Fri, Jul 6, 2001
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I woke up at 5a to the sound of my watch alarm beeping in my ear. Looking out the window of my motel in Bishop, the first hints of daylight were beginning to make themselves known in the Owens Valley. I could see that it had rained some more during the night, but it had since stopped. The skies continued to threaten, and I expected I was in for another rainy day of scrambling. I showered, dressed, and ate a breakfast of cold cereal with milk. Yum. I drained the water in my large ice chest and refilled it from the ice machine in the hall that was clearly marked, "No Ice Chests, Please." I've yet to honor that request at any motel I've visited. What else would I want ice for? Surely I'm not going to be preparing a chilled bottle of champagne in the little ice bucket they provide. I collected my maps and dayhike stuff, tossed it in the car, and drove off.
Originally I had planned to climb White Mtn. today, and Mt. Williamson the following day, but the unsettled weather had changed those plans. I had spent several hours at dinner the night before (patty melt at Jake's, also quite yum) looking over my maps for alternative peaks to climb. I was looking for something relatively close to Bishop, and in an area I had not hiked before. I thought of climbing Mt. Winchell out of Big Pine. It is the 4th highest peak in California that begins with a "W," after Whitney, Williamson, and White. Why is that of significance? Before I had started for the weekend, I planned to climb Warren, White, Williamson, and Wood, a veritable "W" theme in peak bagging. I was hoping I could climb Winchell out of South Lake via Bishop Pass since I had never been on that trail before, but it looked impossible as a dayhike from that route. The only reasonable route would have been out of Big Pine, and that looked to be a very, very long dayhike, one I didn't want to pursue with the weather as it was. So I hit upon Mt. Agassiz, a taller peak next door to Mt. Winchell, and just off Bishop Pass. If I couldn't climb Winchell, I'd get a good look at her.
The drive up to South Lake was delightful. The morning was trying to break through the clouds, Mt. Tom rising dramatically up from the valley to what seemed a tremendous height (in fact it's lower than Mts. Winchell and Agassiz). Heavy clouds hung over the Palisades off to the left, and I was unable to get a good look at Mt. Sill, North Palisade, or the other peaks I was familiar with in that area. I arrived at the trailhead at South Lake shortly before 6:30a, and was ready to go soon after. There were no cars in the day lot when I arrived, but the overnight lot was quite busy with cars. The hike to Bishop Pass is quite popular, and by the beauty encountered along the way, it is easy to see why. The trail climbs from South Lake's shore up its eastern flank for several hundred feet. Two peaks can be seen ahead, dominating the near view - Chocolate Peak to the left and the much higher Hurd Peak to the right. Long before I reached the turnoff for Bull and Chocolate Lakes, the drizzle began, and I stopped to put on the rain gear once again, as I had done the previous day. I had hoped to get decent views of Mts. Thompson, Gilbert, Johnson, and Goode on the Sierra Crest to the southwest and south, but the clouds began to lower almost from the beginning, and I never did view their summits. I was in for another soggy day. At least there was no thunder or lightning - yet. I was hoping to get up and down the peak before the afternoon show started, but was prepared to retreat quickly this time to avoid playing Ben Franklin a second time.
I found that once I had all my clothes on, there was very little left in my pack, and I could stretch the back of my jacket over my pack to cover it. That would help relieve the problem I had the other day where my pack got soaked and began funnelling water down my backside where it eventually leaked to my undergarments.
Chocolate Peak caught my interest for some time. I had seen the name in various places and it caught my attention for its fanciful name, unlike the typical names given to most Sierra peaks. The name clearly comes from the dark volcanic rock that makes up most of the peak, and it stands in marked contrast to the majority of the peaks in this area which are primarily granitic in nature. It has a marbling of white on its western flank, probably granite, but I didn't get close enough to be sure. I considered the possibility of climbing the peak, either in the event I got weathered off Agassiz, or perhaps if I was feeling energetic on the way back. A trail circles the peak on its way by a number of additional lakes in the area, and makes it easily climbable from the south side, although I was unaware of this at the time. I had no map with me today as I had not planned originally to climb in this area, and thus had no map of the area either. I did have a compass though, figuring it might help me in a whiteout.
As the trail reaches Long Lake and follows along its shore, one's attention is diverted to Hurd Peak which now looms up before you on the trail. Clouds passed over the higher ridgelines to the west and east, and obscurred much of the view to the south. Normally Agassiz would be visible at this point, but all I could see in its stead was a wall of white and gray. I had seen no one on the trail yet, though I did pass by one campsite with a smokey fire billowing up from behind the trees. This was not a mile from the trail-side sign indicating "No Fires." I'd have been more resentful if the weather had not been so wet. Still, it was not only an eco-unfriendly thing to do, but not too smart either. He wasn't more than 20 yards off the trail and less than three miles from the trailhead, an easy spot for a ranger walking by.
As I came upon Bishop Lake, I spotted what looks like one of those fancy solar toilets on a knoll not far from the lake's northern rim. This suggested it's a fairly popular camping location, though I didn't see anyone in this area as I walked by. In front of me was the headwall leading up to Bishop Pass, the trail winding through the boulder-strewn terrain above the lake. I crossed the lake's outlet on some rocks and started my way up towards the pass. The drizzle continued unabated. I came upon the first persons I had seen yet today, also on their way up to the pass. They were carrying packs, covered with rain covers, and looked as wet as myself. They must have been optimists, heading further into the wilderness, hoping the weather would improve. The climb to the pass isn't difficult, probably a major contributing factor to this trail's popularity. I passed several hikers coming back out, and despite the rain in the last few days they indicated they had had a good time. The rain had not yet been prolonged enough to spoil their fun. I got to the pass at the same time as another couple of backpackers, and we all stopped to rest and snap a few photos. One of the guys had a new Sony digital camera, about half the size as mine, so we struck up a conversation discussing this latest addition to the Sony lineup as we took photos of each other standing behind the NP sign at the pass.
Afterwards, I struck off cross-country towards Mt. Agassiz to the east. It was 9a. I could not see the summit through the clouds that had enveloped it, but the bulk of the west side was visible. 2000 feet up from the pass, climbing what looked (and proved to be) a large pile of rocks. The rocks were wet but my boots still gripped well on the rough granite. That allayed one of my concerns I had about climbing up. The other concern of course was electrical activity, of the type that could provide a lifetime of electroshock therapy in a few milliseconds. My very recent experience on Mt. Warren strongly suggested this was not something to take lightly.
After about an hour, I began to believe that I should be getting close to the summit, and began to delude myself with several false summits. Another half hour and I began to wonder if there was a summit at all. Above 13,000ft the temperatures dropped noticeably and my fingers began to get cold. I dug out some additional gloves, and a warmer hat from my pack, all my clothes now on my person. I hoped it wouldn't grow colder. After climbing into the clouds, still hopping from boulder to boulder, the rain turned to snow. Hmmm. I hadn't thought it was cold enough for that, but obviously I was wrong. The advantage to the snow was that I would get less wet, and I thought this would help stop the slow soaking I was getting through to my underclothing. A few minutes later the snow began to stick and I found this made the rocks more slippery. Perhaps the snow wasn't a good thing...
Finally, I managed to reach the summit at 11a. Looking around, there was very little I could define. I could barely see the Palisade Glacier below and north of North Palisade and Thunderbolt, but the summits were obscurred by the clouds. My hopes for a decent view of Mt. Winchell were similarly dashed. I'd climbed one of the Palisade peaks with the best views, but got none for my efforts. Oh well. I found the summit register easily enough and made a quick entry and a summit self-portrait. I didn't want to stay long as I grew colder, and left after only a few minutes on the summit. Downclimbing turned out to be tricky, as I had not only the shifting boulders to deal with, but the 1/2 inch of accumulated snow as well. Stepping on a boulder with the snow on it would compress the snow into a thin sheet of near-ice which proved a slippery surface, indeed. The snow began to disappear 500ft below the summit, and I finally began to enjoy myself again. Still, it took as long to climb down under the inclement conditions as it had to climb up, and it was 1p before I had returned to Bishop Pass.
Back on the trail again, I powered my way back towards the trailhead. The rain and drizzle stopped a short while later, and I was able to remove my rain jacket and pants and stuff them back in my pack. The clouds however, never lifted, and I still don't have an image in my head of what the myriad of peaks in this area actually look like. I passed on climbing Chocolate Mountain as I went by it, wishing I had more energy but not finding it. A hot shower was beginning to sound a lot better than tramping about more. I stopped a few times to take pictures near South Lake, both from the trail above, and down near the lake surface. I reached the trailhead at 3p, finding the area a lot busier than when I had left in the morning (not too surprising). There were a number of people fishing at the north end of South Lake, and the day lot I had found empty upon arriving was now full. The backpacking lot was likewise full - there were a lot of wet folks somewhere out there along the trail. I changed into some dry clothes and sandals and headed back down to Bishop. A hot shower and a fat-saturated burger (Yum!) at Jacks completed the day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Agassiz
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