Mt. Mary Austin
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It was after 8p as when we finished with our aborted North Ridge of Lone Pine adventure, and as we drove back down the Whitney Portal road towards town, we discussed our options for the following day. During the retreat off Lone Pine I'd fairly decided that I didn't want to attempt Shepherd Pass and Tyndall/Versteeg the next day as planned. I didn't think we could get an early enough start to be able to finish before nightfall. Matthew planned to climb Williamson while I was off on Tydall/Versteeg, but I was starting to think it was going to take him in the neighborhood of 20hrs. Even with a 5a start (which I didn't think we could manage), it would be after midnight before he was back. This might have been an overestimation particularly since Matthew makes good time on trail, but after watching him over the last two days on boulder/talus fields, I couldn't see how he could make decent time across Williamson Bowl (and twice, to boot). So my new plan which I relayed to Matthew was to either find something else to climb, or if he had his heart set on Williamson I'd be happy to drive to the trailhead, drop him off, go climb something else, and come back to wait (sleeping, probably) for him to return. For his part, Matthew wasn't as keen on Williamson as I'd thought, and in fact was offering to take me to the trailhead since he thought I was keen on Tyndall. In truth I had been keen on it when the weekend started, but I've learned to be more accepting in modifying plans as situations warrant, and in this case the situation warranted it. Afterall, the mountains aren't going anywhere, and there's always a next time. Fairly quickly then we shifted plans to attempt a still ambitious hike up Baxter Pass Trail to climb Black Mtn and Diamond Peak. We had discussed this some days earlier as a possible warmup hike, but we'd rejected it as too demanding for a warmup. We had planned to drive north and take a room in Independence, but decided to save ourselves the drive this evening and took one instead in Lone Pine. We ordered a medium size pepperoni at the Pizza Factory, but I found I wasn't all that hungry and could barely manage two pieces, and Matthew fared no better. We took the remainder back for Matthew's breakfast (he had no trouble polishing off four pieces in the morning when his appetite returned), and turned in some time after 10p.
We were up at 5a on Saturday, and after packing all our stuff were off heading north on US395. We had no trouble finding the turnoff. The road is paved for about 5 miles to a USFS campground, then a nicely graded dirt road took us the remaining four miles to the trailhead. Ours was the only car in the lot, and the only one when we returned. We saw nary a soul all day - this is not a very popular trailhead. It was 6:30a when we headed out - not an early start, but better then we'd gotten the previous morning. The trail crosses a side stream, then the main creek to the south side of the canyon, the crossings providing only a minor inconvenience. Soon after the trail moves away from the creek and the protective shade of the trees along the banks, leaving one exposed to the sun. As with most East Side trails, this one gains elevation in a hurry, and maintains a fairly steep grade - 5,000ft in 5 miles. There are no lakes along the entire route, and very few suitable camp sites. Even the one named feature, Summit Meadow, is hardly flat, and the mapmakers appear to have trouble placing the name in the right location (we weren't sure where it was either, so one could hardly blame the mapmaker). One saving grace was the time of year - spring - and the wildflowers seemed to be at their maximum bloom. Paintbrush lined portions of the trail, and there was a great variety to enjoy - even blooming cactus. A sign lower on the trail indicated we were entering Bighorn country.
Matthew and I hiked together for the first hour or so. It was a race with the sun to see if we could get to the higher (and cooler) elevations before the sun had a chance to cook us lower down. Matthew paused at some point along the way and the next time I turned around he was gone. Halfway up the canyon the trail makes a last creek crossing back to the north side, but unfortunately the trail doesn't stay close enough to the creek to gain the shade benefit. The trail then thins some as it climbs through some morainal material, some ducks helping to keep one on the right path. For much of the way Upcanyon can be seen a steep rock face that marks the obvious split in the canyon. The trail continues up the right fork, while our route to Black Mtn would head up to the left. It seems as if this rock face ought to be Diamond Peak itself, but it is merely a lower buttress on its far east side - Diamond Peak is well hidden much further back. Onward one marches towards this towering rock mass thinking you're almost there, but it takes several hours to reach it. It wasn't until 9:40a, just over 3hrs on the trail that I finally pulled into a small meadow area marking the trail turnoff. I found a large flat rock to sit on, take my pack off, and rest while I waited for Matthew. I had passed a few places with snow, but nothing more than a dozen steps across to reach the trail and dry land on the other side. But now the route would have a good deal more snow, covering much of the ground on the north-facing slopes before me. I had quite some time to wait for Matthew, about 40 minutes. I was surprised that he had gotten that far behind, and started to think we were going to be going far too slow once we moved onto the talus portion of the climb, and it might not be possible to climb both Black and Diamond before dark. While I had so much time I began studying my map a bit. I could make out the obvious route up the broad canyon to Black, but a steeper side canyon directly to the south intrigued me. From the map, it looked like this could be taken to Mt Mary Austin, and then from there a traverse to Black Mtn could be made. Later I found this was a common excursion and not at all novel, but at the time I had no beta and the idea of climbing Mary Austin grew on me. I figured I could probably climb it and reach Black in the time it might take Matthew to reach Black, or if he got there first I could probably catch up to him on the way to Diamond. Climbing all three would be a real coup, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch. But certainly climbing Mary Austin and Black was pretty reasonable and it would make the disappointment in not getting to Diamond easier to take. By the time Matthew wandered up the trail, explaining how he'd gotten lost for half an hour when he lost the trail in the moraine, I had pretty much set my mind on climbing Mary Austin first. Not being an SPS peak, Matthew had little interest in it as I expected, and still wanted to try for Black and Diamond. So after a brief reunion, we split up again and went our separate ways.
I recharged my water bottles at the stream before crossing, expecting it to be the last available water for many hours. I didn't have to walk far before reaching the snow slopes heading up the side canyon, and I paused here to put on my crampons. The weather was cooler now at the higher elevation, but the sun beating on the snow produced a blinding glare that made it seem much warmer than it was. The hardest part of the canyon was the steep entry at the beginning, though this wasn't more than about 35 degrees. By the time I got to the top of it about 400ft higher, I'd had enough of the sun/snow glare and was wishing for the cooler, black and brown colored rocks that lined the snowfield running down the center of the canyon. Unfortunately the rock was all talus and I knew the climbing would be terrible there, so I stuck to the snow as much as I could. At first I had been able to keep an eye on Matthew heading up the main canyon to the west, and he seemed to be making much better progress than I. Partly this was because I had to gain elevation much quicker, so he made more horizontal progress than I and was far upcanyon before I lost track of him. But I began to think it might have been folly to imagine I could get to Black Mtn before him. Behind me to the north rose the Sierra crest between Diamond Peak and Mt. Baxter, and I could make out the thin line that was the Baxter Pass Trail climbing the sand/talus slopes to the pass. I used this view as my gauge in making progress - once I could see mountain peaks on the other side of the pass I could judge that I'd nearly reached the height of the pass. And the more I could see of the other side, the higher I was climbing above that level. When the snow ran out I was forced onto the loose talus, and this northwest side of Mary Austin was one of the worst talus slopes I've had the displeasure to climb. Most of the rocks were the size of footballs, not large enough to be firmly settled in the hillside, but large enough to be dangerous when they slipped underfoot or shifted position when weighted. Interspersed were sandier sections that were even more exasperating, and I would preferentially chose the uncertain footing of the larger blocks where I could. The altitude, hours, and crumbling slopes conspired to sap my energy at the fastest possible rate. Endless stairs would have been far more preferred to this stuff. The summit was visible nearly the whole way, but I didn't know it at the time. The slope is of such an even grade that the summit doesn't stand out at all - it just looks like a slight change in the slope far away up the deceivingly long mountainside. I started to use the tactic of picking out notable landmarks (in this case it would be just a large rock) about 30-50 feet above me and aiming for it, taking a small rest as a reward when reached. Before long any flat rock that presented itself was a bonus opportunity to sit and rest and take in a "wilderness appreciation moment." Black Mtn appeared over the saddle west of Mary Austin, and I watched the NE Face grow before me as I made upward progress. Despite what felt like a creeping pace, I was actually making decent time and I eventually emerged onto the summit ridgeline a few hundred yards north of the summit.
At 12:30p I reached what looked like the summit, and I found a ziplock bag with a folded piece of paper inside. The bag was still fresh, no noticeable brittleness from the sun as yet. There were three or four parties that had signed the paper, all from Spring 2004, the latest by Eric Lee only a week earlier. Looking around, I noticed another peaklet not 2 minutes further west that seemed to be higher. Realizing the plastic bag would never survive the year and probably begin to disintegrate before the summer was out, I pocketed the note and trotted over to the other point where I found an ammo box and the true summit - it was indeed higher, maybe by about five feet or so. Inside the box was a summit register wrapped in 4 layers of plastic, one of the most dogged efforts to keep a register dry that I have ever seen. Unwrapping each layer, I found an extremely weathered register book inside. I tingled with some excitement as I carefully examined the worn book, pages as brittle as any I've ever seen. Expecting to find original signatures dating back 70 years or more, I was a bit disappointed to find the first date was from 1990. Apparently the book had gotten wet sometime in the past, soaking wet most likely, which accounted for the brittleness of the book. Someone had dried it and then repacked it carefully, but the damage is almost complete. Most of the entries, and there weren't many - only one or two per year, were nearly washed out and illegible. There was no useable pen or pencil in the register, just a busted up mechanical one with no lead remaining. Even had I been able to write on the pages it did not seem likely that the pages would stay bound to the book for long. In addition to the register there was a business card from Bob Pickering, a name I've seen in many a Sierra register.
The views from the summit were limited to three sides, but those were enough to hold my interest. To the south could be seen Williamson & Tyndall in the background, University, Kearsarge, and Dragon closer in, with The Great Western Divide to the southwest. To the east lay the towns of Independence and Lone Pine in the Owens Valley, and to the north were the Palisades in the back, Baxter and Acrodetes closer in. The view to the west was blocked by the impressive Northeast Face of Black Mtn, and an unnamed intermediate peak on the ridgeline connecting to Black to Mary Austin. I left the summit without putting the note from Eric and the others in the register box - I found it when I was going through my pockets later that evening. I headed down the West Ridge, and found it somewhat better than the boulder/talus grunt I had taken up. There was plenty of talus, but it was a bit better settled and the angle was lower. At the saddle (it appears to be class 2 coming up from either the north or south side) I started an upward traverse around the southeast side of the unnamed peak, not really interested in climbing to its top only to lose several hundred feet of elevation on the way to Black. There was much sidehilling, but actually enjoyable after the crud I'd been climbing on earlier. I was able to traverse nearly in a straight line to the lowpoint along the ridge between the unnamed peak and Black Mtn's North Ridge. The North Ridge proved an interesting route. Class 2 to start, it soon became class 3 and then class 4 as the blocks that lined the ridge grew progressively larger and became more difficult to surmount. It was easy almost anywhere to drop down to the west off the ridge to find class 2 climbing on the Southeast Slopes, but that didn't seem nearly as interesting climbing-wise. As I was making my way along the ridge I kept pausing to scan the huge area, perhaps two square miles that lay between Black Mtn and Diamond Peak. I was expecting, or more like hoping, to see Matthew somewhere below or above me in the wide bowl making his way to the summit. But try as I might, I simply could not detect any movement anywhere in the large area. It occurred to me that if he was resting to catch his breath when my eyes scanned over a section nearby, I'd never see him. In fact, if he spent any appreciable time resting I could spend hours straining my eyeballs and never catch sight of him. I couldn't figure out what made me think it would be a simple matter to hook up again after we went different ways. And while I was thinking about this and clambering along the ridgeline, I heard, "Hey, is that you?" Not 20 feet below me Matthew's head popped out from behind a rock. Finding him was no longer a problem. He explained that he'd started up too early and ended on the unnamed summit before realizing his error, and he'd been following along the ridge for some time now. Because I was following along closer to the ridge proper, I was able to pass him a few minutes earlier without either of us realizing it. Continuing on, I arrived at the summit at 3p, about 5 minutes ahead of Matthew.
The views from Black Mtn were better than Mary Austin, taking in much of the Rae Lakes & Sixty Lakes basins, with great views of Mts. Gardiner, Cotter, and Clarence King to the west. Diamond Peak, though little more than a mile to the northwest, looked very far away. Primarily this was due to the 1,000ft+ of elevation that would have to be lost enroute, and the horrible looking sand/talus slopes that would need to be climbed on Diamond's southeast side. There were four books in the summit register, one of them unused. The others were begun in 1956, 1977, and 1992 respectively. Looking through them, it appears the peak is climbed less in the last ten years than it had in previous decades. We were at the summit another half hour or so, and it was 3:30p when I asked Matthew if he still wanted to climb Diamond. He seemed interested, but not determined - mostly he dreaded the idea of hiking back up that steep trail in order to climb a peak he might have gotten when he had the chance. I was more interested in getting back at what I considered a reasonable hour (before dark), but I didn't let on to my preference just yet. I was willing to let Matthew head for Diamond even if I didn't - I'd simply sack out back at the car until his return. He seemed to think it might still be a reasonable prospect, even admitting he was pretty tired, but when I asked to explain his timetable that would make it reasonable I felt he was underplaying the amount of time it would take him to reach the summit of Diamond - two hours seemed highly optimistic. In the end we both decided to head back down.
We followed the West Ridge down to where it met the lower-angled snow slopes heading down the center of the canyon to the north. With crampons and axe we made fine time descending, along with some standing glissades (this was possible on my aluminum crampons with shorter spikes). Where the snowfield narrowed and we had to get through some rocks to reach another snowfield down below, my foot went through the snow at one point, banging my knee into the sharp edge of a rock. I let out a howl and numerous curses (ok, it was just the same one over and over: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!) as I stood there, bent over and clutching my knee. Not knowing what to do, Matthew asked if I was ok, but really trying to ask if there was any value in him rushing over to my aid. Not wanting him to do likewise in his hurry to assist, and not really needing any assistance, I stopped my little tirade briefly to say, "Oh - I'll be all right in a minute," before continuing to whimper and swear. My knee continued to hurt even two weeks later, but it wasn't bad enough to require medical attention, let alone a BandAid. Some tiny blood spots appeared though my pants, but nothing to be concerned about - Matthew had lost more blood on our rock climb the previous day than this wound would produce. After rubbing it a while I continued on my merry way, the adrenalin masking any remaining pain I was feeling.
There were several places where we first took off, then put the crampons back on to connect the various snowfields, and because mine were much easier to swap on and off (and also because I was moving faster) I put some distance between us and soon lost sight of Matthew. By 5p I had returned to the creek where we'd left earlier in the day, and was able to refill my water bottles which had gone nearly dry. I washed my face and soaked my hat with water to aid in cooling, and after a few minutes continued down. I found the trail again, and switched to automatic pilot as I made my way back down the five miles of trail. The shadows began filling the canyon, and though I raced with it for a short time, eventually the shadows won the race down the canyon. I arrived back at the car at 7p, which met my qualifications for returning at a reasonable hour. I actually felt pretty good, not nearly as exhausted as I'd expected to feel. I took off my pack and started to change, looking forward to a relaxing hour or so reading my book before Matthew showed up. Quite to my surprise, he showed up less than five minutes later, having jogged a good deal of the route back. I hadn't been jogging at all, but was moving at a pretty good clip, and he must have been a good 20-30 minutes behind me when I started back down on the trail. Matthew'd made some excellent time and I sort of felt cheated out of my rest time. It didn't take Matthew more than a few minutes more to switch out of his boots into his sandals, and we were on our way back down the road towards US395. We were probably both thinking maybe Diamond wouldn't have been too bad afterall, but neither of us said anything to the other about it, enjoying the bit of daylight we still had left as we drove back.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Mary Austin - Black Mountain
This page last updated: Wed May 16 16:48:17 2007
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