Fri, Aug 13, 2010
Sky Haven was intended to be an easy 8th day for the 2010 Sierra Challenge, and for most of the participants it was just that, including myself. That we could tag three additional bonus peaks without a huge amount of extra effort was a big plus. More than twenty folks showed up at the South Lake TH on Friday morning, a very large gathering for a weekday. Our route to Sky Haven started on the unofficially named Pipeline Trail that starts at the north end of the uppermost parking lot near the Bishop Pass TH.
True to its name, the route follows an old iron pipe that once diverted water from the Brown and Green Lakes drainage to storage at South Lake. For most of the way, the pipe is at least partially buried in sand and rock and one can walk readily on one side or the other of the pipe. Some sections are raised or across steeper slopes and the most effective way to travel is directly atop the pipe. With decent balance skills it is not difficult to ply the pipeline, though it does demand one's attention to the ground. The trail eventually meets up with the maintained trail coming from Parchers Resort, and finding this junction we followed it up to Brown Lake.
I was not in the lead group heading up the pipeline, but rather somewhere in the middle. A few of the lead group, including Adam and Vitaliy had taken a wrong turn on a use trail around towards the south side of the lake. They were on their way back from this short misadventure when I came by, and of course we gave them the appropriate ribbing. Not long after 7a we arrived at the larger Green Lake, waters calm and shaded in the early morning. I could see at least six others well ahead, already starting the switchback climb above the lake and heading for the pass.
I arrived at the leftmost switchback on the trail above Green Lake in the middle of a large pack of participants. I was the only one in the group interested in heading to The Hunchback, so I left the trail and my companions, starting up the steep slope heading north. It did not take long to reach a high plateau atop which The Hunchback sits. Off in the distance to the southeast I could see the lead group nearing the broad pass, an extension of the plateau I was upon. Another 20 minutes and less than a mile to the northeast brought me to the rocky summit of The Hunchback as marked on the map. There are fine views west to Emerson, Humphreys and other peaks along the Sierra Crest. North and east the plateau stretched out for several miles before dropping off to the Owens Valley. To the southeast could be seen a higher point on the plateau which piqued my curiosity as to why it wasn't the named summit. As I saw no register among the rocks, I figured I better check out the higher point in case there is a discrepancy.
It took only fifteen minutes to cross the shallow gap between the two highpoints and along the way I spotted a pair of climbers atop the higher one. As I neared it I could see that one was Sean but had no idea who the second was. Upon reaching the southeast summit I was greeted by light-hearted sarcasm and jeers for getting off-route. Erik Levy was Sean's companion, and though this was the first time I'd met him, he had no qualms about joining in with the ribbing. They held up the register as secondary proof, pointing to the obviously lower northwest summit and asking, "Couldn't you tell that was lower?" I could play this game as well.
I pulled out my map with a smile, commenting, "Clearly this is the highpoint, but where is the point labeled 'The Hunchback' on your map?" It wasn't labeled on their map, of course, otherwise things wouldn't have been so obvious to them. I showed them the copy of the 7.5' USGS topo map with The Hunchback labeled alongside the northwest summit. Doubts began to enter their minds, and at this point the tables turned. "Look, it's only a fifteen minute walk to the other summit. You should go over there and tag it if you want credit for the bonus peak." Though I am the final arbiter for all matters relating to scoring during the Challenge, I had no intention of being a stickler. In fact, the register went back more than ten years and had established the southeast summit as the proper location, and of course there was no register at the other summit as I'd already determined (though I didn't mention this at the time). I just want to punish them for being snide and of course to have a little fun at their expense. After some deliberation, Sean shrugged his shoulders and said, "Forget it, you can have the bonus peak." I laughed. The three of us started south for the pass and I told them of my intent to get back at them, and it made for a good laugh all around.
It was 8:30a by the time we made it to the pass and started down the other side. We needed to drop down an uncertain amount of elevation, then contour around the west side of the drainage to get us to the base of the ridge atop which Sky Haven lies. Because of our diversion to The Hunchback we were well behind the others who were nowhere in sight. I was only hiking with the two for 15-20 minutes when I realized that Erik is the type of guy who has a lot to say, offering opinions on most subjects and fairly confident in his abilities. This strong confidence extended to his navigation abilities to which it seemed he was offering suggestions to Sean and I as though this was pretty new to us. In particular he was pointing out that we ought to approach Sky Haven via the East Ridge off to the left, the base of which was not immediately visible. Familiar with the topography, we knew this to be several miles out of our way and starting about 1,000ft lower than we needed to go. Rather than arguing the point, Sean and I just sort of shrugged at each other and continued on our intended course, down the trail to a spring indicated on the map, then contouring around below Thunder and Lightning Lake. Once we had a better view of the ridge, Erik realized it did not conform to his original impression and recognized the folly of the idea.
This setback did not have the hoped-for consequence of quelling Erik's exuberance, he simply shifted the topics to other things such fuel consumption, acclimatization routines, injuries and other things relating to our efforts in climbing mountains. I couldn't tell if he was somewhat nervous or simply boastful in trying to impress us with his knowledge base, but it was more than I wanted to listen to on our otherwise pleasant morning hike. I figured the only way at this point was to outdistance Erik, so as we started up the steep talus slopes towards to the West Ridge of Sky Haven, I made a point to keep up a fairly demanding pace without taking a break. Sean may have been thinking similarly or simply doing what he does anyway, but he was well out in front of me within a few minutes and uncatchable.
It took some time to shake Erik. He followed strongly for about 20 minutes, struggling above 11,000ft without the benefit of acclimatization. The exertion had the effect of quieting him as he needed his mouth for breathing far more than talking with the tougher pace we were going at. I heard him cry out at one point, saying he had twisted his ankle, but it was not serious enough for him to stop and examine it. I asked if he was alright, then continued motoring up. By the time I reached the ridge around 9:30a he was well behind. It was the last I would see of him until returning from the summit.
On my own now, I was following Sean along the crest that turned out to have a fair amount of class 3 where we had expected none. Only Ron and Bob J. were ahead of us along the rocky ridgeline. The others had either taken a less efficient route to reach the ridge or gone to other summits such as Vagabond and Cloudripper. There was a significant false summit along the way that I had been sure must be the highpoint, only to see a higher point some ten minutes further east along the ridge. Sean could be seen already seated at the highpoint, Bob and Ron making their way towards it in rapid fashion. I had been trying to catch up to them as Sean had done earlier, but they had picked up speed and were making quick time over the large boulders that littered the ridgeline. Just before 10a I pulled up to the highpoint where the other three were waiting with smiles. It had been a much more enjoyable climb than any of us had expected.
The views were everything one would expect from looking at a map. There is an incredible view of the Sierra Crest along the Palisades, running from Split Mtn to the southeast, across six other 14ers from Middle Pal to Thunderbolt, and around to the Inconsolable Range to the southwest. Lakes and glaciers and wide open spaces abounding, it was easy to sit there for a long time taking in the views. By 10:30a Adam and Carol had joined us, but no one else. Adam reported that the others were back at the false summit, convinced they were at the correct point based on GPS readings from two different instruments. We could see half a dozen or more folks collecting about the lower summit to the west. "Don't they realize this point is higher?" we asked. Adam shrugged, "Their laughing at us for going to the wrong summit."
To be fair, I had something to do with this disagreement. I had marked what I thought was the highpoint on the map I provided on the Challenge website, and evidently two of the participants had marked this coordinate and entered it into their GPS. The 7.5' map shows two areas less than a quarter mile apart with the same number of contours and I had simply guessed as to which is higher since the 'Sky Haven' label wasn't indicated at a particular point, but along the ridge in general. The situation was not unlike the one found at the Hunchback, so I thought I might play the same game with them. It would be more fun with more people.
On our way back over to the false summit we passed by Phil and Erik on their way to the highpoint. They had listened to the arguments presented by the false summiteers, but either being unconvinced or wanting to by doubly sure, had decided to visit the east summit as well. "Smart," I told them. The taunts about wasting our time at the 'other' summit began as soon as we were within earshot of the false summit. I counseled those with me to stay quiet, letting the others build to a crescendo while our groups comingled. Finally, I pulled my map out of my pocket and asked what made them feel this was the true summit. Multiple folks spoke at the same time, but the gist of it was that there were two GPS's that indicated this was the point I had flagged on the map online, and secondly, this point was more directly under the name 'Sky Haven' on the 7.5' map (it's pretty much under the 'k' in the label). I then proceeded to give a very short lecture on USGS labeling on their maps. A perfectly horizonal label indicates the name is associated with a specific point, usually a summit, whereas an angled label indicates a more general location such as a plateau or ridgeline. "Now, my map has this label for Sky Haven at an angle. Does anybody else's map show something different?" Murmurring as several check their own maps, then silence. "Hmmm, I thought so. Sorry about my misplaced flag, but I'm not the decider on where the summit is. And besides, the east summit has a register. Anybody find one here?" If anyone had refused to visit the other summit I would have credited them anyway, just as for The Hunchback, but they all resigned themselves to an extra ten minutes work. The original group had a good smirk as we watched them pack up their bags and head over there. The bit about the register was the final nail, but it wouldn't have been as convincing if I'd told the truth about it - we'd just placed the register there ourselves twenty minutes earlier when we'd found none.
Continuing west, Bob Jones and I found ourselves alone heading up the ridge towards Cloudripper and Vagabond. Sean had dropped down the south side of the ridge on a course for Mt. Robinson. He had noted atop Sky Haven that Robinson was the last named summit in the area that he hadn't climbed, and almost on a whim decided to do something about it. He would spend a total of 12 hours making the strange combination of The Hunchback, Sky Haven, Robinson and Agassiz before returning to South Lake via Bishop Pass. He went up one class 3 route to Robinson, down the class 4 west ridge, and then had picked out a class 5 route on up to Agassiz. Amazing, really.
Bob Jones and I met Karl along the ridge on his way down from Cloudripper and Vagabond. He was doing the same four peaks as myself but in the reverse order. At the plateau between Vagabond and Cloudripper Bob and I parted ways. I planned to tag Cloudripper (since "it was so close") while Bob only wanted to visit Vagabond. Some twenty minutes later I had made way along the north ridge of Cloudripper to its summit where I found a couple of climbers not related to the Challenge. Joe and Chris and come up the West Chute on Cloudripper and were having a lively conversation when I interrupted them. We chatted briefly, they handed the register for me to sign and take a few pictures (surprisingly, it dated to 1993, for longer than I would have expected), and I then left them to the summit. In addition to Karl, I noted entries by Evan and Tom, but never saw them the rest of the day.
It took only half an hour to descend the boulder slopes, cross the intervening plateau and scramble over more rock up to Vagabond's summit. Bob was still there enjoying a rest while Ron and Carol were a few minutes from the summit themselves. The four of us lounged about the summit a short while. We'd been tipped off by Karl as to the location of the elusive Vagabond register. I had seen none on my first visit and it was easy to see why - the register is located on the east side of a large block at the summit, tucked inside a small hollow on the overhanging upper part of the rock. It's a great location for keeping the weather out, but darned hard to find unless you know where to look.
Bob and I left the summit together, down the north side of Vagabond aiming for a more direct route back to Green Lake. We found a steep talus slope that tested our patience and balance - not sandy enough for a decent boot ski, but not solid enough to be a good boulder scramble - mostly a semi-controlled descent through shifting, sliding talus. By 2p we reached a large grassy meadow at the bottom marking the end of the talus fun for the day. Another ten minutes brought us back to Green Lake and the trail heading back.
We had another three miles or so, Bob jogging ahead, myself trying to keep up with him (didn't want to lose time on the Yellow jersey lead). Once we got past Brown Lake and some wonderful flowering meadows, the switchbacks through the forest began. Bob would cut these wherever he could, somewhat to my surprise. I kept to the trail as taught as a young 'un in the Boy Scouts, not wanting to promote errosion. Still, I didn't want to lose time on Bob. As luck would have it (perhaps Karma at work), Bob cut a switchback on the right and ended up dropping down below the junction with the Pipeline Trail some distance. I got ahead of him in starting down the pipeline and picked up the pace from our on-off jogging to a steady run down the pipeline.
It was a bit harrowing running along the top of the curved iron pipe, hopping over obstacles, avoiding overgrowth and the occasional hole in the pipe. There were a number of places that a slip off the pipe would not end prettily and on these I concentrated the most. I did slip off completely once, but the location was one where the pipe was half buried in earth and my tumble to the ground did not cause any serious damage, though I'd like to think I was more cautious afterwards. I continued my jog down the pipe, returning to the parking lot around 2:55p. Bob was only a minute behind me, evidently doing the same dance along the pipe. It was great fun, really.
As I was walking through the parking lot back towards my car (down the road by the dam since all the better spaces were taken), I heard a familiar voice calling to me. Elena Sherman was leaning out the side window of Evan's camper, smiling. She had had a relatively easy day to The Hunchback and returning, enjoying the afternoon with Evan and Adam who were also inside. We caught up briefly on the day's adventures before I left them to head back to Bishop. Mostly I wanted a shower, but dinner was going to be pretty darn nice, too.
There were no lead changes for the jersies today. I managed not to lose time on Bob Jones for the Yellow jersey despite visiting two extra peaks. Adam picked up another 20 minutes on Vitaliy for the White Jersey, and Bob Jones and Sean still held firm to the Green and Polka Dot (aka King of the Mountain) jersies, respectively.
Just a little fun information, I thought you might like to know.
MIKE JOHNSON, Mammoth Lakes
PS, I am Dan Shoshone's climbing partner, he is the one you met on Bear Creek Spire wearing a "tank top".
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cloudripper - Vagabond Peak
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