Sun, Jun 10, 2007
It was the last of 9 days I had in the Sierra, the longest stretch I've had outside the yearly Sierra Challenge. It had been a good week, with long trips to some very remote peaks including Mts. McDuffie and Stanford. Matthew needed to get back for work the following day, the first day of a new job - one he didn't feel it would be appropriate to be late for. So we chose a medium peak, one that ought to be doable in 10 hours or so. Mt. Baxter lies within a bighorn zoological area and is only open to climbing before July 1, so it would be good to get this SPS peak ticked off before the season closes. Together, Matthew and I had been up the Baxter Pass Trail twice in the past, to Black Mtn and Diamond Peak on the Sierra crest. The trail is steep, loose, endless, and surprisingly easy to lose in places, not one of our favorite climbs. Little did we know that we'd find a route we liked even less - the SE Face of Baxter. A short trip report on summitpost described it as "wild," but as we came to find, this word has different meanings to different people. It seemed to provide the shortest and what we'd hoped would be the easiest approach to the peak, but that proved in error.
We started from the Baxter Pass TH shortly after 6a. A lone backpacker had been dropped off at the TH and started up just before us as his driver pulled away. We wouldn't see him again until much later in the day. Our route took us less than a mile to the first stream crossing of the North Fork of the North Fork of Oat Creek (say that ten times fast). From here, our beta said to follow the creek, staying high to the north side - that was about it. It took only a few minutes for the pain of this route to start gnawing at us - first with far too much loose sand and steep traversing, then with prickly wild rose and other brush when we tried to follow too close to the stream. We manuevered up and down the slope looking for anything resembling a use or animal trail, anything to relieve us of the sandy slog. There were only short respites from the pain, and our normally cheery dispositions were a few of the early casualties. We tried to joke about it, some of our comments and observations we found to be quite witty, but it was just a thin veneer over our growing disgust. Had we abandoned the route in the first hour we could probably have recovered by heading up the Baxter Pass Trail, but we kept thinking it ought to get better, and by God we deserved better.
For over two hours we slugged it out, following the canyon and the general bends of the creek as it climbed ever higher, finally breaking out of the major brush portion. We bypassed what appeared to us an impasse where the creekbed constricted by climbing some pine needle-covered class 3 slabs on the left side. We had a far-too-short nice section of climbing directly up the rock-strewn streambed, but this soon turned to brush and talus - and lots of the latter. Up from one bench to another, we kept hoping to reach the elusive unnamed lake that marked the end of the approach and the beginning of the climb. Not until after 9:30a and the third or fourth bench, did we reach the lake which resembled a small meadow with a fat stream lazing its way through the middle in a serpentine manner. In fact I failed to recognize it as the lake at all, and continued up and west into the next small cirque still in search of it. As I was scooping some snow for my water bottles and reviewing my map, my mistake occurred to me quite suddenly, and I realized I was heading in the wrong direction. Matthew had not made the same mistake and had been waiting below, wondering what had become of me. Back I went, and we were soon reunited, heading in the right direction.
The start of the route did not make things any more enjoyable, much to our dismay. We had been led to believe that the class 2 route was on the difficult side, and that class 3 rock was the norm. What we found was in startling contrast - nothing but acres upon acres of horrible scree, more than a mile of the stuff should we follow the route outlined on SummitPost. I commented to Matthew that it would be a painful Death by Scree. Nixing that route choice, we headed to the left, choosing to climb the SE Face, a jumble of talus and granite blocks as far as the eye could see. We made a joke of our "Quest for the Fabled Class 3 Route" as we climbed the broken face, looking for anything that appeared remotely like solid rock. Very little of it was found. At one point lower down, I switched to crampons to take advantage of a 80-yard tongue of snow. Anything seemed preferable to the talus in my book. Matthew didn't share my thoughts on that one, choosing to slog around to the right. We met up again at the top of the snow, neither choice having proven to be faster or better.
By a quarter to noon we had finally crested the summit ridge, landing on Baxter's South Ridge, rather than the East Ridge as we had expected. It was an easy enough walk over (yet) more talus to the lower east summit, and then to the higher west summit where we arrived just before noon. Six hours had not been what I'd hoped for a speedy ascent, but it had not been an ordinary approach - almost none of it had been easy. We were amused to find Daryn Dodge and Steve Eckert among the party that had most recently summited Baxter - it seems we find ourselves just before them or just after them on a lot of these Sierra peaks. Looking west to the nearby (and higher) Acrodectes Peak, we concluded that it should be climbed as well, even if it is forbidden. Exactly why Baxter would be allowed and Acrodectes would not was not altogether clear to us, though in all honesty we were just looking for justification for doing something we knew was illegal. Off we went.
Down to the saddle between the two peaks, then up the similarly broken talus slopes to Acrodectes, the whole excursion from one peak to the other took all of 40 minutes. We found no register of any kind at the summit of Acrodectes, but the view to Clarence King was perhaps one of the finest to be had of that peak. Our descent route took us down the class 2 SE slopes, a mix of (yet even more) talus and some snow, though by now the snow was too soft to be of much help on the descent. I was a good deal ahead of Matthew by the time I got to the bottom of the mountain and arrived at Baxter Lakes. I filled my bottles at the lake and started the 800-foot climb back up to Baxter Pass.
Now that I was on a trail (even the Baxter Pass Trail I had loathed only a short time earlier) and the slope was gentler, this last elevation gain was not a serious problem. I had been watching Matthew's progress, about ten minutes behind me, as I hiked up the trail, but I lost track of him as I approached Baxter Pass. Back and forth along the trail I scanned, but no sign of him. Finally I spotted him climbing to the ridge via a use trail, a quarter mile east of Baxter Pass. I wondered if he knew he was off the main trail or whether he was expecting to find a shortcut into the canyon to the south.
As I was descending the south side of Baxter Pass, I shortly came across the same backpacker we had seen at the trailhead that morning. He was more surprised to see me than I him, and we stopped a few minutes to chat. He was heading over to Baxter Lakes for the night, then heading out over Shepherd Pass in another three or four days - It sounded like a nice shuttle route. Continuing down the trail as the afternoon wore on, it was another hour before Matthew came up behind me. He had known he was off the regular trail, but found the use trail leading up to the ridge and eventually to Baxter Pass a better alternative. He had been moving at a good clip to catch up to me, and now I found myself having to increase my pace and jogging for good portions in order to keep up. Nearing the trailhead, we were stopped suddenly as a snake slithered across the trail. We took pictures of the three-foot gopher snake as he coiled into a striking position, but he was much too big for us to brave trying to pick it up. I knew they weren't poisonous, but I also knew from experience they will strike if provoked. After the momentary harrassment, we left the snake and finished our hike. It took us less than two and half hours to descend from Baxter Pass, and it was 5p when we finally got back to the cars - an eleven hour outing. We expected it was the last time either of us would be up that canyon again for a number of years, and somehow we found that more comforting than sad. Baxter Pass will not be one of those fondly remembered destinations. :-)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Baxter
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