Fri, Aug 10, 2018
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There are some East Side passes that are easy (Piute & Kearsarge come to mind) and others that are less so. University Pass falls into the latter category but it seems we keep revisiting it year after year. It happens to be the quickest way into Center Basin where there is an overabundance of fine summits. East Spur is one such summit, located on the high ridgeline between Mt. Stanford and East Vidette, separating the Vidette and Bubbs Creek drainages. We had 16 folks for the 6a start from Onion Valley, our second day using this trailhead. Today's hike would go up the Robison Lake Trail, then cross-country up to, and over University Pass, across Center Basin and then up to East Spur, a distance of about 13mi roundtrip with more than 8,000ft of gain.
We spent the first 45min hiking up the trail in the shade to the calm waters of Robinson Lake. Our first view of University Pass just before reaching the lake showed we'd have no snow to contend with this year. I lost track of the others as I made my way across the inlet of the lake and then up through the forest to the north of the creek. Tom appeared below me, jokingly asking what the others were doing to the left in the boulders by the creek. A use trail of sorts can be found, avoiding some of the tediousness of the boulders found by following the creek more directly. The forest gives way to slabs and talus, eventually reaching the high cirque where University Pass can be seen in all its ugliness. There were three or four others ahead of me as I began the hour-long effort to cross the cirque and climb the terribly loose sand and talus leading to the pass. With each passing year, the climb seems to get no less tedious. It was 8:20a before I reached the top with a fine, morning view looking into Center Basin, the high North Ridge of Mt. Stanford in the background. East Spur stays out of view around to the right until one reaches the bottom of University Pass where the steep chute dumps one out near the unnamed lake below it. It took less than 15min to get down this chute, the upper half a bounding sand descent, a class 3-4 chockstone in the middle, then more sand and rock and finally tedious talus at the bottom. On my own, I followed a course almost due west across Center Basin towards East Spur, through forest, across several trails and a modestly tricky crossing of Bubbs Creek to gain the drainage on East Spur's SE side. I climbed up into the basin with unnamed lakes on this side, not having seen anyone for the past hour. I scanned the skyline ahead and thought I could make out a few figures on East Spur's East Ridge. Getting to the ridge proved no great trouble and once on it, the ridge appeared to be a decent route to the summit over broken granite boulders. The ridge becomes far more difficult higher up. Most of the participants moved right onto easier slopes on the NE side while for some reason I moved left and found some stiff class 3-4 scrambling, not as enjoyable as one might hope, before finally reaching the summit just after 11:30a. Rob, Zach and Clement were all there, taking in the views looking east towards University Peak and the Sierra Crest. Starting earlier, Sean Reedy had reached the summit an hour earlier and had already left for bonus peaks heading north. The oldest register entries were from a park ranger in 1972 and John Otter from the Vagmarken climbing club in 1977. Gordon and Barbara had left a notebook in 1982 though it appears Barbara forgot to sign the register. There were only two other entries since then, one in 1985 and the last in 2001. Today's total of 12 visitors would more than equal the sum total of all the previous climbers to leave their mark on the summit since 1940 - not bad! Sean had left a bag of cookies for the rest of us to share but the three front runners had left nothing but crumbs for me and even those would be gone before the next person arrived.
In discussions that ensued while sitting about the summit, there seemed to be a general concensus that going back over University Pass would not be very fun. The others planned to take the trail back over Kearsarge Pass to avoid it, giving them a chance to stretch their legs for a run. Somehow at 12,000ft+ that seemed like a good idea to me as well, though I had no intentions to run any portion of it. And so we descended the drainage on the NE side of East Spur which turned out to be greener and far more pleasant than one would guess from looking at the topo map. I spied several of our party on the East Ridge heading up, though they were too far away to make out who they might be. I got well ahead of the others and found myself taking a refreshing soak in Bubbs Creek before the others arrived. Rob and Zach were on the opposite side putting there shoes back on when I came up from the creek after getting dressed. I found the trail in the woods just past them, but they were only a minute from catching me as they ran by, the last I would see of them for the day.
To be sure, Kearsarge Pass is not the fastest way back from Center Basin, but it is not without its charms. The JMT in this section of the Sierra is quite scenic, following down along Bubbs Creek between East Vidette and University Peak down to Vidette Meadow before climbing up to Bullfrog Lake and the Kearsarge Lakes Basin. It was almost four hours since I'd started on the trail, going over Kearsarge Pass and then back down to Onion Valley where I arrived not long before 5p. It was the hardest day of the Challenge for me (having skipped the harder outing to Staghorn Peak) and I was ready for some rest, food and perhaps a beer or two down in Independence...
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