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The hardest day of the 2009 Challenge, in fact any Challenge, was upon us. The 11,600ft of gain was more than we'd ever done before, and the 30mi was near the record as well. The climb up Taboose Pass in the morning and then again in the afternoon would test the strength and endurance of our legs and our whole body. Only there was no "we" or "our" or "us" - just myself. Apparently, none of the other participants thought Taboose Pass was as much fun as I did, and none of my bald-face lying in regards to it could convince them otherwise. And so it was that I found myself the only car and only participant arriving before the wee hour of 4a at the Taboose TH. I looked back in the direction of the road for headlamps signalling the late arrival of someone else, but all was dark save for the fixed lights of the few isolated homesteads along the dirt road. I was alone. Rats.
The previous year we had more than half a dozen heading up the trail and I tailed Rick Kent for most of the eight miles to Taboose Pass at a blazing pace that got us to the pass in three hours. Today there was no such motivator and though I thought I was making good time, I found I was some 40 minutes slower. There were a handful of sleeping backpackers along the trail as I headed up, one of them waking to have a short, friendly talk about where I was going so early in the morning. He was surprised to find I was heading to Marion Peak and I was equally surprised that he had even heard of the remote summit. Turns out he and his party were heading in much the same direction to climb Ruskin, Marion, and a few others in the area. I got the impression that he thought my chances of success to be somewhat low.
The sun had been up for well more than an hour when I reached the pass shortly after 7:30a, and in the clear view of morning I paused to look west and see if I could make out Marion. Arrow and Ruskin and Cardinal were all obvious, but the Cirque Crest extending southwest from Ruskin was just a series of jagged peaks that I could not tell apart, Marion was somewhere in the mix there. Not long after I'd started down I came across a lone backpacker off to the side, taking in the view looking down on the South Fork of the Kings River. He was the last person I saw until I started back.
According to both the 7.5' and 15' maps there is a split in the trail about one and a quarter miles west of the pass. The left fork stays high in the canyon until meeting the JMT, then drops down in a series of switchbacks to the river. The right fork heads more directly down to the river, making it the preferred choice in most cases. Finding the right fork can be somewhat problematic however, and for the second year in a row I ended up on the left fork before I realized I'd missed a junction and had to head cross-country to pick up the correct trail. It was only upon my return in the afternoon when I was paying very close attention that I found the reason why - the right fork is no longer maintained and the trail is covered with downed wood and rock at the junction to hide it.
It was 8:30a when I reached the bottom of the canyon where the trail heads right to meet up with the JMT. I left the trail heading west, crossed the river, found the JMT on the other side and followed it south. When I got to where the JMT fords the river I went cross-country heading west again, and very soon picked up the old Cartridge Pass Trail. The old trail meanders down the river on the north side, then climbs up to Cartridge Pass just west of Mt. Ruskin. A week earlier, Michael Graupe had used this route to avoid the bushwhacking reported in the lower reaches of the river canyon and I resolved to use this same route for the very same reason.
Much of the old trail is easy to follow and ducks help in places where it is less obvious. Downed logs are no longer cut and the trail either goes directly over these obstacles or new routes have sprung up to go around them. There are a number of small grassy meadows and other places close to the river that become easily overgrown and I found myself losing the trail several times. There are two major talus/boulder fans that reach down nearly to the river starting from high on the north side of the canyon, and I lost the trail again in crossing these (the trick I found later is to stay much closer to the river than I had ventured). Knowing that the trail would soon start up towards Cartridge Pass, I made an ascending traverse up the north side of the canyon cross-country, eventually intercepting the trail as I had expected to, where the forest partially covers the slopes. I followed this up to where it appeared to end near the outlet of the first of several unnamed lakes south of Cartridge Pass. It was just after 10a and it appeared I was making decent time.
I stashed a bottle of Gatorade in the lake and crossed the outlet to the west side, then started up in a westerly direction towards Cirque Crest. I chose to climb to the low saddle north of Pk. 3,710m, though this was probably a bit out of the way. Later I learned it would be faster to descend from just south of Pk. 3,710m more directly to the lake to the east, and I used this more direct route on my way back.
I had some trepidation about the 2mi hike along the crest that shows no less than four saddles on the way to Marion Peak. Michael had shrugged that it wasn't so bad, which helped me to decide to follow his route. He didn't lie. The south side of the crest is more gently sloped than the north side, and though the route is composed almost entirely of sand, talus and boulders, it was not as loose and the sidehilling wasn't as bad as one might have expected. I was able to bypass the first saddle with a low traverse and bypassed one local highpoint in the same way, all the while steadily gaining altitude towards the highpoint of the crest.
I had been making my way along the crest in this fashion for about an hour when it occurred to me that I might run out of Gatorade and water before I could return to my cache at the lake below Cartridge Pass. It was looking like the cache had been a bad idea. There were several small lakes some 400-500ft down the crest to the south, but I really didn't want to drop all that way just to get water and have to regain it immediately afterwards. I had hoped to find lingering snows high on the north side of the crest, but so far I had found it bone dry. From some distance away I spotted a small patch of snow just west of the last saddle before the climb up to Marion, the only such patch on the whole route. It probably wouldn't last more than a week longer, but it was a life-saver of sorts, or perhaps an additional-elevation-saver, more accurately.
I stuffed my half-drunk bottles with snow, then started up for the last twenty minutes of scrambling to the summit. It was 12:30p when I reached the top, more than 8.5hrs after setting out - it would certainly be a long day before I was finished. The wind was calm, the air cool, and the sun warm, an ideal location for lunch. I pulled out a sandwich I had brought with me and enjoyed it while I took in the scenic views from this remote setting. One could see almost all of Kings Canyon NP from the White and LeConte Divides to the northwest, the Goddard Divide and Palisades to the north, and much of the Sierra crest running from the northeast around Split down to the southeast around Mt. Williamson. Far to the south could be seen the outline of the Kaweahs and other summits in the southern part of Sequoia NP.
The register dated to 1985 and it was easy enough to spot the other dayhike entries from Matthew in 2007 and Michael just nine days earlier. I almost wished I had another sandwich to extend my lunch, but after about 20 minutes it was time to pack up and head back. I retraced my steps back along the Cirque Crest and down to the unnamed lakes, retrieved my cached Gatorade and headed down the old trail and back to the river. I did a much better job of following the trail on the way back, and lost it only in very short sections. I was somewhat surprised to find backpackers on this old trail until I realized that it was the party I had talked with earlier in the morning. The first thing the leader asked was whether I had made it, and upon receiving affirmation he came forward to heartily shake my hand. "I told 'em we'd see you somewhere down here, good job!" They were a party of four from Tuscon, AZ and had never heard of the Sierra Challenge, to no great surprise.
I stopped near the junction with the JMT to take a refreshing dip in the river in one of the many pools that can be found along its course. I was quite near numbness in my extremities when I fished myself out of the water and put my clothes back on. This helped to keep my toes from overheating on the long walk back to the trailhead. It was after 5p before I had once again reached the top of Taboose Pass, and more than two hours more to make it down the 6,000-foot drop to the trailhead and the van. With the three hardest hikes out of the way, I was looking forward to the next two easy days and a chance to let my body catch up on much needed sleep and recovery.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Marion Peak
This page last updated: Fri Feb 5 09:15:37 2010
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