Sat, Jun 26, 2004
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The alarm went off at 2a, and despite the less than optimal number of hours we got, I actually felt pretty good. Probably it helped that we only hiked 5hrs the day before instead of the usual 8 or 10. I wolfed down a quick breakfast of cereal, Matthew did likewise when I finished, and we were on the road heading south from Bishop to Big Pine in short order. This was my third attempt at the Tyndall dayhike, the previous two times I didn't even make it to the trailhead. Just two weeks ago Matthew and I had underestimated the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak, and were simply too spent to attempt Shepherd Pass the next day. Suffice to say, by this time I was quite eager to get to it.
We got to the trailhead at 2:40a, and within 15 minutes were on our way under headlamps. This was the earliest start I could remember for a hike, but I agreed with Matthew that the early start time would give us more breathing room to get back before dark. Though we headed up the same trail, we had separate agendas. Matthew wanted to climb Williamson as his primary objective, Tyndall as well if he had more time and energy (he'd already dayhiked Tyndall the previous year). In opposite fashion, I had already dayhiked Williamson, but was interested in Tyndall foremost, then nearby Versteeg if I had more time and energy. We stuck together on the trail for the first mile or so where we crossed the stream several times. At the last crossing Matthew paused to switch to shorts as the uphill was starting. I got ahead for only a few minutes before Matthew powered up behind me and soon left me in the dust, his headlamp slowly fading from my view. I thought I was keeping a pretty steady pace climbing that 2,000ft canyon wall, but Matthew showed the advantage of his superior training regimen that had him out hiking/climbing every weekend for the last six months.
I reached the saddle at 4:30a, somewhat faster than my previous two efforts. Matthew of course was nowhere in sight. It was just getting light out to the east and I was able to switch off the headlamp by this time. I continued over to the next two saddles. At the last one I paused to take a picture, and saw a headlamp just off the trail in front of me, not 15 yards away. I thought it must be Matthew taking a break, but it turned out to be a woman out solo who was just getting up from a short sleep along the trail after getting a late start the previous evening. I tried not to alarm her, but she was startled when she heard my voice. Matthew had passed by earlier without either being aware of the other. I continued down the trail another 400 feet or so where the trail dips to bypass some cliffs on Shepherd Canyon's north side. I passed a second backpacker who was just getting up from his bivy at Mahogony Flat. I stopped to take a picture of his camp, but we didn't exchange words. It was after 5:30a while I was still below Anvil Camp that the sun broke out on Williamson and Shepherd Pass to mark the new day. Like the previous day, not a cloud in the sky and it looked to be another beautiful day out in the Sierra.
I picked up some water at Anvil Camp when I arrived there at 6:20a, still no sign of Matthew. Continuing up to The Pothole and then through the moraines below the pass, I finally spotted Matthew high on the switchbacks leading up to Shepherd Pass. Matthew managed to make the trek to Shepherd Pass in almost exactly 4hrs, and despite this phenomenal time (in my opinion), he was a little disappointed, hoping he might make it a half hour sooner. I was thrilled to arrive only 15 minutes behind him. I filled my water bottles to capacity at the unnamed tarn just south of the pass, then wandered over to rejoin Matthew taking a break on a rock, sitting further west so he could enjoy the sun. It was a bit cold in the shade, but the sun was delightful and we soaked up its warming rays.
Tyndall looked very close, and I was glad to have the easier agenda today. I felt priviledged not having to hoof it across Williamson Bowl with Matthew, feeling like I'd already paid my dues on that slog. We hiked together up towards Tyndall's North Rib, a third of a mile or so. When we were ready to part ways again, I gave Matthew one of the FRS radios I carried with me. I hadn't had good luck in using them in the past, but I figured they might work pretty good between Tyndall and Williamson across the bowl. Matthew had indicated that the slabs to the right of the North Rib had made for an enjoyable ascent, but since these were mostly covered in snow I headed directly for the rib. I found the climbing both tiring and enjoyable. I rested often because of the altitude, but the rock was pretty decent and fun to scramble on. There was no route-finding issues at all, just pick a way along the rib and head up. The rest stops were made pleasant with the fine views to be had. Mt. Brewer was visible on the Great Western Divide to the west, Stanford, Junction and other peaks on the Kings-Kern Divide to the northwest, and of course Mt. Williamson to the east. I spotted some tents below at the first lake in the bowl and a few bodies milling around them, but couldn't make out Matthew anywhere on the route. As I continued up I considered the possibility of traversing left onto slabs that could make a more direct route to the summit, thinking they looked to be in the class 3-4 range. I had suspicions that it might prove harder, so it remained only a thought as I finished the route up the rib and landed on the NW Ridge. I got some fine views to the southwest and stopped to take some pictures of the Whitney area as well as the cirque immediately south of Tyndall. I scrambled the rest of the way to the summit over class 2 blocks, arriving at 9a - a little more than 6hrs from the trailhead. I called Matthew on the radio, and found he was in the vicinity of the Black Stain on Williamson's West Face, still going strong. I told him I'd call again from the summit of Versteeg when I got there. I rested on the summit for about 15 minutes, taking in the views (SE - W - NW - N) and catching my breath. Though I was tired somewhat (that was to be expected), I was surprised to find that I had no headache or other symptoms of altitude sickness. Either I had done a decent job of acclimatizing or it was still too early for the symptoms to hit me. I was hoping I might get back down without the unwanted annoyance. The register box was a fine aluminum one placed by the Sierra Club in 1935, but the enties went back only a few years - as a CA 14er, Tyndall sees many ascents each year.
Looking to the east towards Versteeg, I could see that the peak was actually closer to Trojan Peak than it was to Tyndall. There were several intermediate pinnacles along the connecting ridgeline, but from Tyndall they did not appear particularly difficult, and I guessed I ought to be able to complete the one mile traverse in two hours. I packed up and headed down Tyndall's SE Ridge. The route is rated class 4 by Secor, but that is only for the difficult chute leading up to the ridge from Williamson Bowl - the ridge itself is only class 2. In fact a climb from the Wright Lakes Basin to the south only rates class 2. This gave me a false sense of ease on the route as I made good time down to the notch between Tyndall and the intermediate highpoint on the way to Versteeg. I continued up the ridge, over the high point, then came face to face with reality. The ridgeline suddenly went ugly, with sharp pinnacles and huge blocky features. I paused here to consider my course of action. I still wanted to believe the traverse was class 3, but my firm conviction (hope, really) I carried into the project was steadily crumbling. I decided class 4 or easy class 5 was acceptable, and started around a difficult block lacking good holds. The other side of this didn't look any better as I'd hoped it might. It was hard to get a good read for more than 20 yards or so along the ridge due to so many gendarmes blocking the views. Seeing no way down along the ridge at the next obstacle, I started down the north side of the ridge, carefully picking a class 4 route down some 50 feet or so in an attempt to get around the obstacle and back up to the ridge. Unfortunately this side is very steep, and I had difficulty keeping the climbing to a level I was comfortable with. After some 15 minutes or so of pursuing this avenue of attack, I decided the north side was no place for me without a rope and abandoned the line. I wound my way back up and out of my little corner until I reached the ridge to pause again for further consideration.
The south side of the ridge from this point onward has a great deal of resemblance to the west faces of the Palisades or Cloudripper or Corcoran - a confusing pattern of aretes and chutes composed of loose granite blocks and talus. Just going up or down such rock faces is hard enough, but trying to traverse across looked sketchy at best, an immense time sink and possible death trap at worst. It was nearly 10:30a, still quite early, but I'd spent well over an hour on the traverse so far and had only completed the easy section. I spotted a large cairn on the next arete over some 80 feet down and 150 feet across. Perhaps this was the lucky break I was really needing at this point (I can be an unrealistic optimist at times such as this). I climbed down and over to the cairn, marking a notch on the arete, hoping to find a series of cairns marking the remaining route on the traverse. I may as well have been hoping for the Yellow Brick Road or lighted beacons. The other side sported another chute with yet another arete, there were no other cairns I could spot, and the downclimb from the cairn was a sporty-looking class 4 crack job going down about 15 feet. Hardly a route I would think worthy of memorializing with a cairn. My patience with the current plan was growing thin.
It occurred to me that the cairn might have been erected to mark a route up to Tyndall from Wright Lakes. The chute I had just crossed had what looked to be cliffs some 100 feet lower, and the one on the other side of the cairn would present some difficulties if one had climbed it to the ridge (the same area I had struggled on a short while earlier). So the cairn did mark a logical connecting point between the two chutes. But what route? I looked down towards Wright Lakes Basin. Lake 3643m, the highest in the basin, was a really long way down - something like 1,500ft. If I climbed down to the lake, it looked from where I stood that I could cross the basin and then climb the southwest slopes to Versteeg. It seemed a much more promising route, but the thought of the elevation loss made me almost depressed. Damn - I really wanted to get to Versteeg, and I was now confronted with the thought that I might really have to work to reach it. How bad did I want it?
I concluded after much thought that continuing the ridge traverse was likely a fool's game. It might be possible for me to spend the next four hours at it and still be short of the goal. On the other hand, a quick estimation of the alternative said an hour down, half an hour across the basin, two hours for the ascent to Versteeg. That would put me on the summit around 2p, and give me more than six hours to get back before dark. Though I didn't like the extra 1,500ft of elevation gain this was going to require, it seemed the more sure bet and I went with it.
The chute was steep, but with some class 3 ledge systems sprinkled along the way it was far from just a loose talus chute. It offered some fun scrambling and a few worrisome moments as it appeared to run into cliffs at a few spots. But always I found a way down. Below the chute a loose talus fan spread out, the boulders not well settled and a bit nerve-fraying. I think I worry more about injury when crossing such terrain than I do about soloing class 5 rock. It was not lost on me that I was pretty darn far from the nearest trailhead at this point, and any significant injury (like a crushed foot or twisted ankle) could have very serious consequences. I had begun to lose some of my drive during the hour it took to descend the chute, and I wondered if it wouldn't be better to circle clockwise around Mt. Tyndall to return to Shepherd Pass. I could see the Southwest Ridge of Tyndall extending in that direction for a good distance, but a side ridge southwest of Lake 3643m blocked my view of the furthest extension of the ridge I needed to circumnavigate. And since the map I carried didn't contain the area south of Tyndall, this made the clockwise traverse to the west an uncertain venture at best. I gave the idea up as a fleeting one, admonishing myself for losing faith in my goal. I would go to Versteeg, or at least give it a good try.
I was fortunate that I didn't have to drop down to the lake level in order to begin the traverse across the basin, saving me several hundred feet of additional descent. I had a quart and half of water with me when I left Shepherd Pass, and I still had over half of that left - the deprivation training was paying off. My water would have to last me until I returned to Williamson Bowl. The traverse went easy enough, and I was almost wishing it was a bit longer before I had to start the grunt back up the crest. In choosing where to aim for on the crest I could have chosen either the east or west side of Versteeg. I didn't know beforehand which of the 4 or 5 pinnacles was the highpoint, but I decided to take what looked like the easiest route up the southwest side, on the east side of the summit. This would mean more traversing, but it seemed a better chance of success. And I figured if I couldn't get to Versteeg's summit from the crest I would have the best chance of descending to Williamson Bowl in the vicinity of Lake Helen of Troy found east of Versteeg. The climbing of the slopes was more difficult than it had looked. Partly this was because there was a surprising amount of class 3 involved, and partly because I was getting pretty tired by this time. I could only climb about 30 feet before I would have to stop to rest. While I rested maybe a dozen places on the way up to Tyndall, here it was more like 50 times. Still, I made pretty decent time because it was only 12:30p when I reached the crest, about a 150 feet below the summit Versteeg. This was far better than my rough estimation, and I'm pretty sure it was faster than any traverse I might have found along the ridge - score one for good judgement.
I had excellent close-up views from this vantage point of Barnard, Trojan, and Williamson, three of the region's titans. I also had a great view of Versteeg from the east, but herein lay my latest problem - the summit blocks looked like more than easy class 5 from where I stood. I hadn't seen any sure routes on the jumbled southwest slopes (later I found that Secor mentions a sandy class 2 chute that I must have passed by on the Southwest Slope), and the east slopes looked as steep and difficult as I'd found earlier when attempting the ridgeline traverse. I followed some blocks up just right of the crest towards Versteeg, but found no easy way up to my left. I thought it was at least worth my while to poke my head around the Northeast Arete through a notch I could reach and this turned out to be the key. This brought me to the north side of the summit which sported lower-angled class 3 ledges and blocks that were a pleasure to climb. My fatigue left me as I enjoyed this last scramble to the summit. It was with a bit of luck that I landed on the highest and eastern most of the summit pinnacles. Had I approached from the west I probably would have found myself having to go up each successively higher one before I reached the highest.
It was 12:50p when I topped out, and it was a very sweet victory indeed. It had taken four hours to do what I originally thought would take two, but I had put in a good deal more work to make it feel that much more earned. I found a fairly new ammo box at the summit, but was surprised to see that it contained - absolutely nothing aside from a stubby pencil. No register, no scraps of paper, no business cards - very peculiar. I hunted in my pack for something to leave a note on, but found nothing but toilet paper that might fit the bill. Then in a stroke of what seemed at the time near genius (later I was certain that it was just oxygen starvation), I remembered I had a map in my pocket. At this point it had served its duty and with the Williamson Bowl down below me it was no longer needed as a navigation aid. So I pencilled in my route on the map, wrote a short entry on the margin, and left it in the ammo box for future generations to ponder my vanity. I hailed Matthew on the radio. He answered after a brief interval, indicating he was on his way back down the West Face Chute of Williamson, approximately at the height of Versteeg's summit. I looked across the mile gap between us, but could see no movement or anything that might look like Matthew. It seemed we were well positioned to return to the bowl below around the same time, so we made a quick plan to meet at the highest of the lakes found on the east end of the bowl. The afternoon clouds were covering most of the sky by now, and it seemed a prudent thing to get down without delay.
The North Slope was class 2-3 as advertised, no route-finding issues at all. It got even easier when I reached a tongue of snow about a third of the way down, as this allowed a continuous snow descent the rest of the way down to the lake. I had no axe or crampons with me, but the snow sufficiently soft that I could plunge-step the steepest upper portion, and do standing glissades for the majority of it. It was just before 1:30p when I reached the lake, and upon calling Matthew again I found he was somewhere below the Black Stain. My water had just about run out at this point and I was happy to have a chance to refill. I only filled one of the two I carried since there would be plenty of water on the way back from this point, and any weight saved was duly appreciated. I waited some 15 minutes or so at the lake's west end as Matthew reached the east end of the lake, refilled his water, and began walking around the north side. I had my jacket and gloves on by this point and was getting cold and shivering with the inactivity. Worse, I was growing apprehensive as the fine weather we'd enjoyed earlier had given way to almost complete cloud cover as the afternoon thunderstorms were building to a cresendo. The clouds were being driven from the south and I began to feel a few drops of rain on me. Having only a cheap $0.99 poncho, I wasn't looking forward to a five hour march out in the rain. The raindrops convinced me to head out at once, even though Matthew was less than 10 minutes from reaching me.
I crossed the bowl along the rounded ridgeline running between the lakes - I had found this to be the easiest route across on my two previous visits to Williamson. As I was climbing the 500ft out of the bowl to the upper plateau, I called Matthew (more as an excuse to rest than any real necessity) and waved to him so he could see where I was. He was still about 10 minutes behind. Up on the plateau I ran across a lone backpacker on his way towards Williamson Bowl where he planned to camp. He was looking for info on the snow in Williamson's West Face chute, so I directed him to intercept Matthew so he could get the latest from him. A short while after the backpacker encountered Matthew, I contacted Matthew by radio again, asking him if he still planned to head to Tyndall. He'd been debating it in his head for some time and was torn on whether to go for it or not. He asked how long it had taken me and what I thought of it. Part of me wanted to see Matthew go for it - I really wouldn't have minded waiting the extra hours for him back at the trailhead. I knew I would have been pretty keen on doing both in a day, and it seemed a shame to have to pass up the opportunity while one was so close. On the other hand, the weather was definitely worsening, and looking up to Tyndall I couldn't in good conscience recommend continuing. There had been no lightning the last few days when the clouds developed, but there was definitely rain, and it might make an easy class 3 route treacherous when slicked with rain. In the end Matthew decided against it.
For a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised how few people were camping up by Shepherd Pass. I saw only one tent, and stopped briefly to chat with the two gentlemen there. It turns out they were the same folks I'd spotted camped in Williamson Bowl while I was climbing Mt. Tyndall. They had started out for Williamson some time after Matthew passed through, but turned back at the Black Stain at 11a because of weather (this is what it looked like at 11:20a, so I was guessing one of the two was particularly conservative). The younger of the two seemed particularly disappointed that they had not been able to climb the peak as it was their last chance before heading out the following day. He expressed a hope that he might give Tyndall a shot in the morning, to which I offered encouragement, recommending the North Rib as an excellent climb. The weather continued to look threatening, and I guessed they were in for a stormy afternoon - I was now hoping I could race it down Shepherd Creek and get back without getting drenched.
It was just before 3p when I returned to Shepherd Pass, and here I came across two more backpackers on the far side of the snowfield, starting to make their way across. They remarked that they had started out at 5a that morning from the TH, and had been going nearly 9hrs so far (it was 10hrs by my reckoning, but I'm sure they didn't need me correcting them), and wondered how long it had taken us without a pack. When I remarked "about four hours," they gave each other a look that seemed to question why they had just hauled 50lbs up there. I wished them well and happy climbing, then continued down (later I found they were two fellow SummitPost members). I still had 11 miles to go, a very long way, but I wasn't feeling as beat as I'd been the previous two times. It's tempting to say it was an enjoyable downhill jaunt, but that would be an unfair post-climb assessment based on the passage of time which softens the memory. I'm sure that at the time I would have been happy to take the tram back down if one had been available to do so. I saw no one on the way through Anvil Camp and Mahoghany Flat, and I wondered where all the other car owners could have gone. I expected Matthew to catch up to me at any moment once I was below Anvil Camp, now that we were back on the trail. To my surprise, he never did. A mile or so below Mahoghany Flat I reached the uphill portion of the return, something I'd been looking forward to about as much as a case of food poisoning. Previously this section had nearly sucked the life out of me, making me nauseous as I struggled up these last 500ft. This time I concentrated on hyperventilating while walking a steady uphill pace, a trick I found that helped me avoid nausea while exhausted at altitude on several past occasions. It worked like a charm, and I was able to keep a steady pace without stopping once on the entire mile-long section.
I found myself back at the trailhead at 6:30p, a respectable 15 1/2 hour outing. Two weeks earlier I had guessed it would take Matthew some 18hrs to do the climb of Williamson, but he did much better across Williamson Bowl than I expected and came in under 16hrs. He was about 15 minutes behind me, giving me pretty much the same lead for the last 5hrs or so. I had tried to contact him by radio several times during the descent, but once below Shepherd Pass our line of site was lost and the radio was silent. The weather had held out beautifully - the clouds stayed confined to the higher elevations and once we had gotten below Shepherd Pass the threat had gradually disappeared. Aside from a few unexpected route-finding challenges heading to Versteeg, we had met most of our objectives and in excellent time - a better outing could hardly have been hoped for, and we counted this among our more successful outings of the year.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Tyndall - Mt. Versteeg
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