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I was happily surprised to find that Laura was interested in joining me for this midweek outing. Her performance during the Challenge had shown she was more than capable for such a trek, leaving me no worries in that regard. And if she was somewhat slower than the usual pace I was certainly fine with that - I didn't expect to be setting any records, always appreciate the company, and would actually enjoy going a bit slower myself. Despite my reassurances to the contrary, Laura was still worried that she was going to slow me down and planned on starting off before me to give her more time to reach Bishop Pass in the wee hours of the night. Sean O'Rourke had tentatively agreed to come along as well, but he never materialized at the TH or enroute.
I was not surprised therefore to find myself alone at the South Lake TH when I started off at 2a under a starlit sky. What did surprise me was that I didn't see Laura's orange Truck o' Fun in the parking lot when I did my loop through it. Did she change her mind? (No, I had simply missed it on my drive-thru). A mile and a half from the TH I got my first clue in the form of a small stuffed animal I found on the trail. "Animal" is used in the generic sense here because it was not of any lifeform real or imaginary that I could recognize. It wasn't the orange moose I'd seen her carry before, but it seemed like something she might have along. I thought perhaps it was meant for me to find and began looking for other such creatures along the trail. I found none.
It was 4:15a before I reached Bishop Pass. From a distance I spotted Laura's headlamp and soon found her shivering terribly, trying to keep warm. She had arrived some 45min earlier and had spent most of that time attempting to keep from freezing. When I told her I was only 15 minutes faster than her in reaching the pass, the foolishness of her plan was finally evident. We took a few quick photos and then carried on over the north side of the pass into Dusy Basin. And yes, she had dropped Jennie Giardia along the way, though not intentionally. And now I know what one of these intestinal microterrorists looks like. It was supposed to be a gift for Sean who was a definite maybe to join us on the hike, but of course he wasn't with me. Where she had found such a stuffed animal or why she would purchase it remained a deep mystery.
The next part of our plan looked better on paper than it turned out. Dusy Basin is a broad, terraced area of about 8-9 sq. miles on the south side of Bishop Pass. Our route would travel across this basin, about 2/3 on trail and then cross-country up to Knapsack Pass just south of Columbine Peak. The trail portion was no trouble in the dark, but once we started cross-country things got a bit more problematic. We could see the outlines of Isosceles and Columbine peaks on the skyline, even make out Knapsack Pass once we had traveled far enough along the trail. The landscape between the trail and pass, however, were wholey unviewable in the dark and therein lay the trouble. The terrain is undulating and lightly forested, but possessing a good deal more brush than I would have thought this rocky landscape capable of. We ended up in the main drainage further south than we would have liked and had to navigate a serpentine route through brush and small cliffs in order to climb back up to Knapsack Pass. Laura was beginning to doubt my route-finding skills by the time we reached the pass around 6:20a.
It was light enough to put away our headlamps, and finally light enough in Dusy Basin, now behind us, to see where we could have shortened our trip through it by 20-30 minutes. Ah well, it should be easier in the afternoon when we come back through it, no? Looking northeast and east we could see the shaded relief of half a dozen 14ers on the Palisade Crest. Southeast we could see peaks stretching out long the Cirque Crest, though both Observation and Shakspere were blocked from view. The next segment of our route consisted of a 3,000-foot drop to Deer Meadow and Palisade Creek. The only beta we had was a description in Secor depicting "many tedious class 2 cliffs", but we found something a whole lot more pleasant. The first 1/2 of the descent has no route-finding issues, just follow the drainage with a pleasant stream flowing through it, from one alpine meadow down to the next (perhaps these "cliffs" would be more tedious on an ascent). It was very pretty and easy work making our way downstream, stopping to photograph flowers and ice formations we found along the way.
Halfway down we began to encounter more brush and then trees as the forest cover began to take over. Route-finding was no longer as easy. We kept to the southwest side of the creek as recommended by Secor, but it was not hard to find ourselves atop cliffs on that side if we strayed too far from the creek. I led us into several dead ends before Laura lost all hope in my abilities and began to take over the lead duties herself. I have to admit she did a better job and I found it easier to just follow along rather than worry about where to turn next. The last 500ft was a brushier affair as we moved further southwest out of the drainage and onto the steeper slopes leading down to Deer Meadow. There was a superb view of Devils Crags to be seen looking west. I took a nasty slip on a granite slab in this section and came down hard on my hip. Laura looked back to immediately ask if I was Ok. Rather than get back up, I declared that this seemed like a good place to take a break. And so we did. I examined my hip and decided it would mostly just be a very bad bruise, but nothing seemed broken and there was very little blood. I would be reminded of it the rest of the day with mild pain in that area, especially on the downhill segments.
It was 8a when we reached Deer Meadow and the JMT. We turned to follow the trail for a short distance, but didn't stay on it for more than a few minutes. The 7.5' topo shows a trail going up Cataract Creek to the south, our next segment, but we'd been warned this trail is no longer maintained. We didn't really have much idea where to find the old trail junction, so I sort of led us in a charge on a diagonal tack across the Palisade Creek drainage. This bold effort had some positive effects initially, landing us at the main campsite found here, consisting of a large flat area, a packer's lock box and a fire ring. Some deer were grazing nearby and it took us a few seconds to recall that we were in, appropriately, Deer Meadow. The crossing of Palisade Creek didn't go quite so well after this. As we moved into a boggy area I called back to Laura to be careful of the swamp. She immediately found herself with boots partly immersed in water. Naturally, I laughed. Then we came to the creek proper where the best crossing I could find on short notice was over a dicey collection of rocks and downed timber. I did fine, but not so Laura. I looked back when I heard the splash and found Laura smiling and pointing to her completely soaked boots. More laughing, but inside I was sure glad it wasn't my feet that had gotten soaked - not with another 12hrs of hiking to go!
Eventually managing to get across several braids of the creek and onto dry land on the opposite side, we went about looking for the mythical trail up Cataract Creek, to no avail. Much of this may have been due to the fact that we initially were looking for the trail on the east side of the creek when a close perusal of the map clearly shows it on the west side. This wasn't much of a bother in the beginning because the slopes were mostly open and easy to navigate, but about a mile up our easy slopes gave way to an ugly boulder field where the east side of the canyon had buried the canyon bottom in a layer of rock shed over countless ages. We searched for the trail on the west side, but found nothing. Laura spied what she thought was a track about 50ft up on the east side going right through the boulder field, but I dismissed it as a visual trick on the eye. We found a couple of ducks higher up the drainage along what looked like a very minimal use trail, but all in all it was a bust in trail-finding. Tom Becht would insist later that there is a very decent trail for much of this ascent, but as a hardened sceptic, I'm not buying it.
For all the trouble in searching out the Cataract Trail, the hike up it wasn't all that bad, really. Only a bit brushy, and quite scenic. It took us a little less than two hours to reach Amphitheater Lake above a headwall on the east fork of the creek (the west fork could also have been used and might actually be faster - I recall seeing a usable chute that rises from the basin to a saddle just east of the summit). We stopped at the large lake for a rest and to refill water bottles. It was now 10:15a, more than 8hrs into the hike, and it was becoming clear that like the previous two outings, this was going to be harder than I had expected with more than an hour remaining to the summit.
We followed Secor's description above the lake, going around the north and west sides and then diagonally up to a talus slope leading to the East Ridge of Observation. The snow we found was minimal and was easily bypassed - this is not the case earlier in the summer. The talus slope led to a broad saddle with a view into the Dumbell Lakes area to the south, and our first view of the Observation summit to the west. I got a short break here while waiting for Laura to catch up. The East Ridge is a class 2 hike over easy terrain, though by now we were pretty tired. Another half an hour from the saddle and we were finally atop Observation by 11:30a. It was a fine September day in the Sierra, not a cloud in the sky, excellent visibility, and a delightful temperature at almost 12,400ft. The ubiquitous aluminum cylinder lying atop the summit held a register dating to 1977. I took the time to photograph all 48 pages for posterity and we read many of the entries while we took a long rest. There was a 2007 entry from Daryn Dodge joking about Matthew and I not having dayhiked it yet (Daryn was the last person to complete the SPS list before Matthew and had hiked with us on several occasions). The following year Matthew was able to poke back at Daryn. In 2009 Daryn came back for a second visit and got in a second jab at me before I could get the last word in. There were also personal greetings from Tom Becht in Aug, 2009 and Shane Smith a few months later. I had become predictable.
About a mile NNW of Observation is Mt. Shakspere. Exactly how the Bard's name got so horribly mangled on the maps isn't clear, but it was a named summit and worth a visit, at least to me. Laura was game, but low on water and would likely have to return to Amphitheater Lake for more. Taking stock of what I had remaining, I guessed I'd have an extra quart of Gatorade to give Laura, allowing both of us to make the traverse to Shakspere and down then down to Palisade Creek. She accepted the offer and off we went. There was some fun class 3 downclimbing immediately off the summit of Observation, but mostly just a bunch of class 2 after that. We spent a surprising amount of time, an hour and forty minutes traversing between the two. Some of this was unavoidable. With the up and down nature of the connecting ridge there is more gain than one might have guessed from a quick look at a map. Some was due to some route-finding errors that had me following the ridge too closely and ended up with some back-tracking. And the final climb up Shakpere's South Ridge was a tedious and tiring affair.
The register we found was older than the Observation one by several years, placed in 1975 by a party led by RJ Secor. The peak gets climbed only about once a year judging from the 14 pages of entries. Sitting atop the summit we took another short break, considering our route back over Knapsack Pass. Neither of us was too keen on returning that way even if it might be faster. So instead we decided on a plan to return to the JMT and follow that all the way back to the junction with the Bishop Pass Trail near the LeConte Ranger Station on the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Onward!
The NW Slopes down to Palisade Creek are difficult class 2, over much loose rock on steep terrain. The first 2,500ft are the hardest, the last 1,000ft easier with better footing under the moderate forest cover. We took slightly different routes in the upper portions to keep from knocking rock down on each other, rejoining where it became safer. It was 3:30p before got down to Palisade Creek, Laura having finished off the Gatorade some time before and grown quite thirsty. After restocking our supplies we found the JMT, Laura kissing it for dramatic emphasis, and then down we went to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. The gradient is fairly gently the whole way and though we were tired we had an easy time of this section because it was downhill.
It was almost 4:30p when we reached the junction at the Kings River. It was a similarly delightful hike up the river, though a bit harder now that we were going uphill again and our progress slower. After a potty break, Laura suggested that I should go ahead and leave her, believing that she was slowing me down. It took some effort to convince her this was hardly the case. In fact, I would likely have been going at a slower pace on my own and was fairly content to let her lead the pace out in front as she'd been doing. This seemed to cheer her up nicely.
Just north of the bridge over Dusy Creek we stopped for more water and ran across Ranger Rick, the backcountry ranger stationed nearby. After Laura had explained to him our itinerary, he commented that we'd gone to a great deal of trouble to avoid getting a wilderness permit. He didn't seem altogether convinced when we further explained that wasn't even a secondary consideration in our doing this. It's really hard to explain that we do this for fun, especially when exhausted as much as we were at that time and still having more than six hours to go.
The toughest section was just ahead, the 3,300-foot climb back up to Bishop Pass. I downed the second of two caffeinated DoubleShots I'd brought along when we reached the trail junction marking the start of this climb. We would spend almost 3.5hrs to reach Bishop Pass, a fairly slow pace. We took a number of needed breaks along the way, including one near the wooden bridge over Dusy Creek 1/3 of the way up for a coffee break. Laura had brought some instant Via which helped give her a caffeine boost. I didn't much like the taste of it though, truth be told. The sun was going down over the Black Divide as we made our way up, shadows and then darkness overtaking the landscape as we entered Dusy Basin. There were some headlamps from backpackers getting ready for bed at several locations, pointed in our direction as we went by, probably curious as to what we were doing on the trail at so late an hour. It was 9:15p before we topped out at the pass. The last several miles to reach it had seemed interminable, more so than I recalled for previous trips to Devils Crags, Wheel, and McDuffie.
The descent to South Lake was pretty quiet. We'd stopped chatting hours before, sometime after starting up from the Kings River. With only our headlamps to illuminate the short patch of trail in front of us, I followed Laura for the entire distance down from the pass. She was going more slowly now and I would have liked to go a bit faster just to finish up more quickly. But she had done such a great job since we'd reached the Kings River that I just kept quietly behind her the rest of the way. The pain from my bruised hip had returned with a determination to make every step difficult. At first it would hurt when I stepped down with the left foot, then with either foot, then even on the flats and short uphills. Not a sharp pain, just a the sort of dull ache that told me just how much I was going to pay for this over the next few days.
It was just before midnight when we reached the TH, putting the total time at 22hrs, some 3-4hrs longer than I had hoped. Grueling as it was, there was a good deal of satisfaction in getting this one done, leaving me only with Table Mtn to complete the SPS list. And I was certain that Table would be easier than these last three. Laura was similarly exhausted but had shed her misgivings about being able to do these long dayhikes. I was convinced she was capable of dayhiking the SPS list if she wanted, and I think after this one she was equally convinced. Three down - one to go!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Observation Peak
This page last updated: Sun Nov 7 15:26:03 2010
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