Sat, Aug 18, 2012
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Day 9 of the Sierra Challenge was the one I had been most looking forward to. It had been more than four years since I last hiked up George Creek, an adventurous approach route with no maintained trail that Secor explains with, "Any enthusiastic Sierra mountainer should climb up George Creek at least once. It is one of the classic bushwhacks of the High Sierra." Until recently the route up George Creek was only open for a month around December and another month around Apr/May. But with the removal of the restrictions last year, we were able to use this route during the Challenge for the first time. There are five summits accessible from George Creek - Williamson, Trojan, Barnard, Barnard East and Carl Heller, all of which were acceptable targets for today's outing. Barnard East is officially unnamed, but it qualifies as a CA 13er and was the only one of the five I hadn't climbed - and the main reason George Creek was on the list this year. It's not a very long outing - 16mi round trip for the longest, but the elevation gain exceeds 7,000ft for all of them.
I had originally scheduled a 6a start since the mileage wasn't too great for this outing. Michael reminded me how long we had taken on previous visits, so I moved the start time up to 5a at the last minute. This would provide the additional amusement of navigating the brushiest sections by headlamp. Unbeknownst to me and most of the others, the driving route starting from the north end of Manzanar was washed out sometime in the last year, making this the crux move of the day. Jonathan ran into trouble finding this out, getting a large dent on his back bumper and a driver's side door that no longer closes for his efforts during the night. Rick Kent showed up to help him out and find the southern route around Manzanar. Others used the climber.org directions that go past the Shepherd Pass and Blair Creek THs, bypassing Manzanar altogether. I was driving with Michael and Pat (by now we figured we kept similar paces and decided we could all just carpool to the TH) on the climber.org route in the early morning when we came across Jen camped out alongside her car just off the road. She had driven much of the way in with her low clearance vehicle (an impressive feat, that) but had stopped short of a sandy section she feared she'd get stuck in. We quickly made room for her and the four of us continued to the TH.
I was happy to find a relatively large contingent of ten at the George Creek TH, and we were able to start pretty much on time. The bushwhacking all takes place in the first mile and a half and we accomplished much of it in the dark. Others (Michael, Rick) had been up several times and myself four times previously, which helped in knowing approximately where to cross the creek. Still, downfalls and conditions change each year, making it a new adventure each time. It is amusing to follow a leader almost blindly until it appears he has lost the trail and is bogging down, then to see how quickly everyone abandons him and follows the next person who appears to have picked up the correct scent. There is dust kicked up along the use trail, branches whacking you in the head if you aren't paying attention, spills into the creek during sketchy crossings and other fun activities. I got behind near the end of the bushwhacking by staying too long on the north side of the creek, thinking I'd found a good trail the others had missed. It ended badly and I had to retrace my steps back and spend 15 minutes catching up with the others. Sean fared even worse, getting lost in a morass of willow and heavy brush and was almost an hour in catching up with us. He was very unhappy about the adventure at this point, declaring no peak was worth such trouble.
But we had gotten out of the densest, darkest parts into the more open terrain in the middle part of the canyon. The sun had risen, albeit briefly, before hiding behind the layer of high clouds that moved in to cover much of the sky. It was actually nice having shade for most of the day and there was nothing about this development to complain about. As usual, there was some difficulty in finding the best route that we knew was somewhere high on the south side of the canyon during the middle section. Some of our group followed what looked like a good trail closer to the creek only to find they had to bushwhack their way back up the slope when the trail petered out among the thickets.
We were three hours in reaching the main fork in the canyon. We paused here to rest and get some water from the stream. Sean, Tom and Jen took the left fork to head for Carl Heller, the rest of us taking the right fork for Trojan and Barnard East. No one chose to climb Williamson or Barnard today. From the fork at 9,000ft we still had more than 4,500ft of climbing - this was not an easy day. We climbed another 1,500ft up from the fork (and the only good camping area in the canyon) through forest, talus and boulders to the unnamed lake. The forest gave out and Barnard East came into view before reaching the lake. A small creek exiting the lake was the last water before venturing higher, Rick using it for a last fillup. We went up the sand/talus funnel leading to the large cirque between Barnard East, Barnard and Trojan. This is perhaps the most tedious part of the day as the sand and gradient combine to tax one's energy and resolve. Michael and I curved left with a last 2,000ft of boulders to Barnard East's summit. The others (JD, Paul, Pat, Jonathan and Rick) headed right towards Trojan. We could see Rick, Pat and Jonathan out in front tackling what looked from a distance to be a near-vertical wall of sand. Of course it wasn't really this bad, but it was certainly worse than the firmer acres of boulders we were climbing ourselves. We could hear only Jonathans booming voice across the cirque. How he was able to maintain his pace and keep up a constant banter was a complete mystery to the rest of us. If this was a professional sport one might suspect doping.
Meanwhile, the clouds were growing thicker and a bit darker, but not terribly threatening. It was 10:40a before I reached the summit of Barnard East. Michael was probably 20 minutes behind me at this point, having slowed once we had gotten to the boulders. There was a surprisingly good view from the summit with all the high summits along or near the crest from Whitney in the south to Mt. Keith in the north visible. The clouds were covering the top 200-300ft of Whitney - no views from that summit this morning. It seemed as though the gathering clouds could start releasing their bounty very soon, so I did not want to linger any. I found a tiny film cannister register with a single entry from 2006 by Brian French (the Trojan register was reported to go back only a few years, supplemented with the requisite Trojan condom).
I crossed paths with Michael when I was about ten minutes down from the summit, starting my return. He was making steady progress and would be only ten minutes behind me by the end of the day. He seems to pick up the pace late in the day when I'm starting to flag. Rather than follow the NE Ridge as we'd done on the way up, I took a more direct route down to the cirque between Barnard and Barnard East. This traded a few acres of boulders for the sandier conditions in the bottom of the cirque and seemed a better tradeoff, at least for the descent. It was noon before I reached the forest boundary below the unnamed lake, and I was most happy to swap forest duff for the previous hour's talus. I had to pause periodically to dump debris that collected in my boots, but by this time it was a welcome excuse for a rest. In descending below the campsite I paused more to take pictures of the flowers in bloom, most notably in shades of yellow and purple. This was really just another veiled excuse for short rests. I caught up with Pat who was the first to return from Trojan. She would have beat me back to the TH if she hadn't lost the trail on the way down the open middle section and spent some unwelcome time thrashing about the brush down by the creek. The bushwacking, log and creek crossings that characterize the brushier lower section were not as difficult in daylight and I made good time returning. I got back to the cars at 2:20p, the first to return, though only by ten minutes when Pat and Michael both appeared. The short lead had given me just enough time for a quick rinse in the creek which made a world of difference for my spirits. The three of us drove back soon after Jonathan arrived, only ten minutes after the others. One more day to go...
Sean, Tom and Jen all made it to Carl Heller via the East Ridge. They decided to descend the same route primarily because Tom had turned his ankle badly and didn't think he could make the longer, albeit easier descent down to Wallace Lakes and back over Vacation Pass. All those that had started for Trojan also made the summit. Matt Yaussi was late getting to the TH and did not have the help of previous experience to get him through the bushwhacking. He was the only one to not make it to a summit today.
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