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Day 3 of the Sierra Challenge was another early 4a start, this time at Lake Sabrina. Charybdis lies deep in the Ionian Basin far west of the Sierra crest, and as far as I know was only dayhiked once (by Matthew, who else?) a few years earlier. We planned to follow the same route he had taken over Echo Col, and in addition I hoped to make the summit of nearby Black Giant to tick off two more of the remaining SPS peaks on my ever-shrinking list.
There were nine of us at the start, though Tom and Glenn planned to join us only as far as Echo Lake before peeling off to do Picture, Haeckel, and Wallace as an alternative. Others planned to do various combinations of these three peaks as well, but they arranged a later 6a start to gain the extra sleep. By headlamp we made our way up the trail to Blue Lake and over to Dingleberry where the crossing of Bishop Creek was made easier this year due to some trail work that added twice as many rocks to the creek crossing. It was growing light out by the time we reached the turnoff just before Hungry Packer Lake and we took a short break here to put away some clothes and allow the group of seven to reassemble.
Our next regrouping came at Echo Lake after passing by Moonlight Lake and dealing with a few tedious boulder fields. The lake was still in the morning shade but Clyde Spires was brightly illuminated high above its far side. We followed the standard route around the east side of the lake contouring high to avoid snow sections, making some use of a series of ducks leading through this moderate cliff band. We found the snow field north of Echo Col to have less coverage than we might had expected. There would be no need for crampons and axe as the snow ended below the col before the angle grew appreciably steep. At the bottom of the snow field I spotted what looked like a cache of old, rusty gear, looking rather out of place where it lay. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the remains of a small aircraft. The pieces had likely been scattered higher on the glacier at one time, but had moved downward with the ice flow and eventually come to rest in a tangled mass against the rocks at the base of the glacier. Four years earlier on our last visit there had been no sign of the plane, but it seemed clear that the wreck was much older than that and must have been buried beneath the snow in previous years.
Days later I learned via email that: "it is a twin engine Beechcraft Model 50E 'Twin Bonanza' built in the 1950's. This accident occurred on 5/28/93 killing four persons and the registration is N2R. Weather was a factor in this accident, gusty winds, clouds, and icing conditions. Much of the wreckage was recovered by helicopter for study by the NTSB leaving about 15% plus on site."
A year later I got another email detailing a different scenario: "It appears that the wreckage you found is from a Beech Baron, twin engine, airplane that crashed in 2004. It was partially recovered. The NTSB investigated the accident which claimed three souls."
In 2011 I received a third email from Kyle Atkins with yet another, more likely story: "I traversed the Col W-E in Aug 1981. And my notes say 'Came across a fresh plane crash E. of Echo Col.' As I recall, I took the log book to the sheriff's office. It was my impression it was a single engine plane that had hit the col and fallen back onto the ice comming to rest in the center of the glacier. Came over the Col again in Aug 1989 and did not see any of the plane."
Kyle sent me a photo he had taken of the plane and one can see the door appears to match with the one I had seen 28 years later given the inevitable changes due to snow and glacier movement.
When we reached the upper edge of the snow field we paused to leave axe and crampons. I had no axe to begin with, but I kept my crampons in the event I decided to come back via another route. I was still dreaming of bigger things at this time, but they would not come to fruition. As was becoming routine, Sean was the first to reach Echo Col shortly before 7:45a. The rest of us came up one after the other and wasted no time in starting down the other side. As Matthew had promised, the south side of the pass was a pleasant stroll in comparison to the north side, at least once the initially steep sand/talus/boulder slope was overcome.
Lake 11,428ft is a surprisingly large body of water encountered about half way down to the JMT. Just above this it was necessary to find a way through one cliff band, not too difficult since we collectively found several ways to get through it. At the downstream side of the lake is another cliff band though easier if one is careful in descending the ample supply of boulders piled up here, one upon the other.
Sean was already waiting at the JMT when I reached it shortly after 8:30a. The others were not long catching up. We rested a bit, ate some breakfast and enjoyed our surroundings in the picturesque LeConte Canyon. It was the last time we were all together as a group. For almost an hour we made our way west along the JMT, climbing steadily to Helen Lake, southeast of Mt. Warlow. Our party spread out in clumps along the trail, eventually breaking off and heading cross-country to the south after passing by Helen Lake. In the lead, Sean and Dan headed directly for Black Giant Pass enroute towards Charybdis. Matthew had continued up to Muir Pass to climb Solomons instead. Looming high my left was Black Giant and I decided I should probably climb that one first should I choose a different return from Charybdis (I was still fantasizing about tagging Solomons as well). So as the others followed after Sean to the pass, I made a diagonally right-ascending traverse up the West Slopes of Black Giant. The scrambling was over boulder and talus for the most part with little to recommend it. As I toiled up the slope I would pause to look over my right shoulder to see Charybdis come into view beyond the pass, and eventually a fine purview of the whole mountain and the pretty mountain lake at its base.
The upper portion of Black Giant's summit had a dark volcanic cliff band guarding the direct approach. I could have gone around to the right over easy ground much like I'd been on, but the change in rock piqued my interest and I spent some time to find a class 3 route through the small cliff. Above this, as I was nearing the summit, I was surprised to see Sean making his way towards me from above. He had just tagged the summit after making good time up from Black Giant Pass, almost on a whim, it would seem. This was one fast guy. He bid me goodbye and headed back to the pass and then on to Charybdis while I took another few minutes to reach the summit.
The climbing hadn't been very good, but the views were outstanding. One had a bird's eye view of LeConte Canyon and could see far east across Dusy Basin and the high peaks of the Palisades from Agassiz to Split. Looking south was a view along the spine of the Black Divide to McDuffie, Wheel, and Devils Crags. To the west was the Ionian Basin and the LeConte and White Divides behind it. Mt. Goddard rises high to the northwest, the monarch of the region, and to the north are an assembly of peaks around the Evolution Basin and beyond to Humphreys, Tom, and the Abbot Group. It was truly a visual feast to behold. Along with the register there was a 1947 USGS benchmark. The register was only recently placed, and the single piece of paper pre-dating it was only three years old.
For the first time in years I had brought a real lunch with me to a summit, a sandwich I had picked up at Vons the day before. It was hugely satisfying and I resolved to bring more sandwiches on these long outings in the future. After about 20 minutes I had finished my lunch, packed up, and started back towards Black Giant Pass.
I didn't actually reach the pass on my way to Charybdis, thinking I could take a more direct route to the peak. What I didn't know was that there is a significant cliff between Black Giant's summit and the lake on the way to Charybdis, a short distance just above the lake. As I came down the slopes I was lured into the steeper terrain until I was fairly well committed to finding a way through it. I was fortunate enough to find a way down on the first try, but overall I don't think my route was any faster than if I had detoured to Black Giant Pass over easier terrain.
I skirted the northwest side of the lake to its outlet draining west into the upper reaches of Enchanted Gorge. I crossed the outlet and started up Charybdis' NE Ridge. From the bottom I could see several climbers already atop the summit. Others would arrive over the next ten minutes or so as I began the long scramble. Although the rock quality wasn't that great, I found the scramble highly enjoyable and very scenic. I was half way up after about 20 minutes when I came across Adam on his way down. Ahead of the others, he was feeling energetic and planned to visit Black Giant on the way back. I told him there was a good chance he'd see me again before long.
About ten minutes from the summit I came across the rest of the group coming down one after the other. Sean was with them, having reached the summit about the same time as the last of the lead group. Did I mention this guy was fast? As I pulled up to what I thought was the summit I was only mildly dismayed to find a yet higher summit to the south, thankfully only a few minutes further. There was a short bit of hard class 3 downclimbing to be had before reaching easier ground and eventually the summit just after 12:30p. I had the summit all to myself.
To be honest, it gave me a rather lonely feeling. If I'd come here on my own it would have been no big deal, but to find myself the last of a group to be left on this remote mountaintop had me wanting to hurry and catch up. I resisted the urge though it hardly mattered - they were far ahead and out of sight. Like the Black Giant register, the one on Charybdis was quite recent, placed by Lisa Barboza in 2006. The second and third entries were Tom Becht and Matthew Holliman, only ten days apart in 2007. In all there were five pages filled in and I added my name to the bottom of the last page. Oddly, there were only four of the five names I had expected. Matthew I knew had peeled off somewhere to head for Mt. Solomons, but Curtis' name was missing as well. Later I found that he climbed only partway up the NE Ridge before turning around due to fatigue.
I left the summit after taking my photographs and spending all of ten minutes or so. It took a bit over an hour to descend the route back to the lake and then climb back up to Black Giant Pass. In descending the north side of the pass I came across two climbers heading for Black Giant who I at first mistook for some late arriving Challenge participants. No, they were camped somewhere along the JMT and had just come up for the afternoon climb - they were as surprised to see me as I was them. Shortly after that I heard a whooping call coming from the slopes of Black Giant. It was not hard to guess it was Adam returning from the summit.
The two of us continued together back to Helen Lake and down the JMT for the next hour or so. We left the JMT a bit higher and further west from where we joined it in the morning, a slightly more direct tack back towards Echo Col. Adam began to flag as we climbed the steep slopes between the JMT and Lake 11,428ft. When the lake came into view after cresting the rise, I spotted Michael making his way along the lakeshore several hundred yards ahead. I made an extra effort to catch up to him, got fairly close without being seen, and startled him out of his stupor (or his contemplative pursuits, as he may have preferred it to be called). The toll of nine days' effort was wearing on him (Michael had started the Challenge six days before the rest of us, so he had put in considerably more miles than anyone else by this time).
I left Michael and Adam together in the narrow chute breaching the upper cliff band and continued making good time to Echo Col. I was feeling quite good at this point and thought I might be able to catch up to the lead group of three (Sean, Dan, Curtis) who I had spied about 15 minutes ahead just as the last of them reached Echo Col.
By the time I had reached Echo Col myself I could see the other three below on the snow field, having just retrieved their gear cached in the rocks and starting to make their way down. It would have been impossible to catch Sean or Dan traveling solo or together, but they were helping to escort Dan's friend Curtis back over the col and this was causing them to go at a slower pace then they would have otherwise managed. I thought for sure I would be able to catch them all before reaching Echo Lake.
Dropping down from the col, working my way over snow and boulder fields, I did indeed come across Curtis a few minutes before reaching Echo Lake. He was by himself and the other two were nowhere to be seen. They had evidently caught sight of me catching up to them and decided to beat it, or perhaps had decided that once near Echo Lake Curtis could manage the remaining distance on his own. I never saw the other two again that day. Back on the trail, somewhere above Blue Lake, I came across Karl making his way back from a successful outing to Haeckel and Wallace. He reported that Sean and Dan had passed him about 30 minutes earlier, talking a little paranoid about me catching up to them. "He's going to start running, I know it!" Sean had commented. They must have jogged back much of the distance themselves because they beat me to the trailhead by at least 10 minutes. Just before reaching the trailhead at 6:45p, I came across Scott Hanson. He had been attempting Picture Peak, turning back before reaching the summit, but looking satisfied with an enjoyable outing. We hiked out the remaining short distance to the trailhead together while we chatted.
As on the first day I had very little time left in the day before it was time to get to bed again. Now that two of the three hardest days were done, and I had felt pretty good in doing them, my confidence level was at its highest and I would sleep satisfied, even if the sleep was rather less than I might hoped.
Jersey Strategy: After three days, only Michael and I had climbed the three Challenge peaks from 2009. By the third day I had more than 5.5hrs cumulative lead on Michael which should be more than enough to beat him in the race for the Yellow Jersey. The only threat was if someone climbed a "twofer" to end with 11 Challenge Peaks, and with eight participants having three Challenge peaks at this point, it was a very real possibility. Adam was clearly the favorite for the White Jersey (under 25yrs) and Karl was emerging with the best shot for the Green Jersey (over 50yrs). Both were in the group with three Challenge peaks. The Polka Dot (King of the Mountain, most total peaks) had no clear favorite at this point.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Black Giant - Charybdis
This page last updated: Sun Dec 4 07:35:43 2011
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