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Day 8 of the Sierra Challenge saw another small squad for the starting time of 5a. Tom, Mike, Ryan, and myself were at the Shepherd Pass TH shortly before the appointed hour. By headlamp, we started up the trail after a quick photo. The four creek crossings were not difficult to manage even by headlamp, and we only had a single boot out of eight total that took a soaking in the effort. The sun rose and the moon set as we climbed those initial 67 switchbacks after Symmes Creek. It's a tough 2,000-foot climb to the first of three saddles. It was just after 6:30a as I reached the first and highest saddle where Mt. Williamson comes into fine view to the south. Having taken a rest day, Ryan and Mike were in good form and only a few minutes behind me. We did not rest too long at the saddle before continuing. For the next 45 minutes I hiked ahead, checking behind me periodically to see where the other two were. Eventually I lost them as the trail winds relentlessly up from its lowpoint as it makes its way to Mahogany Flat and Anvil Camp. I didn't stop to wait or rest along the trail and kept going to the old Junction Pass Trail junction just before the Pothole. The fork is obscured by growth at the creek crossing, but a large pile of rocks still marks the spot if you know what to look for. Not finding an obvious crossing point for the trail, I bushwhacked across the creek with great effort before emerging on the otherside and finding the trail again. Looking a bit harder, there was an easy crossing about 20 yards further west. Duh.
I had initially planned to take the trail all the way to Junction Pass and then take the class 3 SW Ridge, but as I followed the trail up I kept looking at the South Face and thinking I could go that way much faster, saving a few miles. My impatience got the best of me as I left the trail and went for the direct approach. The cost of my impatience was an unbelieveable amount of sand and talus - 1,500ft worth, or thereabouts. It was the awful stuff of two steps forward then one step back as nothing on the lower slopes had any semblence of solidity. Progress seemed terribly slow. I had left the trail around 9a thinking it would be another hour to the summit. That would get me to the summit at 10a which was the time I had told Evan to expect me at the summit. He had camped in Center Basin after our climb of East Vidette the previous day and was looking to meet up on the summit of Keith. But it wasn't going to happen at 10a. After 30 minutes I was only halfway up the scree and my legs just wouldn't go any faster. Though I had climbed a good deal from the trail, the view ahead looked endlessly the same.
I finally reached the base of one of several rock ribs that rose up towards the summit. I didn't care which one I took so much as I was glad to be off the scree. To my surprise the climbing was pretty good, mostly class 3, a few class 4 moves, a few places where I had to divert a short distance from the spine of the rib. Like the scree slope before it, the view from below made it look deceptively short. What looked like it would take half an hour took twice as long. About 10:45a I heard a shout and looked up to see Evan standing atop another rib to the southeast. He had reached the summit around 10a with Charles, who like himself had camped out in Center Basin before ascending Keith in the morning from the north. Charles had already started down while Evan decided to look around once more when he spotted me. I got to the summit at 11a, having just missed Charles descending a chute adjacent to the rib I was climbing. Evan was surprised I didn't hear him with all the rock he had knocked down on his way.
We spent only a short time atop before heading back. I particularly enjoyed the views to the south towards the Whitney region. Against my better judgement, I let Evan talk me into a descent down one of the southeast chutes he had spied on his way up the East Ridge. It was a colossal drop of nearly 5,000ft to the Shepherd Pass Trail, but without a clear view of the whole route we were unsure if we might encounter significant cliffs or bushwhacking. I had surveyed the route on the topo maps beforehand, but had no information on route conditions from trip reports or Secor's guide. I was sure to tell Evan this before we started down so he was prepared to hear me bitch and blame if we ran into trouble.
As it turned out it was a fine idea, and when it was done I could only offer praise instead of blame. It took us two hours to make the descent to the trail, but there were nothing harder than class 3 encountered anywhere along it. The top started off with a very promising sand descent, but this soon gave way to a mix of rock and scree that slowed us down for most of the way. The bottom section featured some bushwhacking that looked tougher than it turned out to be. We had climbed out of the main canyon before we reached the top of a cascade that we had recalled seeing from the trail in the morning. Animal trails led through the brush with only minor resistance. Before we had reached the trail we had spotted another hiker on the trail heading back. We guessed it might be Scott Hanson, but he was so far ahead it was hard to tell. Scott had been our ride to the trailhead and we hoped to get a ride going back out again, too. When Evan and I reached the trail I started jogging down to catch up with Scott. Evan noted that if it was Scott, we'd catch up to him without running, and it would do us no good to get out to the TH before the driver showed up. Evan's logic was right on, but I kept jogging anyway - this was the downhill section of the trail before the uphill climb to the saddles, and I wanted to get that uphill over with as soon as possible. When I reached the lowpoint on the trail I changed to a walk, and as Evan had predicted I caught up to Scott before we reached the first saddle.
Scott had hiked up to a point past the Pothole before turning around. He had hoped maybe to reach Shepherd Pass, but was happy to get as far as he did. This was Scott's last of five days out on the Challenge. He had not climbed any peaks in those five days, but he had enjoyed the time spent in the mountains. It's hard to have a bad day in the mountains unless you get hurt or lost. I hiked along with Scott for a while. Evan had caught up soon enough, and the two of us continued down the switchbacks to Symmes Creek. At the last crossing we took a break, a long one this time, to soak our feet in the frigid waters and stay cool under the shade. There was no point in waiting at the dry, dusty parking lot for Scott to return. Evan went one better in taking a bath in the creek with his clothes on. He completely emersed himself, then sat sitting in the cold water for a spell. He nearly choked himself when he came out with breathing problems from the cold. He was nearly dried by the time Scott joined us, and as a group of three we returned to the trailhead about 3:45p.
Mike and Ryan took nearly the same ascent route to the summit as I did, choosing one of the chutes instead of a rib. The interminable scree combined with apathy and lack of time to get them to turn around some 500ft short of the summit. They returned back the same way they went up, returning to the trailhead a few hours after the rest of us. The peak had gotten the best of them and they decided not to climb the following day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Keith
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:06 2007
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