Wed, Aug 9, 2006
It had been two days since Joyce's accident and subsequent rescue. I and many of the other Challenge participants, including most that had gone to Giraud Peak that day, had taken the following day off. I'd spent a number of hours in several visits at the hospital in Bishop. Other participants had joined me as we spoke first to Joyce in the morning, then again in the afternoon with her parents. We replayed the accident for her parents' understanding and were happy to see that Joyce's prognosis was quite good. She was to be transported to Los Angeles in the afternoon, though it was evening before it could be worked out whether to go home in the family van or by ambulance.
With a sore butt from sitting but well rested, I was eager to get out and climb something. We had Mt. Prater out of the Red Lake TH on the schedule today, and I was hoping to be able to climb Bolton Brown as a bonus, and possibly Tinemaha if I was lucky. As a result of the accident, we had understandably suffered a good deal of attrition. Some had planned to leave anyway, others cut their planned participation short, still others were recalled by loved ones to come home. Youngster Ryan had taken up residence in my motel room, unsure from day to day whether to continue climbing or head home. Today he chose to climb which was a good thing - we needed his high clearance vehicle to make it to the trailhead! :-) With Bill and Mike in one car, Ryan and I in another, we drove out shortly before 5a to meet Scott McKenzie and his 4x4 at the junction of Glacier Lodge Rd and McMurray Meadows Rd. Scott was waiting there when we arrived, but no one else joined us. Bill and Mike transferred to Scott's truck. In two cars then, we drove on to McMurray Meadows expecting to see Ron Hudson and possibly some others waiting for a ride. Ron's car was there when we arrived around 5:45a but no one was up and about. I got out to examine the car and found Ron fast asleep. He awoke and was ready in little more than five minutes. It was after 6a when we reached the TH, and 6:20a before our small band of six was ready to head out.
We started up the trail with the sun already starting to warm the landscape. In contrast to the higher TH elevations we'd been used to, this one started lower in a desert landscape, and I hoped we could climb fast enough to keep ahead of the warm temperatures that were developing. Not far from the start we came across a 50ish gentleman out on a dayhike. He was the father of Cory Fitzpatrick. Cory and his friend Cliff were participants on most of the days so far, but we had seen very little of them. They were either starting earlier than the rest of the group as they did today, or climbing different peaks, and I was curious to see more of them and find out how they had been doing on the previous days. Cory's dad had driven the pair out to the trailhead where they'd spent the night, but was only planning a hike to Red Lake himself while the other two headed for Split Mtn. Out in front of the group, it did not take long before the lead stretched out and I lost them from sight for good. I was feeling highly motivated to move continuously and quickly - I was amazed how good my legs felt after a rest day.
In just under two hours I was able to reach Red Lake, Split Mtn rising dramatically to a great height starting on the opposite shore. I turned right, heading up the canyon to the northwest in the direction of Mt. Prater which was still out of view. I spied two others a few hundred yards ahead of me which I guessed were Cory and Cliff. Before I had cut the difference in half I spotted two others even higher up. Cory's father had mentioned a couple of others had waken them briefly when they started from the trailhead around 4a - these must have been them. I caught up to Cory and Cliff about halfway between Red Lake and the flat portion of the moraine above. We talked for four or five minutes, mostly catching me up on where they'd been all week - they'd certainly been a very productive pair, with a success rate better than most of the other participants. They were in their mid-twenties and looked to be in fine shape. I picked up some water at the creek nearby, expecting it might be the last easy water until I was on my way back, and continued up.
I had been eyeing the traverse from Tinemaha to the Sierra Crest, hoping that might be my route on the way back. It didn't look technically difficult, but it sure looked long - several miles worth. I headed up the slope to the moraine. I recall the moraine being a terrible slog over loose boulders when I was here five years earlier. I was thankful to find that the wet year had left a good-sized snowfield covering most of the moraine which would help greatly. At the edge of the snow I caught up with the first two. They were an elderly couple and looked to be carrying packs that were quite light for overnight, but too bulky for dayhiking. After a greeting I asked if they were headed over the crest to the other side, and was told no, they were just dayhiking. That alone was impressive. I began to suspect they were Challenge participants (who would be randomly dayhiking Split the same day we were up there?) and asked if they were with our group. Nope, they'd never heard of the Challenge. Recalling my missed opportunity a few days earlier in meeting Tina Bowman, I figured I ought to know these two from the Sierra Club or summit registers or somewhere. I asked there names and they told me "Dick and Jill." No last name. I paused for a few seconds to see if they might offer the last name, but they just smiled, content to leave it at that. It seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. They explained that they'd been climbing Sierra peaks for over 30 years and always signed the registers simply as "Dick and Jill." Dick was 63 years old, Jill unknown. In fact it was almost impossible to tell since her face was entirely covered with a sun-protecting screen, but I suspect a bit younger than Dick. I did some quick math and figured they were about the same age as RJ Secor and Steve Roper. They'd never heard of either one. This was too much to believe. "Don't you ever use a guidebook to look up routes and peaks?" I asked. Again, a simple reply with a smile, "Why would we? - we know where all the peaks are." Nobody climbs around the Sierra in almost complete isolation for 30 years, so I figured I just hadn't hit the right names. Eventually it came out that they had climbed a good deal with the China Lake group, teaming up with Bob Rockwell, Carl Heller and others from the Ridgecrest area. For some reason that set my mind at ease, but I was still impressed as hell with their dayhiking skills as a pair for so many years.
Leaving Dick and Jill after our short chat, I skipped across the snowfield and climbed to its highest reach against the class 2-3 talus leading to the Sierra Crest further west. The snow had reached high enough that I was able to avoid almost all the very steep, loose crap that I had dealt with the first go around, and I was very soon on decent rock, albeit not altogether solid. I reached the crest between Split and Prater at 10a, just over 3.5hrs from the trailhead. I had been thinking about Russ McBride's 1998 entry in the Split register with a time of 4hr16min. He had climbed it the day after Hans Florine and Tony Ralph (who together took 5hr19min) when the group of them were working on the first CA 14er record done in 10 days. At the time it had taken me six hours to reach Split but I figured I could probably beat Hans' time since I had rested a good deal. But Russ's time was just incredible and I recall thinking there was no way I'd get close to it. Yet here I was staring left up to Split's summit thinking I just might be able to. So in order to see just how quickly I could get to the summit, I changed plans and headed for Split.
Hundreds of feet of boulders up the moderate North Slope lead to Split's summit. Now that I was trying to beat Russ's time, I hardly stopped though I couldn't move altogether that fast either. Just a consistent pace, boulder after boulder after almost interminable boulder. Passing a notch on the ridge and a bit of a false summit, I could see the true summit not far away. Out of breath, I reached the top with a time of 4:07. Hah! That made me feel pretty good. The old register had disappeared but a new one from only a few years ago was in its place. Resting up, I took in the views around me. In particular I studied the route to the north. I could see Prater in the foreground, Bolton Brown somewhere along the serrated ridgeline behind it, Tinemaha, Birch, and further back, the Thumb. None of the peaks appeared too far away and I suddenly had an inspiration - what if I continued from Bolton Brown on to the Thumb? That was the peak on the schedule for the previous day, but because of the accident I had missed out on it. Perhaps I could get both Prater and the Thumb today? From the Thumb it would be easiest to descend to the South Fork of Big Pine Creek and out via Glacier Lodge Rd. I would have to leave Tinemaha for another visit, but traversing the crest between Split and Southfork Pass would more than make up for it. I began my descent off Split with this plan in mind.
Somehow I needed to communicate to Ryan and the others that I wasn't planning to return to the Red Lake TH so that they wouldn't waste time waiting for me. I considered leaving a note in the Prater register to that effect, expecting Scott or someone would find it there. Fortunately another way presented itself since I was the only one to head to Prater that day as it turned out (the others all headed for Split). About 2/3 of the way down from Split, I ran into Scott who was on his way up. I told him about my plan which he greeted with some skepticism. "You're going to do what?" We talked briefly about Dick and Jill and the amusement they provided. Scott told me how when he met up with them he had asked if they had seen a guy pass them on the way up. To Scott's surprise, Jill grew animated, gestured and pointed ahead of them, "Yeah, he's way the fuck up there!!" - not what he was expecting from a woman of her age. We both thought that was a riot. Dick and Jill were alright in my book - I hope to see more of them in the future. Soon Cliff and Cory had climbed up to join us. We conversed a bit more, then I set out. I told Scott not to have anyone wait past 4p for me - it was possible that I might not be able to traverse to Bolton Brown or beyond and might have to come back down the same way, so I wanted a backup plan.
The hike to Prater is fairly easy up a broad south slope that nearly matches the North Slope on Split in terms of angle. Instead of the boulders it was mostly talus and easier climbing, and of course the summit isn't quite so high. Not far from the summit is what I dubbed a butterknife-edge - a short section maybe 10ft across that had significant exposure off each side. But the top of the knife-edge was perfectly flat, about 18 inches across and a simple walk across. It was 11:45a when I reached the summit of Prater. The register was a real gem, going back to the 1960's. Inside the cannister were a few loose pieces of paper, one of them a scrap dated 1948 with Fred L. Jones's signature.
Looking north, it was impossible for me to discern the summit of Bolton Brown. The ridgeline grows quite rough after Prater's summit, serrated and fractured, with jumbled towers crowded together in two sections, one near Prater's summit and one further in the distance. Between was a smoother-looking piece of ridge that turned out to be nearly as much trouble (or fun, depending on your perspective) as the rest. I had a rough timetable I'd made up on Split's summit - 4hrs to Split, 4hrs for the traverse to the Thumb, 4hrs to descend to the South Fork TH. It had taken about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from Split to Prater, so I thought I was doing pretty good. The next section was a shorter distance but more ups and downs, so I hoped it would take about the same time to Bolton Brown. I was being a bit optimistic there.
The traverse to Bolton Brown was class 3 as advertised, but not what I would consider a classic nor recommend it too highly. Much of the rock is loose, some short sections are airy, solid, and fun. The first half was pretty straightforward, easy route-finding but lots of up and down. As I got to the second set of towers it grew more difficult. I climbed one tower after another thinking I was near the summit, only to find a yet higher one further north along the ridge. Route-finding was tricky as well, the ridge making a number of twists and turns enroute. The east side of the ridge grew increasingly steep until I was looking down a puzzling collection of steep couloirs, ribs, and aretes. Thin runnels of ice were found clinging to some of these couloirs where the sun penetrates but weakly. It was a little bit like being in a maze, especially when down on the ridge between two towers and not being able to see very far through the confusing rock. Some places I had to tread very carefully as I clung to loose walls traversing a tower, or stemming across the walls of a couloir to avoid dropping onto the hard snow and ice below. A fall in many places would have dropped me down hundreds of feet down slots and chutes whose bottoms were blocked from view. Finally, by 1:30p I had literally run out of false summits and by default landed on the true one located at the far northwest corner where the ridge takes a sharp bend to the right.
Sitting on the summit of Bolton Brown, I was no longer feeling fresh or energized. I was tired and I was ready to get back. That wasn't in the cards just yet. While traversing the ridge it had gradually dawned on me that what I initially thought was the Thumb was in fact an unnamed summit along the ridge west of Birch Mtn. The Thumb was another mile north from that point. I wonder if I had realized this while on Split if I would have been as eager as I recalled being. There was zero chance I could get back to the Red Lake TH by the appointed 4p departure time, so I had no option but to continue. That was OK by me since I still wanted to reach the Thumb - just less enthusiastically.
I started along the crest heading northeast, intending to follow the ridgeline up and over the intermediate peak. It didn't look easy, but I didn't see any better options either. I didn't get far before I ran into a difficult notch. I managed to downclimb on the northwest side down some class 4 rock to reach the notch, but there was no apparent way out of the notch once I got there. Cliffs on the left side, the right side blocked by steep snow (and no crampons in my pack), the straight-on route a vertical tower. I paused to consider this strategy better. The way things were going it was going to take three or more hours to reach the Thumb and that would make for an unacceptably long day. What was I doing? The answer of course, was I was going for style points by trying to stick to the ridge on the entire traverse from Split. That was costing me time and effort and I was out of both. So I adopted a new plan, and immediately started to look for a way off the ridge, intending to make a beeline for the Thumb via a rocky cirque on the west side of the crest. It would cost me 400-500ft of elevation, but have easier travelling. I had to backtrack a short distance along the ridge to avoid snow fields that were too hard to safely descend. I pieced together several sections of steep, dry rock that led me down the north side of Bolton Brown. In addition to easier travel, I found some running water. Even with replenishments from snow where I could get it, I'd ran out of water on Bolton Brown and was happy to find a new source. I traversed the mountainside across boulders and talus in a successful effort to avoid dropping lower down towards Lake 3,589m. I then climbed back up to a saddle NW of the false Thumb, bringing me back to the crest and within half a mile of the Thumb.
Climbing along the crest it was easy to pick out my return route through Southfork Pass to the west. The south side of the pass looked easy, the north side unknown (but how hard could a "pass" be?), and the ridge to reach the pass looked tough as hell. But that was a problem for after I'd tagged the Thumb. Getting to the Thumb was slow work - more uphill and my legs tired as they were. Even with the shortcut across the cirque it took two hours from Bolton Brown, and it was 3:30p before I topped out. Climbing the last several hundred feet I kept my eyes open off the left side of the ridge looking for a way down the steep slopes that would bypass Southfork Pass. I knew Secor had listed a class 4 couloir, but I couldn't find anything without snow that I could be sure of climbing all the way to the bottom. Every possibility had some bit of unknown where a chockstone or cliff could be trouble. One of my chief tennents is to never downclimb the unknown unless you have the energy to also reclimb it back out. I didn't have the energy this afternoon. Just before I reached the summit I had another brilliant idea - maybe I could head north from the summit to Kid Mtn and descend that way. Smug with the cleverness of the plan, my enthusiasm was checked almost as soon as I reached the summit - another jumble of difficult towers lay ahead. I would have to go back to Southfork Pass.
I didn't stay at the summit long. I noted the most recent entry from the three Challenge participants the previous day - Tom, Evan, and Bill. Before them, the peak was last climbed in June by Daryn Dodge, Steve Eckert, and Jim Ramaker with a short note to taunt Matthew and I. It got a laugh out of me. I added my own entry and put the cannister back in its place. Four peaks in one day and all of them had a register - what a rare occurrence these days! I headed back off the peak towards the crest retracing my steps. Getting to the pass turned out to be as tricky as it had looked. The north side of the ridge was far too steep with cliffs, so my basic strategy was to downclimb on the south side until I could traverse around towards the pass, dropping down the next chute if I my traverse was blocked. Later I found that was quite similar to the Secor description though I hadn't recalled reading it. Sometimes you get lucky.
My last concern on the technical side was getting down from Southfork Pass. From the Thumb I could see considerable snow on the north side of the pass, steepening as it reached up towards the pass. Without proper gear I couldn't safely downclimb the snow, so I had to hope there were ways around on the side. Thankfully, there were. Southfork Pass has a few branches. The westernmost one is the main branch, but had the most snow. The eastern branch which I came upon first was narrower and steeper, but mostly free of snow until further down where the two branches merged. Careful downclimbing over terribly loose rock got me down to the snow. A large rockslide had been triggered sometime earlier in the season leaving a trail of debris bleeding down in a narrow ribbon on the steepest part of the snowfield. This was most fortuitous just when I needed it, allowing me to scramble down further to where the snow was both lower angled and softer. Careful plunge-stepping (with Fred Flinstone pointy rocks for emergency brakes) got me down the rest of the steep sections. Where the slope mellowed further I started jogging and bounding my way down.
The tricky part of the descent had taken an hour from the summit, and after that I moved more quickly. I descended down the natural slope of the canyon thinking I would end up at Brainerd Lake before picking up the trail. But I never reached the lake, never even catching sight of it as I unknowingly descended further to east, bypassing it altogether. I didn't regain the trail until near Willow Lake east of Kid Mountain, and from there I jogged about half the time back to the TH. I managed to make the whole descent from the Thumb to the TH in less than three hours, for an overall time of 12hrs. My initial estimate wasn't too far off - I had spent an hour longer on the traverse, and an hour less on the descent.
I had no car or ride once back to the trailhead of course. Scott, who has a 2nd home in Big Pine, had given me the phone number of his house and said his wife would be happy to give me a ride. Sadly, I had no money, there was no pay phone, and worse - there were no cars in the parking lot. My primary plan had been to thumb a ride back to town - I had had good luck with this strategy several times in the past. Knowing there were campgrounds below and fishing for a number of miles along the road where it goes by the creek, I figured my best chances of getting a ride involved walking downhill to maximize the number of cars that would go by. I walked for several more miles down the road passing a pack station and three campgrounds. I inquired for phones at several locations, but there are no land lines and no cell coverage in the canyon. A number of cars passed me heading up the canyon but only a few heading back to town, and none of them stopped to give me a ride. I was beginning to realize the walk back to town was unrealistic. It was not 7-10 miles as I originally thought but twice that. It would be midnight before I got back at the rate I was going and I was too worn out to jog any more. Finally, a woman who had passed me on the way up took pity on me upon her return. She had picked up her teenage daughter at a summer cabin they owned up the road and was returning to town. Her daughter was as puzzled as I was that she'd stop to give me a ride. "Mom, ... you never pick up hitchhikers." I chuckled as did Mom, replying that she really felt sorry for me when she saw me walking that far down the road. She had known before I just how long that hike would be. I thanked them both for the consideration and we had a very nice chat as we drove back down. I set them at ease that I wasn't a nutcase but a father with two children of my own (which might also qualify me for nutcase I suppose). They were third and fourth generation residents of Big Pine, their summer cabin having been built by the first generation in the 1930's. The daughter was going to school in the Bay Area, but was home with the family over the summer.
It was 7:30p when they dropped me off outside the Bristlecone Motel. None of the others were yet back from the Red Lake TH to my surprise. They showed up a short while later, evidently running into trouble when Ryan's truck got stuck on the drive out. It took them an hour to re-engineer the road with rocks before they managed to get it out of trouble. After a quick dinner at Subway it was time to hit the sack - we had a 5a start time for East Vidette the next morning. Yikes!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Split Mountain - Mt. Prater - Mt. Bolton Brown - The Thumb
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