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Unfortunately, it would be harder than I had hoped. In determining the distance to Finger Peak I had totaled up numbers from Secor's book as well as those from Harrison's map. Secor's figures gave the distance as roughly 20mi, Harrison's 25mi. The difference was significant, and I optimistically was hoping that Secor was closer to the truth, especially since TOPO! measurements seemed to confirm the lower number. In the end it turned out to be a another 50mi outing and was nearly as long as the one to Tunemah. Egads. I think Secor was just eyeballing the distances from looking at a map.
I had reached the Woodchuck TH near Wishon Reservoir shortly before 9:30p. My initial plan had been to sleep a few hours in the back of the van before starting at midnight, but the prospect of an early afternoon finish the next day and the curiosity of an all-night hike had me forgoing sleep and hitting the trail not long after I had arrived.
For more than eight hours I plied my way in the darkness along the trail. Aside from a dead chipmunk and a millipede, the only thing of interest I found to photograph were the trail junction signs that I ticked off one by one at varying intervals. Oh, and I also stopped to play with my camera settings and get a photo of the moon meandering among the clouds. It had started off as a cloudless evening, but slowly the clouds had developed to cover more than half the sky. I found this modestly alarming as I wondered if it portended stormy weather the following day, something that would be quite inconvenient on one of these long outings when I'm so far from the TH.
Though the moon was nearly full it was necessary to use a headlamp as most of the route is through forest cover. Where the trail breaks out across granite slabs just west of Crown Pass it was too easy to lose the trail so I still needed to keep the headlamp on. And then once I started down the north side of the pass I was again in the forest, all the way to the end of the trail at Portal Lake.
Much of the trail up to Crown Pass is inches thick with dirt and manure ground to a fine dust by the popular use of stock on this route. Once past Halfmoon Lake, just north of Crown Pass, the trail grows scant with little use. I wandered off the trail more than once during the night, having to backtrack carefully to find the trail again a few minutes later. I seemed to spend a good deal of time concentrating on keeping the trail past Halfmoon Lake and it took away any tendency I might otherwise have had to grow sleepy as the morning started to approach.
It was not long after 6a before I reached Portal Lake. Heading cross-country, I followed the creek up through a string of lakes from Portal to Midway to Cathedral Lake, capturing the sunrise on the lingering clouds in the lakes' reflection. The clouds would hang around for most of the day, but they never seriously threatened. In fact they were of great service in keeping the sun hidden in the afternoon and keeping things from getting too warm as they might have otherwise.
At Cathedral Lake I consulted my maps once again to determine a route up to the crest and onto Finger Peak. My first instinct was going to be to navigate to the east side of the lake and climb to a small notch on the ridge above, but there were some cliffs around the south side of the lake making this a non-trivial proposition. Instead I opted to climb more directly to the ridgeline to my right which would avoid a tedious traverse. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was the route described by secor as an "obvious chute". I was a bit too befuddled to recognize it as obvious. Oh well.
The upper part of the chute was blocked by hard snow, so after negotiating the lower boulders and talus I moved left onto the buttress next to the chute and picked my way along class 3 rock interspersed with convenient ledges to get me to the crest and the Northwest Ridge of Finger Peak. Part of this ridgeline was marked by steep cliffs on the north side, but the south side was much more gradual and easier to negotiate. I bypassed a few lower highpoints along the ridge initially, then concentrated on the ridgeline to get me to the summit. It was not easy, considering the class 3 rating, and eventually I had to cry uncle as the ridgeline grew more serrated and exceeded class 4 in difficultly. It was necessary to drop off the ridge and climb a wide class 3 chute on the west face before finally pulling myself up to the summit just before 9a.
I had spent some two hours since Cathedral Lake climbing what I thought should have taken half that time, and in the end took some 11.5hrs in reaching the summit of Finger Peak - longer than it had taken to reach Tunemah, longer than it had taken me to reach any summit, ever. My hopes for a 17-19hr day had vanished and I was now hoping I would be able to get back before sunset. Hopefully I could find an easier way back to Cathedral Lake and then make up some of the time I spent losing the trail in the dark.
The views from the summit were marred by smoke from fires near Yosemite to the north and in the San Gabriel Mtns to the south. The southern fire had blown smoke north into the Owens Valley and some of this was spilling into the adjacent range as thin haze. Still, it was an impressive view of Blackcap Basin and the White Divide to the north, the Black Divide and Goddard Canyon to the east, Blue Canyon to the south, and Crown Basin to the west.
I lunched on a PB&J sandwich I had lovingly brought to the summit in a crush-proof container while I perused more than 30 years worth of register entries starting in 1977. Matthew's dayhike from 2005 was a one-line entry on the second to last page. The book was filled with SPS names, Outward Bound parties, and the random peakbaggers such as myself, much like the Tunemah register. After almost 30 minutes at the summit I figured I'd better get going if I was going to beat the 24hr limit imposed on this dayhike obsession.
I retraced much of the route back down the chute on the west side and along the ridgeline, then looked for a shorter route back to Cathedral Lake. My first effort was to see if I could reach Finger Col (the notch I had first considered ascending), but found the ridgeline leading to it blocked by cliffs. It was then that I realized the luck in not choosing that route initially. I turned my attention to the left, or west of this juncture, where a low point in the ridge looked to offer a descent route. I could see a good deal of hard snow below the steep ridgeline, but it looked like a way might be found down it.
This descent route started off as class 3 but soon deteriorated to a loose class 4 affair that had me rather nervous and wishing I had simply gone back by the same route. I dropped lots of rocks, both large and small onto the hardpack snow below as I groomed the route as best I could to ensure decent footing, but that was only marginal. It was a nerve-racking effort that I can't say I enjoyed, and the only joy I found in it at all was when I was finally down past the snow and onto the moraine below. Yuck - don't go this way.
It was a little slow getting through the loose moraine, but once I reached Cathedral Lake the going was much easier. I circled around the east and north sides of the lake, then continued down to Midway and Portal Lakes, eventually picking up the trail in the meadows below Portal Lake. By now it was nearly 11:30a and the 14hr mark, and I still had many hours to go. An hour later I had reached the low point along the North Fork of the Kings River at a trail junction, marking the start of the steady climb back to Crown Pass. I paused to dig in my pack for a Starbuck's Double Shot to help as an energy boost with a heavy dose of caffeine. It seemed to help my tired body recover some.
I passed by Halfmoon Lake and a fine campsite I found there, then climbed the switchbacks up to Crown Passthe east, on the south side of Crown Pass as I followed the trail higher over the southeast shoulder of Crown Point. I felt some relief and satisfaction as the trail began the long descent down through the forest, knowing that most of the uphill portions were behind me. There were still many miles of dusty trail that only grew worse the nearer I got to Wishon Reservoir and the trailhead. I could pick out my footprints from the previous night still fresh in the dust, evidently no one had been up or down the trail during the day to stomp over them.
It was 6:30p before I finally pulled into the parking lot, having seen no one for the whole 21hrs I was on the trail. I had made the return in only 9hrs, much better than I had done on the ascent, but the overall time was just over that for Tunemah, making Finger Peak my longest outing yet. I suspect that will be surpassed shortly when I give Picket Guard a try from Mineral King. Once that nut is cracked, I think the remaining SPS peaks will be downhill, so to speak. Or maybe not.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Finger Peak
This page last updated: Tue Jan 19 23:48:02 2010
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