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We had a unusually large party of 13 at the Big Pine Creek TH for the 8th day of the Sierra Challenge. Normally a Friday would have 6-8 folks, but a large number were either looking to get an early start to the weekend or were drawn by the relatively easy stats for the day. The unofficially named Buck Mountain lies just above and behind Mt. Alice not very many miles from the trailhead. By the shortest route the roundtrip total is less than 10 miles, though by any route the gain is more than 5,000ft. For the most part, the two peaks are giant piles of talus from every direction and the steep climb was expected to be exceedingly tedious - the sort of outing to make others peaks look good by comparison. On the way down from Round Mountain the day before I had studied the east side of the two peaks looking for the most promising way up from that direction. It appeared to be a useful exercise and would help me lead the group to the starting point that seemed the least painful.
It took only 25 minutes of hiking on trail, across the bridge over the North Fork and a short distance along the South Fork Trail before we cut right and headed into the brush on the east side of Mt. Alice. Rather than follow the same path, we spread out in a random fashion, like kids looking for Easter eggs. It looked somewhat comical. To one side was our photographer, Michael Darter, who had been commissioned by Backpacker Magazine to create a photo essay. Michael had one arm in a sling, the result of a shoulder injury he had sustained in a mountainbiking accident three weeks earlier. He could use the fingers to help handle the camera equipment, but he couldn't use it for scrambling or anything that would put significant pressure on the limb.
Our route took us towards a brushy gully that rises between the two peaks, forcing one to choose the left or right side to ascend. The left side towards Buck Mtn had less brush but more boulder and talus. The right side was brushier, but generally easier terrain. My goal was to climb to the East Ridge of Buck Mountain where I had earlier surveyed the better scrambling to be had, possibly the only scrambling. The group had split up and most were well ahead before I could convey this last detail as I paused to talk with Michael. He and I ended up being the only two to cross over to the left side while the others chose a line more directly heading to Mt. Alice. Michael and I climbed together about 1,000ft up the drainage before turning left to head up a side gully that would take us to the East Ridge. The gully turned out to be terribly loose and messy and quite a bit of work for Michael to manage with one good hand. But after 700-800ft of this ugliness we reached the East Ridge where the scrambling took an excellent turn for the better.
The ridge proved much better than I expected, consisting of large granite blocks and a fractured ridgeline that we enjoyed very much. I was very much impressed with Michael's skills given his handicap and the difficulty of the terrain. We were also treated to some spectacular views with a grand sweep of the Palisades to the south, from The Thumb on one end to Mt. Sill on the other with half a dozen major summits in between, along with their impressive north faces and glaciers clinging in the shadows below them. Behind us the spread of the Owens Valley could be seen with the White Mountains behind them. Yesterday's goal, Round Mtn along with Coyote Flat were prominent to the northeast as we climbed higher. The good scrambling went on for 2,000ft and most of a mile before we neared the summit area and the angle eased off.
It was not long before 10a when we reached what I guessed must be the highpoint. I had been looking around for others, expecting to see most of the folks we had started with in the morning. Taking almost four hours, I thought surely the other route must have been faster. But there was no register and no sign of anyone around the summit. We hung around about 15 minutes and still seeing no one, we decided to head down to Mt. Alice, not sure if the others had been to the top or not (later I found that Sean O'Rourke and Michael Graupe had been the only visitors before us, but had already left).
The north side of Buck was mostly the expected mix of talus, sand and boulder that makes for a much better descent. I lost track of Michael on my way down as I made swift progress down the loose slopes that brought plenty of mountain along for the ride with each step. I was nearly down to the sandy saddle between the two peaks when I came across Ron and Jeff taking a short breather on their way up. They weren't the first to be heading up from Alice, but they were the first I came across. The rest of the crew that were behind them I would miss as I stayed on the ridgeline leading up to Alice once past the saddle while the others passed lower down on the south side before starting up to Buck. I saw Laura and Bill N. only briefly, well after I had passed by without knowing it.
It was 11a when I reached Mt. Alice and had the summit to myself. There was a register in a glass jar dating to 1991. Laura had climbed the summit twice now, having first climbed it in March of 2008. As she reported later, Mt. Alice is much better as a spring ski adventure than a summertime slog. There is a fine view looking west to the Inconsolable Range from the summit and across the North Fork of Big Pine Creek looking north. Not surprising, the view to the Palisades is blocked by the higher Buck Mtn to the south.
It took little more than half an hour to descend the SE side of Mt. Alice back to the South Fork Trail. It was a wonderfully sandy descent that went very quickly and was a delight on the knees despite the 3,000-foot in elevation loss. When I got back to the TH not long after noon, Michael Graupe was there to greet me, having arrived 15 minutes earlier - rats! I was hoping my speedy descent would make up the time I inevitably lost on Buck's East Ridge. Michael had descended Buck Mtn to the northwest down to Second Lake and taken the North Fork Trail back ahead of me. It would be tough making up the lost time with only two days remaining...
Michael Graupe broke our tie for the Yellow jersey, taking a fifteen minute lead. He was concerned that his ankle was causing him some pain, wondering if he might not be able to participate the next day. I figured he was just messing with me. Usually I'm the one having an injury near the end of the Challenge - this was something new for Michael.
Tom Grundy and Bill Peters both climbed Alice and Temple Crag as bonus peaks today, maintaining a tie for the Polka Dot jersey, each with 19 peaks after eight days.
This page last updated: Sun Feb 5 19:26:01 2012
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