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later climbed Sat, Aug 7, 2004|
This was the day I was originally planning to climb Mt. Williamson. Due to continued poor weather, it wasn't going to happen. Mt. Williamson involves almost 10,000ft of climbing and almost 30 miles, and I was pretty sure that I was only going to have a chance if the weather was nothing short of excellent. Still, I had enjoyed the last few days hiking in the rainy weather as a nice change, allowing a "virtual northwest" hiking experience. While I was eating dinner in Jacks of Bishop the night before, I again poured over my maps and Secor's book for a suitable peak to climb in such weather. Having never been to Onion Valley before, I thought it might be a nice place to visit, and it looked like Mt. Gould was the closest peak to the pass. Class 1 with a class 3 summit block sounded like just the ticket, and I was sold. I was missing the Harrison map that covered Onion Valley (not having expected to climb here before I left home), but it seemed it was easy enough to travel up the Kearsarge Pass Trail and climb the peak immediately to the north of the pass. I got lost climbing Mt. Warren two days earlier even though I had both map and compass, yet I remained confident in my navigation skills. Always the optimist.
I had a breakfast of cold cereal and milk in my room shortly after rising and showering at 5:30a. Driving down to Independence, the sun had just come up and begun to illuminate the awesome escarpment of the Eastern Sierra. I turned right off US395, passing the home of Mary Austin before heading out of town. The Onion Valley Road out of Independence heads west as it crosses the lowlands of the Owens Valley. It then begins to wind its way up between the two sides of an ancient lateral moraine, the remnants of an immense glacier that once forced its way down the valley. The effects of the glacier are still felt as one drives up the road - steep cliffs of loose moraine material regularly send down rocks and boulders onto the roadway. There were dozens of such obstacles in the road as I drove up, and it was necessary to watch closely to avoid hitting them. There are many twists and turns near the top as the road struggles to gain altitude. I soon find that I have driven above the lowest clouds, and feel I'm in an almost surreal world of swirling clouds and sharp peaks.
I expected a lake or wide valley at the end of the road, but found a small campground and a large parking lot instead. Unlike most of the other major eastern access points, this one appeared to have a minimum of development, though it still had the standard pack station that seems to accompany all the easy access portals. I parked my car near the trailhead, grabbed my pack with some rain gear and other useful items (like water and food), and headed up the trail at 7:30a.
In the first 10 minutes I came upon the trail junction, Kearsarge Pass to the left, Golden Trout Lake to the right. I stopped. There was a small map indicating Bighorn Sheep restriction zones in the area. The previous night I had not been sure how far south the zone around Mt. Mary Austin extended, thinking the area around Golden Trout Lake would be off limits. The map showed this to not be the case, and in fact one could reach Mt. Gould via the Golden Trout Lake Trail without crossing the restricted areas. Hmm. A map in my possession would be a useful thing, it seemed. I decided anyway that I'd take the alternative route, expecting that the human traffic going this way would be significantly lower. I hoped that my memory of the terrain above would be sufficient to help me find the summit, though my track record on this is rather poor without a prior excursion into the area. Worse, I had not seen the topo map, just the simplified drawing in Secor's book (2nd edition, p. 155). But hope springs eternal, and I happily set off on the Golden Trout Lake Trail. The weather was terribly overcast, much as it had been the previous two days, and clouds hung low, obscuring the peaks. I hoped that the clouds would part at some time in the day, though I had received no weather reports indicating they might. In fact the forecast called for continued thundershowers throughout the Sierra, the result of a tropical system that had moved up from the Baja area.
The first part of the trail is steep, loose, and sandy as it climbs the headwall northwest from the Onion Valley trailhead. Because it is not a regularly maintained trail, several route variations close together have appeared over the years, and it is an exercise in futility to try to take the "correct" trail. Invariably when you think you've got the "right" one, you can look on the other side of the stream or around the corner to see one that looks better. As you near the top of the headwall the trails all converge out of the loose, sandy area, and combine to a fainter, single trail that threads its way through forest and over rocky areas. From this point on I found the trail almost magical, as it lead me up the canyon with only the faintest of indications at times as to where the trail went. There were no trenches in the softer areas, no blasted granite staircases, no evidence of use by stock. More than a few times I had to stop and take greater notice of my surroundings and where the trail "should" go, before spotting the correct direction. This was a very nice change from the usual Sierra trail that is so obvious you can almost walk them blindfolded by bouncing off the walls of the trenches dug by the hordes of stock that ply them. But I'm not bitter.
Above the headwall the trail enters a small meadow area, albeit briefly, before continuing the climb towards the lakes above. There is evidence of fire damage here in the not-too-distant past. I lost the trail a number of times, though only for short periods of time. Always I managed to find the trail again, continuing to enjoy the game it seemed to play with me. Up and up I climbed for several hours. The trail came to a second flat, meadowy area, where the canyon now splits in two. The left canyon lead to Golden Trout Lake, I knew, while the right canyon went to God-knows-where-but-not-where-I-wanted-to-go. The map shows a trail junction here, though I didn't notice a trail heading up the right canyon, and only later did I find that a trail goes up that way. A small sign prohibiting wood fires was the only trail sign I found anywhere. Heading up the left canyon, I soon lost the trail again, this time for several minutes as I tried several dead ends. Then I saw the trail on the north side of the creek, and found I had to cross it a short ways back from where I was.
Not long after this point, I lost the trail for good. I came to the flatter, upper portion of the canyon, and crossed back to the south side of the creek (the maps show the trail continuing on the north side). Believing I was at the end of the trail, I continued on cross-country, no longer looking for signs of a trail. I came shortly to a small lake. It seemed somewhat small, maybe 50 yards long, but I had no idea how big Golden Trout Lake was in reality. To the south was a steep, serrated ridge that I guessed (correctly, for once) was the dividing ridge between this canyon and the Kearsarge Pass Trail. The ridge led up to Mt. Gould, but at which point was impossible to tell due to the heavy cloud cover. Trying to recall the Mt. Gould route description from this area (I was better prepared to climb it from Kearsarge Pass), I believed Gould Pass should be just north of Mt. Gould, and a route to it heads up from the upper reaches of Golden Trout Lake. In the immediate vicinity the walls of the canyon were unclimbable, so I continued climbing up the easy slabs and benches of the canyon. I passed several other small lakes. I took compass readings, knowing I should be heading west up towards Gould Pass. Looking at the canyon walls, the compass read south, then southwest, as I contoured to the right up the canyon. Eventually I climbed to the end of the canyon and found a wide, loose chute leading up through a break in the ridge. I also found a large lake just north of me on the otherside of a low ridge, somewhat unexpectedly. Hmmm...
Now this lake was in reality Golden Trout Lake, but I didn't know it at the time. I thought it was another lake, Lake 3460m+ that lies a mile north of Golden Trout Lake. Lake 3460m+ was at the head of that God-knows-where canyon I had passed an hour earlier, and was on the other side of the north canyon wall that stood before me. An easy mistake to make if you hadn't seen the topo and only Secor's book. In his drawing, Secor fails to show the high ridge that runs east from the Sierra Crest and between these two prominent lakes. (Don't get the idea I'm blaming Secor for getting lost, he certainly is entitled to take liberties to simplify his drawings. It was certainly my fault for not having a map.) I was pretty sure that I just had to climb the wide gully to the crest, head south, and I'd find Mt. Gould.
After a short break for a snack, I headed up. After the initial boulder hopping in the lower reaches, the gully becomes a very loose, sandy slope, and progress was accordingly slowed. I looked for the largest rocks I could find to hop on, hoping they were firmly imbedded in the sand rather than flat rocks lying on the surface (which would slide when stepped on). I was right about half the time. The clouds were moving up the canyon from the east behind me, sometimes giving me more visibility above, sometimes shrouding the walls ever tighter. On several occasions I waited as a small break in the clouds moved past me, hoping to get a glimpse of the peaks above and clarify my position. But never was I granted that view of the Sierra Crest I hoped for. At least it wasn't raining...
Finally, after climbing up the slope for about 45 minutes, I reached the crest. I found a good sized cairn at the "pass" here, but could see little over the other side. The clouds were equally thick there, and I could see nothing of the terrain to the west. To my surprise, the ridge sloped up to the right rather than the left, as I had expected. I believed I had possibly climbed to the right of Gould Pass, and perhaps the ridge to the right led up to Dragon Peak, the prominent peak just north of Gould Pass. That was fine with me, as I had hoped I might be able to bag both peaks today, though I knew Dragon Peak had some tricky route-finding to stay on class 3 or lower. I headed up, into the clouds, continually hoping for a break in them, continually being disappointed in their stubborn consistency. I followed the ridgeline as close as I could, moving to the west side in a few places where the ridge exceeded class 3. I climbed a pile of rocks that turned out to be a false summit, but I spotted an aluminum box on the next higher pile of rocks just to the north. The summit! But which one? I climbed down and headed to the high point. I had not encountered any tricky route-finding, so I began to doubt I was about to reach the summit of Dragon Peak. The summit rocks were fun class 3, and as I reached the register it was confirmed that I had just climbed Mt. Gould after all. Apparently I had climbed to the south of Mt. Gould rather than to the north, up some unnamed pass, not having even been close to Gould Pass. Great. Lost again, but this time I manage to climb the peak I had set out for. Dumb luck or innate homing skills? You be the judge...
I stayed on the summit a long time, nearly 40 minutes, still hoping for a break in the clouds. Now and then I caught a glimpse of the Kearsarge trail below and maybe a lake or two. But a more general clearing continued to elude me. Mt. Rixford was off to the west on a spur from the crest, and Dragon Peak was somewhere to the north, but hardly seemed sufficient to navigate my way along the crest. I sat and read a good deal of the register contents while I waited there. I found many amusing entries. My general experience has been that the peaks that are closest and easiest to climb usually have the more bizarre and amusing entries. Mt. Gould was no exception. I noted that Doug Mantle marked his 6th through 11th climbs of Mt. Gould in this register. Seems this must be one of his favorites. One entry mentioned that he was off to climb Everest shortly, presumeably using this as a training run. Wondering if he'd been successful, I found the answer to my question dutifully answered a few pages later in his next entry (Belated congratulations, Doug!). The most amusing entry was left by Reinhold Messner, though he forgot his last name at the time the entry was made. I also found an entry from Jerry Tinling, a gentlemen I'd first encountered on Mt. Gardiner, and later through a few email correspondences.
Finally deciding I wasn't going to get a view and only likely to grow colder, I decided to continue north to see if I could find my way to Dragon Peak, or at least to Gould Pass. The north side of Mt. Gould opens to a very broad saddle between three canyons, and I found it easy to get off track here as well in the swirling clouds. I was soon looking down a slope at some nice lakes which I later found to be Rae Lakes. Not the ones I had expected to see east of the crest, so I guessed that was the wrong direction (confirmed by my trusty compass). So I headed left over the highpoint to the west of me and down the NE ridge from there. This should bring me down to Gould Pass I figured. Again I figured wrong. There is another bump along the ridge, more of a spiky, fractured gendarme really. It wasn't high enough to be Dragon Peak, and I mistook it for another formation I remembered called Dragon Tooth (remember I didn't have a map with me). I couldn't climb over it, so I began to climb down to bypass it on the east side. Somewhere in this mess of loose class 2-3 scree and talus I found on this side, I came across some animal prints. They were definitely from a hooved animal, but not likely deer this high up. I'm fairly certain they were bighorn sheep tracks, the first I'd seen in the Sierra. Logistically it made sense since I was just outside the southern boundary of the reserve. I grew very quiet and spent some moments looking about for any further signs of the animals themselves. But no luck - just the footprints marching along the slope until I lost them on the rocks.
I couldn't see further north along the ridge due to the clouds, so I grew a bit confused as to the whereabouts of Dragon Peak. After downclimbing a bit I found a way around the obstacle and climbed back up to the ridge. Through the clouds I saw a peak towering up behind the obstacle. Dragon Peak? No. I'm looking south, not north, and the "peak" I'm looking at is the first high point near the broad saddle back towards Mt. Gould. Behind me, along the ridge to the north, the view is still no better, and I can't make out what's more than 50 yards in that direction. So I stopped and took stock of my situation. It was only 1:30p, so I still had plenty of time. I had proved at least three times that I could get lost up here in the clouds without a map, and it seemed only a matter of time before I made a more serious navigation error. The weather was getting worse, not better, and it seemed it might rain starting anytime. Dragon Peak would have to wait, and I decided to head down.
I headed back down, but not the same way I'd come. That would entail climbing back up and over Gould Peak, which hardly seemed necessary. The craggy and fractured slope gave way to scree and sand further down, almost the whole way to Golden Trout Lake. I couldn't see the very last part, but knew from observations earlier in the day that there were cliffs down there just above the lake. Had I known Gould Pass was a bit to the north and the route went down on the east side to Lake 3460m+ instead of Golden Trout Lake, I might would have gone that way instead. Still, it seemed better to stick with the devil I knew (the area around Golden Trout Lake) then to venture into an unknown canyon to the north and fish around for a use trail. As I approached the cliff area I stayed to the right (south) side of the slopes, believing I had seen a route off that side from below. It turned out to be more cliff-like than I'd remembered, and there weren't any easy ways down, at least in my vicinity. I managed to find what turned out to be a fun little class 3 downclimb through a break in the rocks. The last little problem was solved and my remaining apprehension about the route disappeared.
It was now simply a matter of retracing my steps from earlier as I climbed down to Golden Trout Lake and then revisited the smaller lakes in the same arc I had passed by in the morning. Almost as soon as I regained the trail at 2:30p, the rain began. It came down pretty good this time, not the slow buildup of the previous days that started with a slow drizzle before moving to what I might call "rain." I ducked under a pine tree to put on my rain gear before too much of my undergarments got wet. After two days of such weather I was really beginning to enjoy it, which somewhat surprised me. It thought I'd get sick of being damp or wet, but I found myself enjoying the refreshing change of a wet landscape. Of course I wasn't sleeping in it either! Safe on the trail, I gave the clouds full permission to do their worst. They tried to oblige, providing a fair amount of show in the way of thunder and lightning (for which I was glad I had chosen to abandon the search for Dragon Peak). I had a nice hike back down the steep trail, being careful to watch my step now that the rain had made things a bit slick.
I hadn't seen anyone the entire day since leaving my car up until I spotted a gentleman further down on the other side of the creek. He looked to be searching for the trail in the same spot I had earlier, but in keeping his head down and out of the rain, he failed to spot me coming down. He had disappeared when I came to the stream crossing, but once across I spotted him hiding under a pine trying to stay dry. He had removed his pack and covered it, and sat, waiting under the tree. I greeted him cheerily (I was to soon be back under a hot shower so I felt somewhat sorry for him). He asked me about the trail and how far to the lake, but didn't share my cheery outlook. I gave him some answers and bid him goodbye. I came upon two other backpackers on their way out from Kearsarge Pass Trail shortly after passing the junction with that trail, the only other persons I saw that day. I reached the car at 4:30p, just as the rain stopped. That was a nice break, as it allowed me to leisurely change out of my wet clothes before heading back down the road.
As I drove through Independence and back towards Big Pine (on my way to Bishop where my motel was), I started thinking about White Mountain again. My car was certainly not equipped to make the 16 mile drive on the unpaved road, but I thought I might drive up there "to check things out" since I had a good 4 hours of daylight remaining. I had travelled up and down US395 many times, but never ventured up to the White Mountains, so this seemed like a swell opportunity. I turned left at the turnoff in Big Pine and headed up. It's a great drive in a small convertible on a narrow, windy road, and the cool weather was a plus. I turned off at the pass, taking the road to White Mtn that winds for some thirty miles to the trailhead. At mile 12, or thereabouts, the bristlecone grove comes into view. The trees dot several hillsides and tops, but little else grows on these slopes. Odder, the treeline seemed to have disappeared some time earlier, replaced by sage and other scrubby bushes, but here at nearly 10,000ft it seems the treeline starts again. The road seems to be awash with rocks, but on closer inspection they are pine cones, not rocks. There are large accumulations of these pine cones in the ditches and canyons along the way where water has collected them in droves. It seems particularly odd here since the pine cones comprise almost all the organic material on the ground - there are few needles, as the bristlecones hold them for 20-30 years before shedding.
I came to the end of the paved road, just past the turnoff for the Methuselah Grove. I drove my car about 50 yards onto the dirt road before coming to a halt. It was 5:45p, and I'm sure I would have driven the entire distance and then probably hiked to White Mountain into the evening if I'd had a vehicle with better clearance. Or at least that's my story that I'm sticking with. In any event, I really did feel like hiking some more, so I drove back a few hundred yards to the Methuselah Grove Visitor Center. It's a swanky new set of buildings they have there, fine wood decor, new trail signs, markers, etc. Unfortunately the center was closed (at 5p) and there was no one around. Checking the outside information kiosks, there are several trails in the area. Most are short interpretive trails, but the 4 1/2 mile Methuselah Trail travels through much of the forest grove including the oldest trees in the world (later I found that you never get to find out exactly which trees are the oldest, probably to protect them from souvenir hunters).
So I grabbed my rain gear (it was starting to drizzle a bit) and headed out. It rained on and off the whole time, but I didn't mind. The weather was cool, but seemed to fit well with the amazing scenery along the trail. The whole 4 1/2 miles was very unlike any Sierra trail I have been on, or any trail anywhere that I've hiked for that matter. Right away one begins to realize how these trees are able to grow so old. There is almost no underbrush, mostly a jumble of crushed and broken chalky rocks. Alkaline soil kills the desire of most plants to try to make a go of it here, but the bristlecones don't seem to mind. Without underbrush, and with the trees spaced fairly apart, it is nearly impossible for a fire to burn more than one tree. There are plenty of trees that have been done in by lightning, but they are all isolated, losers in a random lottery of fate. There is just enough precipication that falls as snow to provide sustenance reliably through the years, but never enough (because of the Sierra rain shadow) that could build up and create avalanches. Further, the water supply and soil conditions are poor enough that the trees grow very slowly. This keeps them from growing too tall where gravity will bring them down (in some areas this does happen) in a few hundred years as in other mature forests. It took almost two hours to complete the hike, one of the most unusual and enjoyable ever. I highly recommend this trail to anyone with an interest in the bristlecone pines (there is an interpretive book that you can pick up at the start of the trail that has great reading to help along the way).
The sun was beginning to set as I drove back down, providing some great views of the Sierra and Owens Valley with light filtering in through the clouds. I arrived back in Bishop at 8:50p, and went directly to Jacks, finding them open for another ten minutes. My good fortune continued. A hearty meal followed by a hot shower, and I was ready for bed. Another great day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Gould
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:03 2007
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