Tom and I had been exchanging emails about getting together for some peaks in the Southern Sierra, an area that we both seem to enjoy a great deal, especially in mid-to-late Fall when the days are shorter and the air a bit too frigid in the higher elevations of the range. I had in mind a handful of obscurities both named and unnamed that I was interested in but expected Tom to be far less excited about. To entice him, I suggested we could climb Church Dome, a moderate class 5 I'd done a decade earlier with Matthew that I knew Tom was keen on. He bit hard on the first cast and I didn't have to come up with anything else to get him on board. I wasn't really sure there was anything else in this particular part of the Southern Sierra he might care about, but it turns out he was also interested in Bartolas Point. Both of these would be included in the day's adventure. This was the first visit to the area for the other three who joined us and they didn't really seem to mind what we were doing. Scott in particular was excited about the rock climbing opportunities after our previous effort on Tharps Rock. In the interim, he'd gone out and bought hundreds of dollars worth of climbing gear, reading up on techniques, gear placements, anchors, etc. On the drive the previous afternoon with Iris he had her quiz him from the books he'd purchased, soaking it all up in like his life depended on it. And to some degree, I suppose it does. In a few short weeks he knew more about rock climbing than I ever bothered to learn and would be more than prepared.

We were camped at Poison Creek where the pavement (mostly) ends, about five miles from Big Meadow. The last time I had driven into Big Meadow I thought the van would be shaken apart by the horrible washboarding, so the others kindly allowed me to avoid another such beating and agreed to the Poison Creek camp site. We carpooled in for the day using Tom's Jeep and Matt's Subaru, both of which proved adequate for the sometimes rough roads we drove. Our 7a start wasn't exactly alpine, but it was still daylight savings time and far too dark at 6a to be pleasant.

Bartolas Point

It was a long, 23 miles of driving between Poison Creek and Bartolas Point. Our destination was the southernmost point of land of a high plateau called Bartolas Country, overlooking the Kern River Valley. We managed to drive the vehicles to within about 1/3mi of the point, making this a rather tame hike. In fact, I thought it should be so easy that I sort of just wandered off in the direction of the point while the others were still shouldering their packs. There wasn't anything particularly hard, but I quickly found there was nobody behind me as I supposed. The forest kept the location from being obvious, but as the guy navigating by GPSr, it was pretty easy for me to think it should be obvious. In five minutes I was standing in front of the class 3 rocks at the base of Bartolas Point, making short work of it to find the benchmark and the remarkable views we'd expected. There is a fine sweeping view of the Kern River Valley to the south with the Scodie and Piute Mtns behind it. I looked for the others to show up but it was another five minutes before I spotted Scott and Tom on another crag to the northeast. They caught sight of my wave and soon made their way over, Matt and Iris a few minutes behind them. We had a laugh that it would have been a dismal failure as an organized Sierra Club outing when as a group of five we couldn't stay together in better than three separate parties for such a short distance. We spent another fifteen minutes at the overlook before heading back to the vehicles.

Church Dome

More driving ensued, another 11mi worth, on a combination of decent and indecent roads (though none that required more than high clearance) to get us to the TH for Church Dome. On that first visit, Matthew and I had stopped at the TH indicated on the topo map, but the road actually continued another mile, gaining 400 additional feet in the process. This made the approach a good deal easier for this second visit, less than a mile each way. There's still 1,000ft of gain from this closer point, so it's not exactly a walk in the park. In an unscrupulous manner, Tom and I claimed to be the old guys and let Scott, Iris and Matt carry the ropes and hardware - respect your elders and all that. With a much lighter pack it was an enjoyable cross-country hike. There is a ducked use trail of sorts that we picked up soon after starting out around 10:30a, but I had trouble sticking to it and lost it several times. It matters little if you know where you're going and for this one we did. The topo map shows Church Dome as near the trail heading north across a saddle, but we were after the highpoint which is northwest of this, a feature known as the Taj Mahal. Our scrambling route led us to the notch between it and the next feature to the northwest called the Choir Loft, a much harder endeavor than the Taj Mahal. We could see bolts running up the southeast side of the Choir Loft, a 5.11 effort that was never finished according to Vernon's guidebook, due to a rock hitting Brian Jonas while it was being developed. The route was given the name Brian's Song and well beyond our capabilities. The same guidebook casually mentions that the chimney to the right of this route goes at 5.7 and was done by Fred Beckey. We thought we might give that one a try when we were done with Taj Mahal, but it looked much harder than the rating and we never gave it serious consideration.

Our attention then steered to the Regular Route on Taj Mahal (another Beckey route first done in 1972) and we went about spreading gear everywhere as we prepared for our five-person ascent. I knew that such a large party was sure to take quite a few hours, so I was looking for ways to speed up the process some, allowing for more time later in the afternoon for some of the other peaks that I was more interested in. Knowing that Scott would be keen to lead the 5.5 climb, well within his abilities, we let him head up first after most of us were ready to go. With Iris belaying, he started up on the sharp end of his new 70m rope, apologizing for his slowness almost from the start. In fact he was doing just fine, methodically checking holds, calmly placing pieces as the difficultly warranted. He managed to drop two nuts in the span of about 5min which provided some amusement and no small measure of chiding. Not long after he was up about 60ft and just out of view, he announced the slope rolls off and the terrain looks like class 3 ahead. I shouted up for him to build an anchor, noting we had almost reached the halfway point marked on his rope. This would give us a chance to use the second, shorter rope of mine that Iris had carried up. Going second, I tied into Scott's rope at the halfway point while trailing the second rope. I cleaned the gear on my way up and once up to Scott's anchor, I moved down and off to the side where I set up a second anchor from which I could belay. We then had Iris come up on the end of Scott's rope while Matt would start up on mine, after Iris had moved up out of his way. Having been distracted with video duties, Matt wasn't quite ready with his shoes and other gear when called upon, so there was a bit of a delay. This had the result of Iris finishing well before Matt. I had Matt wait at a small alcove just below me so that Scott could toss his rope back down to Tom who was waiting to come up last. Around this time I realized a flaw in my plan that would leave Matt exposed for the last part of the climb. He couldn't climb directly up to my belay position, but would have to follow the same route the rest of us did up towards Scott. A fall here would mean an ugly pendulum into the wall below me. To avoid this, I had Matt tie into Scott's rope from his alcove (with only a little coaching, he very quickly figured out how to tie a figure eight on a bight), and then we let Tom know he'd be simul-climbing with Matt for a short distance. It looked a little whacked and caused some minor confusion, but it was carried out fairly safely and we soon had Matt off the rope above Scott.

To speed things a bit more, I coiled the second rope and went up the class 3 terrain to the summit block with Matt, figuring we'd set that up while Tom was still hanging at the end of Scott's rope. I'm not sure where the 5.7 rating for the summit block comes from, but it seems easier than that. There's a rap chain at the top which makes it easy to set up a belay once the first person is up. I climbed it without my pack to make it easier, after which Matt tossed the rope up to me. Matt, Scott, Iris and Tom came up in turn and by 1p we had all five of us atop the summit block. It had taken about an hour and a half to get five of us up the rock climbing portion, not bad, but certainly no speed record.

The views across the Domelands were stunning on a fairly clear day, the weather couldn't have been finer. With Taylor Dome to the west, Manter Meadow and Rockhouse Peak to the north, White Dome and the Sierra Crest to the east, it was a wonderous display of white Sierra granite spread through out the Southern Sierra. The oldest register dated to 1977, five years after the first ascent. Ours was the first ascent in a year and a half and probably the last one of the season. For a remote peak it seems surprisingly popular, judging from almost 40 pages of entries spread over the two register books. After rapping off the summit block, we scrambled back down the class 3 section and rapped off the Regular Route from the second belay station I had used. We left some bright orange webbing, not the most environmentally matching color, because that was all I had. Scott had mentioned a rap chain described in Vernon's book and in highsight that would have been the better (and probably faster) choice. As he was rapping down, Matt dropped his Spot device which went careening into the northeast gully on the other side of the notch. This gave me an opportunity to explore if there was a way off that side while I was there looking for his gear. I expected to find pieces of it here and there but saw no sign of it - it would have been easy for it to slip into any of dozens of crevices formed by the boulders that occupy the gully. I found that there was an impasse before reaching the bottom at a huge chockstone, but there also appears to be some tunneling options that might get one out the bottom with a bit of spelunking. Alas, I was more interested in getting to the other summits today and left this unexplored.

Nearly 2:30p, I went back up to the notch where everyone was already down and putting away gear. Scott was interested in doing some other rock climbs in the area so we ended up splitting into two groups for the rest of the day. Three, really, as Matt decided to go around to the backside of Church Dome and explore for his lost gear at the bottom of the gully. He would spend much of the available daylight in the hunt, but in the end it was for naught. Scott and Iris spent the afternoon playing around on nearby routes found in the guidebook while Tom and I headed back to the Jeep.

Black Mtn / Butte Peak

Once back, we didn't drive very far, going only about a mile to the end of the other spur road that forks off near the end of the Church Dome TH. This other spur has no trailhead, just a small turnaround atop a modest plateau around 7,600ft. The two peaks were both to the east and were best tackled in a triangular fashion, all cross-country. We went to Black Mtn first, requiring a modest drop of a few hundred feet before climbing steadily up past Pt. 7,665ft shown on the topo map. At a saddle just west of this point, we could see Black Mtn to the northeast, still 3/4mi away. It looks at first to be covered in thick brush, but the dark color is soon seen to be the volcanic rock after which the mountain was named, not a dense field of manzanita. The trick is finding a suitable route up the west or south side to avoid the tall brush that grows on the lower slopes. On the southeast side of the peak is a large outcrop of pinkish granite that has an improbable class 3 stairway going up the center of it. We didn't discover this until on the way down, choosing instead to stay to the left where we navigated a rock field in deference to the brush.

We found the summit large, modestly brushy, and difficult to find an obvious highpoint. Manter Creek cuts a channel to the northeast between the summit and White Dome, two miles distant. We thought the summit would provide a good view of this drainage, but it requires one to head several hundred yards in that direction before the drainage reveals itself. This was probably the best new view we encountered the whole day. There are a number of domes and interesting granite features all over the west side of the drainage, about 3/4mi to the southeast that would make for a interesting visit. There was also a bird's-eye view of the Dome of Mystery, popping up from the drainage near Manter Creek. Finding no register, we left one before heading down the south side. Butte Peak is about a mile SSE of Black Mtn and the hike between them makes for a nice stroll through mostly-open terrain. Upon nearing the base of the second peak, Tom curved to the left for the easier "tourist route" from a saddle between the highpoint and a lower summit to the northeast. I headed directly for the summit, ignoring the difficulties that the upper cliffband looked to present on the west and north sides. It turned out to be no more than class 2 up a rocky gully at the very end, but it was no shorter than Tom's route as we found ourselves reaching the top at the cliff's edge at nearly the same time.

We found an unusual register at the summit, housed in an old baking powder tin that was rusted shut. I tried prying it open with a screwdriver from my swiss army knife, but no luck. Tom then suggested I open the other end with the can opener which worked quite nicely, the first time I've had to resort to that trick. It had been left by Ruby Jenkins back in 1989. The last entry, from 1990, commented on the trouble he'd had in opening the thing. 27yrs later it had become impossible. I added the two pages from the register to one I'd brought, leaving it in place of the one I'd rendered unusable. Standing at the edge of the cliffband looking northwest, I wondered aloud whether we could find a way down through the 50-foot barrier. Spying something plausible, I headed down with Tom reluctantly following, accusing me of leading him on yet another foolish sideshow. The loose rock encountered had him swearing sharply, but he continued down and we both survived without more than a few scratches. Great fun, I thought. Afterwards, we had another mile and a half through more hilly cross-country terrain to return to the Jeep, the sun setting soon after.

We wondered if the others would beat us back to camp which would take us another hour to reach. Tom figured they'd be back in order to make dinner and campfire, but I guessed that with Scott among them, they would probably end up watching the sun set on some climbing route or another. I wasn't far off - they got back to camp about 45min after us, some of that due to the higher speed at which the Jeep could negotiate the roads. Tom and I had already showered and eaten dinner before they showed up as we were almost ready to bed down. Matt began chopping wood and starting a fire which I went over to supervise and provide some mild ribbing. The fire went out several times but eventually caught on with the addition of pine needles (Tom's suggestion) and we spent more than an hour around the fire enjoying the warmth and stories in the cold night air. Good times...

Matt's Video


Submit online comments or corrections about the story.

More of Bob's Trip Reports

This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 08:20:34 2020
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: