be able to absorb such an impact, but I was pretty sure my 40-something ones would splinter on impact. It ended up being the toughest little stretch we ran into all day, but we managed to lower ourselves, nearly hanging by one arm, and then dropping a short distance to the ledge below. "Let's try to keep the difficulty no harder than that one," I pronounced after we'd both gotten down it. I was quite happy to be paired with Joel on this little adventure since we seemed very evenly matched in scrambling abitities. If one of us could climb something, it was pretty certain the other could follow. Conversely, if Joel balked at one option, I didn't bother trying to see if I could make it go.
When we thought we were finally rising to the summit of #9, we discovered it was but #7. Pinnacles #8, #9, and #10 stretched out beyond us to the NW. We spotted Ron and others on #9, within shouting distance. They confirmed they were on #9, with the class 5 "traffic stopper" #8 between us. We asked Ron if he could see a way for us to climb #9 from our side (they had come up the chute between #9 & #10). He looked down one side, then the other, then offered, "Wow, looks like you have to drop down over a thousand feet on the SW side here!" Great. "Ron, you're not very encouraging!" I shouted back.
Resigned to a long haul, we headed off #7. We got lucky in finding a notch in an arete that let us reach the chute Ron had eyed, only losing about 300ft. We hauled our tired and sorry asses up #9, then headed towards #10. We ran into Dirk heading the other direction. Getting a late start, he opted to tag #10 and #9 and call it a day. The only register we found all day was a small plastic bottle atop #10. It was 3p - six hours we spent traversing from #1. We decided to let #11 & #12 go for another day (Ron and others went over to tag those two) while we descended off the NE side, just north of #10. This turned out to be our biggest mistake of the day or wildest adventure, depending on your perspective. The easy descent was down the chute between #9 & #10 or further north along the ridge. Our cruddy chute turned into a class 4 descent with twisty little passages, airy traverses, and one lucky handhold after another as we descended through the cliffs. I appologized to Joel several times for taking him down this route without having a visible route of descent. Between my appologies I would comment "I think we might get lucky" as one apparent dead-end turned out to have a solvable way down. Having gotten too far out of the main chute in getting around some of the impasses, we ran into cliffs and had to work back into the chute to make further progress near the bottom of the route. We found some fortunate ledges, thin but managable back into the chute, a few more "I think we're going to get lucky" moments with some class 4 in the chute, and finally emerged at the bottom. A bit of talus, a fun glissade, and we were back at the lakes.
I lost Joel on the hike back up to Kearsarge Pass as he took a circuitous route around one of the lake's edges while I went up and over for a more direct line back to the trail. At Kearsarge Pass just before 4p, I found lots of folks taking a break there, but none from our group. I headed down the east side at a jog, keeping a decent pace most of the time, walking in a few of flat places. I was surprised to see Miguel and Steve come zipping past me, fresh off their descent from University. I caught up with Mark and he joined me in the jog back to the trailhead, arriving shortly before 5p. Nearly 11 hours - so much for an easy outing. Rest assured, Kearsarge Pinnacles won't be making an appearance on a future "Best of" Challenge.
Eric and others were lounging at the trailhead in beach chairs, enjoying the finish. Eric had bypassed Kearsarge Pinnacles altogether, climbing Unnamed Pyramid and University before returning nearly 4 hours earlier. Ron, Michael, Glenn, Curtis, and others finished within twenty minutes of Mark and I, leaving just Rick G. and Matthew still out on the trail. I was too tired to join in the planned dinner festivities in Lone Pine, so instead went back to our rooms in Independence. The Subway was closed (as it was most of the summer due to business difficulties we found out later), so Michael and I ended up with an assortment of microwaveable burritos which we supped on after our showers. While I would have enjoyed socializing with the other participants over pizza, I was more interested in icing my ankle and getting to bed early, fearing the hike to Junction Peak would be a rather tough outing.
Matthew never made it to East Vidette. Much to his dismay, he found cliff after cliff on his descent down the SW side of Kearsarge Pinnacles, eventually giving up and climbing back up. He met Rick G. at Pinnacle #4, the only other participant besides Joel and myself to climb the two required summits. Rick had climbed the hairy chute between #3 & #4 on the east side and suggested they not go down that way. Thus the two began a traverse to the southeast fraught with difficulties as the other participants who'd been that way earlier had found. They were several hours later than everyone else, not returning to the trailhead until 7:30p. Matthew swore off ever returning to that "pile of crud."
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Kearsarge Pinnacle No. 10
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