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I picked Kern Point to do first for two reasons - it seemed likely to be the longest of the bunch (turned out to be the shortest) and it was one of two that were done out of the Shepherd Pass TH. I happen to like this 6,000-foot, 11 mile hike more than most, but I still wanted to put as much time as possible between my two remaining efforts on it. Kern Point lies well west of the Sierra Crest by some ten miles and east of the Kern River. This means a hike down from the crest to the river, then up to the peak, and of course more gain on the return, a total in excess of 12,000 feet. A long day, to be sure.
I left San Jose after 6p and spent more than 7 hours driving across the state to reach the Shepherd Pass TH. The weather was surprising pleasant, not too warm, nor too cold as it had been on my previous visit. Just about made to order, really. It was just before 1:30a when I started out by headlamp, alone. It's hard enough to get friends to join me on treks like this one, made harder when they're done mid-week. I made the four crossings of Symmes Creek in the first half hour, then started up the long switchbacks to Symmes Pass.
It was 3a when I topped out at Symmes Pass. With only a day passing since the full moon, Mt. Williamson was brightly lit even in the dead of night and I took some minutes to play with my camera for a nighttime exposure of California's second highest mountain. I had managed to go without my headlamp ever since the last crossing of Symmes Creek thanks to the available moonlight, making for a far more interesting adventure. The headlamp tends to focus one's attention to the few feet of trail in front of you, the eyes unable to see much without full night vision. But by moonlight, the eyes take in all of the surrounding much like daytime and it makes for a fuller, richer experience. The moon lit up the canyon quite well and I never needed the headlamp again until much later in the day.
As the trail turned west I followed the moon on its descending arc towards Shepherd Pass and Junction Peak, passing through Mahogany Flat and Anvil Camp in those wee hours of the morning. Although there had been a few cars at the TH, I saw no tents anywhere at either of these camps as I had expected to. Up past The Pothole and as I entered the morraine area east of the pass, the first signs of color began to appear on the eastern horizon. As the moon dipped behind the crest I was left in the shadows as the trail started the last switchbacks up to the pass. Fortunately it was just light enough to see well enough even in the shadows, making for a near perfect transition from night to day.
It was 6a by the time I reached the pass and the boundary to SEKI National Park. The last time I'd been here was with Matthew in the dead of night, freezing temperatures and a driving wind - it was all we could do to keep from going hypothermic and freezing our extremities. This morning there was nary a breeze and the temperature hovered around 40F or so - quite pleasant by comparison.
Sunrise came around 6:20a to the Great Western Divide some miles in front of me to the west. It was an enjoyable stroll down the high plateau west of the crest as I made my way towards Tyndall Creek. It would be several hours before I was in the sun, the shade preferable in this case since the temperature was so ameniable for hiking. All the while I got some terrific early morning views of Kern Point, Milestone, and other peaks off in that direction.
It was 7:30a by the time I had reached the Tyndall Creek Ranger Station. I didn't even know there was a backcountry ranger station here until I stumbled upon it and then found a reference to it on my topo map. Ranger Laura came out to greet me and we spent probably ten minutes having a nice chat. She was more than a bit intrigued that someone would be out this far on a dayhike, more so when I told her where I was going. I was impressed that she not only knew where the obscure peak was, but had been up there herself in the past few weeks. She gave me some advice on route choices both getting down to the Kern River and on the way up the peak as well. I was happy that she cared enough to ask for my itinerary, address and phone number in case anything happened to me. Though not thrilled with the prospect of my getting into an accident, my wife would appreciate someone looking out for me in the backcountry. Before I left I told her I'd check in again on my way back.
Beyond the ranger station, the trail deteriorates quickly on the east side of the creek. I found myself in a dewy meadow following a few random ducks that seemed to lead nowhere in particular. My boots were quite wet before this exercise was through. I had been told by Laura that it had rained a good amount the previous evening, soaking everything. More was expected today, making me more than a tad worried. I crossed over to the west side of the creek when it seemed I was wandering aimlessly and soon found the trail on the other side. Much less distinct than the earlier trail (portions of which are the PCT and JMT) and hard to follow in a few places, but still quite useable. I passed by a log cabin that appeared to be quite old but still maintained. I was told later that it is probably an old sheepherder cabin that is kept maintained (and locked) by the Park Service.
By 8:20a I had reached a shallow saddle before the trail starts the steep drop to the Kern River. There is a fine view of Kern Point and the Kern River drainage during this descent. Clouds had begun to develop around this time and because it was still so early in the day I was worried that the thunderstorms would come sooner than expected. It would be a hard blow to get so close to the goal and be turned back - especially knowing I already have to do the hike up to Shepherd Pass once more for Table Mtn. I tried to put this bit of bad news out of my mind, but it was impossible not to keep an eye on the clouds overhead as they slowly built up as the morning progressed.
It was 8:50a when I reached the Kern River. Laura had told me the crossing could be done at one of several logjams in the area near the trail junction. It was made harder by all the logs being wet and slippery, though they were doing their best to dry off with the morning sun as evidenced by the fog given off by those in the sunshine. There was some bushwhacking to contend with as well as I fought my way through the other side, eventually easing up where the steep climb out of the river canyon begins. Now for the hard part.
Though I was only about 3mi from the summit, I still had something like 3,500ft of gain remaining in two steep segments. The first mile out of the canyon goes up sharply through sparsely forested slopes, serpentining my way through the underlying brush, all the while angling left to the southwest towards the peak. It was 10:10a when I topped out on this first rise, Kern Point again clearly in view. The darkest clouds in the area were coming in from the south, right over the Kern Point ridgeline. The peak itself obscurred my ability to see where the clouds were coming from and just what was building up in that direction. It was looking more and more like a bad idea, but almost 9hrs into this effort, I was not willing to give up. I had optimistically thought I might reach the summit in 9hrs, but this would not be the case - in fact I was another hour and a half away, close as the summit appeared.
From a distance I had been intrigued by what looked like an interesting class 3 route up the NE Ridge directly to the summit, but now that I was closer the lower part looked too cliffy to be class 3. I might have spent some time to find a way up it in better weather, but the thought of sketchy class 3 on wet rock was less than appealing at the moment. I aimed instead for a talus slope leading up to the SE Ridge, crossing about a mile's worth of this upper basin NE of the peak. During this time peals of thunder could be heard coming from the east and southeast. By the time I reached the base of this slope at a morraine in a small cirque cut into the mountain, the first bit of precipitation had started and the thunder was much louder and closer. There was lightning accompanying the thunder as well, but this I tried to ignore. The talus slope was the beginning of the second steep section and it was a slow affair with shifting sands thwart progress. The drops turned to a steady drizzle and the rocks were all soon wet. I got out my fleece and thin rain jacket before my undershirt had time to get completely soaked. I knew it was foolish to continue, but I ignored all the warnings I'd been given.
I had been in a similar situation some years earlier on Mt. Warren that had given me quite a fright and of course this could not be gotten out of my head. Higher up I reached the SE Ridge proper and felt the blast of wind blowing in from the south. The talus gave way to large blocks of granite, all wet of course. I was now exposed about as much as I could be and if the lightning wanted to have me for lunch there was little I could do to avoid it. I did my best to stick to the right side of the ridgeline to avoid the stronger winds on the other side, making my way towards the summit. I kept my head down to avoid seeing the flashes of lightning around me. Every few minutes I'd hear a peal of thunder and think, "Well, it must have missed me that time if I heard the thunder."
My recklessness started paying off as I neared the summit and found myself at the western edge of the squall that had sprung up. The rain had nearly stopped when I topped out just before noon. I found the summit register and took the time to hastily photograph a few pages of it along with a view to the Kaweahs (the weather was much better in that direction). But the lightning and thunder had not stopped and I was anxious to get off the top as quick as possible.
I decided to head down off the steep NW Slope towards the unnamed lake on that side of the peak. Laura had told me that a few friends had been killing off trout in the lake to allow the native frogs to be restocked, and had set up camp there for a few days. If the weather got worse, I might find them for some temporary shelter. It was a very ugly slope with shifting boulders, loose sand and talus, all of it made worse when wet. It seemed painfully slow to keep safe, taking me an hour before I finally reached the rocky shores of the lake 1,500ft below. I spied one of the gill nets set to trap fish, but found no sign of Laura's friends. East of the lake I spotted some of their gear, neatly packed away in a green storage box or wrapped in blue tarps. Meanwhile a pretty good storm was continuing off to the southeast towards Mt. Whitney and similarly to the northeast towards Shepherd Pass - right in line with my return route.
I would get lucky today, as the weather began to steadily improve as the afternoon wore on. The storms were expending their energy and beginning to diminish noticeably when I returned to the Kern River around 2p. The steep climb back up to Tyndall Creek along the old trail took more out of me than I had expected, even with the extra oomph provided by a Starbucks' DoubleShot that I downed at the trail junction. I spotted a large group of pack animals near Tyndall Creek about half a mile downstream of the Ranger Station. There were also backpackers, more than a dozen in all, milling about between these two points looking for places to set up camp. I think I was in the midst of some sort of daily afternoon ritual by the JMTers to find a place to bed down for the night. It was 3:30p before I reached Laura's stone cabin and checked in with her. By now the skies were mostly blue and the ground was drying nicely. I didn't tell her about my dance with lightning up on the peak, a bit ashamed to admit my bad decision-making. She wished me well as we parted.
By now I was quite tired and would have been happy to be able to call it day. Unfortunately I still had almost six hours to go. Ugh. There is not a whole lot of gain on the five mile hike back up to Shepherd Pass, but in my tired state it seemed much more. After the mass of people near the JMT, I saw no one on my way to the pass. I went by Caltech Peak and Diamond Mesa, well above treeline now as I made my way through the high alpine basin. It was 5:20p before I reached the pass, Mt. Keith on the left, Mt. Tyndall to the south. The sun was just starting to make shadows on the trail dropping down into the canyon formed by Shepherd Creek. Down I went, chasing shadows and trying to find the last bits of sunshine I could before the cold evening air took over.
There was no one at Anvil Camp or Mahogany Flat as I went by; there would be no one else on the trail the rest of the evening. I had saved a second DoubleShot for the last 500-foot climb found below Mahogany Flat and it seemed to get me through that half hour climb back up to Symmes Pass. So far I'd managed without headlamp, the moon helping to illuminate much of the trail until that point, but the north-facing slope that the trail switchbacks down through was much too dark now. The moon would not be high enough to help until long after I expected to be back to the car.
I was stiff and very tired by the time I got back to the car just after 9p. I would have liked nothing better than to take a shower and bed down for the night but the water I'd left in a jug on the dash had already cooled back down before I'd returned. I ended up driving to Bishop, fueling at the Paiute gas station and filling my jug with hot water from the bathroom. I then drove north to a View Area along US395 where I took a quick rinse and slept in the back of the van there. Nice! The cars and trucks that drove by didn't bother me in the least, and when I awoke at sunrise I was fully refreshed for the long drive home. One down, three to go...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Kern Point
This page last updated: Wed Jul 6 11:29:36 2011
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