East Sister P500 OGUL / PYNSP / DS
Lyon County HP
Middle Sister P750 OGUL / WSC / GBP / PYNSP / DS
South Sister P750 OGUL / PYNSP / WSC / DS
Mt. Patterson 2x P2K DPS / OGUL / PYNSP / WSC / GBP / DS
Wheeler Peak P300 OGUL / PYNSP / WSC / DS
Black Mountain P300
Desert Creek Peak P1K OGUL / PYNSP / DS

Aug 5, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman

Black Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2
Patterson, Mount previously climbed Dec 2, 2007

Matthew and I (and various other parties I can't recall) had talked about the Sweetwater Traverse for a number of years. The traverse of this smallish range is not particularly difficult and the hardest part seems to involve setting up a shuttle. Because of the location on the east side of the Sierra and our favortism towards Sierra peaks when we're in the area, we'd never quite had the right conditions that would send us to the Sweetwaters. As a warmup for the Sierra Challenge, Matthew had initially suggested a 20mi hike in the Ten Lakes area of Northern Yosemite, but I eventually won him around to the idea of the Sweetwater Traverse. The draw for me was five OGUL peaks and a county highpoint, and another nearby OGUL peak we could climb the next morning. We could have made the shuttle effort far easier if we'd just hiked the route in opposite directions, but that wouldn't have been very sociable. So we agreed to meet at the Burcham Flat Rd off US395 and set up the shuttle earlier in the morning.

We were up at 4a, first driving both cars to Lobdell Lake where we left my van. We then drove back out to US395, through Bridgeport and into Nevada around the south and east sides of the range. We drove west on the dirt Risue Rd for about three miles to reach the NE edge of the range. In all we spent about two hours shuttling the cars.

A thin cloud layer in the early morning made for a colorful sunrise in shades from violet to pink to yellow. Our timing had us hiking just as the first rays of sun were hitting the eastern flanks of the Sweetwaters. It looked like a fine day approaching. Our first peak was East Sister, and we started following the dirt 4x4 road described by Yamagata and others. But rather than follow this for some miles around the northwest side for the flanking manuever as described, we took the direct route up the North Ridge. This was a fairly steep slope with mild amounts of bushwhacking, but nothing very difficult or serious. The hardest part was dealing with one false summit after another on what turns out to be a long ridgline indeed. By 8:15a we had reached the first summit of the day atop East Sister and dutifully signed into the battered register.

The south side of East Sister was a different affair altogether with lots of brush covering the slopes. We picked our way down as best we could, but some moderate amounts of bushwhacking seemed unavoidable. Once down to the saddle with Middle Sister the terrain opened up and the cross-country was much easier. In climbing towards Middle Sister we favored the east side in order to be sure we visited the Nevada's Lyon County highpoint which is a "liner" on that side of Middle Sister. A large cairn was found on the stateline and just east of that atop a local highpoint on the ridge we found a register placed by MacLeod and Lilley. It contained the names of a number of highpointers including Andy Martin, Bob Packard, Bob Martin, Edward Earl, Richard Carey, Bob Bolton, Scott Surgent, Dan Baxter, and others.

As we continued up the East Ridge towards Middle Sister, we found another large cairn about 200yds west of the lower one, and this one held a second register. It had been placed in 1997 by John Vitz (another high profile highpointer) as the Lyon CoHP, but as others pointed out on the scrap of paper, it was located at the old Von Schmidt Line that is no longer the valid border between California and Nevada.

Another fifteen minutes brought us to the summit of Middle Sister where we arrived at 9:45a. We were higher by a good margin than East Sister now to the north, but to the south, and a good further distance away, rose South Sister, our next objective. Like East Sister, we found thick brush on the south side during our descent and some of this made for tough bushwhacking. But when we finally broke through the last of it to the saddle below we were once again in easier country. It would also be the last of the heavy brush on the traverse, much to our liking.

The brush had given way to talus slopes and open fields dotted with alpine grasses and sporadic small pines. Much of the vegetation disappears altogether above 11,000ft on the way to South Sister. Cows could be seen grazing a short distance down on the west side and there was evidence of cows up higher, suggesting they pretty much have the run of the place. There were vestiges of a use trail running the ridge from South Sister and it seemed even though we were moving to higher altitudes it was becoming less wilderness-like. In truth that's a pretty fair description since it is possible to drive to the higher peaks of Patterson and South Sister. Only a few daring cyclists have managed to ride down the northeast side of South Sister, and it looks like none have managed to reach Middle Sister, at least not in a number of years, without walking.

It took us nearly two hours to get from Middle to South Sister, only about 300ft lower than the range highpoint at Mt. Patterson. The register dated to 1982, placed by the Northern Alpine Section of the Sierra Club's Motherload Chapter (the same one Pete Yamagata rails about on the message boards). There was a 1992 entry from MacLeod and Lilley, and tons of entries before and after. Some of the entries denigrate those that arrive on motorized transport, other entries ask for peace and understanding. Some of it is pretty funny.

Clouds were building off to the southwest as we picked up an old mining road and began following it to Mt. Patterson. We noted colorful Sweetwater Canyon on the north side of Patterson that drops down to the Nevada side of the range. The wind was gusting strongly as we made our way to the Patterson summit around 1:20p. We dropped down on the north side to get out of the wind for a short break. A tattered American flag was installed at the highpoint and rattling furiously in the wind. We did not find a register on this summit.

Our last stop was a visit to Wheeler Peak a few miles SE of Patterson. The high ridgeline connecting them was broad, open, and windswept, prompting us to put on most of the extra clothes we were carrying with us. About halfway to Wheeler we came upon a party of three ATVs making their way towards Patterson on the road coming up from the south. We chatted briefly before parting in opposite ways. It had taken an hour to reach Wheeler summit which affords a fine view of the Sierra's Sawtooth Ridge to the south. Luckily the weather was holding off - no rain or lightning, just lots of wind and clouds.

On our return from Wheeler Peak we decided to take a shortcut back to Lobdell Lake via the Deep Creek drainage. Matthew was at first concerned about brush and bushwhacking, but upon closer inspection from the ridgeline above, it didn't look so bad. It turned out to be a fine choice as we made our way down easy talus slopes, then traversed across open forest terrain, then found a use trail (more of a cow trail) leading down Deep Canyon to an old road and eventually the lake. The creek was delightful as were several meadows we passed through, and we got away without any bushwhacking at all. More cows were found in the canyon and they allowed us to rustle them down the canyon for more than a mile before they collectively thought to move off the trail and out of our way.

By 4p we had reached the Lobdell Lake which had very little water in it at this time. We were able to cross the lake on a nearly direct tack back to the van where we arrived a few minutes later. Back in the car we drove back through Bridgeport, stopping for dinner at the popular burger/ice cream takeout joint. I began to test Matthew's interest in the remaining OGUL peak, Desert Creek Peak. By the time we had driven back to his car at Risue Rd, I had hatched a plan to spend the night where we were and climb the peak in the early morning before driving to Bishop for the rest of the day. I had warm water in the van to shower by and expected we could sleep in our cars. At first Matthew seemed agreeable to this plan, but after more careful thought he decided to drive on to Bishop to get a motel and a hot shower. I was a little incredulous - here was a guy literally living out of his car for months on end and I somehow managed to out-dirtbag him. It had a small feeling of triumph in it.

Left to my self, I started to rethink my plan. Maybe I could still climb the peak tonight? I would most likely be returning by headlamp, but that shouldn't be a problem with an easy peak and nearly a full moon. The idea rolled around in my head and came out with a green light. I hopped in the van and drove further down Risue another couple miles. I didn't have a printed map with me, but I had fired up the laptop and with the help of TOPO! had gotten a good picture in my head of the layout of the land surrounding Desert Creek Peak. There was another summit, Black Mtn a few miles southeast of it and I figured I could tag both in short order. My plan was to park as close to Black Mtn on the road as I could, climb Black Mtn, then traverse to Desert Creek via the connecting ridgeline. They were both desert peaks so I figured the cross-country ought to be easy enough. This was the part of the plan that sort of fell apart as things got going.

I left the car parked off the side of the road shortly after 6:30p, crossed a dry streambed and then started up the steep slopes towards Black Mtn. It took about half an hour to cover the one mile distance and about 1,000ft of gain. The brush had been heavier than I'd expected, but with some wandering back and forth I was able to pick a way through it without much bushwhacking. The summit of Black was a small pile of rock buried under some dry and dusty pines almost completely devoid of any views. To my surprise there was a register tucked into the rocks, only one of the normal two cans usually used, and as such the small notepad had been exposed to the elements and somewhat weathered. The original entry was from 1989 and though the signer was too worn to read, there was a reference to Pete Yamagata, leaving me to believe it was a Sierra Club member. The second entry was from Eric Sierling in 1998, who like me had decided to traverse from Black to Desert Creek. Mine was only the third entry in 20 years.

Getting to Desert Creek proved to be a lot tougher than it had looked on the map. Just getting off the NW Ridge of Black Mtn was a difficult affair with no vestige of trail or route or any easy way down. Much thrashing ensued, so much so that I had to pause a few times and consider whether I was getting myself into trouble. I could have turned back from Black Mtn and simply returned via the shortest route to Desert Creek Peak in the morning. But the rashness of my original plan and the sense of impending doom captivated my interest and kept me pushing on. It was almost as if I was inviting an epic. A relatively safe, mini-epic to be sure, but an epic nonetheless. If I got caught out in the dark I probably wouldn't freeze or get hopelessly lost, but it probably wouldn't be pleasant either.

The ridgeline route proved too brushy to take after descending off Black Mtn. I had seen the summit of Desert Creek Peak tantalizingly close, so I set off on a more direct line to the summit even though it involved losing some elevation in dropping down some on the east side of the ridgeline. I had long pants and shirt and gloves to boot, so I was well-prepared for the heavy bushwhacking that ensued. My hope was that I could reach the summit before nightfall and then use my headlamp to find the use trail off the west side of the peak down to the road on that side. It would then be a simple matter to follow the road back to the van for two or three miles.

I watched the moonrise shortly after 8p, the sun setting but a few minutes later. Things grew dim as I continued beating a path through the brush, and shortly before 8:30p I had managed to find my way to the summit. I found a large cairn with a register, a benchmark (what was the CA Dept of Transportation doing on a Nevada peak?), and a radio tower. Ah, good, I thought - maybe there's a road down from the summit.

Alas, there was no road, no use trail to be found anywhere about as far as I could tell in the failing light. I'd caught sight of the dirt road 2,500ft below in the canyon to the west just before I had to pull out a headlamp. Now if only I could get down there in short order. It had looked like there might be some steep talus/sand slopes to get me down in a hurry, but they only managed to hurriedly get me into a quagmire. The open talus/sand slopes all led down to a brush and tree-filled gully that became a difficult effort in the dark. The moon was of no use and my headlamp was only good enough to see about ten feet in front of me. Downed trees, chest-high brush, unstable boulders and the like were there to greet and confound me. I tried moving out of the gully, traversing the steep slopes on either side, but that only seemed worse and I once again dropped into the gully. It was hard to concentrate on the ground to keep from twisting an ankle while at the same time trying to avoid getting poked in the eye by a wayward tree branch.

Down, down, I went for what seemed a very long time. I was just about out of water and had begun rationing my last ounces. They would no longer serve to get me back to the car, but I hoped I would find water in Desert Creek next to the road below. That I had crossed a dry streambed on the way up at the start did not bode well, but I held out hope. Eventually, after an hour and a quarter of toiling down from the summit, I stumbled onto the road at the bottom of the canyon. A bubbling stream doubled my joy in finding my way out of the mess and I drank enthusiastically. It was quarter to ten and I still had miles to go, but the worst was over.

I followed the road south and then southeast for more than three miles until I finally returned to the van at 11p. It had been a long day before this extra outing, but I'd now gotten my money's worth before the day was yet over. I drove the van down to one of the many turnouts alongside the babbling creek to park for the evening. I rinsed off in the cold creek water, then dumped the gallon of lukewarm water I was saving over my body before toweling off. That there were no mosquitoes to be found anywhere was an added bonus and I had no trouble at all falling asleep in the van with the windows open and the sounds of the creek to lull me into a coma. Eight summits in one day was a good haul and life was good...

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More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: East Sister - Middle Sister - Mt. Patterson - Wheeler Peak

This page last updated: Mon Jun 20 08:41:36 2022
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