Sky Pilot Peak P500
Peak 13,090ft
Peak 13,228ft

Mon, Aug 29, 2016
Etymology
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPX Profile
Peak 13,228ft previously attempted Wed, Jul 1, 2015

A year ago I had made a backpacking trip into Kings Canyon in early July to tag a couple of 13ers in the range I had yet to visit. It was a sorry affair, compounded by a long approach, poor weather and acclimatization, and annoying mosquitoes. I ended up aborting the effort to reach the peaks on the second day and ran home with my tail between my legs. The peaks stood tall in my psyche over the past year, never far from my mind as something I would have to return to sooner or later. Later had arrived by the end of August and it was time to try again. I could do little to change the long approach, but late August would have fewer mosquitoes and the weather report showed nary a thunderstorm on the horizon. Having finished the Sierra Challenge two weeks earlier, I expected to have some lingering help in way of acclimatization. The plan was much the same as that first effort - backpack in 15mi to East Lake and make camp, climb the two peaks the next day and return home on the third.

I left San Jose shortly after 7a, arriving at Roads End in Kings Canyon around noon, stopping only twice along the way for caffeine, gas and a Subway sandwich, the latter which I would carry and eat along the way and for dinner that first night. There was a lovely ranger at Roads End to issue me my permit, asking the usual questions to which I provided accurate or falsified information as suited my travel arrangements. "You know we don't require, but highly recommend water purification in the backcountry?" to which I replied, "I understand." Then, "Do you have a bear cannister?" "Yes." "What kind?" "I don't know..." "What color is it?" "Clear blue plastic." This seemed to satisfy this line of questioning which did't bother me to see end. There were three of us there getting "the talk', so I was happy to be able to deflect some of the focus from me. In the end, a permit was exchanged for $15 in US currency and I was off and running.

Ok, not exactly running - I had a pack on my back weighing something like 30-35lbs. The route was one I'd become extremely familiar with over the years and not particularly fond of. The 12:30p start ensured I would be climbing out of Kings Canyon in the heat of the day, and on this day it was hovering around 80F. It could have been worse, but it was plenty warm to start a 15mi hike. I took the requisite photo of the Bailey Bridge when I reached it at mile two, went over the four wooden bridges that span Bubbs Creek, and began the 1,000-foot climb of the switchbacks rising out of Kings Canyon. The switchbacks are exposed to the sun and one can't help but sweat with the workout. I reached the junction with the Sphinx Creek Trail at mile 4, taking a break here to cool my feet in Bubbs Creek. I wanted to do a better job of managing my feet this trip, knowing I would be relying on them for three hard days. I sat there snacking until my feet were almost numb, then laced up my boots and continued on.

The next 7mi to Junction Meadow are the most tedious of the journey. It's long and not particularly scenic as one plies the narrow canyon. The elevation continues to get higher and there is some cooling effect from this and the ample shade that is offered. I stopped a second time to cool my feet at Junction Meadow. The Bubbs Creek crossing is a cinch this time of year, with logs available that weren't there when I'd come this way previously. They were just downed snags bunched together across the creek and will be easily swept away again with the high waters of winter and spring. I put my boots on once again and forged ahead up the East Creek drainage, following the trail for another three miles to East Lake.

The sun had dipped behind Mt. Brewer to the west by the time I reached my campsite on the south end of the Lake around 6:30p. The familiar brown metal bear box was there just as I'd remembered it a year ago. I rinsed off in the lake, changed into some fresh clothes and ate the remaining half of my Subway sandwich while sitting on the box, not a soul around for miles, near as I could tell. I set out my pad and sleeping bag on a tarp and stuffed my remaining gear, pack and all, in the bear box - no need to figure out which things were "smellables" and which were safe. I didn't bother setting up my bivy sack as the weather was quite nice, the air cool but not cold. I was surprised to find mosquitoes buzzing about and they would send me hiding in the sleeping bag. Despite my defensive measures, a number of them would still find their mark. Bastards. It had been a hard day, but a good one, I concluded, and I was actually looking forward to the next day.

Though the nighttime temperatures were nearly ideal, I didn't sleep well, mostly due to the thin pad I lay upon which made my shoulders sore. I would roll from side to side throughout the night as one shoulder would grow uncomfortable, then the other. I'd lie on my back for a while in between rotations and take in the stars which filled the sky on this moonless night in fantastic numbers. Though I may not have slept soundly for any long stretch, my body was able to rest and by the time I decided to get up around 5:45a I had recovered some from the previous day's effort. I packed up my sleeping gear into my backpack and stuffed it back in the bearbox, minus the stuff I'd need for today. In addition to a small selection of food and powdered Gatorade, I carried a fleece, gloves and a few small items like a headlamp, knife and toilet paper. All of this fit in a waist pack that would serve me for the day, and by 6:15a I was heading off on the trail.

I followed the trail to Lake Reflection where I caught the first light of the new day on Mt. Jordan to the south across the lake. I crossed over to the west side of the lake where I found a lone camper still snoozing in his tent. From here the route goes all cross-country for the next 10mi until I would return to the lake. It is not particularly easy off-trail travel, at least most of it, and I would average only about a mile per hour - pretty slow going, even for cross-country work. The initial section getting around the lake requires traversing across cliffy slopes to reach the lake's southwest end. Having done this a few times now, I'd found the easier route to be lower down towards the water's edge, climbing higher periodically where a rock face abruptly drops into the lake. From the lake, I then climbed up the creek drainage heading southwest, avoiding the heavier brush closer to the creek and also the cliffs found further away. About an hour after leaving the trail, the route enters a short section, maybe 20min's worth, of easy going along delightful alpine grasses above treeline that leads to Lake 3,496m below the NE Face of Sky Pilot Peak. Somewhere in here I came across two backpackers descending from Longley Pass, as surprised to see me as I them. They had started from Lodgepole some days earlier, and were out on a 10-day adventure that would eventually end at Roads End. They seemed strong, in fine spirits, and looked to be enjoying the adventure almost more than would be expected, given the difficult terrain they were traveling.

There is a fine view of Sky Pilot Peak as one approaches Lake 3,496m, and for the first time in two days, it no longer seemed so far away. I was feeling tired and felt like I was going slow, a combination of the altitude effects (now at nearly 11,500ft) and the hard hike the previous afternoon from which I'd only partially recovered. But my mood was far more positive than it had been the previous year. I knew I had the energy to get to Sky Pilot Peak today, the others I was still unsure of. I would just have to continue and see how things went, one peak at a time.

It was about 8:45a when I started up towards Longley Pass from the north end of the lake. The route begins to grow steep again but still good terrain with solid footing that lasts until one reaches the upper lake at around 11,800ft. I walked around the south side of this last lake before the final climb to the pass. The route grows terribly sandy which makes the going tough. There's nothing technical about it at least, just a slow grind, following a use trail that makes it somewhat easier than it might otherwise be. A band of old snow stretches across the top of the pass, but not really enough to be a problem. As I neared the top I left the use trail to cut left across the broken rock slope just below the pass. This proved easier than continuing on the sand and was heading more directly towards my peak.

By 9:30a I had topped out at the pass, looking down on Lake Reflection drainage to the east and the Cunningham Creek drainage to the west. Looking south up the North Ridge of Sky Pilot Peak, the going looked to be class 2 and fairly straightforward. And for the most part it was, at least until the very end. Some class 3 scrambling led to a false summit, separated from the highpoint by a tricky notch. This was most easily negotiated by dropping down about 50ft on the south side of the false summit to get around difficulties before scrambling back up to the notch and then the highpoint just above it.

It was 10a atop the first summit, having taken about 4hrs to manage. It wasn't the 3hrs I was hoping for, but it would have to do. I was a little disappointed not to find a register of any sort after looking around. Norman Clyde had first climbed this in 1925, but it would have been a bit much to expect any such record to stick around. I ate some snacks while I surveyed the surrounding terrain. I'd like to say it was a sublimely beautiful scene, but unlike the green mountains of SW Colorado that I'd been to recently, it was a stark scene of ancient, jagged rock stretching out almost as far as the eye could see, broken only by the peppering of alpine lakes left over from the retreating glaciers that once dominated this scene. I looked south to see Peak 13,228ft (my other 13er) and Thunder Mtn rising high in that direction. The safe, known route to Peak 13,228ft would be to return to Longley Pass, drop down to Lake 3,496m, turn south and head up to Thunder Col, and then climb to the summit from there on the class 2 SW Slopes. This is something short of 3mi with about 2,000ft of gain along the way. Ugh. I had noted a possibly easier route in my studies that would go over Peak 13,090ft (only 262ft of prominence, so not on the "official" 13er list) between Sky Pilot and Thunder Mtn to the south, saving me about 3/4mi and about 500ft of gain. The only trouble was that there was little information to be found concerning this route. A key piece was Secor's description of Peak 3,840m+ (Peak 13,090ft)'s SE Face as class 2-3. If I could manage the traverse from Sky Pilot, I should be able to descend the SE Face, skirt around the north and east side of Thunder Mtn, and climb to Thunder Col. I was happy to see that most of the ridgeline to Peak 13,090ft looked like standard class 2, even if a little tedious. The only tough part appeared to be the descent immediately down from where I was perched, a difficult-looking series of gendarmes that I had no realistic way of negotiating. Looking off the south side of Sky Pilot I could see a class 2 scree chute that I could descend a few hundred feet before climbing back up to the ridge on the other side of the gendarmes. It wouldn't be pretty, but it would work.

I spent about an hour on the traverse to Peak 13,090ft, much of the ridgeline proving to be the tedious boulder-hopping affair that I had feared it would be. A plateau area near the summit was a nice break with some easy walking on more solid ground. The highpoint was not obvious as there were three points vying for the honor. I went to the one furthest north, along a narrow, class 3 ridge that I assumed was the correct one. To my surprise and disappointment, the middle point to the south proved to be higher yet, and had a small cairn that could be seen from across the gap between the two. It was a few minutes before noon when I finally got myself to the correct, middle highpoint. Here I found a small plastic case that held an old, weathered half register book (much like the small notepads that MacLeod would cut in half for the same purpose). The first page listed the six names from the first ascent in 1940 as described by Secor, lead by Oliver Kehrlein, one of the bad-ass climbers of old who had one of the Minarets named for him. The second entry was 27yrs later when Andy Smatko and Tom Ross paid a visit in 1967. The third and last entry was another 23yrs later in 1990 when Kyle and Jason Atkins signed in with half an inch of hail on the ground. And here I was 26yrs further on with only the fourth entry - nice! At this rate, the little book ought to last until the next millennium.

The SE Face proved class 2-3 as advertised and I made swift progress down the slope, bootskiing and stumbling most of the way. I traversed around the base of Thunder into the cirque north of Thunder Col, happy to find some snow that gave me something else to walk on besides the never-ending rock I'd been on for the last several hours. The top part of Thunder Col was snow-free, steep and a little dangerous with hardpack terrain that made for poor footing. Caution was required here. It was 1:10p by the time I topped out and could see south into the Kern River drainage for the first time, a large unnamed lake occupying the cirque on the south side of the pass. To the west rises Thunder Mtn, the highest summit in the immediate area, an SPS peak I'd already visited twice - no need or desire to return today. To the east rose Peak 13,228ft, its top a series of jagged points that would make the traverse along the ridgeline tedious and difficult. Luckily the southwest slope was a uniform field of class 2 scree and talus, much like I had expected, and it was now just a matter of grinding out this last summit across this slope. It seemed longer because I was fairly tired by this time, but it took only 30min from the col to find my way to the highest point near the east end of the summit ridge.

My elation was muted some by my fatigue, as I'd been going now for almost 8hrs with little rest and the elevation was taking its toll. I knew that once I got lower I would begin to feel better and I took solice in knowing it was pretty much all downhill for the next two days as I would descend more than 8,000ft. A small jar held a register that dated only to 2012. In sharp contrast to the previous summit, mine was the fourth visit to Peak 13,228ft this year. Two of the entries were from participants in this year's Sierra Challenge - Bob Pickering in 2014 and Robert Wu, only three days ago. This was most curious as I recalled he and Eric Su were planning a bold traverse of the Kings-Kern Divide. What had happened to Eric? Days later I would learn that Eric was nursing an injury that prevented him from joining, so Robert had set out on a solo effort. Looking at the tortured ridge connecting this summit to Mt. Jordan a mile and a quarter to the NE, I wasn't envying his effort, but I couldn't help but be impressed. It ended up taking longer than expected and he aborted the effort after a few days, doing about 3/4 of the route, but not before some crazy, over-your-head stuff out on the edge of one's abilities. He and Eric are already talking about trying again next year.

My ambitions were much more limited, by contrast - I was going to be happy to get back down to East Lake in one piece this afternoon. I didn't really want to go back to Thunder Col and suffer the slogginess necessary to get me this far. A shorter route would be to descend to the saddle with Mt. Jordan and find a way down the north side of the divide. I had been eyeing this while I was climbing up to Longley Pass and it looked like it might work. Secor had nothing to say on this route to Peak 13,228ft, so I had to rely on eyeballs-from-a-distance and leaving a bit to chance. I'm happy to report that it worked most excellently, a class 2-3 affair with fun scrambling initially, becoming some sloppy scree/sand bootskiing, and then a short section of moraine bouldering before reaching more solid ground. I reached the lakes west of Mt. Jordan and began following them downstream through acres of granite boulders. It was 3:30p when I reached the outlet at one of these and turned to take a last picture of Peak 13,228ft and Thunder Mtn. Only later did I recognize this as the nearly identical spot that I had stopped at a year ago before turning around. At the last of these lakes I turned north and headed down more enjoyable slabs to reach the morning's ascent route up Reflection Creek.

It would be 5p before I had descended the creek, negotiated the cliffs around Lake Reflection and reached the trail near its outlet. It would take another 40min to find my way back to camp at East Lake. A lone gentleman around my age had come up from Junction Meadow to set up camp next door. We chatted some initially when I arrived, and then a second time after I'd rinsed off in the lake and changed into some fresh clothes. He had come in over Kearsarge Pass a few days earlier and still had a few more days in the backcountry before heading home. We discussed options by which he might climb Mt. Brewer or perhaps visit Lake Reflection and other destinations. I went to bed rather early, even by my standards, sliding into my sleeping bag before 7p. It occurred to me that I might be able to avoid the warm temperatures in Kings Canyon the next day by starting early, around 4a, and doing the first few hours by headlamp. I had a second restless night of sleep as I found myself regularly checking my watch for the time, listening to mosquitoes buzzing about my head before fading out as the stars overhead grew brighter and bolder.

I doubt I slept for more than 20-30min at a stretch and by 1a I was thinking maybe 4a was too long to wait. Sometime after 2a I decided to get up at 3a, all of this keeping me from really dozing off (along with the usual problems of sleeping on the hard ground). The last time I looked at my watch it read 3:01a and I promptly got up and packed up my stuff. The legs were still somewhat sore when I shouldered my pack 20min later, but I knew it would be much easier than that first day since I was heading downhill. My headlamp batteries were weak, providing only enough light to illuminate the trail a few feet in front of me, but it was enough. Not far below East Lake I was surprised to come across a huge tree that had fallen across the trail. It hadn't been there two days earlier and all around it smelled like fresh pine. I found a way around this mess and returned to the trail to continue down to Junction Meadow and the Bubbs Creek Trail. At various points over the next few hours I would come across what looked like fireflies initially but turned out to be small relective patches on some of the tents I passed by. I got downstream early enough to catch sunrise on the distinctive Sphinx on the south rim of Kings Canyon. It was 7:20a by the time I reached the Sphinx Creek Trail junction, finding the campers here still dozing as well. I wouldn't run across the first awake humans until I had descended to the Bailey Bridge where I crossed paths with a pair of park rangers heading up the way I'd come. As hoped, the air was still cool when I finished up at Roads End before 9a, the sun only recently having reached this point. I took a cold shower with the jug of water I'd left on the dash (I originally planned to exit hours later), which though somewhat shocking, was equal parts refreshing. Some clean clothes to change into were a great help, too. Compared to the three days of hiking I'd just finished, the five hour drive back to San Jose was a breeze. Only three more 13ers to go...

Scott Barnes, the SC2016 King of the Mountain winner, only a week later....


Submit online text corrections or comments about the story.

Anonymous comments on 08/30/16:
You were only the fourth dated entry in that 1940 register, how was that possible?
This was highly unusual, but the more obscure the peak, the more likely it becomes.
Kirk D from Sparks comments on 09/05/16:
Clarence King's classic "Mountaineering In The Sierra Nevada" describes his 1864 Epic with Richard Cotter where they crossed both the Great Western Divide and the Kings-Kern Divide en route to Mt Whitney. They ended up on Mt. Tyndall, but your climbing loop seems to traverse the exact area where they had been.

Reading his account carefully, they appear to have climbed Sky Pilot Peak ". . . with very great difficulty we climbed a peak just to the south of the pass (most likely Longley Pass), and looking over the eastern brink, found that the precipice was sheer and unbroken." Their subsequent crossing of the Kings-Kern Divide a bit harder to re-trace, but it would seem to have been in the vicinity of Peak 13,228. Perhaps Thunder Pass ? we will never know for sure.
I like Clarence King because he was really the first Sierra peakbagger happy not to pretend his efforts were for 'scientific learning', but his writing was so over-the-top that it's almost impossible to retrace his actual route. He describes having to lower his pack by rope in crossing the Kings-Kern, but the south side of Thunder Col is easy class 2.
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