Sat, Apr 28, 2007
It was time once again for what had become a yearly ritual of hiking up George Creek during the brief month in spring when it is legally open before May 15. Our original plan had been an ambitious adventure to Mt. Carl Heller's East Ridge which is reportedly a fine class 3 climb. The past two years had too much snow remaining on the route at that time and we had to go elsewhere. This year had been a low snow year which boded well for the plan, but a recent dump of fresh snow only a week earlier had made us think otherwise. The backup plan was to climb other peaks in the area that were technically easier, which is what we ended up doing. I had already climbed Barnard and Trojan via George Creek as a dayhike, but I still wanted to climb Mt. Williamson, the second highest peak in the state from the east side.
Matthew and I met Glenn G. and his brother Sam shortly after 3a just off US395 and just north of the Manzanar Relocation Camp outside of Independence. We transferred all of us to Sam's 4x4, the only vehicle of the three that could get us all the way to the trailhead. We had little trouble finding our way, though the last half mile was quite a bumpy ride. At the trailhead there were three other trucks, one of them occupied by Eric G. who would be joining us. After some introductions, last minute gear arrangements (we decided not to take snowshoes), and quickly downing some breakfast bars, we were on our way by headlamp at 4a.
Now that it was our third time up the creek, things went fairly smoothly with little trouble. We didn't recall exactly where the creek crossings were, but we knew the general layout of the use trails and when we ran afould of the brush the answer was usually to cross the creek. Back and forth we went, five crossings in all in the first hour and half. Debris flowing down the creek had altered its appearance some, but most of it was at least vaguely familiar. We found several coils of plastic irrigation tubing along the way, and then as we got out of the most serious bushwhacking section we came across a small pot farm in the making. In two different areas we found small seedlings in individual bags of dirt tightly packed together in groups of about 200 plants. Whoever had decided to do some horticulture in George Creek seemed to be oblvious to its familiarity with climbers, because there was no effort to hide the equipment or plants away from the main route. Had the farmer been more eco-friendly we might not have minded the farm so much, but there was trash left haphazardly about, and on our way out later in the day we spotted an incredibly trashy camp on the opposite side of the creek. My reaction was to stomp all over the seedlings until they were mush in the hopes it would discourage such wanton disregard for the Wilderness in the future.
As daybreak came on we put away our headlamps and welcomed the new day. For the next several hours we wandered up the south side of the creek, staying about a hundred feet or so above the creek in order to follow the use trails as best as we could. We lost them altogether in several places, requiring some hunting about and bushwhacking in places in order to get back on the trail. The sun was now out as we reached the campsite around 9,000ft shortly before 7a. Another hour brought us to treeline, and the departure point for the two routes.
Matthew and Eric went left, heading for Barnard, while Sam, Glenn, and I hooked right, heading for Williamson. Our party of three had to thrash through the thick willows lining the creek before we found more open going on the slopes and boulder fields above this. By 8:30a we reached the bowl between Trojan and Williamson, most of the ground covered in a foot or two of snow. We found a small opening in the snow where we could refill on water, the last we would see above this point.
After our brief rest we started up the SE Slopes just north of the bowl, and here Sam's energy began to flag. We hadn't gotten too far when he suggested he might go back to the bowl below and wait for us. Glenn talked him out of it, but he was only buying time at this point. Sam was struggling with a headache from lack of acclimatization, and was moving slower the further up the slope we got. Our rests became more frequent as we paused to wait for Sam, and what we thought would be an hour's climb of the SE Slopes stretched into twice as long. To be fair to Sam, this was partially due to our underestimating the elevation gain of this portion, something like 2,000ft when it had looked to be a good deal less from below.
We reached the top of the SE Slopes around 10:30a, with still about 2,000ft to go. When I rejoined the others after my potty break, Sam was already lying flat on his back with his jacket atop him to shield his face from the wind. He was going no further, a nap sounding far more inviting than the summit at this point. Leaving him among the boulders, Glenn and I traversed NW towards the East Slopes leading up to the summit plateau. It was hard work when the traverse ended and the steeper slopes picked up, all of it covered in snow. I had kicked steps about 3/4 of the way to the top with Glenn following when he thought to ask if I wanted to switch places. This was good for a laugh, because I had been hoping he'd let me lead all the way to the top before I took the opportunity to make fun of his laziness. I let him go ahead and was happy to find it a good deal easier when following. Glenn made it nearly to the top before stopping to rest, letting me finish the last little bit.
Once at the summit plateau we still had another 500ft of gain, as we wandered southwest over the plateau toward the summit area. A mix of rock and snow helped break up the monotony, and just after noon we reached the 14,300-foot summit. The views showed a good deal of snow, more than we would have guessed, particularly west of the Sierra crest - it certainly wasn't looking like a low snow year from our vantage. A wonderland of peaks surrounded us on a particularly clear day - Whitney, the Kaweahs, the Great Western Divide, and many more peaks to the north as far as the Palisades. I think I had been too exhausted on my first visit five years earlier to appreciate the great views. We weren't running around with excess exuberance today, but it didn't seem nearly so tough on the second try. It had taken eight hours, a fairly good effort by our reckoning, the only regret that Sam wasn't able to join us.
We found two registers among the summit rocks, though the original one left by the Sierra Club back in the day had been removed in the past few years. One goes missing, two take their place - almost like they're breeding! Glenn signed our names in one, I signed in the other, just in case one goes missing again. Interestingly, we weren't the first of the year to the summit, though we were the first to do so legally. Williamson is more popular in winter than I would have guessed. We didn't stay too long since the wind was blowing cold, chilling us now that we weren't working. Not surprisingly, the descent went much easier than it did on the way up. The snow on the East Face had grown softer in the intervening hour, and we plunge stepped our way down in good time.
Sam was up and walking around when we got back to where we'd left him. He'd watched us descending the East Face, having enjoyed a good rest and feeling much better now. He had found a better place to rest after we left, one better protected from the wind, and enjoyed a shallow nap, drifting in and out of consciousness as the hours went by. The three of us headed down the SE Slopes, this time looking to use as much snow as possible instead of favoring the rocks as we'd done on the ascent. The snow, facing the full brunt of the midday sun, had grown considerably slushy as rollers started down with every step we took, so much so that it seemed we were bringing the snow down with us. At least a dozen times I must have stepped through to the rocks below, scraping ankles and shins, but thankfully not twisting anything. We regrouped at the bottom of the slopes before starting back down from the hanging valley. Running water was a welcome find as we paused to refill bottles. Lower down we found four other climbers just above the junction between our two routes. They had set up camp among the trees, having hiked in the day before. As they related, they had attempted Barnard earlier in the day, but found themselves too worn out after carrying their 70lb packs the day before. Score one for dayhiking. :-)
As we neared the route junction, we scanned the slopes where we had seen Matthew and Eric head up in the morning. There looked to be enough tracks to account for both of them already returning. The other climbers had told us they had seen one person returning around noon, so it was unlikely that he had summited. Matthew we expected to summit against almost all adversity, so we guessed it was probably Eric who had returned early. As we descended further towards the camp located at 9,000ft, we spotted Matthew about 15-20 minutes ahead of us lower in the canyon. It took more than an hour for us to catch up to him, and then only because he let us. He had seen us behind him, but was unsure if it was us or the other group of climbers. As he told us later, he didn't want to stop and wait if it was possible that we were well ahead of him.
As a party of four we began the bushwacking section in the lowest part of the canyon, now easier with plenty of daylight to shed light on the terrain more clearly. Somewhere in the middle of our romp back down through the brush and creek crossings we stumbled upon Eric. Eric had been struggling on the return, not too sure of the route. He had climbed high on the south side of the creek thinking he had to get around a cliff on that side, only to find it wouldn't go, forcing his return back again. He was happy to tag along in our merry little band as we were now five once more. We made it all the way to the trailhead with our group still intact, something of a first for our visits up George Creek. Based on past experience I would have guessed that we'd be waiting an hour or more for the last person to show up at day's end, so I considered it quite fortuitous that we made it back at the same time, never unintentionally losing anyone the entire day.
It wasn't yet 5:30p when we got back, making for a 13.5hr effort - quite a bit shorter than the Williamson dayhike via Shepherd Pass. Eric explained that he had climbed to the plateau between Trojan and Barnard before turning back, too tired to continue. Matthew had reached the summit of Barnard at the same time Glenn and I had reached Williamson, but of course the peaks are too far apart to have been able to see each other (we might have been able to see someone on Trojan, however). Three out of five had made it to the chosen summit, a pretty good percentage. The only way to top this next year would be to actually make it to Carl Heller - here's hoping for another low snow year. :-)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Williamson
This page last updated: Wed May 16 10:06:40 2007
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