Tue, Jul 9, 2002
It had only been three weeks since my failed first attempt at dayhiking Mt. Williamson. But here I was back, ready to try again. I figured I had two things going for me: I would be hiking alone, which would let me set a faster pace than before, and secondly I had survived the 16hr hiking marathon and now knew I could last that long without crumbling due to exhaustion. As added insurance, I planned to get a much earlier start, ensuring as much daylight as possible for the hike.
With the warmup hike to Mt. Goode the day before I was feeling adequately acclimatized for the 14,300ft+ I'd be shooting for today. The alarm went off at 3:15a, Paul and I quickly rising, eating breakfast, and ready to go. Paul planned to take his time trying to reach the top of Shepherd Pass, itself no easy feat with 11mi one way and 6,500ft of climbing. We headed west at the only light in town (the road to Onion Valley), left where the signs indicate the Shepherd Pass TH, and drove to the end of the road to the hikers' parking lot. It was 4:20a when we headed out, headlights beaming to illuminate the darkened trail under a star-filled sky.
I had none of the doubts and sense of doom I'd felt on the first attempt as we started up Symmes Creek. It was quiet and cool as we crossed the creek four times before heading up towards Symmes Creek Saddle. I left Paul at this point, maintaining a pretty steady pace of about 2.5mph as I cruised up the 53 switchbacks to the saddle. Shortly after starting up the steep hillside I was able to switch off my headlamp, and near the top the sun came out to partially lighten Symmes Canyon.
I reached the saddle at 6:20a, about the same time we had done on the first attempt. I scrawled the time in the dirt on the trail so that Paul would have an idea how far ahead I might be when he got there a bit later. Mt. Williamson's North Face was brightly lit and invitingly close - but still a long way to go! I followed the trail down towards Shepherd Creek, then up almost an hour to Anvil Camp. Not finding anyone here surprised me a bit, as I expected this might be a busy weekend for Mt. Williamson. Seeing that it closes officially after July 15, I expected a small rush of backpackers trying to get the climb in. The trailhead had a dozen cars in it, but it seemed nobody was staying at Anvil Camp today. I refilled my water bottles and headed up.
Above Anvil Camp there were a few patches of snow to be crossed, though noticeably less than three weeks earlier. At the base of Shepherd Pass, most of the snow had already melted off, leaving the trail almost entirely snow-free. A long tongue of snow perhaps 500ft high still shot up the direct route to the pass. The trail switchbacks to the right of this strip of snow, and I followed them dutifully as they provided the easiest way to climb this jumble of rock and talus. Reaching the pass at 9:30a, it took longer than I had hoped (just over 5hrs), but almost an hour faster than the first attempt. I made a rough calculation for the rest of the day: 2hrs to cross the bowl, 2hrs to summit, an hour to descend, 2hrs across the bowl again, 4hrs to descend. That would get me back at 8:30p which would make it just as daylight was fading. As it turned out, I wasn't far off. Mt. Tyndall rose majestically to the south, dominating the view, but to the east could be seen the upper quarter of Mt. Williamson, peaking out from behind the Sierra Crest. At the sign indicating I was entering Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP, I built a small cairn and left a note for Paul telling him when I arrived here.
I found all the folks who had left their cars at the trailhead. They were camping at the lake just south of Shepherd Pass. Other than the stark surroundings and utter lack of shade, it made a fine jumping off point for climbing the half-dozen major peaks that lay within a few miles' reach of here. I headed east, up towards the Sierra Crest, across a gently rising slope comprised mostly of compacted sand and talus. It was easy travelling but slow as the altitude sucked out some of the energy I had shown earlier. I headed for the lowest crossing point at the crest and found a sign indicating the closed season in the Williamson Bowl area that would start in another week. Behind it rose the fantastically rugged West Face of Mt. Williamson. I took more care this time in crossing the bowl to take the path indicated by Secor. This turned out to better than I had expected it to be the last time. From looking at a topo, it would seem that following the slight ridge that runs roughly NW-SE between the four lakes in the bowl would require more up and down than a route that followed the topo contours. While this is true, the ridge route had vestiges of a use trail that make a third to a half of the route much easier to manage. The earth was more compacted here, and there was less boulder hopping than I'd found on our first journey across the bowl. I also took some time to enjoy the wildflowers that grew in the bowl. There is little animal and plant life, but the flowers seems to make it far more colorful than it really is.
Two hours after leaving Shepherd Pass I found myself once again at the Black Stain on the far righthand side of Williamson's West Face. It was only 11:30a, more than four hours earlier than the first attempt, when Joe and I'd turned back at this point when it was already 3:45p. Now the climbing went from tiring to miserable as I began to make my way up the class 2 chute towards the NW Shoulder. While the length of the hike and the altitude must surely have played a role, I still believe this chute to be one of the worst climbs I have encountered. Steep and loose, it was frustrating trying to make progress as I slipped backwards on almost every step. Nothing in the chute seemed stable, and I found no relief whether I tried the left side, right side, or right up the middle. While I was climbing in the lower part of the chute a party of four climbers were heading down. One of them offered me brief hope by suggesting the left side was easier (it wasn't) but the others paid no attention to me as I mostly rested as they climbed down past me. I found myself resting more and more often. I'd look up at the end of the chute and it seemed no closer than it had been the last time I looked. I tried a technique of forced breathing that seemed to help and give me more energy. My thinking was that I was so tired because I wasn't getting enough oxygen. My lungs were not naturally compensating for the reduced amount of oxygen at this altitude, and my blood cell count had not had time to fully acclimatize. By forcing myself to breathe faster than I would have otherwise, I was able to climb for longer distances without resting. Still, it was quite tiring. And after about an hour of the forced breathing, I found that my throat was getting sore from all the dry air passing by too quickly. I stopped to take pictures of the views and flowers as much for their memories as it was an additional excuse to stop and rest. I had thought it might take an hour to climb the chute, but it was a full two hours before I finally reached the NW Shoulder and could look down the North Face and into the Owens Valley. I was never so grateful to have that stretch behind me.
I went to the base of the class 3 chimney, and found myself revitalized again. Good rock has that effect on me - no matter how tired I feel on the talus slopes below, a good climb does wonders to lift my spirits. The chimney was actually a bit harder than I'd expected, about 80ft of class 3 with a few moderately hard moves mixed with exposure. All the elements of a fun climb. If only the chute below could have been the same! Above the chimney I came out on the Williamson Plateau, a mostly flat, sandy field that lies between Williamson's West Horn and the summit which lies about 300ft higher. I began climbing the large boulders piled up on the northwest ridge, thankful for the lack of more loose talus. By comparison the climbing seemed rather easy, and I found myself at the summit at 1:55p, only 25min after leaving the dreaded chute.
The views were all one might expect, expansive and superb. To the south lay Mts. Whitney and Russell, even Langley visible further beyond. The Kaweahs to the southwest, the Great Western Divide from Centenial Peak to Thunder Peak where it meets the Kings-Kern Divide. Mt. Brewer lay even further west, and to the north I could identify most of the major peaks of the Palisade group. Interestingly, I had almost no recognition of any of the peaks closer in between the Palisades and Mt. Williamson as I'd yet to visit any of that region. Much of the Owens Valley can be seen to the east, and I had my first view down into George Creek on the southeast side, which provides the technically easier class 2 approach to Mt. Williamson. Nearby Mts. Trojan, Barnard, Versteeg, and Tyndall all fall well below the height of Mt. Williamson and I enjoyed the eagle's view my perch provided. I perused through the summit register, noting one of Josh Shwartz's entries from the previous year (the date was wrong in the entry) when he climbed both Tyndall and Williamson as a dayhike - twice. My own was less impressive, but I felt well satisfied having claimed the harder of the two 14ers. Another day I would come back for Mt. Tyndall.
I stayed on the summit for 20min, beginning my descent at 2:15p. I briefly toyed with the idea of climbing the West Horn, but gave up on that without too much serious thought. I recall it being something of a technical climb, and I'd brought no beta to help me negotiate the easiest route. Besides, I would still be happy to get back before darkness set in. Climbing down the NW Ridge and the chimney was pretty straightforward, and I made good progress descending the chute, reaching the black stain but an hour after I'd left the summit. I took a break at the highest lake in Williamson Bowl to soak my feet in the icy lake. My feet were getting uncomfortably warm, and I feared the formation of blisters was not far behind. I wished the lake had been a tad warmer and I might have gone for an even more refreshing swim. I made good progress in crossing the bowl, thanks to the partial use trails I had found on the hike in. The 300ft climb back up out of the bowl was a pain, but less than I recall the last time. More forced breathing seemed to help quicken my pace. At the crest I took a last look back at Williamson before heading down the easy sand slopes to Shepherd Pass.
At 5p I reached the pass, and found myself making excellent time. The backpackers camped at the pass were beginning to settle in for the evening with dinner preparations and other chores. Several more had arrived since I'd come by here earlier in the morning, others had left. I retrieved my note and pencil at the sign, Paul indicating he had headed down around 3p - so at this point I was two full hours behind him. I hoped he wouldn't have to wait that long for me back at the car! Below Shepherd Pass I ran across a lone backpacker on his way down. He and two friends had come in over Kearsarge Pass earlier in the week and were on their way out. They had climbed Tyndall earlier in the day, but had been a bit overwhelmed by the length of the climb. One of his friends had forgotten where he'd left his trekking poles on the way up and had been unable to find them on the way down. They planned to go back the following day and look for the poles. I asked why then didn't camp at the pass, as it seemed that would save considerable time reclimbing to the pass the following day. He replied that more than anything they were looking forward to a nice wood fire to cheer them up (his friends were somewhere behind us). It was only after I'd left him that I recalled that wood fires were not allowed at Anvil Camp where they planned to install themselves. I wondered if they would suffer the frustration or damn the rules and build a fire anyway.
By 6p I reached The Pothole, and not long after was cruising through Anvil Camp. Then it's down a series of very long switchbacks, descending lower into Shepherd Creek Canyon. I passed a number of backpackers making their way up, at least half a dozen already knew me as the guy dayhiking Williamson. Apparently Paul had been chatting with them earlier, and had let them know what we were up to. I asked each hiker how long before they had encountered Paul, trying to gauge how far ahead of me he was. Because everyone has different senses of time and distance, it was a very inexact method and I could only roughly judge that I was making up some time as I motored down the trail. The uphill portion that climbs back up to Symmes Creek Saddle wasn't too bad, the hardest part involving two sets of four switchbacks each (I had a lot of time to count the switchbacks in these two trips). I reached the saddle at 7:20p, and found that Paul had inscribed "6:30" in the dirt in the same fashion I had earlier in the day. So now I knew I was only 50min behind him, but it seemed unlikely I would catch up before the end of the trail.
Flying down the trail towards Symmes Creek (ok, I wasn't really flying, and I doubt in retrospect that I was going any faster than about 3mph, but after 14hrs+ it sure seemed like I was moving fast!), I raced the sun as it sank lower in the west and brought shadows from the crest first down the canyon, then across the valley, then more slowly the shadows crept up the west side of the White Mountains to the east. I had hoped to be able to do the trip in 16hrs (which would match Bob Sumner's effort 2 years earlier), but came up 20min longer, and it was 8:40p when I finally reached the parking lot. Under failing light I found Paul looking about the brush, having arrived about 20min before I had. He couldn't recall where we'd buried the car keys, so had to wait for me to (fortunately) remember which dead branch they were under. Rather tired, but thrilled that I'd done it, I enjoyed the drive back to Independence while I had nothing to do but sit in the car. We couldn't make it back to town before the few restaurants closed, but fortunately we had a stash of refrigerated pizza back in the motel left over from the night before. There was little doubt about how well I would sleep that night...
To warm up on Monday, we day-hiked Mt. Goode (13,085). Since we didn't take any maps with us, we ended up climbing Peak 12,915' first (which is known as "Mt. No Goode" because many people make the same mistake and end up there instead of Mt. Goode). Anyway, it was a 1/2 mile traverse over a blocky ridge to get to the real Mt. Goode. The hike up the two peaks and back to the car at South Lake took 8 hours.
After getting back from Mt. Goode, we drove to Independence, got a hotel room, took a shower and had some dinner. This is the way to mountain climb.
The next day, we got up at 3:00 a.m. so we could be at the trail at 4:00 a.m. As it turned out, we started hiking at 4:20 a.m. using headlamps. I had decided there was no way I was going to day-hike Williamson, so I determined to go as far as I was comfortable with, and Bob started pulling out a lead as we climbed up the 53 switchbacks to the top of the first ridge.
Bob was soon long gone, and I figured I'd have to wait until the end of the day to see how he did. I managed to get all the way to the top of the pass, which is 11 miles one-way and 6,200' of elevation gain.
I took a nap here for a bit waiting for Bob to return from Williamson, but he wasn't back by 2:45 p.m., so I left a note for him, and started down. After hiking for 5 and one-half hours, I was back at the car, and 20 minutes after that, Bob appeared. He had done it! It took him just about the same amount of time to climb the peak, as it took me to get to the top of the pass. A tremendous accomplishment for Bob (he's only the second person I know of to do this), and I was satisfied with my 22-mile 6,200' foot hike, which is the longest hike I have ever done. Altogether, a damn good trip, but I've got to lose some more weight, and get in more training!!! I know I can do Tyndall in a day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Williamson
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