Sat, Sep 7, 2002
So Saturday morning Steve and I repeated the drive and headed up to Ebbetts Pass. This time the weather was much better. Though unusually cool temperatures prevailed, there was only patchy cloudiness and the day looked to be a fine one. It was sometime after 9a before we headed out along the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail took us up around the east side of Ebbetts Peak, around and above Kinney Lakes, and within an hour we were approaching the impressive East Face of Reynolds.
It took another hour to reach the face and climb the lower two-thirds comprised of scree and talus. Then the class 3 part began. This would be Steve's first venture climbing at this difficulty, and we were both a bit nervous. I would have a hard time facing Denice, his wife, should anything bad happen to Steve since I felt primarily responsible for his safety. My own wife might forgive me getting myself hurt, but not so easily one of our friends accompanying me. We quickly found why this part of the Sierra is little reknowned for quality rock climbing - the rock is horribly loose. Following up some short but steep chutes, we found the rock crumbled easily under our feet and in our hands as we pulled ourselves up. The rock is nearly all volcanic in these parts, poorly agglomerated, looking like smaller rocks embedded in compressed ash. I had Steve stay off a bit to one side as I fumbled up the rock, bringing a number of pieces slipping and whizzing down the chute past him. Fortunately this section lasted only a short 20 minutes and we were soon up on the crest.
Crossing to the west side, a forty-foot summit block loomed high above us, looking impregnable, and with the loose rock comprising it, suicidal even. Still, I'd read that it was a class 3 summit, so an easier way ought to be found. We contoured around to the west side of the block and found a thirty-foot crack that led upwards. It wasn't so much of a crack as a rent in the formation that allowed one to squeeze most of the body in. It was nearly vertical and a bit scary, but the holds were good and plentiful. In fact we found the west side of the ridge much more solid, and the climbing in the crack was pretty good. Reaching the top we found ourselves stuck on an edge, short of our goal. The highpoint was just to the north, but there was no safe way to climb the remaining 15-feet. Even with a rope I wouldn't have trusted the rock to stay put. So after a brief pause to rest and collect our wits, back down we went.
We contoured further along the west side until we found the only class 3 route possible on the northside. The hardest part was a short 15-foot section on a steep face, but a fine finger crack above allowed one to cross with relative saftey, using the fingers over the lip of the crack for a firm grip as we side-stepped along. It was 12:15p when we reached the summit. We found a register in a coffee can inserted inside a second can amongst the rocks. We were only the second party all summer to have climbed the peak - evidently it gets very little traffic, probably because it's not on the SPS list. It was a little chilly on top so we both donned our jackets while we took in the views (N, NE, SE, S, SW, W, NW) and enjoyed a snack. 15 minutes later we were on our way.
We continued north along the crest, downclimbing more loose class 3 sections as carefully as we could manage. Raymond Peak was less than two miles from Reynolds Peak, but the route along the crest was exceedingly slow. At least it was interesting. Before we reached the low pass between the two peaks it was necessary to drop west off the crest to avoid some cliffs. Traversing along the west side of the ridge proved difficult with a good deal of loose sand and scree on steep slopes. We eventually climbed back up to the pass, an easy access point between Deer Valley Creek to the west and Pennsylvania Creek to the east. Immediately north of us stood an unnamed pinnacle that appeared to have no access to the summit. With the rock as loose as it is in the area, I wondered if the thing had ever been climbed - it certainly didn't seem to have any safe way to protect a climb up it's nearly vertical faces. Another trip would be necessary to explore this further.
Steve was now slowing markedly, and our forward progress suffered accordingly. Still, Steve wanted to go on so on we went, now heading northeast towards Raymond Peak. The southeast sides of the unnamed pinnacle were steep and loose, and again we found the traversing along these slopes difficult. The route-finding became more problematic and I spent more time scouting ahead for the eastiest route while Steve came up to join me at his pace. When we reached the southwest ridge of Raymond, we found more class 3 and the way steeper. To avoid the mostly cliff areas on the southeast face, we dropped down onto the more gently sloped northwest side in several places before returning to the ridge. The climbing here was actually quite enjoyable, but that joy was tempered by Steve's growing fatigue and the lateness of the day (it was well past 3p) since we still had to get ourselves back to the trailhead after the summit. Steve had had enough of the class 3 stuff by this time, and even more tired of having to climb ever upwards. He began to have doubts that the route would lead us to summit, worried that the southeast face offered no escape route back to the PCT, and dreaded having to retrace our steps along the ridge. While I was about 30-50 yards ahead waiting for him, Steve would ask if the route ahead would go, and then wait for me to respond and wave him on. This grew old quickly. The waiting was hard enough for me as we were now moving at what felt like a snail's pace, but the repeated questioning about the route was truly annoying to me. Eventually I grew short with Steve and told him he should just follow me by default, and if there was a problem ahead I would verbally let him know.
Low and behold we did manage to reach the summit, now 4:15p, and Steve was looking as beaten as I'd ever seen him. This was undoubtedly the longest and most difficult hike he'd been on with me, and he now had the full flavor of what I spent many a weekend doing in the Sierra. His energies revitalized as we rested on the summit and ate the rest of our food. Clearly we didn't take the easiest way to the summit. To the west was Little Indian Valley, where a road within a few miles of the summit provides access to Sunset Lakes and Wet Meadow Reservoir. Almost all of the many entries in the summit register indicated they had hiked up from the west. I took a number of pictures from the summit (N, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW) , and after Steve had had enough rest we began our descent down the Southeast Face. This route seemed more uncertain to me than the route up, as I had no idea if we would get stranded above impassable cliffs found all over this side. I had found no info in guidebooks or online, so was more or less winging it based on the topo map we had and the distant views we'd had of the face. If successful it was the shortest route back to the PCT and the trailhead, avoiding the need to retrace the slow route along the ridge.
I headed down the East Ridge first, picking our way around large blocks, some class 3 downclimbing in short sections. Where it looked to offer a route down the Southeast Face, some hundred yards off the summit, we turned right and headed down a broad chute in the face, as expected quite sandy and loose. We could not see the way down beyond about a hundred yards at a time, so there was a constant bit of anxiety as we descended the 1500ft face that we could get ourselves into trouble if the route gave out. Fortunately there always seemed to be a way or two down the next section and though there were a few short parts requiring care and vigilance to get down, we managed without mishap and without scaring ourselves. Steve no longer questioned the route. Whether it was because he was too tired to care, just happy to be going down, or perhaps had learned that I found it annoying I couldn't tell, but we got along fine from here on out. It took us 40 minutes to descend the face, then we had to hunt around some to find the trail. In a narrow gully Steve gave a shout behind me as he twisted his ankle and crumpled to the ground. It was 5:15p, we were more than five miles from the trailhead, and had about two hours of daylight left. Suddenly our easy escape seemed in jeopardy. Steve is a fairly big guy and there's no way I was going to be able to help him back to the trailhead. We had no emergency gear save a headlamp, and I had no intentions of an unplanned bivy here. As Steve moaned in pain, examining and testing his ankle, I didn't want to tell him he'd have to walk out on it even if it was broken - that seemed too cruel even if it was true. Still, I thought of Joe Simpson's Touching the Void in which he was given up for dead and spent four days of hell crawling through crevasses, glacier, and moraine to get back to camp. Like Joe's climbing partner watching as Joe broke his leg high on a remote ridge, I could only look at Steve and think, "You're fucked, mate." So I took a picture of his suffering for posterity so that years later he could look back and ask, "Why did you take this stupid picture of me instead of offering to help?"
It didn't turn out that bad in the end, thank goodness. After about 10 minutes he was able to hobble around enough for us to continue on, and though it pained him the rest of the way and even more so the following day, he was able to make pretty good time once we got back to the trail. Finding the trail took longer than expected, but eventually some voices through the trees led us to it. Another party was backpacking along the PCT taking a break by Pennsylvania Creek where the trail crossed it. We must have seemed an odd sight to come wandering out of the brush and forest far from the trailhead so late in the day with nothing but small fanny packs. As they were up the trail in the direction opposite our route home we didn't stop to chat, but gave a faint wave as we continued on our way. We made excellent time now, Steve's foot faring better on the maintained trail much better than it did the cross-country. We were now confident we'd get back before dark and spent the latter part of the afternoon enjoying the return journey and watching the light fade on the hillsides. We passed by Reynolds Peak, now a distant but fond memory from earlier in the day. An interesting rock formation to the east caught my attention - a bare hilltop was ribbed with evenly and closely spaced ridges running down one side of it, making a pattern not unlike the grooves a rake makes in the sand of a Japanese rock garden. As we approached Ebbetts Peak and the last 20 minutes of our long day, the sun set behind the hills to the west and lighted the clouds above in soft shades of orange and purple. We stopped several times in this fading part of the day to take in the color displays above and try to capture them on film. It was 7:45p when we returned to the car and we probably could not have gone another 15 minutes without needing the headlamp.
Steve was only too happy to let me drive his car back to Murphys, as he felt very much like just relaxing even if he didn't fall asleep on the drive. Ray had given us up for late and eaten dinner without us, but no matter - we found the grocery store in town still open and the hot tub back at Ray's place the most decadently enjoyable part of the whole day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Reynolds Peak - Raymond Peak
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