Wed, Aug 21, 2013
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Mt. Ickes lies about 1.5 miles west of Pinchot Pass, high above the South Fork of the Kings River. It comes up 40ft short of 13,000ft, but it made its way to the Challenge this year because I've had an eye on it for many years now. The shortest route to reach it is via Taboose Pass which is not one of my favorites - it has very little forest cover and the trail is often rocky, making it difficult to jog down. But still, it has an odd appeal to me as I'm always trying to see if I can make it to the top in three hours, something I've only managed once. Our crew today was small and compact owing to the 4a start. As I was driving to the trailhead with Pat once again, she remarked that she didn't sleep all that well. I laughed and told her my little story of how my evening had gone with Michael C being lost coming off Split Mtn and the perplexing Shirley who had come out of left field in the middle of the night. After listening to me ramble on, Pat found herself surprisingly content with only six hours sleep.
There were eight of us at the TH, with Tommey starting about 15 minutes before the rest of us to get a short jump on the day. The group was a strong one and it helped motivate me to try and keep up with the faster ones this morning. Perhaps they'd be able to help "pull" me up to the pass in three hours. We sent Eric to the front since he'd likely be out of sight soon. Chris and Michael would take up the rear positions with Sean, Pat, Jonathan and myself mostly together in a tight group not all that far behind Eric, whose headlamp we could see now and then as it made a turn on a switchback. I followed behind Pat, my eyes focused on her gaiters, covered in sinister skulls with glowing red eyes. Where do you even buy gaiters like these, I wondered. The skulls had me mesmerised for several hours as I did my best to keep up the unrenting pace.
It took most of an hour before we caught back up with Tommey and he quickly fell in with our group of four making good time to the pass. The skies overhead had not cleared from the previous afternoon storms in the usual manner. This made for dark skies with no moon or stars to brighten the early morning hours. Somewhere around 5:30a it started to drizzle on us, the first time we'd ever encountered rain so early in the morning during a Challenge. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking this was a bit crazy and we should probably call it a day, but I somehow found it amusing even as I was digging my rain jacket out of my pack. The others did likewise though Sean, with only one good hand, would have trouble getting a jacket on or off - it was unusual to see him reduced to mortal status.
Sunrise came around 6:15a. The clouds did not cover the whole sky, but left a small sliver of open sky to the east, just above the Inyo Range. When the sun came up it was a blaze of orange and red, lighting up the surrounding peaks in a most artistic fashion for a few precious moments. We were all oohs and aahs as we looked around in all directions. This early morning weather stuff had some brighter moments, too. The best was yet to come. The sun lasted only a few minutes before climbing behind the cloud layer, leaving us back in the morning shades of dull gray. We toiled up the trail for another 45 minutes, occasionally glimpsing Eric ahead of us, Jonathan uncharacteristically dropping behind. About ten minutes from Taboose Pass the sun suddenly broke through a second time, this time quite brightly, bathing the headwall rocks just east of the pass in vivid color. Just above the pass was a most beautiful rainbow, stretching almost 180 degrees from one side of the broad pass to the other. Now this had more than compensated for the annoyance of precipition at so early an hour. When the four of us reached the pass around 7:10a (just missing the 3hr mark), Tommey and Pat were giddy and joking about how badass we were, doing the best rap poses they could manage while outfitted in rain gear. The clouds were moving north and west and left much of the pass with blue skies as we reached it, suddenly changing our perspective on the day - it was looking more like fine weather ahead rather than the doom and gloom of earlier.
We stayed maybe three minutes at the pass, photographing Cardinal Mtn and Arrow Peak before starting down the other side. Our uphill grind was now replaced with a far more pleasant alpine walk through wide-open vistas and a gentle downhill that eventually merged with forested terrain and the junction with the JMT. We turned left and headed south up the wide side canyon leading to Pinchot Pass, taking us past small unnamed lakes and the larger Lake Marjorie. Tommey left us at some point along the way as he was heading east to Mt. Pinchot and then Wynne. Sean, Pat and I were heading to Ickes which lay out of view behind the ridge that lines the west side of the JMT. There was some discussion as to which route would be best. I had drawn a route on the map leading up a moraine to the crest just east of Ickes. From the JMT, this looked quite difficult with a very steep headwall. We settled on a longer route with extra gain that would reach to the unnamed peak to southeast, but the going looked to be fairly straightfoward class 2 with more solid rock. The original route would work, we found, as Eric used this for the ascent. But he did not recommend it as it was quite loose and a bit sketchy.
It was 9a by the time we started the climb to the subsidiary peak. Pat and Sean were climbing ahead of me and I was doing my best to keep up. It was a mix of talus, broken rock and the occasional short section of nice scrambling. It was 9:45p by the time we topped out on Peak 3,860m+ with a grand view of Mt. Ickes to the northwest. To the south was the White Fork of Woods Creek drainage, flowing down to Roads End near Cedar Grove. The gray clouds gave a gothic look to the pointed granite peaks that stretch off to the Kings-Kern Divide in the distance. We looked around for a register but found none, not even a cairn. It seemed like just the sort of summit to find an Andy Smatko register. With a spare register in my pack and feeling somewhat inspired, I decided to name the summit in classic Smatko style by combining portions of our last names to come up with O'Burley Peak. It may never make it past the BGN and into the USGS database, but future visitors would at least become familiar with the name and scratch their heads as to its origin.
As we started down the West Ridge along the crest to Ickes, we spotted Jonathan not far below us on an intersecting trajectory. He had snuck up behind us around Lake Marjorie and had circled around our route, choosing to climb to the saddle south of O'Burley and then contouring around its southwest slope. I would have guessed ahead of time that this longer route would be slower, but Jonathan was proving otherwise. At about the same time we spotted Eric making his way back from Ickes, the five of us meeting up around the saddle west of O'Burley, and just above the sketchy chute Eric had ascended. By this time it was windy and chilly and not nearly as pleasant as the weather we had encountered west of Taboose Pass. While Sean, Pat and I were bundled in jackets, these two were in shorts and Eric was clad in a single short-sleeve tshirt. Ah, to be so young again. We weren't even sure if he had any rain gear at all in his tiny daypack. Eric wanted to know if the summit we had just come down from would count as a bonus peak. Alas, no, I told him, as it didn't qualify with the 500ft of prominence an unnamed summit requires. He didn't really want to go back the same way so he climbed it anyway - making the second ascent soon after we split up again.
The entire ridgeline from O'Burley to Ickes is class 2 sand, scree and talus, the final stretch up Ickes' East Ridge a messy collection of badly fractured rock. Not a very pleasant scramble, but at least an easy one. It was 10:30a by the time we reached the summit. We camped out just below the top on the south side to get out of the wind as much as possible. Bundled up, we ate lunch, Jonathan passed around his gourmet chocolates, and we went through the register that dated to 1966. The booklet had been partially burned at some time in the past, though how it might have happened naturally was hard to imagine, surrounded as we were by endless rock. The notebook was now just a collection of loose sheets that I tried to put in chronological order before photographing them. Jonathan contributed a new booklet and register container before we tucked it back under the summit cairn. It had taken some 6.5 hours to reach the summit, a long time, but at least not as long as Black Divide three days earlier.
The clouds were not going away, that much was clear. Whether they would develop into afternoon thunderstorms was open to debate, but it wasn't the sort of thing you'd want to bet against. None of us were too eager to repeat the slog back across the ridgeline and over O'Burley Peak, especially when the way north looked so much shorter and inviting. Pat was of the opinion that it was too cliffy and dangerous to go down that way while I thought with some effort we ought to be able to find a way down this broad north face we were confronted with. Sean did the work for me, scoping out the face from several angles before declaring it would work. Pat went up to have a look too and was soon convinced. I was happy to just sit and eat my sandwich and not have to do any of the work on that one - I would just follow the others. Part of Sean's convincing argument lay in his handicap of having just one hand to work with. If Sean could downclimb the slope with only three appendages, surely the rest of us could do so with four.
Shortly before 10:50a we packed up our gear and started back down the East Ridge. We descended for about fifteen minutes before turning left and starting down the North Slopes. There were no cliffs where we chose to go down, but it was steep and there was a great deal of loose talus. We spread out across the slope to keep from knocking rocks down on each other. Pat and Jonathan descended with more skill than one-armed Sean and myself and were soon well ahead. I'd like to believe that I was hanging back with Sean in case he got into any trouble, but the truth was I just wasn't as quick as the other two. We reached the bottom of the talus-fest after about 20 minutes, onto easier slabs and more firm terrain, stopping briefly to empty the sand from our shoes. At this point Pat and Sean took off ahead, losing Jonathan and myself before reaching the Bench Lake Trail. It was about 12:15p when we found the trail (right where the GPS told us to expect it, thank you very much) ourselves, at which point Jonathan went into mushroom-hunting mode. While I plied the trail he continued cross-country about 20-30yds off to the side to increase his chances of finding the Sierra delicacies. He found plenty of them, but kept none, prefering to simply discourse on their desirability and other qualities, much as he had done the previous day. If he caught on that I wasn't really paying him much attention anymore, he didn't let on, perhaps just happy to share so many interesting muchroom facts with the trees and squirrels. I think Pat and Sean had left the two of us quite deliberately, in retrospect.
We met up with some backpackers taking a break at the junction with the JMT, five or six all told. Jonathan stopped briefly to talk with them (he was probably getting tired of my unresponsiveness). We continued heading east back to Taboose Pass, enjoying the nice trail and easy gradient with fine views in all directions. It was 1:30p before we reached the pass where we stopped long enough to take a few pictures of each other. Not long after starting down the east side, Jonathan decided he'd do some running on the trail. I might have joined him, but the trail is quite rocky and not easily jogged. I preferred to get my cranky knees back down the trail mostly by walking, but some jogging when the trail improved. Not ten minutes from the trailhead I caught back up with Jonathan who was now cruising the trail with Chris in tow. Jonathan must have caught up with him and decided to strike up a conversation with a fresh listener, throttling back on his running.
When the three of us got back to the TH we found that Sean and Pat had been back an hour, Eric more than three hours. Others had also returned earlier, having gone to Cardinal or Striped, and a few were still out on the trail. Tommey would win the award for most hours today, not returning from Pinchot and Wynne until 11p (!). We returned to US395 and drove to Independence where we planned to spend the next three nights. The three hardest days of the Challenge were now behind us and the next three were expected to be considerably easier, a good thing, because my body could use the break...
By not taking on any bonus peaks, Eric had picked up more than two hours over Pat to take the lead for the Yellow Jersey. He was also in sole possession of the Polka Dot and White Jerseys and looked unstoppable. He was definitely a force to be reckoned with. His only real competition was Sean who had been injured on the third day, so it left him pretty much unchallenged. Pat picked up an hour on Jonathan for the Green Jersey, giving her extra cushion on that one.
I had thought that Shirley would be back in Sunnyvale by this time, but alas, this was not the case. I was informed via email by JD that he had gone to retrieve her from the Motel 6 in Bishop at 10a but found her AWOL. He had gone home solo. In Independence I learned from Shirley that she had stepped out of the motel for breakfast since she didn't expect JD to pick her up until 11a. She had then gotten a ride to Independence from Peter who had taken the day off. It wasn't clear upon her arrival in Independence what her plan was, probably because there wasn't a plan at all - she was winging this from hour to hour. She would get another participant to provide her floor space for the night. She knew better than to ask me, but only because Pat had gone over to admonish her for being so unprepared and inconsiderate. Pat was my hero right when I needed a hero the most.
I also heard more about the incident that got her kicked out of Sara's car. Sara had agreed to give her a ride from the Bay Area on condition that she would pay for half the gas and other expenses. They drove more than five hour and went through several tanks, but Shirley could not be induced to provide funding - she would conveniently disappear to use the restroom and be unavailable. In Bishop she had done the same trick, only this time Sara didn't start the pump. When Shirley came back out she would not buy any gas, preferring "to settle up at the end." Sara saw where this was going and refused. Shirley could buy gas or take her stuff out of the car. Incensed, Shirley demanded to be taken to the Tinemaha Campground. Sara declared there was not enough gas to get her there. It would seem Sara had the upper hand at this point, but she did not account for crazy. Shirley called the police.
The Inyo Sheriff came out to Piute gas station. Oddly, this wasn't the first time they'd responded to this sort of situation. The officer calmly listened to both sides before siding with Sara and telling Shirley she would have to remove her stuff from the car. As the car was being unpacked, a large kitchen knife fell to the ground. Spotting this, the officer quickly stepped on it and asked why Shirley had such weapon. "For cutting vegetables," was the reponse. "Not today," replied the officer before confiscating the item. Two other women were nearby getting gas, watching all this go down. They felt sorry for Shirley and offered to play Good Samaratan and give her a ride to the campground. And so the gear was repacked and the three ladies headed south on US395. Only they never got to the campground, or at least didn't stay there. They got as far as Big Pine before Shirley changed her mind. Perhaps staying at an unknown campground by yourself with no transportation no longer seemed wise. Perhaps it was the darkness. In any event, a new plan was needed, one that would provide safe shelter at minimum cost, preferably no cost. Which is why I got a phone call at 9p the previous night...
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