Tue, Aug 20, 2013
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Twin Peaks is the unofficial name for a set of summits about a mile due west of Mt. Prater, near Mather Pass. At just over 13,000ft, it qualifies as a CA 13er, making it on the list of peaks for the 2013 Sierra Challenge. It had been six years since we last used the Red Lake TH during the Challenge, and though I'm not overly fond of the trailhead or the trail itself, it was time we gave it another shot. Only four of us were heading to this obscure summit, seven others choosing to climb the more popular Split or Prater. Sean, the current leader of the Yellow Jersey was not among our small group that had gathered for a 5a start at the TH. Taking Jonathan's advice, he had driven to Mammoth to get his broken metacarpal X-ray'd and set properly. In fact it was Jonathan's daughter who did the setting and it ended up being one of the least expensive medical procedures ever administered at the hospital in Mammoth Lakes. But rules being rules, Sean was out of the running by not showing up. The day would end with a new Yellow Jersey leader. Pat and Jonathan would start the day with a 10-minute lead over Eric, the current runner -ups.
Though no one relished waking before 4a, most would admit it was nice to get started shortly after 5a to allow us to get up the driest part of the trail before sunrise. I drove to the TH with Pat in her FJ Cruiser which had no trouble at all making it on the roughest parts past McMurray Meadow. The road has been kept serviceable, easily reached with high clearance vehicles, though at least one low clearance car was found at the TH - Brice had driven his rental car via the Tinemaha route.
For the most, the trail was in decent condition. Tommey had tried to sell us on his shortcut to the left that avoids the first long switchback, but even he joined us in the predawn hour concluding it "wasn't worth it" in the dark. I started near the back of the pack this morning, for no other reason than I was in poor condition to try and keep up with the leaders. Eric and Pat were off from the start and lost to sight before the eastern sky had had a chance to lighten. Jonathan and Luke were just ahead of me, moving at a faster pace, but at least within sight periodically. Four others were behind me some unknown distance, eventually lost sight of once the headlamps were no longer visible on the trail below.
Sunrise came at 6:22a, just as were were entering the abbreviated forest section of the Red Lake Trail. The trail passes through several sections of tall brush that have been trimmed back and not all that hard to follow - in the past I recall taking a wrong turn or two in the midst of it, but today there would be no such trouble. At the smaller lakes below Red Lake, Split Mtn came into view just before 7a. It's a far more impressive mountain looking from the east than from the north where we would pass by it later. The trail here becomes indistinct, with one thin branch heading to Red Lake and another ducked route bypassing it to the right. I caught sight of Luke and Jonathan ahead just reaching the shore of Red Lake around 7:15a, but I chose to take the bypass route around it in order to get water from the inlet higher up. The lake itself is filled with glacier till, giving it a milky green appearance, and I try to avoid such lakes when possible. After getting water along the brushy creek I paused for a break to eat something and rest my legs. Jonathan and Luke came by at this time and for a short while there were three of us heading up the creek towards the moraine that fills the small valley leading up to the main crest on the north shoulder of Split.
Luke fell back before we had reached the moraine. There was no snow left in the upper cirque, just a few sections with visible glacier ice that looked to be melting down through the rocks. One could find a trickle here and there to refill water bottles before it disappeared into the moraine. As we climbed the steep, loose class 2-3 slopes leading to the crest, Tommey suddenly appeared out of seemingly nowhere. Whether he had been ahead of us and slowed down or caught up to us I never did discern, but it mattered little, and the three of us continued over boulders to the subsidiary ridge and then to the Sierra crest itself around 9a. Tommey took a break here while Jonathan and I got out the sunscreen before continuing on. Tommey was heading to Prater and had no need or desire to follow Jonathan and I over the crest to Twin Peaks. He was focused more on the SPS peaks as he had been most of the week.
It was a fairly pleasant 45 minutes that the two of us spent hiking down to the saddle between Split and Prater, then down to Lake 3,535m, about 1,300ft below where we had crossed the crest. The upper portion was firm talus, some loose sections, never very steep, and eventually mixed with alpine grass leading down to the large, aquamarine lake. There is a nice view of Split from the northwest to be had at the lake. As we approached the lake we had our eye on Twin Peaks just to the right, in particular noting the class 3-looking SE Ridge that might make for an enjoyable ascent route. We could see that either the East Face or the South Face might be climbed at class 2, but these looked like ugly scree slogs and we settled on the more challenging route.
After enjoying the nice walk around the grassy edges of the lake, it was time to start the climb to our summit. The first half proved fun and enjoyable over rough granite slabs and up easy class 3 terrain. The views opened up towards the south to Upper Basin and the headwaters of the South Fork of the Kings River. Crater,Ickes, Ruskin and Vennacher Needle were some of the prominent peaks surrounding this drainage on the west side of the Sierra Crest. About half way up the ridge we came to the troublesome section that had looked spicy from a distance. Up close it looked class 5 and both Jonathan and I balked at trying to climb it. I followed Jonathan as he traversed left around towards the south side of Twin Peaks. Here we found the horrible sand slopes we dreaded and did our best to keep off the worst parts. All the while we kept looking over to the right for a way back onto the SE Ridge above the difficulties we'd found. Tiring of the sand, I was the first to turn back to the right, aiming to climb a steep chute between several ribs. The chute proved to be more complex than I imagined and was soon climbing onto one rib, up this for a short interval, then over and across other chutes and ribs. I seemed to have made a mistake as the rock was not all that solid and I was spending more time on route-finding. I spied some footprints in the sand that proved to be Jonathan's - he had gotten the same idea and turned up the next gully after mine and eventually I was following him. I finally got to the ridge only to find the summit was still some distance away. I came to a notch that I could not climb down from and had to find another way around. About this time I spotted Jonathan below and already making his way around the obstacle. He had chosen to downclimb through a spooky class 5 chimney/chute that he did not report as enjoyable. I went down to take a look at it, then went off to find another way around. In the midst of this "problem", Pat came by on her way down from the summit. She offered some condolences to my predicament but did not stay around to see how I managed. I'm sure she figured we were big boys and would find a way, much as she had. The solution turned out to be a near-vertical crack leading down to the notch on the north side, an option I had initiall rejected. Upon closer inspection there turned out to be a narrow ledge leading to the crack and then just enough width for some solid foot and hand jams to walk my way down it. Jonathan might have applauded my efforts if he wasn't already out of sight and on the way to the summit himself.
It was 11a by the time I caught up to Jonathan who had started in on lunch. It had taken an hour longer than I had hoped, though in retrospect five hours was far too optimistic. Luckily for us the south summit we had reached first was the higher of the two points separated by a non-trivial quarter mile. There was a 1968 Smatko register entry to back us up on this. Our visit appears to be only the sixth since the register was placed, but it seems likely that other visitors simply missed finding the rusty Prince Albert can tucked in the rocks. Sitting about a mile off the crest, the views are quite fine - north to the Palisades, northeast to Bolton Brown, east to Prater, southeast to Split, then south and west into the interior of Kings Canyon NP with probably a hundred fascinating peaks of which we might know a dozen by name. My lunch consisted of another Vons sandwich, the goto food choice for these long days of the Challenge. We stayed almost half an hour at the summit under beautiful skies (the threatening weather was holding off longer today) before packing up to leave.
It was obvious that a descent back the way we came up would be foolish. Jonathan suggested the South Slopes would make for a good boot-ski run, so we started down the SW Ridge towards Mather pass, dropping off the south side as soon as we were clear of large rocks and boulders. Most of the descent was completed in less than 15 minutes thanks to long stretches of sand/talus slopes. Once near the bottom we began leaning to the left to get us back around Twin Peaks to Lake 3,535m. Shortly before reaching the lake Jonathan called my attention to a small shiny black object he'd spotted lying in the gravel. An indian spearhead, chipped in two places but 80% intact. It was a remarkable find, I thought, the first indian artifact I'd ever seen in the wild. It was not quite as amazing to Jonathan, who among other skills, is an avid arrowhead hunter. He has an "eye" for these things and has found them on numerous occasions. I've probably hiked past dozens of such objects in the past, but without a trained eye they look like so much other rock. This find got Jonathan going on a whole new discourse about indian artifacts, collections, their value, etc, which kept him wound up for the last climb back up to the Sierra crest. This was only broken by his occasional pause to examine a mushroom he found along the way, providing a quick description of its properties (taste, rarity, uses, etc) before returning to the tract on indian artifacts.
It was 1p by the time we reached the highpoint and started back down the loose sand/scree chute dropping to the Red Lake drainage. Jonathan stopped at the bottom of the moraine to get some of the glacier water that could be obtained there before continuing down towards Red Lake. He stopped again to eat berries found above Red Lake, looking much like a bear finding a stash of his favorite food. This time I didn't stop to wait - it was time to catch a break and get in some solo time. It was only ten minutes later, while I was still a bit above Red Lake that Jonathan came rambling by with Eric. Eric had had a good day, traversing from Prater to Bolton Brown and then to Twin before returning back over the crest. He had planned to also tag Split on the way back, but the clouds gathering overhead made him reconsider. The two of them bounded back down the slopes, now on the use trail that bypasses Red Lake, and would finish the rest of the hike together.
I spent the next hour on my own, making my way back down the Red Lake Trail with some jogging. With about 15 minutes left, I caught up with Tom, Michael G and Brice, who had gone to either Split or Prater. We finished shortly before 3:30p by taking the shortcut down to the TH, much better on the descent since it was comprised of steep sand slopes for the most part. Pat, Eric, Jonathan and Luke had been back for up to an hour and half and were sitting on the desert floor, conversing. A small handful were still out on the trail but we expected them to get back in the next couple of hours.
It would be 4:30p before we got back to the motel at Bishop. The next day was another 4a start, so I needed to get to bed by 7p to get my full night of rest. The night had other plans in store for me, however, and there would be not be much rest...
Pat finished 20 minutes ahead of Jonathan to take the lead for the Yellow and Green jerseys, breaking the tie that had started the morning. Eric was in third, still ten minutes behind Jonathan for the Yellow Jersey, primarily because he spent extra time tagging Prater and Bolton Brown. With Sean out for the day, Eric padded his lead for the Polka Dot Jersey, now with 15 peaks in five days. And of course he still held a commanding lead for the White Jersey.
There were two factors vying for my attention that evening, resulting in little sleep. Though I got to bed at 7p as planned, I was not yet asleep when I got a phone call at 7:30p. JD and another participant were calling from the Red Lake TH to let me know that young Michael C had not returned yet. They were tired and hungry and were in no mood to wait around any longer. Great, we've got a missing participant who was about to be abandoned at a difficult-to-reach TH. I had to think quick and asked them to hold on a bit before leaving. It was too late for a SAR call as it would be dark soon, and besides I hate the idea of making such a call unless its an obvious emergency. Any consideration of SAR would have to wait until morning. After scratching my head further, I made a call to Sean who I knew was back in the area, planning to hike with us the next morning over Taboose Pass. I got a hold of him as he was driving to the Taboose TH and asked if he could divert to the Red Lake TH and spend the night there. Figuring he owed a huge debt for all the free medical attention he'd just gotten over the past couple of days, he readily agreed. I called JD back and tried to get them to wait until Sean arrived, but they convinced me that leaving a note for Michael and starting back was nearly as good. Ok, good, part of the problem solved, but I still had to consider that if Michael wasn't back by my wakeup time of 2:30a, I'd have to stay in town and call SAR in the morning. This kept me awake for some time as I tried to go back to sleep. Around 9p the phone rang again. Ah! Just what I was waiting for - a call that Michael was back! Only it wasn't Michael or Sean calling.
The caller was a woman in Big Pine who explained that she was with a Sierra Challenge participant who had been abandoned by her ride earlier in the evening and needed a place to stay. I must have fallen asleep because I was hardly awake as I was trying to take in what this was about.
"Who is the woman?" I asked, incredulously. "And why is this my problem?" was the other half of the question I wanted to ask, but didn't. Her name was Shirley, I was told, but there was no record of a Shirley signing up for the Challenge. The woman, a Good Samaratan just trying to help a lone woman she found in Bishop, put Shirley on the phone, who explained in broken English that she had come to the East Side to participate, but had not signed up. Ok fine, I don't require folks to actually sign up to participate, but you better have a good reason for calling me at 9p.
"How can I help you, Shirley?" I asked, somewhat exasperated by her rambling. She proceeded to continue telling me about how she had paid for half the gas and had been abandoned despite this and all sorts of other stuff that made absolutely no sense other than I was sure there was a good reason she'd been kicked out of someone's car. I had to interrupt, "Shirley, if you don't stop talking I'm going to hang up on you."
"Oh, sorry." This was the first indication that she had any thoughts other than about herself.
The Good Samaratan came back on the line and explained that Shirley needed a place to stay for the night and could I come pick her up in Big Pine? No, I could not. Or rather, would not. I suggested a possible solution would be to go to the Bristlecone Motel in Big Pine where Tommey Joh was staying and see if she could sleep on the floor of his room.
"Where's the Bristlecone Motel?" she asked.
"Right there in Big Pine", I explain. "It's not a very big town, it can't be more than a block or two from wherever you're standing." They hang up and I try to go back to sleep. I'm thinking about Michael, not Shirley, and can't sleep. At 9:30p the phone rings again.
"Hi. We couldn't find a Tony at the Bristlecone. So I'm thinking of taking Shirley back to my dad's place in Bishop for the night. Do you think you could pick her up there in the morning?" I explained that I've got a missing participant still up in the mountains right now and I'll have to deal with a Search and Rescue call in the morning. Shirley really isn't a priority at all right now. She seemed to understand and the call was soon ended. Once more I try to go back to sleep and this time I think I must have slept for some time, but the night is not over. At 11:30p there is a knock on my motel door.
I open the door to find our Good Samaratan with another friend and Shirley outside, with all Shirley's considerable baggage in a neat pile. I know why they are there, and standing in the doorway shirtless and in my shorts I motion for Shirley to bring her stuff inside. I would have been happy to continue to be the bad guy and not give a damn about her problem, but I knew letting her sleep on the floor of my room would be the fastest way for me to get back to sleep. I had only three hours now until my wakeup time of 2:30a and each moment seemed more precious than the last. I thanked the woman for her kindness to Shirley and she drove off. I asked Shirley what her plan was to get back to the Bay Area since she no longer had a ride. She must have already given this some thought because she immediately came out with JD's name and said they both lived in Sunnyvale and maybe he could provide her a ride. Perfect! I happen to know that JD was leaving the Challenge early, the next morning in fact, and that he was only a few doors down. He was already outside when I walked down there while Shirley was moving her stuff inside my room.
"Hey JD, I've got this woman I don't even know that says she lives in Sunnyvale. Do you think you could give her a ride back? I've got to deal with SAR in the morning to find Michael and I don't really have time for this woman."
"Oh, Michael's back already," JD commented, almost casually.
"Really, where?!" I blurted out, not really caring, just glad to have one problem off my plate.
"Right next door." We found him on the drive out. Michael had been to the summit of Split late in the afternoon by himself and missed the turnoff for the Red Lake drainage while descending Split's North Slope. He ended up in the Tinemaha Creek drainage, the next canyon to the north. The trouble with that is that there is no trail and it was an impressive effort that he managed to get out as soon as he did. JD and Chuck had found him on the road soon after they had started back from the Red Lake TH. They had already alerted Sean who had just arrived at the Red Lake TH. Sean then drove back out to the Taboose Pass TH to spend the rest of the night. One problem down.
When I asked JD a second time if he could give Shirley a ride home in the morning, he had a more serious look on his face. He paused for a moment so that I could see there was something I didn't know, then said, "I know this woman. She's insane." That came as no shock to me - I had already come to the same conclusion in my currently addled state. He went on to say that he knew her from a hiking Meet Up group that they were both members of. JD had posted info on the Sierra Challenge on the website, but had come to regret it, partly because of Shirley. He went on to say that as a favor to me he would give her a ride back. I was greatly relieved and thanked him. JD planned to meet some friends in Bishop for breakfast, so we agreed that he would come back to the motel at 11a to pick up Shirley. I would be leaving at 2:30a and not coming back, so she should be the only person in the room at that time. I then went back and explained this to Shirley before crawling back under the covers around midnight. She was still arranging things and brushing teeth and such, but at least she was quiet and I managed to get back to sleep. For a few hours, at least...
This page last updated: Wed Nov 27 08:40:54 2013
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