Split Mountain P1K SPS / WSC

Sat, Aug 11, 2001

With: David Wright
Toby Kraft

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Wed, Aug 9, 2006

Sierra Emblem Challenge 2001 - Day 8


Split Mountain is one of the lowest 14ers in California, rising to just 40 feet past that arbitrary limit, but a 14er all the same, and a designated Emblem Peak due to the fine views it commands from its summit. The usual access point is through the Red Lake Trailhead on the east side of the Sierra Crest, a rather remote one at that. It requires 4WD to reach, and is about an hour of driving beyond the last paved road. Neither David nor myself had a vehicle capable of negotiating this tough access road, but we were fortunate that David had conscripted a co-worker to join us who had a very nice Toyota 4WD SUV for just this purpose. Toby had driven in late the night before, with no time for acclimatization. In his early thirties, Toby seemed fit enough, but I had little expectation that he'd be able to do this tough dayhike without some measure of acclimatizing. We'd find out soon enough. Normally done over several days, we knew this would be one of the toughest hikes planned. It wasn't the 15 miles of hiking so much as the 7,500ft of elevation gain that might do us in.

We were up at 4:15a, groggy but awake, and were heading out the door of the motel in Big Pine by 4:50a. I had researched the directions to the trailhead a great deal, as they have caused much confusion to previous parties. And since we were going to be driving much of it in the dark, it would be most helpful to have as little doubt as possible at each fork in the road. Of this we did a fine job, never missing a turnoff the entire way. The directions found at climber.org were excellent. Unfortunately we couldn't say the same for the road. Once past McMurry Meadow, the road gets ugly fast. If you care about things like the paint on the side of your vehicle, you are advised to avoid this road. The brush grows close on both sides of the narrow road, but it is not a very pliable. It scrapes along the sides like a wire brush, and is sure to leave permanent reminders on even the toughest paint jobs. Whether this bothered Toby or not I never knew, as he seemed to be more focused on keeping the car upright on the road. There were large boulders to negotiate, a pipe crossing a dry creek that was only party buried in the streambed, and the noticeable absence of light to make it tough to negotiate. But with two navigators, each with a variant of the directions, and the excellent driving skills of our driver, we managed to make it to the trailhead in about an hour, without missing a turn, and all in one piece.

It was already light enough that we wouldn't need flashlights, and the sun was about to crest the White Mountains to the east. There is a large NF trailhead sign in the small dirt lot, fairly new and seemingly out of place in this remote site. I read all the information on the trailhead sign while I waited for the other two to make ready, and at 6a we headed out. The trail starts out just above 6500ft, fairly low for eastside trailheads, and it is subsequently dry and scrubby in the lower reaches. The trail roughly follows Red Mountain Creek (But where is Red Mountain?) as it climbs 5 miles and almost 4,000ft to Red Lake. Much of this is tedious, hot once the sun comes out, and sandy and loose in many places. We were fortunate to start out very early before the sun had arisen, but that wasn't to last long. Almost from the beginning I didn't stay with David and Toby, to nobody's surprise. I planned to wait for them at Red Lake, where the trail ends, and from there lead up over the cross-country terrain. There are two small streams coming down from Mt. Tinemaha that intersect the trail and provide some surprising jungle-like growth around the trail - climbing under aspens and alder, wet ground underneath, dense greenery crowding in from the sides. Several trip reports commented on losing the trail in various locales, but aside from one of these dense-growth regions, it seemed fairly obvious. The steep canyon finally began to relent, and as the slope lessened and I approached the upper canyon, I got my first close views of Split Mtn through the trees.

I reached the small lake below Red Lake about 7:45a, and here the trail begins to peter out. It makes an effort to reach Red Lake, but several hundred yards shy of that target I lost it for good. I climbed up to a small knoll on the east side of Red Lake at 8a and had a grand view of both the lake and Split Mtn towering high above, still over 3,000ft of climbing to go. I took a very long break here, much longer than I anticipated. After about half an hour I began to wonder where the other two were, and I began scouting about for them in case we had missed each other. I climbed down to the lake's edge, then downstream a hundred yards, and a wide arc around to where I started, but saw no sign. There were no other campers about, and I seemed to be all alone. After scouting about I concluded that it was possible that they had bypassed me to the east, and might in fact be off ahead of me. I waited around another 15 minutes before deciding to head out. It was possible that they turned back, but that seemed very unlikely, and I convinced myself they were most likely ahead of me.

I headed northwest towards the still higher canyon on Split's NE side, climbing up fields of broken granite boulders, spilled down from Mt. Tinemaha's southwest side over countless eons. The moon was just setting now, right between the twin summits of Split Mtn. I kept my eyes peeled ahead of me, looking for movements in the rocks ahead, and periodically I would look behind and scan for signs down below. During one of these backwards scans I spotted two figures not that very far below me, and in fact I could recognize David by his distinctive hat. I stopped where I was and perched myself on a rock while I waited the five minutes it took them to catch up. It seems they had in fact passed me back at Red Lake, but had stopped near the lake's inlet side to filter water for their water bottles. I must have then passed them not shortly before they headed up themselves. Once regrouped, it became apparent that Toby wasn't having a good time with the altitude. He was feeling tired and had the beginnings of a headache, and was running out of steam. David, by comparison, was looking much stronger, and had a good bit of go left in him. Toby decided to continue higher, and the three of us headed up to the next challenge.

We were soon climbing over the giant moraines left by a retreating glacier. The boulders piled high were both large and loose, and it required a great deal of caution to negotiate safely. I was soon ahead of the other two a second time as I moved through these boulder fields a bit faster, and soon found myself looking up the steep headwalls leading up to the Sierra Crest between Split Mtn and Mt. Prater. I had expected a large snowfield here, but it had retreated to a much smaller remnant of it's usual self, and the steepest portions to the west were entirely free of snow. I looked around for what had been described as class 3 to reach the crest, but it seemed a good deal easier. In fact there were many variations one could take in this broad chute and the only problem was that it was fairly steep and loose, but really nothing more than class 2. As I headed up this steep section, I saw that David and Toby had stopped below in the flattest part of the canyon. Toby had decided that he'd had enough and that he'd take a nap there while David and I continued. Content that he was just tired and not suffering unduly from altitude sickness, David continued on.

I found the loose terrain on this slope particularly tiring, and I began to feel the effects of so many feet of climbing in a single day. I took rests often, then would try to forge ahead only to find myself quickly pooping out again. When I reached what I thought was the Sierra Crest, it turned out to be only a side spur off the main crest and I still had a quarter mile and much climbing to reach the crest proper. At least I was getting some fine views now, particularly of Mt. Prater, The Thumb, and Birch Mtn to the northwest. It was good that David was far below me as I found myself knocking much rock and sand loose, a number of the more energetic rocks picking up considerable speed as they rocketed down the slope. I finally managed to reach the crest, but was dismayed to find yet another boulder field on a fairly steep slope where Secor has described a class 1 climb. Not even close. At least the boulders weren't as loose as the moraine below, nor as steep as the slope I'd just ascended. Resigned, I headed up the last 500 feet. I took as many breaks here as I did on the steeper slope below, as I was clearly tiring. I made up excuses to take breaks, photographing the lovely sky pilots that grew on these barren slopes, a view of Red Lake peeking through a couloir in the mountain, and some more sky pilots when I ran out of other ideas. I wondered how David might be fairing, but I could see him nowhere below me. Finally, at 12:30p, I reached the summit.

Success. The views were impressive in all directions, living up to its stature as an emblem peak. The weather had been gorgeous all day, and I had nothing on top except my long sleeve T-shirt. There was a slight breeze at the summit, and I got out my light jacket to help keep me warm as my body cooled down. I figured it might be a while before David arrived, and I took in all the views in much more detail than I normally might. A number of other Emblem peaks were visible from the summit - Williams and Whitney to the south, Goddard to the west, North Palisade and Mt. Humphreys to the northwest. The beatiful Arrow Peak and Bench Lake could be seen to the southwest, and the expanses of the Owens Valley stretching from the northeast to the southeast. I found a nice register box and made an entry myself, and sort of lazed around a bit, trying to find a combination of boulders that I could comfortably lie down on. After about 25 minutes I began to wonder where David might be, expecting that he should have joined me by now. I began looking through the summit register more thoroughly, reading many of the entries going back ten years. I spotted Hans Florine's entry from 1998 when he and his pals were doing their record climb of the California Fourteeners in under 10 days. Most impressive was Russ McBride's time of 4hr16m from the trailhead to the summit! Just nine days earlier on August 2, Josh Swartz of SummitPost.org had bagged Split on his way to reducing the Fourteener record to under 6 days. Josh had climbed Split in a similarly impressive 4hr40m.

I was on the summit 50 minutes when I began to have doubts that David was going to make it. I climbed down a short distance to where I might see further down the slope, since the view from the summit is blocked by the gradual curve to the summit. I spotted David not too far below, but his progress was very slow, and it was evident that he was having a hard time. He eventually looked up and spotted me, we waived, then David continued up slowly. It took another 20 minutes, but David finally reached me and we walked the last 50 yards to the summit. David was thoroughly tired, but elated. It was only the second summit of eight so far, and this one was especially sweet. In an attempt a few years back, David had turned around after reaching the crest, less than an hour from the summit. He thought he might not make it again, but this time he found enough inner drive to keep pushing to the top. David needed a rest, so we stayed another 20 minutes to let David reconstitute himself for the push down. In all I was on the summit for an hour and a half, by far the longest I have ever stayed on any summit, as my usual stay is less than 15 minutes.

We headed down together, both of us agreeing it would be better to do so for David's sake who was feeling out of sorts - partially exhaustion, partially the altitude, the exact mix hard to tell, but not really that important. We climbed down to the saddle, then down the side spur off to the northeast. David was looking better, moving slow still, but more steady. I went ahead on the steep, loose slope heading down, trying to stay well ahead of David's firing range. I let a great deal of material down in front of me as I moved quickly, but fortunately David loosed much less rock. Only one serious rock came down in my direction, and I was fortunate to have a large boulder to duck behind.

Reaching the bottom of the slope, I wandered over to find Toby half napping, and together we waited for David to join us. Toby still had a bit of a headache, but the rest seemed to do him good and renewed his energy. He'd been waiting more than a few hours now, and looked to be a bit antsy and ready to go. Ten minutes later we were all together, and continued our way down. We stayed more or less together until we got back to Red Lake. A marmot came out to see what was making a disturbance in his neighborhood, and he stood on his rock making some chirping noises that seemed to indicate his displeasure with us. He finally left his perch when I approached a little too close trying to get a better picture, though he appeared again once I'd moved down the slope and gave a final get-out-of-town chirp to get his last licks in.

At Red Lake we spotted a tent set up not far from the lake, though we didn't go nearby to investigate or look for inhabitants. Just below Red Lake we came across a few backpackers heading up to camp at the lake, the only folks we would see all day. I forged ahead, leaving David and Toby a last time. I managed to get lost in the underbrush surrounding one of the streamlet crossings, as I went 30 yards or so down an alternate route before it ran out and I realized my mistake. As I climbed back up I noted several cairns nicely placed to prevent just this manuever, but I had conveniently ignored them. Coming down the lower section, the trailhead could be seen far below, though I still had perhaps 30 minutes of hiking. The loose sand was less of a hindrance on the way down, and I made pretty good time, arriving back at the car at 6p. I had some time to enjoy the quiet and watch the sun's shadow creep further east across the Owens Valley. David and Toby showed up 20 minutes later, and though we are all rather tired by now, we didn't look nearly as bad as I had expected.

Toby's excellent driving skillfully negotiated the treacherous road (really it was only bad in a few spots), and we made it back to Big Pine as the sun was setting. After cleaning up we ate dinner at a very forgettable pizza place (the only one, we think). Though we were the only patrons in the place, it seemed to take absolutely forever to make our pizza. Dehydrated as we were, none of us felt like drinking beer, but we managed to down a good deal of root beer before our pizza finally arrived. But it had been an exciting day, and we were pretty proud of our adventure. Mt. Whitney was scheduled for tomorrow, and by comparison it seemed like it would be a rest day. :)


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