Wed, Aug 11, 2010
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Day 6 of the 2010 Sierra Challenge was heading to Feather Peak in the John Muir Wilderness out of the Pine Creek TH. A dozen folks were there for the 6a start, a few others starting either earlier or later as was their preference. Most were heading to Feather Peak, though some planned on nearby Mt. Julius Caesar, a Challenge peak from 2004. The Pine Creek Trail starts out easy enough through a surprisingly lush forest setting in an otherwise dry and rocky canyon, but after a mile it begins its climb out of the canyon via switchbacks and long traverses along the south walls of the canyon. Hiking above the tungsten mine tucked in at the head of the canyon, our group spread out over a large distance as is the habit on the long uphill stretches. Starting at the back, I slowly worked my way up through the ranks, chatting with the various participants as I came across them. There was also an elderly backpacking couple we came across who had camped on the trail about a mile below Pine Lake. They wre just finishing up breakfast as we came marching by, cheerfully greeting us as we went by.
I reached Pine Lake around 7:45a, finding the front runners taking a break near the lake's outlet. The next couple miles are easy again, a more gentle grade and once more back in the shady forest. Just after passing by Honeymoon Lake we left the trail and began the enjoyable climb through an alpine setting to Royce Pass. Lots of grassy benches and beautiful wildflowers are found in this area. By now it was just two of us hiking together, myself and Bob Jones. This was Bob J's first Sierra Challenge, but at 57yrs of age he was no novice. I enjoyed the conversation and was surprised to find he was not an ultra runner or rabid peakbagger. Exactly how he stayed in top shape was somewhat of a mystery, but there was no doubt that he could get it done, and in good time too. He carried an old wooden axe with him, one that had served well for some 40 years. It had a bamboo handle and forged steel head, made by Yvon Chouinard in the 1970s. Bob mentioned that he had been part of the Camp 4 scene back in those days, but did not elaborate with any stories relating to that mythical time.
Together, Bob and I went over Royce Pass, pausing to catch our breath and recharge his water supply. We then went down the south side of the pass and skirted between the two highest of the Royce Lakes as we made our way to the base of the Royce-Feather Col. Not to be confused with the much more difficult Feather Col, the one we were aiming for is the easiest way up to Feather. We hiked up some low angle snow slopes in our boots, over a low, adjoining ridge to the base of the much larger snow field leading up to the col. It was about 9:45a now, and time to switch to crampons.
I had my lightweight aluminum ones on in a few minutes and started up the snow. Bob looked to be taking his time as I kept looking back every few minutes and kept seeing him still in the same position. The snow was in perfect conditions for cramponing - quite firm but easily taking a bite even with the aluminum claws. I spent about 30 minutes in all climbing to the col, a mildly demanding workout. Bob was still back at the base even as I topped out. I guessed he must have had his crampons break or some other malfunction to still be there. He was still the only other participant in view. Later I learned that Bob was having no such trouble - he was simply waiting for the snow to soften.
I reached the sandy col at 10:15a and quickly turned my attention to the SE Face of Feather. This was a bit beefier of a scramble than I had expected. I stayed closer to the ridgeline for much of the ascent though I had to move left at various places where progress was stopped. Much of it was class 3 and in many places enjoyable. Too much sand and talus in between keeps if from being of the classic variety, but still it was a good climb. Halfway up I had a glimpse down to the snow slope below the col and spotted some others making there way up. Near the summit one comes across a large swath of red-orange colored rock. I had heard this was a fire-retardant dropped by a plane a few years ago. In many places it was obvious the stuff had dribbled down the sides of the rock, showing it was not natural in origin. Evidently the stuff is pretty stable and doesn't wash or wear away easily.
I reached the summit just after 11a. I sat down to eat my lunch and take in the views about the peak. Visibility was good and there were many recognizable summits including Seven Gables, Hilgard, Gabb, the Abbot group, Tom & Humphreys, Royce & Merriam, and more. I heard a very loud scream coming up from the col as I sat there, initially alarmed that someone might have fallen, but quickly recognizing it as Laura's yell - she must have topped out at the col just then. Later I would ask her to save the screams for the summit - less heart attacks that way.
On my descent I moved further west along the SE Face where there was easier travel with some sandy talus sections down a wide, but ill-defined chute. Others on their way up were positioned more to the east as I had been and consequently I missed a number of them with the exception of Laura who caught my attention on the way down. We waved and shouted from the short distance separating us, then continued on our respective ways. I found some orange-colored gear at the col, undoubtedly Laura's. Her color scheme in life is orange, from her car to her clothing to her gear. She was also lobbying for a women's category in the Sierra Challenge - the Orange jersey. I didn't accommodate her on that one, though.
I started down the col following the rock on the west edge of the snow, thinking I might be able to get most of the way down the steep section without having to use crampons. Karl came marching up the snow about this time, Daria a short distance behind him. Ron Hudson was on the east wall of the col forging a class 3-4 route through the rock since he had no crampons with him. These three were the last of the participants still on their way to Feather Peak. While I watched, Ron unlodged a large rock the size of a bowling ball that went careening over the side and onto the snowfield, then bounding down the slope to the bottom. Luckily they were the last to be coming up. I was unable to get down the edge as far as I'd hoped and ended up switching to crampons/axe and moving onto the snow. For several hundred feet I kicked steps facing into the mountain as I descended (watching Ron above out of the corner of my eye). The snow was soft now, too much really, and it was easy for my feet to slip out if I wasn't careful in the descent. Eventually the angle eased from the 40 degree slope in the steepest section, allowing me to turn and move much quicker downslope across the snow.
It was 12:15p when I once again reached Royce lakes, leaving me plenty of time for the bonus peaks on the afternoon's agenda. On either side of Royce Pass rise two similar-looking summits of modest height, unofficially named summits that I'd heard had good-looking class 4 summit blocks. It was to these I would turn my attention. The nearest one was simply called Spire Peak, its South Face primarily a large scree slope with more difficult rock towards the top. The left side had a class 2-3 chute through the rock band that led to the easier class 3 rock above, just below the jagged edge of the SW Ridge. It took half an hour to climb from the lake to the summit. Shortly before reaching it, I was surprised to hear a familiar voice - Sean's.
Sean had sped ahead of everyone in the early morning on his way to Julius Caesar since he'd already climbed Feather Peak the previous year. At the summit of Julius Caesar he'd pulled out his copy of Secor and perused for additional bonus peaks to go after. Hilgard, Gabb, Bear Creek Spire and others seemed too far to bother with. Then he noted that Spire Peak's class 4 NE Ridge had been climbed by Moynier in 1988, just the ticket. Sean reported an accurately rated, fun climb, having reached the summit about ten minutes ahead of me.
I found the summit block fun, but not difficult for a class 4 rating. From the top I took a photo of Sean below, then scrambled back down to join him. He was perusing the summit register that contained the record of the first ascent by Smatko, Ross, and Schuler in 1969. After adding our own entry, we put the register back in it's Gatorade container and headed down.
We found a class 3 route through the east side of the South Face, a more or less direct route back to Royce Pass. From there we continued east to the class 2 ascent of Bear Claw Spire's South Slopes, a sloppy mess of sand and talus. Another half hour saw us safely to the summit. Of course Sean was easily ahead and already perched atop the awkwardly leaning summit block the size of a car. This was a trickier block to summit, good class 4, and in turn I found my way atop it once Sean had vacated it (only room for one). Nearby is a seemingly out of place benchmark placed by the USGS in 1947. It is marked "TREASURE", and this peak is often called by that name as well.
Feeling bold, I suggested we might try to forge a route down the broad North Face. A rib splits the North Face into a NW and NE side, both looked class 3-4 from what we could see, but unknown below where we could not see the exit at the bottom. Sean was skeptical but game, and the two of us set off down the NW side. Initially I was making better progress than Sean in a slightly different line more to the west, but eventually I found myself on scary ground and had to back off. I climbed back up to where our routes had diverged and listened as Sean described his efforts as 'tough' and 'hmmm, I'm not sure'. Far better on tough rock than myself, I worried that I might follow Sean down something I couldn't manage through to the bottom. I climbed further back up and took a look at the NE side. It seemed better. I started down this for a few minutes before finding myself in more trouble. Little alarm bells went off in my head, telling me to give it up - this is supposed to be fun and it wasn't feeling like much fun at the moment. By the time I reached back up to the rib Sean was well out of sight and hearing range. I climbed back up to the summit, figuring Sean would know soon enough that I had run away.
I went down the SE side of the peak hoping to find an easy way down to Golden Lake and then the trail at Honeymoon Lake. All I found was steep cliffy edges and horrible-looking morraines below. I ended up following along the high plateau for almost a mile towards Pine Creek Pass hoping to drop down the east side of it to the Pine Creek Trail. All I found there were more cliffs. I eventually found a west-facing slope I could descend off the plateau, taking me down to the ugly morrainal boulder fields that I'd hoped to avoid. It was a terrible choice in the end and not much fun.
It was 3:30p by the time I got back to the trail at Honeymoon Lake. It would take another two hours to make my way back down the trail to the beers Laura had cold and waiting at the trailhead. Along the way I came across Bob Jones and Ron about halfway down from Pine Lake. I was jogging along at a slow pace, encouraging them to join in behind me. Ron did so for much of the way, Bob J declining. Laura had returned only a minute before me, but was already seated in a chair and displaying her beer selection. Karl had gotten back first, some fifteen minutes earlier. I went back to my car to retrieve some chips and salsa to go with the cold beer, and four of us sat around enjoying life. Mmmm...
When Bob J came off the trail a short time later we presented him with a Yellow jersey for having been in the lead the last four days. He was a little surprised, hadn't really been following it all and didn't see why he had qualified for the honor until we explained the scoring rules to him. Even then he seemed uncomfortable with this bit of attention - he was just out to enjoy himself and hadn't signed up for a race.
In passing Bob on the way down, I ended up with the lead for the Yellow jersey by some 25 minutes. It's easy to take away the lead from someone who isn't interested in it, it turns out. Sean and I both had three peaks on the day, leaving him in the lead for the King of the Mountain with 20 peaks total, myself one behind. Bob J held a firm lead for the Green Jersey. Adam finished half an hour ahead of Vitaliy to take the lead for the White Jersey for the first time.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Feather Peak - Spire Peak
This page last updated: Fri Aug 23 21:29:54 2013
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