Mon, Aug 13, 2001
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My ten day quest to climb 10 Emblem peaks was drawing to a close. David, who had joined me on eight of the first nine, had decided to call it quits and get back home a bit earlier. It had been enjoyable having company for many of the hikes, even if at first I had disliked the slower pace this entailed. There had been six of us that had climbed Whitney the day before, and now there was no one left but myself. I didn't want to admit it, but it was getting rather lonely in Lone Pine. I was up at 5a, the last morning I would be rising so early, thankfully - it was getting tough rolling out of bed in the morning with stiff legs from the day before! I left most of my stuff in the motel room, as I planned to return in the afternoon, and taking only a few items for a dayhike, I left right after I'd eaten breakfast.
I travelled about half an hour down US395, towards the last Emblem peak in this direction. Olancha rises above 12,000 ft, the last peak in the southern end of the chain to do so. In fact, the next higher peaks are some distance away, Mt. Florence in the Mineral King area, and Cirque Peak, not far south of Mt. Langley. This provides Olancha with an outstanding vista on all sides, unequalled by most of the taller peaks of the High Sierra. Though the lowest of the ten peaks, it is far from the easiest hike. With over 6,300 feet of elevation gain, it was more than Mt. Whitney, and surpassed only by Split Mtn.
The Trailhead is not obviously marked, as there are no signs on the side of the highway indicating where to turn off. Having researched this well beforehand, I had no trouble finding Sage Flat Road where I hung a right. Three miles west and the pavement gives way to gravel and dirt, but at least the road was flat enough to make negotiation of the road feasible in my low-clearance Miata. Almost six miles from US395, the road ends in a large, dusty lot with an adjoining run-down public corral. There were no other vehicles there when I arrived at 6a, so I found the choicest spot I could find in the shade of a huge oak tree, and started out.
There is a new and impressive trailhead information sign placed by the Forest Service that seems out of place with the delapidated conditions around it. There is a small wooden box on a pedestal at the trailhead, with a notebook that seemed to constitute the only permit requirements. As most of the trail falls outside the federal Wilderness area, there's no need to get a regular permit. Even the notebook at the trailhead is voluntary, but it seemed prudent to make an entry should it be useful in a subsequent rescue effort on my behalf. Next to it, an older sign marks the start. It was mostly dark when I started out, but light enough that I didn't need a flashlight to find my way along the trail.
While much of the eastern side of the Sierra is fairly dry and desert-like, It is even more so this far south. At the other trailheads I had visited over the last week, the scrub gave way to forested slopes after climbing a few thousand feet at the most. Here it was much drier, with fewer trees, and very little water. The stream on the east side that comes down from Olancha Pass was completely dry, and there was no water to be had on this side of the crest. I had only my two water bottles in my fanny pack which would likely run out before the 21 miles were covered. If I was going to avoid a parched tongue, I was going to have to find some more water somewhere along the way. I was thankful I had started early before the day began to warm up, and wished to climb as high as possible before the sun was out long enough to be a problem. Though still dark when I started, it was just light enough to make my way up the trail without a flashlight. I passed a sign that showed the foot and stock traffic going one direction, "Cow Driveway" the other, which struck me as rather comical. I imagined a Far Side comic strip with cows parking their cars just outside the barn up ahead. It was too dark see what was off in that other direction too well, only later did I get a better view of what a Cow Driveway might be. A short while later the sun came up, the only pause I took for several hours.
About 8:30a I reached Olancha Pass, a very broad pass that would almost go unnoticed if not for the sign pointing it out. There are almost no views from this location as the pass is much too broad for views looking either east or west. Continuing on, the trail passes an inviting meadow, lush with green grasses and flowers, but still no water. Nearby is a wrangler's camp, with a rustic, rough-hewn plank table, cooking facilities, and a trio of rusty implements (shovel, saw, and rake) hanging on a tree. It didn't appear to have been used in the last few days, but certainly had been in use this season. I gathered that this is used by stock parties or perhaps wranglers driving their cattle up here to graze in season. "Cow Driveway" was beginning to make sense as I realized this area must be used at least part of the summer for grazing cattle. But there were no cows, no horses, no people to be found anywhere along the trail. Further on there were a few areas where there was much evidence of cattle, the ground beaten to a muddy pulp by the hooves earlier in the season when it was still wet, now mostly dried in the sun. I found some damp ground as well in these areas, but nowhere to draw water from. This didn't look like a safe place to take unfiltered water from in any event, even if there was a nearby stream. Along the trail I came across a bear print in the dusty earth, the first evidence I'd seen of bears all week - cattle rustlers? :)
I reached the PCT junction at 9:10a. One direction headed down toward Monache Meadows, a large flat area further down on the west side. There is an easier trailhead at Monache Meadows, involving much fewer miles and elevation gain, but the unpaved approach is much, much longer. Less than a mile later is another trail junction with the PCT which doesn't make a lot of sense. The map shows the two routes converging down the west side towards Monache Meadows, but one would think only one would qualify as the PCT. Perhaps one was the Business Route, the other the Bypass?
The trail by now has become downright pleasant. Once the tough climb to Olancha Pass is made, the trail contours more gently as it follows the west side of the Sierra Crest on its way past Olancha Peak. There are beautiful high meadows along here, and the views open up through the trees to the west, allowing views of Monache Meadows and the more subdued peaks of the Southern Sierra. The trail passes over several gentle ridges running down the west side, bringing fresh views of the crest's western side. After the second ridge, Olancha Peak comes into view, about a mile off to the north. The trail does not climb to the peak, but continues its contour on the west side. I found no use trail leaving the PCT and heading for the summit, so when I judged the peak was nearly 90 degrees off the trail, I simply headed off in that direction. The going is moderately steep with a lot of loose sand and organic debris from the huge pines growing on this side of the peak. There are granite blocks and slabs sprinkled thorought the slope, so I found myself alternately slogging through sandy pine cone-strewn undergrowth and the more interesting clambering over rocks.
A few hundred yards from the summit the trees give way to mostly granite blocks with a smattering of scrubby bushes thrown in for contrast. Some late blooming wildflowers add color (mostly yellow) and provide some nourishment for the few butterflies I found fluttering about at 12,000 feet. The last couple hundred feet of the summit are enormous blocks that provide the most interesting climbing of the day. Still, with only a little effort it is easy to keep the route class 2 all the way to the top. I alighted on the highest block at 11a, five hours after leaving the trailhead.
As expected, the views were impressive in literally all directions, the most expansive views I'd had all week. To the north was the Whitney Region, with the four 14ers in that area visible. To the northwest was the Kaweah Region, though I couldn't recognize any of the individual peaks from that distance. The Owens Valley stretches from the northeast to the southeast, with a fine view of the Death Valley region (which for some reason I didn't take a picture of). While the west side of the peak has a moderate slope, the eastern escarpment is an impressive dropoff, falling over 4,000 feet fairly quickly to the head of a rugged, trail-less canyon far below. Far to the south could be seen Owens Peak, to the southwest Monache Meadows, and Strawberry Meadow to the west.
There is an emergency transmitter station located just below the summit which I took some time to peruse. There is a sign explaining its use by the Forest Service for communications with rangers and emergency services, followed by some pleading for visitors to refrain from vandalizing the installation. So inspired, the sign had the desired effect as my usual distaste for such features in high places was moderated. Even without the sign I would have been unlikely to engage in such vandalism, mostly as I imagine some poor technician, who has much less inclination for peak climbing than myself, would have to slog his way up here with a tool bag to inspect and make repairs.
I found the register in a fine aluminum box, made an entry, and read a number of the others I found there. The most recent, from a few days ago, was made by that technician I was thinking about earlier. He came up on horseback, so it wasn't as gruelling as I'd imagined. Most of the other entries are from PCTers, who were unloading a lot of frustration that had built up over the last hundred miles. Apparently there are a lot of cows in the southern part of the range, and there were several entries testifying to the unpleasantness of filtering cow urine for drinking water. The proliferation of cattle hadn't occurred to me before, and probably not to the PCTers before they started, who expected the Sierra range to be more pristine like that found further north. I imagine those days out there on the PCT can't all be idyllic.
After half an hour on the summit I made my way back down. In one of the high meadows along the PCT there was the only flowing water to be found anywhere. A small streamlet I had passed on the way up, I stopped here on the way back to refill my two water bottles which were now empty. The watercourse was only a few inches wide, and it was difficult to find a place where the water could flow freely into my bottles. Unless the source was from a permanent spring, it didn't seem likely this trickle would last more than a few more weeks. I made it back to Olancha Pass at 1:45p, still having seen no one all day. Just as I was about to head down the steeper eastside trail, I noted a second Cow Driveway sign. In broader daylight it was now obvious why this was segregated out from the hiking trail. The Driveway was nearly as wide as a firebreak and followed the now dry creekbed steeply down the canyon. The earth had been thoroughly churned under crushing hooves from perhaps hundreds of cattle that had been driven up and down the steep embankment. I have been frustrated in the past by damage done to trails by pack trains, but that was nothing compared to what the cattle had done on the driveway. Hiking there would have would have been hellish, to be sure. Three cheers for the alternate trail!
Once I started downhill, I jogged most of the way hoping to make a shorter trip of this last 5 miles or so. Halfway down I came upon a group of horseback riders, 5 in all, making their way down. I slowed behind them, not getting too close or making much noise, to keep from spooking the horses. After a few moments the rider in the rear took notice of me, and through much kindness they all stopped and allowed me to pass. They were all surprised a bit to run across a hiker, but more so to be passed by one. I thanked them as I went by, then resumed my jog, finally reaching the trailhead at 2:45p. Out of water, I went for the refreshments I'd stashed in the cooler before heading back out to US395. Driving back towards Lone Pine, I was impressed by the Joshua Trees that dotted the landscape on either side of the road. I hadn't seen them driving in the dark on the way day down in the morning, but they seemed to provide good visual evidence that I'd reached the high desert.
It was the end of ten long days of hiking, and I was somewhat sorry to see it end. Though my legs had taken a beating, they held up better than I had expected, and I felt like I had gotten into a groove I could have done (and enjoyed) for another ten days, had I the opportunity. But all good things must come to an end, and it had been a glorious tour of the High Sierra. The peaks I missed simply made starting points for a new adventure next summer that I was already beginning to plan in my head. And the eight that I had successfully climbed would be fondly remembered.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Olancha Peak
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