Sun, Aug 18, 2013
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The Black Divide is a nearly 8 mile-long ridgeline buried deep in northern Kings Canyon NP, separating LeConte Canyon and the Kings River from the Enchanted Gorge and Disappearing Creek. It boasts 4 SPS peaks including Black Giant, McDuffie, Wheel and Devils Crags. Between Black Giant and McDuffie is an unnamed summit just over 13,000ft with barely 300ft of prominence. Still, it qualifies for the CA 13er list and it was for this reason that it found its way on the 2013 Sierra Challenge. Much of the route we had used four years earlier to reach Charybdis, starting from Lake Sabrina and going over Echo Col. It would be a long day, with much cross-country travel, the hardest of this year's Challenge. Normally such a day coupled with a 4a start would garner only a few hardy souls at the trailhead, but today there were more than 15 who came out to play in the wee hours of the day. Not all of these were heading to Black Giant but there was still a healthy interest with eight planning the long march. These were the stalwarts of the group and all would prove successful today.
By headlamp we started out from the Lake Sabrina TH at 4am. It is a longish haul, some 2.5 miles on an ascending traverse above Sabrina to reach Blue Lake in a bit over an hour's time. Most of those not heading to Black Divide were planning some combination of Haeckel and Wallace, sharing much of our approach route. A second hour was taken up in reaching Dingleberry Lake, the junction with Midnight Lake and then most of the way to Hungry Packer Lake. Some of those heading to Haeckel had planned to go by way of Midnight Lake so I was surprised to see the same three ahead of me as we neared Hungry Packer Lake. "Did you guys miss your turnoff?" I enquired. They didn't think so, but after a short discussion they came around to agree that they had. Whether they used the alternate slabby approach from where we stood or went back to Midnight Lake I didn't find out as it was time for others to leave the trail to head for Echo Col.
With a few others I started off cross-country a bit early, taking the longer route around the east side of Sailor Lake before rejoining the regular route around the west side of Moonlight Lake. Though many of us had been up this route half a dozen times or so, the memory of it was a bit foggy and we weren't all that sure which route of numerous options was best. The result was that we broke up into smaller groups, each remembering something different, none ideal, but all would work. Sunrise came as we passed by Moonlight Lake, striking first upon Picture Peak and Mt. Powell, but soon lighting up most of the Sierra Crest, notably Clyde Spires in front of us to the south. It was 7a by the time we reached Echo Lake where we took the first break, a last chance to fill up on water before going over Echo Col (turns out there are several other places to get water enroute, but the lake served us well). By now there were seven of us, Michael falling back somewhere behind us.
The route from Echo Lake to Echo Col is not difficult, only a little tricky in the beginning where several options present themselves to get by the modest cliff band on the east side of the lake. Some like Eric and Sean took the high route above the cliffs while Jonathan and Pat joined me for the lower option, the two routes eventually meeting up near a cascading creek. There is then much boulder hopping across the broad moraine that fills the cirque below Echo Col. At first glance it appears that all the snow has melted from the glacier, but it is only the more recent seasonal snows that are gone. Partially buried under the rock are tons of old glacier ice, exposed and melting, but not yet gone. There is also the remains of a small aircraft that we had first come across on the previous trip over Echo Col. We paused only briefly this time to check out the wreck before making a beeline to the col. I paused at the base of the glacier to marvel at the large rocks balanced on ice, watching the rivulets of water slowly eating away at the ice and wondering how often these large blocks tumble off their icy perches. Outside of this curiousity among the lower boulders, there was no snow anywhere on the route and the climb to Echo Col was a mix of boulders and debris-covered slabs and ledges. There would be no need for axes and crampons today, a good thing since none of us had brought either.
At 8a there was a brief regathering at Echo Col. Sean checked his map again (he, Eric and Tom were heading to Black Giant first, not Black Divide) and in a few minutes we were heading down the backside of the col. While the initial descent is a sand/scree and boulder affair, it soon becomes much more enjoyable, sauntering among alpine greenery as we made our way down to Lake 11,428ft, roughly half way between Echo Col and the JMT. The views were quite fine and we were in good spirits. Jonathan paused to capture one of the large yellow-legged frogs that thrive in the lake thanks to the absence of fish. After a quick photo op, it was swimming once again in the chilly waters. Past the lake is a cliff band dropping into LeConte Canyon with a number of ways to get through it. I chose a more westerly route down some steep grassy chutes, wet or damp in most places, while the others took various routes closer to the lake's outlet. By the time we reached the JMT our group was down to four, those taking the eastern route to Black Divide, including Jonathan, Pat, Daria and myself. We hiked down the JMT for a bit more than a mile, dropping some 600ft in the process. The other three hiked up the JMT to Helen Lake where they could then head south to climb Black Giant from the west. Michael was following our eastern route, but some unknown distance behind us.
Where we left the JMT to start our cross-country route heading south, we almost immediately came across two Park Rangers that happened to be off trail as well. Jonathan knew the married pair (who had their very small child along for the ride on Mom's back) and we had a small chat session among the six of us. They didn't seem too surprised to see us this far into the backcountry, now more than five hours from the trailhead, but then perhaps they knew Jonathan well enough to expect this sort of thing from him. We bid them goodbye after about five minutes, hopped across the Kings River (easy to do at this high elevation), and started up some slabs leading to a ridge to the south. The effort to climb this subsidiary ridge was intended to avoid some ugly moraine we could see in the broad side canyon leading to the east side of Black Divide. It probably didn't save us all that much time as we found ourselves facing the worst of the moraine only 30 minutes later. The next 45 minutes following this were horrible. The moraine was composed of pretty much the worst type of terrain one could get in the Sierra without much elevation gain. Boulders and rocks and more boulders stretched as far as one could see in wave after wave of endlessly rolling terrain. It took all one's concentration to step from one boulder to the next, every tenth one or so moving, and no real breaks on solid terrain. This seemed to go on for more than any of us would have cared, and there were direct comparisons to the fires of hell and other torments of the Evil one. In short, we were not amused. We spotted a tiny, lone figure high on the Black Divide crest to the east, Eric by the gait he displayed. He had already climbed Black Giant and was now nearing the summit of Black Divide while we were an hour below him. How did he manage that? We chocked it up to our horrible route that he, Sean and Tom had avoided. We did not feel very good about our choice at this point and wanted to assign as much blame as possible to it. Never mind that Eric would probably still be that far ahead even if he had taken our route.
Around 10:30a we went over a saddle we thought was that leading to Black Divide's East Slopes, but alas a large body of water was found to stand between us and the expected saddle. I sat down on a pleasant enough rock near the lake's shore while others refilled their water bottles. Jonathan had already gotten it into his head to turn east and start up towards the crest of the divide where we'd seen Eric and he was nowhere to be found. Daria sat on a nearby rock and listened as I discoursed upon my doubts about continuing. I had been mulling over returning for much of the preceding hour, thinking this summit held no particular charm at the moment and how those regained hours might be converted to productive sleep back in Bishop. Now that I had a moment to rest, these dark thoughts had become verbalized and once spoken aloud I found it easier to convince myself. Daria almost seemed taken in by my reasoning, and I suspect if it were just the two of us I might have soon had her convinced as well to join me in retreat. But alas, we were not alone. Pat would hear none of this talk. Her methods to countermand mine were most devious and cunning. They had no talk of derision or questioning my manhood - these I was prepared to fight off as easily as a few annoying flies. No, she maintained the most positive and upbeat mood possible, surely the work of the Devil Temptress herself. "What? Oh no, we're almost there! We can do this! It's gonna be really fun!" How does one fight off a schoolgirl's enthusiasm? It was impossible. If someone could hike six hours to reach this forsaken landscape we now occupied, and remain that upbeat about it, well, I had no choice but to shoulder my pack and follow. And so we did.
Part of Pat's persuasive power lay in her outlining the route that Jonathan was now following along a nearby subsidiary ridgeline. It seemed far better than another half mile of toiling over the moraine to reach the other saddle far to the south. At least we could say we were climbing. Never mind that the distance to the south would have be done one way or another - this inventive approach was merely putting it off until we reached the crest - but at least the route would be more scenic atop the Black Divide. Our group of four became somewhat fluid now as we struggled to the crest. Pat went off after Jonathan while I headed for the subsidiary ridge more directly, Daria a hundred yards or so behind me. It was not obvious that my route along the subsidiary ridge would actually work near where it meets the crest, but the route Pat and Jonathan pursued up the face to my left seemed to be blocked by more certain cliffs below the crest. It was only after half an hour or so of effort that I got a better perspective on the two routes and theirs began to look better. I felt almost cheated, but then noticed a transverse break in my ridge would allow me to join their route with only a modest loss of elevation. I soon abandoned my route and followed them, about 10 or 15 minutes behind. The class 2 talus that comprised most of the face finished off with about 100ft of class 3 that wasn't all that bad despite loose debris on the ledges. Not long after 11:30a I had topped the crest and could look over the west side into the stark wilderness of the Ionian Basin that characterizes that side, a land of rock and water but almost nothing green. Clouds were starting to make themselves abundant above us, but having reached this milestone, I paid them little attention as yet.
It took another 40 minutes of scrambling along the class 2-3 crest to the south before the highpoint could be found, all the while I was chasing but unable to catch up to Pat and Jonathan. I had the correct point dialed into the GPS and had no doubts about where to find it. The final blocks were class 3 or 4 depending on how they were approached (the hard way was directly over from the north, I found), but there was room among the dark rocks that characterize the crest (and the source of the name, Black Divide) for four of us. Pat and Jonathan were already busy eating lunch when I arrived. Daria was only a few minutes behind me, and with four at the summit it made for a cozy nest. A register had been left by Chris Schneider (he maintains the VRMC 13er list) on an unrecorded date, but it didn't seem to be more than a year or two old. Eric and Sean had already been to the summit, signed in and left, off to McDuffie we found out only later. We figured they were probably back to the JMT by this time, but they were still toiling south along the crest to reach McDuffie. We took photos, ate lunch (Vons' sandwiches are unbeatable at 13,000ft) and watched the darkening clouds overhead. Our stay could not be a leisurely one.
While we were getting ready to leave someone spotted Michael half way down on the East Face. He had taken the route we had intended which turned out to be the technically easier route, though which was faster we couldn't judge. He was going at a measured pace, one that becomes almost routine after more than eight hours. We considered staying at the summit to welcome him to the fold, but none of us wanted to wait the extra 15-20 minutes that might take. Jonathan, meanwhile, had studied the West Face and determined that we could probably get down quickly from that side, if we could get by some intial difficulty getting off the crest. I'd come to learn that Jonathan is *very good* at route-finding, as I'd yet to find an alternative that worked better, so I did not spend any effort looking for another way down - this one would do. Jonathan zipped down the 20ft of class 4 off the crest before the rest of us had gotten off the summit block, so we had to puzzle a bit over just how he had managed it. I went down next, a careful set of moves with much exposure but good holds, it turned out. Pat hesitated and asked for a spot which was easy enough to do at the crux, and in turn I did the same for Daria. They both made it down without aiding off my outstretched hand from below. After this, it got progressively easier until we were fairly bombing down some gravel slopes at the bottom. About halfway down I looked back up to watch Pat and Daria making progress down, and noticed Tom now at the summit. He had come over from Black Giant, just ahead of Michael who was nearing the summit from the east side.
By now it was 1p. We were down on the west side of the Black Divide on what I thought was familiar territory. To the west rose Charybdis and to the northwest lay our route over Black Giant Pass. Having been here before, it was simply a matter of following the old route back from Charybdis. Only this wasn't exactly where we were. To the west was unnamed Peak 12,928ft which looked an awful lot like Charybdis. And the pass we were looking at was not Black Giant Pass at all. We had come down this side because none of us wanted to repeat that terrible march across Boulder Valley and had convinced ourselves that the west side of the divide would be an easier and faster return. It did not have the same level of disagreeableness, but it was not the faster way, we'd come to find out.
Jonathan had zipped on ahead so that he could take a dip in one of the tarns found along the way. We waved as we passed him by, untaken by his mild pleas to join him in his refreshing pool. It was too cold for my taste and besides, I wanted to get back over Echo Col, not play around in the Ionian Basin. He would have no trouble drying off, dressing and zipping by us again as we made our way towards the pass. As Pat and I reached the top of the pass, I did not see the expected view to Muir Pass and Helen Lake and became momentarily disoriented. While my confusion seemed to cause Pat some small measure of alarm, I got out the GPS and started reorienting myself according to the map it projected. I came to realize we had not just climbed Black Giant Pass but another pass to the southeast. Black Giant pass was the next one to the northwest, about 3/4 mile distance. The landscape started to make better sense and I realized my mistake in misidentifying Charybdis. Pat seemed happy to see me get my bearings as we then proceeded down the unnamed pass, heading for Black Giant Pass. "Is everything alright? Good!" she cheered. As we got down near Lake 11,828ft, the first flashes of lightning were seen, followed by thunder and very soon thereafter, the first drops of rain. Out came the rain jackets. Off and on for about 20 minutes we had rain and hail. The bigger danger was the lightning that was flashing every few minutes, never more than a mile or so away. One flash was immediately followed by a thunderous boom overhead that told us the lightning must have struck one of the nearby ridges. Within about 30 minutes most of the excitement had abated, the rain jackets went back in our packs and we continued over Black Giant Pass and into the upper reaches of LeConte Canyon.
As we went past Lake 11,939ft, we could see a few individuals in the distance at the Muir Hut. It seemed odd to be so far out in the backcountry after 2p and looking at the Muir Hut from behind it. We had a long, long way to got still. Pat and Jonathan reached Helen Lake probably 15 minutes ahead of Daria and myself. They were soon on the trail and out of sight. It was 2:30p by the time Daria and I reached the large lake alongside the JMT just below Muir Pass. We waved to a backpacker who had set up his tent near the trail among the rocks and he looked to be wondering what to do with the rest of the daylight still remaining. We had no such confusion and marched on. After about a mile and a half on the JMT we left the trail just above the 11,000-foot contour. The plan was to use the somewhat green, semi-solid left-hand ascent back up towards Echo Col, avoiding some of the loose scree on the lower slopes, and for the most part this worked nicely. We took a short break streamside before starting up, spotting Pat and Jonathan above us just going over the first cliff band. It took about an hour to climb the 1,300ft up to the col, our routes diverging, converging and diverging once again. I found myself having climbed too far to the left, Echo Col now above me to the right, only noticing this when I checked the track on the GPS. I had to scramble up some blocky class 3 rock to gain the easier ground just below the col.
When I got to the col around 4p, it had just started to drizzle again, but thankfully no lightning. I debated whether to put on the rain jacket again, but as the rain was fairly light, I went without it. The precipitation would not last long. Pat and Jonathan could be seen down below on the moraine, somewhere near the plane wreck. Daria was somewhere behind, but I could not see her in the area in view just below. On my way down through the cirque north of Echo Col I was surprised to see Sean come up behind me. The unexpected was no longer when he explained he and Eric had gone to McDuffie after Black Divide (SPS-itis had gotten to them). Eric was somewhere behind still, Sean knew not where. Later we would learn that he had grossly missed Echo Col and had lost much time before finding the right location. Sean showed me his hand which was bruised, having tweaked it on the descent from McDuffie (broken a bone in the hand, he would later learn). He was still faster than me with only one good hand and was soon well ahead as we made our way through the larger blocks of the moraine.
In descending to Echo Lake, I caught up with Jonathan and Pat who had paused for a break at the lake's outlet. The three of us continued down to Moonlight Lake around 5p, then on to Sailor Lake. Here there was a brief discussion about which way to go around the lake. Pat had remembered that we'd gone around its east side and Jonathan was of the opinion this was the best way to go. I was unconvinced, thinking we had made a small error in the morning and the better route was around the west side. But as I told Pat, I had to acknowledge that Jonathan was very good at route-finding and I wasn't all that sure about my conviction. Nevertheless, I intended to go left while Jonathan was heading right. Pat decided to join Jonathan and I was on my own once again. This time I happen to be correct as I had a sudden feeling of recognition within a few minutes and a few minutes further on I was back on the trail. To take advantage of this good fortune, I started jogging back down the trail in an effort to maintain what lead I could over my speedy companions. The other two ended up with a far longer detour than even the one we had taken in the morning and for more than an hour I was alone, jogging past Dingleberry and then Blue Lake.
Not far below Blue Lake my lead was quashed as the two came running down the trail just behind me. They were far more adept at trail running than myself. Jonathan does this stuff in his sleep it would seem and Pat's 20yrs+ as a X-Country coach gave her a decided advantage. It was a treat, really, watching the two bounding down the trail over rocks, roots, and all manner of obstacles as though they were mere inconveniences. I kept to my slow trod as we exchanged the few sentences possible before they were out of earshot and soon out of sight. Most impressive! Not far from Lake Sabrina I crossed paths with Tommey Joh who had started the day hiking up from South Lake. He had gone to Ski Mountaineers, Thompson and then Powell before descending to Lake Sabrina in a pretty full day.
I had been out just over 15hrs when I returned not long after 7p. There was a good-sized crowd at the TH, most of whom had gotten back within the last hour. I had less than two hours to get to bed if I was going to get my requisite 8hrs of sleep, so I wasted little time in driving Pat and I back to Bishop. On the drive back, lightning could be seen regularly over the town of Bishop and the White Mtns to the east. Each flash, mixed with the light from the setting sun, short sections of rainbows and the dazzling cloud formations had us gasping in awe. We stopped to take a few pictures where the light from the setting sun was making for some amazing orange skies with the storm clouds still brewing overhead. It was a great nature show in high definition at the end of a long day. What an adventure it had been, but the toughest day of the Sierra Challenge was now behind us...
Due to Eric's route-finding mistake in locating Echo Col, he lost his share of lead for the Yellow Jersey but easily remained ahead for the White Jersey. By finishing five minutes ahead of Jonathan and Pat, Sean extended his Yellow Jersey lead to ten minutes. He and Eric still jointly held the Polka Dot Jersey with nine summits now in three days. Pat continued to hold a five minute over Jonathan for the Green Jersey. Michael did not get back to the TH until 9:30p, Tom an hour behind him. I had little to complain about regarding lack of sleep in comparison to these two...
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