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Indian Rock is barely more than a bump along the NE Ridge of Mt. Baxter as it drops sharply to the Owens Valley as part of the impressive eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. But as a named summit it rises to over 12,000ft, one I had yet to visit. We had never used the Sawmill Pass Trail during the Challenge and this would give us an opportunity to do so for the first time. It has a reputation for being unending, some 12 miles from the TH to Sawmill Pass - the longest eastside trail with the lowest starting point. Heading to Indian Rock would allow us to travel the first 8 miles of the trail, avoiding the longer haul to the pass. A low starting elevation of barely 4,500ft means it can get quite warm here. We chose a 5a start time to give us a chance to gain altitude before the sun could start warming things up.
There were only seven of us at the TH for the early start, the lowest turnout so far on this year's Challenge. Another participant, Phil Donehower, had started more than an hour earlier for an even tougher outing - he was heading to Colosseum Mtn, some two miles past Sawmill Pass, making for a long, 28 mile day. Our merry band of seven had been with the Challenge since the first day with the exception of Kevin. You might think we'd talked ourselves out after seven days, but we had Jonathan with us to make sure there were no awkward moments of silence. He never ran out of things to talk about. I let him go on ahead with a few of the others to give me a chance for some quiet reflection while we hiked the predawn hour. The lower portions of the trail are desert, with nary a tree for the first three miles. Sage, buckthorn and other brush line the trail. The trail then crosses over the SE Ridge of Sawmill Point at about 7,500ft before beginning a long traverse towards Sawmill Creek. Here the first trees are found and the scenery soon improves markedly. It was about this time that the sun began coloring the underbellies of the high clouds that lingered from the previous day's weather. A glorious morning was unfolding.
By 6:30a the sun had risen as we found ourselves in an unexpectedly delightful forest. The trail was in excellent shape with only a few fallen trees blocking it. I had thought it would be a rough, difficult at times to follow trail like the nearby Baxter Pass Trail, but it was altogether different. In places there was much evidence of a fire that had swept through the canyon some years ago, with many tall spars still standing as reminders. But there were many green and healthy trees, ferns, two good creeks with running water and the picturesque Sawmill Meadow, lush and vibrant. Finding himself hiking alone (Sean and Pat had gone ahead), Jonathan had waited for others to catch up before continuing. Tom and I were the first to come along and Jonathan latched on to our small train. It wasn't all bad - I had been avoiding him the past few days, so spending an hour with him as we made our way up to Sawmill Lake wasn't too taxing and I enjoyed the conversations.
We reached the lake just before 8:30a, the calm waters marking the start of our cross-country portion. I left the trail to walk over boulders to the waters' edge in order to cache a Gatorade bottle and a Double Shot of Espresso. I did not return to the trail to rejoin the others, choosing instead to head directly south into the wide cirque above the lake on that side. It is not an easy bit of cross-country as I came to find out. The cirque is filled with morrainal debris with acres of boulder-hopping initially, followed by steep, loose scrambling to the southwest to exit the cirque, reminiscent of other crappy climbs like Wallace Col and University Pass. I kept looking ahead for signs of Sean and Pat who I knew were ahead somewhere, but all was quiet above me. I knocked down enough rock and made enough noise to know I would have detected them if they were up there somewhere. Had they been that far ahead of me to already be out of the cirque? Had they taken a different route? These were unanswered questions I troubled myself with as I fought my way up the tedious slope for almost 2,000ft. This short section of cirque, little more than a mile, took an hour and a half. Far below me in the rubble I could hear the voices of Tom and Jonathan, apparently having no easier time than myself.
Upon exiting the cirque and reaching the connecting ridgeline between Baxter and Indian Rock at Pt. 3,797m, the going became both easier and more enjoyable (funny how those often go hand in hand). I could see Indian Rock now for the first time, a rocky protrusion along the ridge to the southeast, whose summit was lower than where I stood. Less than half a mile away, it would still take another half hour to reach the summit. Not long after I had started along the ridge I spotted Sean and Pat just reaching the summit of Indian Rock. Most of the traverse is easy class 2 until one reaches the notch just below the west face of Indian Rock. Here the difficulties increase to class 3-4, much as described by Secor. There is some exposure, but the scrambling was not overly difficult and I found it very enjoyable. It was after 10:30a when I joined the other two and took a well-deserved break. They reported staying on the trail longer and taking an alternate route from the cirque I had used. This was worth exploring for the return, I thought immediately. I found no register after a quick search, taking more interest in enjoying the sandwich I'd brought for lunch (turns out there was a register that we missed as those coming later had found. It had been left by Carl Heller in the 1970s). There is a fine view of the Owens Valley, sweeping north to southeast, from Big Pine to Independence. To the west looms the impressive East Face of Mt. Baxter. Clouds were beginning to make an appearance again, now covering much of the sky. It seemed possible we might see more rain today.
Sean and Pat got ready to leave and I quickly packed up to join them. There was more about this alternate route I wanted learn. As we descended off the trickiest part of the SW Ridge onto the West Face, we came across Jonathan, Michael, Tom and not far behind, Kevin. We chatted briefly with them before continuing on. They would end up anywhere from an hour and half to three hours behind us in returning (Tom, it seemed, enjoyed a long nap somewhere along the way back). I had trouble keeping up with Sean and Pat who maintained a stiff pace as we went back over Pt. 3,797m and then down its easier northwest slope. I kept them in sight long enough to learn the route back to the trail. Back on the trail around noon, the others began jogging down with renewed energy that I was unable to mimic. I tried initially, but found myself too tired to enjoy it, slowing to a more comfortable trodding pace, once again on my own. I stopped at Sawmill Lake to retrieve my drinks, enjoying the caffeinated one at the lake's rocky shore until the first drops of rain began to fall. It seemed a good time to pack up and head off.
Very little rain fell over the next few hours that it took to return to the TH. The caffeine evidently had its desired effect in restoring at least some of my energy. I managed to cover the eight mile distance in just under two hours with the help of some jogging which felt better now that the trail grew less rocky and more sandy. To both of our surprise, I managed to catch up to Pat just before reaching the parking area as she picked her pace back up to a jog to stay just ahead of me. Sean had returned some 25 minutes earlier and was lounging lazily by the cars as though he'd been waiting for hours. Though a long outing with well over 8,000ft of gain, I was happy to find it took only nine and a quarter hours, and aside from the nasty cirque I wallowed in for a while, a most enjoyable time. I'd become a fan of the Sawmill Pass Trail after my first visit. I'll have to come back someday to climb Sawmill Point...
This page last updated: Thu Apr 1 16:54:42 2021
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