Tue, Aug 14, 2012
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It was day 5 of the 2012 Sierra Challenge and we had Barrett Peak on the schedule. It was not expected to be an easy day and this led to a small turnout for a 5a start. Most of those up so early were indeed heading to Barrett with me, but Karl was going to Agassiz and Kevin to Sky Haven. Others would be going to Sky Haven as well, still others to Gendarme and Isosceles, easier Challenge peaks from previous years, but most of them would start at the more civilized time around 6a.
I did not last long with the group. I had started at the rear and stayed there, helped by an unforseen need for a serious potty break. I was by myself even before reaching Long Lake, watching the predawn sky and what it portended. The first four days had been marked by clear skies and then the development of afternoon rain showers. Today there were lingering clouds that had not dissipated, and though they made for a colorful sky at sunrise, they foretold of even more rain today, and probably earlier. It was 7a by the time I reached Bishop Pass, none of the others anywhere in sight either ahead or behind me. I thought by now I might have caught up with someone. I was definitely feeling like the laggard.
I left the trail shortly after going over the pass, making a high traverse along the backside of the Palisades on my way to Thunderbolt Pass. Giraud Peak looked elegant in the morning rays to the south. As I passed by Isosceles I scanned the north side and summit area for some of the others that might have started earlier, but saw no one. It was a very nice morning despite the clouds overhead, aided by a partial clearing that lasted for a few hours. By 8:10a I had reached Thunderbolt Pass with a fine view of the southwest side of Thunderbolt and of the Palisades Basin. A small tent was pitched just east of the pass, no one around, the occupants probably climbing Thunderbolt via SW Chute #1. Half a mile to the southeast I spotted a lone figure making his way up the talus slope on the southwest side of North Palisade. I thought this must be one of the Challenge participants I was catching up to, perhaps climbing higher to avoid a cliff band out of my view. I hurried across on a high traverse, well above the Palisade Lakes, but when I reached the spot where I had seen him and had a better view looking towards Potluck Pass, no one was in sight. I was near the base of the Southwest Chute to the U-Notch, so surmised that it was another climber heading to North Pal or Polemonium.
I continued on my high traverse at around 12,000ft which I was happy to find worked nicely without making me descend to the lakes, or wishing I had. Peak 12,698ft just south of Potluck Pass was a bonus peak I had pointed out to the others the previous night. I had hoped to climb it myself, but was more concerned now with the weather that might start growing worse at any time. It was almost 9:45a when I reached Potluck Pass. I was actually about 400ft above the pass on the Southeast Slopes leading up to Barrett, the advantage I got from the high traverse. I looked up and down the sandy, talus-strewn slopes, but still saw none of the other participants. I almost wondered if I was going to the wrong peak myself. It took about 20 minutes to climb the 1,000ft of talus to the SE Ridge of Barrett, with very little to recommend it. At least it offered no difficult surprises. Secor offers no description for this forgotten peak and I sort of assumed the class 2 would lead more or less directly to the summit. Not so.
Once on the SE Ridge, I realized this was a more serious affair than I had guessed. According to the GPS, I was only 0.15mi from the summit, or about 800 horizontal feet. Problem was, the NE Ridge becomes quite complex at this point. I managed perhaps 150-200ft along the ridge before it became class 5 and I could follow it no longer. The only options were to either drop 500ft to the easier ground on the morraine between Sill and Barrett or to find a way through the maze of rock on the NE side of the ridge. Not wanting to spend the extra time and effort to do the former, I was determined to make the latter work. And indeed it did, no more than class 3 even, but not without a bit of extra route-finding to keep things from getting dicey. It was only about 15 minutes effort, but it seemed like much more.
I was awaken from my solitary focus as I neared the summit by a familiar voice. Michael was alone on the summit, calling down to me. He had started an hour earlier, figuring he was slower than most the others heading this way, but like me, had wondered where everyone had gone to. He had been on the summit already for half an hour and was getting ready to descend as the weather started to grow worse as we all expected it would. In order to head down together with Michael, I did not spend more than a few minutes at the summit. I photographed the scraps of paper that comprised the register, the earliest entry dating to 1978. It seems most parties either climbed the peak by mistake or as a bonus on the way to or from Polemonium or Sill. A 1989 entry by Porcella and Burns described taking the older register pages, to be given to Robin Ingraham of the SRC for preservation. All I have to say about that is, "Boo."
I took a few view shots of Polemonium, Sill and more expansive view to the southeast and south before quickly packing up and starting down with Michael. He described coming up around the left side of the Polemonium glacier after climbing the morraine below (he had chosen the option I didn't like earlier). I described to him the shortcut I had taken and convinced him of its merits for the return. Although there were a few tricky sections, it also featured a series of easy class 2 ledges for most of the way to make it as quick as I had advertised. It was 10:45a before we reached the end of the traverse and the short descent along the SE Ridge where it meets the easier SE Slopes.
We were only a few minutes in starting down through the boulders, talus and sand before meeting up with Sean. How did we get so far ahead of him? It turns out he had led Jen, Tom, Jonathan and Andrew on the bonus ascent of Peak 12,698ft. It had been a tougher than expected effort, more like class 4 or low 5th and had taken some time. But he reported it as a fine scramble, so much so that I might have to save it for a future Sierra Challenge. Realizing that the weather could break very soon, Sean had left the others and gone ahead at his usual quick pace, intending to beat the rain. The others were strung out in a line somewhere below him. Ten minutes further down the slope we ran into first Andrew, then Tom. They were going slower than Sean obviously, but still seemed to have high spirits and good energy to see them to the summit. A few minutes further down we came upon Jen, bringing up the rear (Jonathan avoided the SE Slope, choosing instead to circle around to the Polemonium morraine and glacier, so we never saw him). Jen had a smile on her face, but it was a bit forced and it was obvious she was struggling some. The previous day, on her first Challenge day ever, she had done a superb job of keeping up with Sean for the whole ramble about Thompson Ridge. She was only 22yrs old, an up and coming force to be reckoned with. Today it seemed, she may have bitten off a bigger piece of pie than she could manage. Indeed, later she admitted it was the hardest day hike she'd ever done. Michael and I talked with her for several minutes, eventually counseling that she should probably give up on Barrett and return with us. After some indecision, this is the same conclusion she came to.
Back down near Potluck Pass, Michael and I decided to part ways, he intending to drop down to Palisade Lakes for easier ground, while I wanted to return via the high traverse to Thunderbolt Pass. We gave Jen her choice of routes and partners. She chose the high route. I can't say I was disappointed that she chose to return with us or that she chose to join me on the traversing route. I was curious to meet this speedy little ball of energy and looked forward to hearing more about her. In this I was not disappointed either. It turns out there are a number of climbers that we knew in common, and she had climbed with a number of Sierra Clubbers I only knew by name. We gossiped about a handful of these, exchanging stories and laughs as we made our way across to Thunderbolt Pass (we were well ahead of Michael by now and never saw him again), into Dusy Basin, across it and back to Bishop Pass.
By now it was 1:20p. We were doing well on time and had been happy to have the rain hold off as long as it had. But the clouds had been gathering steadily all this time and could contain themselves no longer. In fact they had already let loose on the north side of Bishop Pass and only moments after starting over we got into it. At first it was just a few drops and then light rain, but I wasted no time in putting a cover on my daypack and a lightweight rainjacket over me. I did not want to repeat the soaking I had gotten two days earlier coming back over Lamarck Col. Why I had not used these waterproofing covers then was a bit of a mystery, but I had learned my lesson. Jen donned a rain jacket likewise and we soon came upon Avery (on his way back from climbing Columbine Peak) dressed the same. The three of us plied the Bishop Pass Trail for more than an hour and a half. Rain fell intermittently, often hard before letting up for a while. The trail had a dusting of hail in places, lower down replaced with large rivulets of water, evidence of the harder rain that was coming down if not in buckets, at least in small pails. Not wanting to spoil the camera with moisture, I did not dare take more than a few pictures during this time, and then only when the rain momentarily subsided. I actually enjoyed hiking in the thunderstorm a great deal as it made a fine contrast to the usual Sierra sunshine - provided I could stay mostly dry. My boots and legs eventually became soaked, but I didn't mind that so much as the rest of me was pretty comfortable. Boots can be dried out overnight and wet feet and legs aren't much of a problem if I keep moving.
When we reached the trailhead at 3p the rain did not let up, not that it had any reason to do so. Another participant was there with his small dog, the two returning after climbing Mt. Agassiz and looking for a ride back to Bishop. Sean declined the use of his truck on account of the wet dog, but the the poor thing looked so forelorn that I offered to take them back in the van. His friend came off the trail a few minutes later to give him a ride, so I ended up driving back to Bishop by myself. Five down, five to go!
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