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Pilot Knob is a mostly non-descript peak lying at the west end of Humphreys Basin. The best things said about it are all in regards to the views from its summit, nothing about the climbing opportunities to be found on its flanks. To make things less enticing, the peak wasn't even on this year's Challenge. But it had been on a previous one, a day on which I climbed Emerson enroute to Pilot Knob, but never made it further than Piute Pass. So in a first for the Challenge, I added a nearby peak I had already climbed (Mt. Goethe), and planned to head for Pilot Knob instead. Utilizing the same trailhead, I would be able to join the others for half the distance or far as Piute Pass.
There were almost a dozen of us at the 6a start, but others had started earlier and more would start later. The hike up to Piute Pass is a familiar and relatively easy effort, taking less than two hours to reach the top. We met up with Kamil and Eric within the first hour, two that had started before 6a for an early start. They were going at a rather leisurely pace - too leisurely as it would turn out, as they failed to reach a summit that day. It was just past 8a when I reached Piute Pass under beautiful skies. Others that had reached the pass before me were already heading towards Muriel Peak on their way to Mt. Goethe. I took a few pictures from the pass before striking off on my own down the west side of the pass on the trail. Pilot Knob was easily visible from the pass and for most of the five additional miles across Humphreys Basin. I followed the trail for about a mile, then left it to head more or less directly for the peak. The intervening terrain is not difficult, composed mostly of delightful alpine meadows set among a jumble of rocks over rolling terrain. But those ups and downs along the way sort of get to you after a while.
It took two solid hours to cross Humphreys Basin from Piute Pass to the saddle on Pilot Knob's East Ridge. Alpine meadows and lakes had gotten a bit monotonous during that time and it was good to be going in the same vertical direction, even if that direction was up. From the saddlE it was little more than 20 minutes to the summit up the broken, boulder-strewn ridgeline. The register canister, placed in 1932 by the obscure Contra Costa Hills Club, was fastened to the rock with concrete to prevent theft. The views were nice, I had to admit. The peak sits high above the junction of French Canyon to the northwest and Piute Canyon to the southeast. Glacier Divide, marking the northern boundary of Kings Canyon NP, rises on the opposite side of Piute Canyon to the south. The high peaks around Royce/Merriam rise to the north, and the Sierra Crest, crowned by Mt. Humphreys, lies to the east. A stiff breeze had begun to blow in the cloudless sky, chilling me at the summit. I put on a jacket to fend off the wind, but I could not stay long without growing cold. The cold latest only as long as I was at the summit, and soon after starting the descent I was back in a tshirt.
Rather than simply retrace my steps, I decided to descend the southeast slopes, class 3 only at the top, down to Knob Lake for a more southerly return. I had thought from the summit that I could see a flatter return route with less up and down, but this proved an illusion. The rolling nature of the terrain once again revealed itself once I was back down to the plateau, and I doubt I managed to save anything in the way of elevation gain.
A helicopter had been going back and forth over Piute Pass for much of the morning, to the point where its presence was becoming quite annoying. As I was nearing the pass, the helicopter came over from the east side once again at a fairly low altitude, dropping further as it made a wide circling pattern around me. The pilot was looking down, waving his hand, all the while I was growing more annoyed. I returned the gesture with an upraised arm, only the gesture I chose was decidedly less friendly, and the helicopter flew off. When I reached the pass I found two Fresno Country Search and Rescue rangers and soon found what the helicopter flights were all about. An elderly woman had gotten separated from her party the night before somewhere in the area, and she never made it out to the North Lake trailhead with them. The two rangers, in radio contact with the helicopter, had hiked with sizeable backpacks all the way up from Florence Lake that morning, more than 20 miles. I told them where I'd been and that I'd seen no one else since leaving Piute Pass earlier in the day. I imagine the pilot had radioed down to them about my earlier lack of friendliness, but if he did, the rangers never let on. I felt pretty darn bad about that as I left them and continued down the trail. Note to self - not all helicopter pilots are joyriding in the backcountry.
I found a sizable toad along the trail a good distance from the nearest lake. I took a picture of it after moving it off the trail, wondering if it stood a chance of survival so far from water. I even thought about carrying it down to the lake, but I recalled that a favorite defense toads use is to pee on you, so I dropped that idea. He could find his way back to water on his own. Halfway down from the pass, alternately jogging and walking, I came across Scott S, Elena S, and Daryn D, all returning as well. They had failed to reach Mt. Goethe, running out of a time for a deadline they'd set. Scott and Daryn needed to get back home and gave up the peak in order to keep the drive back reasonable. Scott, an avid SPS lister, has only five peaks left on the list for his completion, and Goethe was one of those. He's been working on the list for something like 20 years, so I guess he figured waiting for another day wasn't going to make much of difference. Elena would be with the Challenge through the rest of the week, but since she was their ride back to town, she had turned around with them. I saw no others as I continued down, arriving back at the trailhead shortly before 2:30p. There were five folks that made it to both Muriel and Goethe that day (two of these continuing on to Mt. Lamarck via Darwin Canyon), four that went only to Muriel, and three others that went only to Goethe - it had been a fine day for the group as a whole. The next day would be a good deal harder, so it was nice to have an easy, straightforward outing beforehand.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Pilot Knob
This page last updated: Sun Sep 2 08:56:27 2007
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