Night Cap Peak P500

Mon, Aug 2, 2010
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

I left San Jose in the afternoon, initially expecting to get to Sonora Pass around sundown, then sleeping in my car there in the cool mountain air. It was the beginning of my annual two-week trip to the High Sierra that included the ten days of the Sierra Challenge. Always doing what I can to get some warm-up hikes in beforehand, I was happy to have three days in which to explore some areas I hadn't been to before. It occurred to me during the drive that I might be able to climb Night Cap Peak this very evening as an extra bonus. I had just been looking at the area online, and though I had no map with me, I thought I had a pretty good feel for the peak and the surrounding terrain to negotiate it at night. I knew that it wasn't far from SR108, and if I could identify it in the last light of day, could probably manage my way there and back.

I made good time getting across the state and up SR108 into the Sierra. The sun was still up when I reached Chipmunk Flat, a small, primitive camping site off the highway and north of Night Cap. It was only about two miles from the summit and was confident that I might get to the top before dark. I parked the car and set off.

The first order of business was getting across Deadman Creek, no trivial feat, but made easy enough at a log jam. Across from where I parked was a modestly brushy slope that I followed up out of the creek. Above this the forest opened up to easier travel, though steep. Sunset came shortly after 8p. The peak was turning out to be further than I'd thought as I was still some distance from the main summit features, now glowing in the fading light. It was 8:20 when I got close enough to inspect the approach routes. The summit ridgeline is serrated with several possibilities that could be the highest. I had no way to tell from my vantage point. In addition, much of this side was cliffy and I could see no easy way to breach the walls of rock. I chose to traverse across the entire Northwest Face in order to ascend a class 2 talus chute I could see leading to the West Ridge. It took some time to negotiate the traverse thanks to half a mile of loose talus slopes and it was nearly dark before I completed it.

From the West Ridge it was only five minutes to the summit where I found a register in the dark by headlamp. The register had been placed in 1971 by a group of Boy Scouts led by a 29yr-old Kyle Atkins. Kyle came back in 1994 and again in 2003 for a third visit. Aside from this regular visitor, the pages were few and sparse. The last visitor was my friend Adam Jantz from a year prior. I guessed I wasn't on the highest summit by a reference to this being the "West Summit" in the register. I spent the next twenty minutes or so heading east, down one blocky summit and up another. I counted at least three possible summits, though I didn't find another register besides that first one.

On the last of the possible summits, which I'd guess was the East Summit, I decided to try another way down rather than return via the circuitous route I'd taken to get there. What I thought might take me an hour ended up taking two and half times that, thanks to a bunch of cliffs. In the night sky, I could make out the higher ridgeline leading to Leavitt Peak to the southeast as I made my way down to the saddle between it and Night Cap. This had some tricky sections to negotiate, but nothing too bad - easy class 3 at the hardest. But as I turned left from the saddle to drop down to the northeast side of Night Cap, I found myself in difficulties.

I would climb down into the inky darkness as far as I could manage, only to find myself stopped at a cliff dropping 10 to 20 feet to easier ground below. I would then have to climb up, move west a bit, and try again. Time after time, perhaps half a dozen in all, I was stopped by similar cliffs. I wasn't all that worried as the scrambling up and down wasn't dangerous, just repetitive. It occurred to me that I might have to bivy somewhere to wait for daylight, but since it wasn't all that cold, that didn't bother me either. It almost seemed like it would be just desserts for running off on this foolhardy mission. Eventually I wormed my way through the cliff band on that side of the mountain after several hours' effort. Once on the talus fields below, I followed these down to a small stream hoping it would lead to Deadman Creek. The only navigational aid I had was the North Star which I followed almost religiously, knowing a northern vector would have to eventually intersect the highway. I think it was my first time navigating by the stars.

I kept wondering why I couldn't see any cars down on SR108 to help orient me further, thinking perhaps the highway was behind a ridge or bluff that I couldn't make out in the dark. Eventually a car did go by - seems they just aren't so frequently going over the pass late at night - and I found I was quite close indeed. The last bit was a drop down steep, forested slopes, across Deadman Creek, then onto the highway. I guessed (correctly) that I was east of Chipmunk Flat, and in fact only a couple minutes from the campsite. A short time of hiking the road had me seeing the moonlight reflecting off the car window.

It was midnight before I got back to the car - so much for an easy couple of hours' effort, but I'd had a fine time of it. After getting out of my boots and hiking clothes, I laid out my bivy sack on the ground and was in bed within about 15 minutes of getting back. The creekside location was great, the creek noises drowning out the interrupting effects of the passing cars. It had been a good start...

Continued...


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