Mt. Stewart SPS

Wed, Jun 27, 2007
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

The day was supposed to go better than it did. But I suppose if every hike or climb turned out as expected, there wouldn't much excitement in the mountains. I had been up the High Sierra Trail a month earlier, so the length and difficultly of hiking it to the Great Western Divide was no surprise. Rather, it was for other reasons that things didn't go well, and I blame Matthew for it. Even though he wasn't along for the fun. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It wasn't a week past the summer solstice and combined with a low snow year in the Sierra it seemed an ideal time for another "deep" peak from the SPS list. You might think that one trip up the HST in a year was enough, but oddly the more painful elements of that hike had already worn off. I figured since I had already done Triple Divide Peak, Mt. Stewart, Eagle Scout Peak, or Lion Rock would all be easier. I didn't actually decide which I would climb before I left, but my hope was that I would be able to manage two of the three in a long 18hr day. I left San Jose around 9p, arriving at Crescent Meadow in SEKI NP sometime after 1a. Rather than nap for a few hours as I had the previous time, I figured I'd just head out right away to give me as much daylight as possible for the return at the end of the day. Unlike last time, there were a few other cars in the parking lot, leading me to believe I wouldn't be the only one on the trail all day this time.

It was 1:30a when I started out, with cool but perfect temperatures for hiking and three quarters of a moon to brighten the sky. By headlamp, it took a bit more than 3.5hrs to reach the High Sierra Camp at Bearpaw Meadow. At 5a there was only a single camper up at that time (visiting the pit toilet). I had missed this camp on my first visit and though in general I really don't like these HS camps in the Wilderness, I was impressed with the magnificent view of the Great Western Divide to be had from the dining deck. Wow. If only they could manage these things without the mules.

Shortly after leaving Bearpaw Meadow I could turn off my headlamp and watch as the new day dawned. Unfortunately it was dawning over the Great Western Divide to the east and it washed out most of the early morning views into that incredible canyon called Valhalla. at the mouth of the canyon were Angel Wings to the left and Hamilton Domes to the right. The trail traverses north a bit to save some elevation loss as it crosses Lone Pine Creek before climbing up to Valhalla and Hamilton Lakes. When I arrived at the larger lake it was 6:40a, and there were a few campers up and awake among half a dozen tents set up in this area. It certainly is a beautiful lake with a stunning backdrop. Mt. Stewart rises high to the left and Eagle Scout Peak to the right, both situated along the divide. More than five hours into the hike and I was yet to finish with the approach.

I crossed the outlet of the lake and continued up the trail towards Precipice Lake. Before I reached that lake (or the unnamed one below it), I began looking up towards Stewart to see if there wasn't a more direct route to the top. I knew that Matthew had climbed Eagle Scout first, then Stewart, the two taking more than 20hrs. Part of this is due to the roundabout approach to Stewart by the standard route which requires one to climb up to Kaweah Gap first and then climb Stewart from the southeast. Could it be climbed from the southwest? If possible, it seemed I might then be able to climb either Lion Rock or Eagle Scout. I liked the idea of having the option left open, so I decided to try Stewart first. I left the trail and headed up to a broad cirque between Stewart's summit and it's lower south summit. I figured if I ran into cliffs in the beginning I wouldn't lose more than 45 minutes or so and could head back to the trail. Climbing higher over marshy ground into the cirque, it looked like there might be three ways to climb Stewart from this side. The easiest would be to the east up a class 2 chute leading to the ridge between the two widely spaced summits. That seemed a bit boring. The second option was a steeper route, class 2-3 to the left of the first that went more directly towards Stewart, landing a few hundred yards south of the summit. The third and most interesting route looked like a very steep class 3-4 shallow chute to the left of the others, with a steep, slabby entrance, heading to a notch about 20 yards west of the summit. This looked like fun.

And so it was. After scrambling up the talus crud at the bottom, I had some route-finding fun to make it up the slabs and into the chute. The route did not get any easier, remaining a stiff class 3 as I made my way up the center of chute, bypassing a few chockstones as needed to the left or right. This continued for more than an hour, which is more than it should have taken to climb to the summit had it been more straightforward. But instead it grew difficult in the upper reaches and I found myself on some sketchy class 4 trying to make the last hundred feet to the West Ridge. I got stopped right at the ridge itself, where a narrow slot just wasn't wide enough to get my body through. I was hoping to get through to the other side and find some miraculous ledge or easy slope to allow me to get up to the summit of Stewart to my right, but I just couldn't squeeze through. I did get a look on the other side, where Lion Rock was off in the distance, and questionable slopes directly below the notch on the other side. Arrgh. I had to admit a partial defeat - I just couldn't get the direct route up the middle of the chute to work.

Gingerly retracing my steps, I got off the hairiest part and began looking for an alternative up the east side of the chute. I wasted a good deal more time here, trying three or four options, getting myself stuck below cliffs, then retreating further down. The route that finally worked was about 200ft below the west ridge and took me up to the South Ridge and onto the summit - in all taking about 45 minutes since I had first reached the West Ridge (and only 50ft short of the summit). Double arrgh. It was now 10:30a, taking me 9hrs what I had hoped would be 7 or 8. This part was all my fault since it was my brilliant idea to explore an unknown route. Hopefully I could still recover and get to a second peak. I paused for a break, signing the register and perusing the other names, many of them familiar. There were more folks than I would have guessed who climb it, possibly due to its proximity to the HST and Kaweah Gap. The views were quite superb. Lion Rock, Triple Divide, Milestone, Midway, and other peaks of the Great Western Divide to the northeast, Eagle Scout, Sawtooth, and others along the divide to the south. There is a fine view of Black Kaweah to the southeast, Kaweah Queen and Lawson to the east, and behind those in the distance was Mt. Whitney and other peaks on the Sierra crest stretching to the far north and the Palisade region. To the southeast and just below the summit, almost the entire ascent chute was visible.

I figured I was still doing better than Triple Divide Peak (10hrs to reach the summit) and it was still early, so I turned my attention to Lion Rock. You may be wondering why I blame Matthew. Now we get to the crux of matter. On his Summitpost page for Mt. Stewart, Matthew included this gem:

A traverse between Mt. Stewart and Lion Rock may also be possible, although I found no record of this in the summit register; the main question mark appears to be descending from Mt. Stewart to the steep notch that separates the two peaks. The traverse of the Mt. Stewart summit ridge looks like it would go at class 3 or 4.

Despite the fact that I was pretty darned tired by this time, I was intrigued and got sucked into the possibility of the traverse. Now, very little of the ridge is actually visible from the summit of Stewart. There are several local highpoints along the way, including the nearby east summit which is nearly the same elevation as the higher west summit. What could be seen clearly was the second half of the route, the class 4 South Ridge of Lion Rock. It looked good, but I had to get there first.

I started down Stewart's NE Ridge, bypassing the east summit on the right side. After getting around to the other side of the east summit, the ridgeline started looking more severe, harder than class 4. I dropped further down on the east side of the ridge, traversing along as I descended, hoping it would only be a temporary drop from the ridge. Then I got the show-stopping view. Further along the ridge, not far from the lowpoint between the two peaks, the granite ridgline is broken by two sections, one reddish-orange, the other gray-black, both horribly fractured and vertical. I couldn't imagine getting over the top of it. Standing half the way off the ridge on the east side of Stewart, I decided I'd have to climb all the way down to Nine Lakes Basin and then climb back up to Lion Rock's South Ridge.

Now came the big problem - getting off the East Face. It wasn't clear until I got further down that side that the lower half is ringed with cliffs. Not big, towering, Oh-my-God-I-can't-go-that-way cliffs, but broken bands with ledges and plenty of climbable sections that are the worst possible type of cliffs because you can spend a lot of time trying to get through them but end up stymied. Which is exactly what happened. I would try one line of descent, get stopped by a mere 20 feet to the easy talus below, climb back up and try another one. I must have tried half a dozen lines, probably climbing and reclimbing that side of Stewart for more than a 1,000ft. It was incredibly frustrating. What should take about 40min to descend had I gone down the SE Slopes, ended up taking me nearly 3hrs. Now twelve hours into the day, I had no energy to climb either Lion Rock or Eagle Scout Peak, and would have to leave them for another day.

The hike back out through Kaweah Gap was not pretty. Ok, it really was pretty, incredibly scenic and beautiful and all that, but it was rather warm in the afternoon with only a slight breeze and I was wilting. Precipe Lake was quite beautiful with the sheer cliffs dropping down to southern bank of the lake, and I finally got a pictureque view of Valhalla without the glare of the sun to dampen it. Once down below Hamilton Lake however, the hiking became much more mundane. My MP3 player, which I was counting on to get me through the six hour hike back, crapped out on me after only an hour. Oh my, it was a long way back. I watched the sun go from high overhead and slowly sink to the west. I was happy to see it dip below the trees and to get out of the sun after many hours. I didn't get back until almost 9p (it finally cooled off a bit in the last few hours), for a 19hr+ outing for only one peak. Holy cow. During the hike out I began to wonder if there isn't such a thing as Too Much Climbing. In the past, I would have said that was impossible, but having spent a record (for me) 39 days out on the trail so far this year, I was starting to change my mind. My feet were firmly on the side of changing my mind, feeling as they did as though put through a meat grinder.

I decided to cancel the second two days of climbing I had planned and drove home. It was nice sleeping in til 10a the next morning. But not to worry, my career isn't over yet. In fact only a few days later I was already looking to the week ahead with the family in Mammoth. It didn't take long to recover from the bit of meloncholy. Besides, it was really Matthew's fault anyway. And he has since excised his notation of the traverse from his Summitpost page, hopefully saving some future adventurer from a similar fate.


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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Stewart

This page last updated: Wed Jul 18 19:53:42 2007
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