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The 9th day of the Sierra Challenge would the second hardest with a total elevation gain exceeding 8,000ft. Our goal today would be an officially unnamed summit west of Forester Pass that I've dubbed Forester Pass Peak because I don't like the sound of 'Peak 13,720ft'. With a prominence of around 300ft, it shows up on some lists of ranked 13ers, not on others, but I've never been one to slice this too finely - if it's close to a 13er, I want to climb it. The hardest part of the day would be going over University Pass - twice. Best surmounted in Spring or early Summer when snow makes it more pleasant, the pass is notorious for steep, loose sand and rocks, a veritable smorgasbord of rocky projectiles waiting to be unleashed by those traversing over it. Being a weekend, we had a hearty group of 14 for the 5a start despite the difficulty involved.
Our predawn start from Onion Valley started quietly as I admonished folks to keep voices down while we passed through the campground in the darkness and started up the Robinson Lake Trail. Shortly before reaching Robinson Lake about 45min later, it was light enough to forgo headlamps. Our group had spread out by this time with a small band of frontrunners some 20min ahead of me as I started cross-country up from the lake, most of the others somewhere behind me. There are some sections of use trail that can be found leading up from the lake through a small stretch of forest (or rocks/slabs, if one prefers, on the right side near the creek) but none of these seem to last long and eventually peter out on the morainal boulder field. Rock hopping seems impossible to avoid. As I neared the start of University Pass I could see JD, Robert, Tom and a few others ahead of me, some already halfway up to the pass. I kept to the far left in order to avoid the line of fire on this horribly loose and tedious slope. Today was the first time we'd seen it without any patches of snow whatsoever - about as poor of conditions as you can find.
I caught up with Eric who was one-handing the climb due to his injured hand from earlier in the week and together we made our way to the pass not long after 7a where we met up with Scott and Curtis who had arrived only moments earlier. I wasted no time at the pass, preferring to get down the other side before there was a contingent of other participants descending above me. The west side is even steeper and looser and it's impossible not to bring down a good portion of the mountain as one descends. I had JD, Robert and Tom ahead of me going down and I was careful to keep distance between us to avoid sending missles down their way. The upper half of this descent goes very quickly thanks to a surplus of sand that makes for fast plunge steps. Past the constriction in the chute I kept to the right in the lower half where progress slows, passing by Tom unnoticed as I made my way down to Center Basin.
I lost track of JD and Robert as I crossed Center Basin in search of the PCT around the north side of Center Peak. Figuring they had likewise lost track of me, I guessed I might have a chance to get ahead of Robert and gain some time on him. There's about a mile of cross-country travel across Center Basin and around Center Peak, most of it forested with lots of traversing and crossing of minor drainages and it was in this section that I gained some time on Robert. By the time I emerged onto the PCT the two were nowhere in sight and I kept a strong pace up the trail to get out of sight. It's a very scenic portion of the JMT/PCT as it makes its way up the headwaters of Bubbs Creek to Forester Pass and popular, too. There were several small groups camped along the trail in the last clusters of trees before rock and alpine terrain takes over the landscape higher up. It was not long after 8a and only a few backpackers were out at this time, but it would get quite busy as the day warmed up. As I sped up the trail I kept an eye out for Robert - at this time I wasn't actually sure if he was ahead or behind. Past the last trees, I had a clear view of the trail ahead where it makes a sharp jog to the east before turning south to climb the last 1,500ft up to the pass in about two miles. I was pretty sure that Robert must be behind, though I couldn't really expect him to be too far, unless he'd made a navigational error. Before I could get too excited about my prospects, I spied Robert about a quarter mile down the trail making a strong push to catch up to me - the jig was up. I managed to stay ahead for about a mile and half until it was time to head cross-country for the peak, but there was no chance of Robert not catching me.
Forester Pass Peak lies west of the pass about a third of a mile. One can climb to the pass and then to the summit but it seemed easier to bypass the pass and head more directly to the top. I was eyeing where to leave the trail when Robert caught up to me. He had planned to go to the pass first, assuming that was the obvious route, so we discussed the various options briefly before he decided to go up the more direct route. Keeping me in sight was the safer option and Robert had learned his Yellow Jersey lessons well over the past few days. The route up isn't particularly great, lots of granite rock to climb over, not particularly solid for good scrambling, more like a steep boulder field that goes on for longer than one expects it should. It turned out to be about 1,000ft of scrambling before we found our way to the highpoint by 10a, making for a 5hr ascent.
I congratulated Robert on his efforts once again, this time I could see no reasonable way to gain any more time on him in the short time remaining of the Challenge. As always, Robert was wary that I was playing games still, trying to lull him into complacency to gain an advantage. His concern was a great source of amusement for me these past few days, but the fact of the matter was that I really didn't have any chance at this point to gain the Yellow Jersey - he was just too strong. When I told him I planned to return via the longer route to Forester Pass he had a hard time believing me that it wasn't a trick. In fact I wanted to climb a minor unranked peak west of the pass called Forester Peak, but I didn't tell him that part - I didn't want him to take it too easy on his way back to the TH. As we were starting down, JD caught up with us long enough for us to pause and get a picture of him standing atop the small perch that constituted the summit. JD was as strong as I'd ever seen him over the past few years. He had not kept up the pace with Robert and I because he had a much more ambitious plan today, intending to tackle both Caltech and Junction Peak before returning (he managed all three summits in a tough 17.5hr effort). As Robert and I parted ways, I ran across Tom who had just reached the ridgeline I was descending towards the pass. He was tired but in good spirits, enjoying another fine day in the Sierra. Some 20min later I had reached the pass where a half dozen backpackers were taking a break and enjoying the incredible views afforded from the highest point on the PCT at 13,153ft. It was a matter of course that one gets a photo from the pass and I helped one pair with a pose in front of the park sign planted there before starting up the ridgeline on the east side of the pass.
Forester Peak is an unranked summit with barely 260ft of prominence, but it had an unofficial name and a place on Listsofjohn - it seemed a shame to miss an easy opportunity even if it didn't qualify as a bonus for the Challenge. The ridge itself is difficult to stay atop because of some large, blocky granite. I started up from the pass on the north side, doing an ascending traverse until I could reach the crest at the halfway point, then switching to the south side until the summit only 1/5mi from the pass. I found no register of any kind at the summit and didn't even bother to take any photos (or perhaps I simply forgot to), taking about half an hour for the roundtrip to and from Forester Pass. Upon my return I found Michael engaged as a photographer for another JMTer who had similarly paused at the pass. Michael was following in my footsteps to Forester Peak but planned to continue on to Junction Peak (a 13hr effort for this combo). I gave him the obvious pointers for Forester Peak which he really didn't need before bidding goodbye and starting down the north side of the pass.
Michael would not be the last Challenge participant I would run into. Over the next half hour as I was descending the trail I came across Chris, Sean and Matt in succession, each on their own, each appearing somewhat tired but smiles on their faces. Matt in particular I found amusing - he was ready with his video camera as he spied me, moving to the side of the trail and filming what turned out to be a disappointing sequence as I pulled up to him. I didn't have any humorous or otherwise memorable words to share that might make for good video - I was probably too tired myself to think of something on short notice. In my wanderings cross-country back to the west side of University Pass I came across some research gear neatly stored under some blue tarps and held down by rocks. On our previous visit the year before we had come across some frog researchers at one of the nearby lakes and I wondered if this wasn't some of their stuff that they had used to spend an extended time in the backcountry.
The dreaded University Pass, west-side version, was upon me and I wasn't looking forward to it in the least. I was hardly as fresh as I'd been when I came over hours earlier and the afternoon sun's rays only added to the discomfort. I climbed the chute hugging the left edge where some fleeting shade could be found as well as occasionally solid footing, but much of it was a sandy plod of the two steps forward, one step backwards variety. It took a full hour for me to reach the top by 2:45p, no speed record to be sure. At least the rest was mostly downhill. The east side descent is not as much fun as it could be if there were nice lines of sand one could plunge step down. Instead there is much rock, most of it loose, where rolling an ankle (or worse) is a real concern and one must embrace caution over haste. It would take more than an hour to return to Robinson Lake and the trail, and the remainder of a second hour to reach the TH at the Onion Valley parking lot where I arrived not long after 4:30p. It was by far the longest day of the Challenge for me, as for most of the other participants as well. Unfortunately the last day was not going to be an easy one, but at least we could rest easier knowing there was but one day left to finish the marathon...
Robert had returned almost two hours earlier - he had not taken his sweet time as I had, giving him a lead of more than 2.5hrs for the Yellow Jersey. The last day would be merely a formality. Michael's climb of Junction Peak added another bonus to his collection, increasing his lead over Chris in the Polka Dot Jersey to 2 peaks with a total of 18 peaks in nine days. I had already clinched the Green Jersey days earlier and as the only participant under 25yrs, Eric had taken the White Jersey after completing the first day.
This page last updated: Sun Feb 2 12:48:53 2020
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