Fri, Aug 8, 2008
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The first day of the 2008 Sierra Challenge began with the earliest start yet - 4a. A dozen enthusiasts gathered at the Rush Creek Trailhead at that early hour for a go at one of the three remote peaks for this year's Challenge. Electra Peak is located on the SE border of Yosemite NP west of the Ritter Range. The Sierra crest must be crossed in the vicinity of Mt. Davis, then several miles of rock and talus must be traversed to reach the peak. Several other intrepid climbers have dayhiked the peak in the past, but this would be undoubtedly the largest party to attempt it in a single day.
Starting almost precisely at the 4a mark, we headed up the Rush Creek Trail, creating a string of lights along the trail as it climbs the steep slopes west of Silver Lake. An hour and a half of darkness followed us up the trail past Agnew Lake and on to Gem Lake. For this eighth year of the Challenge, my oldest and youngest brothers drove out to join me for this ten day adventure. Jim, the oldest, hails from Colorado and had been training in the local mountains for some months. His biggest issue seems to be injuries, a nemesis that would dog him most of the Challenge. Rick, younger than Jim by 20 years and coming from Arizona, had the obvious advantage of age on his side (29yrs vs. 49yrs), and had recently completed an ROTC training program with the Army which commissioned him as a second lieutenant. Rick's issues seemed to gravitate around motivation and the fact that peakbagging wasn't in the same line as army training. One could never tell if Rick was actually having fun during any part of the Challenge. Around 5a I pulled up for a short break. Behind me a short distance, Jim caught me by surprise in a scene I had yet to witness in my peakbagging career - shirtless hiking by headlamp. A novelty that I had to immortalize with a photograph, Jim gracefully obliging me.
By 5:45a the new day was beginning to dawn as we found ourselves plying the trail around the north side of Gem Lake. The previous year it was less than half full, probably due to maintainance on the dam, but today it was up to its usual high level. Another break at this time saw Jim removing his shoe and sock to attend to blisters on one foot - the first of many debilitating injuries in store for Jim over the next week. By 6:30a we were cruising around Waugh Lake, and by 7:20p we had reached the trail junction with the PCT marking the start of our cross-country trek. Nine of us had gathered at this point in close proximity, three others having been lost some hours ago back on the trail and not destined to make it the Sierra crest, let along Electra Peak.
We started off in a large group but soon split up into two parties. Eric O, Brian L, my brothers and myself in one party, Michael G, Rick K, Richard P, and Adam J in the other. Jim started to slow down about half an hour after the cross-country portion started, and eventually had to cry uncle, unable to keep up the pace set by Eric and myself. We gave brother Rick the option of trying to keep up with Eric and I (and possibly getting dropped in the process), or slowing down to stay with Jim who was a much better navigator than Rick. Rick seemed to think that it would be easy for him to keep an eye on both groups should he find himself alone, but we emphasized the ease with which one can get lost among the talus and boulders. He wisely chose to stay with Jim.
Eric, Brian, and I continued towards the Sierra crest. There are two passes one can take to most easily cross this section of the crest. The one to the left is called "Clinch Pass" in Secor's book, the one to the right is unnamed but called "North Clinch Pass" here. Depending on which of two possible routes one planned to take to Electra once over the crest, it makes more sense to take on or the other. I had planned on the high traverse route for which N. Clinch Pass was more appropriate, and it was to that one that we headed. There was much talus to be crossed, and somewhere in the confusing mix of the stuff we lost track of Brian. He would somehow manage to make it to the summit of Electra and back without me ever spotting him again, garnering him a reputation as a stealth climber. While still in the cirque below the NE side of the pass I spotted a lone climber atop Clinch Pass to our left, pointing him out to Eric. There were no other climbers in sight up there (probably about 20min ahead of us), but later we learned that the first bunch had gone over this other pass as a group - it was probably just the tail end that I had spotted. Avoiding snow on the left side of the cirque, we headed up the dry right side of the pass where we arrived just before 9a. We saw no sign of my brothers behind us nor of the other group in the canyon below us on the other side of the pass. From the pass Electra Peak was visible in the far distance, a good deal of rocky ground still to be traversed. It was going to be a longer day than I had hoped, it seemed.
We descended for a short distance down some class 3 rock to the boulders below. I saw Eric for only a short time on this side of the pass, then lost him completely. He had evidently stopped for a break and was nowhere to be seen when I stopped some fifteen minutes later. I continued on by myself. The high traversing route that had looked good on paper turned out to be good in reality as well. There were no cliffs or other obstructions barring progress, and aside from some nasty sidehilling in the beginning of the traverse, most of the route made for pretty good travel, either slabby granite or fairly good footing on consolidated talus fields.
An hour after leaving the pass I was crossing the shoulder leading down to the lake just north of Electra. All the while I was descending to lake level I kept sweeping the boulder fields before me for signs of the other group I was convinced must be ahead of me. That I could see none of the five figures among the acres of boulders was a bit of a surprise, and likewise no one could be seen at the summit or one of the ridges leading to it. I began to think they must all have taken the other, lower route that passes by the lakes south of Clinch Pass, and that that route must have been a good deal slower than the high traverse. Suddenly I was feeling pretty good being out in front of the pack.
Down at lake level I eyed possible routes to the summit. I knew that the East and North Ridges were described by Secor and others in trip reports as class 2-3 and were the safe bets. But instead I opted for a direct route to the summit up the middle of the NE Face. This turned out to be a nice scramble with some fun class 3 to compensate for the trouble, and by 10:40a I found myself alone atop Electra Peak.
It was a very clear day with swell views in all directions. Maclure, Lyell, and Rodgers dominated the views to the north as did Banner and Ritter to the east. The Clark Range was prominent to the west and the backside of Half Dome was clearly visible. Just off the summit was an aluminum register box placed by the ellusive SRC (Sierra Register Committee) in 1989, bolted to a large granite slab. There was no register book found inside, so I pulled one out of my pack, signed in on the first page, and left it in the box. I stayed at the summit about fifteen minutes, eager to start on my way back.
Heading down the North Ridge, I had only left the summit some five or ten minutes when I spotted a party of climbers above the lake below. Undoubtedly it was the other group that had elluded me these last few hours. Michael, Richard, Rick K, and Adam were in the group of four that I met on my way off the N. Ridge. They were somewhat surprised, but not completely so, to see me ahead of them. They confirmed that they had indeed taken the lower route by the lakes, and with my glowing praise of the high route they resolved to take that on their return. Brian was somewhere behind this group of four, but I never saw him the rest of day. I continued around the lake, retracing the same route I had taken with only minor deviations. In the cirque between Rodgers and Peak 12,573ft I came across Jim, slowly but surely making his way along the traverse. We had a long chat during which he explained he had left brother Rick below the pass on this same side. Rick had complained about the altitude and did not want to go any higher, so Jim had left him with instructions he would be back in 3-4hrs to help guide him back over the pass. Rick had been extremely slow in descending the pass, contributing to Jim's late time. Jim was happy to relinquish the job of guiding Rick back to me, saving him a turnaround deadline. Jim also told me that Eric had decided to turn around right after I had left him. Eric was also affected by the altitude and didn't want to push his luck.
As per Jim's instructions, I found Rick near a snow field at the base of N. Clinch Pass. He was looking bored, but otherwise fine and only complaining of a minor altitude headache. Rick described not liking the class 3 descent from the pass and offered we should follow Jim's suggestion to ascend the south end of N. Clinch Pass where class 2 boulders and talus reach to the crest. Knowing there was snow on the opposite side there and not wanting to traverse back along the crest, I poo-poohed the idea and said we'd do fine to ascend the short class 3 section. Rick acquiesced. He was indeed slow in scrambling up the boulders on the way up to the pass, but not unduly so. At the class 3 section we took our time as I helped Rick with hand and foot holds, pointing out his options as I climbed just ahead of him. I thought he might be unduly nervous, but he seemed relaxed enough, grateful to have me talk him through it.
We arrived at the pass at 12:45p, and I thought it would be all easy going from this point on. Not so. Turns out Rick is far slower in descending talus and boulders than he is in ascending them. This was the first time he had ever been on such terrain and he was obviously not very comfortable on it. I tried to show him some techniques for boot-skiing and looking for the easiest descent paths, but it was mostly lost on him. It would take us almost two hours to return to the trail, more than twice as long as I might have expected. Along the way my patience would be harshly tried. I painfully watched Rick descending class 2 boulder fields facing into the mountain until I could stand it no longer. "Rick! Turn around and face down the mountain!" He tried to explain that Jim had told him to do it this way, but I retorted that Jim doesn't know what he's talking about. Rick turned around as directed, but his progress was only slightly improved. I would scramble down, wait for Rick, and nearly fall asleep before he would catch up. It drove me bananas. It occurred to me that my lack of patience must be a serious deterrent for others joining me. It's a bit of a mystery to me that I find as many partners as I do.
It was a great relief to finally reach the trail and be able to continue at a decent pace. Rick stayed with me for almost an hour before stopping to take a rest break. Now that we were back on the trail I was no longer concerned about Rick getting left alone, knowing he could find his way back now. Rick was spotted napping on the trail sometime later by others returning from Electra. On my own once again, I made good time descending the Rush Creek Trail past Waugh Lake, a host of campers, various meadows, and more lakes. Just above Gem Lake I came across a backcountry ranger, nice fellow, who evidently knew about the Sierra Challenge in our short chat. After nervously fielding a few questions that almost seemed like an interview, I asked sheepishly if we'd done anything wrong. "No, just sounds like a lot of fun," was his reply. I was back to the trailhead at Silver Lake just after 5p for a 13:10 finish, 20min ahead of Michael who I was surprised to find so close behind me. I had been jogging a good deal of the downhill since I had left Rick and thought I had at least an hour on the rest of the summiters. My slim lead in the Challenge would not last long...
In all we had six climbers reach the summit of Electra, a few more than I had expected. Brother Jim would have made it as well save for a navigational error that had him climb unnamed Peak 12,573ft between Electra and Rodgers. It wasn't until the following afternoon when I was talking with him about the summit that it became clear to us that he hadn't reached Electra. Heartbreaker. Rick K went on from Electra to climb Mt. Davis on the return, making for an extra long day. The next day would find Rick resting up instead of hiking.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Electra Peak
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