Fri, Aug 14, 2009
Deerhorn Mtn lies just north of the Kings Kern Divide, at the head of the ridgeline between Vidette and Lost Creeks. The closest approach is via Onion Valley, climbing up and over Kearsarge Pass, down to Bubbs Creek, up Vidette Creek, finally approaching the peak from the northeast. We had done a similar hike to West Vidette the year before during the Challenge, but this would be a bit harder (Matthew had managed both West Vidette and Deerhorn in a long outing, but that would likely be too hard during the Challenge).
It was not a large group that gathered in the darkness of the early morning hour of 5a at the Onion Valley parking lot. Six of us started out for Kearsarge Pass pretty much on time. With Sean setting a mean pace, we made fairly quick time up the trail, passing by Ron Hudson before the first hour was up. He and Karl had started earlier to get a jump on reaching the pass, but Ron's stomach was bothering him and he was going at a slower pace as a result. Although he had planned on heading to Deerhorn, he modified his goal to the easier Mt. Gould to appease his complaining stomach.
The sun rose just after 6:10a, lighting up University Peak and Nameless Pyramid in the first swaths of morning. Sean had been waiting some five minutes by the time Adam and I reached Kearsarge Pass shortly after 6:30a. None of the others were within sight down the mile or so of trail we could see leading east from the pass. We paused only briefly in the chilled morning air before plunging westward over the pass and back into the cool of the shade. Where the trail flattened out near Kearsarge Lakes we came upon Karl in his flourescent jacket. He immediately got behind the three of us and picked up his pace to match ours, making four of us on our way down to Bubbs Creek. We passed by beautiful Bullfrog Lake with a mirror reflection of Deerhorn and West Vidette, then started down the switchbacks towards the creek with some fine views of East Vidette and Deerhorn in the distance.
By 7:40a we had reached the John Muir Trail and Bubbs Creek, then hiked another half mile southeast up the trail before turning off to cross the creek. We found a good crossing place with logs and an island to split the water flow, then spent the next hour hiking up the use trail we found heading up Vidette Canyon. Where the canyon grew steep and we started to break a more serious sweat, Karl dropped back behind us, not to be seen again until later that evening. Sean paused to put on some sunscreen and was a little surprised to find Adam and I charge ahead without waiting. He caught up to us at Vidette Lakes and then passed us easily by taking the easier route he found around the west side of the lakes. The three of us reconvened at the inlet to the largest lake where we paused to fill water bottles and take a last break together before pressing on.
It was 9a and Deerhorn was looking very close by this time, but it was a bit of an illusion. The mountain is bigger than it appears and was actually a good distance further than we had thought. It took another hour of scrambling up the canyon along the creek and then over a long stretch of boulders and talus to reach the base of the peak. By now Sean was well ahead of us, almost half way up the NE Ridge. It was the harder of two primary routes from this side, a mostly class 3 route with a short class 4 section near the top, reported to be a fine climb. The climb description says to climb the north face of the NE Ridge until meeting the ridge about half way to the summit, then follow the ridge. We found this to be roughly the case, though the ridge itself was more difficult than the north face and it was possible to climb the north face nearly to base of the short class 4 section.
It was a fairly good climb that Adam and I both enjoyed, each taking slightly different routes. I favored the larger blocks and better views from the ridge itself, while Adam favored the north face more. We reached a false summit by 11a, only then realizing we had another half hour of climbing still. There was a fine knife-edge leading to the crux where we were first alarmed at what we saw, but soon determined the class 4 section to be only a single move that wasn't all that hard. We both managed the short move easily enough, then continued another ten minutes to the summit.
We had spent 6.5hrs in climbing Deerhorn, a bit more than we had expected, but it had been an enjoyable effort. The register we found dated only to 2004. From his entry, we could see that Sean had beaten us by 45 minutes. He had been throttling his pace to keep company with us up to Vidette Lakes, but he had bigger plans that required him to get moving. He was hoping to traverse from Deerhorn to Stanford to Caltech in order to get a "twofer" to boost his standings in the hunt for the Yellow Jersey. We could see him on the heavily serrated SE Ridge trying to find a way to Deerhorn Saddle where he would then be in a good position to reach Mt. Stanford from the northwest. Adam and I had no plans quite so bold. I had hoped to more modestly reach The Minster or perhaps West Spur for bonus peaks, but I was ready to give up on these after the effort it had taken to reach Deerhorn. We spent a short bit of time at the summit taking a break and working on a descent plan.
We decided to return via the NE Buttress to give us a flavor of both primary routes. This would also allow us to climb the lower west summit which turned out to be a decent scramble in its own right, even if fairly short. From the west summit we could see that a traverse to either The Minster or West Spur was going to be no easy feat and I gave up any remaining hopes of reaching those two summits on this day. The descent down the NE Buttress was very tame in comparison to the NE Ridge and we were both glad we had not ascended this route which would have rated mediocre at best. As we were exiting the route and starting on the boulder fields below, we looked back to see Sean making his way down the same route - the traverse to Deerhorn Saddle evidently didn't work out as he'd hoped. Adam and I continued down thinking it would only be minutes before Sean caught up with us again, but we never saw him. Later we found that he had gone back up to Stanford after descending the NE Buttress, then gone on to Caltech and back over Forester and Kearsarge passes in a long 18hr day.
Meanwhile, it was 1:30p before Adam and I reached Vidette Lakes once again, stopping here briefly to fill up on some much needed water. The largest and highest of the lakes was free of fish, but home to some frogs, one of which I found swimming near the lake's inlet. Always good to see frogs in the Sierra.
It took us another three hours to descend Vidette Creek and the JMT, then make our way back up to Kearsarge Pass. We took a snack break below Kearsarge Pass to give me a chance to rest. Adam was still going strong by comparison and making me feel like the old man. We finally reached the pass around 4:30p where we came across the dozen or so folks that can usually be found milling about the pass on any given summer afternoon.
On our way back over the east side of the pass we came across Scott Hanson about halfway down. He had been to Mt. Bago starting an hour later than the rest of us, and was on his way back as well. It was nearly 6p before Adam and I finished the last of the long switchbacks and returned to the parking lot at Onion Valley.
Jersey Strategy: It was only after returning to Independence, after I'd showered and opened up the next of Michael's short reports that I discovered why he had insisted on revealing his times for the first six days one at a time. He had had the same idea as Sean in doing Deerhorn and Caltech together, and managed the combination in almost 19hrs. Suddenly it made sense that others had reported seeing his signature in the Mt. Abbot register on Sep 5. He had done the twofer and ended with 11 Challenge peaks, a number I would be unable to duplicate since there were no other additional Challenge peaks available for me to climb. I was suddenly relegated to 2nd place at best. In fact the only other person that could beat him was Sean, and that would require a second twofer on his part. Once again, the ante on the Yellow Jersey had been raised from the previous year. With a four peak outing, Sean had taken the lead in the Polka Dot Jersey for most summits. I was now behind by one, 12 peaks to his 13. Adam still had a lock on the White Jersey, the only uncontested race. Karl had failed to reach Deerhorn, turning back when he got to the base of the peak (somehow Sean, Adam, and I had all failed to see him on our way back). He got back late, exhausted and discouraged, ready to give up and go home. He and Jeff had been tied for the lead in the Green Jersey and still were, since Jeff had taken a rest day. But Karl could not be persuaded to continue the effort and went home the next morning. Jeff had only to climb one more peak to take the title.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Deerhorn Mountain
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